Basic Video Production Tips: Prime vs. Zoom Lenses

Before the start of any film or video production shoot, every filmmaker will come across the decision on which type of lens(es) to use. The choice might not always be as simple as one might think since many factors will influence this decision (for example: budget, time, type of film or video production etc.)

What is a Prime Lens?


Prime lenses have a fixed focal length, in other words, the cameraman cannot zoom or change the focal length within the lens. In order to make the subject being filmed bigger or smaller in the frame, the camera operator has to physically move the camera closer or further away from it.


Canon 50mm f1.4 Prime Lens

Pros and Cons of Prime Lenses


Prime lenses tend to be faster, they take in more light and perform better in darker shooting situations. They are also better for depth of field, and video footage tends to be sharper when shooting with them since they are designed to be sharp at only one focal length. For this reason, it’s also easier for manufacturers to make a really sharp prime lens, whereas zoom lenses need to be crisp at variable focal lengths.


Prime lenses are normally less expensive than their counterparts since the internal optics are simpler to build. They are also more portable and usually not as heavy or bulky as zoom lenses.

On the other hand, primes are not as versatile since, as stated before, the camera operator will have to physically move the camera in order to re-compose shots during a video shoot. So if physically moving the camera is not an option for the videographer or cameraman, the “cost-advantage” slowly starts to diminish once the filmmaker takes into consideration the price of buying or renting multiple primes in order to cover the desired array of focal lengths.


Pros:

-Faster Aperture

-Sharper Video Footage

-Less Expensive

-Portable


Cons:

-Not as versatile

-Lack of Image Stabilization


Prime Lens in Action During a Testimonial Video Shoot


What is a Zoom Lens?


Zoom lenses on the other hand have variable focal lengths. By turning the zoom ring, the cameraman can easily achieve different angles of view without having to physically move the camera.

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 Zoom Lens

Pros and Cons of Zoom Lenses


For me, the main advantage of a zoom lens is its convenience. A camera operator can get a lot of coverage in a limited period of time using a zoom without having to swap out lenses all the time. Our production company definitely doesn’t shy away from using zoom lenses here in Vienna Austria if the project calls for them.


Although there are some prime lenses with Image stabilization, it’s much more common that zoom lenses have integrated IS, which greatly facilitates handheld camera work. A zoom lens is a great solution for a solo run and gun videographer covering an event for example. The versatility of quick framing and only having to turn the zoom ring in order for the cameraman or videographer to recompose a shot is vital on many video shoots.

Conversely, zooms are typically not as fast (don’t take in as much light) and therefore don’t perform as well in low light situations. They tend to be more expensive, they’re not as sharp as primes, and are normally heavier. One could say that with zoom lenses you give up some image quality in order to gain some versatility during your video shoot.


Pros:

-Variable Focal Length

-Saves Time

-Image Stabilization


Cons:

-Slower Aperture

-More Expensive

-Bulky/Heavier


Run and Gun Conference Event Coverage With a Canon 24-105mm f4.0 Zoom Lenses


Which One Should You Use? Well It Depends!


Ultimately, your video or film production needs (and many times, budget) will dictate whether to use zooms or primes in a particular shoot. Will it be a video crew filming a commercial? A videographer covering an event? A camera team filming interviews? A camera operator shooting a documentary? How time sensitive is the video shoot? What’s the budget like? The list goes on...


What’s the Project?


Here’s my opinion: If a filmmaker is trying to emulate the cinematic look as much as possible, prime lenses would be the way to go. Here in Austria if we’re shooting a narrative film piece, a commercial, or high-end corporate videos for example, I find primes are tough to beat and that's what I'll go for if I can.


Cameraman and Video Producer Using Prime Lenses During a Corporate Interview Shoot

Zoom lenses on the other hand are ideal for situations where versatility and time pressure takes precedence over quality. Some examples: A fast-paced documentary shoot, covering events and conferences, or any run and gun situation where the cameraman needs to film a large number of shots in a short period of time.


Camera Operator Covering a Presentation With a Zoom Lens

What’s the Budget?


This can actually be a tricky question when it comes to choosing lenses and lens packages in pre-production, and it’s something our production company here in Vienna Austria faces every time we start a new project.


Even though zooms are comparably more expensive, if your production crew plans on covering a large focal range for a video shoot, you’ll quickly realize that having to buy/rent multiple prime lenses in order to cover a certain spectrum of focal lengths can get expensive real fast (there are however some good-quality, budget-friendly cinema lenses out there such as the Samyang/Rokinon cine lenses, which our production company often uses here in Austria).


So in a low-budget, limited-crew type of situation where swapping out lenses might eat up your camera team’s precious time, having a good quality zoom lens instead of an entire prime lens package will definitely keep your video shoots more flexible.


Final Thoughts


If you’re looking to buy some glass, my advice would definitely be to get the best possible lens your budget allows. Although your camera body definitely impacts the overall image of your video or film, a quality lens helps you bring that footage to the next level. Personally, whenever I can (and if the budget allows) I'll always reach for prime lenses during my video shoots. In my opinion, you just can't beat good quality prime glass (at least for now).


I'd love to know your opinions and what type of lenses you guys prefer.

Posted by Vitor Goncalves

Vitor is a filmmaker, cameraman and editor based in Vienna, Austria. He is the owner of Reel Arts Media.


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