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10-21-2010, 03:13 PM   #1
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prime vs. zoom

Which is better for portrait photography, prime or zoom lense?
I don't know too much about lenses but I am trying to figure out which one to purchase. I want to get a good portrait lense that will work in multiple situations.

10-21-2010, 03:18 PM   #2
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QuoteOriginally posted by a_brooke2006 Quote
Which is better for portrait photography, prime or zoom lense?
I don't know too much about lenses but I am trying to figure out which one to purchase. I want to get a good portrait lense that will work in multiple situations.
"work in multiple situations" is key. For that a zoom is best, and it doesn't get better in Pentax land than a DA*50-135. Street price is ~$820.

I also have a DA70 which is a terrific lens, cheaper and way smaller than the 50-135, but not as flexible obviously not being a zoom.
10-21-2010, 03:46 PM   #3
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It really depends what you mean by "multiple situations"

I have to say I used to have 50-135 and agree on it being terrific lens and yes it does work in many different situations but... Having said that fast 50ish can be just as useful and work in nearly as many situations as the zoom... I for one have no problem with cropping so I don't mind "inflexibility" of primes but I prefer them to zooms for the faster f stops.
Ideally, get both. Good zoom (say some 28-75/2.8) and one prime (say fast 50). You'll see what works for you and you can then sell the loser...

My 2p
10-21-2010, 03:52 PM   #4
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The thread title seems to re-ignite a debate between prime and zoom lenses. There is nothing wrong with either.

Generally a zoom lens has to compromise over its range (eg 50-135mm) while a prime lens don't. As a result, a prime lens will be cheaper for a similar/comparable image quality (IQ).

A disadvantage of most zoom lenses is aperture. Most have a relatively small aperture (or large f values) that limits their use in low light conditions.


I have both prime and zoom lenses, and I see some advantages with both. A zoom is more convenient. But a prime lens forces you (the photographer) to moves around to get the best shot.

Food for thoughts.....

10-21-2010, 03:54 PM   #5
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Not to mention what kind of portrait photography. Are you looking to do candids? Then the reach of the 135mm will surely come in handy. But if you've got a staged or posed setup, then the 50mm or 70mm primes are great. They are also faster (larger f-stop) than the zoom lens.

The other thing to consider would be price. The 50-135mm is a good deal more expensive then the two primes I mentioned.
10-21-2010, 04:03 PM   #6
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Thanks! I am looking for something that I can use on babies and children, but that will also work for family groups as well. I guess that a zoom would be better for that. However, I don't have $820 laying around. I want to eventaully invest in both types of lenses, but I have a limited budget and can only afford around $400-$500. The lense is actually going to be a Christmas present from my husband.
10-21-2010, 04:08 PM   #7
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Given those requirements, a Tamron 28-75 f2.8 makes more sense. A 50-135 is not really wide enough for family group photos, and the tamron is a good deal cheaper.
10-21-2010, 04:31 PM   #8
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Thanks, Twitch. I'll take a look at that one too.

10-21-2010, 05:08 PM   #9
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The lens recommendations all sound good and I don't have much to add there.

Multiple situations is a good indication that a zoom would give you more options, but an important thing to keep in mind is how much this is all going to cost you.

A prime tends to give you high quality for a lot less than a zoom that will give you the same quality. Zooms tend to be slower (good zooms are 2.8), but this is not really a big deal because you will want to stop down to there anyways with a fast 50 to get enough DOF.

By quality there is a number of things to keep in mind: sharpness, bokeh (the smoothness of out of focus areas), and distortion. Colour and contrast tend to be pretty good in any Pentax lens I have ever tried.

A good zoom will be sharp, and usually have really nice bokeh... but these lenses cost over 800. Another factor is "barrel distortion", which is a slight bulging of your picture. Even a cheap prime will outperform a mid-to-high quality zoom in this respect. Zooms tend to introduce barrel distortion, even very expensive ones. This distortion is correctable with some know-how in photoshop, but it is something to keep in mind.

So really, it is up to you. The flexibility of a zoom may make the difference to you between getting a shot and not getting it - in this case the zoom is your only option. If you need quality at a good price, you might want to consider a lens like the DA 70 LTD or FA 50 1.4, which have rather flexible focal lengths for portraits as long as you are not doing candids indoors. The IQ will be top-notch for considerably less than the almighty DA* 50-135.

My go-to focal length for portraits is 55mm, and I have not encountered a situation yet where I needed more reach. I have had good luck in purchasing ultra-cheap manual focus primes and getting great quality shots with them. All three of them blow my (admittedly consumer-cheap) zooms away.
10-21-2010, 05:22 PM   #10
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QuoteOriginally posted by twitch Quote
Given those requirements, a Tamron 28-75 f2.8 makes more sense. A 50-135 is not really wide enough for family group photos, and the tamron is a good deal cheaper.
+1 on the Tamron (and that focal length in general).

You will not get much in focus below f2.8, and it is starting to get a bit long for portraits after 100mm. And, you don't need razor-sharp shot for portraits though the Tamron is very good.
10-21-2010, 06:21 PM   #11
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I've got a prime (50mm f/1.7) that just sits at home most of the time. My Sigma 24-70 2.8 gets used a whole lot more. There's so little DOF at 1.7 that I need to stop down to 2 or 2.4 and by then I might as well keep the zoom on the camera. I only use the 50 f/1.7 is really, really low light.

Tamron and Sigma both have 17-50 f/2.8 lenses, but I'd go with the longer 24-70 versions for portraits.
10-21-2010, 08:37 PM   #12
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The more I research the more I like primes. I think that I could possibly work with one of those for now and save up for a better zoom later. There are so many options to choose from! I am like a little kid in a very expensive candy store. I just don't know what to do!
10-21-2010, 09:56 PM   #13
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I just typed out a long, detailed message but the site crashed when I pressed "post." So here's a quick summary:

I suspect eventually you will try both primes and zooms. And that's fine because you'll never find out if you're a prime or zoom person at heart unless you do. But your $500 budget means you need to look for value. I'm talking about new lenses with warranties here. You might be able to find good deals on used lenses in the Marketplace section.

Primes: The new Pentax DA 35mm f/2.4 is barely in stores but seems to be getting very good early reviews. List price is $219. Pentax's venerable FA 50mm f/1.4 can be had new for about $359 at B&H. If you get only the 50mm, then you're well under your budget. But even if you get both (not a bad idea), you'll be spending about $579 - not ridiculously over your budget.

The DA Limited primes are great but are generally more money. The cheapest is the DA 40mm f/2.8 pancake ($339 at B&H), which is a very compact, light, sharp and fast-focusing lens. The other DA Limiteds run in the $500-$600 range each.

Zooms: You have some good options here... B&H has the Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 for $459 ($414 after rebate) and, more importantly for your application, the Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 for $499. There are Sigma alternatives, but they are more money: a 17-50mm f/2.8 for $669 and a 24-70mm f/2.8 for $569.

What kind of camera and lens(es) do you have now? If you have a least a kit zoom, I'd suggest starting either with the Pentax FA 50 f/1.4 or the Tamron 28-75 f/2.8 and go from there.
10-21-2010, 10:47 PM   #14
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As others have mentioned, you'll be hard pressed to find one lens that does everything you want to do.

My suggestion would be to take a bunch of photos with your current lens and see which focal length(s) appears most. That way you could at least gauge what range you like shooting at.

If it helps I do 95% of my portraits and candids with a 24-70mm 2.8 and 50mm 1.4.
10-21-2010, 11:46 PM   #15
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For purely head/shoulders portraits, the usual preferred focal length range would be somewhere in the range 45mm to 70mm. This would result in a tightly-framed image with acceptable portrayal of depth.

However, this assumes that the photographer has full control over the subject distance (i.e. he/she can get close enough!). If this is not the case, then the flexibility of a zoom is called for. The DA* 50-135 sounds like a good suggestion - it has just the right range of focal lengths and is of prime-like quality.

I wouldn't let lens "speed" be a factor, since you'll need to be stopping down anyway, in order to get sufficient DOF.
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