primesvszooms-7329

Primes vs Zooms For Event Photography

The eternal dichotomies. Good vs Evil. Night vs Day. Nikon vs Canon. Primes vs Zooms.

When it comes to available light event photography, the photographer is often pulled between constraints – the two biggest of which are limited access and limited lighting. As a result, we're also often split between the solutions to these problems as well – the flexible framing of zoom lenses and the raw, low-light speed of prime lenses.

Whether you're shooting weddings, concerts or any other situation where shooting position and light are constrained, here's a look at the benefits and limitations of primes and zooms for event photography.

Prime Lenses

Pros:

In the contemporary landscape of computer-designed optics, where even consumer zooms can deliver some amazing results, the chief advantage of prime lenses for is their speed. All but super telephoto primes are at least one if not two times faster than zoom lenses covering the same focal range. Even with the best DSLRs, the difference of two stops can mean the difference between shooting at a camera's high ISO sweet spot and looking at a sea of digital noise.

Moreover, prime lenses give photographers the flexibility to use lower ISO sensitivities, high shutter speeds, or shoot in lower light than their variable focal length peers – sometimes all three at once. In the lowest light, a prime shooter can happily click away in conditions that has zooms users crying in the dark.

Moreover, a prime lens like the ubiquitous 50mm f/1.8 available for all systems is often one of the most inexpensive lenses one can buy, offering image quality and speed at a fraction of a f/2.8 zoom's price.

On the other end of the price spectrum, it's also worth noting that super telephoto primes also offer reach in addition to speed that zooms just can't touch. For situations like sports where extreme distances necessitate teleconverters for maximum effect, the benefit of a fast prime lens is even more evident.

Cons:

The major downside of prime lenses for event photography is that their fixed focal length nature directly compounds the limited access and/or viable shooting positions for any given event and moment. This is particularly true for live music photography, with shooting often limited to the front of the stage for credentialed press in potentially crowded photo pits, but is essentially true for weddings and other event shooting as well.

At best, the inflexibility of prime lenses present limitations that foster creative solutions. At worst, the result is awkward and ineffective compositions.

In addition, for anyone shooting a single DSLR body, prime lenses may feel especially limiting for fast movement and situations where the positions of the performers changes rapidly. Using prime lenses may necessitate more frequent lens changes as well.

Zoom Lenses

Pros:

Zoom lenses are all about flexibility. With the already heavy constraints of live music photography, the ability to fluidly frame and execute compositions and different perspectives is a huge asset to the event shooter. This point is especially true when one is shooting in a crowded photo pit, when multiple photographers jockeying for position limits available angles even more, or at a crowded event with limited options for clean sight lines.

For event photography in general, zoom lenses can allow for the precise framing even in non-ideal shooting situations where the luxury to choose one's precise position is not always an option.

Aside from exact composition, the sheer ability to dramatically change perspectives with a zoom lens – going from wide-angle to telephoto in the case of a midrange zoom – is a huge asset for quickly-moving action.

A perfect example for the flexibility of a zoom is shooting a performer who may be behind a mic stand or monitors who then quickly comes to front of the stage. A midrange zoom transitions effortlessly in this situation that would otherwise leave a prime lens floundering.

Cons:

For concert photography, the downside to zoom lenses comes in their relatively slow maximum apertures, which clock in at f/2.8 at the fastest for most manufacturers. This limitation puts them two-stops a good f/1.4 prime, which is capable of letting in four times as much light. Needless to say, when the light levels drop, zooms are at a huge disadvantage against faster primes even with the excellent high ISO performance of current DSLRs.

To a lesser degree, optical quality can be an issue with non-pro grade zooms as well.

The Solution

A Mixed Bag

The obvious solution to the speed of primes and the flexibility of zoom lenses? Use them both. My kit includes a core set of zoom lenses covering 14mm to 200mm at f/2.8, as well as 50mm f/1.4 and 85mm f/1.4 primes for the lowest light.

My Kit

Primes:

Between the 50mm f/1.4 and 85mm f/1.4, there's a lot of super usable range. I always find the 50mm f/1.4 especially nice for waist-up shots of guitarists, where it's often the perfect frame for including the entire guitar. Add a Nikon 24mm f/1.4 or Nikon 35mm f/1.4 to this kit and you're set.

Zooms:

In terms of range, these three lenses cover just about anything and everything, from the ultra-wide at 14mm to drummer shots at 200mm. The Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 are especially utilitarian for live music and general event photography.

Summary

For me, the utility of zooms is undeniable, and with modern formulas and optics, the performance is never in question. In fact, I prefer my f/2.8 zooms for AF precision and speed. However, the ability of my f/1.4 primes to shoot in even the poorest light secures their place in my bag.

By mixing primes and zooms, the music photographer is covered for everything from blazing arena shows to small, dimly lit clubs. Unless you get a profound sense of satisfaction by shooting exclusively with one set of lenses or another, a mixed bag provides the best of both worlds.

My Camera DSLR and Lenses for Concert Photography

Nikon D750:
I use two Nikon D750 for my live music photography. Amazing high ISO performance in a compact body with tons of pro features.
nikon-24-70mm-f28-lens-squareNikon 24-70mm f/2.8:
For most gigs, the 24-70mm is my go-to lens. Exceptional image quality at wide apertures and super-functional range.
Nikon-70-200-squareNikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR:
A perfect pair to the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8, I can basically shoot any job with the midrange and this lens. Superb image quality.
nikon-14-24mm-f28-lens-squareNikon 14-24mm f/2.8:
Ultra-wide perspective, ridiculously sharp even wide open at f/2.8. I love using this lens up-close and personal, where it excels.
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There are 34 comments

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  1. elisa

    mixed bag is exactly my recommendation as well! I have to say however, when I started with a lower end body, it really demanded the faster primes – and that was my first kit 3 fast primes – and I learned to switch lenses in the dark – now when I shoot zooms it’s a luxury – learning to be creative, and to swap glass early I think was a good skill – to not be overly dependent on the flexibility of the zoom, nor the quality of the higher end body ISO’s…makes me feel pretty comfortable to shoot what makes the most sense – I never feel like I’m giving up something – just use the best tools for the situations at hand…

    • raci

      I notice that most people are using Nikon. I grew up with a pentax and moved to a canon. I have used a canon ever since 2000. Now its time to buy a new camera and all the blogs and rave are over the Nikon. Why?! I have not really heard that much about canon.

      do tell, the reasons why one would go with a nikon over a canon! thank you!

      I was wanting to get the canon 5D mark III. I already have a few good lenses i could continue to use.. other than that, i am open to new ideas.

      Thanks!

  2. George L Koroneos

    I’ve tried using primes for concert work and it just isn’t happening. With only three songs to shoot and limited space to maneuver, it just makes more sense to shoot with fast zooms. Especially with Nikon glass, I find that the zooms are faster to focus and nail the shot, and you just get more varied photos.

    Now for weddings and events where the action is far slower, I find that primes just give you a different (and sometimes better) look. You can work a bit slower when the subjects are standing at the alter, and the wider aperture means less need for flash.

    I know to each their own, but I own both the Nikon 50 and 85 1.4g, and both crawl for focus and the depth of field is so limited at 1.4 that it doesn’t help if you blow half your shots. I hear the 35mm is far better, but for the price, you could buy a much more useful zoom.

    Just my two cents.

  3. Alistair Maitland

    Hey Todd,

    This question is probably best for another section but what do find is the ISO sweet spot for the D3s and D700?

    In my opinion, I agree with a previous poster, that my 50mm AF is atrocious especially for fast moving subjects (on my D700). So far the best lens performance-wise has been the 70-200mm f2.8. The VR II surpasses it’s little brother the 24-70mm probably because it was manufactured a couple years later (people, check out Todd’s review). It is SO SHARP, so fast. Love it….

    Alistair

    • Todd

      Hi Alistair,

      As far as the ISO sweetspot for any given camera, I think it really depends on what you shoot and your own preferences.

      With the Nikon D3 and Nikon D700, if I can shoot at ISO 1600, I’m perfectly happy. Image quality may be better at ISO 800 and below, but 1600 strikes a great balance between very good IQ and having enough speed to allow me to shoot how I want to shoot.

  4. Pick of Penang

    I’m currently pondering one or two more lenses for my D90. Rather than plunging straight into the ‘which lens’ question I thought it might help to outline the problem (the problem ultimately of course being that these lenses are not cheap!!!! LOL) I have.

    I got the camera with the 18-105 kit lens (too good a deal and I wasn’t sure of the type of photography I’d ultimately get into). Since, I’ve added (all Nikkor) the 35mm AFS 1.8 G; 50mm 1.8 D; 70-300 VRII and a Tokina 11-16 2.8. The rationale was largely to keep the 18-105 as a general walkabout lens, the 70-300 for longer range (and better quality) and also as a lighter (from the 2.8 pro lenses) long-distance tele-zoom, the 35 as a general low-light prime; the 50 for portraits and such like and the 11-16 for the speciality SWA angle shots. At the moment I’m quite happy with the ‘redundancy’ I have (not too much given the primes offer MUCH better low light performance than the variable aperture 18-105) albeit if starting again (and low-light wasn’t an issue) I’d probably go for just a 16-85 VRII, the 70-300 VRII, the SWA and likely just one of the primes (but the 50 was so cheap as to not worry about). Up until now the set up has been fine but I’ve rarely used the 50.

    Lately though I find I’m doing quite a lot of catwalk fashion shoots and beauty events, indoors and out. For outdoor, my kit can largely cope. In low light and indoors it’s different. Some of these events are in better venues than others, mainly lighting wise. Some are held in nightclubs with bright (but stage show) lighting and others are held in convention centre settings where the quality of light, spots etc, varies. In the best lit events the 18-105 has coped, but with the 35 delivering better. In the poorest lit, the 18-105 REALLY struggles given that flash is not really liked. Mostly, in ‘Aperture Priority’, with the the lens wide open, shutter speed set to a min of 1/125 (to freeze movement), the ISO is often pushed way up to 3200. I prefer to try and keep the shutter speed high also as I find the spotlights can blow highlights on the model’s faces if I don’t. So, set up is borderline OK but far from ideal.

    Now, I’ve read a lot from Ken Rockwell and Thom Hogan and while I like a lot of Ken’s stuff I can’t agree on one point. This business about there being no need for mid-range zooms. In the poor low-light shows my primes would deliver the best performance BUT, unlike those shooting outside / landscapes where often you DO have a choice of where you stand (and can thus ‘zoom’ with your feet, making his mid-range zoom redundancy argument more valid), being stuck at an event where you can’t really move and where you NEED to get shots at a variety of distances in poor light, to me the ‘prime’ lens is not the answer. Looking at the EXIF a great many of my shots have been between 22mm and 70mm albeit a lot have been shot in landscape (resulting in quite a lot of crop). Quite a few have also been taken at 100mm also though. If I used the 35 or the 50 I could probably get 50% of what I need and lose the rest but get great low-light, lower ISO and faster (1/250) shutter. But I don’t really want to lose those other 50% shots.

    So I’ve been agonising over the 70-200, 17-55 or 24-70, all 2.8 of course. Without doubt it seems that most pros shooting fashion go for the 70-200. But is this because of the length of the catwalks and sometimes the distance they need to keep back?? Often I can get fairly close and the catwalks are not massive. The concern I have with the 70-200 is that the 70 may be TOO long unless, maybe I shoot more in portrait mode (probably desirable??) and improve the ‘used’ image quality by having to crop far less background? Other than the ‘possibly too long’ argument the 70-200 seems to me to be a FAR more usable lens in the long run, doubling for other purposes like low-light sport. I might end up getting two of these 2.8s but I’d rather just go for one if I can.
    Otherwise it’s the 24-70 or 17-55, of which the 24-70 seems the most usable and covers most of my EXIF range. I may just find that if I got the 24-70 that I’d have no need for the 70-200 but I’d hate to opt for the 24-70, find that the 70-200 could have done it (and with VRII) and end up not using the 24-70 much. I’d plan to still keep the 70-300 as it’s a much lighter tele-zoom for travel or indeed all day use. I’d likely keep the 18-105 too as a general ‘snapshot’ lens if I thought I might need more flexibility than the 50 or 35. The SWA of course is needed for what it does best. So, whichever 2.8 I go for it will be for more specialised rather than daily use but I’d like to get as much use as I can out of the investment!!

    Sorry for the epic :-)

  5. Alistair Maitland

    PoP: I would suggest renting the 24-70 or whatever other lens and try it out! You won’t know until you use it. Kudos to doing your own behavioral research.

    Alistair

  6. Pick of Penang

    Ended up going with the 24-70 2.8 for now. But it’s only just for now ;-) Decided I will add the 70-200 2.8 too.

    BUT, before tha, I also decided the next addition will be a new body. Reading the review of the D7000 I contemplated one of those, especially considering the high ISO performance against the D700. Still might go that route, indeed the extra reach I get on the lenses may make DX a benefit.

    Another BUT though, I think I’ll wait and see what the D4 and D800 bring. Low light high ISO is what I’m reality after with good IQ and colour rendition. I can’t help thinking the D4/D800 will deliver the goods in that regard, otherwise, what’s the point?

  7. Henry Leirvoll

    I am thinking of getting the Canon 50mm L f1.2 for my 5D MKII
    Anyone have experience with this for concert photography?

    It’s quite pricy compared to – well, any 1.4s out there, but I do love the results I’ve seen with it.

  8. arnaud172dArnaud

    My bag is quite like yours :

    14/24 2.8
    24/70 2.8
    70/200 2.8
    24 1.4
    50 1.4
    85 1.4
    TC20E III
    Nikon D4 & D3s

    My bag is just perfect this way !

    And, depending on the venue, I come with a 300 2.8 or 200 f/2 !

    I have never encounter a situation or this gear isn’t the best

  9. Anneke

    Todd 24-700 realy :-)?? Maybe you want to change that before people start asking you where to buy it :-) it’s in the zoom section.

    With my d300s I needed the primes badly. I now own a d800 and even though the primes are still in my bag. I’m using the 24-70 and 70-200 almost all the time. Even gary numan didn’t make me switch to a prime. But it did mean pushing it. I’m really happy and comfortable with this set up now.

    • Todd

      Ha, changed.

      The D800 is almost shockingly good at high ISO for the high pixel count. I think it’s easily as good and even better than the D3 and D700 in this regard!

      • Anneke Peeters

        :-) Im still looking forward to the piece you would do on why you use a D800 over a D4. I had no chance to compare as the D800 is where my money ended, but would love to hear you opinion. As the D4s I saw in Thailand are a lot cheaper and the real deal. So is it worth to ever want an upgrade or should I just keep on being happy with what I have? I was not sure about the D800 at first but your photos and reviews got me over the edge. And Im happy about it :-) There are a lot of people who had gone from a D700 to D800 who are not happy. Again no chance to compare those two. But happy with my results even in low light and that was the bit that scared me most.
        What is you highest Iso settings that you are very comfy with using on your D800?

        Thanks for all the info.. Hoping to be nearly as good as you one day.. Practice practice practice

        Oh an yes I ordered the aperture batt pack through the site. Waiting for it to arrive. You asked to let you know se here you go..


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