Categories / Tutorials

Why You Don't Need That Big Zoom Lens

Creative Market March 31, 2021 · 6 min read

You did it. You finally bought a nice camera. The one you’ve had bookmarked for ages. You’re sick of cell phone photos and you’re ready to take it to the next level. Unfortunately, the more you use it, the more you realize that the lens that came with your super nice camera is not so super nice. It’s time to add another item to your shopping list: a big ol’ zoom lens. That will make your photos look so great! Right? Wrong.

Glass is Everything

One of the most significant factors that affects the way your images look, regardless of what camera you’re using, is the lens you choose to shoot with. My advice to new photographers is always the same: get a good camera and a great lens.

The unfortunate part is how this advice is perceived. Most non-photographers and new photographers only have one metric by which to judge a lens: its length. When people see me at a wedding with a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L lens, and my wife shooting next to me with a 24-70mm f/2.8 L lens, they invariably assume that I’m the one with the “good lens.” In truth, the lenses are fairly equivalent in terms of quality. Both are top-notch, professional lenses that make for fantastic photos. They simply have different focal lengths.

Zoom ≠ Quality

This is a lesson that every photographer needs to learn: the zoom capability of a lens has nothing to do with its quality. There are tiny, amazing lenses that cost a fortune, and big, terrible lenses that are super cheap. Zoom is simply that: zoom. That’s it. Nothing more.

There are a number of factors that affect the rating of a lens: build quality, durability, the speed of the autofocus, image stabilization, all of these are very important to how “good” a given lens is. Perhaps the most important issue for your end result is the quality of the glass inside. A ton of science that I’ll never be smart enough to understand goes into crafting glass that produces excellent color, clarity, and focus while providing beautiful bokeh.

All of this to say, zoom is great, but it’s not how you should be judging the quality of a lens.

Note: One nice thing about shooting up close with a zoom lens is that the background does tend to blur like crazy because of the way the lens is compressing the view. That being said, the quality of that blur (which is what we call bokeh) is going to vary widely depending on the quality of the glass.

The Most Important Question

The single most important question you can ask yourself when you’re buying a lens is this: what do I want to shoot? You should view each of your lenses like mechanics view each of their wrenches, simply as tools for a specific job.

Lenses with a big zoom are fantastic at one very specific task: taking photos of subjects that are far away. If you’re looking for a great lens to bring to a sporting event to capture the action from the stands, or you’re an avid bird enthusiast, a lens with a big zoom is the way to go.

However, if you’re looking to take photos of say, your kids around the house, then a big zoom can actually be prohibitive. Big lenses often need lots of room to focus. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been stuck in a small room with that 70/200mm that I mentioned before and forced to admit that it just can’t get the shots I need. The thing cost me $2,500 and I often take it off my camera and pop on my $300 50mm lens instead. Why? Because the little one is often better for the task at hand.

Shooting Scenarios

To help you make the right decision for your next lens purchase, here are some popular shooting scenarios along with the types of lenses that tend to do well for them.

Low Light

Buy something with a large aperture (f/2.8 or below).

Portraits and Head Shots

Consider using a prime lens. They’re often fairly affordable, have tack sharp focus, perform great in low light, and are specifically cropped to take great photos with little effort.

Landscapes and Architecture

Use a wide angle lens (24mm or wider should do great).

Flowers, Bugs, and Other Tiny Things

Most lenses, no matter how expensive, simply won’t work well for shooting tiny subjects. For this, you’ll need a “macro” lens, which is built specifically for photographing things up close.

Sports, Nature, Live Events

When you can’t get close to the action, that’s when a big zoom is indispensable.

Fact: Weddings Are Nuts

Weddings are typically a crazy, 8+ hour event filled with an insane variety of shooting scenarios. One minute, you’re shooting the action from fifty feet away in a dimly lit church, the next, you’re in the bright sun taking close-up portraits of the bride. At the end of the evening, you’re thrust into near complete darkness as you attempt to take non-blurry photos of people rapidly moving in all directions on the dance floor.

To account for situations like these, where the setup changes so drastically time and time again, you need versatility. There’s no right or wrong answer, and every wedding photographer has a different opinion. As I mentioned above, my wife and I always shoot weddings together. The combination of a 24/70mm and 70/200mm gives us a combined focal range of 24-200mm with no gaps, and the fact that both lenses are f/2.8 means that we have solid low light performance (combined with Speedlites). No matter what situation a wedding throws at us, between the two of us, we’ve got it covered!

The point here is, if you want to shoot weddings or other live events where getting close to your subject isn’t always possible, go ahead and splurge on that big lens, but make sure you’ve got something else to work with for tighter spaces.

Zoom Lenses Are Awesome

The aim of this piece is not to convince you that huge lenses aren’t good. I never leave home without mine, and despite the fact that it absolutely kills my back, I adore it. The one thing to take away from this article is that your end goal as a photographer is not to have the biggest lens, but the best lens for the job.

Tell Me Your Lens Setup!

Now that you’ve heard my rant on zoom lenses, I’d love to hear about your lens setup and which lenses you prefer for different shooting scenarios. Leave a comment below and let’s talk gear!

Lettering Worksheets
Getting started with hand lettering?
Free lettering worksheets

Download these worksheets and start practicing with simple instructions and tracing exercises.

Download now!
About the Author
Creative Market

Making beautiful design simple & accessible to all.

View More Posts
Go to My Shop
Related Articles