Rise Of The Anti-Zoom – Why I Never Zoom With A Zoom Lens

Zoom lenses were made so you could stand in one place, point in any direction, zoom and capture the perfect composition. Right? 

Well, maybe. But not for me.

Instead I see a zoom lens as a small, highly portable set of prime lenses. Here’s why, and how I use them.

Sony NEX 3N, Minolta MD Zoom 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro lens

For the first four years or so of shooting film, I only had one zoom. It happened to come attached to a Pentax ME Super I found cheap, and I gave the lens away almost immediately.

So my history of shooting film (and using the same vintage lenses digitally on my Sony NEX) was almost exclusively with primes. 

This honed my technique of getting used to the particular field of view of a particular lens, as there was simply no way to adjust it. I like this consistency – it’s one less setting to adjust, a great help when I was starting out with film especially, with all the other adjustments you can make.

Then one day I read a review of a reputedly excellent Minolta MD Zoom 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro.

The review – and the subsequent photographs I found online – made the lens too good to ignore, despite it being a zoom.

So I bought one.

Essentially, being a bit intimidated by the range of focal lengths (though 35-70mm is modest for a zoom!), I set it to 70mm and started to experiment with the NEX.

Sony NEX 3N, Minolta MD Zoom 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro lens

Another factor for choosing 70mm was this was the end at which the “macro” focusing was available. I love finding the close up detail and beauty of objects.

The MD Zoom turned out to live up to its reputation, I was very impressed.

Sony NEX 3N, Minolta MD Zoom 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro lens

More recently I picked up a Tamron with C/Y adapter, in fact very similar in spec to the Minolta. To give it its full name, it’s the Tamron 35-70mm f/3.5 CF Macro BBAR MC.

Whilst not as great as the Minolta, it’s still pretty good, and again I stuck it on 70mm and went off to explore.

Yashica FX-D, Tamron 35-70mm f/3.5 CF Macro BBAR MC lens, Fuji Superia 100 expired film

Again, not being so keen on any lens wider than 50mm, and wanting to explore the closer “macro” focusing of the lens, in effect I treat it as a 70mm prime with close focus.

Very recently I acquired a Minolta AF 35-70mm f/4 Macro. You might be noticing a pattern here. 

Turns out that this lens, on my Sony a350, has blown me away. And again I’ve only used it at the 70mm end.

Sony a350, Minolta AF 35-70mm f/4 lens

I found the MD Zoom very impressive, and I think this Minolta is even better. And the images in this post are straight out of the Sony Alpha, converted from RAW to JPEG, and no other post processing. I’m loving those Minolta colours!

Anyway, back to the point of this post. 

Taking for example the Minolta AF 35-70mm, I see this mostly as a 70mm prime.

Sony a350, Minolta AF 35-70mm f/4 lens

But I could also use it as a 35mm prime. And a 50mm prime. Or a 40mm prime, 60mm prime, or anything between. But let’s keep this simple for my argument and stick to 35, 5o and 70mm. Also because those are the three numbers marked on the barrel and easiest to set.

What I don’t do, on a photowalk, is this –

Stand in one position, look all around me, spot something interesting to photograph then point my camera and zoom in or out until it fills the frame as I wish, then take the photograph.

Before I begin the walk, I already decide what focal length I’ll use, set the lens to that, and then treat it as a prime.

By doing this I can focus on how the world looks at that focal length, with that lens. I have a consistency, a uniformity to work with.

Also there’s the distortion factor. 

Put simply, the same subject, filling the frame in the same way, will look quite different when photographed at different focal lengths. This post and collage of images is a great visual demonstration.

For me personally, I don’t want a set of images from one photowalk with one lens where they’re all distorted in different ways.

I’d find this confusing and frustrating.

This is mostly down to my inexperience in using a wide range of focal lengths (my default and most used by far is a 50mm lens) but partly my desire to keep things simple and clean with photography.

If I introduce too many options, too many variables, it takes away the escapist and immersive pleasure of photography. 

Sony a350, Minolta AF 35-70mm f/4 lens

With digital photography lately I’m trying to simplify further too, and so by using a particular lens like the Minolta AF 35-70 always at 70mm, with the same ISO setting on the camera, and keeping all other creative options neutral, it allows me to just focus on composition, and, er, focus.

Rather than for every shot drowning in a myriad of decisions and options before I even press the shutter button.

So it becomes more like the simple and joyful experience I feel when using film cameras.

Next, I’m looking forward to going out and using this Minolta at 50mm. Given its performance at 70mm, I’m hoping it will be pretty formidable at 50mm too, and might even surpass and supplant some of my current 50mm favourites.

But for now I’ll stick with treating it as my favourite 70mm prime.

How do you use zoom lenses? Do you find most shots are at a similar focal length or do you use the full range of the zoom?

Let us know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

13 thoughts on “Rise Of The Anti-Zoom – Why I Never Zoom With A Zoom Lens”

  1. Thanks for showing me that I’m not alone in doing the ‘prime zoom’ thing.

    But I prefer real primes as they constrict my choices even more. When I carry a zoom I’m tempted to use it…

    1. Glad I’m not alone too Frank!

      To be honest I don’t really feel that temptation, I just set the lens before I start then ignore that option of adjustment.

      I think if you’re using say a 35-70 at 35mm, you only then look for compositions that suit 35mm, it helps hone your outlook, in that sense.

  2. I favor primes, but own some zooms. I stuck my 28-80 AF-G Nikkor on a Nikon 8008 I just bought. And when I’ve got the zoom, I’m open to using it.

    I took my Nikon N2000 and a 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 Zoom Nikkor along on a trip to the Smokies a couple years ago. The 35mm end has some *wicked* barrel distortion, but back it off to 50 and it’s ok. And that distortion is fairly easily corrected in Photoshop. I paired this with Ektar and got some just stunningly beautiful shots. I was just looking to see if I blogged any of those photos and somehow I did not! Here’s one on Flickr:


    1. Wow, the detail and tones of that couch leather is stunning Jim! An example of when it’s worth seeking out a certain zoom.

      I think there are a lot of cheap and mediocre zooms, and they tend to set the expectations for us. We then assume all zooms are poor. But if we seek out a few of the gems out there (both Minolta 35-70s I mentioned above I would include), they can be comparable to a prime, unless under extreme testing.

      Also, I think sometimes a zoom used at a certain focal length might be more affordable and available than a prime.

      I’ve had three 35-70mm zooms (and still have two of them) and nearly always use them at the 70mm end. I don’t think there are many (any?) primes in M42 or Minolta AF (or any other mount!) in this focal length.

      There tend to be a few expensive 85mms, then it jumps to maybe 100 or 105 then 135mm (or something like a 100-200mm zoom). Between 50 and 105mm say (I have a gorgeous and surprisingly affordable 105/2.8 Takumar) there aren’t many affordable options, so a quality 35-70mm or 28-80mm at the tele end can be a good alternative.

      I would recommend either of the Minolta 35-70s for this approach in a second.

      1. I picked up that zoom on the dirt cheap not knowing just what I was getting. I got lucky!

        But your discussion of this topic has enlightened me. Those long primes can be expensive. Maybe a way to get a long prime on the cheap is to buy a zoom.

      2. Yeh I think it’s in that gap between 50 and 135mm, both of which are plentiful and cheap. Unlike in between!

        For example in M42 a Takumar 85mm seems to go for £250+ and whilst the intriguing Jupiter 9 85/2 is more affordable it’s still £135-150.

        My Minolta AF 35-70mm f/4 has delighted me at 70mm and cost £25.

  3. […] The way I use zooms is a little untraditional (essentially as a set of primes within one lens, using only one at a time), so the sliding focal length barrel is slightly odd, but actually works well for me. Once I set it to the focal length I want, I don’t need to touch it – only rotate the barrel to focus. […]

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