How to improve your photography by using only two lenses photography tutorial

How to Improve Your Photography by Using Only Two Camera Lenses

In Mastering Lenses I wrote a piece about the idea of simplicity in lens choice. I asked the question, if you could only own three camera lenses, which would they be? Of course, you have the freedom to buy as many lenses as you want, but it’s an interesting point to discuss as there are benefits in owning a limited number of lenses.

Today I’d like to take the idea further and consider the idea of using just two lenses. Two lenses are a convenient number to carry around for a day. Even better, the creative restrictions imposed by a limited choice will actually help improve your photography.

Benefits of only owning a few camera lenses

But first, let’s look at some of the benefits of only owning a few lenses.

You save money

It’s easy to get caught up in what has become known as gear acquisition syndrome – the desire to buy more gear in the belief that your photography will improve when you do so. Yes, it’s important to have the right tools, but the lenses you own should be determined by your needs rather than your desires.

For example, if you take a lot of close-up photos then a macro lens is probably a good investment. But if you only take close-ups every now and then an extension tube or close-up lens is a better choice.

You can buy better quality lenses

When it comes to many lenses there is often an inexpensive, mid-range and high-end version to choose from. There may even be more than one option of each when you take third-party models from companies like Sigma and Tamron into account. If you limit the number of lenses you buy, you have the option of spending more on each lens you do own to get a better quality one. It’s a simple matter of prioritizing quality over quantity.

You get to know the lenses you own really well

If all your lenses are primes you will come to a really good understanding of how each lens affects perspective, and how the distance between you and the subject affects the look of the photo. You will learn how much depth of field to expect at wider apertures. You’ll almost certainly get to the point where you can anticipate which lens to use in a given situation for a certain effect, and how close to your subject you would need to be, before you raised the camera to your eye.

There’s nothing wrong with zoom lenses, but the ability to move between focal lengths means this process takes longer.

Photo of artist's spray cans taken with Fujinon 35mm lens

Above: I took this photo with a 35mm lens. The perspective and depth of field are characteristics of this lens that I know well after using it a lot for over two years.

Restrictions inspire creativity

If you have too many options then you may waste time trying to decide which lens to use rather than getting on with taking photos. If you have just one lens, then you can concentrate on using it as best as you can. A lot has been written about how creativity thrives under restrictions, and you can read up on the subject if you are interested.

Which two lenses would you choose?

So, here’s another question (and the main point of the article). If you could use just two lenses, which would they be? Again, there’s a serious point behind it. If you go out for the day taking photos, then a kit of one camera and two lenses is easy to carry around, especially if you take a light camera and small lenses.

If you go away somewhere for a week or two, then you may opt to keep the weight of your kit down by taking two lenses.

When I worked at EOS magazine we wrote an article about a photographer who travelled to India with just one lens – the Canon EF 50mm f1.2L. This is a beautiful lens, and he took some wonderful photos with it. He told us that while it took him a while to get used to using the lens (after using a 70-200mm zoom for most of his commercial work) it was worth the effort.

Using just two lenses, or even a single lens, can be done, and often to great effect by skilled photographers, because of the way creativity thrives under limitations.

Last year I spent six months in Spain, and the year before that traveled to China for five weeks. I find two lenses a comfortable number to carry with me for the day, and while it is sometimes a nuisance to switch lenses (I normally carry two primes) I rarely wish that I had a zoom instead.

If you select a zoom as one of your two please don’t make it a superzoom (like an 18-100mm or 18-300mm lens). There are just too many design compromises, these are mediocre lenses at best. Just as importantly, the wide range of focal lengths doesn’t provide any sort of meaningful restriction. Your photography won’t improve with a superzoom – but it will get better with a good quality regular zoom or prime lens.

This is my choice.

Fujinon 35mm f1.4 lens

This lens has become my favorite. There is something about this focal length that works really well for all manner of subject – including candid portraits and general travel photos. It’s small and light and combined with the Fujifilm X-T1 feels very good in the hand. The maximum aperture of f1.4 is very useful in low light or for selective focus techniques.

35mm is considered a standard focal length on APS-C cameras. It has a similar field of view to a 50mm lens on a full-frame camera. It doesn’t compress perspective like a short telephoto lens, nor will it give you the sweeping perspective and dramatic leading lines that you can obtain from a wide-angle lens. It occupies a pleasing sweet spot between the two.

Here are some more photos I made with this lens.

Man making noodles at night in market in Muslim quarter of Xi'an China

Photo of a girl on a swing taken with 35mm lens

Photo of woman making a hat from reeds taken with a Fujinon 35mm lens

Portrait of two girls dressed as cosplay characters taken in Hangzhou China

Fujinon 18mm f2 lens

This wide-angle lens complements the 35mm very well. It’s useful for landscape photography, and travel photography where I need to fit more into the frame than I can with the 35mm.

Here are some photos I took with my 18mm lens.

Landscape photo taken with Fujinon 18mm lens in Island Bay New Zealand

Photo of Forbidden City at dusk taken with Fujinon 18mm lens in Beijing China

Street photo taken of man cooking food in Muslim quarter in Xi'an China

Photo of boat sailing in Milford Sound New Zealand taken with Fujinon 18mm lens

Photo of circus performer using Future Hoop to paint with light at Massey Memorial in Wellington New Zealand

Which camera lenses would you choose for a year?

Let’s reframe the question slightly and ask what two lenses you would select if you could only use two for the next year? I think I’d be happy with these two optics, although I would miss my 56mm f1.2 and 14mm f2.8 lenses a lot.

What do you think? Which two lenses would you choose – whether for a day, a week or a year?

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About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, publisher, traveler and photographer based in the UK. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He currently writes for The Creative Photographer, Digital Photography School and Craft & Vision. He is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences.

Comments

  1. Andrew, I am totally with you on the 35mm – it’s my favorite lens and focal distance, but my other lens would be telephoto, currently Canon 35L and 135L – that’s what I took with me on my last vacation.

    For landscapes, I can do a panorama with 35mm but if you don’t have a telephoto, you lose too many opportunities. Not to mention that I am a bokeh junkie…

    Nevertheless, I am planning to buy a Canon full frame mount ultra wide zoom, so if you have any recommendations, I would really appreciate that. Since 3rd party Canon AF issues are irrelevant for landscape photography, I wouldn’t say no to Sigma or Tamron as long as they are sharp and won’t break the bank. Sorry for off-topic.

      1. Hi Andrew,

        Thank you very much for recommendations. I decided on Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM, I am pretty sure I will be able to find it refurbished under $800. I’m afraid 17-40mm f/4L would feel miserable competing with the 35L on the long end :))

  2. While I travel I carry 2 XF lenses, (16mm f/1.4 + 35mm f/2) OR (16mm f/1.4 + 18-55mm). But most of the time I use 16mm to take landscape, environmental portrait (sometimes need little cropping during post process). But I found in wide angle 16mm is too sharp than 18-55. I bought some of your books including mastering leneses and I completely agree with your points “Restrictions inspire creativity”.

    1. Author

      That’s a great choice of lenses. I’ve got my eye on the 18-55 kit lens as a good option for street and travel photography. There are times when a zoom would be very useful. Thanks for buying the books!

  3. hello Andrew!
    great article. I am learning just now even if I have been playing with a Rebel T3 for about 4 years. I have now upgraded to a canon 6d and 16-35 2.8 L lens.
    I am now on the process of choosing the second one and I am really torn because I would like to have the 70-200 f2.8 but it’s expensive and I am not such a pro. SO I was thinking to stay on a low profile and buy a tamron 70-300 4-5.6. I know it’s not the best in quality but It will allow my to switch from street photography ( in a discreet way) to starry skys which I love. and it costs “only” 450usd. Then when I will have learned more and I will be able to understand more about what works for me, I will allow myself the luxury to choose from more quality stuff. What do you think? thank you so much ! great job you are doing!

    1. Author

      Hi Isabella, I’m not sure what you have in mind for the 70-300mm lens when it comes to starry skies. Most photographers use a wide-angle lens to capture as much of the sky as possible. Do you want to do the opposite and take close-up photos of the sky?

      You may want to look at at a 50mm or 85mm prime lens for street photography. These are discrete focal lengths, not too expensive, and the wide apertures help you take photos in low light or blur the background.

      Telephotos (200mm or longer) tend to be more useful for when you can’t get physically closer to the subject. Sports and wildlife photographers use them for that reason. They also have their place in street photography, although most street photographers tend to use shorter focal lengths.

  4. Hello, Andrew.

    I have read and reread your article and have found that the 2 (Yes, I have only 2) standard zoom lenses I
    have been using for the past 4 years have done the job pretty much like you suggest. One is the 18-55mm
    kit lens that came with my 400D in 2008, and the other is a carefully researched Canon 75-300mm standard zoom lens. I found it on the Amazon website at a substantially lower price than other lenses I had priced. It is
    a very light and versatile lens and is easy and quick to set up and shoot with. The kit lens has the tremendous
    advantage of providing sharp, clear images that can be easily cropped to whatever field I want to show.

    As I have been shooting 35mm SLRs and DSLRs by Canon since 1967, I already have a good grounding in what focal length I want for specific shots. As you say, my full kit is very mobile and easy to work with. My camera bag is a compact rucksack type and all my stuff fits in perfectly at a very light weight.

    It is gratifying to me that pretty much most of what you have outined fits in with my philosophy of 50 years
    of shooting all over the western hemisphere. I can’t believe I’ve been at it for that long. Thanks.

  5. Hi Mark, it’s always interesting to read another photographer’s point of view, and this article really strikes a chord with me. Way back when I was just starting to earn enough to trade in my collection of second hand folding cameras and buy myself a decent SLR (analogue, of course, in those days), I chose 3 lenses – a 35mm w/angle, a 50mm standard and a 135mm telephoto. Half a century later, and having tried various other cameras as well, in the meantime, I decided to switch to digital and quit analogue. The reasons were simple – I’d “had” my fun with analogue, it was now time to make the change – and besides, for the first time in my life I could do colour processing and colour printing myself, instead of having to rely on external labs.

    SO – what to buy? The first acquisition was simple, straightforward, experimental and educational. A half frame SDLR with a kit zoom. Building on what I learned from that, came the decision to buy a “serious” camera – a full frame SDLR. And two primes – a w/angle and a standard prime. Because I do a lot of macro photography, I also bought a 100mm macro.

    And no – I don’t miss the 135mm tele I had with the analogue camera – I occasionally miss an opportunity for lack of a tele lens, but the lens I’d need in those circumstances isn’t a 135mm to start with. A 200mm might a start, but what would really be “useful” would be a bazooka of a tele lens – something like the bird photographers shoot with, in a range around 500mm or 600mm. The reason I don’t have one isn’t purely a question of money – it’s just that the percentage of photos for which I could find a serious use for such a lens is tiny, and frankly, I think it would be absurd to spend so much money on a lens which spends most of its time in a cupboard.

    Put simply – my usage dictated my choice of lenses for the full scale conversion from analogue to digital, and I have no desire to change them or flood my shelves with other focal lengths.

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