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

How to Improve Your Photography by Using Only Two Camera Lenses

Editor's note: This month only – you can buy two of my favorite ebooks, The Creative Photographer and Square, for just $7 each! Limited time only – click the links to learn more. Thanks for reading, Andrew

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?

Further reading

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Lenses in photography

About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer with a camera. 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 lives in south Devon in the UK and is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences. Check out his photography ebooks here.


  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 :))

    1. Hello Andrew, I have been working on this idea for some time now and I have what I consider to be a good two camera two lens kit. I am using a Canon 50D crop sensor with a 17-40mm Zoom and a 6D full frame with a 70-200mm IS zoom. This setup gets me by in most situations.

      This is cost effective for my pocketbook. The drawbacks are only slight, that is my aptures are limited to F4, but then this is my travel kit.

      I do have a couple of lens that stay home most of the time those lenses that I use for portrait photography 85mm and 135mm primes.


  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.

      1. Andrew, I have been thinking about adding just one prime lens and I keep coming back to a 35mm for
        scenic and landscape work. What do you think?

        1. Author

          Hi Mark, that’s a difficult question to answer objectively because personal preference is such a large factor. Are you thinking about using the 35mm lens on a full-frame camera? If so, you might want to consider something slightly wider like a 28mm lens. I only suggest that because I have an 18mm prime lens for my X-T1 and I’ve found the focal length perfect for a lot of landscape photography. In full-frame terms it has the same field of view as a 27mm lens.

          Perhaps you could do a search on Flickr for photos taken with 35mm and 28mm lenses to see if that’s useful.

          Or, if you use Lightroom, search by metadata to see which focal lengths you are already using for landscape photography.

          Hope that helps.

  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.

  6. I can appreciate your comment about a specialist lens that sits on the shelf eventually, Pete. Way back when I was still learning with my Praktika analogue kit, I was stationed here in the UK with the USAF. Our base exchange (Department store) didn’t have much in the way of lenses so I went to a Hall’s Cameras outlet in London where I found a 400mm prime telephoto lens in just my price bracket. This was 1970 and that thing
    weighed a ton!! But it did the business and I used to haul it around the motor racing circuits here and in Europe.

    Best results were at Brands Hatch and LeMans in 1970-71. By the time I got home for discharge in late 71, I ran out of uses for it and it just sat on the shelf for years. Finally sold it when I went digital in 2005. My distance work is now covered by a 75-300mm zoom by Canon; much lighter and far more useful. Kind of
    miss the old dinosaur sometimes, though!!

  7. Fujinon 14mm f2.8 and the 56mm f1.2 are my top two lenses. 14 for landscape and the street. 56 for portrait and photojournalism. If there would be a third lens involved for general purpose it would have to be the 23 f1.4 or an x100 s,t,f body to compensate for not having swap out lenses plus having another body on your side is nice to have regardless.

    1. Author

      Nice choice. The 14mm f2.8 and 56mm f1.2 are two of my favorites as well. I’ve just started using two camera bodies and it makes life a lot easier.

  8. A little tip with the 14mm f2.8 fujinon you can purchase a Colby Brown 67mm formatt hitech filter system for 30 dollars right now on eBay. Buy the 58 threaded adapter that punts the system on the lens from formatt hitech usa for an additional 22 dollars. Than run over to b&h photo and pick up the 77mm polarizer adapter for I believe it’s also another 20 some dollars. I have this exact setup and there is no vignetting whatsoever, and I am very happy with portability and it’s compact size. Later down the road I will be buying formatt hitech fire crest glass filters for this system because I’ve read, and have seen some amazing results. The biggest bonus of it all is when you’re using the 67mm setup. the filters are cheap compared to the 85mm and the 100mm systems.

  9. Quick question- when using 2 lens, ie 18mm & 35mm, for ease of carry, do you include lens hoods or for go?

    1. Author

      Hi Grimes, I always use lens hoods. You need them to prevent lens flare and they are also handy for protecting the front element of the lens from accidental damage.

  10. Great conversation Andrew. My two lens, right now would be the XF18-55 f2.8-4 and the XF 55-200mm. I started recently with the 18-55 on my XT1 and I am
    astounded by this Lens. It’s bright at 18mm and at 55mm we enter Portrait territory. I like having a Telephoto option when I travel and the 55-200 is perfect. This is my perfect Travel
    Set up. I am considering a second body so I don’t have to change lens.

  11. Andrew, today reading your purist approach to lens choices for learning photography has confirmed my decision last week (after extensive research) to order just one prime lens, the 35mm f1.4 together with the XE3 body. Thank you for the insightful article & inspirational pics.

  12. I agree with this article whole heartedly. Now I must decide on the second lens. I have a Nikon D750 and my one lens currently is a 60mm micro… I love this lens! But what do you suggest as a secondary lens? Not into landscapes….. I’m not interested in bringing the subject to me but rather going to the subject. Outside of taking pictures of things super close up… I suppose I would want to take pictures of friends.

    1. Author

      Hi Andrew, what a tough question! Sounds like you need a telephoto lens of some sort. If you like the sound of a prime lens a 90mm or 100mm telephoto would be great for portraits. A 100m macro could do double duty as portrait lens/macro lens, giving you a second option for close-up photography.

  13. My choice would be my trusty Nikon 24 to 70 mm f2.8, which covers all the general ranges I usually shoot at, and my Sigma 105 mm f2.8 macro for close ups; I love macro photography too. The Sigma also makes a great portrait lens on my Nikon D750. Can’t go far wrong with these two.

  14. I’m seriously struggling with this right now. i got an x100v after using my xt30 for a while with multiple excellent lenses. i now use that for sessions and the x100v for everything else. it’s always on me. however, i really, really love my 35 1.4. and i often need wider for landscape and architecture. so I’m finding more and more that the x100v is probably the best 1 lens camera ever, however it doesn’t do anything amazingly well. just a general purpose very good.

    my 35 1.4 dominates it at portraits and low light. and it isn’t even much bigger. my 18-55 is the widest i have, but that is noticeably better when i need it wide. it is also pretty small and adds the bonus 55mm if needed.

    I’m starting to consider the wide angle converter for x100v. but i always come back to wanting two primes to cover 90% of things. my thought would be 16 or 18 1.4 for wide and 35 1.4 or 56 1.2 for short tele… my gut tells me 16/35 is more ideal all around, but 56 just has such a nice look and more reach… but the 35 could be more all around than the 56… i don’t think I’d shoot wide for all around. 23 works for that, but as i said, it’s an akward in between. so 35 would be like almost a one lens setup with the 16 when needed here and there…

    otherwise I’d probably use the 18 for all around with the 56 as needed… but that seems less versatile for most shots as neither are generally representative of the eye’s field of view…

    thoughts? i own the 23 1 4, 35 1.4, 56 1.2, 90 f2, 18-55, 55-200… xt30 and x100v

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