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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.
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.
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.
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?
My ebook Mastering Lenses shows you how to use your lenses to create better images.