There is one thing that constantly keeps cropping up in both my own work, and in the work of others I see around me. I've worked with more and more photographers and videographers lately who just shoot with a single zoom for most of what they do. So many people I see seem to be producing strong work with one decent zoom. This post asks a very simple question that keeps bouncing around in my head. "Just how many lenses do we actually need?".
I know some photographers need an abundance of different (and sometimes specialist) glass for different reasons. Architectural photographers like fellow Fstoppers writer Mike Kelley rely on specialist tilt shift lenses to achieve the work he does. For beauty of macro work, you'll certainly want a decent macro lens. But how many of us can get by with just a decent wide to medium zoom, or spend most of our time shooting just one focal length on a single prime for head shots or portraits?
The question has popped up constantly in my head the last few months in particular as I’ve seen great work coming from people who I know are only shooting with just one zoom, or where 95-99% of all their work is being shot with a single zoom.
If it’s about the extra stops of light a f1.2, 1.4 or f2.8 can give us over a f2.8 or f4 zoom lens gives us, we can bump ISO. Sure, it's not as "clean" as opening our aperture, but with most of the sensors we have in our pro bodies today, grain and noise isn’t so much an issue as it used to be even a year ago. Noise reduction software can help with this too, if a totally clean digital file is what you’re looking for. As hardware and software advances allow us to both shoot with improved light sensitivity parameters, or reduce the digital artifacts we get when we do so, is the benefit of having additional light stops through a wider aperture on a prime a significant investment over a zoom? When we're in a studio shooting strobes, are we even doing much shooting at apertures that are totally wide open anyway?
One Lens Wonder?
The lens I consistently see people using is either a 24-70mm (my go-to zoom) or 24-105mm on a full frame body.
A couple of examples where I’ve seen these lenses used recently which has got me thinking about this bigger question:
1). Last month I worked with fashion and advertising photographer Louis Christopher on a personal project. Louis has a client and publication list that any one of us would be proud to have under our belt. Louis shot 10 models consecutively over the course of a day, never once changing his lens from his 24-105. The majority of his shots hovered around the 40mm range, occasionally a little wider, sometimes tighter, but much of his work was in this focal length. He produced beautiful images straight out of camera, that wouldn't have looked out of place in Harpers or a campaign. Much of his work is shot with this zoom lens.
2). Erik Madigan Heck, an internationally exhibited photographer who has shot for TIME, The New Yorker, Harpers Bazar, W and renowned commercial clients like Kenzo and Alexander McQueen has an even more bizarre one lens story. Apparently he not only uses just the one lens, but it’s the same lens his mother gave him when he was 14. Erik actually attests some of what makes his work unique is probably due to the fact the decade-and-a-half old lens “was probably dropped. My assumption is that if I opened it up, something would be cracked in it, creating a small light leak.”
3). Jennifer Massaux is a friend and photographer, videographer and video editor. She hasn't been shooting for many years, but has put together a strong body of work that has already seen her collaborating with Madonna.
Although Jennifer occasionally switches to a 35mm prime, I would say 95% of the stills and motion work I’ve seen her shoot is with her 24-105mm lens. This gives her the flexibility to quickly shoot wider and tighter shots, and provides the flexibility she needs as she often is shooting stills and video back to back with the same body.
4). Finally, on a personal note, looking back through my EXIF data to check my focal lengths and knowing what my videos look like, I realize I tend to shoot 90% of everything with my 24-70mm f2.8 zoom. This goes for events, concerts, portraits, fashion and BTS work. For video, the 24-70mm is my go-to lens and again accounts for about 80-90% of all of my shots. I'll occasionally switch to a longer zoom but I find it will often be just for a particular shot I feel will be useful to add to the story. I generally find the wider to medium/close shots are where most of my work is shot as it looks the most "normal" for the work I do.
I know the images I get aren’t as sharp as they would be if using a prime, and I can’t get separation, the extra stops of light and bokeh like I can out of my 50mm prime (which I find I use less and less these days, apart from on the street), but after seeing a client display an image I shot with it at almost life size scale (6ft on the longest edge), it’s amazing how clear and sharp the images are that you can get out of a good zoom with a minor bit of post sharpening and clean up.
Yes, different photographers use different lenses and some will require specialist tools for the job at hand, I don't disagree with that. The point of this post is really to begin a discussion about just how many lenses do we need to get the job done to the standard a client is looking for for more straight forward shoots that don't require specialist gear.
I've never had a client look at bokeh or sharpness and ask if I shot it with a prime or a zoom. Clients only care if the overall image or video speaks to them, to the brief, and delivers the message that I was hired to deliver.
We’re consistently told zooms aren’t as sharp as primes. This is most times true, but I would argue the sharpness i get from my Canon 70-200 is sharp enough. If good (or sharp) enough is really the benchmark our end client cares about, do we actually need something to be sharper?
Let us know how many lenses you have and what you use them all for. Do you find you do the majority of your work on just one lens? What percentage of your work is accomplished with just a decent zoom? I'd be interested to know.
Erik Madigan Heck photos via [WSJ.com]