How Many Lenses Do We Really Need?

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.

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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.”

Erik's lens - 15 years old, a 24-105mm zoom given to him by his mother. Image courtesy of Jeff Brown for WSJ.com Erik's lens - 15 years old, a 24-105mm zoom given to him by his mother. Image courtesy of Jeff Brown for WSJ.com

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Final Thoughts

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]

Erik Madigan Heck lens photo courtesy of Jeff Brown from [WSJ.com]

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86 Comments

Randy's picture

I think after you find your style and what you like to shoot the most, you can get by with a single lens. I think for the rest of us, it is still discovering wants over needs. I'm in the process now of reducing my lens options and gravitating more and more towards a single option.

David Vaughn's picture

I buy lenses because I don't like cars or making music. If I'm going to invest in an expensive past-time, I'd might as well go all-in. :P

Plus, I don't have kids. That helps too.

(I do get what you're saying in the article btw. Good stuff!)

David Geffin's picture

Thanks David, glad you enjoyed it. I certainly don't begrudge anyone buying the best glass they can get - we all know that's where the investment should go :) I have many friends who do other "regular" jobs and shoot when they can who buy the best gear they can and that's great.

I guess the article was aimed at more those who shoot for commercial clients and what we need to get the job done VS. what we want to do the job to a standard we think we need to deliver to (if that makes sense). I see many full time professionals creating solid work using a simple zoom to get the job done, contrary to the popular belief we can often have of needing a bunch of primes to produce the best work.

Thanks for your thoughts, appreciate it

David Vaughn's picture

Yeah, I've run into the "If I only had THAT lens" syndrome before both in myself and by observing others. I think it can foster narrow-mindedness when a photographer feels they can't take a good photograph unless they have that 85mm f/1.2. It can make them rule out creative possibilities without even trying to develop them. Of course, this is probably more common among newbies/semi-pros than it is established commercial photographers, but I have seen some pros stagnate (at least temporarily) because of a focus on gear.

I mean, honestly, clients probably won't be able to tell the difference between f/1.8 and f/1.2 anyways.

But man that f/1.2, JUST LOOK AT THAT BOKE-UH. SUCH AMAZING BOKE-UH.

Martti Suomivuori's picture

Nice boke-uh plug-ins on Lightroom.
They weigh and cost a lot less than the boke-uh glass lenses.

Andrew Fishkin's picture

Its not the same.

Martti Suomivuori's picture

Of course it is not the same. The plug-ins are much more versatile and you do not have to carry them around in your bag. The Alien Skin set is pretty fantastic.
Yes I am conscious of what the bokehlicious f/1.2 lenses do when you know what you are doing. Different things, sure.

David Vaughn's picture

I've also decided to try and reign in the gear-envy by buying a Fuji X100s, so then at least I the fixed lens keeps me from fretting about the lenses I don't have.

David Geffin's picture

been shooting with the X100S for the last month and couldn't agree more. Sometimes less is more ;)

Nicholas gonzalez's picture

Well done. Thanks for the reality check and really, encouragement.

Austin Rogers's picture

This was a good read, thanks Dave. I'll always be a prime guy though. :)

David Geffin's picture

thanks Austin :)

bayek's picture

If I could use only the 135mm f/2.0 for the rest of my life, I'd be happy with that.

Mr Blah's picture

You sound EXACTLY like a friend from school. he bugged us 10 months before buy it and still bugs us about how great this lens is. He's had it for a year now....

Andy Williams's picture

Up until recently I've done most of my wedding work with a 100mm f/2.8 macro, occasionally switching to a 50mm f/1.8 for posed portraits. I've recently sold my 100mm to fund a new 70-200mm which will take over the majority of the work with the 50mm saved for some close/wider work. I did once take out my 18-55mm kit lens to shoot a really wide group set inside of a gazebo, and those photos were lovely as well.

TRON !'s picture

I have a 100mm 2.8 macro and love that lens. Macro shots. Product shots. Portraiture. I'd take that lens over a 70-200.

Krazytrucker's picture

Can you really ever have enough lenses? Does the car enthusiast always seek more horsepower etc? I have and use a lot of lenses. Old film lenses and new expensive zooms. It all depends on the situation. Sure I use a couple much more than others but ...

Brian Anderson's picture

The 24-70mm f/2.8 is a phenomenal lens. Well I then used a 50mm prime, then I used a 85mm prime, then I used a 135mm prime, then I used a 200mm prime. Thing is I sort of fell in love with them. I started moving myself around to get shots because when I dial them in around f/4 I land ridiculous shots. However, I love the 24-70mm too. Frankly, if I could own every lens I would, but that is just a matter of GAS ;)

JonathanKjaergaard.com's picture

i shoot with 3 different lenses
50mm - often for indoor koncerts, 20% of what i do
16-35mm - In tight spaces when i shoot short film and music videos, 50% of what i do.
24-105 - portraits or weddings, 30 % of what i do.

This is just what i often use do the different job, it depends on the situation of ligt as well

Tyler Rippel's picture

Good thoughts, but the examples are all fashion, and that's not surprising at all considering it's typically shot at f/8. Natural light portraiture doesn't have the same look at all at f/4 vs f/1.4. For fashion, photojournalism, families, etc. the speed and a convenience of a zoom are fantastic. However, there's no reason to limit yourself, especially if you know how/when to choose the right tool for the job and it's not a crowd-following decision. Use what works for you and your clients!

David Geffin's picture

thanks Tyler, all examples are fashion but the reason for a zoom is a little different in at least 2 of the examples (because i spoke to the photographers in point) than you've set out - it's because it allows for a quick change of perspective to capture a fleeting moment that changing different lenses wouldn't allow for.

For sure natural light wide open VS f4 are different. If you care about extreme shallow DoF and bokeh or don't want to raise ISO then as mentioned, a 1.2 or 1.4 will definitely be where you go. However, i've shot plenty of natural light at 2.8 and bumped ISO a little for more light. I still get nice shallow fall off and clients have never said "oh i wish there was more fall off" or "i wish there was less noise". I completely agree with right tool right job, i just sometimes wonder if paying clients really care about what we use VS what we think we need to get the shot a client wants.

Mark Richardson's picture

I cary four but use only one 95% of the time: http://www.camerastupid.com/recommended-gear/

Taylor Huston's picture

I jump between my 35mm prime and my 50mm prime (crop sensor), mainly because both of those lenses were really affordable at the time. If I had the cash I'd trade them in for a good 24-70mm in a heartbeat. Those two lenses work fine, but I was at a convention last weekend and there were a few instances where 35mm just wasn't quite wide enough (and there was no room to back up any more) and where I missed a shot while trying to swap to the 50mm for something.

Alfredo Rodriguez's picture

I own the 24-105 that came with my 6D and I'm also planning on buying a 70-200 (probably the Tamron, Canon is too expensive).

Isaac Medina's picture

I was expecting the 50mm to lead this story. How wrong was I. It still leads most of my stories.

Ian's picture

Me and my bank account both wish I could get away with fewer lenses, but I love everything from macro to architecture, to portraiture & wildlife. All need different lenses. I envy photographers who have found their specialty and only need a basic set of gear.

Roger Chua's picture

90% of my work is done with the 24-70. i have a 50mm that i use now and then for fun and i bought a 70-200 three months ago but i seldom use it. i have been shooting for 7 years and mainly fashion, events and commercial work.

Sebastian K's picture

I was just thinking about this, as I have a small production company and I've been shooting a lot of events which require a strong video production, but also some photos. I've been mostly using my Tamron 24-70mm f2.8 VC lens, which works really good in video and photos, however have also been thinking about getting a 16-35mm f2.8 L lens because it looks awesome on a full frame sensor. I think I'll still get the 16-35, however until then the 24-70 (and probably the 24-100) will work well in situations where you need to catch a lot of moments, and where changing lenses (or having two bodies) isn't possible.

John Krill's picture

I'm using a Nikon D5100 and it's kit lens, 18mm-55mm, has been the best solution for me. Big plus with this lens over my previous lens is VR. I work outdoors and spend a lot of it at the beach. Taking lenses on and off the camera isn't something I want to do outdoors. I didn't plan on using this lens but once I tried it out I was sold. I might add that during my film days I used a 35mm lens pretty mush full time.

Mark Matthews's picture

I have an array of lens, because I use them as backups… I.E. I use my Canon 24mm f/1.4L and my Canon 85mm f/1.2L primes in studio and on location and my 24-70mm f/2.8L Zoom is the backup if either of my primes decides to take a crap in the middle of a shoot. I use my 85mm f/1.2L and 200mm f/2.8L primes in studio and on location and my 70-200mm f/2.8L Zoom is the backup if either of my primes decides to take a crap in the middle of a shoot. And it's the opposite for my weddings, I shoot with my zooms and have my primes as backups…..

Deter Pinklage's picture

I just need three: 24-70mm f/2.8 MKII, 85mm f/1.2, and 135mm f/2.

Joel Meaders's picture

I have far too many and still want more! Canon: 16-35 2.8, 50 1.4, 24-105L 4.0 (two of them) Tamron 24-70 2.8vc, 70-200 2.8vc. I also have a collection of old lenses that I don't even use!

However I will be selling the 50, a 24-105 and some of the old lenses I had to buy the new Sigma 35 and 50 lenses!

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Is the question how many lenses or how many focal lengths? Everybody has (or should have) the (the new normal lens) 24-70 (or 24-105) and the 70-200 ranges. That way you can choose between 176 different focal lengths! In a studio you don't usally need wide or long lenses most studio work is right down the middle of the road.
Most everyone also shoots similar things (their specialty)within a narrow focal length range. I looked at my lightroom catalog and out of 113k images 26k were shot with 24-70. So I am using a "normal" lens most of the time, for normal work.
I also have 15fishy, 14, 3 TS (but really don't get much use out of them lately) 85 1.8 and 300 2.8. These are the ones that I don;t use often but when I do use them they make all the difference.
Most golfers can do ok with a driver a 5 iron and a putter. And most photographers can do ok with a 24-70.

Gigi Hickman's picture

I shoot around 20 weddings a year only with my 50 1.2 or my 24-105. I toy with getting a 70-200(too heavy) or a 35mm(redundant?) I could probably stand to get a cheap macro for ring work, but as a slight female schlepping around all that gear on a hot summer day for 10 hours, it really makes me try to keep my bag as light and simple as possible.

Robert Paetz's picture

Toss a extension tube on the 50mm and you'll be able to get macro shots of the rings without a specialty lens. The Canon Extension Tube EF 12 II works wonderfully, costs about $80 and weighs nothing

Jason Switzer's picture

I have 7 full frame Canon lenses that my wife and I use for weddings (3 of which are the Canon 2.8 "L" zooms). I have found that I prefer the images I shoot with the primes much more than the ones I take with the zooms. In fact, my most used lens recently has been my "crappy" Canon 50 1.4. The 16-35L ii is nice because I don't have any primes that are as wide as 16mm and 2.8 is sufficient at that focal length. The 70-200L ii produces spectacular images, but it weighs a ton. I'm more than happy with the images that my 135L produces and my arms feel much better after a day of shooting as opposed to when I'm forced to shoot with the 70-200 because my wife is using the 135L. The 24-70L ii is incredibly sharp and has beautiful colors and contrast, but after shooting at really wide apertures (f1.2 - f2), the bokeh produced by the 24-70 just isn't as appealing as that provided by the primes.

If a majority of my work was shot at f8 - f11 (i.e. studio work, such as fashion and glamor, or I shot mostly landscapes) my zooms would be all I need. However, I shoot weddings in dim venues and portraits that have a really shallow depth if field. Zooms are nice, but for me, primes are better.

David Geffin's picture

thanks for sharing your insight Jason, good points

August Norman's picture

I may be just an experienced hobbyist, but I shoot almost exclusively on primes. I think that many people really should try going to medium format or just film, it is an entirely different world. I think and shoot differently with different equipment, and zooms just make me lazy. If I had to devolve to one lens though, I would take my Pentax smc 50mm f1.2 (manual). Keep in mind I shoot on a 7D.

Raymond Larose's picture

I am with you, August. I shoot two film bodies and one digital. And each has one dedicated lens:

Leica M2 - Summiron 35
Leica M3 - Summicron 50

Leica ME - Nokton 50

For my style, that's all I need. And really, a film body w/50mm is my goto, 99% of the time.

S Wade's picture

I shot the last wedding pretty much all on the a7R and Nokton 1.5.

David Geffin's picture

Good points August. I shot with only my 50mm on my 7D for almost 1.5 years as the only lens (which made it more like an 85). I wanted to dial in that focal length. On the street i shoot almost entirely with fixed 50mm or fixed 35mm full frame equivalent. It's less about zooms making you lazy and never actually learning to "see" in focal lengths to pre-compose in your mind before pulling the camera up (one of the most important aspects of street work).

The point is not to use zooms because it's easier or because we are lazy, it's about whether or not we really need a bunch of primes for paid gigs if a zoom gets the entire job done.

Brent Eysler's picture

Be it zoom or prime, you guys are actually saying the same thing, and I can't agree more... Erik is actually the perfect example in this article, as he's had more than a decade to learn the in's and outs of that lens, that camera.... It used to be quite common for photographers to Only Shoot with One Lens, One Camera, One Film... Winnograd would go out with 4 Leica M4's...2 of which had Canon 28mm LTM Lenses mounted on them.. and those would be the one's that were slung over both shoulders.

I'm shooting a wedding in a few hours, and although I'll use my 35/85 for the B+G shots... My 24-70 will live on my camera for most of the day, because its an incredibly versatile lens, and gets the job done.

Next Month however, where I only have a few jobs that are going to require me to shoot digital, Is going to be just M4, Tri-X and a 35mm Summicron.

Ellen Steele's picture

I shoot sports and three lenses more than adequately cover all my needs (50mm, 70-200 2.8, 400mm), though the 70-200 is what I use most of the time. If I could only own one lens it would be that little beauty and it would do me just fine.

Gary Loy's picture

How many lenses do we need? One more. My 24-70 seems to get the most use, mainly due to space constraints. If I have the room, the 70-200 is my go-to choice. The others are usually close by, but don't see much use.

Kevin Stoohs's picture

I started shooting with the 24-85mm kit lens my camera came with which is a good versatile lens, but I found I needed much more zoom than 85mm and would have liked a wider than 24mm in most scenarios.
I decided I needed a good prime lens to start off my arsenal and added a 50mm 1.4. This lens is what stays on the camera most of the time and has turned into my go to lens. Its a lighter lens and shoots sharper and better in low light situations.

The third lens I purchase was the monster 70-200mm 2.8! This lens is awesome, but it weighs a ton and I find myself procrastinating on taking it on shoots. When I do decide to bring it along it never disappoints. The 70-200mm has such a sweet spot that no other lens I've shot with can compare.

I've been drooling over the 14-24mm 2.8 which will most likely be my next lens purchase for landscape photography. I might need a good macro for product shots, but I find the 50mm does a good job with sharpness.

So that's it in a nutshell. A good prime lens is an essential walk around lens to have, a nice zoom will help bring subject matter closer to you, and a nice wide angle lens will capture those awe inspiring nature shots.

Dusty Wooddell's picture

"Need" is irrelevant. How many brushes does a painter need? How many colors? How many different half inch wrenched does a mechanic NEED... sorta silly

Trey Mortensen's picture

Currently I only use my 24-70 2.8 for nearly everything and 14 2.8 for landscapes. I've rented a 70-200 for sports and I have loved the results; so much so, that it will be my next purchase. I have a 50 1.8, but it is relegated to living in my backpack on my older body as a teaching lens.
My biggest lens purchase regret was the 100 2.8 macro. I thought I would use it a ton, but now I rarely use it, even for portraits. I almost sold it, but I was going to lose too much money. So now it sits waiting for me to do a macro shoot.

alice woods's picture

i use 85mm 1.2 for portraits and 16-35mm 2.8 for most everything else

Jennifer Kelley's picture

I shoot a lot of nature, some fashion/beauty, and a bit of photojournalism. Contrary to popular opinion of what a photographer should carry, I am not a pack mule. I have missed so many good shots because I was in the middle of changing my lens. Enough that I changed my philosophy on how to shoot. I put one lens on the camera and that's what I use.

Also, I'm glad to see I'm not the only person who shoots with their original equipment. The camera in my avi was given to me by my mom when I was 16 and I refer to it as "Old Faithful" because it is the ONLY camera I've had that has never needed repair (it's an old manual, so not much to break). 90% of my personal projects are taken with this camera.

Eduardo Farías Reyes's picture

I have a studio for mostly childrens, baby's and family portraits and i only use my 50mm 1.4 prime lens. For location i also use my 70-200 f4 L zoom and I'm happy with that. But i also want in my bag the 16-35 f2.8 zoom for events.

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