With more and more amazing lenses being introduced at a dizzying pace, I find myself asking a very basic question: How many lenses do I actually need?
As photography is a highly subjective art form and which lenses you desire most is likely driven by the type of work that you do, I am in no position to give a definitive answer on what is best for everyone. But for those who happen to be similar to me, I’m starting to think that the answer is that however many lenses we desire, it’s very likely that we actually need far less.
This level of interest in an unanswerable question for me has been driven by three things. First, this is the season of sales. Whenever prices drop, photographic toys, even the outrageously expensive ones, suddenly start seeming all the more appealing. Second, as mirrorless cameras continue to grow in prominence in the market and it becomes clear that DSLR shooters like myself will eventually be shifting whether we want to or not, it is only natural to consider my lens spending pattern over the last 20 years with my DSLR bodies and think about how I might do it better this time around. To that end, the third reason this question is bouncing around in my head is that for the last couple of months, I have been playing host to two very expensive prime lenses from two different mirrorless systems to give each a workout in the field.
This is not a lens review, so I won’t go into detail about specs. The lenses themselves are just run-of-the-mill 50mm primes. Although these two in particular are not so run of the mill. Camera manufacturers have taken this approach, early in the mirrorless days, of releasing less expensive “nifty fifty” lenses with f/1.8 apertures and fewer bells and whistles. Then, they release a much larger and much more pocketbook-draining f/1.2 that leaves nary a bell or whistle spared. Having had both these expensive versions as well as the less expensive versions in my possession for the last couple of months, there is absolutely no question that the more expensive 50mm versions are superior products. Are they a superior value? That depends on who is doing the shooting.
I’ve actually tried out a number of different lenses in various focal lengths as I strategize over how I will make the transition to my future system. Making choices between lenses would be much easier, except that, whether it’s my luck or technological innovation, I haven’t really found too many bad lenses yet in the new wave of mirrorless mount glass. I started off talking about 50mm because this tends to always be the very first prime lens I buy for a new system. 50mm lenses tend to be light, cheap, and a very natural fit for how I see the world. Of course, the two top-shelf 50mm lenses in my possession at the moment only really tick that last box. The new crop of elite 50mm lenses all seem significantly larger than their DSLR predecessors, and the extra amount of paper required to fit the extra digits onto their price tags only increases the weight.
All of which again brought me back to my original question. How many lenses do I actually need? For my Nikon D850, over many years and many paychecks, I've finally gotten to the point where I can say that I have every focal length I could ever possibly need. Through a mixture of zooms, primes, and teleconverters, I am officially covered from 16mm all the way to 700mm. I’ve got some workhorse zooms like the 24-70mm and 70-200mm. I’ve got some fast primes like the 50mm f/1.4, and I’ve got specialty lenses like the 200-500mm f/5.6, which I don’t really need for work, but I use on my relaxing weekend birding trips. And I even got a great deal on a used macro lens, even though I can’t say I very often have cause to take it out of the case. There are wider lenses and longer lenses available, but seeing as though I rarely reach the edges of my focal length range as it is, I can happily say that I am prepared for every situation. The question is how often I am actually going to find myself in “every” situation.
If we look purely at the metadata, the stats don’t lie. Over the years, I’ve shot at least 75% of my images with a 24-70mm f/2.8. If we are talking only about my professional work, which is actually what both justifies and pays for these lens investments, that number is probably closer to 95%. That’s not to say that the other lenses never get used. The narrower field of view of the 70-200mm serves a very specific purpose for me. And my allegiance to the 50mm prime was forged during a very specific time period in my career where I consciously made a choice to only shoot with a 50mm for almost a year and a half. This period was a transitional moment in my photography. where I took a big leap forward artistically while also saving a great deal of stress on my forearms. I’ve often said that if it were practically feasible for me to only shoot with a 50mm all day, every day, I would do it in a heartbeat, hence the reason for my interest in the new crop of 50mm lenses. But realistically, I only tend to mount the 50mm, or any prime for that matter, when I want something light for walkabout photography or other personal projects. When it’s time to put a smile on my client’s face and the pressure is on, the added flexibility of the 24-70mm usually gets the call for purely practical reasons, as there are few lenses that allow me to react to client needs as easily and efficiently.
All of which, once again, returns us to our question. How many lenses do I actually need? Based sheerly on the math, it’s hard for me to say definitively that I couldn’t live life with only the 24-70mm and nothing else. This is not to say that I wouldn’t want other lenses or that they would be ideally suited for everything. But if I’m making an honest effort to dig through my specific use case, it’d be hard for me to make an argument that I couldn’t get by with just that one lens if I had to. This again is based on the type of photography that I do. I shoot advertising campaigns and editorials with models, celebrities, and various other human subjects in mostly controlled if sometimes chaotic situations. So, it is not often that I’m going to need an extra-long focal length to spy on my subjects or catch them unaware from a distance. They know I’m there. I can get in close if my lens isn’t long enough. Likewise, I only really shoot landscapes in the context of how they relate to the human subject within the frame. So, while I enjoy taking my camera on hikes like anyone else, it’s hard for me to justify spending a great deal of money on exquisite wide angle lenses since focal lengths that make mountains look amazing aren’t always so well suited for faces.
Obviously, I’ve talked about my own particular needs a lot in this article. That’s really the only perspective I can speak from, as all of our needs are very different. But my guess is that if you were to do an analysis of your own image-making over the last few years, you too would find that you would lean towards one lens or another. You may find that you rely on three lenses instead of just one. Or four instead of three. And perhaps the lens you rely on is much wider or longer than my own preference. I’d love to hear about your most used focal lengths in the comments.
In the meantime, I’ll probably still be sitting here for a while, staring at these expensive but amazing prime lenses, wondering if, in reality, I already own the only lenses I’ll ever actually need.