How Many Lenses Do You Actually Need?

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.

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46 Comments

Alex Cooke's picture

The correct answer is that I will always need one more lens than I have.

Another Username's picture

This is the correct answer. Its a well known mathematical equation....you take the number of lenses you own, and then add 1 more in perpetuity.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

LOL. So true.

Bert McLendon's picture

All of them. Every. Single. One. =P

Juan Isaias Perez's picture

After 25 years. Having had a zoom only phase, a prime only phase, I have settled with 4 lenses:
A wide angle, a portrait, a macro and a telephoto. Two are zooms and two primes. This has been my set for the last decade. I look at all the new lenses, then I look at my results with my current kit. Makes me realize I need none of them.

Matt Williams's picture

This is mostly what I've settled on if you swap the wide angle for a standard zoom. Plus a few small walkaround lenses.

Marinos Herodotus's picture

I've settled on about the same thing. But, I have a "walk-around" thrown in the mix, a 24-240, which I think does a very good job and is perfect for when I don't know what I'm going to encounter. The problem though is that "I've settled on about the same thing". - I'd love to have more. :)

Mike Ditz's picture

It depends what you do, and what you and your clients (if you have them) expect from you.
I have the three I use all the time, two tilty shifties I use like 4 times a year when I really need them, and then 4 or 5 oddballs. I sold my Canon 300mm 2.8 after I saw on lightroom that in 2 years I used it 3 times for a total of about 75 frames. I sold it to a guy doing penguin research in Antarctica.

Marc F's picture

Now you will shot 75 less frames during the next 2 years…

Steve White's picture

So I just looked in Lightroom: of the ~36K images that I've kept in the last 15 years (number shot is easily 5x that) my old trusty Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 is about 65% of the images -- just over 22K. I think you can guess what type of images I like to collect...

I do have other lenses, of course, and like Alex Cooke points out there is always desire for another, but yes, about four lens lengths cover > 90% of my images.

Matt Williams's picture

Wow, 65% of 36,000 images shot with just a 400mm? You must have a very specific niche. Admirable actually.

What do you shoot?

Lyle Mariam's picture

My lenses run from 15 - 500mm and an 85mm prime but 90% of my work is with the 24-70mm zoom.

Marc F's picture

For me the correct answer is that I will always need more lenses than I can afford to buy. And that’s valid also for camera bodies and accessories… and all other things…

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Very very true :-)

Matt Williams's picture

I have taken to parring down the number of lenses I have lately. A walkaround zoom (24-200 for Nikon, 12-32 Panny and 12-40 Olympus, the latter I also own for video use), a compact walkaround prime (20/1.7 Panasonic), a portrait prime (85/1.8), macro lenses (30 & 60 Olympus, Nikon 85 PC-E and soon the new 105 Nikon Z), and a telephoto zoom (75-300 for Olympus, 70-200/4 for Nikon). I'm also going to add a wide angle zoom for Olympus, maybe the Panasonic 7-14 f/4 because it's cheap and I just don't go below 24mm much at all but I'd like the option. I had the Nikon Z 14-30 which was amazing but I just rarely used it and it's not a cheap lens to just have sitting around.

I'll also add the new 40mm for Nikon.

That may seem like a lot of lenses for someone who's cutting down but it's split among two systems and I do a lot of macro work so the 4 macros are all used frequently.

HOWEVER, I will never admit that I have too many vintage lenses. My quest to own the entire line of Contax Zeiss lenses will continue until I'm in the dirt, or ideally before that because that'll mean I was successful.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

All great lenses. I'm looking forward to the 40mm myself. Even though I clearly don't NEED it. I'm addicted to pancake lenses.

ian Maitland's picture

Cartier Bresson only used 50 mm! Nuff said

Matt Williams's picture

Not only is that not true - he also occasionally used wider angle lenses for landscapes - but there were also far fewer choices available during his career (he retired in the early 70s), especially for rangefinders.

ian Maitland's picture

28 to 135mm were available for Leicas. But the 50mm was the lens he used nearly all the time. The reason is that a 50mm lens closely approximates the eye's angle of view. Despite the appalling quality of Leica viewfinders at that period, his photos were printed without cropping, showing the black border.
My own experience is that my recent Leica pix with Leica IIIs can normally be printed uncropped, but using other cameras pix must always be cropped. I do use a 35mm lens as well from time to time, indoors.

Matt Williams's picture

The reason he used it is that he liked it and also likely because the Leica rangefinders he used only had a viewfinder for 50mm lenses. And yes it is a normal focal length lens that's very versatile - but the assertion that it matches your field of view is a complete myth and incorrect. It's especially false for the distances that many of his photos were taken at, where your FOV would be much closer to 35mm or even less.

But aside from all of that, the "HCB only used a 50mm that's all you need" is just a nonsense statement. Yes, you could use one focal length for the rest of your life and make great photos. But you would be severely limited in what you can photograph.

It's the same as saying Ansel Adams used a large format camera with [whatever lenses], so that's all you need. If he took the HCB approach, most of his amazing work wouldn't exist.

jose Gulías's picture

A wide, a normal fast, a portrait and a zoom for travel... well and spare lenses if needed!!

Tom Reichner's picture

I currently have a Canon 24-105mm, a Canon 100-400mm, a Sigma 300-800mm, and a Sigma 105mm macro. I use all of these lenses quite a bit, and don't rely on any one of them for most of my photography. I don't use the 24-105 nearly as much as I use the other three, but it still accounts for about 10% of my images, and gets me images that I can't get with any of the other lenses.

Yet I need more lenses because there are some shots that I want to take, and I don't have the lens that would be optimal for those shots.

For instance, I want to take super close-up, frame-filling photos of the eyes of very small reptiles and amphibians, and my 105mm macro lens isn't up to the task. It is only capable of 1:1 magnification, and I need something closer to 4:1 Extension tubes and tele-converters aren't enough to get me to where I want to be for these images.

I could also benefit from a lens specifically selected for handheld bird in flight photography. Something like a 500mm f5.6 ..... but Canon doesn't make one yet. My 300-800mm Sigma works okay for such opportunities, but anchors me to a tripod, and the AF isn't nearly as responsive as I need to connect on all of the opportunities that appear in front of me. Can I get great bird in flight photos with it? Yes. But I can't get all of the BIF photos that I want to, and I miss some of the opportunities that I could get with a more specialized lens.

It sucks to have an image in my mind's eye, but not have the gear that it takes to make such an image, and have to settle for photos that are not quite the way I want them to be.

Stephen Aveling-Rowe's picture

Yes, a 500 5.6L for $2.5-3.5k would be fantastic! Why they still haven’t made one I have no idea...

Tom Reichner's picture

The only reason I can think of is because the lens manufacturers are afraid that it would sell so well that it would cannibalize sales of their other, much more expensive supertelephotos. However, I do think that Nikon finally gave in and mad a 500 f5.6 ... although I may be mistaken about that.

Michael Dougherty's picture

Tom .... I second the Sigma 300-800mm. I use it to shoot surfing at Huntington Beach from the shore. It allows you to capture images of surfers way out at the end of the pier (800mm) and at the near-shore break (300mm). It's plenty fast for surfing. It's also OK for pelicans in flight but not so much for faster birds.

Alex Cooke's picture

The Sigmonster!! Never seen one in the wild! I wish they would make an updated version!

Kurt Hummel's picture

If Canon would make a 400-600 F4 with built in 1.4tc I would only need one lens.

Tom Reichner's picture

That is a very interesting comment. I am quite curious, what is it that you shoot, that you never need to shoot wider than 400mm? I photograph birds and wildlife, including many small songbirds, yet find myself shooting well below 400mm frequently. Hence, I wonder how it could be that you would never want to shoot any wider than 400mm.

Chris Rogers's picture

I used to think that i need 5 buhzillion lenses. but now i really only ever use two. my 70-200mm and 18-35mm. I would like good macro lens specifically for "scanning" film negatives but other than those two lenses i never really find my self using anything else. I do have an 85mm f1.8D ans a 35mm f2Dbut i almost never use them.

Matt Williams's picture

The most affordable and best option for a macro lens for scanning negatives is the Nikon 55/2.8 Micro. Still tack sharp by today's standards and even works with the Nikon ES-2 kit with an extension tube (since it only goes to 1:2). For $349 you can get a brand new Laowa 60mm macro which is 2x actually, that's a good option too and available in Nikon F mount so you have the aperture ring to use on any other camera with an adapter.

I find manual focus macros better for film scanning.

Chris Rogers's picture

hey thanks for the recomendations! For the Nikon is it the AI-S lens that you are talking about? I'm going to go look at that laowa too. Thanks again!

Matt Williams's picture

Either the AI or AI-S, it doesn't matter. I tend to prefer AI lenses actually because they're usually a bit cheaper but also because the focus is more well-damped (less "loose") and the focus throw is longer, though with the macro lenses the focus throw will be long with any of the versions. Just tend to allow for more precise focusing.

They're basically the same otherwise, the real difference only mattered back in the film days. Optics are identical.

Matt Williams's picture

There's also a 105/2.8 AI or AI-S macro lens from Nikon if you want a longer one. But I find the 50-60 macros better for scanning (and the 55 works with the ES-2 kit like I said).

Chris Rogers's picture

Thanks again for the knowledge! my dad has the 105 i think. that lens is tack sharp if it's the one I'm thinking of. I'm going to pick up the 55mm micro this weekend when I get paid. I have a boat of film negatives I need to rescan. I've been using an epson v550 but something went wrong with it where it leave a big purple line down the center of my images. I was looking around at scanning options and learned about film scanning with a dlsr. it looks like i can get a much better quality scan using that method with gear i mostly already own. I wont have to spend another 250 on a flat bed scanner now. I'm pretty jazzed about getting that lens now lol

Matt Williams's picture

Yup no problem!

I had an Epson V600 but when I switched to scanning with a camera I haven't used it since. Not only much better results with the camera but significantly easier too, once you get it all set up. I use a cheap LED light pad or panel or whatever it's called from Amazon, like $20. Some people just use iPads or tablets too to backlight.

Charles Haacker's picture

I came up in those thrilling days of film before zooms were a thing and the few available weren't all that good. I carried various primes and swear that my right shoulder is permanently lower than my left. Fast forward to now and I rely heavily on two APS-C bodies with overlapping zooms. My working set is an 18–105mm f/4 (27–158 equivalent) with a 70-300mm f/4.5–5.6 (105–450 equivalent), my almost literal "big gun" but the bodies and lenses total about 5-pounds.

For more casual shooting I use a ZEISS Vario-Tessar 16--70mm f4 (24--105 equivalent) plus a 55–210mm f/4.5–6.3 (83--315 equivalent). With the bodies, this outfit weighs ~3-pounds and all else I need carry is a couple of batteries. With either kit I carry backups but that case stays in the car, rarely needed.

I have an 85mm prime macro, totally manual, that may be the sharpest lens I have or have ever had.

I did recently acquire a Sony SEL1018 10--18mm Wide-Angle Zoom Lens, (15--27mm equivalent). I haven't had the chance to use it much yet but I felt my short end was lacking although I had plenty of reach. It is my honest-to-Pete last lens. I will never need another. Ever. 🤞

I really love modern zooms. I know they are still viewed with suspicion, but I am a total sharp freak and have no complaints at all with any of my zooms.

EDWIN GENAUX's picture

Now that mirrorless is taking a hold and all companies are making them the planning and saving to get into the new water. I know many are loyal to brands just like with sports teams and political sides. But study deep into the near past just 6 to 7 years and you see Sony started and improved the mirrorless camera and it's lenses from just a few to any you could ever dream of to the perfect starters at low savings and the GM's that work great with the newer cameras as well as the first. Yes I went Sony in 2014 with the A7s because after research I found I could use all my Canon film FD and EF-S lenses with just a $50 adapter that I did for two years while saving for a Sony lens. You too can use your lenses while you build a new collection. If you want to start with a Sony camera start with used Mark Twos they have IBIS and park your tripod also they have on cameras apps like toys, filters, star trails etc. 24MP has been a sweet spot for cameras for like ever so the A7iii is a good first choice good for astro to 10fps birding. When you can afford your first two lenses should be the FE 1224mm f/4 G and the FE 24240mm, 360mm in APS-C (yes APS-C at the touch of a button), today my two everyday carry lenses and a third when you have it is the FE 200-600mm and a 2x teleconverter out to 1800mm in again APS-C, you can fill your whole sensor with a moon and I have shot it handheld with the 1.4x in APS-C at 1200mm and at 10fps on a A7iii very sharp and clear each let alone tracking birds handheld. Today you can start with a used camera and lenses while you save for the dream lenses you THINK YOU NEED. Like my old film gear I will never get rid of the three. I used those FAST f/# FD lenses 20 to 135mm before camera makers even started to make some, I believe just as sharp!!!!

sam w's picture

I didn't read the article, but to answer the question of the title, I need at least one more.

Pan daBear's picture

The answer is zero. Buy a pinhole camera: no lenses needed. If it was good enough for Daguerre, it’s good enough for me.

Jacques Cornell's picture

For events: UWA, WA, semi-WA, and short tele primes and one standard zoom. For walkabout & scenics: two small zooms. How many do I actually have? Eight primes and eight zooms. Time to sell some stuff...
...so I can buy a longer tele prime.

Alejandro (Alex) Martinez's picture

My own experience parallels yours with regards to what lenses I actually use. The 24-70mm is not my favorite lens, but I'll be dammed if it's not the sharpest (or close to it) and the most versatile.

When I first purchased it, I had no idea how frequently it was going to be used. And it's not just me; the 3 digital techs I work with all say that the Canon 24-70mm is the most popular lens amongst their photographers.
I sold my 50mm prime and my 70-105mm because they were just collecting dust and could not match the 24-70mm's quality.

The lenses I own and use are listed below in frequency of use:
24-70mm
70-200mm
85mm Zeiss MF (My favorite)
45mm T/S (I should probably sell this one, but it has a lot of sentimental value)

At times I'll rent specialty lenses, but that usually includes a different body rental as well.
Have a great weekend everyone.

Lukasz Braszka's picture

Well it's simple in my case. For last years I have only owned 35/1.8 Tamron prime. It works so well with D750 that I felt like I need a zoom few times only. I never was a fan of 50s, a bit too narrow. Recently I've bought a macro lens and the world under our feet is so fascinating that I don't take this lens off right now. The only other glass I feel I would like to have is telephoto zoom when I will finally make a switch to Nikon mirrorless. Then, I will most likely swap 35mm for the native 40/2 if the quality will be good and that's it.
Any other lens, for now including 200-500, I can rent for 2-3 weekends a year and don't bother buying them to collect the dust.

Michelle Maani's picture

4

Paul Smith's picture

I just got back from a week long day hiking trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire carrying a 25mm, 50mm, 24-85mm, 70-200mm, 300mm and 2x - used them all except the teleconverter. But at 70 years of age and 140 lbs. I may have to soon cull the herd...my fitness is excellent but sense of balance is now eroding and knife edges are becoming a little daunting. The reality of growing older is finally settling in.

Jacques Cornell's picture

At the ripe old age of 52, I settled on a Panasonic GX7 (now GX9) with Panasonic 14-140 for hiking without lens swapping (precipitation, and also my mates wouldn't wait for me). That's it. I'm not hiking these days, so my ultralight kit is now a GX9 with itty-bitty 12-32 and 35-100 zooms (because I can pocket the 35-100 and have an even lighter camera around my neck). These three lenses are remarkably better than one might expect and yield crisp 18"x24" prints.

Talmeed Levi's picture

Will at first at first I did Canon t7 Rebel they came with the kit lens of 18 x 55 millimeters so as I advance and I bought a 75 by 300 mm and for a long time that was my only focus lens cleanse and it was my go to Lynn's at the time well I ended up buying the 800d in 800 D required a special lens for it and it was called the STM lens so I invested in the 55 by 250 STM lens and let me tell you this thing is awesome. It's great recently I did just by the Nifty Fifty Canon lens and I got to say for the price and the size of it is packaged with it packs a punch I shoot with a crowd frame sensor camera APC cropped frame camera so even though is 55 mm I'm still getting late 88mm to the lens do to the crop frame I tell you I'm getting some amazing pictures with it. So now I have the 50mm stm lens, 55- 250mm stm ,75mm-300mm,420mm-800mm