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The Holy Trinity of Lenses: Are These All You Need?

The Holy Trinity of Lenses: Are These All You Need?

These three lenses should make all your photography woes go away. They cover a huge focal length range and are of high quality. But are they the only lenses you need?

Across many camera and lens manufacturers, there's a set of three lenses that are designed to work together as a team that should cover almost any situation you find yourself in. Ideal for beginners with money to burn or for pros that want reliability and convenience, these three zoom lenses cover wide angle, standard, and telephoto focal lengths, all with a sweet, sweet, constant fast aperture.

Though touted as being your go-to lenses to cover pretty much any situation from portraits to sports, landscapes to astro, are they really as good as the manufacturers say? Do they provide you with everything you need to capture a wide range of images whether for fun or on assignment for a job? Well, there are advantages to carrying just these three lenses in your camera bag, but there are drawbacks too, so let's take a look at how the lenses fare together and compare them to other, less expensive lenses.

The Lenses

When we talk about the "holy trinity" of lenses, we're talking about three lenses that work together in a group that allow photographers the flexibility to shoot in almost any situation with precision and efficiency. Those three lenses usually consist of a wide-angle zoom, a standard zoom, and a telephoto zoom. The focal length span of these lenses normally cover around 14mm up to 200mm (depending on the camera brand) and have a constant fast aperture of f/2.8. Yes, there are versions that shoot at an aperture of f/4, but I'm discounting them here as they're not usually the flagship, "holy trinity" models as described by the camera brands.

Canon's RF holy trinity consists of focal lengths covering 15-35mm, 24-70mm, and 70-200mm for each lens respectively, other camera brands' lenses cover the wide angle range slightly differently.

The benefits of owning all three is that in most situations, you won't need any other lens, so by purchasing a camera body and these three lenses, you'll be set up to go out and shoot whatever you want. This is great for beginners who want the best quality kit but aren't sure which focal length they'll use the most or ideal for the pro that works on assignment and needs to be flexible while maintaining the highest-quality optics. But are these three lenses all you really need to shoot with, or should you look elsewhere for your photographic needs? Let's take a look at the first staple feature of these three lenses: the zoom.

The Zoom

The most obvious feature that all three lenses have is the ability to zoom. The wide angle covers between 14mm and 35mm zoom range, the standard usually between 24mm and 70mm, and the telephoto zoom between 70mm to 200mm, leaving virtually no focal length untouched. This seems to make sense at first, because then you'll never have to pick up another lens to fill the gaps, but do you really need this kind of coverage?

The NIKKOR Z 14-24mm f/2.8 S is the widest zoom lens in the mirrorless holy trinity.

Well, probably not. Are you really going to swap out your 14-24mm for a 30mm? Or will you more likely just take a couple of steps backwards to fit everything in? Of course, this depends on how long you have to shoot the subject, but the same approach can be applied to the holy trinity. Do you really need that 14-24mm, or would you be able to just compose with your feet and step back a bit with the 24-70mm? Okay, if you're doing astrophotography and need an ultra-wide view, then yes, you probably will want that extra width, but for many other applications, you'll probably be able to make do without.

Instead of covering every single focal length, you could instead opt for a zoom and prime lens to save on size, space, and money.

Instead then, you could take one or two of the lenses from the trinity and pair it with a less expensive prime lens. For example, you might opt for the 14-24mm and the 70-200mm but pop a 50mm f/1.2 in the middle. You'd still have a standard focal length lens in the middle, and yes, you won't be able to shoot at 35mm or 65mm, but you could take a few steps back and forth until you've got your composition just right. This introduction of prime lenses also brings me to the other disadvantage of shooting with only the trinity: aperture.

The Aperture Range

The holy trinity group features constant f/2.8 apertures throughout the lens range, and while that is a wide aperture and very impressive for zoom lenses because the manufacturing system and increased glass in zoom lenses makes it more difficult to get wide apertures and sharp results, prime lenses can shoot faster.

The constant fast aperture of the Nikon 24-70mm Z f/2.8 S makes it good in low light, but can be outperformed by a faster prime lens that can open its aperture wider.

A typical 50mm prime that you could pick up for a fraction of the cost of one of the trinity lenses can capture at f/1.2 or f/1.4. Although this small difference of seemingly just one digit doesn't look a lot, it gives massively different results when shooting. See below for a portrait taken at f/1.4 and f/2.8, respectively, on a 50mm f/1.4G, to see the difference.

This is crucial for photographers that shoot in low light. That might be landscape photographers that favor twilight, wedding photographers shooting in dark churches, or events photographers that capture indoor concerts. These extra two stops of light can mean that shutter speeds can increase to capture moving subjects more clearly, or the ISO can drop in order to reduce image noise. So, why then do people ever shoot on the holy trinity, if prime lenses are faster and less expensive?

The Convenience

It's just easier to pack three lenses and not have to worry about covering all your bases. There's less to think about when packing your bag, because you know each lens is good and the zoom ranges have you covered. Plus, the f/2.8 aperture is usually wide enough for most situations. Will a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens give the same unique character and charm a 35mm f/1.8 or f/1.4 offers? No. But unless you're pushing the envelope already, you probably have other things to concentrate on, such as dialing in the right exposure and using off-camera flash.

It's easier to fit a 70-200mm zoom lens in a camera bag than take all the separate prime lenses to cover the focal length range of this zoom.

There's also less lens switching, and if you're shooting somewhere dusty, windy, or with frequent inclement weather, you'll know how important it is to stop any kind of dirt or grime from getting into the camera body and onto the image sensor. It should also speed up your shooting, such as at weddings, because you can recompose without needing to move around which is especially helpful during COVID-19 restricted weddings where movement is limited and social distancing has to be adhered to.

If you need a longer lens to shoot when you have a prime attached, like the one pictured here, then you'll need to swap lenses.

The holy trinity package actually features some cracking lenses, though, and that's clearly seen in the edge-to-edge sharpness of the photos that these lenses help create. They're made to a high standard, as can be seen with the decent lens coatings, which help to reduce flare and keep the lens easy to clean or wipe off without damaging the glass underneath.

At the end of the day, it's what works for you. If you need the character of a prime with a fast aperture and don't mind compromising on lens swaps or composing with your feet, then great. I agree with this approach, because that's what I do most of the time. But for those that require that extra flexibility and peace of mind, then the holy trinity is the only three lenses you'll probably ever want to pack.

If you're passionate about taking your photography to the next level but aren't sure where to dive in, check out the Well-Rounded Photographer tutorial where you can learn eight different genres of photography in one place. If you purchase it now, or any of our other tutorials, you can save a 15% by using "ARTICLE" at checkout. 

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

Jason is an internationally award-winning photographer with more than 10 years of experience. A qualified teacher and Master’s graduate, he has been widely published in both print and online. He won Gold in the Nikon Photo Contest 2018/19 and was named Digital Photographer of the Year in 2014.

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They are pretty worthless to a wildlife photographer.

Pretty worthless to an aerial photographer too. Primes are best.

I dunno. The 150-600, or 200-500 zooms are pretty handy. It's not part of the "trinity" of lenses but I think it adds to it nicely. Maybe a "quadrinity"?

Lets face it todays zoom lenses are a far better than the older models by far and worth every dollar if you invest in the higher end lenses. Predictability is one issue that has always plagued zoom lenses which has gotten a lot better over the years never fail though there is always that one missed shot that comes up every once in while.
As a photojournalist the trinity is my main lens set up two bodies and 3 lenses for the most part all the bases are covered. On the other hand if I am setting a shot up or have the chance prime lenses are my choice lets face it shooting lets say I use my 105 F2 with 6 lens elements or 70-200 F2.8 with 22 glass elements.

I'm not so sure if today's zoom lenses (of the F mount) are generally much better. If we look at Nikon's 70-200mm (80-200mm) f/2.8 we see an improvement over the years, but it is only a small one. The 1988 Nikon AF 80-200mm f/2.8 is optically about as good as the latest AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8 VR.

Cant argue with the fact the 80 -200 is far more optically better than the 70 200 it is to bad they discontinued it.
3 years ago after wearing out the 3rd 80-200 out the switch was made to the 70 -200 which took some learning to adjust. One advantage is the speed that it operates which was the main selling point the VR was the second. After 40 plus years without VR it was one option I would have to say surprised how well it works. Closing on 60 years old holding a camera steady is becoming more difficult the VR helps.
The 80-200 would be my choice for sharpness hands down not to mention a more traditional lens when it comes to consistence it has it hands down

Seriously? is the writer of this article new to photography? If you google anything close to "what lenses should I get first for my full-frame camera" 2 of these are going to make the list 9/10 times, no matter today or 20 years ago. Must be a slow day

Before buying a 14-24mm I suggest to consider a 17-35mm f/2.8. It is far more useful in most situations. Although you carry three lenses with you, you will probably use two camera bodies and not three: one for the shorter range, one for the longer. I only bring my 14-24mm if the space is really tight.
And of course one prime lens, a 50mm f/1.4 is always in the bag for low light situations.

Nikon AF-S 17-35mm f / 2.8D IF ED may be suitable for F mounts. But I don't think it will work with autofocus on Z7 or Z6 body with FTZ adapter. My new Nikon AF 200mm F / 4D lens is unfortunately not working on my Z7 and Z6 bodies with autofocus. I think this is Nikon's big shame.

Yes, F-mount. As practical as the FTZ adapter is, I would use Z lenses on Z-bodies, as most of them seem to be really superior. You can't compare the 17-35mm to Z-lenses, which are very sharp from corner to corner.
The Nikon AF 200mm F / 4D is screw driven (the 17-35 with internal motor, should work). I am surprised that you can still buy it new. Maybe one day we will see a new FTZ adapter for this kind of lenses? Hope so.
I prefer the 70-200mm f/2.8 to a 85mm for portraiture. it is just more versatile and sometimes the compression at 200mm is an advantage. In those Covid-19 times you can better keep distance with it too.

Oh. Look. An ad for Cannon and Nikon... After too many years at this, I think the only lens I would take to the apocalypse would be a 50mm prime. Or maybe a 35mm.

I think it's a pretty good list. For me personally, I would go with the 24-70, 70-200, and a macro, This has been my "go-to" set for the last 20 years or so.

Zooms are for lazy photographers period. I’m a Hollywood red carpet, BTS, headshot, you name it photographer. So take my advice or not. Zooms are slow, not sharp and make you look like an amateur. Photographers who disagree will no doubt own no prime lenses. The three holy lenses are REALLY a 35mm f1.4, a 50mm f1.4 and an 85mm f1.4. I shot with just a 50mm for a year and NEVER wished I had brought another lens. So get rid of of those crutches, excuse use me, zooms.

This is a comment from someone who can only see photography from the point of view of the type of photography they personally do. Thousands of us photojournalists, documentary, performing arts, sports and event photographers are not "lazy." We have to work within a whole range of constraints which limit our ability to move around and control the scene. In a myriad of situations, having a high quality zoom lens simply enables us to get the photo that the client needs.

A 50mm prime is great, I love mine. But when I'm squeezed into the back of a conference hall and have to grab shots of the action 20-30m away AND get the environmental shots and quick fire responses to action in the audience, a 35mm, 50mm and 85mm aren't really going to deliver. The same is true of covering a live stage performance - dance for example - when you have to capture the action across the whole stage and the entire performance from a single, fixed position in complete silence.

It's great you've found your best three lenses - I have all of those two. But top quality zooms are essential kit for many other photographers and they should not be sneered at.

Different horses for different courses. I use my trinity of zooms for photojournalist work, and primes for portrait work.

Cannot use the term Holy until you have a 400mm lens in the mix.

I have a range of zooms and primes and I use them all. But I can honestly say that I simply couldn't do my job without a 24-70 f2.8 and 70-200 f2.8 (I prefer a wide prime for the wide end). I'm currently using a Sony E mount system and, having previously worked with Canon and Nikon systems (I'm not brand loyal!), the Sony 70-200mm f2.8 is one of the best lenses I have ever used. It's like having a bag full of premium f2.8 primes and it's just so versatile for my type of work - mostly events, photojournalism, documentary, performing arts.

But I also recognise that photography spans a huge range of genres, styles and needs and these quality zooms are not suited to everyone.

If anyone makes a 24-105mm f/2.8 lens, that’s the one I’ll use 99% of the time for my weddings and events! Any optical distortions I’ll fix in post (or AI) =p

Perhaps it's just me but I can't help but notice that most of the model in the f1.4 shot above is out of focus and they are more in focus in the f2.8 shot.
The model would probably be even more in focus at f4..
Then again if rendering your model with facial textures that resemble a 'Barbie' doll floats your boat an f1.4 or 1.2 prime, which will cost far more than an f4 zoom would be a prerequisite.