If You Could Only Shoot With One Lens, What Would It Be?

If You Could Only Shoot With One Lens, What Would It Be?

Photographers love gear. After all, playing with advanced cameras and lenses can be a lot of fun. But if you could only shoot with one lens, what would it be?

Personally, I really don't see anything wrong with obsessing a bit about camera gear, so long as that obsession comes from a place of being passionate about technology and doesn't cause financial stress, instead of being used as a justification for inadequate photography skills. Lately, however, I've been trying to downsize and streamline my kit a bit. I love playing with all sorts of cameras and lenses, from 80-year-old TLR cameras to the latest and greatest bodies and lenses. However, I'm someone who is easily paralyzed by choice, and I've found myself staring at my collection of gear and wondering what I should actually take out to shoot with a little too much lately. And as much as I enjoy my collection, if it's getting the way of my creative process, then it's time to reevaluate things a bit. 

So, I laid out all my gear on the floor recently and got really serious about evaluating it, divorcing my fondness for the novelty of any specific piece from the evaluation so I could have the objectivity needed to be pragmatic about what I actually needed. That brought me to some decisions that might have surprised me before I made the pointed effort to be really practical about this process. My Canon 85mm f/1.2L II USM lens? I love it. It was my first professional lens, and it has an inimitably unique look that I've always been very partial to. But the truth is that ever since I switched to Sony for my portraiture, the Canon lens has languished in my Pelican case, its place taken by the Sigma 105mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art lens. It's sharper, autofocuses much more quickly, and lets me take advantage of Eye AF. Much as I've enjoyed the Canon, it's time to move on from it. I came to the same conclusion about a lot of other gear, vicious pragmatism overriding any "what if I need it later?" questions generated by any fondness. It feels good to downsize, to pare away to only essential tools, refocusing yourself on what really matters: the images. 

I love my Canon 85mm, but I just don't use it anymore.

In the process of this downsizing, I thought of a question: if I had to get rid of all my lenses except one, which would I keep? It was a tougher question than I thought. I tend to find that there's a bit of an inverse relationship between lens utility and how inspirational it is, though it's not strict. My 24-70mm f/2.8? It's an exceedingly practical lens that has never failed me in the multitude of situations in which I've placed it, yet I find it aggressively boring and uninspiring. On the other hand, there's something like my Canon TS-E 90mm f/2.8 tilt-shift lens. Is it something I'd have any use at all for in 99% of situations? Nope. But the uniqueness of the lens makes me excited to pull it out of my bag and create things. Could I spend the rest of my career only shooting with it? Not if I want to make any money or have any sort of versatility. 

My 24-70mm has never let me down.

So, as I sat there, surveying my lenses, I thought long and hard about which one I would keep if I could only hang on to one. It would have to be a lens that had the versatility to cover everything I shoot (mostly landscapes, events, and portraits) or at least be able to get by in those situations. While not necessary, it would be nice if it could inspire a bit of creativity too. 

At first, I figured I would choose a zoom lens just because it gave me options. But after a while, I finally chose my Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens (or really, any wide aperture 50mm). It's a weird choice because I don't particularly like that focal length and don't really shoot with it very often, but the lens has a lot of character, which is important to me. It has a wide aperture, which makes it useful for low-light events and creative work. It's sharp when you stop it down for studio work. And my disdain for the focal length actually works to my advantage sometimes, as it forces me to work extra hard to find a composition I like. It's a bit long for landscapes, but not so much I couldn't work with it. I surprised myself a bit with that choice, and it made me realize that maybe I should put that lens on my camera when I go out a bit more often, as it's a little more versatile than I gave it credit for.

That 50mm is pretty alright after all.

So, what's the point of this exercise anyway? No one is forcing any of us to shoot with only one lens. I think it's a good thing to think through, because it can give you a bit more insight into the relationship you have with your equipment and what gear most readily enables you to explore and grow as a creative. Had I not taken the time to go through this thought experiment, I would have left the 50mm to continue sitting unused in my bag, missing out on the creative opportunities it affords. 

It's also made me reconsider what I take for a walkaround lens. I used to take the 24-70mm, thinking it gave me a reasonable zoom range to take in whatever I happened upon and not miss shots. But switching to something like the 50mm has made me come home with more keepers, even if I miss some extra shots due to not having the extra focal length range. That's because it's a lens that inspires creativity. I think there's something to be said there: perhaps it's worth sometimes sacrificing a bit of utility for something you're excited to shoot with. I know it has certainly streamlined and reinvigorated my shooting patterns a bit.

If you could only keep one lens, what would it be and why? Let me know in the comments! 

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119 Comments

Wes Jones's picture

Sigma 35 1.4 Art lens is my favorite.

any ART lens is great. except that horrible 24-70

Yann Langeard's picture

I like the sony 85mm 1.8 too but if I had to pick up just one it would be the sigma 35 ART.

Musing Eye's picture

I don't own a wide range of lenses, but I find my Sony 24-70 2.8 GM is what I want both for holiday / walkabout and my more intentional amateur photography.

Eric Salas's picture

Sigma 105mm 1.4 Art

michaeljin's picture

Amazing lens.

Jay Galvan's picture

So you would be cool with this as your one and only lens? Do you do manly portraits? I have heard great things about this lens :)

Eric Salas's picture

I shoot a lot of portraits as you can see in my portfolio on here but I also use this lens for landscapes as well.
I’d be completely fine with it as my only lens.

Motti Bembaron's picture

50mm f/1.4 of any brand that fits my Nikon cameras.

Stuart Carver's picture

I’m boring, 23mm on the Fuji.

Stuart Carver's picture

See I have neither of those and would love them:)

The 27 is a great cheap option and my personal opinion is every Fuji shooter should have it just to throw on the camera for a wander around, the X-M1 is a true pocket camera with it connected.

I wasn’t sure about the 23 at first but it’s one of my best lenses now, I use it all the time. I took this a few weeks ago with it, pretty much by accident as I had planned on some long exposure but decided on staying handheld when this sky presented itself.

I always have a hard time deciding between the 23mm f/1.4 and 16mm f/1.4. Both great lenses!!

Stuart Carver's picture

That 16mm man, i really really want that lens.. ive got the Samyang 12 for the time being to satisfy the need though haha.

I thought it was the 56 1.2 I couldn't live without. Turns out it's the the 23 1.4 that's indispensible.

Tatsuhiko Ito's picture

SONY 70-200 2.8 GM. I only take my family members including a dog. A 70-200 is most versatile.

Will Murray's picture

I've been shooting almost exclusively on the Sigma 19mm f/2.8 for about a year now. I initially purchased it because it was small, light, and has decent IQ, while I made up my mind about Sony APS-C, but quickly found that I love it.

My SMC Pentax-DA Limited 2.4/70 on my K-5. The lens is 105 mm-e and produces gorgeous images: I can't fault it, and it's a focal length that I feel comfortable with. I'd feel uncomfortable without my other two Limiteds, the 4/15 and 2.8/35 Macro (the three give me a triad close to the 24-50-105 mm that I used to use on my OM-1), but the 70 is the one I use the most. And it's tiny.

Timothy Turner's picture

Nifty fifty

600 F4 IS II, it already does 95% of my shooting. It's the perfect wildlife lens.

marc gabor's picture

Nikon 35 f2 AF-D: compact, lightweight and great performance. I use it for everything from portraits to landscapes and it keeps the Nikon D750 nice and compact. But my favorite focal length if I had to choose just one is 40mm. Lately I've been leaving the Nikon at home and loving the ultra portable and versatile Panasonic 20mm 1.7 on a GX85. It costs less than $200 but the results never disappoint.

Stuart Carver's picture

I’ve started discovering the magic of the 40mm focal length using the 27mm pancake lens on the Fuji:)

Leon Hascal's picture

I just bought that lens and I'm waiting for it to come in the mail. I'm kinda excited to have a lens directly in between 35 and 50mm.

Stuart Carver's picture

Paired with one of the smaller bodies its a fantastic setup.. and yeah its a great focal length once you get used to it. Im heading out on the street tonight with mine.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Sigma 35 f1.4 Art. Love the sharpness and detail; and just the 35mm wide-angle(ish) look. I like having subject + surroundings without needing a whole lof of space.

George Popescu's picture

For me it would be the Rokinon 8mm fisheye lens. I used this lens for one year exclusively and made some fantastic photos both in my city and while traveling. I think that fisheye lenses have a bad rep but actually if you are really creative you can get some amazing photos with them.
Due to the low quality I can only use it between f5.6 and f11 which means that I will get no blur or bokeh in any shots but everything will be in focus, however, this can be an advantage not the other way around. I've attached a photo taken with the fisheye and changed to HDR, however you can see how wide the view is and how much detail there is in the foreground and the background.

Leon Hascal's picture

Hahaha if you could have only one lens it would be a low quality fisheye lens? That's ridiculous. Of course having everything in focus is an advantage for landscape photography-that is what landscape photographers are trying to do whenever they take a wide shot like this. The same goes for shooting in the sweet spot of the lens. Most landscape photographers don't shoot wide angle city scapes at f1. 4.

The photo you posted is cool but it's not really selling me on using fisheyes more. You used a fisheye exclusively for a year and this photo is your justification? This photo is kind of like a cautionary tale about going super wide angle. When you shoot this super wide angle you end up with a little foreground and a tiny little background with a ton of nothing in the middle.

I don't know how this photo was "changed to HDR" but it would probably be better if you didn't do whatever you did. Usually photos are best if they are just natural snapshots or if they are amazingly edited composites that are just flawless. In the digital age the photos that are in between just get lost in the sea of photographs posted on the web every day.

Not trying to put down your work. Like I said before, the photo is definitely cool. I think you should reconsider your heavy use of a fisheye lens. You should try shooting a less extreme wide angle lens and see how the more natural look it has makes your images stronger.

George Popescu's picture

Well, I was trying to figure out what photo to post that would explain my opinion about the lens better, but I as I said before I didn't use the lens just for landscape but for every type of photography. I have attached another photo taken with the same lens, let me know if you have the same opinion.

Leon Hascal's picture

I think that image would have probably been a lot stronger if you shot it with a wide angle lens between 18-35mm instead of the fisheye. If you like shooting wide I think you would find that avoiding the fisheye in favor of a less extreme wide angle would give you better image quality and better compositions with less dead space. It's just some advice from someone who also loves wide angle lenses.

Jakeb Miller's picture

My manual Olympus 50mm 1.4 that is almost 50 years old. It produces just a beautiful bokeh

A coke bottle. Why because I can shoot through it and fill it up. Quite frankly these kinds of posts are beneath fstoppers and it is much like asking a carpenter what hammer would they choose if they only could have one? My favorite lens depends on whether I am shooting portraits, or landscapes, or wildlife, sports...

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