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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120 Comments

Previous comments
Simon Patterson's picture

Where's the point of this article? Oh, I see it, there it is sailing a long way above your head.

Leon Hascal's picture

They post these BS articles all the time now. Multiple posts a day that are just nonsense. I thought the author would at least try to make it interesting but nope, picked the 50mm lens, the most middle of the road choice and the answer 90% of people would give to this dumb question.

Warwick Cairns's picture

I don’t know if 50mm is the most middle of the road choice. The field of view of the human eye comes out around 40mm, so 50 is actually a short telephoto. You need a bit of space and distance to use it properly. I think a lot of people nowadays would go for a 35mm lens as their one lens. Some might even go for a 28. If you look at high-end fixed-lens cameras by Leica and Fuji they tend to have one of those two focal lengths

João Almeida's picture

Sony 16-35GM (paired with the A7 III or with the a6000)

Jerome Brill's picture

This is my second choice as I have this lens. Although I feel I could get more creative use with the 24mm f/1.4. I'll point out that I don't have this lens yet though or used it so my opinion could change. I did have the Canon 28mm f/1.8 and loved it though.

Tamron 35-150mm f2.8-4 on D850.

Timothy Gasper's picture

One lens hmmmm. Well let's see, I do have eyes and they see at a certain 'focal length' so, for 35mm it would be any lens which sees close to my eyes....like 45mm or 50mm, for the Hasselblad it's likely the 80mm, for the Fuji GX680 it might be the 115mm or 105mm. Yeah, that's what I'd use.

First person I see to say Canon 35L. Maybe I need to check out the Sigma 35mm Art!

Sigma 35Art is great but 40Art is even better.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

They do appear to be sharper. But, they're about twice as big, heavy, and expensive. And, I thought the 35 was heavy enough.

Gil Aegerter's picture

Nikkor 35-200mm.

user-206807's picture

If we are talking about a prime lens, ideally a 35 mm lens. It seems to me that this is the most versatile choice.
If we are talking about a zoom lens, probably a 1 - 5000 mm f/2.8

Simon Patterson's picture

Personally I'd go for the 10-600mm f/1.4. But I'd want a teleconverter too; I'm not sure if that's cheating!

Zsolt Könczey's picture

Nikon 105mm DC f2, on my DF is like a dream :)

Vladimir Tomić's picture

My gear collection is quite modest right now. Nikon D3200, and Nikkor lenses - 18-55, 55-200 and 35mm 1.8G. So in my situation, the choice is quite simple, I would keep the 35mm. It is anyway the lens I shoot the most with, and on my APS-C sensor it's pretty much like the 50mm on the full frame. However, I intend to add a macro lens to my collection soon (I just have to decide between Tokina 100mm and Sigma 105mm), and after that I might have a little harder time deciding what I would keep :)
Btw, if anyone here has any experiences with Sigma and Tokina, please do let me know. Thanks :)

Mark Sawyer's picture

It's a trick question. Only one lens? Can't be done...

24-200/2.0 , as soon as it is available.

Nick Viton's picture

11-300mm f/1.2
Go big or go home!

Come on... Be realistic!

Zeiss 55 1.8 - but for most of the same reasons as described in the article, it ain't my favorite lens but it is the one I know I get most keepers with!

Richard Kralicek's picture

Normally I'd agree with the 50mm, although I then would use my trusty Zeiss Planar 50/1.4, versatile and perfectly sharp stopped down to f5.6. I do love the view of 85mm, so I could perfectly live with my old Zeiss Planar 85/1.4. But that's not what I'd use when travelling with my family, then the Canon 24-70/2.8ii would do the job.

Last year I'd have said 35mm when running around with the x100f, but this year after buying a second hand Leica Q I'd say I'm 28mm and done. Never thought that focal length would give me shivers, but apart from the downsides this camera has, the lens is awesome. On holidays I'll go back to my trusty 24-70 on the Canon, my family wants "normal" images.

Rodenstock 32mm f/4 HR Digaron-W

Scott Wardwell's picture

My newest used lens acquisition arrived three days ago- a flawless example of the legacy Nikkor 28-70 f2.8 AF-S. I have it in Bar Harbor this weekend and shot some panoramic sunrises from the top of Cadillac Mtn Saturday morning. I brought it alone. Shoot what you have. First impressions are this could easily become my favorite lens. Normally I am a prime guy. The sharpness is astonding . I will know more once I get everything into post when I get back home.

Canon 70-200 2.8 mk ii or iii all the way.

David Pavlich's picture

I was mulling this question and came to the same conclusion. It's such a great lens with terrific versatility. I have the MkII version. Just good stuff!

Very difficult to answer really. First things first. Will have to be a 50mm. Or 55 as an option, or even 58. Will have be fast, very fast. Good build. Manual override possible.

Moritz Wellner's picture

Tamron SP 35mm f1.8! I love that lens! Best all around 35mm! Weatherseeling, semimacro, fast Aperture and VC are just perfect in one package! I wish they would make it in 28mm though!

Arun Hegden's picture

Sony Zeiss 35 1.4 any day..:)

John Ellingson's picture

A full frame fisheye.

michaeljin's picture

Nikon 58mm f/1.4G. It's not the sharpest lens, but it has a unique character and feel. If I had to spend the rest of my life shooting with only one lens, I feel like it would get boring if the lens was clinically sharp even if those are the lenses I'd use for work.

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