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

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Yannick Desmet's picture

I have only two! My main is the FD 85 1.2 from Canon. I converted it (no adapter) +- 48years old.
The second one is the 50mm Art
But I do miss more lenses like the 16-35 and the 70-200

Jerome Brill's picture

As someone who tends to do more landscape, I would say the 24mm f/1.4. Still waiting for Sony to produce enough to buy one. Seems to be backordered everywhere unless I pay the $200-300 markup for one on eBay. 16-35mm f/2.8 would be my next choice.

FUJIFILM XF 50-140mm f/2.8 R LM OIS W on my Fuji X-T3 and Fujinon GF 63mm f/2.8 R WR on my Fuji GFX-50S.

Daniel Sandvik's picture

70-200mm F2.8. It's on my camera 90% of the time, and can be used for everything I do.

Canon FD17mm.

Alex Cooke's picture

There's nothing cloned out there.

Alex Cooke's picture

They're not unnatural, as you can see in the raw file here. You're simply incorrect.

Alex Cooke's picture

Have a pleasant Sunday. :)

Gil Aegerter's picture

Don't worry. He's just a fictional character in a Camus novel.

Did Camus write about trolls by any chance?

Nikkor Z 14-30mm

David Penner's picture

My Sony 24-105 stays on my camera 99% of the time. If I need wider I just use my Pano head and stitch. Longer would be nice but most of the time 105 is long enough.

Alexander Lobozzo's picture

ditto. f/2.8 would be fantastic if it existed in this range, but i really don't find that i lose that much at f/4. I was going back and forth between buying the 24-70 f2.8 and the 24-105 f4, and i have been happy with my decision for wider focal range over wider aperture

Terry Wright's picture

Don't really have much to choose from on my X100F.

vin weathermon's picture

Paring down to one lens? Why not pare down the camera? I am selling both the 5DMKIII and 5DS-R and all my lenses. Going to look for one excellent fixed lens camera that I can comfortably carry for travel. That 40lbs of gear at my age is uncomfortable, and limiting. I find myself trying to leave behind all but minimums and still too bulky, awkward.

'Cheating' a bit since my1 lens is a zoom - but my Nikon 17-35... From street to dance/fitness to landscape to architecture it gets used for almost every genre I shoot. Nice wide perspective at 17, and 35 for the more conventional/environmental portraiture look.

The answer is kinda easy and doubt any of you thought about it either, the Canon 28-300mm 3.5-5.6 L (big white) lens. It's reasonably sharp and you could literally shoot anything with it and would never need to take it off your body, thus never having to clean your sensor again. Many of my fellow photojournalist use this lens in harsh areas like Afghanistan and Iraq.

Brian Smith's picture

I think about this question every time I go out on foot and want to keep as light as possible. I've been using wide lenses for so long, I wonder if I just "see" that way. My wife recently bought me a D850 for my birthday, and I'm having fun seeing how well my old Nikkors play with it. So, to offset the size and weight, I've been twisting on the 20mm f4 that Galen Rowell liked so much, plus it lets me get in the frame if I wish! Pleased with how well these old lenses work with such an advanced camera, even my creaky old 80-200 4.5, which might be my second choice.

Bibi Haribi's picture

...800mm f/4. So, I can work without leaving my house/office/bedroom/toilet. Great! :-)

The new Tamron 35-150 2.8-4 VC hits the right spot for me. Just wide enough, just long enough. A 2-3 shot pano will suffice for most things wider than 35, and 150 is just long enough to extend via cropping without losing too much res. And Tamron's VC is always spectacular, so low light isn't too much of a concern.

Ivan Lantsov's picture

120mm F5.6 Planar on my Hasselblad

Eh, actually I can only shoot with one lens, an 85mm, because it's stuck on my 6D mk2 after a small accident. Works fine but I can't force it to come off.
It's the lens I was using to shoot volleyball matches anyway, so until now it was ok...

Blake Aghili's picture

50mm f/1.4 does most of the things I need to shoot !

The Canon 24-135mm 2.8L
The above with an APS-C mirrorless body (like the Canon M50) and a speedbooster. That's the holy grail lens and camera pairing I can think of.

stir photos's picture

i think it'd be the c 70-200ll ii... but that's just me as a human living in the 21st century- for all anybody knows, that could just be my upbringing showing through tho, so.... for the why, it's the most focal length friendly lens with the lens attributes i like; again, that's just me. :)

David Cannon's picture

The 14-400mm f/1.2L TS-E Macro IS, of course.

blessing x's picture

Voigtländer 40 1.2 Nokton is easily my fave.

bluerhino's picture

I don't have many, but my favorite is the Meike MK-85mm f/2.8 Macro Lens.

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