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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Previous comments

I love my Canon 85 mm f1.4 That's the lens I can count on to get "wow" comments from my friends. It's got image stabilization and it's a very sharp lens with beautiful bokeh. It focuses much faster than the 1.2 (which I tried through my friend). In fact, I had a very hard time getting sharp images with the 1.2. and when set to 1.4, my 1.4 was still sharper (plus, the 1.2 didn't have image stabilization). There are plenty of situations where I can't use the 85 1.4 (tight spaces), but when I want to wow people, that's the lens I pull out. I know my 24-70 f2.8 II is more versatile but like you said, the images that it makes seem so ordinary... Honorable mention goes to the 70-200 f2.8 II... Again, can't be used in tight spaces and obviously can't be used in the same low light situations, but the images it can make are also spectacular.

Michael Kuszla's picture

For me, I could say my old Nikon 28mm F2.8D.
It's not the sharpest and not even more the fastest AF motor, but this look guys, this look. You have a personality in your image.
So you can work wide in every kind of situation, make nice ambiant portraits such as "landscape".
If I had... just one? This pretty old lens, for sure.

Almost impossible to answer but for me it has to be the Nikon 50mm f/1.2 Ai-S, closely followed by the Zeiss Planar 85mm f/1.4.

If I was on a budget for a jack of all trades zoom lens for my X-T2, the so called Fujinon "kit lens" 18-55mm f2.8-4 is a great option because of its size and versatility. Non budget but a lot chunkier would be the Fujinon 16-55mm f2.8 but practically not a super huge difference in terms of performance and image quality.
Speaking for primes I go with a legendary 50mm f1.4 Pentax-M smc with a lens turbo attached on my camera for true FF results that is also a budget. The 50mm almost never turns you down as a focal length, and the 8 blade aperture renders well rounded bokeh balls even at f2.8 FF equivalent. Manual focus for 50mm is well controlled for most styles of shooting, even for street photography. Non budget the Fujinon 35mm f1.4 would do the same job.

Tom Beckman's picture

Honestly I'd probably go with my 15mm fisheye. My second would be either 70-200mm or 85mm

rafael maduro's picture

If im on my 60d i love the 40mm 2.8 pancake i shoot almost exclusively with that lens, if im on the a6500 then i like the 18-105 f4 is a very versatile lens for video and photos it fit my shooing needs.

Robert Teague's picture

Right now, I'd easily say the Nikon 24-70 f4 S lens.

Dave Terry's picture

Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8. I've taken most of my favorite photos with that lens, and if I had to sell all but one, I'd be heartbroken to lose my 35mm 1.4 a good ole 50mm 1.4, but I think I could make it work.

Warwick Cairns's picture

If I could have just one lens it would have to be a 35mm full frame equivalent (23mm in aps-c). It’s wide enough for crowded rooms, tight spaces and landscapes, yet you can do portraits with it. I shoot Fuji, so for me it would be the XF23mm f2 - a small, light and weather-resistant do-it-all lens

Hans Rosemond's picture

Mamiya Sekor Z 90mm f/3.5. long enough for head and shoulders, wide enough for environments.

My 40-year-old Canon 85mm f/1.2 FD mounted on a Lumix S1. It is rarely off and inspires me enornously.

Robert Huerbsch's picture

RF 24-105L f/4

You can do landscape, group shots and even portraits with it at 105 wide open. Very useful range.

Roger Spring's picture

Nikon 20mm f1.8 because of the Sunstar and if you need more wide angle, then is a panoramic the solution.

John Tyson's picture

Nikon 35mm f/1.4G

Ryan Davis's picture

My Canon EF 35-135mm. Old but gold- no other lens I have can give me that level of performance in a package so small and light.

Yavor Kapitanov's picture

I wonder between 24mm and 40mm

Ben Bezuidenhout's picture

Tamron 24-70mm G2.

Pat Black's picture

I love that photo so much alex!

Alex Cooke's picture

Thanks, bud!!!

M.Zuiko 12-40 f/2.8

Fujifilm X-T3 with 16mm f/1.4.

Mark Alameel's picture

I'd chose a zoom, specifically the 24-105 f4 lens. I can use it for most of my situations from weddings to headshots to product photography.

Then benefits of such a range is more beneficial to me than have a super fast prime. Beside, with my one lens I'd also have a flash. :D

Chris Klugh's picture

I'm probably the only one that going to say this: My Kit Lens
I have a bunch of lens, this one still lives on my camera.

Fraser Pitkethly's picture

this should have been a poll or something. that would have been cool to see

Wim Hendriks's picture

Carl Zeiss Distagon 2,8/21 ZE

Doug Dolde's picture

28mm Nikkor f1.8 G

35 mm f2 (FF equivalent) Had several camera over the decades that came close to that spec.

28mm set at 5.6 or 8 and just shoot all day.

Super Muti Coated Takumar 6X7 90mm 1:2.8 LS which strangely enough is already mounted on my Asahi Pentax 6X7.