My Entire Portfolio Was Built Using Only One Lens, Can You Guess Which One?

It is possible. I'm not here writing this to beat you in the head with an “it's not the gear” rant; we can all agree that take is a bit redundant after awhile. But with that said, it still holds very true. What I'm here writing to share is why I decided to use one lens, which one I used, how I use it, and most importantly, how you can too. I built my entire portfolio using one lens and one lens only. Before you read on, can you guess which lens by looking at the photos below?

If You Guessed A 50mm Prime, You Were...

...close! My entire portfolio was built using the 85mm Nikon Nikkor f1.4 G prime lens. As a portrait, headshot, and fashion photographer, this lens is a stone cold killer and covers every corner of my needs, relatively.

You can crop in close for great headshots.

The 85mm prime is perfect for capturing those intimate, close-up shots.

While still be able to step back for a nice full body portrait.

You can also pull back and capture great full-body portraits with the 85mm.

For portrait photographers, the 85mm has proven time and time again that it's a must-have for any portrait photographer. 

But Why Just Have One Lens?

It really depends on your situation. Yes, it would be nice to have an arsenal of three to five lenses at an arm's reach, but as a broke college graduate at the time, my situation only really allowed me to opt for one lens. I know many aspiring photographers may find themselves in this situation, so I do share that sentiment. Instead of picking two or three OK lenses, I decided that going with one great lens that I can grow with will really benefit my work going forward. There's a great advantage to using one lens, it gives you the opportunity to learn the nooks and crannies of what you can and can't do with it.

Some of the Benefits

As mentioned a second ago, there are a few advantages, including being able to spend exclusive time learning everything that there is to know about one lens. Another great advantage that you'll benefit from is lens selection during a shoot because there will be none. No waffling between lenses and always wondering which lens to use. You won't find yourself saying “I should have used that lens” because there is no pondering of lens selection.

A couple more quick notes. Carrying around just one lens is very lightweight and allows you carry a small bag or no bag at all. It is also a very inexpensive solution compared to buying a treasure chest full of lenses to lug around.

Yes, There Are Some Downsides

Sometimes you will find yourself in a situation where the lens you have is just not feasible. It has happened to me from time to time, I've been in situations where locations have been too tight to where a 35mm or 50mm would have been more practical, but we make it work. It can pigeon hole you at times and this idea isn't suitable for photographers, for example, wedding photographers.


While it's not practical for every photographer under the sun, it is doable. The underlying message in this article is simply this, buy what you need. Sure I'd want a 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, and a 105mm, but I really don't need all that. In fact, I'm starting to look at 35mm lenses at the most to capture portraits with multiple subjects and more of environmental portraits. That's for another article though. Does anyone else do this? What do you think?

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stir photos's picture

[raises hand] I can't say every single shot with 85mm, but by far most of my shoots and shots are with the 85mm.

Sean McCormack's picture

While I have the 60mm Fuji (90mm equivalent) for headshots, the 85 was my goto for portraits on Canon. Great focal length. I think most people based work can be done with the 35 and the 85, so I'm awaiting delivery of a 23mm Fuji.. with a 56 sometime in the future.

Ryan Cooper's picture

I think, for me, lens choice is such an influential creative decision for an individual shoot. Though I also shoot most of my work on an 85mm, I like having my other options for when I feel the shoot is "right" for it.

After my 85mm, my next purchase was a 35mm so I'd say def a good choice as a pair of lenses, I shot with just those two for 98% of my shoots for several years. I mainly use the 35mm in situations where there isn't enough room to back off far enough to get full body with the 85mm. for example, one time I had a client ask for a series of images in the dressing room of this vintage store, space was just too tight for 85mm to be viable and still capture full body fashion shots.

Glen Grant's picture

It certainly has been the most defining lens for much of my glamour / fashion work over the years, thou this year I find myself favoring the 50mm/F1.4 but certainly the 85mm is golden child in my kit.

Tom Lew's picture

Interestingly enough, I attribute my style and work to the moment when I stopped using an 85mm lens, and instead getting much closer to my subjects. Personal taste aside, truly getting to know one lens before moving to another is definitely an incredible way to learn and develop your eye.

Indy Thomas's picture

If all you shoot is "X" then all you need is "Y".

Thorsten Merz's picture

Back in my APS-C days, 95% of what I shot was using an 85mm; since moving to FF, my 135mm has become my lens of choice, even for full length.

David Mawson's picture

And the biggest reason not to have an 85mm one lens set-up: it will make you a weak photographer. Your port will consist of shots with a subject at the centre of the camera and a background blurred to randomness. Fast 85s are a great tool for getting hack work like seniors protraits done fast, but they're a terrible lens to limit yourself to. Anything from a 28 to 50 forces you engage with your surroundings and 3D space. Shooting will be harder, but you won't be trapped in a rut of mediocrity where your every image is interchangeable with thousands of other people.

Anonymous's picture

That could happen with any one focal length solution. I wouldn't go so far as to say "it will" though.

Pho To's picture

Hey, good for you... an 85mm, a lens most photographers can't afford..gorgeous lens, but show me how you build a solid port with nothing but a 50mm, 35mm, or a wide angle like an 18mm prime...And before you say "What, a portrait with a wide angle??...No way!" look up Platon.

Jonathan Klempa's picture

An 85 mm is a standard portrait lens with countless affordable options from used to Sigma and Tamron. We are not talking about a 5k 300 mm f 2.8 here.

David Mawson's picture

An 85 is affordable, yes. An 85 that will blur the bejeebus out of the background will keeping the subject as sharp as here; no. These shots depend very much on having a fast, high quality 85mm on a good full frame sensor. That's a $5000 camera and lens bill to make up for a complete lack of imagination.

..There is a reason why imaginative, non-cookie cutter photographers favour short lenses. Newton and Lebowitz the 35mm, Creepy Terry the 20mm m43 (so 40mm equivalent), HCB the 50mm, Moriyama the 28mm, etc: they force you to engage with perspective and background - but they also allow it. The fast 85mm is a hack's tool: you have the subject and blur.

And I don't say these things to make the OP bad: I just want to provide an alternative POV and reduce the damage he is trying to do. Shooting with a one lens set-up where the lens is a fast 85mm is likely to make you a photographic mediocrity. Don't do it! Buy the 85 for commercial work if you need it, but shoot with a shorter more interesting lens on your own time.

Jonathan Klempa's picture

I believe that is a valid counter point. You and I have differing opinions on bokeh and "cookie-cutter photographers", but my point contention was with the statements "a lens most photographers can't afford" & "Hey, good for you...". The first I believe is factually inaccurate and the second is a tasteless sarcastic jab.

Pho To's picture

Factually inaccurate?...Ok ....first off, most photographers can't just splurge on a lens the OP was using and mentioned in this post, which is the 85mm Nikkor f1.4 G valued at $1,596.95 (Used $1,319.95...lenses retain their value) Get your facts straight.
Second even a Sigma 85mm is $1,049.95 ...definitely better..but like David mentioned it most likely wont be "an 85 that will blur the bejeebus out of the background while keeping the subject as sharp as here"..if I'm going to spend that kind of $$ on a lens you bet I'm going to want the better one and not have to buy a replacement if something should go wrong.
And third, the "Hey Good for you" comment was a jab..congrats on picking that out genius, give the man a prize! ....there, that's another jab for you.
Having a sense of humor will bring you much further in life.

Jonathan Klempa's picture

The 85 mm 1.4 is a portrait photographer's tool that is used on a daily basis. Splurge - "to indulge oneself in some luxury or pleasure, especially a costly one". The 85 mm in this case would be a necessity and not a luxury. But sure, continue on your journey to becoming the most funny dick in a comment section on the internet.

Pho To's picture

I will continue on that journey, thank you very much for the well wishes......But only as long as you continue yours in being a stuck up, pretentious prick who's rationale is dictated by the limits of his own knowledge....Oh I'm sorry, was the a big boy sentence?
........No sense having any sort of conversation, people like you grow on trees.

Anonymous's picture

An f/1.8 version will work in most cases, at around $500.

Ben Sandness's picture

So the dude is doing portrait and fashion work and picked one tool to do the job...and your criticism is that he chose what is generally the right tool? 🙄

David Mawson's picture

No. My criticism is that it is tool that gives a safe C- to C+ and that he is telling everyone else to do the same thing.

And if you think the 85 is the default lens for portraits, you are confusing protraits and head shots. And if you think its the default lens for fashion, you're... well, completely ignorant.

Thorsten Merz's picture

Not all imaginative, non-cookie cutter photographers favour short lenses - take Hans Feurer for instance.

David Mawson's picture

Or you could give the example of Herb Ritts. Yes, you can shoot with a tele imaginatively. *But* the important point I'm making is that the features that make a fast tele attractive make it harmful as a single lens - ie it's flattening of perspective and ability to blur the background. Learning to manage perspective and use background intelligent are among the most drivers for growth for a photographer.

And the author of this article is no Herb Ritts. Or Feurer. He has perpetrated the cookiest, cutterest sort of photography imaginable. Inciting other people to do the same would incur the death penalty in an aesthetically civilised society.

Anonymous's picture


Jay Jay's picture

Haha@Creepy Terry. And so true.

Nick Pecori's picture

I honestly couldn't afford it either, but I made a bet on myself, opened up a line of credit, and it paid for itself within months.

David Cohen's picture

Nick, what were your settings during this shoot (boardwalk, beach, building). Thanks.

Nick Pecori's picture

f/2, ISO 100, 1/3200 shutter

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Great job.

I disagree for those saying it'll make you a weak photographer to only use a 85mm. It's not the lens' job to get you creative. That's your job. I could have sworn I've read same thing about those using only a 50mm. And, no doubt, there are those saying the same thing about 35mm. People need to stop with excuses and use what you've got the best you can.

Adam Padgett's picture

Come on now......

He claims he is a broke college student and can only afford one lens. If that is true, the Nikon 85G is not the lens he should be buying. He couldv'e had a 35 f2 af-d ($200), 50 1.8 af-d ($100), 85 1.8G ($400) , and a Nikon 70-200 VR1 ($1000) for the same money or close to it.

Nick Pecori's picture

Adam, it's true, I was broke. I didn't want to cheap out on a lens, I decided to bet on myself and open a credit card to purchase this lens. Fortunately enough, I was able to pay it off in a little less than a year off my photography jobs. I wouldn't lie about something like that.

Adam Padgett's picture

Those lenses aren't "cheaping out". Hell, the 85 1.8G is arguably better than the 1.4G.
And it would have given you a lot more options. All I'm saying is, you couldv'e spent your money in a way that didn't limit you.

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