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. 

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. 

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.

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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