Now here’s problem without a solution, right ?
But the question isn’t rhetorical. I’d like to know what you guys think. If you want to make the best possible travel photographs, how many lenses should you own? What’s the best compromise? One big zoom? One prime? Many primes? A combination? Is it better to sacrifice versatility for convenience and familiarity or should we kit up for all possible situations?
OK, I’ll go first.
This would be my natural answer.
Get one, really, really good lens. Learn how to use it well, how it draws, how it reacts to low light, to highlights, to contrasty situations, to dull lighting, … and stick to it.
Then, I look through my fave pictures of my pre-alt years (i.e., pre Sony + legacy lenses) and find many done with a Nikon D80 and version I 28mm-200mm zoom. At the time I also owned a Micro-Nikkor 55/3.5 and Nikon 50/1.8 plastic kit lens, both of which never made it to my mount, and an old 28/2.8 Sigma with a large scratch made by a key in a bag. The heavy zoom was all I used.
Corrected with DXO, that was a recipe for pretty special photographs ! A 10Mpix CCD and one kit zoom did this …
The zoom lens has many advantages over the multiple prime solution : less dust on the sensor, no frantic lens-swapping and, most of all, consistent one-lens rendering. Even a great range such as Zeiss’s ZM shows slight aesthetical discrepancies between lenses, which can be a nuisance.
So, for a single-lens setup, I’d recommend a solid zoom, possibly a Tri-Elmar or WATE.
Or would I ?
Ever used a single-speed bike ? Simplicity is what draws the crowds. Purity of experience. Get yourself a Distagon 1.4/35 ZM and never look at another lens in your whole life. Sony RX1 users, now is the time to make yourself heard !
Getting to know a lens with such amazing optical personality is a wonderful experience. You shoot hundreds of pictures and every one of them impresses you, adds a feature you’d not thought of before and creates more scenarios in your mind. By the time you’d been round the possibilities, (a) you’re a much better photographer than before and (b) you’re ready to tackle any subject with a deliberately chosen perspective rather than adapt to a scene through a change of focal length (which is basically synonymous to point a).
So, no zoom! I’d definitely recommend using a single prime of the highest quality your wallet and robbing, cheating, organ selling, can buy you.
Or would I ?
Thing is, traveling imposes vastly different conditions and, while a 35 is great for street photography, it really stinks for both cramped interiors and compressed vistas. Replacing that focal length with two others is often far easier.
On my most recent trip to Oxford and the Cotswolds, I took along two lenses I am currently testing for Zeiss : the OTUS 85/1.4 and ZF2 Distagon 25/2. 25-85, a focal combination never tried before and that actually makes a lot of sense for urban use.
25mm is wide enough to serve well in tight historical places, create strong dynamics and produce a very different result to a 35mm lens. 85mm nicely compresses scenes into content-filled and layered frames. And the two are far enough apart that they produce very complementary types of images with no visual overlap whatsoever, no ambiguity of message.
In this otherwise banal street scene, the 85 has filled the frame with lawn, golden stone, blue sky and bare branches. This is an unmistakable Oxford scene on a lovely winter morning. Of course the magnificence of the OTUS’s rendering doesn’t hurt at all … (darn I will miss it when it’s gone).
At the opposite end of the scale, here’s a much more dynamic view inside Gloucester cathedral, where Harry and Ron once hid from a passing troll.
Just as with high-end HiFi systems, one produces an it is here impression, while the other is more you are there. Wideband & monotriods vs Electrostatic & MosFet. A 2 lens setup is a fantastic compromise between “purity” and “adaptability”.
And yes, a zoom could recreate the same geometry, but never with the same aperture settings or the same distinctive rendering of each individual lens.
So rendering consistency is a good thing and a bad thing? Shut up! 😉 What matters is that a 2 lens set-up is the best for travel photography.
Or is it ?
All this is true, but as you get better, your can progressively justify owning more lenses to create different atmospheres, different perspectives …
3 lenses is a traditional setup for many expert photographers. 28-50-90. Or 21-35-75. Or 15-35-135. It all depends on your style and geometry. But 3 lenses definitely let you deal with more scenarios and there is no need for frantic swapping when in a given location.
Obviously, the reasoning behind all this is clear: more lenses mean you can adapt to more situations, provided you have learned to work with each individual lens. Hey but how about this : why not two bodies ? That’s convenient. 4 lenses on 2 bodies mean far less changing, plus the security of a second body when your NEX-5n dies after a long 110)F hike to Z-Bend in Western Australia (oh, that’s still painful, 5 years on …)
So yeah, more is definitively better.
And, as we all know, less is more.
Get one lens, the best lens you can afford, and get to know it well. Oh dear …
So there you have it. DS’s most helpful article yet 😉
Pressed to give answer, I’d go for 2. Stitching is easy these days, so widening a field of view requires very little work. And cropping, from a 36Mpix image, doesn’t make me sweat either. So that 25-85 combination I’ve been using recently feels pretty good. It keeps the bag light, even with a massive OTUS lens as part of the duo. In fact, owning 3 or 4 primes and leaving home with any two seems like a sweet proposition to me.
But what’s your thought on this, guys and gals ? What’s your fave setup and why ? And “gear doesn’t matter, it’s about the tog” doesn’t count as an answer!
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Two lenses (one wide, one normal/small-tele) and two bodies. 😉
Yeah, that gets my vote for most situations too. Although, as pointed out by Andreas, a compact zoom is far more convenient in a harsh environment.
I am in the process of choosing my next system so I have given this a great deal of thought: I would agrre with your two prime solution in general.
But, as I write this, I am sitting in a sparsely lit room in remote rural India on a humanitarian mission. One part of my mandate is to document the conditions here. I also have so many other pressing things to do and the conditions are appalling: 45 deg. celcius and 100% humidity. Not a good place to log about heavy equipment. On the other hand, I must also be able to trust my equipment 100 % (and frankly, I do not trust the Sony, least of all the awful EWF). The cost of an Otus is dwarfed in comparison to what is at stake where I am working.
My point is, you are missing out on WHY you as a photographer is at your location. What is your mission?
If on an unlimited budget, I would choose two separate systems, one for the dirty field work and one for artistic work in controlled environments. I find that I use a normal range zoom all the time here, but back in Europe I would go for the two lens solution anytime.
I will probably go for a good normal zoom and then some legacy glass (or the Zeiss range) for my artistic outlet when at home. Mounted on a trusted, professional body like a D810 or similar
Fascinating. Thanks for that real-life point of view. And for the valuable you seem to be doing in India, most of all.
As you say, WHY, is the most important question and determines all the other decisions.
That’s exactly what I’m after: answers from varying use scenarios. I *love* the Sony EVF. Is your distaste for it linked to the conditions in which you work or simply a matter of personal taste?
Cheers and all the best!
I was brought up with a Rollei 80mm and a Leica 3f with a 50mm Summicron(1960) on it. This served me well for 30 years. Then I changed to a Minolta CLE/ Leica Cl setup with the 40mm Summicron and the 90mm Elmar C.
So the “normal” lens is something I am very comfortable with. the I added an SLR / DSLR with those convenient zooms. But although the zooms are quite good I still prefer the fixed lenses.
I always liked to print large – 40x50cm in the film days and now 60x90cm and larger. So file quality is what I need. Since my eye sight is not that good any more I am at the moment changing my setup A7r, MATE and this wonderful 90mm Elmarit (and the 40mm Summicron for low light) to an Autofocus alternative.
What I hope will be a good setup for me: A7r, 28mm, FE35mm ( I can’t afford the 1.4 and it is also a bit heavy for me ), the FE55 and the Elmarit 90mm.
The reason for that setup: weight and file quality.
I just hope that the 28mm will be any good the 55 and 35 I am very happy with. maybe there is an affordable, good 135mm one day than I might swap that with the Elmarit 90mm in my travel bag.
Hi Volker, thanks for the description.
I see we share a love of the Elmarit 90. That’s really a great lens, very underestimated if you ask me.
If you’re looking for a good 135, the Apo-Telyt-M 135/3.4 is great and compact but a reader told me he was very happy with his more compact and much cheaper Pentax SMC 135mm F3.5 lens.
Haven’t seen the 28, yet, but the others are all good lenses. The FE 35 is my only AF lens and it’s really a keeper.
I’m with you on this: my favorite setups have always been 24+85mm for landscape, and a 24mm plus a 35mm or a 50mm (one of them, not both at the same time) for anything even remotely “street” or just “urban”.
I ended up using these same setups with every format I shot during the years (in equivalent focal lengths obviously), from 35mm to 5×7″, and it simply suits the way I “see” the world. Even if I’m out with a zoom (typically a 28-85 or 24-105) checking my Exif I can see that I tend to shoot at the extremities of the zoom anyway, so why not carry a couple of primes instead? 😉
Exactly. And that’s a very weird fact, that I’d like to understand more. You and me, and many others, see more naturally at the extremes. While others (just as many, probably) are much happier with a 50mm. Philippe loves this focal length and is very proficient with it.
Interestingly, that Distagon 25/2 sat in my cupboard for several years without getting any love. I’d naturally reach for the 35 instead, with the 90 Elmarit as an occasionnal complement. But I really enjoyed the 25-85 combination and must give that lens more chances of shining.
“How many lenses should you use” is an invitation to the flogging of a dead horse, or perhaps the the plucking of a dead parrot. Would anyone seriously suggest that there is a single answer for all photographers, or even for any one photographer at all times in her artistic career? On the other hand, the post contains some interesting thoughts about the quiddity of different kinds of lens, and some nice images. I just think the thoughts would be better expressed as an invitation and guide to the kind of exploration and experiment that most of us will undertake, before settling in the short or long term on a particular set of equipment, rather than as an argument that we have all heard rather too many times before.
Hi Ken, never underestimate the artistic value of a dead parrot 😉
You’re quite right, obviously, and this argument is getting stale. The fact is, I’d like to understand how and why people choose, hence the invitation to share preferred setups.
I’m working (labouring might be a better word) on a tutorial on creative photography and the sort of personal exploration you suggest is exactly what I have in mind. My problem with that is the worry of sharing only very personal points of view, so it seems interesting to send probes and see what others are thinking.
The traditional recommendation is usually the 30 or 365 formula. Use one lens only for a month (or a year, if brave enough) and decide. That really doesn’t work for me. It pisses me off and stifles enthusiasm. And the banalities of heavy bag vs other tradeoffs aren’t worth talking about either. What really interests me is how people see naturally, what they photograph, and how that relates to their chosen lens setups. I’ll follow up on that and welcome your thoughts on the subject 🙂
I am currently thinking about buying a new lens (Panasonic 15/1.7 for MFT). One of the reasons for not doing so that has been argued by my inner Accountant and my inner Gear Acquisition Syndrome therapist (working as a team as they often do) is that I already have that focal length very nicely covered (by the Olympus 12-40/2.8). Sounds at first glimpse like a strong argument, but actually, it doesn’t entirely convince, and I am bidding on ebay, not because of any IQ differences (minimal, for my purposes) but rather because a 15mm (MFT) prime creates a quite different way of seeing to a zoom which covers 15mm. Fitting the world to a frame versus fitting a frame to the world would be a simplistic way of putting it – both entirely legitimate, but not the same thing.
Another element of my personal attitude to lenses is that I an interested in primes in this particular way only at shorter focal lengths – up to 100mm say. I have a clear sense of say 24, 35, 50, 75 (FFE) primes as embodying distinct ways of seeing, but no similar sense of differences between 150, 200, 300 and so on. For longer focal lengths, I happy with zooms and simply see them as providing ways of sneaking up on the world, with IQ and weight as the only constraints. If I were a sports photographer, I imagine I might have a more precise sense of the difference between the longer focal lengths.
I look forward to the tutorial and am confident that it will give a proper account of the artistic value of dead parrots.
Ken, that’s exactly it. Primes force us to frame the world in a very specific way that zooms don’t. We should think of focal lengths as indicators of relationships between the various elements in the frame. The subject/background relationship with a wide angle is what gives that distinctive look that separates 35mm photographers from 50mm photographers, for instance. Getting top a point where this comes as an intuitive second nature takes long enough with primes, and is really hard with zooms.
Dear parrots, deceased parrots, ex-parrots, parrots gone to join the invisible choir, parrots gone to meet their maker … we’ll cover them all in the tutorial 😉
I have a Tamron 16-300mm lens and it is a brilliant travel lens, covers most of the spectrum. However I would also take my Canon 10-22mm Canon lens for my 70D. Great combo.
Two zooms! Never thought of that. I’ve often thought of a prime for my favourite wide angle (most used focal length) and a a compact zoom for the rest. I’d be worried about losing aperture for my favourite fl. ISO compensates, but for subject isolation, there’s little substitute to aperture. If you’re a fan a big depth of field, I guess 2 zooms work. That would probably be particularly interesting with smaller sensors, too, for a very compact system. Thanks for sharing.
It is an interesting problem. I lately have been traveling light, with just the 55FE lens on quick trips for work. When I have more time, I like using the Leica R 135/2.8 on the A7R. I sometimes will bring that, or a 90mm Summicron, but not both. I had a 18/4 ZM but didn’t like the smearing or field curvature that lens had with the A7R so sold it and got the 16-35FE. So, maybe my answer is (was) zoom and two primes — normal and tele.
Thanks Mark. What’s the 135/2.8 like ? Iy’s one of the Leica-R lenses I’ve never used. 90mm Summicron ! Shhh, if co-author Philippe reads this, he will be so cross. He owned one and sold it and is now furious with himself.
Zoom and 2 primes will get a lot of votes, I think. Convenience and performance in a relatively lightweight bundle.
I did a side by side comparison between the Leica Elmarit-R 135mm and the Zeiss 135APO on a short photo walk. I really enjoy the Elmarit-R — it balances very well on the A7R, not being as large and heavy as the 135APO. It was easier to use while walking around. The Zeiss and Leica seem to me to have equivalent sharpness when hand held — I can’t really differentiate between the images of both lenses as far as sharpness goes. The Zeiss I found to be more contrasty — I applied the same development settings in Capture One, and light was similar in the two sessions (one followed directly after the other). I really enjoyed the tones I was able to obtain with the Elmarit-R images.
Here is a link to a comparison gallery, if it is of interest. The first photos is with the Zeiss and the second half of the set are with the Leica:
The Zeiss I had rented for a few days, while the Elmarit-R I purchased used for much less than what the Zeiss would have cost. I am very happy with it.
The 90 Summicron is simply delightful, and I find it works quite well on the A7R. When I switched from Canon to Sony I sold my Zeiss 100/2 Makro-planar and have missed that lens a great deal but the Summicron 90 has a character all of its own. I’ve really enjoyed the pictures I take with it on my Leica M7 and on the A7R.
Wonderful, thanks for the link (lovely pics, too). I had no idea the Elmarit-R was that good. The Zeiss APO 135/2 is a superb lens, so your comparison photographs are high praise for the old Leica-R !
Never used the Summicron-90, but the Elmarit 90 is really a gorgeous lens. Maybe Philippe will buy his back and I can have a closer look 🙂
the images of the so called “comparison” in the link are more or less useless!
The B/W conversion is not neutral, the highlights are blown and the shadows are just black.
Even the color images are taken under complete different light conditions.
A comparison for me would be: taking images under the same conditions of the same object with a similar processing.
I could shoot 99.9% of what and how I shoot with 21 (or 24), 35 (or 50) and 90. Currently that means an A7s and A7ii along with OM 21 or OM 24, Loxia 35 (and I throw in the FE 35/2.8 for AF) and Leica Summarit 90/2.5. The FE 55/1.8 sneaks in the bag somehow. I could shoot 75% of my pics with a single fast 40mm lens (wish there were more options at 40mm) and happily try to creatively make do with that one lens in the other 25% of cases.
Lately I’m tempted to try traveling with two bodies (A7ii and A7s) and the FE 16-35/4 and FE 55/1.8 lenses. Why? I can shoot video on the A7s with the FE 16-35 and get stabilization and shoot HD video in either FF or crop mode (for 24-52.5mm equivalent focal length) with little loss of quality in crop mode. And crop mode for the FE 55/1.8 on the A7ii gets a decent 10mp image at 82.5mm equivalent. I just wish the FE 16-35/4 was better at 35mm below f/8.
Darell, interesting comment about the 40mm. There’s the current Heliar and an old Leica, plus a Voigtlander, I think. But that’s more or less the only ones I know of. As you say, it’s surprising that we don’t see more of these. They could be neat “one and only” lenses for many people. It’s so tempting to simplify. There are 12 lenses in my cupboard and only 3 really see regular use, one of which probably makes 70% of my photographs …
That FE 55/1.8 is a precious trooper. Such a distinctive look at and affordable price.
I’m aware of the Minolta M Rokkor / Leica CL 40/2, Hexanon 40/1.8, Voigtlander 40/2 Ultron (I had that in EF mount in 5D2 days), Voigtlander M 40/1.4, the new Heliar 40/2.8 you mention, an OM 40/2 pancake, and probably others I’m not aware of. Oh, 40/2.8 EF pancake.
The Panasonic 20/1.7 is hugely popular on the m4/3 platform – I wish other manufacturers would take this as an indication of a market for a fast 40 and deliver some new 40 designs.
True ! I used to own the 20/1.7 and 45/2 with my OM-D E-M5. Both brilliant lenses.
Actually, zooms get an unwanted bad rap. Herr Doktor Hubert Nasse, Zeiss chief guru, indicates that, commonly, a zoom in the the middle of its zoom range, outperforms a prime. He writes:
“It is a common prejudice that the zoom is softer than the prime, but in reality this is not necessarily true. A well made zoom, at least in the middle of the focal length range, is very often better than the corresponding prime lenses; because the optical efforts – just the number of lenses and special tricks with lenses, complicated high performance glasses or so, is higher in the zoom than generally in the prime lens.”
Youcan watch a 37-minute video where he discusses this here: http://petapixel.com/2014/09/21/video-fascinating-lens-design-101-interview-zeiss-master/
That said, I am battling with the same issue Pascal raises, and, no, despite the good Doktor’s statement, I don’t use zooms.
My personal experience is that I tend to use my best lens over my favorite focal length. 50mm is what I feel most comfortable with, and which yields my favorite shots. But when it happens that I own a 35mm lens that outperforms my 50, then I tend to use the 35mm more, and with greater success. Such was the case when I had a Leica Elmar 24 f:3.8 on my NEX 7, which I vastly preferred to my Zeiss ZM 35 f:2.0, and now, again, with my new Zeiss ZM 35 f:1.4 over my Zeiss Loxia 50mm f:2.0, both on a Sony A7R.
And my best experiences have almost all been with one lens glued to my camera, or two at the most. When I try to switch more often, I tend to lose my mojo.
To wit, I had a great morning-long shoot with Pascal in Paris, through diverse circumstances, and carried 5 lenses. I came home with some 20+ postable shots. 2 came from my Leica Elmarit R 28mm, and all the rest from my Loxia 50 (that was before the ZM 35).
So, if I had the gumption to execute on that, I would go out with just 2 lenses. I have tried and been happy with a 35-85 combo, a 35-75 combo, and, right now, I would try a 28-50ish combo.
So, if that is the case, and if, as stated earlier, I choose lens performance over focal length, why splurge on the ZM 35 f:1.4? Because I can use it on my NEX 7, and it becomes a 52mm lens.
So I could actually go out with one lens and two camera bodies, to enjoy at the same time best lens performance in each shot, and my two favorite focal lengths.
The Zeiss ZM f:1.4 used as the best 50mm lens, how does that grab you?
Philippe, my ZM 35/1.4 returned to its rightful owners. How can you wave yours at me like this 😉
But I will have one soon. If ever there was a lens that could make me forget about all others, this is it.
What I find interesting in Ken’s comment and yours is that primes help you see the world in a stronger manner and that too many primes actually dilute this effect. As I say in the text, I had remarkable fun with two primes recently and think this will be my default setting for the near future.
25-85 or 35-85 could be interesting default ranges.
For landscape and travel photography I could easily live with just two lenses without feeling limited. My favorite combination is at the moment the Zeiss 21mm Distagon combined with the 55mm Otus and I plan to bring just these two lenses on some upcoming photography trips this year.
Hi Boris, I’ve never used the Zeiss 21mm Distagon, but Philippe speaks very highly of it and your photographs with it published on Wild Places are spectacular! The OTUS is a gem too. 21-55 is an interesting combination. I recently explored the British countryside with a 25-85 duo and that was fantastic, but wider lenses would have produced more dynamic results. I’ll try something similar with my Elmarit-R 19 and the Loxia 50. Not exactly the same, but close enough 🙂
If it was only two with my A7II.
Olympus Zuiko 28mm f2.8
Olympus Zuiko 100mm f2
If it was three:
Olympus Zuiko 24mm f2.8
Olympus Zuiko 50mm f1.4
Olympus Zuiko 100mm f2
Add in the Olympus extention tube and I am all set.
Right now I am sad though that I sold my Contax/Zeiss 135 f2.8, though the Oly 100m is making me forget about it.
Isn’t that just the way … You sell an unused lens, a new camera comes along and you miss the lens immediately.
Great Olympus choice there. I tried the 28/2.8 and 50/1.4 and both were lovely on the A7r. I’ll try to find the pics and publish them one day.
Usually 3 lenses in my traveling bag for me.
For SLR, I have a A900 with Sony Zeiss 24/2, Minolta 50/2.5 Macro, and Minolta 100/2
Now with the A7r, I pack Sony Zeiss 35/2.8, Zeiss Loxia 50/2, and Contax Zeiss 90/2.8
The Sony Zeiss 35/2.8 is a bit too narrow so I’m waiting for wider options
Thanks Eric. The Zeiss Distagon 25/2 could be a candidate for you if you like the FE 35/2.9 but find it too narrow. It’s a very fine lens often called the best 28mm in the world, because the corners are sometimes a bit shaky and some people crop them out. It’s quite brilliant intermes of contrast and colour. Philippe also has a Leica-R 28/2.8 that he’s very fond of. He also let me try his Contax Zeiss 90/2.8 and that is crazy sharp!
You asked to hear from RX1 owners… I own one, the RX1r. In about one year, it made me take more pics than I took in 4 years owning a d3x. Partly because of the weight, but mostly because of that lens… I can easily recognize every single picture taken with it.
But then, I’d like to wider and longer, with the same IQ. So I’m probably going to sell off all my Nikon gear and go for the a7r II if it arrives. Silent shutter is a must. And then? A 21 or 24. The best 35 I can get. And an 85. Maybe the Otus. Now first win a lottery…
Thanks Job! If you buy the A7r II, do take a look at the ZM 35/1.4. If you like the “look” of lenses (as you seem to with the great RX1r), you’ll probably love that one too. And it’s quite compact. Right now, I’m using 25/35/85. Unfortunately, the 85 (OTUS) isn’t mine so it will have to go back but that’s a great combination of focal lengths. The Leica-R 19 is also a fabulous option on the wide range.
I’m all for flexibility. I usually bring along a Canon 10-22mm and a Tamron 28-75mm with a battered Canon XSi in urban areas. Not really lightweight, but is bearable. I easily carry this kit for the whole day during wandering-heavy travels. When I go into the wilds or urban parks, I borrow a 70-300mm from a friend.
Now this system is old and I’m looking into going mirrorless. That’s why I’m here, reading a lot of Dear Susan 😉
Thanks, I hope you’re finding it useful. The beauty of mirrorless is that you can bring your zooms with you and test a few other options when you feel like it 🙂 Cheers
I agree that 4 primes 25,35,55,85 and leaving home with a combination of any two works for me.
Can I hear Loxia + Batis? 😉
I think really you ask two questions:
How many lenses should you own?
How many lenses should you carry?
I could not carry all the lenses I own (being foolish, I chose birds as my preferred subjects – 300mm is a short tele….). This notion that a mere 90mm is living at the extremes belies a sanity sorely lacking in the avian afflicted….
Even on day trips with a car to cart my gear, I rarely travel with more than 3 lenses – frequently I carry a single lens, best suited to my outings purpose.
Consider my minolta 85 1.4, contax g 90 2.8, and minolta 100 macro. Wildly different in all but focal length. The 85 1.4 is a beast of a lens, heavier I think than my Nex7 – but the only lens fast enough to capture my daughters indoor soccer matches. The contax g is tiny, and the iq phenomenal esp. for portraits. The macro name gives away its value, flowers and butterflies find this lens on my camera.
For me, the discovery of all the glorious variety in capability and rendition of lenses (a.k.a. unrestrained gas) is half the learning curve. The other half is learning to anticipate the conditions in the field and bring the right lens or lenses. Good results come when I have chosen wisely both what I own, and what I carry.
I have all I need (or so I think) from 45mm to north of 500mm w/ adapter. It is the wide end that I find vexing. So far nothing makes me happy, though the contax (not g) 28 2.8 comes close – but on nex7 is really closer to normal than wide. Soon I hope Sony will release an A7rll that may finally get me into ff from my beloved nex7, and then I will revisit wide, and likely have to get to know all my lenses all over again.
That brings me to perhaps the third and fourth questions, how many bodies to own/carry. Sensor sizes, resolution vs. sensitivity, so much to choose……
My wallet cries.
Interesting. It’s not as much about what I’m able to carry than what I’m able to learn to use to the best. Having used an 85/1.4 almost non-stop for 3 months and still having difficulties in some occasions shows how difficult it is to be come proficient when you own/use too many lenses or zoom lenses. As you say, learning the rendition is only a part of the path. In the case of “specialty” photography (nature, astronomy, birding, macro …) putting the lenses to actual use can be very difficult (my neighbour is a birding/nature fan and has set auto triggers and hides everywhere in his garden. Here are some of his pics: https://www.dearsusan.net/2013/11/03/170-a-pond-a-pond-my-d800-for-a-pond/) and even in more mainstream avenues such as street photography, having the lens’ framing and perspective well imprinted in the brain takes time and practice.
I’ve solved the camera problem, Highlander style: there can only be one. I sell one as I buy another. My wallet and brain can’t extend any further than that 😉
You make a great point that each lens takes considerable time and care to learn well. Much of my photography is ‘specialty’ – birds, indoor soccer, outdoor soccer (all manual everything, I have only recently indulged in the sony 70-400 zoom and autofocus adapter, mostly to have a ‘portable’ long lens). I learn each lens (all primes) in only a narrow context. I certainly struggle more with street or travel photography where many more variables come into play. I will have to remember that the learning curve is likely longer and be disciplined with the lenses I have.
Specialties, however, push to the limits – at least on my budget. It isn’t fair to call a 500 f4 slow, but small birds move so rapidly that it is rare to avoid subject motion blur shooting any slower than 1/1000th, and my nex7 gives up too much detail over iso 200. Indoor soccer is f1.4, 1/500th iso 1600, and I only tolerate the soft images because the other parents enjoy the images, and I enjoy the challenge. It is in this sense of understanding the constraints of your subject matter and choosing the right tools that I feel that the question of lenses to own differs from lenses to carry – and why I broke down and bought a slow, long, optically good but not equal to my primes, long zoom. I give up quality and speed, but can carry the zoom easily when traveling. As incredible as gear has become, there are still many trade-offs to consider. I think much of your article is devoted to the struggle of compromise. That is what I like about your blog, and I suspect a big part of the outstanding images you capture.
Your neighbor uses light wonderfully, a pleasure to see his work, thank you for sharing. I have to wonder what lenses you own in common, and where you differ based on your interests…..
that’s very interesting. Being mainly a travel / street photographer, I never considered the idea of learning a lens from the perspective of a specific specialty use, but it does make perfect sense. I’m selling off 80% of my lenses, not because I don’t like them anymore but because it is so much easier to use only 2. But you’re quite right, owning extra lenses for specialty use is intelligent (and, in the case of sports, madatory). Now that the A7r replacement is near, you’ll find great prices on new A7 and A7r bodies. And the high ISO performance on these is stunning. During my recent photo walk with Philippe, I inadvertantly left ISO on 1000. The photos are almost perfect. Gear has indeed become incredibly good 🙂
My neigbour uses a D800 with a Nikkor 300/2.8. It is either remotely triggered or used from a hide by the pond. On nice spring evenings, he and his wife sit in the hide with a glass of white wine. She reads a book while he takes pictures. Does it get any better ? 😉 😉
If you asked Jane Bown, it’s one: the 50mm. If you asked Don McCullin, it’s two: 28mm and 135mm. NatGeo’s Sam Abell said two: 28mm, but with 90mm. And Garry Winogrand takes us back to one: 28mm, although he used 35mm before that.
Myself, I typically use 28mm, 50mm, and 85/90mm, but several of each and on different cameras (why? Because they all give different looks):
28mm – 3.5 M-Rokkor on Leica, 2.8 Zuiko on Olympus OM1n, 2.8 Nikon 1 on Nikon V1, 3.5 Fujinon on Fuji Natura
50mm – 1.4 Super Takumar on Pentax ME, 1.5 C-Sonnar on Leica MP, 2.8 C-Biogon on Sony A5100 (53mm equiv.), 2.8 Biometar on Pentacon Six TL (55mm equiv), 3.5 Fujinon on Fuji GS645 (45mm equiv.), 2.0 M-Rokkor on Leica M8 (52mm equiv.)
85mm – 1.4 on Contax RTS II, 1.4 on Fuji S5 Pro (87mm equiv.)
I am more into portraits and people photography. Lately I have been discovering the joys (and pains) of an 135mm lens. Beautiful, but hard to nail focus manually with ageing eyes. Manual is all I use.
Yes. I think that says it all. The more proficient – and specialised – we become, the few lenses we use and the more specific we are about the ones we choose. My 135/3.4 doesn’t get much use. It’s a lovely lens (Leica Apo(Telyt-M), but I am selling it because it’s never the one I choose when going out. It doesn’t come naturally to me, which is a great shame considering how good it is.
These are the pros I admire most and they all shoot reportage (Abell shoots travel but still can be considered a documenting of the world). Of their two preferences, both McCullin and Abell say that’s all you need: a wide and a tele. Abell says if you can’t capture 90% of what you need with the 28 and 90, then you need to relook at your technique. For those who shoot single lenses, it would be a normal/standard. I suppose for them, it’s a matter of forcing the world into their vision, rather than the other way around.
This is also how I tend to carry my kit. If it’s a single camera, then the 50mm. I like what the 35mm gives to me when I see the final output, but I could never get comfortable when shooting it. But when I want to carry two cameras, it’s a wide on one camera body, and a tele on another.
Other photojournalists like James Nachtwey and Alex Majoli tend to shoot with zooms, but even they have preferred focal length looks. It may have started as a way they look at the world (some see in wide, some in standard, others in tele, but photojournalists covering a war zone would certainly need flexibility since you can’t always be in the right spot at the right time). But over time, as they stick to it, it makes up part of their signature.
That mirrors my experience too. My favourite setup is 25/85. But if I’m traveling with just the one lens, it’s the 35mm. And I think you are far better served by a singlelens you know and love than by many or zooms, unless you are really very familiar with them. Thanks for the pro names. I’d never heard of James Nachtwey and Alex Majoli (shame on me).
That is the big question that puzzles me since months.
I got into digital photography with a Konica Minolta Dynax 7D with Sony 50/1.4 and Sony 35/1.8, later supplemented by a Sony 55-200/4-5.6, 8mm MF fisheye and a huge Sigma 15-30/3.5-4.5. Fortunately, the later fall down and broke in two parts. I than switched to a A77 and added the Tamron 17-50/2.8 for wide-angle and the excellent Sony Zeiss 24-70/2.8 for a walk-around lens. So, this makes 6 lenses for A mount (+3 old Zeiss MF M42 lenses with adapter). Last year, I bought the A6000 with the Sony 35/1.8, followed by the Sony Zeiss 24/1.8. Another camera with two lenses. And I also have a GoPro Black for underwater photography. And numerous accessories like vertical grips, additional batteries, charger, two tripods …
A couple of months ago, I was just thinking to get a new, bigger camera bag. But then I went on vacation to Portugal with only the zooms and especially the Zeiss zoom has better image quality than my (considerable cheap) primes, if you don’t need the faster aperture. And then I went to Egypt with only the Tamron and the Zeiss. Perfect fit. And then I’ve been to Sardinia with only the Zeiss … And if you asked me last year what to get for travel photography, I’d just pointed you to the Zeiss … but than came the A6000, and I started using it more frequently. And I enjoy the small package – and the small Zeiss prime.
Furthermore, Lightroom counts like >15k photos and I now feel I’ve changed my attitude and grow in photography. I recently read a lot about purity, focus and minimalism in photography gear. And with the two Zeiss’s I noticed the appreciation of good lenses. I’m currently in the process of switching from APS-C to FF. And if Sony gives me an option to make an easy transition from A to E mount (like with the new A7IIR but much less expensive and only 24 MP), I’m doing so. So far, I’m preparing.
I have always been a 50mm guy by history. I recently have been to Lisbon with only the 24mm and 35mm (35 and 50mm eqv.). I can’t say, a 35mm would suffice all my needs right now. So, I’d add the 50mm too. But I also need something for landscape: 24mm. And I’m also used to 75mm for portraits (50mm on APS-C) and 100mm (70mm) is great too. But than having 24-35-50-75-100 seems like some steps backwards. So maybe the Sony 28/2 instead of the 24 and 35? What about the upcoming 85/1.8 Batis? But the 55/1.8 and the 85/1.8? To add another layer of complexity: I could buy the 55/1.8 today and use it on my A6000 as a 85mm prime and have a option on the longer end. But the 85mm Batis on APS-C is somewhere like 135mm which I don’t like very much. However, a couple of months ago I started using my Carl Zeiss 135/3.5 a lot because I really like the compression and bokeh. 135mm would be more like 200mm on FF.
You see my dilemma. Options over options … And the best way to deal with it is to look at your past images and decide where you want to head to. At this point, from a rational view, I’d say, I go with 28-85. 28mm would make a good compromise; and the 28/2 is a no-brainer. But than again “compromise” – doesn’t sound right, right? When I switched from my iPhone 4S to the new 6, I fussed because they changed from 35mm to 28mm. Now I want to make a 28mm my primary lens? But I’m very happy with my landscape images at 16mm (=24mm). What about 25-55-85? Looks expensive too. 28-55-85? Mmh … 28-55-200? A 200mm prime is not very compact. 35-85? But the 35/2.8 ZA hasn’t convinced me yet. And what about landscape? … But the more I write, the more convincing this option looks to me. Or 25-85? Many pros are using it. But also the most expensive option.
Should I switch to FF at all? Why would I? Does it make me a better photographer? Does burning 4.000 bucks on my hobby makes me a better family guy? Why not just keep the A6000 with the 24/1.8, get a 55/1.8 and have that 35-85 combo for just 700 €?
Thankfully, Sony hasn’t released the A7III with the A7IIR’s AF system.
And I noticed, I haven’t answered your question but just showed you my struggling. My take: Just grab three zooms and have everything covered from 16-200mm + one fast prime for low light shots. If you hold a gun against my head, I’d say, I go with a 35mm only (although I sometimes prefer 50mm *peng*). If I could start from scratch, I end up in the mess like above and struggle my way out with two or three primes like 24/28/35-(50)-85, forgetting about tele-lenses. Does this one sounds convincing? No?
Oh man, you are worse than me !!!
But I get where you come from and have had a similar trip, albeit with fewer zooms and more primes. I too started digital with a Minolta, then Canon 6D with two white zooms covering a large range, then Nikon with a 18-200, then Sony NEX 5n with primes, Nikon D800e, Sony A7r … But after a while I started wanting to simplify. 6 months ago, there were 14 lenses in my cupboard. Now, only 5 are left and 2 more are leaving soon (two of my favourite, the 135/3.4 Apo-Telyt and the Elmarit-R 19/2.8). I’ll probably settle on 2 or 3 (25-35-85 or just 25-85) and possibly keep one or two more for review purposes. It takes time to sell everything, but it feels good in the end 🙂 So yeah, your proposition sounds convincing!
The family is more important than the gear! No doubts about that!
If you wait a little the A7II will come down in price. That’s essentially an A7rII with 24Mpix and a fantastic camera. That and a good 35 would go a very long way 🙂
I guess that’s how everybody started with photography. You need to find your way/style/passion, and that can only be done by trying out different gear and techniques. And than, when you found your thing, you get rid off the rest. Let’s see how long it’ll take for the next challenge. A man on it’s quest …
Interesting that you’d go for 25-85 combo. I’d thought you’re a standard guy (35, 50 + x). But I may mistake you with one of your co-authors. But it’s so difficult to decide. On one hand you want to stay versatile, on the other you want to free yourself from choice and become one with your gear.
The A7II is very nice, as is the original A7 for under 1k. Actually, I find the original A7 a little bit more interesting because I don’t necessarily need IBIS. All mayor FE lenses do have OSS, for moving objects you still need shorter shutter times and for stills you better use a tripod. And the new one is also bigger than the old. Surely for ergonomic reasons but it somehow foils the idea of a compact form-factor even more. But what I like about the A7RII is the ability of attaching A mount lenses (and Canon), the improvements on the AF and ISO performance, and silent shutter. I hope we’ll find at least AF improvements and silent shutter in the next A7 update for half the price. But the reason why I got the A6000 was AF and size. I would have to give that up. I need to make myself clear, what benefits FF would have for me.
Yes, that’s right. We probably follow a similar path of trial, specialisation and elimination.
If I could only have one lens, it would probably be a 35 (that 35/1.4 ZM, to be specific). With 2, I’d go 25-85. It’s what I’ve been using for the past 3 months and loving every second of it.
But then we get drawn to lenses for other reasons than their focal length and that throws a spanner in the works … I’ve been testing the venerable C-Sonnar and it’s making me love the 50mm focl length that seemed so boring up to now. Go figure …
I thought about this for a while now and obviously it’s about your own habit of photography. Mine is travel photography, so is this site. I think the best lens combo for travel photography is a good mid-range zoom and a special lens at will.
Travel photography is about dealing with uncertainty, seeing the right moment at the right time. Sticking to a prime lens (for doctrinaire reasons) may be a challenge but doesn’t help you capture better pictures. Using a zoom lens is not lazy. It makes a difference shooting at 24, 35, 50 or 75mm. Stepping closer to the subject with your wide angled prime is not the same as shooting with a longer focal length. And if you don’t want to carry a hand full of primes and change them randomly, you need a zoom.
And then, every photographer has its personal passion. Therefore you take your favorite specialty lens with you. Be it a ultra-wide angle lens for landscapes, a 35 or 50mm prime for street photography, a macro lens, a telephoto lens, an old legacy lens, fisheye, underwater action camera … you name it. But just one. That combo keeps your luggage small, makes you focus on one lens at a time and gets you connected to your goals. Maybe this doesn’t sound sexy but works.
As for my camera quest, I fought my GAS and found zen. What I want in my photography is to travel light and stay unobtrusive first. I tend to shoot with smaller apertures (less DOF) and use AF. FF in general and the A7-series in particular don’t help me. Actually I don’t need help at all. I just need to get out and make great photos.
You know what? A couple of days ago, I’d have argued that rendering beats convenience and that dealing with uncertainty is not that important compared to making great photographs. In other words, that focusing on what you do well is more important than focusing on what you miss. After two days of constant lens switching and running to catch up with my family, I think I’ll shut up instead 😉 The single zoom + great prime may well be a great idea during touristy travel.
That’s what I’m talking about. There’s a thing called reality and sometimes it just hits you 🙂
I mean, if you’re in an controlled environment, say street or landscape, and you know what’s coming at you, you can go out with just one (prime) lens and be happy. Or if you have all the time on earth for your photography or are very strict with your visual style, your mileage may vary a lot.
On the other hand, a very good to excellent mid-zoom for native E-mount is still missing. But for any other mount, finding a good one may not be a huge problem.
Hello, with the a7II, here’s my combo :
Sony FE 28, very nice even in corners
Voigtlander sc 1.4 35
Voigtlander Nokton 1.5 50
Voigtlander Heliar classic 1.8 75
Voigtlander Apo Lanthar 3.5 90
and the backup camera is my almost old nex6 with the nokton 1.4 40 on it.
Thanks Thomas. What’s that Voigtlander sc 1.4 35 like ? I know most of the others but not that one. And 1.4/35 has a special place in my heart.
Hello Pascal, the Nokton 35 is definetly the vintage looking lens.
Vintage in building quality, vintage in rendering, also because of the coating.
I found the colors very soft, some vignetting full open, but with some nice sharpness in center already.
The background has some petzval effect at 1,4.
That’s a lens you need to practice to master, like a sonnar 1,5 50.
here’s an example :https://www.flickr.com/photos/nex6sigma/16401919353/in/dateposted-public/
this is straight from camera.
I still need to pratice it but i love it.
Interesting look. I like the colurs a lot, though the Petzval effect is not my cup of tea at all 😉 Thanks !
After many lens combinations I found the following combo that serves me well during travel:
Sony A6000 + Sony 70-200mm FE
Sony A7ii + Sony 16-35mm FE
And a Sony 55mm which I use for low light.
The A6000 with its fast focus is pairing very well with the 70-200mm. The crop sensor also avoids the corners, which are not that great at 200mm full frame.
It almost completely removes the need for me to switch lenses, which is a great improvement in my picture taking capabilities.
Another combo I liked a lot for travel was A6000 + Touit 12mm for interiors and cramped city pictures + Sony Zeiss 16-70mm for general day photography + Sony Zeiss 24mm f1.8 for low light.
That’s an important factor that I didn’t mention: not having to change lenses.
Found your article by accident, and I must say, I was most impressed, Pascal.
One comment, from Ken, is fairly basic – and reminded me of the endless arguments over how many pixels & what size sensor. He is absolutely right, of course. But the discussion started with your theme how many lenses should you “own”, if you want to make “the best possible travel photographs”?
There’s a major fork in the road, with the realities of travel. If you have to lug the junk everywhere, a good zoom is perhaps the way to go – for you, for this trip. If you have porters following with all your gear, take all the glass you can think of – and a sensor cleaning kit.
If you’re alarmed (as I am) at the risk of being caught with your trousers down around your ankles – sorry, wrong image – LOL – caught without a cam, and you have the photo opportunity of a lifetime staring you in the face – get a compact and to hell with the niceties of distortion or pixels – get that damned shot. I rarely go out the front door without stuffing my compact in my pocket – I wince, every time I think of the last shot I missed, for the lack of ANY camera at all.
I have two other cams set-to-go. One has a makro, a 50mm prime and a 45mm tilt-shift – and if the range of travel shots I take was like most other people’s, there’d have to be a tele in there, too. Sigh – I love it, but that’s a ton of weight and the value of that gear puts one hell of a wet blanket over touring with it. The other is a lighter half frame with a respectable zoom. Guess which one scores more trips to the other side of the planet?
If I wanted the “best possible” travel photographs I’d take the full frame and the 3 interchangeable lenses. (The makro is also interesting for travel shots – not just for close up work). And of course, a LeicaQ, for street photography – sigh – out of my reach, thought, for the time being! It’s tempting – but my next trip is a month off, and it’s the half frame & zoom.
Thanks Pete. For me, it’s a real question. The prime / zoom debate always comes down to choosing between security (zoom) and a specific style (primes more often have personality). But some current zooms don’t simply strive for technical greatness but also have a distinct style of their own, making the choice easier. I’m still a firm believer in the 3-prime option, but it’s faire to say temptation is more frequent these days.
2 bodies with 2 lenses is probably a really neat way to go, as you suggest. The added heft and cost have always deterred me, though.
Pascal, oh my gosh, you’ve certainly hit the Mother Lode in this blog article. How wonderful that is. How great that must make you feel. Fantastic!
I too have come to thoroughly enjoy your writing style. Please write more.
But on to the topic.
I cannot disagree with any of your astute observations but…
As I look at photos created by others, I often ask myself “why did he/she take this shot, in this way, at these angles, at those camera settings, yadda,yadda. For the pros, it’s purposeful, but that’s not the subject of this conversation. So, for the non-pros, the answer is because that’s the lens they had and they let the camera do the rest. These people are the ones that you are trying to help here.
For most photographers (that’s who I will address this to) , they are in their current mode of a rabid Gear Acquisition Syndrome that may take place over one year, 5 yrs, 10 yrs or more. The bug feels good. And I like it when people feel good.
So, let’s take a pop quiz to find out where your reader sits on the branches of the Tree of Knowledge.
1. Let’s pretend that you’re on vacation and your goal is to recreate those lovely postcard photos that sit on that vertical rack of every village and town. Which lens dI’d they use?
Tic toc. Tic toc.
Ok, don’t cheat if you think you are the next Ansel Adams. Which is it?
It is the one hundred millimeter lens on full frame equivalent. I spelled that out so that your advanced quick speed readers wouldn’t be able to inadvertently cheat.
Huh? We need to use a 25mm or a 35mm or a 16mm. So, what is the lesson here?
2. I am on my vacation of a lifetime and I truly want to capture the majestic Vistas of the countryside and those mountain peaks…which lens do I choose?
Pascal, I know that you already know the answer but this is a question for your readers.
Tic toc. Tic toc.
So, most will say the wide end of their kit zoom lens that cam with the camera or that first new acquisition zoom lens that you bought because the Internet articles made such glowing recommendations on its MTF curve.
If you use that wide angle lens, then that mountain peak that simply moves you with great majesty will look like a tiny street light post that barely can be seen in the photo. Huh, what good was that?
3. I want my co-traveler’s image standing in front of ___ (church, musee, mountain, statue, lake, water fountain, etc). Which lens do you use here?
Hint of what most people do. Back up far away from the people subject. Place the X in the photo behind or to the side…click.
The people end up being so small in the frame that no one can recognize who they are, but for the color of their clothes. And that majestic X in the background…it sits there like a horse turd.
So, I wholeheartedly;favor traveling light with one lens because it WILL make you a better photographer. You learn to see the image BEFORE you even take off your lens cap. Not only that, but you can actually SEE the finished image in your mind.
If you want to be a photographer who never learns, who gushes with excitement over a set of photos that all look like they were shot through a paper tube from a roll of toilet paper. Who’s photos seem to all look like the same shade of grey. Who gives himself the award for documentarian photographer of the year.
It matters which lens you take because of how it trains you to be a good photographer.
first of all, be careful with those compliments. I’m not use to that and my head will grow oversize 😉 Thanks !!
Secondly, your scenario-based approach is indeed the way to go. And whart that really tells us is that we should learn to identify our goals before deciding on what gear to lusrt for and how to orient our learning process. I’m naturally drawn to primes because they often have a personality of their own and it’s a lot of fun to learn how to best use that look in various lighting conditions. A wildlife photographer will often be more interested in mastering the technicalities of vibration free long lens use.
I recently watched “The Salt of the Earth”, the film describing Sebastiao Salgado’s work. While not at all technical, it is very interesting and I was stunned to see him carry two Canon DSLRs with white zooms. This just proves that superb quality can be obtained from any gear and that “printing” ability is maybe more important than gear. So my official obsession for the second half of this year will be printing techniques 🙂
Cheers and thanks again.
Oh my goodness gracious Pascal:
“I don’t want anyone to appreciate the light or the palette of tones.
I want my photographs to inform, to provoke discussion- and to raise money.”
What a treat. Born in Brazil on February 8, 1944.
I am not a fan of blackjack and white images, but I went through his portfolio. What can I say. Speechless… ….
How moving and how emotional…how incredible.
Pascal, I had never heard of him. I read your comment. I looked and saw a true Master.
I thank you for the experience. Kind of like flying into the clouds to touch the face of God.