#514. 28+85=55. Or how to save cash and your back!

By philberphoto | Opinion

Sep 30


Strange math, isn’t it? One would expect a man with an accounting background to do better. Such as: (25+85)/2=55. Or 25+85= 55×2. Unfortunately for the elegance of the math, I had a 28mm lens and not a 25, and, frankly, I didn’t feel the need for 2 55mm lenses.


But, be it as it may, and damn the math, in my case, 28+85 = 55. Let me tell you why.


I own 3 lenses. A 28mm Zeiss Otus, a 55mm Zeiss Otus, and a 85mm Sony GM. What do these lenses have in common? They are large and heavy. And I go out with them every day, which makes for a heavy bag, every day. But I am also lazy. So, most times, I just don’t change lenses. Yes, I have 3 great lenses with me, but the one that is on my camera stays on my camera, with not-too-frequent exceptions.


Then, after maybe 10 days, I have guilt feelings about owning 3 expensive lenses and only using one, and I switch. One example last week with Pascal. Before a business meeting, we went to the fabled Mont Saint-Michel. One serious evening shoot. I mounted the 85, because from far away I needed the length, and it stayed there for 85% of the time. Only when we got close did I finally mount my 55mm. Next morning before sunup, I got out with last evening’s 55mm. I should have mounted the 85, because once again we started from a distance, but I couldn’t be arsed. It was early, the night had been on the short side, I was grumpy, cold, and not relishing the thought of handling multi-thousand-euro lenses in the dark. So the 55 stayed on all the time.


Once we were done, I thought: great, I schlepped my most expensive and heaviest lens all the way here (the 28 Otus), carried it for hours, and didn’t use it for a single shot. How ludicrous is that? So, out of pure guilt, when we left Cancale after some delicious crèpes -not standard Breton crèpes, but awesome Japon+Breton crèpes from the Breizh Café- I mounted the 28mm, which promptly delivered superb IQ. Next morning early, before work, I go out alone into part of the ocean floor left dry by the low tide, and thought the 28mm would serve me well, so I left the other lenses behind. That is when what I really wanted to shoot, 3 boats lying on their sides until the rising tide would raise them from the seaflloor, proved to be in far too muddy land for my ordinary sneakers to let me get close enough, so I would have enjoyed a longer lens, but I’d cleverly left them behind.


Next morning, I drop Pascal off at la gare, and put in some time shooting the harbour with the 28mm from the day before. Only on the way back did I switch to the 55mm. There you have it: 4 “serious” sessions, meaning planned and with great material, rather than just opportunistic shooting, one shot here and one shot there, and only 3 switches! Pascal had one lens less, for a grand total of 2, and I am sure he switched more often! Although, to be honest, he should be included in the can’t-be-bothered-by-too-many-lenses club, because he left behind a couple of really good ones, and with important FLs, without bothering to take them with him on this trip.


What does all this rambling mean? That I am a lazy old codger getting older? For sure, but not only. What it shows, and what I’ve known for quite some time now, is that I could happily live with fewer lenses. 2, for that matter, straddling 50mm. Like 28mm and 85mm. For me, wider than 28 becomes too specialized, although, if I tried hard enough I might learn how to make it work. And longer than 85 works, as proven by my love story with Long John (Zeiss ZF .2 135mm APO), but having only 28mm and 135 does feel like there would be a gap in the middle. So 35mm and 135mm would probably work for me. Or even one lens only, if it is somewhere in the 35mm to 55mm range. That, by the way, is not good for lens manufacturers, nor for chiropractors and osteopaths.


Fact is, in approaching the Mont Saint-Michel on the first evening, yes, I enjoyed the reach of the 85, but the next morning on the same walk, I used the 55 and didn’t lose a shot. And yes, I could have used the width of the 28 closer up, but again didn’t lose a shot. And when shooting the harbor of Saint Malo, my outbound walk was with the 28 and my inbound one with the 55, and I got pretty much the same tally of shots with both, and equally satisfying -or not- with each one.


Because it is the latest and the greatest craze right now, I feel obligated to consider dumping my system in favor of a mini-MF based one. But, so far, I haven’t see the sort of lenses that would fill my needs the way the ones I have do. They would need to be fast to cover that segment of my shooting, and, so far, the announced Hasselblad lenses are slow (f:3.5, equivalent to f:2.8 FF), and only one Fuji lens promises to be fast (110mm f:2.0, or 78mm f:1.7 FF). Could I live with that one lens only ? I think it might be a bit long, but, give it time, and I am sure that Fuji and Hassy both will develop offerings aimed at parting me from my money. Meanwhile, Sony and Zeiss won’t remain inactive, now, will they?


But why is it then that one prime lens can “do it all” for me, when most photographers feel they are best served with a zoom? The answer is: I can do it, because I have to if I have no other lens. Necessity is the mother of invention. And yes, it involves walking about and working the subject, and sometimes finding ways to tell the story with tidbits rather than with a full display. But, hey, if it worked for mighty Henri Cartier-Bresson, who only used a 50mm lens, maybe it can work for me too? Besides, from a technical point of view, having 42Mp means I can crop really, really deep and still retain useable IQ. That helps too, to be honest.


This morning, for the first time in donkey’s years, I left home with a very small bag (for me that is, though gear was still 1,5kg) and only one lens. Not only was I grateful for the lesser bulk and weight, but I didn’t feel underequipped. If anything, I felt liberated. No “obligation to have it all” anymore. I was going to do it “my way”. Because, strange as it may seem, the more versatile my system, the more “common” my shots get. The more I shoot the obvious, the optimum, the ID-cum-postcard shot. And when I can’t because my laziness hobbles my range of gear, I have to make choices, and the ones I make are individual. And my shots take on a personality that they lack when I am in a position to do the obvious.


And lest you think that this is an ode to my out-of-the ordinary capability to do it all with just one lens, many others shoot cameras with just a fixed prime lens, from Sigma, Ricoh, Leica (the Q) or Sony (RX1).


So, where does this lead me? I feel ready to go single-lens for everyday. Do I feel ready to go for a full landscape shoot? Not yet, but I will try, with my other lenses close at hand though. What gear could then best meet my needs? A mini-MF with fixed lens would be a dream. A Leica Q with the S sensor, or the RX1 with Hassy-Pentax sensor. Why do I have the strange feeling that, with more players than before going for the very high end of the camera market, someone is bound to do it?dsc02021_1

Oh, and the pics on this post? A random mix of 85mm, 55mm and 28mm. Sort out which is which if you care, which frankly I don’t. But your feedback, as ever, is much appreciated.








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  • Paul Perton says:

    Lovely dawn/dusk shots, Philippe. Doesn’t mater what you shot them with, they’re wonderful, moody and a fair representation of some well planned shots on a memorable trip. More please.

  • Alistair Barclay says:

    Lovely images, regardless of the focal length and your internal debate over choices.

    With my A7r2 all I now carry is the Sony /Zeiss 55 , 1.8 and the Sony 90 macro and never fail to be surprised how I don’t miss a zoom lens

    • philberphoto says:

      Thanks, Alastair! Interesting that we find ourselves at close to the same place, lens-wise. Though, in my case, to handle close-ups, I use 2 tubes (8mm and 14mm on my 55mm Otus). Quality is unaffected, and, weight-and-cost-wise, well…. The new Sony 50 f:2.8 macro is something I’d like to try out, though, because the 90 is so good.

    • JF says:

      Hi Alistair,
      I used to carry arround the 35/2.8 and 90 Macro (great lens). But after buying the 55 I mostly use my A7s and the 55/1.8 in a small bag – perfect for everyday shooting.
      Useing a macro tube for close ups is a good idea – and a “Little” lighter as the 90mm 😉

  • Gianfranco says:

    Hello Philippe.
    Say hello to Pascal!
    I agree with you. In Provence last summer I brought a 20, 50 and medium zoom with a D750. The pictures I took with the fixed lenses are nicely composed and tought out. Meanwhile the zoom lens gave me more Blah! Shots. Zoom in, zoom out click! Tourists pictures.
    And yes I did not like to swap lenses so I had to be more careful and artistic with the fixed.
    Couple times I left with the 50 only, weight and heat don’t mix well with us Canadians. Great pictures. As my tutor used to say: beware of the photogtapher with only one lens. Because he knows exactly what to expect.
    By the way great shots at dawn.
    Ciao. Gianfranco

  • Mark Muse says:

    Yes, lovely work. I know this is beside the point, but what raw converter are you using?

    • philberphoto says:

      Thanks, Mark. I use Capture One. They are Sony’s official partner, and I believe if you buy an A7RII, you get a free copy of C1, with full features but limited to Sony cameras. I wrote a comparison between C1 and LightRoom, in 2 posts on DearSusan, and aquick search shouldlet you find them if you are interested.

  • David Mack says:

    You have raised the quintessential question regarding “walk around photography”, which lens to use so as avoid heavy packs and frequent changes of lenses risking dirt flying onto the sensor. Consideration of distance, amount of available light, and subject are challenging. Recently I have tried an old 1.4 50mm prime for such missions for shooting inanimant things. It is fun and challenging because of distance vs focal length and hyper-focal issues. I guess that’s why the variable power lenses are so popular, they don’t require so much brain work to achieve the desired length, or foot work. Fixed lenses obviously require the shooter to move back and forth in framing the shot. Part of the fun is learning and utilizing the full potential of the fixed lens.

    • philberphoto says:

      As you put it, some lenses require less brainwork than others. That has let me pin down what I/we actually want: to make brainy pictures without brainwork…:-)))

  • JF says:

    There’s an easy solution – SEL55F18Z
    In comparison to the Otussis it will be your superlight mini Setup 🙂 For Manual there are also a few nice lenses from Zeiss out there …

    • philberphoto says:

      Hi JF. Yes, for many people that could be a good answer. I am however in the minority who happen not to like the FE 55. I tried it twice, bought it once, and really didn’t get with it. My loss, I know.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I feel decidedly peculiar – you’ve just been “preaching to the converted”, in my case. Except that I can’t be bothered getting a telephoto lens – a new printer would be more useful, perhaps the next time when the present one runs out of ink.
    Jealous as hell of these shots – I have yet to make it to Saint-Michel – maybe the trip after next. Plotting and scheming to get there, though, and the hints on where to eat have been noted.
    In the meantime I am left in awe, staring at your photos.

    • philberphoto says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Pete! Though, to be honest, credit for the pictures lies in no small part with Pascal, because his being there, and knowing that we will look at each other’s shots later on, forces me to up my game. Not that we compete with each other, but he reminds of the joys of having made the most of a situation, like the bike shot in this post, and the frustration of not having seen what was there for him to put into a delightful shot…
      On that, you mention “next trip”. If you happen to be around Paris, how about a meet-greet-and-shoot if our schedules happen to mesh?

  • Tom says:

    lovely images. A camera with a lens in the 35-55mm range can do a lot. I love for example the M with just 50mm.
    By the way the S+70/2.5 might work well for you too if you like to go to a larger sensor.

    • philberphoto says:

      Hi, Tom! Thanks for the kind words! Yes, a Leica S with a 70 would get the job done rather nicely!:-) But as of now, I have been infected by Pascal. His new habit of making -I can’t really call them “pictures”, let’s call them “snappies”- with is cell-phone has made me try it out. And he has a point. It is just soooo easy! So I am trying to think how I ma going to retain some of that easy, quick spontaneity but still with a “serious” camera.

  • Yeahhh says:

    I’d take a RX1 with a 50mm first!

    But yes, the mighty quest for the lens kit. Could it be that your focal lengths are not far enough spreaded? Maybe 21, 55 and 100mm? That would maybe make more of a difference.

    But for me, the difference between 35 and 50mm is huge. But I take only one of them with me, depending on the circumstances. The 35 for family things, the 50 for strangers. It all depends on the working distance. 21 then a effect, and a portrait, also because of distance – and rendering. And rarely 200 for the effect.

    • philberphoto says:

      I have long waited for a 50mm RX-1. Actually then I would probably gone out with 2 bodies, one of each RX-1. Pretty much the way Sigma did it with DP-1-2-3. But I don’t see it happening now…

  • Bumpy says:

    Lovely images. Your lens angst strikes home with me, though I afford myself only the budget zeiss rather than the glorious Otus. I have a nice 28mm contax, 45 and 90 contax g kit, but grew tired of lens juggling so bought the contax 28-85 zoom. I did quite a lot of trying to shoot with one prime before I caved in and bought the zoom. I find that having both options suits me, the zoom best when I travel with others (family, friends) who grow impatient with careful framing, the prime or primes best when I go out alone or shoot a particular venue or event. Over time I am finding that choosing the right lens or lenses for each outing, without resorting to the kitchen sink approach, is a vital skill for both enjoyment and results (I should note that I have quite a collection of lenses covering many special cases from 500mm f4 to 85 f1.4 to macro, etc, etc. so choice is essential). I agree that making do with one lens can stimulate creativity and yield unique and wonderful results. A poorly chosen lens, however, can be immensely frustrating and prevent getting the shots you most want to get even with 42mp of leeway to crop.

    Of course my 28-85 zoom weighs as much as my 3 little primes together so I haven’t a great burden of weight. In your case I’m sure if there were an Otus zoom it would weigh as much as your three not so little primes – so seems unlikely you will have the same choice, at least not without quite a large price in weight or lower IQ. Still I think choosing wisely among ones kit for each outing is an important skill worthy of thought and practice.

    Choice is a luxury of course, something I try to remember every time I pack my bag and more so when I rue the lens I did not bring. That I have the means to capture images at all is a wonder of modern science and industry all too easily taken for granted. That I can so readily enjoy your images an even greater miracle of our times.

    • philberphoto says:

      Thanks, Bumpy! Actually, there are a small number of limited-amplitude zooms which exhibit very good quality indeed, qquite prime-like actually. Like the Contax C/Y 35-70 f:3.4. Or the Leica 35-70 f:4.0. I haven’t tried the Contax G, because it didn’t fit my Sony E-mount, but the rest of the range is so good that I am redy to believe it ranks right up there too. If there were a more modern version of that approach for Sony FE, I might well be tempted….

  • rudran says:

    Hi Phillipe,
    I would be remiss not to thank you and Pascal for an ongoing vicarious photographic experience. It has been a very long period since I have enjoyed France.
    I have the same lenses and somewhat of the same quandry,,,Usually I take all of them and switch as I “see” the need to. However some days I select a lens…from the loxia 21mm, the Otus 28, 55. 85 or 135f2 APO and shoot only that lens on the Sony 7R11. This has proven to be be frankly the best self referral learning experience, that is, allowing me to really get to know the lens and develop my eye to know when best to draw from it.

  • Birger says:

    “So, most times, I just don’t change lenses. Yes, I have 3 great lenses with me, but the one that is on my camera stays on my camera, with not-too-frequent exceptions”

    This sounds strangely familiar. I used to lug around big cameras and heavy bags but now I’m down to one camera and two small lenses in a belt-bag most of the time. I take more equipment when I am confident that there will be a need in a specific situation or project but my daily walk-around load is pretty unobtrusive. This works for hours without a sore back, and the resulting photographs are better than ever.

    I’d love to try a RX1II as an everyday camera (35 mm used to be my most used focal lenght) but that is very unlikely to happen.

  • Tillmann says:

    Oh you were in Cancale! But it appears you’ve missed the Pointe de Grouin which is a petite peninsula close to cancale and provides a 350° view vor great landscapes. I once accidentally got a picture of a blood moon rising there. (Yay for uninformed landscape photogs)

    • philberphoto says:

      I know the Pointe de Grouin. Unfortunately Pascal and I drove by when the mid-day light was harsh, and that left no opportunity like the one you enjoyed. But it is inded a great spot.

  • Eric C says:

    Phillipe, I always enjoy reading your thoughts and experiences. I also love the photos you take with your Otus trinity and as a result have been hoping Sony quickly releases a 28 GM to complete a native-fast trinity of 28, 50 and 85. Combined with the Batis 18, I’d be set. I recently spent 3 wks in Italy split between the Ligurian coast and the Dolomites and brought 5 primes (18, 25, 35, 50, and 85) but generally only had 2 lenses with me at any given time (one on the camera and one attached to a PD LensCapture). Before heading out each day, I consider my plans and my mood and select 2. Once out, I never sweat my choice and use my available options to push my creativity.

    In 2013, I spent the year with just the 35/2.8 and in 2014 just the 55/1.8. I was surprised at how versatile those focal lengths were and it was more out of a sense of wanting to avoid boredom (looking at the world always through one angle of view) that i decided to expand my options.

    In any case, I think you’re spot on and, if I may (for personal reasons), once again implore Sony to release a 28 GM !

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