#877. Lens line-up. Episode 1: the one-lens sytem.

By philberphoto | Opinion

Jul 15
Dusk over Saint-Jean de Luz

I was at a blessed place. My gear was stolen, so I could start afresh. Oh, the bliss of being in a position to toy with endless possibilities, owning each and all of them in my mind. It is so cosmically great that I recommend each of us get his/her gear stolen on a regular basis. Not. Aw hell…

beauty au naturel

The one-lens system. I had never used a one-lens sytem. Actually, a typo made me write “a lone-lens sytem”, which is so meaningful in many people’s eyes. A one-lens system cannot be complete, cannot be a choice, only a place of refuge, right? Well….. As it happens, I have been on my way to rebuilding a system, and have shot with one prime lens only for a year…


A one-lens system has many advantages. It is light (except if you go for the many-lenses-into-one called the zoom lens, which would be defeating the purpose). It is cheaper than multiple lenses of the same calibre (what else is new?). You get to know this lens intimately. You don’t have to change lenses in the field and drop one, or get dust all over your images.

In a metro station in Paris, supposedly art

There is a simplicity, an immediacy, a carefree attitude to carrying a light bag with a camera and lens. Open the bag, whip out the camera, turn it on, and, bang! take the shot. With many pixels on tap, one can crop brutally before running out of resolution, so a wide focal length doesn’t (completely) rule out detail photography.

Flower family…

Logic would have it that a one-lens system be limiting in terms of shooting opportunities, because that cannot cater to the wide variety of subjects “out there”. Yet it is with a one-lens setup that I take the most pictures. Why? Because lightness and ease-of-use trump gear performance. When it is simple, light, quick, I just try more things more often. Freedom of mind and lightness of gear. Man over machine kind of thing. Yeah!

A bike, sort of, but not THE bike

That said, not all prime lenses lend themselves to being good for one-lens sytems. Thet need to have a wide shooting envelope. Which means few things “they can’t do”, or “aren’t good at”. So the shooting envelope must include good performance close up and at infinity, good wide open and stopped down, good for colour and for B&W. Good for sharpness and for bokeh.

For focal length, one can go two ways. Either start wide, and, when appropriate, crop in. You lose pixels, but keep depth-of-field at the expense of bokeh. Or start standard, and go panorama. That is the high-pixel road, but depth-of-field can be lacking, and panos aren’t always quick-and-easy. So why go for the simplicity of one-lens and then make it complicated again with a pano?

Snake shot….

In my time as a multi-lens chap, 50mm was “my thing”. While I did enjoy 35mm, 50mm always felt like home. Then I got to use a 28mm for one-lens shoots, and did get good results, but not what I would call “home”. But my one-lens sytem is a 25mm (Zeiss Loxia 25mm f:2.4, a superlative lens and a must-buy IMHO), and I have never felt it to be “too wide”. That is when the one-lens system feels right and comes into its own. When the worry stops and freedom sets in.

Strange flying objects…

Though it is hard to put into words, when I had a mutli-lens system, I tried to make the most of the subject. How best to “do” the subject. When I have a single-lens sytem, and the subject is not perfectly suited to the focal length I have (which happens most of the time, of course), then the burden of “doing” the subject perfectly is off the table, because it just can’t be done. So what remains is how far I can raise my game to make the most of what I have at hand. Different space, different energy. To me, much more liberating than frustrating.

At last, THE bike!

It is almost as though, when fitted out with an array of überlenses, that I “have to” make a great image, or else I am just a jackass, which is sort of a “heads I lose, tails I don’t win” proposition. Whereas, with a single-lens that is not optimal for the subject, it becomes more a “heads I don’t lose, tails I win” situation. If you can’t make a great image with the wrong gear, that is hardly a failure, right? But if you can, kudos!

Some will say (Pascal would, of course), that you can have a full complement of lenses and go out with just one. Well, that is true and not true. Fair enough, you “can” do it. But the very fact that you have a choice defeats the one-lens purpose. You lose the discipline, the minimalism that comes from being forced to make do with you have. You lose the intimacy that comes from seeing your subjects through only one eye.

More Saint-Jean de Luz…

The somewhat counter-intuitive lesson a single-lens system teaches is that it is the very opposite of a smartphone, though that, too, has a single fixed-focal-length lens. The smartphone does not require -actually does not offer- any form of in-depth partnership between lens and shooter. No discipline or learning curve required. Point and shoot, at anything and everything, and some will be better than others. Single lens systems are the opposite, and, as such, require a bit of non-financial investment, meaning time and dedication, but can be so gratifying, in that their use is so unencumbered, and the results so satisfying. HCB anyone?


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  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    OMG – for a moment, there, I thought I must have upset the site’s moderator, because the panel allowing me to contribute any comments on your post failed to materialise, Philippe.
    As I read through your article, I found myself thinking this could go one of two ways.
    Version A – everything simply becomes a matter of opinion. In the world of “opinion-itis”, everyone is right (everyone – namely, everyone A – is entitled to their own opinions) and everyone – everyone A, once again – is wrong (so is everyone else – because they outvote everyone A).
    But of course I am on record as dismissing opinion-itis as a blot on the landscape and no sort of think tank whatsover. I live in a world where people aren’t permitted the luxury of opinionistic bigotry, and people have conversations and discussions, viewpoints, and a perpetual quest for a better space to be in.
    So as I followed the course of your comments, I found myself thrown onto two realities.
    One – my “serious” photography – which sprang out of my first camera (a decidedly second hand Kodak Box Brownie) and rising quickly through the ranks, within a decade or so was firmly rooted in Carl Zeiss’s Contarex SLR system. For half a century I took mostly B&W – and when the time came to move on, into digital, and I tried to review and appraise my analogue years, to determine what I should buy, I realised that I had made remarkably little use of the w/angle and telephoto lenses in my kit. Practically all of those photos were taken with the 50mm Planar.
    I then dived into digital, made a few “mistakes” and regrouped a couple of times, but again found that until quite recently, practically all of my photos in the digital era have been with the standard prime 50mm lens. Not that I am discriminating against the others – dear me, no – racial discrimination is illegal in this country! (Well in theory anyway – just don’t say that in front of our indigenous population – they might have words to say on that subject! – and who’d blame them?)
    Is it because I have failed to listen, and failed to find the right place to stand, before pressing the trigger button? Or is it a tribute to the lens?
    Actually I think it’s neither – I think it’s because a standard 55 or 55 mm lens approximates to how we ourselves see, making it a natural choice for a means to capture and image of what we are seeing.
    Other lenses serve other purposes. When I mentioned I made little use of them “until recently”, it was because in recent times I have found a great deal of use, in fact, for “other lenses”.
    1 – macro lenses. In the past few years I have taken literally thousands of macro shots. I love doing it!
    2 – super telephoto lenses. I’ve an assemblage of glass that enables me to shoot up to 1.8M, to take extraordinary panorama shots and other weird things, including astro photography.
    3 – tilt/shift lenses. For use with food or architectural photography.
    4 – zooms. Once sneered at and despised, these are re-entering the market at the serious end. Great for working with pets or children, for birding, for motor & other sports, aircraft (a form of tin “bird”, really) and so on.
    So I am tempted to answer the question which seems to be an undercurrent through your article by saying “there is no answer – that is the answer!”. Because everyone will choose wha they want, to shoot with.
    And nothing – or very little – that is said on a site like this will change that. Instead, each of us will go off and do our own thing. You say Milvus – I say Optus – someone else cries Canon – and do I here Nikon & Sony & SIGMA & Uncle Tom Cobbly and all, in the background? Yes of course I do. It’s quite bad enough being told we all keep photographing the same things – God forbid, that we should all take to doing it with the same gear!

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I think I need to do some more english lessons. After nearly 77 years of wrestling with this language, I still find myself making stupid errors in it. Before the moderator can deal with my latest post, I skimmed through it and found at least two. And no means of correcting them. Never mind – the generally meaning of what I was trying to say is still there. Perhaps when Pascal redesigns the site, we will be allowed to sneak back and make corrections to the errors we make in our posts.

  • Lash LaRue says:

    Excellent, except for the comments about the iPhone. I will not argue, merely wave my hand towards Jack Hollingsworth’s photos.

    • philberphoto says:

      Thanks, Lash! My comment re the iPhone wasn’t meant as a dig (I own a brand new one). Only a reminder that, from a technical standpoint, a single-lens system with a 25mm lens looks very much like an iPhone, which is rather counterintuitive, wouldn’t you say? Yet they lead to being used in very different ways. To each his/her own.

  • Dan says:

    This is subject that has preoccupied me a lot over the years. After much turnover I cut down my system to 7 lenses out of which 2 are posted for sale now – so 5 left. Usually I take with me 2-3 lenses when travelling and choose one in the morning for the rest of the day. depending on what I will shoot – wide angle zoom for city travel, 35mm small prime if I have to be nimble and light, normal zoom for everything else. If I have to take specialist shots – like surfers, planes, ships I usually add a long zoom as an extra.

    Whatever I did, I was not able to cut my travel load under 2 lenses – usually a 24-70mm f2.8 for everyday use and a 35mm small prime for when I want a small setup and as backup. Or a 16-35mm f2.8 and an 85mm for travel through Europe’s cities.

    One strong reason to travel with two lenses is for redundancy – if one lens fails or has an accident, you still can take pictures and your nice expensive camera body can still be used, instead of being forced to use a (shudder) cellphone only.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Dan, that’s my approach too. 5 lenses, 2 or 3 with me in the bag and one chosen in the morning that most likely won’t get taken off all day. Works perfectly.

      • Dan says:

        I tried long and hard to achieve the one lens only approach – and I discovered that when you travel that lens has to be a zoom – together with a small prime either as a backup or to add a missing (longish) focal length to the mix.

        However romantic the notion of travelling with only one small prime is, you are just missing too many shots in places where very likely you will never travel again.

        • philberphoto says:

          Dan, you have a point. Obviously a small prime can’t really do it all. So it comes down to choice: doing it all costs more, weighs more, takes more time and energy. And costs in other ways too, as I’ve tried to point out. Look at it this way: a symphonic of philharmonic orchestra has a wider array of possibilities than, say a quartet, let alone a single string instrument. But when I listen to a Bach partita or sonata for single violin or cello, am I missing the orchestra? Oh, no! Even a single instrument can open up a whole world of possibilities. Which doesn’t mean that I have lost interest in or love for symphonic music.

          • Dan says:

            I think that it comes down, as usual, to what one wants in life. And to one’s travel style.

            If you want to document and create a chronicle of your travels very likely the zoom is a better fit, with all the complications that you enumerate above.

            If you just travel for your personal enjoyment, then using one little fixed lens adds to the overall feeling of freedom. I traveled once with just my iPhone and its equivalent 28mm an 50mm lens and I had a great sense of freedom and enjoyment. Down to the lack of stress regarding equipment theft and pictures backup while traveling.

            Great article! I am looking forward to the next ones in the series.

  • Fred says:

    For as long as I have enjoyed DS, the most pleasing aspect of this site has been the quality of the images you have produced to support your opinions.

    In this case, Philippe’s photos amaze me. For a photographer of his ability this lens choice is clearly supported. It reminds me of a trip I made to New Orleans with a lens of similar length (a distagon 28). I had forgotten how well that lens worked! As usual, this has been a great read!

  • Dallas says:

    Philippe, your best post ever IMHO, congratulations, looking forward to the next episode.

  • Sean says:

    Hi Philippe,

    Like yourself, I have a favourite lens of a particular focal length – the 50mm lens – in contrast to, say your 25mm lens choice. I cut my photographic teeth on the 50mm focal length. My minds eye is now set and framed in a 50mm space. This creates some difficulties when looking at the world through another focal length, but it does not stop me from using either a shorter or longer focal length.

    The 50mm lens, for me, has become a good staging point to judge what focal length, if needed, I should go – short or long – so the final lens choice fits both my minds eye and the environment I find myself photographing. The aim is to craft images to look true to my minds eye.

    Given I do take decisions to change focal length, the vast majority of my images have a 50mm lens genesis. A 50mm focal length keeps me on my toes, because I can’t aggressively swagger into a scene with machine gun approach. The 50mm dictates I consider the intent of my image along with its composition. That does not mean, for example, a wider lens is not useful, but I know I must be aware of distance, distortion, and additional inclusions a wider lens imposes, if used without due consideration. For that reason, I find both wider and longer lenses not easy to use, because the 50mm focal length is my normalised frame and field of view.

    Having said that, there have been times where the 50mm focal length is too limiting. For example, my most successful images were taken with lenses of shorter focal lengths; for example, the 25mm in Greece; the 43mm in France; and anywhere from 50mm to 28mm in Italy, Spain and Portugal.

    The routine is to start with the 50mm as a sounding board and then change focal length from there, and consciously limit myself to the alternative focal length for a days photography; but the 50mm focal length is my cornerstone lens.

    Lastly, you have utilised the 25mm focal length with skill and precision, as shown by the images you’ve posted above.


    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      I find that because I’ve taken so many photos – and such a very high percentage of ALL of my photos – using a 50 or 55, it kind of trains my “eye” to see that way – to approach the subject to the point where I think it will be the lens that fits the scene. Lord – that’s what I’ve BEEN doing, for nearly 70 years, and it’s ingrained, now – hard to break the habit – worse than giving up smoking!
      That said, my original w/angle seemed to me to distort images (particularly architectural ones) in a manner that modern w/angles no longer appear to – and of course we now have excellent programs (ike DxO’s ViewPoint) that give us an easy way to rectify most distortion anyway.
      And in more recent years, possibly stemming from a fascination with detail generated by exploring macro photography, I’ve taken a lot more interest in telephoto lenses – like Nikon’s 70-200, for example, which jumps to a fascinating 105-300 on my D500, and makes a great combo for stuff like capturing windsurfers in the Indian Ocean coast a kilometre from here. Also for details in other places – and for shooting over the heads of tourists, instead of having them spoil the image.
      Unfortunately my wife would cut my throat, if I took things like my tilt/shift w/angle and the 70-200 (and D500) with me, as well as the more usual selection – air travel, thieves, et al impose severe restrictions on the junk we can choose from, when we buzz off to other countries to indulge our mania to contribute our share to the trillion other photos being taken each year, these days.

    • philberphoto says:

      My guess is that, had a 50mm lens that meets all the attribute sof the Loxia 25 been avaialable, my trek would have begun, with said 50mm. Or a 35mm. Or a 28mm. Selecting the Loxia 25 was choosing shooting envelope and performance over focal length. But, for all of you who make a case that one lens is not enough, I draw your attention to the fact that this post begins with “Episode One”…. More soon…

  • Dave says:

    As I started out in photography, and I will exclude the time before becoming a teenager, I got by on a camera with a 50mm lens. My first SLR was a Zenit E with a 58mm Helios lens. Using at my many cousins weddings, I earned enough money to buy various Olympus cameras (OM1, OM2 and an OM10) which all came with 50mm lenses. Later, when I started working for a living, I bought my first Nikon, an F3, with a 50mm f1.4 lens. It stood me in good stead on various holidays and for all those photos of my daughter growing up. (Just in passing, autofocus and 3D tracking were not even a distant dream then yet we got by. It was apparently not so difficult to focus a boisterous girl as it is made out to be today). It was not so long ago that I gave the Nikon F3 to her.

    Only with the coming of digital photography were zoom lenses the norm and not the exception. I got to know the 18-55mm and the 55-200mm.

    Yet for all that, and since I bought full frame cameras, the 50mm lens has remained. Over the years I have, among other lenses, bought various used and new 50mm lenses, two of which have autofocus. Although I also have wide angle and telephoto lenses, some of which are excellent, I still come back to 50mm lenses. I know where to stand when I frame a photo and the lens is universal enough to be good for just about everything.

    However, there is an exception. The bank didn’t want me to continue with a savings account – they were paying too much interest – and I bought a Nikon D850 and a Nikon 24-120mm F4 zoom lens.

    I have never taken it off the camera. I use it for panoramas, street photography and it works well as a portrait lens. Regardless of what some pixel peekers write, I love its sharpness and colours. It’s the combination I mostly carry when I leave the house – be it for taking photos or just going shopping. (There is often an analogue camera in my rucksack, too, but that is another story).

    So, at the end of the day, I’d almost certainly choose a 50mm lens if I only had to take just one of them. I was recently a couple of days in England and I took just one. I could have taken three primes (35mm, 50mm and 90mm) but I knew one is enough. That said, and know it may sound strange, I could envisage just using my Voigtlander APO Lanthar 90mm f/3.5 on my next holiday. It certainly gives you a different perspective!

    • Dan says:

      Ha, ha – my first camera has also been a Zenit E. Afterwards I got a Zenit TTL with a 50mm lens which I still have in a drawer somewhere!

      And yes, I am also most comfortable with a 50mm lens, as this is what I used for about 10 years during my teenage formative years. Even though 35mm is a close second, as my first automated point and shoot had a fixed 35mm lens, which I also used for a good few years…

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