What Lens Should I Bring?

In Pep Talks, The Craft, The Life Creative, Thoughts & Theory by David43 Comments

If I could use only one lens for the rest of my life, it would be a 16-35mm (unless I was photographing bears, in which case I’d want 600mm). But then again, if that bear was really far away, I might want 1200mm. Or if I were underwater, then I’d want my 15mm fisheye. Oh, and then there are portraits for which I might want something more like 85mm. Maybe.

Choosing a lens—not only the lens you want to use in the moment but the one you might want to bring on a trip or even for a walk through town—is never an easy choice, especially since the heft of a camera bag always seems to be so much more than the sum of its parts.

So since you most likely can’t bring everything without getting so weighed down that you’re exhausted before you get to the end of the driveway, how might you be thinking about the lenses you bring along and use?
In October, I wrote a piece about choosing and using the “right” gear. That article was really about your initial choice or purchase of your camera and lenses. This article is about what you choose to put in your bag at any given time, and I’ve got three questions I think might help.

What Do I Like?
This is a question of taste and aesthetics; it’s like a painter asking what hues she loves. I love the wider, more inclusive feeling of an ultra-wide lens. I love the strong foregrounds it makes possible. I love the expansive feeling those wider focal lengths help create. I love the visual depth they give my photographs. And in most cases, I like that they force me to get so much closer and to be part of the action. I do not love 50mm. Never have.

It’s not about the lens; it’s about the behaviour. Specifically, what do the resulting photographs look like?

If you went through your best work from the last five years, would one focal length or range of focal lengths be represented more than others? When I’m choosing a lens, whether it’s a prime lens with a single focal length or a zoom lens, my very first consideration is this: do I like the way that lens makes my photographs look and feel?

Every focal length treats space differently and creates a certain aesthetic. Learn what you like. The clearer you are on that, the more easily you can begin to answer the question about which lens (or lenses) to bring. But it’s not the only consideration.

What Are the Possibilities?
Being clear on your tastes is important, but every context in which you photograph is different: different space, different moments, different possibilities. So knowing (or perhaps guessing) what those possibilities are can be helpful. Not once in Venice have I wished for a 600mm lens. The combination of preferring wider focal lengths and the knowledge that the city itself is so tight and crammed means there’s just no need.

But a week with polar bears? I’ll pack my 600mm and both 1.4x and 2x teleconverters. Because the possibilities range from bears fairly close to bears far away (and even when the bears are distant, I will probably want wider images to show scale), I’ll also pack my 100-400mm. But if there’s a chance I might want to photograph the landscape itself or the aurora borealis at night, I’ll also want my 16-35mm. And a tripod.

“What are my possibilities?” is a helpful question but should probably be expanded: “What are my possibilities and what kind of photographs will I most want to make of those situations?” is better. It helps to know your tastes and desires. Do you need to bring a different lens or even optical filters with you? That’s easily answered if you know what you like, what’s possible, and what you desire in terms of outcome.

It also helps to consider what is not possible.

What Are My Constraints?
For my polar bear trip, I knew transport was by 4×4 vehicles. I could bring the biggest lens I wanted, and if I wasn’t using it, I could leave it in the van. The same is true on safari. But when I’m walking around for days on end in India or Italy, it’s very much not the case. Perhaps you’re limited by what you can and can’t carry on the small plane, or you’ve got to hike in to a location and just can’t bring it all. In such case, knowing where you might be limited helps you exclude a lens or combine two faster, longer focal lengths in a zoom lens that is smaller and lighter but also a little slower.

Knowing what’s important to me helps narrow this all down. If I know the very top priority is a photograph I’ve wanted for years and if I could only come back from my current trip or day out in the field with that one image, then the question is, “What will it take to make it?” The rest will be less important, and can be left at home if necessary.

It’s one part taste, one part anticipation of the possibilities, and one part knowing my constraints.

It’s also 100% creative thinking, and this is where I wanted to lead you. Ultimately—because your fears are still going to be some version of “but what if I bring the wrong lens?”—the creative photographer makes do with what she has. You make choices. You adapt. The 1200mm lens would have given you possibilities inaccessible with the 600mm lens, but the opposite is also true; thinking about the shots you’re missing is uncreative and unhelpful. On every trip I’ve ever taken, I’ve briefly wished I had brought a different or additional lens or piece of gear. Where’s my macro lens when I need it? Where’s that polarizer? My kingdom for a tripod!

That’s life. It always will be. And you will still make magic with what you’ve got.

You will also learn. The more you do this and the more you pay attention, the better you will be at anticipating the sweet spot that lies at the intersection of what you like, what is possible, and where you are constrained and forced into thinking more creatively. We will always be hemmed in by what is impossible, but that’s not a barrier to creative work; it’s the context in which we do our best work.

That faster lens will create some new possibilities, it’s true. It’s also true you will make something beautiful (though different) with that smaller, slightly slower lens if that’s all you’ve got and you’re willing to think creatively. And yes, that longer lens would have let you do something compositionally that you can’t do with the shorter one, but not if it prevents you from getting there because it’s too big, too heavy, or costs the price of the airfare.

There’s a give and take in every choice.

So, which lens should you bring? Ask yourself what you like and want, which kinds of possibilities might present themselves, and which limitations are unavoidable. Then make your choices, focus on the what-ifs rather than the if only’s, and go make something beautiful.

This is the last you’ll hear from me this year. I hope you have a holiday filled with light and laughter. I hope you’re able to spend time with those you love, and those who love you. Don’t let the camera get in the way, but also don’t forget that these moments will never come again. The photographs that will one day mean the most to you will never win an award or get comments and likes; it will be those that bring to memory the people and the moments that make your life rich and full. Merry Christmas, my friend.

For the Love of the Photograph,


  1. I love all the thought provoking ideas here. Always a give and take fir sure. Every decision has consequences and consequences are not necessarily bad.

    I like to be on the move when I’m out photographing. So I have a couple of strategies I employ on each venture.

    Do I have specific goals for what I want to photograph today or am I going out with a more flexible approach and want to be ready for anything. If the former I take the one lens/gear combo that gets me that shot and maybe another lens for something I’m hoping I might find along the way. If the later I take my mos5 versatile gear with me and explore with an open mind trying to use those tools to photograph whatever I happen upon.

    Kyle Reynolds

  2. Thanks a lot! Started photographing only a few years ago, but never really got anywhere. Your blog helped me a lot in getting aware of what camera equipment I need. If I’m going to be creative I need the right equipment 🙂

  3. For me, it is about returning to my roots. When I began photography late in life (I was 30 yo), I had just an Olympus OM-10 and Zuiko 50mm f1.8 lens. Once I got caught up by Ansel Adams’ landscapes in b&w, I looked around for what subject matter interested me. I became a fan of Cartier-Bresson and headed out on a path to document life. Eventually, at the age of 50, I quit my program management position, moved to Florida, got a job with a one-year-old weekly newspaper that was very photo friendly. That lasted for a decade until the print industry collapse. Today I have returned to those original roots with a Yashica Electro35 GS fixed lens and a Fuji X-Pro2 and XF 34mm f2 lens, both are my way of returning to where I started and to the inspiration of the early street shooters along with several of present-day photojournalists and street shooters. Love your columns and emails and will continue to follow you into 2022!

  4. Pingback: Monday Missive — December 20, 2021 | RichEskinPhoto.com: Nature, Fine Art and Conservation Photography

  5. Interesting article and so true. Great tips to keep in mind.
    Question for you, why have stepped away from social media

    1. Another really insightful piece, thank you sir. Back in 2015 I bought a Canon A1 from a retired photojournalist for the local newspaper in Fukuoka, Japan. He had to retire from severe arthritis in his fingers, but previous to his retirement he had used that same camera either the 50mm f1.4 lens for over 30 years. When I met him he told me how “that’s all I need.” It really stuck with me.

      Wishing you a very happy holiday season, and a delightful 2022. All the very best, Jay

  6. Thank you David for another inspiring email. This is worth a deeper reflection.
    I looked through my photos and I saw that I shot most of the focal length from 28 to 38 mm.
    Merry Christmas to David and a lot of good for the New Year !!!

  7. Hey David,
    It’s Christine fro’ME, back from a long hiatus. Boy, does this hit the spot, both in the broader problem solving department and getting a handle on why I’m happier with my abstract and detail-oriented photos than general landscape shots. I just don’t seem to hit the mark when it comes to sense of place. Most of that is on me & the need to work through exercises on perspective & composition with much more intent (before I buy a wide angle lens). But I love the roominess of scale, of space between things; i love sharpness, detail, and selectively, a real sense of pull. Beyond the magic of true macro, PE, and wide-angle lenses (which I don’t own), I think foremost the caibration of my photographic heart & mind, by virtue of middle age, is simply old school -Ansel Adams b/w, square portrait cameras, even Frank Hurley & glass plates old school. Nothing I do with my Nik 7100 on a landscape scale comes close to translating to the internal sense of what I feel at the moment, or would like to see as a result. Again, I understand that much of the disconnect has to do with making vs taking the picture and “doing the work” systematically as I start over both technically, and creatively. But I do have a different starting sense of what I love and am drawn to. A lot of it involves pre-digital cameras & processes..

    Yes, my ennui and wandering digital self-know where to begin.
    B/W, manual; tripod.
    Can’t be any longer than 2021 has been, right?
    Ho ho ho. ❤️

  8. Thank you David!

    I loved the article “What Lens Should I Bring”.
    I always ponder that when I go out to shoot and you helped me sort that out.
    I love the wide angle perspective!

    That being said I love your shot of the Arctic Fox!

    Merry Christmas

  9. I appreciate the article on what lens to bring! Being an advanced beginner I struggle on what to take on my trips. I’m one that takes it all and becomes frustrated that I did
    Thanks for sharing your knowledge

  10. I can relate to what you say. I did it last night when we photographed Christmas lights. Took my wide angle (14-24mm)as I knew what I wanted but when I got there, wish I had my 24-120mm. I’m lucky as I have only two other lenses, macro and a 28-300mm. I only carry 2 or 3 lenses at anytime. Sure makes it easier.

    Thank you for your wisdom and taking the time to write these messages. They are very helpful. Hope to see you in March after you get back from Africa. Hope you and your family have a wonderful Christmas & New Year…..Jim

  11. Thank you so much for the wonderful photos David. It’s always a good and great moment to read you and to think about all what you share with us… so inspiring for the long photographic path which is ours. I wish you good and delicious moments for Christmas and the new year with family and friends.

  12. Thanks for the beautiful photos and for the nice address to my friend – because we are closer to each other even if we don’t know each other and we’ve never seen each other. Why? I also like fast ultra-wide angle lenses (17 – 40 mm, Zeiss 21 and 24 mm). I love the spatial visuality here, the involvement in the story. I love nature and animals and your gift is pleasing – these are beautiful photos. Big thanks. I wish you beautiful and peaceful holidays in a family circle, lots of creative visions. Sincerely, Vladimir.

  13. Thank you for another year of your sharing your knowledge and wisdom, making us think about it when you ’talk about it’. I wish you and yours happy holidays and a successful and healthy new year.

  14. David, your latest email resonates with me….and I would have to agree that whether you have brought the best lens for the job with you or not, it always comes down to making the most of the situation creatively!
    Thank you for generous sharing of your thoughts/ advice over the year. Wishing you and yours a peaceful and happy holiday time. 😊

  15. Hi David,
    Thanks so much for sharing these beautiful photos. One suggestion though – next time, only sent one (or maybe two). How am I supposed to chose from so many beautiful shots???
    Thank you as well for sharing your insights on Photography & Life.

    Have a Very Merry Christmas!!!

  16. Thanks David. Just writing to wish you a merry, blessed and safe Christmas! Thanks for all of the inspiration you’ve provided this year is so many forms.

  17. Pingback: Making choices - aicomo

  18. Thank you – for your inspiring emails / blog and for the lovely wallpapers which are beautiful and also inspiring. I am still working through your courses and you give such a different perspective it is good for the soul as well as the mind.

  19. Dear David, although I‘m living in Munich, thus far away from the Country you are living, I wish you merry Christmas. In Addition I would like to thank you very much for your valuable contributions.
    Stay healthy and all the best for you in 2022.
    Warm regards Klaus

  20. Thank you David! You’ve laid this out beautifully. I once made myself use only a prime 50 mm lens for a week. It was a learning exercise, not an “I’ve got to get that perfect shot” exercise. I really learned a lot about limitations and what I really needed for what I wanted to do!

  21. Thank you for the gift!

    I am with you on the 50mm. It’s got its merits but it’s not the first lens I typically choose. If I had to guess, I would say the 35mm is probably my fave focal lens. Over most of my photographic life a 24-70mm zoom, or something similar, has always been my go to.

    By following you and a few other like minded photographers, I am slowly starting to appreciate the wisdom of “it’s not about the gear”.

    Thanks for what you do and for being so generous with your content.

  22. Merry Christmas David! The wallpapers are terrific, good inspiration for the long winter months ahead.

  23. Amazing article! Thanks a lot! Wish you merry Christmas and happy new year!

  24. This question almost always seems to be at the top of my list. Feel naked if you don’t take it all…what if. Going to start asking the questions.
    Thanks for the images and for all the thought providing articles you provide.
    Happy holidays to you and yours.

  25. Excellent article thank you. Given me a lot to think about.

    Wishing you and your family a Merry and Safe Christmas and Happy New Year

  26. Thanks David, keep it up. I love your articles and your views on photography are so close to mine! Prioritize the result rather than the means and the material used. So many people give too much importance to the material. So many people tell me : “You who have a good camera…” It makes me laugh.

  27. “That’s life. It always will be. And you will still make magic with what you’ve got.”

    That’s the hope, isn’t it. Thanks for the reminder. It’s always worth getting up and getting out. You can’t make a picture – any picture – if you don’t have a camera with you. And the best camera you have is the one you brought with you.

    Have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, David. Cheers from Texas.

  28. Those are AMAZING images!!! Thank you so much for sharing them—what a great gift!
    On the topic of the right lens—in September I took an epic hike up into the Stuart Range (the Enchantments) of the Washington Cascades where my 1950s era father loved to shoot his edge to edge focus photographs. I was determined not to even be tempted by those classic shots, and I brought with me ONLY a LensBaby Trio 28. I never regretted tying my hands behind my back so severely. I got the shots that I loved without even once taking the shots my father loved.

    And that is a BRUTAL hike! I had to remind myself that he was in his thirties and I am in my seventies…

    Thanks again for sharing your phenomenal photography with us.

  29. David I would like to wish you and your family a VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS and thank you for all of your hard work and giving all of us the inspiration to keep on learning and shooting Donald Goeschl

    Also for any one that reads this anywhere in the world I wish them a Merry Christmas

  30. Merry Christmas! Thank you for another great post. Double thank you for the downloads in your newsletter. Very inspiring!

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.