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,