Changing Lenses or Maybe Not?

One of our readers, Antoine, raised the important issue of changing lenses (thank you Antoine for sharing this with us). He writes:

“How do you handle the lens changes during such trips? 
Do you prepare so much by scouting that you don’t have to change lenses too often during the trip? Especially if there is dust around, you may not want to change the lens on a mirror-less.

I always hesitate so much between focal lengths (I have a X100s with the two converters) that I sometime think zooms are probably the only solution… but it’s probably coming from a lack of experience and skill in “seeing” the picture before taking it, I guess.”

We don’t have a special formula for changing lenses other than always trying to be careful, especially in dusty environments. However, this dilemma goes deeper that one would initially think.

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Many photographers, especially those who have always shot with zooms, struggle with lens choices. In fact, constant hesitation and doubt about the right focal length could overwhelm or even paralyze the entire process. What is the root of this problem and how can it be overcome?

When you look back at the history of photography you can see that most famous photographers shot their entire body of work with just one or two prime lenses. For example, Henri Cartier-Bresson shot most of his work with a 50mm lens. And there is good reason for that!

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We believe that the “one camera–one lens” philosophy should be the starting point for every student of photography. Only then, should an additional focal length be introduced but no more than three (of course there are some exceptions, like zooms for wedding photography).

After years of shooting with a zoom and different primes, we settled on the following solution: we always leave our house with the Fuji X100S (in fact we shoot most of our work with this camera).

For our professional work our setup is as follows:

For events and photographing people (wedding, family photos, etc): Fuji X100S with its 23mm lens (35mm in FF) and Fuji X-T1 with the 56mm F1.4 (84mm in FF). Those two focal lengths coupled with our legs and creativity cover almost every single shooting situation.

Our other fine art landscape setup is Fuji X100S and Fuji X-T1 with the XF 14mm F2.8 (21mm in FF terms). It covers most shooting situations.

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The benefits of minimizing your gear are enormous. Here are some of them:  

Pre-visualize – one lens allows you to master your vision and pre-visualize a scene before you actually take a photo. Pre-visualization is a very important aspect of photography, which not only allows your creativity to flow freely but also activates your artistic senses to create a great photograph. If you think you can pick up your camera, shoot and expect a great photograph – you are on the wrong track. The road to seeing is much longer and tougher than that.

Focus on details – using one lens forces you to evaluate every inch of your frame. Focusing on your main subject and ignoring the background is one of the most common mistakes made by new photographers. The difference between a good and great photograph is often in the far corners, the little things in the background. In real photography, every single thing on the photograph, or rather what you leave out, matters!

Get creative – one of the most common sights is a photographer standing in one spot with a huge zoom lens. Sure, s/he may be impressed by the size of the glass but s/he may not realize how much damage is done using this approach. One lens will get you to look for different perspectives and get you moving to see something fresh and unusual.

Remove the burden of lens-envy – what a burden it is! Not only does your heavy bag takes a toll on your shoulder but much more damaging is the constant burden of wondering: “Which lens should I use?” You will always want the lens that is not on your camera. This burden of lens-envy distracts you from what’s important. Believe me, more lenses won’t make you a better photographer.

The best way to tackle the lens-envy disease is to venture outside your home with one camera and one lens. After a few weeks you will no longer feel the need for more. The road to a great photograph leads through a rigorous elimination process, both in terms of seeing and with regard to your equipment.

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© Olaf Sztaba Photography. All rights reserved.

15 thoughts on “Changing Lenses or Maybe Not?

  1. As they say ‘Can I get an AMEN?!’
    Thanks for the post. I couldn’t agree more. I am going on one year with just the X100s. Your site is a pleasure to come to. Solid advice and wonderful images. I used to use a DSLR with many many lenses. I decided to take the one camera one lens challenge. So far it has been great. I have given up my gear addiction. No more paralysis that you speak of. I also gave up on going to forums where gear and minutia are discussed. There is an amazing amount of freedom in limiting one’s choices regarding gear. I would not have believed it if I didn’t undergo the transformation myself. If there is anyone on the fence, I would say go for it. Give up all the gear and simplify your photographic life. One last point with respect to fear of missing shots. At first one sees the obvious shot that you can’t get with say the x100s. For example the long telephoto shot. But after learning to see with the given focal length one begins to see many more shots s/he would never have seen before. Many are more interesting and creative. This is due to always evaluating the seen for a better shot. I even ‘look’ when I am without my camera. Being lazy I never did that with a zoom or with multiple primes.

    Thanks again.
    m

    • Mark,

      Thank you so much for sharing your journey. I couldn’t agree more with everything you wrote. In fact, i truly believe every photographer should go on gear diet from time to time – one camera one lens.

      Excellent points and writing.

      All the best,

      Olaf

  2. As an urban photographer, I would find using, or getting used to, a single prime lens to be an extremely limiting option. For this type of photography, the basic, high-quality zoom is the best compromise, and there is always a compromise. I don’t want to miss a great photo of a great composition that occurs above ground level, a great second floor balcony with interesting people, or an old contemplative gentleman across a canal in Venice with beautiful slightly out of focus church doors in the background. Yes, I could still fill any SD card with images I love if I only had a single prime to work with but I would miss oh so many great memories and beautiful images too. From the Fuji perspective, an XE2 (of course XT1 also) with the standard 18-55 zoom would be a perfect little package with which to capture almost any composition that you discover. And with the great high ISO performance and image stabilization, you won’t miss much at night either. For many, especially when traveling so you only have a few days to bring it all home, the best ‘one lens’ option is very likely a high-quality standard zoom.

    • Bob,

      Thank you for sharing your perspective on the subject. I partially agree with you that for traveling the best option for some people could be a high-quality zoom (especially in very tight urban environments). I have seen amazing work done by experienced photographers with zooms. However, a key word is ‘experienced.’ Zoom lenses in the hands of a novice photographer could do more harm than good.

      Having said that, Antoine – one of our readers (see below) – made a very good point “taking good pictures is also accepting to miss many.” After all, photography is the art of elimination.

      Thank you for your engagement in this important discussion.

      All the best,

      Olaf

      • Still on this matter, last time I went on a trip I took with me the fat 16-35mm, the 70-200mm and ended up taking most shots (90%?) with a simple and small 50mm prime.

        My wife on the other hand would never trade a versatile/capable zoom such as our Sony RX-100 for any of the full frame primes.

        And finally I would never trade a telephoto zoom for, say, a X100S when going on a safari.

        In my humble view, the key here is diversity. What works well for one person/situation will never be the universal answer to everybody else.

        By the way, yet another great topic for discussion, with the usual set of great pictures. Thanks Olaf! It’s a relief to follow this kind of discussion instead of the charts and/or “fast food” gear reviews (which work great for some people, thumbs up to diversity again!)

  3. As an urban photographer, I would find using, or getting used to, a single prime lens to be an extremely limiting option. For this type of photography, the basic, high-quality zoom is the best compromise, and there is always a compromise. I don’t want to miss a great photo of a great composition that occurs above ground level, a great second floor balcony with interesting people, or an old contemplative gentleman across a canal in Venice with beautiful slightly out of focus church doors in the background. Yes, I could still fill any SD card with images I love if I only had a single prime to work with but I would miss oh so many great memories and beautiful images too. From the Fuji perspective, an XE2 (of course XT1 also) with the standard 18-55 zoom would be a perfect little package with which to capture almost any composition that you discover. And with the great high ISO performance and image stabilization, you won’t miss much at night either. For many, especially when traveling so you only have a few days to bring it all home, the best ‘one lens’ option is very likely a high-quality standard zoom.

  4. Olaf
    Thank you for the learning. Of course it’s fun to have a lot of lenses to play with, but the way you deliberately just take 2 or, at most 3, primes and then compose your shots around the lenses you have with you is really instructive.

    I also appreciate your comments about how you need to understand the characteristics of each lens, 56mm very different from 14mm for example, both in technical and compositional terms. Again, so much to learn!

    Fantastic blog, and brings back our all too brief visit to BC last summer.

    David Hallett

  5. Ah! thank you for this post: I could not hope better than this full post in reply to my question in the previous one’s comments!

    Your post sounds obvious once read🙂
    It is very true that using a single focal length for some time trains the eye. And it seems everyone has a couple of preferred focal lengths too, that match better the ideas of pictures. I fell in love with the new TCL converter, giving the X100s a 50mm equivalent focal, and I can’t take it off the camera since I bought it 10 days ago!

    Maybe one of the drivers behind my question is also the fear of missing the moment. How many times did I feel I could have taken a nice picture with the right focal on, but there was not time to change? (although it might not have been true)
    So I guess taking great pictures is also about accepting to miss many. But that’s ok, if at least you have a few great ones🙂

    Thank you very much for sharing your approach on this topic!

  6. A fantastic and valuable post.

    Some years back I had downsized to GF1 and a 20 (40 equiv) prime. I stuck with that for a year, later adding a 14 (28) and ran with this setup for another year. Now I have a Fuji and just three primes. I would add another body long before I’d add another lens.

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