|December 8, 2002|
How Many is Too Many?Good morning! A few days ago, on a mailing list I frequent, the regular denizens got into a discussion about how many lenses you really need. Perhaps predictably, one fellow, affably and perhaps not terribly seriously, said "You can never have too many." Since this has always been something I've had strong opinions about, I thought I'd broach the subject this morning. But first, a disclaimer: I know full well that this is a topic that every photographer already has her or his own opinions about. That's fine. I'm not trying to dictate to anybody, or to be argumentative. This is just my own take on the subject, presented to you as food for thought, nothing more.
So now, on to a few idle thoughts about lens kits.
For most of my photographic life I've gotten by with just a few lenses at a time often just two, and more recently (I admit, partly as an exercise in self-discipline) just one. I don't get bragging rights for this, however, because, as people are quick to tease me about, I don't use any particular lens for long I skip from camera to camera and lens to lens. I'm as much of a camera-dork as anyone.
Any kind of specialist photographer will immediately recoil from the suggestion that photographers could benefit from having only one or two lenses. Lenses can allow access to tiny things or to far-away things, and to exotic angles of view. More lenses are usually needed for more specialized work or for different kinds of specialties, which is why pros tend to own the most.
But many photographers who are more independent, or who make reputations for
themselves as art photographers, use fewer lenses. Garry Winogrand's
"normal" lens was a 28; Edward Weston was as severely ascetic as anyone who
ever lived when it came to equipment. It's difficult to call Sebastiao
Salgado a true photojournalist, since he doesn't have an editor telling him
what to shoot or how to shoot it. But (when I heard him interviewed, at
least) he was shooting with a 28, 35, and a 60, with one body for each lens.
And that's all.
You need long telephotos to shoot sports, right? Hmm. John Szarkowski said of this shot that it may be the only photograph ever taken from the sidelines that includes all 22 players on a football field.
Photo by Garry Winogrand.
Henri Cartier-Bresson checking out a new Leica camera in 1988.
The lens, however, is the vintage collapsible 50mm Summicron
with which Cartier did most of his work.
Horses for coursesIf you think about it, many lenses are specialty devices, intended for a specific range of applications. Interchangeable-lens 35mm SLRs are much more flexible than most other cameras, and can do more things well. So what are the main applications for specialized optics? Here are the ones I can think of, and their properties:
Now, obviously, if you were to go overboard in all of these categories, you'd have a bizarre kit indeed. Let's take a quick look:
For macro shooting of the highest order you might have Zeiss's 100mm f/2.8 Makro-Sonnar T* autofocus lens for contax mount:
For a high speed lens, maybe a Leica f/1 Noctilux (I know, this is for a rangefinder. I can't resist. Who in the world has ever actually bought the Canon f/1?):
For the ultimate tilt-shift lens, Canon's coupled Tilt Shift TS-E 24mm f/3.5L lens for perspective control:
For something a little wider than the average 20mm, you might have to search the used market for this little piece of glass, the over-the-top Nikkor 13mm f/5.6.
Want a telephoto to bring the far near? Why mess around get a
good long one like the Pentax 1200mm f/8.
Photo courtesy of Boz Dmitrov's excellent Pentax site
The last category might not be a category at all, just a quirky enthusiasm of my own. And while there are lots of Tessar-types around that are the smallest SLR lenses you can buy, just for fun I'll name the long-discontinued Olympus 40mm f/2 "Pancake" lens (not being a Tessar, it wasn't really a Pancake). I remember seeing this lens on closeout for what seemed like forever in the early 1990s, going begging at the pricely price of $69. I hope this eBay auction link stays active long enough for you to take a look:
Note the price. That's typical for this lens these days. Who knows why? Maybe because a certain former magazine editor keeps plugging the darn thing. Stranger things have happened!
Obviously, no one is going to max out all the specialized capabilities of
all kinds of specialty lenses. We tend to pick our spots.
Fewer is...well, fewerAnyone who uses a view camera or a rangefinder Leica almost by definition uses only a few focal lengths, although as wealthy hobbyists have invaded the domain more and more people are found amassing large collections of lenses even for those devices. The principle seems straightforward: the more lenses you have, the better equipped you will be to handle any situation you encounter; and, he who has the most toys, wins.
Without arguing my point too militantly, maybe I should just point out that
I am reflexively a teacher, and many of my opinions and talking points are
didactic. I think it's useful, for example, to give ourselves exercises
not because they're the only way or the best way to shoot, but
because they have the potential to teach us valuable lessons, and to hone
our skills. For instance, although I'm thoroughly sick of "Leica bolsheviks"
and Leica snobbism (Cartier-Bresson himself said he couldn't stand people
who take themselves seriously instead of taking the world seriously, Nicole
Rubbe tells us), and not nearly as enamored of the marque as I once was, I
still think that any ambitious 35mm photographer should, as an exercise,
shoot with nothing but a Leica rangefinder for six months or a year, no
matter what he or she does before or after. That camera is a photography
teacher. Similarly, the exercise of picking one prime lens and shooting with
it exclusively until you've forgotten what other lenses feel like is a
learning experience that you will carry with you for the rest of your life.
Don't think so? Ask any photographer who's done it.
He was East Coast Editor of Camera & Darkroom magazine from 1988 to 1994 and Editor-in-Chief of PHOTO Techniques magazine from 1994-2000, where his editorial column "The 37th Frame" was a popular feature and where he presented, among other things, a set of three articles on "bokeh" by John Kennerdell, Oren Grad, and Harold Merklinger that were subsequently widely discussed among photographers.
His critical and technical writings have appeared in various publications
and newsletters such as The Washington Review and D-Max. A number of his
articles written under the pseudonym "L. T. Gray" (el Tigre) appeared in the
English magazine Darkroom User.
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