Someone asked me once, which three lenses would I choose if I had to live with just three lenses for my cameras. Hmm. Let’s start with full disclosure: I currently own a few more than 3 lenses. I use more than three lenses and I really don’t want to get rid of any if I can help it. Am I a hopeless addict? Possibly. Hoarder? Maybe. But I do use what I have, so let me see if I can explain it all (I’ll pretend you’re my wife asking me why I don’t get rid of some of them).
Today, lenses are frequently divided into three general categories:
Wide angle – for when you’re literally up against a wall, but you need more in the photo,
Normal – to give about the same perspective on a scene as the human eye does, and,
Telephoto – so you can get photos of small objects that are not close to you.
In the bad old days when men were men, film was required to get photos, and zoom lenses were few and far between, I would carry two lenses with my 35mm camera: a 28mm wide angle, and an 85mm telephoto. Wide for the “back against the wall” experiences and the telephoto for the “I’d like to get closer” events. These two lenses gave me about a 3:1 range of magnification. Here are the sorts of photos I could get:
For my professional wedding work, I used one lens with my medium format camera, the only one available on a camera with no other options. In other words, a fixed lens camera with a “normal” magnification of the subject.
Today’s options are much greater than before. Much like the Dr. Seuss book On Beyond Zebra, which is, btw, required reading in the Graduate School of Life, we have gone far beyond the limitations that I endured as a young photographer. One of my business consultants has a 16-300mm lens perched on her Nikon APS-C crop sensor camera, which offers a wide-angle view on her digital camera that is slightly wider than the 28mm from my 1972 vintage film Nikon. At the far end of this remarkable lens’ range, it magnifies more than five times as much as my 85mm would, being the equivalent of about 400mm on my original 35mm camera. Would I be able to live with just this one lens?
Short answer, no. I would not. I would not use it in a box, I would not use it with a fox, I would not use it on a train, I would not use it in the rain. I do not like it, Sam, I Am!
Don’t get me wrong, I do like zoom lenses and in fact (here’s the short answer to the question at the beginning of this article), if I were limited to three lenses, say by Act of God, or maybe Congress (which sometimes thinks it’s almighty), or, perhaps, Wife, as one of the major powers in my life, I would pick the following three lenses (Ha! You thought I wasn’t going to do that!):
Most of my photography is done with full frame digital cameras (a couple of Canon 5D MkII cameras) so the lenses I chose are all designed to cover that size sensor.
16-35mm f4 IS zoom (equivalent to 10-22 on APS-C crop sensor)
Many are those who have said “there is no reason to have a super-wide lens” such as the 16-35mm lenses designed for 35mm film and full frame digital cameras. This is utter nonsense. There is one very good reason to have such a lens; your back is against the wall. I use one of the current iterations of the lens pictured (16-35 f4 IS) to photograph wedding parties dancing, interiors of buildings, and dramatic landscapes. It's also great for the video shots from inside the refrigerator when someone is reaching in for pickles or beer. I sometimes need something wider, but none of the wider lenses accept standard screw-in filters as this one does or have the image stabilization that compensates for photographer shake.
24-105mm f4 IS zoom (equivalent to 16-70 on APS-C crop sensor)
This is a great all-purpose lens and the one I keep on my camera all the time. This lens is wide enough for landscapes, long enough for portraits, fast enough for action shots and good for close up shots of objects about the size of your hand. And the image stabilization works very well.
100 – 400mm f5.6 IS zoom (equivalent to 70-250 on APS-C sensor)
I absolutely love this lens for those things I want to photograph that are not near! It is sharp, has plenty of reach, focuses close and the image stabilization is great. When what I want to photograph is on the other side of a stream or high in a tree, on the side of a building or up on the ceiling of a cathedral, this is the lens I reach for. And, just to give it extra reach, I usually use it on one a crop sensor camera, making the image about 60% larger than it would be on my full frame camera.
But sometimes, sometimes, yes, and sometimes quite frequently even, these are not enough. Sometimes I need more light passing through the lens (a wider aperture, indicated by a lower f number), or I need a wider angle of view to get more into the photo (maybe renting Canon's fabulous 11-24 full frame lens, or even their 8-15mm fisheye). There are photos for which I need the special capabilities of a tilt-shift lens or the close focusing capabilities of a macro lens, and it is for those reasons I keep the following on hand:
28mm f1.8, 50mm f1.4, 85mm f1.8
These three are my low light, shallow depth of focus lenses of choice. When the place is dim or when I want to put the background out of focus these are the ones I use. They focus fast and give me sharp images.
70-200 f2.8 IS
Great for sports after the sun sets, ideal for theater performances and the perfect range for portraits, this len not only has image stabilization, but its wide 2.8 aperture lets in lots of light and helps defocus the background as well. Did I tell you the image stabilization really does eliminate photographer shake under most circumstances?
90mm f2 macro
This is my favorite for macro work, but it is an older manual focus lens left over from my 35mm film days. Still, it works well, is great for portraits, lets in twice as much light as my 70-200 f2.8 and I'm too cheap to buy a new lens when an old one works just fine.
17mm f4 Tilt-Shift
I do a lot of architectural work with this lens and I love the results it gives, making it easy to photograph building interiors and exteriors without getting the "falling over backwards" look you get when you look up with a wide angle lens. I use it on my full frame camera for maximum angle of view or on my crop sensor camera for those times when I don't need as much. I also use it with the shift movements to get two images which I stitch together for an even wider angle of view.
And there you have it, folks; the lenses I use. Are there others I'd like to have? Sure, and if I start listing those, this article could go on for quite some time. I have what I need, though, to do the work that I want to do, and that's why lenses exist.