We’re so used to having zoom lenses around that we forget how to live with only one lens, especially if it is a single focal length, known as a prime lens. Can it be done? I recently used a single lens for several days, and found the challenge rewarding. Try this yourself!
Back when people started using SLR film cameras, they would usually buy the camera with just one lens, a 50mm. For many people that would be the only lens they would use, sometimes for all their life.
The low level of light at rock concerts asks for a lens with a wide aperture, like the f/2.8 on the 40mm used here.
The “normal” lens, as it is considered, because it covers about the same field of view as human vision, was, then, enough for almost everything. Zoom lenses, when they first appeared, were generally considered second class optics. The usually had a lot of distortion and vignetting. And they were slow lenses meaning they didn’t let in much light.
Zooms Instead of Prime Lenses
With the advent of zooms of greater optical quality, cameras started to be sold with a zoom lens, usually covering from 28 to 70mm, and people forgot what it was to live with just a single normal lens.
Now, with digital cameras and APS-C sensors, a kit lens covers, usually, 18-55mm. That range, due to the crop factor in Canon cameras, for example, which is 1.6x, equals, to keep things simple, the coverage of a 28-88mm lens. So, not much has changed from the days of 35mm film, when it comes to the focal lengths used.
This can be considered a cat portrait. It was a snapshot taken without much support and done quickly, to register the cat stretching, his ears pointing towards the back, before the animal moved away.
If you ask your friend photographers if they could live with only a single focal length, they will probably say no. We’ve grown so accustomed to use zooms that we cannot envisage other ways to photograph.
But in fact, it is possible to take great photographs with a single lens, and it is a challenge you should take from time to time. Choosing just one lens and setting goals around its use will widen your vision when it comes to photography.
Zoom with Your Feet
The initial constraints it may cause will fade away soon, and you will end feeling more free, believe me. The simplicity the use of a single lens introduces, will set a new dynamic on your composition. You will discover that there is a way to zoom the lens, just walk towards or away from your subject.
We should remember Robert Capa’s advice: “If your picture isn’t good, get closer.”
A night shot, a long exposure that enters the realm of landscape photography too. Again, always the same lens.
I always think it’s fun to set goals and try to reach them, so when I recently got a new Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM Pancake to test with the new EOS 650D, I decided to use the lens for different situations and cover very distinctive subjects with it, to proof to myself it can be done.
I truly believe that leaving behind most of your gear and daring to go outside with a basic kit can help you to gain a new perspective on your photography. You may even find that you have a new lens that you’ll be using more and more.
The new 40mm lens from Canon is the smallest lens in their collection. It is even smaller than the converters used with Canon big professional lenses. Placed on the front of the camera, it creates a small package that you can take anywhere. It’s still bigger than a compact or mirrorless camera, but it’s a good “take anywhere” solution.
This 40mm pancake, which has a new technology for focusing, STM, a Stepper Motor for smooth and silent video auto focusing, can also be used for still photography and, being shorter than the “normal” 50mm f/1.8 from Canon (which becomes a 80mm on a small sensor), will give you a coverage around 64mm on an APS-C sensor. So I was curious to see what I could do with this kit.
People tend to associate different lenses with different subjects: a wide angle for landscape, a medium zoom for portrait, then a long lens for wildlife. But there’s really nothing that stops you from trying things different ways. For example, I use a focal length of 400mm (a 640mm crop on my APS-C) for most of my flower photography. I do think the images published here show that you can cover a lot of different subjects with just one lens.
A close up of flowers is one more of many different images, all taken with a single lens. Challenge yourself to do this. You’ll grow, photographically speaking.
One Lens, Multiple Visions
I took the lens to the first concert of my younger son’s rock band. It is a f/2.8 lens, so it did deliver me the pictures I was hoping to get. This is a good lens for low light photography. Although low light does not always mean working wide open. For the night shot outdoors I supported the camera on a tripod and exposed for 15 seconds at 1600 ISO, so I could get the dishes and the stars in the night sky behind them. Because the night was windy I decided to use a higher ISO to lower the exposure time.
Flowers are something that interests me, so I could not resist to do some close up work. The picture says it all, I think! For the family cat picture, which was a snapshot made hastily, I had to hold the camera steady because of the low speed and the awkward position I was in, but again, the result pleases me.
These four examples show the variety of subjects, from close distance to wide vistas, that can be covered with a single lens. Dare to try it yourself. Even if you do not own a single focal length lens, define a value from your zoom’s range and photograph everything with it. Do a one day project if you want, and study the results. I bet you will be surprised.