One Camera…One Lens…One Year??


So there’s been something gnawing at my attention for nearly a month now. I’ve been hesitant to write about it because doing so feels like some sort of commitment.

I’ve been reading up on blogs, reviewers, classic photographer stories, and even YouTube vlogs on the subject of One Camera One Lens. The number of purple Google links on my pages regarding this subject is embarrassing. And people chime in by the dozens touting the benefits of the practice.

The idea is that by adopting a single focal length prime lens, you can train your brain to see in that focal length. This is what’s called a “creative constraint,” and it’s a multidisciplinary art method. This allows your composition skills to blossom by removing the mental processing that you normally do when considering multiple takes on a subject (do I zoom/use the 23mm, the 50mm, or 90mm?). You learn to see in a particular focal length and react faster.

And something not stated often but I can agree with: your work has better continuity. A 24mm, 35mm, and 135mm series can look a bit all over the place, versus a 35mm commitment.

But this is hard. HARD. Because I’m a total technophile. I LOVE gear. I love reading about gear, having new gear…I’m practical compared to most sufferers of G.A.S. (that’s gear acquisition syndrome) because I’m naturally minimalistic. I’ve limited myself to a maximum of 3 lenses for awhile now and that feels pretty good.

Still, I used a Canon 50mm f/1.8 as my only prime lens paired with the kit zoom for years and I can remember how little that bothered me. I was traveling through China and Vietnam, capturing images using, of all things, the 18-MP Rebel XTI (the most basic DSLR around) and the kit lens.

I’ve sold this print multiple times and it’s from a kit that cost less than $400. Taken in Hue, Vietnam.

My Fujifilm XF gear is way better yet I still have insane gear lust compared to back then. So…Feeling the urge to simplify.

My current lenses are:

The Fujifilm XF 16mm f/1.4 R WR

I have a love/hate relationship with this lens. I actually bought it with the intention of going one camera one lens! Yet this is the one I use the least because it’s 1.) heavy and 2.) so hard to use well. But. BUT. When I do use it right, boy do I love the images! Still, I really feel like it’s feast or famine with this lens. Either I hate everything because I’m too far away, the subject is distorted, etc, or I absolutely love everything about the shot and the distortion creates a sense of drama and space that sucks you in. The only way you get photos of people is by stuffing it right into their space, and that’s not something I’m always up for. Most of the people images here was taken from less than 4 feet away, to give you an idea. If you’re not close enough to kiss, it’s going to look boring unless your composition is on point.

The Fujifilm XF 23mm f/2 R WR

I’m on my second copy right now. I love that it’s wide enough to give a documentary flavor like the 16mm without the distortion that comes in so quickly. I can do a drive-by snap on the streets very easily. 35mm fov can create a story rather than a portrait, which is really nice. It’s main weakness is close focusing; as most Fuji shooters know, it does really poorly at f/2 up close (though I’ve seen some photos embrace the soft close-focus for really cool images). Also it’s pretty…Average. There’s nothing special about 35mm fov. It’s not too wide, not too tight. But the images rarely have drama, unlike the 16mm. It’s also not really a portrait lens, unlike…

The Fujifilm XF 35mm f/2 R WR

Fuji’s Nifty Fifty. I’ve owned both the f/1.4 and f/2 and I really prefer this guy. It’s tiny, silent, and razor sharp. It also has this punchy rendering that the 16mm lacks and the 23mm kind of has when the lighting’s good but noooooot quite. Hard shadows and contrasty colors look incredible from the 35mm – it’s kind of clinical but I really dig it. It’s also great for street/travel portraits and for days where I don’t feel like getting all in people’s business for the shot.

And having a bit of distance means you can get candid takes way easier. With the 16mm and 23mm I’m never anonymous; it’s obvious there’s a photographer with a camera. Yet it’s not so tele that the viewer feels disconnected from the scene, either. The 50mm fov is also close to what the human eye sees, so it’s easy to compose without feeling like the frame has untidy elements you didn’t pick up on. Lastly, the tighter crop means you can really guide your viewer to look where you want them to. It’s a tidy yet versatile fov and that’s pretty handy.

So yeah, I’m thinking about doing this…And it scares me. Because of my gear lust and because I’m worried about whether it will actually help or not. But the idea of going Henri Carter-Bresson style & mastering a focal length sounds really cool. Not to mention not needing to swap lenses and framing my aesthetics around a particular focal length.

Decisions…

  • Do nothing because 3 lenses is still pretty minimalist.
  • keep the 16mm and go 1 camera one lens (yikes!). And commit to hating 90% of what I shoot for at least a month until I get into the zone with it. Still, this is THE documentary focal length and I have to say, I have the most personal “WOW!” photos from the 16…Mastering this lens would be an insane accomplishment because it’s so freaking cool when I pull it off!
  • get the new 16-80mm f/4 zoom + pair it with my 35mm f/2 for a 2-lens kit. I feel like this is cheating in terms of improving my vision, though it’s still quite minimal and practical!
  • go true 1 camera 1 lens and keep the 35mm f/2 (yikes!)
  • go 1 camera 1.5 lenses and pair the 35mm f/2 with a Mitakon f/0.95 for portraiture/bokeh addiction. Still framing my mind around the 50 fov while having an art lens for some creative imagery & breaking up the monotony a bit! I’ve owned the Mitakon a couple years back and its a seriously cool piece of kit.

No matter what I decide, I know I’ll hate it. Paradoxically, that knowledge makes it a bit easier to pull the trigger. Even so: what do you guys think I should do?

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5 comments

  1. The 16-80mm is definitely cheating! 😀
    I think i’d go either 23mm or 35mm, but anyway I don’t think I would be able to keep this going on for a full year. There are times I feel I really need a specific focal length and I would be too frustrated not to reach for that lens.

    I think it’s a challenge you can take on only if you want to excel or limit yourself to a certain type of photography. If you like to dabble into landscape, street, portraiture, events… It’s seems hardly doable :/

    • You’re right, it is cheating! 🙂

      I think this challenge could be done-the idea hasn’t left me and it’s very appealing. I do want to excel like you said. Also, the more I think about it, the more I realize its quite doable. You just have to stray away from traditional image styles, which is sort of the point. Whether I use a 24mm, 35mm, or 50mm fov, I can still take landscapes, street, portraits, events, wildlife, astro…Whatever. But if I try taking portraits 50mm style with a 24mm, well…Not so good. If I want wide landscapes with a 50mm…Not gonna happen. So that’s where the creativity comes in.

  2. I’m in a similar boat. Bought many lenses. Spent more time looking at gear than using it. I’m down to the x-e3, 18mm f2, and 35mm f2. I shoot the 18mm 90% of the time–documenting life, but use the 35mm for portraits of family and friends from time to time.

    I think I’d get annoyed without one or the other. I’ve considered dropping the 35mm but I would regret it before the month ended.

    • “Spent more time looking at gear than using it.” Yup! Now I just see $$ signs whenever I have stuff I’m not using. I think no matter what you decide, you’ll be uncomfortable since that’s life, but the benefits of one camera one lens may be more apparent down the line. Though I also suspect one camera two lenses will lend itself to specializing. I sold the 16mm so that’s off my radar. And I’m finding I gravitate pretty naturally to the 23mm. I love being able to zone focus easily, avoid too much distortion, and shoot from the hip with little difficulty. The 35mm is nice for the occasional portrait or when I want to get a tighter crop on a subject but the 23mm is starting to win the race for my heart.

      Have a look at Joshi Daniel’s 28mm project (same focal length as your 18mm). He’s taking stunning portraits full of character and specifically choosing a focal length that’s awkward and unfamiliar to break through his limitations. https://joshidaniel.com/28mm-portraits/

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