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Friday, 03 May 2013


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One aspect of "generalist" photography as done by photojournalists in the 90s is that while they had a kit that they carried with them, they also usually had access to an equipment bank at the newspaper that could provide them with specialist equipment (super-telephotos, perspective control lenses, a portrait/still life studio) when needed. But that carry-kit was often pretty heavy; I know a terrific female photojournalist who has had a hip replacement in her early 50s, and her docs have suggested to her that her problem may have been partially caused by carrying a heavy equipment bag off the same shoulder for thirty years.

I was talking to a photojournalist a couple weeks ago in a camera shop and he said he now had a 24-120 lens that he hardly ever took off. I don't know that lens myself, but that zoom range would have been just the thing for political rallies, festival and general crowd work. One lens on a D800 and a 16GB card would be a fantastic kit -- especially since you could throw away a lot of resolution in newspaper work, and further "zoom" by cropping...

When I went to Iraq, I took a D3 and a D300 and the three Nikon f2.8 zooms. The weight was brutal, but the capability was all I could have asked for, especially with the two different sensor sizes, FF and APS-C.

It's odd how drastically things change; when I was in the Army in the late 60s, I bought a Pentax Spotmatic with 35, 50 and 135 lenses, which was kind of a standard kit at the time. I could hardly imagine needing anything more. Sometime later -- not much later -- I was told that if I didn't have an ~85 for portraits, I was a nobody. After that, it all went crazy, and by the mid-90s, I needed a burro to carry my kit.

Or a better bag. When I moved out of my old house last May, I found that I had more than twenty camera bags. I donated them to Goodwill...except for a few.

When are we going to have a bag post?

In case you're not planning to reference your "Uses and Applications of 35mm Lenses" column as this article develops further, I'd like to plug it on your behalf. I go back and read it again every few months, and laugh every time. Wouldn't have found TOP without it.


I've become a two-lens guy myself. Much as per Mike's hilarious piece a while back recommending a D700 to a guy who wanted a decent compact, they are a 35 mm-e and a 90 mm-e. They aren't my only lenses, but 95% of my pictures are taken with them.

Although I've taken several keepers with it, I consider my wide zoom to be a "screwing around" lens. Given the extent to which I "see" at 90 mm-e, I find trying to compose at 18 mm-e to be rather hilarious. My telezoom serves to remind me that I very rarely need to shoot at 300 mm-e, and my midrange zoom serves to remind me that I hate midrange zooms.

Since I'm a prime sorta guy here is my current lineup for the bags:
D800, Zeiss 21 & 50 Makro, 85 1.4G

M8.2 (soon to be joined by a Monochrom) 24, 50 & 75

I have other specialty lenses but they don't see the light of day very often.

I have half a dozen lenses for my E-M5 but I consistently carry the same three. They are 9-18mm zoom, 17mm 1.8 and 45mm 1.8.
These lenses cover everything I need for photographing people and a bit of landscape/travel shooting.

The nice thing is that I can easily carry everything in a small ThinkTank dispatch bag with room for a backup body. The three lenses combined are about the same volume as my old Canon 28-135mm standard zoom lens.

In stills, I've always been of two minds... Either a 24-35-50-85 set (my current D700 setup) or the old Leica ME set of a 28-40-90. I very nearly bought a m43 setup because I could get the Panasonic 14 & 20, and the Olympus 45 all very cheaply. Great set. Were I to go for the Fuji, I'd certainly compromise and go 18-35-60, but I'd resent that the 35 wasn't a bit shorter... 28 would be about ideal.

But for motion picture work, my bread and butter, I always like to adhere to as close to a 1.4 factor from lens to lens as possible. In fact, my ideal (nonexistent) set of lenses would include (for Super35 aka APS-C): 10-14-20-28-40-56-80-110mm. In case the numbers look familiar but you aren't sure why, they're f-stop numbers, essentially. An easier set to locate is a 12-18-25-35-50-70-100. At any rate, that spacing of focal lengths seems to afford the best coverage of useful options in narrative and commercial cinematography, at least for me. YMMV. I suppose if I considered it, I want more of those options in video work because I'm controlling *everything,* where in my personal stills work, I'm controlling nothing, and my shooting is very much dictated by the lens I've decided to place on the camera. In that case, there can be a tyranny of too many options. "wide-normal-or tele" is enough of a choice to get me rolling. With motion stuff, everything is more calculated an controlled.

If it wasn't already obvious, I hate zooms for any application. Force of habit.

Well, you just aptly described my wedding photography kit. My two D700s have the 35mm 1.4 and the 85mm 1.4 on them 80% of the time and the 20mm, 70-200mm 2.8 and 70mm 2.8 macro are always in the bag. I could probably get away with only using the 35 and 85 for most weddings, but as you mention the 3 foot minimum focus distance on the 85mm is sometimes annoying and limiting. I too would prefer a 2 foot minimum focusing distance. That's one of the reasons the Olympus 45mm 1.8 is so appealing as a general short tele.

I have two 50mm lenses, but rarely use them unless I am going out with one camera and one lens for personal shooting. The new Nikon 50mm 1.8 is pretty great and light.

I really do most of my "paid" photography, with what would be a 35mm-85mm lens, and since I did most of it with sheet film and 120, we'll just say for 120, it would have been 60mm-150mm.

To this day, with APS-C, I begged for a high-end, sharp zoom that was 20mm-60mm (which would cover the eq. of 30mm to 90mm); those focal lengths, because it seems those sizes would be easy to make (only a 3X zoom). Inching the lens down to an eq. of 28mm, would just kill it for size. Those of you that have done videography for years, know that some of the sharpest lenses were made with a wide 35mm eq. of about 38mm, because it was just an easy lens to design and build "sharp". The videographers always used a multi-element, multi-coated 0.5X filter on the front, usually made by Century.

I can honestly say, I never got paid much to shoot over a 35mm eq. of wide, and never longer than an 85 eq. of long, and that was mostly for portraits. Any additional lenses I might need for effect, were going to be really long, like a 300-400-500, or really short, like an 18-20. BTW, 75mm is NOT a portrait lens, still too much nose bending going on; so a 24-70, or an eq. of that in any other focal length, worthless to me.

The question I have, is why can't someone make a "dead sharp" 35mm eq. zoom lens, that goes from about 30-35mm, to 85mm, and maybe a 'floating f/stop' of 2.8 to 4.5? Why are my selections crappy f/ 3.5 to 5.6 zooms (like everyones 17/18 to 55), or outrageous f/2.8 zooms, the size and weight of a coffee can and the price of a whole new camera body? When you make that zoom wider than 35 on the low end, you exponentially start pumping up the size until it's too big, and outweighs the camera by double.

Seems like someone could make a APS-C, 20mm-60mm, f/2.8-4.5, that would be somewhere, in size, in between the small, cheap, crappy kit lens, and the too crazy f/2.8, and make it dead sharp and about 450 bucks!

Zooms... who needs them now.

With a good prime lens and the 5D3, I can crop to 50% of the image, and still make a decent 14" x 21" print on A2 paper, as long as I take care to get the technical quality right to start with.

So my 85/1.8 is effectively an 85-140mm/f1.8 zoom.
Then I switch to my 135/2.0, which is effectively an 135-270mm/f2.0 zoom.

If I ever want anything wider than my 35mm/1.4, I just stitch several shots together.

My "perfect outfit" of Canon 5D3, 35/1.4, 85/1.8, and 135/2.0 fits into a tiny Billingham L2 bag, always ready to go.

If I really want to travel light, I just take the camera body and a 50mm/1.4 Sigma lens (far better than the Canon 50/1.4).

A 32GB card in the camera, and a fully charged battery will last for over 1,000 shots if you don't "Chimp".

You nailed me. (or vice versa...) I have 24mm, 35mm, 55mm macro, 70-200/f4 zoom, 150mm macro. With any luck, it will stay that way for a while. But, I don't seem to have much luck with maintaining a stable camera kit! :^)

Mike, re: your frustration at long MFDs for short teles, I agree with you completely. I've seriously considered buying an 85mm lens, but the universal 36" MFD renders them useless for about 75% of what I'd want to shoot.

I also find myself frustrated by 50mm lenses. With fifties, it seems like 17-18" is as good as it gets without going to a dedicated macro, and that's about 3" short of where I really want it to be. I own a 50mm macro (and used to own the Zeiss 50mm Makro Planar too), and it's very useful, but no substitute for a fast 50mm. Even discounting the speed difference, it would be nice to have a close-focusing 50mm that won't flare like a sumbitch if you even think about pointing it towards a light source.

"I have always credited the late Herbert Keppler of Popular Photography magazine for raising the community's consciousness on this issue; he made it an issue both in POP's once influential lens tests and in his own discussions of lenses."

Yeah, but it was when he ran Modern Photography that they did great equipment tests. Modern would give actual numbers and then take the lens apart and review the screws holding it together. Modern is one of the few magazines that I would buy a cd rom of back issues.
I could never get anything useful from the Popular tests. SQF WTF? Just checked , they are still information free unless you need to know how much a lens weighs.

Roger Cicala at lensrentals.com sort of reminds me of Modern's old tests.

Keppler was until late in his career editor of Modern Photography and it was its lens tests and his articles in it that were influential. I still remember rather vividly MP's 1965 extended test with commentary of the Pentax 50 Takumar 1:1 preset Macro. It was reference to that article and the enthusiastic use of that lens by knowledgeable pros that made me get it. I still use it.
Bob Schwalberg from the early 70s on was Pop's enthusiast about macros. He was more interested in films and small cameras. Even though he was "Mr. Leica", he carried a Retina IIc as his pocket camera. It was he who persuaded me to get one and it was my travel camera from the late 60s through the mid 90s with Kodachrome inside.

[Burt K. was V.P. and Publishing Director of POP for 20 years! Granted, he spent 37 years at Modern, but it's hardly inaccurate to append "of Popular Photography magazine" to his name. --Mike]

Thanks for another interesting and informative post, Mike (though I know it's still incomplete by the time I'm writing).
Some weeks ago I came to realize there are established focal lengths, which became commonplace and were broadly manufactured by the main brands: 28mm for wide-angle, 50mm for normal or standard and 85mm for portrait lenses.
I came to this conclusion after seeing what most manufacturers have been making since the SLR era (I'm an avid fan of Olympus OM lenses, even though I photograph digital, hence my interest). These focal lengths became some sort of standard even up to these days. It is not by chance that recent compact, fixed-lens cameras come with 28mm (Nikon Coolpix A), 45mm efl (Sigma DP2) and 90mm (Sigma DP3). And there is no manufacturer who doesn't make primes for these focal lengths.
As for the primes vs. zooms debate, primes win everytime. Hands down. The sort of compromises required by zooms make good ones unjustifiable for most people, while run-of-the-mill zooms are highly flawed designs. But that's only part of the story. Shooting with primes is more challenging, more fun and consistently gives best results. I know it out of experience: I seldom use my zooms, save for the rare occasions I need their longer focal lengths.
Of course this is all nice and well for professionals and keen enthusiasts, but most people don't really care about primes. The other day I was shocked when I realized that a friend of mine had no notion of what a prime lens was. He kept insisting the prime lens I was carrying had to have a zooming device of some kind. And some people are perfectly happy with 18-105 or 18-200 zooms and never feel the need to have anything else.
Another interesting discussion is maximum aperture. You are right. We don't need them anymore because digital photography suppressed their need. And you're right again when you point out there is a bokeh craze. A friend of mine (not the zoom one) calls 'nouveau-riche bokeh' to the kind of background blur we see in pictures these days. Low f-numbers are not a necessity, but the truth is they've become a selling point. All manufacturers feel the pressure to offer ever faster lens. It's OK by me, though: my OM 50mm-f/1.4 never ceases to amaze me.

"Having at least one lens that will do true macro (1:1, meaning the object image on the sensor is as large as the actual object in real life) is, however, still a valuable asset for many photographers, even generalists. Dedicated, specialist macro photographers might have more than one true macro lenses; for others, 1:2 is often seen as enough."

This was all simple enough with 35mm, but can be confusing with smaller sensors.

For example, in its 43mm macro mode, the Oly 12-50 (4/3 sensor size) enlarges to 1:2.8 (0.36x), which doesn't sound very close. However, if that smaller sensor image is enlarged to the same display size as a FF image, it is equivalent to a 1:1.4 (0.72x) image on FF.

So in use, the 12-50 macro mode is like an 86 mm FF lens that focuses down to 1:1.4.

Do I wish it went to an actual 1:1 eq. - or beyond? Yes, which is why I carry an auto extension tube.


I suppose my only frustration with lenses today irrespective of a camera's ability to get a good exposure in low light is due to there being no substitute for a fast lens offering better AF performance in lower (not even low) light. So despite my being happy with the DoF etc. results from an f4 lens, my issue is that those lenses don't focus promptly. So I want fast lenses for reasons other than their optical properties, I suppose.


'Pocket' kit, Pen E-PM1, Panny 14-42Z, 10 mm extension tube in another pocket.

'Light' kit, E-M5, Oly 14-150, spare battery in pocket.

'Field' kit, E-M5, Oly 14-150, waist bag with spare Pen body, 9-18, 12-50, 75-300, Panny 20/1.7, extension tubes, batteries, etc.

'Serious' in the field, E-M5 with 75-300, Pen with 12-50, both around my neck, all the other lenses, etc. in waist bag.

The 'Serious' set-up is fairly new to me. I quite like it in the field where there are subjects both near and far.

High quality lens coverage from 35 mm eq. 18 mm to 600 mm is something I might have imagined in my 35 mm days. One this small and light, I didn't even imagine.

Macro of insect on flower one moment, close-up of dragonfly several feet away the next, panorama of land and sea next, and so on - Magic!


Back in the day, OM1+OM4 with 18 f3.5, 38 f3.5, 50 f1.8, 90-180 Vivitar Series 1 Flatfield zoom, and a no-name 400 f6.3 lens (you know the one). I traveled the world with this, literally, all fitting in a airline flight bag (carry-on old style). Today, EPL1+EPM1, 12-60 and 45-200 zooms, 14 f2.5, unless I have the Gigapan pro with me for large-scale serious panoramas, then Olympus E30+70-300, Vivitar Series 1 200 f3 and Sigma 600 f8 mirror. Oh, and for the m4/3 a gorillapod SLR, and for the gigapan a Manfrotto 028b.

"I much prefer a short tele that will focus to ~2 ft."

Which is why I use an APS-C DSLR, and a big reason I went with view cameras rather than medium format back in the day.

(And I'm a 20/50/90 kind of guy.)

For a long time my personal kit was primarily primes (24mm, 50mm, 105mm) while my work kit for weddings was primarily zooms (18-35mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm or the equivalent). While I personally found more satisfaction in primes, the practical demands of the job kept me working with zooms.

Over the last year, however, an attempt to lighten the load and deal with darker conditions has given rise to a "hybrid" set of primes and zooms. 17mm true wide, 24-70 "standard," and 150mm (equiv.)f/2 as my long.

By putting a prime on the extreme ends of the range I find myself thinking more about each composition right where it really needs it the most. Primes have always given me better results, not because of the lens itself but because of the frame of mind I find myself in while using them.

I was greatly relieved to see that Mike says I only need three lenses and I am so happy to already have the ones he suggested.

1. All-Purpose Prime (you said 35mm to 50mm) mine is 35mm and as the only lens I had for a year, it was all-purpose.

2. True Wide Angle, finally got that at 24mm (effective 19mm)

3. A moderate tele "portrait" lens (75mm to 105mm), got that at 120 but effective 96mm

Thanks Mike, I won't be buying any more lenses. You just saved me a bundle. With the savings, I will buy a pool table for you.

[Don't tease me! --Mike]

My kits have gotten simpler, lighter and smaller over the years.

For railroad action it's a D300 with a 18-70, a 50 and a fast 80-200 which gets 90% of the love.

For the Leica kit I've scaled back to an M6 with a 35 and a 75.

And for the NEX-7 I'm evolving to a Bag-o-Sigma - the 19 and 30, with a new 60 likely to replace the OM 50.

Twenty or even ten years ago my bags were much larger. For example, when I left my last paper in '84 I was humping a pair of motorized F2s, a motorized F3 and a 20 - 35 - 45 - 105 - 180 - 300 kit 14 hours per day. I have no idea how I managed it.


It's a pity that you got rid of your Pentax K-5: I have two rigs based on it:

1. Lightweight: K-5 plus 15 mm f/4 Limited, 35 mm f/2.8 Macro Limited, 70 mm f/2.4 Limited (the best lens of the bunch, and you're already on record as describing the 35 mm as an 'optical paragon'). This most closely resembles my old OM-1n kit (24 mm f/2.8 Hoya, 50 mm f/1.8 Zuiko, 105 mm f/2.5 Tamron ). This lightweight rig fits neatly in a Billingham L2 (Alice) bag, with extra AVEA pouches for filters, etc. Think of it as a time-warp system: a compact, high-quality camera, with some beautiful primes, all in a bag that wouldn't have felt out of place decades earlier (and the canvas and leather just *feel* nicer than modern polymers). Oh, and from the OM-1 system I can add the manual focus Tamron 105 mm (160 mm-e) to the bag using the Adaptall K-mount (thank you eBay). Why aren't Tamron producing Adaptall lenses any more?

2. Heavy and versatile: K-5 plus 12-24 mm f/4 DA, 16-50 mm f/2.8 DA*, and 60-250 mm f/4 DA*. This goes into a Lowepro 300 AW 'slingshot' bag, and I can stuff in things like manual Fotodiox bellows and an old enlarger lens if I want to go to high magnifications.

To either of these I can add my back-up body, a Pentax K-01 which I picked up for a knock-down price after its discontinuation; same sensor as the K-5, and it takes the same lenses, but it loses the pentaprism and mirror.

As you can tell, I've nailed my colours firmly to the Pentax mast. I just hope they survive, otherwise I'm in the position of a Bronica or Rollei 6008 user.

Best regards,


One lens per body, never change them. And never have anything too precious or perfect or you won't have the guts to use it in the rain, sleet, or scrum....

To that end, I have a 50/1.8 on one D300 body and a 24/2.8 on the other ~ in FX or film equivalent that's a 35 and 75.

If I want wider I can stitch two shots. If I want it longer I can crop. Done.

Nothing quite like a clump of photo geeks talking about their glinty junk!!

Anyone wanna buy a Vivitar 28mm 2.8 from 1982? It's mint and absolutely blows the equivalent Zeiss offering out of the water in terms of blurriness and parts that fall off.

I like your last line, cuz I love half face portraits and pictures of the lips of women.

Tom Kwas asked for " a APS-C, 20mm-60mm, f/2.8-4.5, that would be somewhere, in size, in between the small, cheap, crappy kit lens, and the too crazy f/2.8, and make it dead sharp and about 450 bucks!"
Have a look at the 18-55mm f/2.8-4 zoom for the Fuji X-series cameras. Diminutive, nicely built, affordable and very handy to work with.
It would seem that the no-mirror approach, which eliminates the need for a generous back-focus distance, creates opportunities for some cool lenses!

My list is for Fujinon XF lenses for the X series APS-C bodes.

14/2.8 own it

18/2 own it

23/1.4 money set aide for purchase

35/1.4 own it

56/1.2 money set aside for purchase

Then I'm done!

Several interesting things come out in this post.

As regards MFD I'd like to record a vote for the old Zuiko 100mm F2 which has a minimum focus distance of 0.7m. There's also the exotic and rare 90mm f2 macro... I still use the 100mm on occasions.

On to the notion of generalist photographers. I'm wondering if photojournalists are not only a good example of generalists, but the only species of real generalists? (Hence the ubiquitous Prdo line-up of 16-35, 24-70, 70-200 zooms). Don't you think most other serious photographers end up being specialists to some extent, once they've developed their own style? In which case your lens line-up tends to evolve to suit your photography, and you become attached to a lens because it's good at a particular job, and not "sharp wide open at f0 and across the frame at all apertures"?

Regarding using FF so that you can crop and retain image quality, I have a friend who justified buying a 5D III for this reason, but I had to point out that there was a big difference between framing by "zooming" - and framing by changing the subject position. One of my pet gripes about zoom lenses is that they do not encourage people to seek vantage points, and they can end up just using them for in-camera cropping

[That Zuiko 100mm f/2 is one of the best lenses I ever used. Great look, excellent wide open, and almost as close-focusing as a macro. Brilliant lens, a real thing of beauty. --Mike]

My slr (film) kit has a 24-85 and a 70-300 zoom. Both Zeiss T*'s.
My rf (film)kit includes a Zeiss 35 f2, a 50 f2 DR Summicron, an f2 90mm Summicron and an f4.5 135mm Hektor. A lens for each frame line on the m4.
I use the Leica kit more than the Contax kit.

I've been a prime shooter for years, valuing the quality and size of Pentax DA and FA Limited, but I've recently found a really fast 3-4x zoom that fit in my jacket pocket. It's attached to the Panasonic LX7, and the ability to compose and frame a shot just like I want it without foot zooming and/or changing lenses is totally liberating. So much so that I'd be willing to compromise on sensor size in order to get a fast zoom that didn't with a ton. Nikon 1, are you listening?

Well, my kit consists of all primes and I consider myself fairly well equipped -

Let's see...First, I have my 75/4.5, my widest wide angle (for close-ups of bildens' and sich); then there's my 125/5.6 and is my current most used wide-normal; although I did just get a nice 180/5.6, (CM-W in late, black ringed Copal 1, no less) which will probably become my new most used normal lens; followed by, you guessed it, the ubiquitous 210/5.6, but mine is the older version (Fujinon W, with markings inside the filter ring) that covers 8x10 with some movement; ditto for my 250/6.7 (lots more movement for 8x10 than the 210); and last but not least, my beautiful 360/5.6, which weighs close to three pounds and is the pride of my bag. This one has an IC of nearly 500mm, which as we all know, is really quite generous!

Of course, in my kit there is no VR, IS, USM, AF-S or even AF, for that matter, but then ALL of my lenses support (to greater or lesser degree) tilt-shift functions, as well as swing, rise, fall, macro, etc.. Several of these lenses are also interchangeable between my two main bodies, which are a 4x5 and an 8x10 (think DX and FX in Nikonspeak). Still, I think you could say I have a pretty decent "generalist" lens kit. :)

For me, being a view camera guy since 22 years, it was always most important to have even spacing between the focal lengths, i.e. a constant factor between the focal length and therefore the angle of view or the area shown. That factor could be the square root of 2 (about 1.4), as in the aperture-derived series that Will listed above, up to a factor of 2. My first lens set for the 4x5 view camera used a factor of 2 (75-150-300mm), but it turned out this spacing was too far apart for my liking. I am now using a factor of approximately 1.4 for the full set: 55-80-110-150-210-300-450mm. If weight is an issue one can increase the factor, a factor of 1.7 would give approximately 75-120-210-360mm, also a pretty popular combination. The popular series of 28-50-85/90mm for 35mm is also close to a factor of 1.7, btw. I definitely dislike it when camera companies do not allow this kind of spacing; the Mamiya 7 lens set, which I own as a travel camera, is an example: 43-50-65-80-150-210mm? What kind of spacing is that? Factors of 1.2, 1.3, 1.2, but then suddenly 1.85 and 1.4? Too close together on the short end and missing out on the longer one.
As for macro capabilities, that is not a point in view camera lenses, being built into the camera, but my favorite 35mm lens was the Olympus 90mm f/2 Macro, which got a new lease on life last year as a 135mm f/2 equivalent on an X-Pro1.

I have a basic set of prime lenses for my NEX, and while not really small, they are "sharp" and lightweight. They serve me well for almost everything.

Add to that, and I am amazed myself, a larger selection of "old" (prime) lenses than I ever had. Mostly (Olympus OM) Zuikos with their NEX adapters. From macro to long tele. It is great fun and not costing much.

I had consumer grade zooms when they were a novelty - and that cured me. I had Leicas and Leica lenses when I had more money. But I never was more satisfied with my equipment than I am now.

I spent a good hour or two last night anguishing over my choice of camera and lenses for a holiday over this post. I suppose that's the luxury of choice.

Option 1: Pentax K-5 with 21, 24, 35, 50, 85, 16-50, 50-135. Almost every shooting possibility covered (even in the rain).

Option 2: Leica M-E with 15, 35, 50.

I took the Leica. What made this choice so difficult was the Pentax kit I have -- it covers so many bases and has so many options (as you outline in your post) that you end up wondering what I really need.

In the end, I took the Leica because that's what Woody Allen used in Vicky Christina Barcelona -- and I'm going to Oviedo.

Hardly an objective choice! But then, it allowed me to sleep and besides, the word lens in French is objectif.


"When are we going to have a bag post?" – John Camp

God, I get much more excited about bags than the stuff I put in them, I think.

Your comments, Mike, about a prime kit rounded out with a telezoom got me thinking. Back when I had a Nikon APS-C kit, with a brace of old manual focus lenses, the three lenses I would have kept, if forced to choose, would have been 20mm, 30mm and the cheap, compact, great Nikon Series E 75-150 f/3.5. Only problem with the 75-150 (apart from spectacular capability for flares) was that its otherwise lovely rendering was a bit harsh for portraits. Pity, 75mm on APS-C is pretty nice for portraits.

When I got myself a M43 kit the first lens was a 20mm and I could pretty much have stopped there. But, kid's football (soccer…) was an excuse to get a 40-150 (which I need to use more) and then I like to have a 28mm equivalent around for when I'd take photos at any sorts of gatherings, hence a 14mm to round it all out.

I'm now eyeing a 45mm greedily, but promising myself not to buy it unless I actually start taking portraits.

Of course I went off on some tangent and forgot my main point. Why do I go for a telezoom instead of a prime? With M43 price, availability and reach explain it. On Nikon I had plenty of other options.

Partly I wonder if it's because I use telephoto lenses so little that I prefer the zoom over a certain focal length, as I do with focal lengths I'm more used to and comfortable with. As in, I've no idea what I'm doing when I use a telephoto.

Mike's theory sounds good though.

"Seems like someone could make a APS-C, 20mm-60mm, f/2.8-4.5, that would be somewhere, in size, in between the small, cheap, crappy kit lens, and the too crazy f/2.8, and make it dead sharp and about 450 bucks!"

How about the new Fuji 18-55 f2.8-4. It is almost whatnyou want, relatively small and seems to have a good reputation.

@ Patrick,

"So despite my being happy with the DoF etc. results from an f4 lens, my issue is that those lenses don't focus promptly. So I want fast lenses for reasons other than their optical properties, I suppose."

I use my 24-105mm f4 Canon lens frequently in very low light situations and find that it focuses speedily and faultlessly. I wonder what lenses have proved a problem for you.

I'm not sure I'd agree with characterizing a very long telephoto lens as the photographic equivalent of 'compensating'. If you're remotely serious about wildlife and bird photography, they're the only game in town. The optical compromises and sluggish focusing typical of long zooms make them almost unusable by comparison.
Red shouldered hawk

[In fairness to me, I did make that exception in the text, in the parenthetical at the end of the paragraph that begins with the words "'Fisheye' perspective." --Mike]

I can still travel the world with the 35mm equivalents of a 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm lens, in a pinch, just the 35 and 85. And yes, I still think primes are better than zooms, sharper for the same money, and more useable because they are smaller...

Back in the day, you'd open any photographers Hasselblad case, and it was 50-80-150; if they were a wedding person, then it was probably 60-80-150...next lens they bought was the 250, and then the 40. When Hasselblad started making more lenses, later in my career, if I had to do it all over again, it would have been the 60-100-180, the only reason I had a 150 and 250 is that the 150 was a tiny bit short for some things. If I had any money today, I'd try and buy a mint 180 and sell my 150 and 250...

The classification changes with the time ;) Some time ago you (as "Sunday Morning Photographer) wrote a column "USES AND APPLICATIONS OF 35mm LENSES" which I like very much and cite quite often. Funny thing is that the lenses you consider "true wide angle" now in that column you where considered as "ULTRA wide angles". And the only one true JUST wide angle was then 28mm. Personally, my liking is closer to the previous version, as I'm quite sick of all these modern press photos with photog's ears on side edges ;)

I still have a Pentax lens brochure dating back to the late '80s/early '90s which includes the A and F series lenses. It's interesting to see the suggested pro-grade lens kit includes the A28/2, A50/1.2, and A-Star 85/1.4 lenses. Pentax recommended using an approximate 2x factor for selecting prime lens focal lengths in which case it was believed a 28/50/100 kit would suffice for most needs with a mention of the 200mm focal length for long tele shots. The guide does comment though on the increasing popularity amongst pros for carrying 70-210 zooms and even the option of using the 28-70 and 35-70 normal zooms in lieu of primes. The trends were changing.

Nikon and Canon certainly offer a greater number of lens choices for their modern camera systems but in the mindset of the recommendations made in that Pentax lens guide brochure it appears that even today Pentax offers a complete and capable selection of lenses.

Tom Kwas wrote:
"Seems like someone could make a APS-C, 20mm-60mm, f/2.8-4.5, that would be somewhere, in size, in between the small, cheap, crappy kit lens, and the too crazy f/2.8, and make it dead sharp and about 450 bucks!"

Fuji's 18-55mm f/2.8-4.0 could fit the bill.
It seems pretty sharp, and costs 400 bucks if bought as part of the Fuji X-E1 lens kit.

With my Nikon FE my set is 24/50/105. The 50mm gets the most use, followed by the 24mm, and the 105mm gets used very rarely. I've also got a Vivitar 28-105 zoom for it that focuses closer than any of those lenses and is actually pretty sharp but it almost never gets used because its so much heavier than the primes.

I used to use the same primes on my digital Nikon but since upgrading to the D300 and buying a Tamron 17-50 f2.8 it rarely comes off the camera. The AF is so good on the camera that it seems silly to use MF lenses on it and I'm too cheap to buy AF primes. I did rent the 85/1.8G and if I were to get a second lens for the D300 that would be it. I had the 55-200mm when I first started out but realized I don't like taking pictures of far away things so I sold it to fund the D300 and can't say I've missed the longer focal lengths.

I've also got a 55 Micro that sees use on both cameras when I want to focus really close. I've got an extension tube to get 1:1 capabilities but can't remember the last time I used it.

Finally, I picked up an OM-1 w/ 50mm at a thrift shop a few months ago. After putting a few rolls through it I'm think about picking up a 28mm lens. Anyone want to send one my way?


I like a normal zoom for my walkabout, family photography. It's usually enough for me - something that goes from around 28mm-e to about 75mm-e, plus or minus a few mm at either end.

I'd been pining for a normal zoom that's decently quick, focuses reasonable fast and is pretty small. I usually went out with my d700 and a 35mm f2; sacrificing zoom for size.

When Fuji released their 18-55mm, f2.8-4, that was it. It's not much bigger than My Nikon 35 or 50mm, it feels good to use, the image quality is great and the camera it's attached to is small and fun (an x-e1).

A couple of years ago I used a Nikon S10 (35-350mm equiv, constant aperture (f/3.5!) lens) exclusively on a trip to Mexico. Later, I got the idea to do a little study to discover my favorite focal length choices. My goal was to use the results to choose a small set of prime lenses for my DSLR. Here's the result :

f-equiv (rate): 35 (14%), 50 (9%) , 70 (15%), 100 (15%), 135 (17%), 200 (17%), 300 (5%), 350 (8%)

(other than the extremes, the in-between focal lengths represent small ranges near the standard ones). As you can tell, this was not particularly helpful in reducing my prime lens set. Subsequently I did the same for my 18-70 mm zoom on my D70:

28 (12%), 33-43 (5%*), 50 (13%), 70 (16%), 85 (9%), 105 (45%)

This was more helpful. These days my standard kit consists of the DX 35/1.8 and the 55-300. I'm still waiting for a wide DX lens from Nikon.

*I guess I'm not like Mike.

I've started doing perspective correction in my snapshots sometimes -- if the convergence catches my attention and I can, I'll fix it. I did own a 24mm Olympus perspective control lens (for dealing with cathedrals and castles in England, basically), and that had its points. These days, though, there are actually far MORE people with perspective control lenses than there used to be; instead of shift lenses, everybody now makes tilt/shift, and people are buying them largely for the tilt I think, but they're buying them. I never knew anybody but myself with a shift lens, but I know three people with tilt/shift these days (none of whom were photographers as long ago as I had my shift 24mm). (And of course my acquaintanceship is large enough to mean something statistically -- not!)

I find that if working an event, I change focal lengths fast enough that primes aren't very convenient. If I carried multiple cameras, I might do with two lenses, maybe. But what I've actually done, since the 1980s, is use a zoom, 28-90, then 24-70. 70 isn't, drat it, really long enough, and I'm being slightly tempted by the 24-120; at least when shooting flash, the f/4 isn't a severe problem.

I've had varieties of the classic three-lens setup many times -- 28-50-200 (extreme version) for my very first SLR, 35-50-90 for my M3, 35-105 for my Nikon FM (just two, and I never did bond with the 105); and then 28-90 zooms on everything after that, though I had the primes also sometimes. And I've had a 70-210 range zoom all the time since 1975 (I guess just 4 different ones).

I've been shooting as high as EI 4000 since the 1970s (that TRI-X in HC110 replenisher trick). Even with noise reduction in post-processing I'm not fully comfortable with ISO 6400, and the higher steps are really only emergency measures for me. So actually I do still need fast lenses (and the M43 system isn't at all comfortable at ISO 3200, or even 2500). (There's less noise in the high ISOs today -- but standards have gone up.) And f/2.8 is not a fast lens. My biggest regret in M43 is that the f/2 zooms never appeared (they were in full four-thirds, but the adapters don't work that well). (They're also as expensive as the f/2.8 zooms for FX or worse since there's less competition, but that's a problem for later.)

In the old days, we were clearly restricted by money and weight in focal length. Nearly everybody topped out at 200mm. The APS-C DSLRs gave all of us a 50% increase in reach -- and we all immediately adapted to having it. It was a nasty shock going back to full frame; I'd never expected to do so, but Nikon's pricing on the D700 was so aggressive I couldn't pass it up for the high ISO. Cost me a fortune in lenses, far more than the body cost; but if I'd been patient -- the D300s is the best thing since in DX and it's not really good enough. Sorry, still grousey about being trapped in a corner of the preference space that's not being supported very well.

Thanks for the post. Coincidentally I just returned from an overseas trip and for the first time in 30+ years, took only prime lenses (m4/3). Of the 1500 images I came home with, Lightroom tells me that I took around 500 each with the Panasonic 20mm and Sigma 30mm, around 300 with the Olympus 45mm and the balance with the Olympus 12mm and 75mm lenses.
Overall it was a very engaging experience to retrain myself to frame by moving rather than zooming and start relearning the perspective characteristics of fixed focal lengths. Even the trivial physical exertion of taking a few steps forward or back translated into a more involving experience for me.

This is actually what has made using micro-fourthirds a little odd for me. I'm used to really good 4/3 Olympus zooms, especially the 12-60 2.8-4 (24-120 equivalent). The lenses are a little big, slow and awkward on the OMD, so with that I usually use the 20 1.7 and 45 1.8, and they change the way I take photos, making me more inclined to use the camera indoors, more like a point and shoot party camera. We never had the best prime selection in the regular 4/3 collection (35 3.5 macro, 50 f2 macro/portrait, 150 f2, 300 f2.8).

Also, prime lenses or fast zooms brighten up the viewfinder -- as long as they're about f2 to f2.8-- modern SLR's don't get brighter after about 2.4 or so because of internal losses and viewfinder screens. Not applicable to rangefinders or electronic viewfinders.
I'm wrestling with liking or living my new x100s as my compact digital camera of choice . I'm trying to get used to the 35mm only. I prefer a 28 only or a 50 only (such as on the 18.5 on a v1). I might get the coolpix and stick a 28 viewfinder on it.
When I use a zoom, I use it as a prime selector switch. I choose the setting before bringing the viewfinder up to my eye. I don't use it as a cropping dial.

A few years ago a friend took his studio digital and retired all of his Hasselblad gear.
He put together a kit for me made up of a nice older stuff that didn't have much resale value but did have a lot of life left.
This included a 50mm Distagon and a 250mm Sonnar, both pre T-star but very clean. He threw in a couple of Zeiss close up lenses for the the 250 and a beat up prism.
I thought the gap between a 50 and 250 would be kind of a problem but over time I have found this combination gives a nice mix of looks for the landscapes I like to take for personal pleasure.
I suppose a 100 or 120 would be nice but even a beat up user would double what I have in this kit and that doesn't pencil out for me.
A grand buys a lot of shoe leather.

There was a sitcom in the UK a few years back called "Keeping Up Appearances", the heroine being a desperately upwardly mobile lower middle class housewife called Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced "Bookay"). OK I think you can see where this one is going.... ;-)

Seems to me Fuji hit the nail with their first three lenses being an 18/35/60 combo with one being a macro. I still use all three, along with the 14. I only use the Xe1 and zoom when I want to travel light.

Oddly on my Nikon FF cameras, mainly used for events, I only ever use zooms. Even the 24-70 is no heavier than the prime lenses I would want to replace it with. There a case for, and pleasure in, both solutions but reaction times are a lot faster with zooms.

And I second the call for a camera bag discussion!!

I like to play math games with prime focal lengths (actually I don't "like" it, I'm compulsive about it).

For example, a good full-frame three-lens kit for me would be: 24-50-105 because 24x2=50x2=105.

My standard for years, however has been 18-50-135 because 18x2.7=50x2.7=135.

I'm a prime guy, and you captured my basic lens kit in your first paragraph: 24mm for wide, 50mm is my normal and 100mm is my medium telephoto. Anything else is extra.

I just can't imagine myself with a zoom, for the same reason I drive a manual transmission car. Prime lenses are where I draw the line for the convenience that I allow myself. If I had the eyesight for it, I'd use manual lenses too. I just don't like things being too convenient. Call me weird.

I will second the Pentax K5 and three primes. My recent trip to Chile I took the DA15, DA35 LTD Macro and the FA77. The bulk of the photos were with the 35mm and 77mm lens.

I'm still looking for a wide lens that works for me. I've settled on the OM-D & 20/1.7 & 45/1.8 and love those lenses quite a bit. I think the camera could be better designed but, it's usable enough for now. And the IBIS is fantastic.

I've now used (almost) all the wide options on m4/3: 7-14/4 (flared too easily for me), 12/2 (beautifully made but a focal length that didn't work for me), 9-18/4-5.6 (solid images, but unpleasant to use - though, incredibly light and compact in its stored position).

I've pre-ordered a Ricoh GR (APS C fixed lens camera with a 28mm-e) because it looks rather compelling as a compact camera (only slightly bigger than the RX100!).

I think I like primes because, well, zooms just stress me out with all the options they present. I sit and fiddle instead of making pictures. I love how the lenses I've chosen render and the their focal lengths correspond nicely with what I like to photograph.


On recommending for a friend: I've mostly given up because people just end up ignoring my advice and buying whatever is on sale or has the biggest zoom. My most recent recommendation was the Nikon 5200 with the 16-85 & 35mm. Who knows whether they'll actually buy it. But to up the incentive, I promised to do a photo walk and do a little teaching on camera operation. I guess some people never learn. :p

Back in the "Olden Tymes" the 2X tele-extender was the "gateway drug" for lens addiction. The neophyte, with his Pentax slr and 50mm, was tempted with a cheap 2X. Then, it was all downhill after that. Until they got the wide angle bug. That wouldn't stop until they got the 220 degree Nikkor fisheye that could see behind itself. Or a Widelux. "Hi, my name is Dave. I have LBA....."

Hi Mike,

I'm glad you posted on this. Right now I'm using the 20mm on m4/3 as my only lens - at least since Christmas. I still have the kit lens, and an assortment of manual focus Nikkors, but the 20 is enough right now. One of the nice benefits of the 4:3 format is that for an equivalent horizontal angle of view, you get a little more sky. (And cropped square, it is almost the same as 80mm on 6x6). It's a little sluggish with the autofocus, and just a smidge tight for some of the indoor "people doing stuff" photos I like to do. I do find myself stitching a little (60% or more overlap) on landscapes, and paying more attention to how focal length changes perspective. I think if I didn't need to photograph my kids, I might have stuck with the kit lens. It's perfectly adequate in good light, and quite sharp at the shorter focal lengths, provided you keep an eye on the magic shutter speeds that cause it to vibrate. (This is the E-PL1 kit lens, the Mark II version is supposedly fixed.) Occasionally, I find myself wanting something a little more tele, but not so often that I'd want to mess with carrying another lens with me or changing them in the field.

In the film days, I relied on a slow superzoom, from 28mm to 300mm with "1:4 macro". As you might have guessed, I took a huge number of 28mm pictures in low light, wide open (f/3.8!) I got quite good at composing with that focal length, and continued with it through compact cameras and kit zooms, making the best of a bad situation, pushing the limits of what could be done in bad light. And as you might expect, I do think longingly about the Panasonic 14mm, and I do wonder how much the label cheated on the wide end of that super zoom. It might have been a 30mm/4.0, and I would never have known the difference. Before I had access to scanners and Photoshop (they were around, mind you!) that superzoom was great for cropping things in camera, particularly with slide film.

I do occasionally wonder about what I'd get for a once in a lifetime vacation (Paris!), perhaps a second body with a 80mm-e to 300mm-e type zoom, and the newer Mk II kit lens (it takes a fisheye attachment!). Of course, if there was a pancake-sized, fast, 35mm-equivalent lens, I think I'd switch. I've always been pleased with the work I've done with that angle of view, and I wouldn't feel that I'd compromised at all. Fortunately for my wallet, there isn't one that is both small and fast :) If there was one, I could imagine doing Paris with a 35mm-e on one camera and a 90mm-e on another.

Before I got the 20/1.7, I did occasionally pull out some adapted manual focus lenses for kid portraits, usually 50mm equivalents at f/1.8, but I don't really enjoy that sort of thing as much as I'd imagined I would. For truly static stuff - the moon, buildings, macros, etc. - they are fine. If that was all I did, I'd cheerfully restrict myself to 50mm-e and 100mm-e. But really, I quite like autofocus, and I hate changing lenses. I don't think I've even picked up one of them except to move it out of the way since Halloween?

"I know what I'd advise: the same thing I do—single-focal-length lenses in a basic three-lens array. But I realize that's like telling everyone to buy a stick shift: impractical advice, given mass taste and most peoples' training."

I have to take issue with this analogy. At most, driving with a stick shift requires a little more coordination and attention compared to an automatic, but doesn't really change where one can drive, or under what conditions. A prime lens kit however fundamentally changes the way you must photograph. One can argue if this is a good or bad thing, but you are certainly losing some capabilities while gaining others.

Two years ago and a bit I got a Leica X1 with a 36mm equivalent lens, I ended up using it for most of my personal work. I also liked the idea that I couldnt add anything more to this camera. When I needed better quality I used my Mamiya ZD with one lens only, the 50mm shift, which is slightly wider than 35mm. Thus I bought the 40mm pancake for my full frame Canon without hesitation. I just got a Eos M kit as a backup, a major incentive was the small size, integration with all my Canon stuff, and the superb 35mm equivalent prime lens. So it seems that I can function with one lens only. The best thing about using one lens over a long period of time is that it benefits ones vision tremendously and there is just so much less decisions to make.. Over these past two years I have sometimes wished for something longer like a 50 or an 80...but so far I have resisted!

I know I'm boring but give me a nice normal prime on whatever I'm using. One of these days I'll find a way and put a Panasonic/Leica 25/1.4 on my E-PL1. In the meantime, my old Nikkor 24/2.8 Pre-AI does the job really well. My other Nikkors that I use on it are longer still (50/1.4 & 105/2.5P) but that's ok, I can barely use a 35 or 28 much less a real wide. Besides, the two foot zoom works in reverse too... ;)

I bought into m4/3 over APS-C systems (mirrorless and DSLR) in large part due to its selection of primes. Currently I've got the 14/2.5, 25/1.4 and 45/1.8. The GWC1 wide-angle adapter gets me 11mm and a Raynox achromat allows serviceable macro. That's a lot of versatility in a small kit. (I've also got the 14-42 and 40-150 kit zooms but rarely use them.)

I find that I use the 25mm (50mm-e) rather like a short telephoto — perhaps the 4:3 aspect ratio encourages this? — it works well for much of my shooting but it doesn't feel like a "normal" lens either.
14mm (28mm-e) seems neither here nor there me, but I make good use of it. I'd really like to see a 10.5mm (21mm-e) prime for m4/3. I suspect I would be quite happy with a 21mm-e, 35mm-e and 90mm-e kit.

The only zoom I crave is a m4/3 version of the superb Olympus 12-60/2.8-4. For travel, poor weather, or other occasions when switching primes is difficult, such a lens would be as near to perfect as I could reasonably hope.

While Fuji wasn't an option when I adopted m4/3, I must say that their lens roadmap is shaping up very, very well.

Mike, you cracked me up at the end of the 35mm lens article - "critter lens" precisely describes long teles. One of my Olys has the PANA 100-300 permanently attached and programmed to optimize its use, which is almost every day on our CA mountainside farm. It works great! Last week it was blue jays, bunnies, crows, and our feral cat chomping down a lizard. I have also shot vultures landing, hawks, eagles, rattlesnakes, coyotes, raccoons, well. you get the idea.
On the other OLY, I keep the kit zoom which focuses close enough for the veggies and fruit in the garden and the wildflowers in season right now. Don't cringe, but I use a +4 diopter close up lens for flowers and small bugs and last fall monarch butterfly chrysalis. While it is rather poor off-axis, the center is sharp, it focuses normally and has a surrealistic look.

Mike Johnston wrote:

Cameras, Lenses for Sale
• Nikon AF-S Nikkor 85mm ƒ/1.8G, new in box, $420
I'm keeping the D800—just too handy to have around for too many things

Which Lenses?
I'm personally still firmly in the normal / short tele / wide prime camp. [..]
I know what I'd advise: the same thing I do — single-focal-length lenses in a basic three-lens array.

Conflating these two posts, the subtext might be that the Nikon D800 — its presumably outstanding picture quality notwithstanding — is maybe a bit too bulky to be used as the core of a three-lens camera kit, and that the Sony NEX6 could be the more effective piece of photographic equipment for normal people ;-)

Moving your body is not zooming: it is change of perspective!

By the mid-'90s, another option had taken hold: replacement of the main normal lens with a "normal zoom."

The first standard zoom lens for 35-mm SLR cameras actually intended to replace the ubiquitous 50 mm standard lens and marketed as a kit lens (as we say today) was the Fujinon-Z 43-75 mm 1:3.5-4.5 from 1977. In the mid to late '70s, there was an abundance of 40-90, 35-70, 35-105, 28-85 mm etc lenses to choose from. The idea to replace the 50 mm lens with one of those was frequently discussed in the photo magazines of that time. By the way, the Konica Hexanon 35-100 mm 1:2.8, in 1977, was twice as much as a Leitz Summilux-M 35 mm 1:1.4 and only slightly less than a Noctilux-M 50 mm 1:1!

By the early to mid-'80s, it was perfectly common for a new aspiring photographer to start with a standard zoom rather than a 50 mm lens.

I don't know if it fit's Mr. Kwas's bill well enough, but Sigma make a 17-70mm f/2.8-4 OS lens for APS-C. I seem to recall the older non-OS 17-70mm f/2.8-4.5 being well regarded, hopefully the newer version is just as good.

A 17-70mm sounds like a good one lens solution, if one's into that. I think my one lens solution would be a fairly bright (f/2 or better, probably not a big f/1.4) normal prime on the wide side. Something around 40-45mm in 35mm terms.

A comment on this:

I don't even know how most new camera buyers go about choosing a lens complement for their cameras, though. It's quite possible they leave it to a default (use the kit zoom that comes with the camera), or up to others (use whatever the camera store counterman tells you to use), or to online research (but then, how do you make sense of quality ratings when you're not really personally familiar with focal lengths and f-numbers?).

On the internet forums I frequent it's not uncommon for people to ask lens advice where they specify some form of need or wish and then ask if a lens that's not close to fulfilling the request fits the bill. Something like "Hi, I have a Nikon D3100 with the kit lens and I'd like something wider, would the Nikon 50mm f/1.8 be a good choice?"

Regarding how most anybody starts off with a zoom lens of some sort on their camera nowadays, I think things may be changing. Well, in a way. Now most anybody probably starts off with a prime lens… in their phone. I doubt that impacts what they buy when they get interested in photography and decide they want a dedicated camera, but what do I know?

A zoom lens allows me to sweep up all the focal lengths that rarely "work" for me, into one affordable and easy-to-carry package - without, these days, much or any quality penalty BTW - and, with a sigh of relief, leave them all behind in the cupboard in one go. Far more logical and sensible, than if I were to have instead covered these same lengths with fast primes, and then had all the extra hassle of leaving all those behind in the cupboard. I'm a zoom convert to that extent, so long as I don't have to use them. Not when it's my own enjoyment at stake.

33mm-equiv pancake, 105mm-equiv pancake, 50mm-equiv compact are what seem to best suit my eye and willingless to schlep stuff around, in that order of utility. This is on APS-C crop - actually 21, 70, 35 macro.

Far enough apart to make noticeably, and overtly, different characters of picture... or put another way, to require interestingly different kinds of picture-making invention.

Thanks for all on here suggesting I look at the Fuji small zoom, now if I could only get it on my Nikon stuff! Guess I should have said I wanted the 20-60mm small, sharp zoom for the camera system I already had, not to buy a whole new system (already did that with the M4/3rd's I'm testing). If Nikon had made a lens like I wanted, and "right -sized" f/2.8 primes in the 16mm (24), and 24mm (36), sizes, I wouldn't have gotten into M4/3rd's.

Hi Mike,
One of the GREAT benefits of Nikon cameras, is the 15000 or lenses available every day on ebay or Craigslist. Over the last decade I have bought and sold lots of lenses trying to find the "right" combination.At virtually no cost beyond the initial investment. With my D700 (also bought used) i was thrilled with the 3 zoom kit. used 17-35 35-70 80-200 with a bunch of rarely used others kicking around. Then I got the brilliant idea to get a D800 first new body since 2006 All of a sudden the intrigue of primes, in some part due to the realization that a crop "could" be considered.(rarely did that before). I find myself very much at home with the 24, and 85 (I keep a 50 and ancient 200 f4 handy) I did pick up a Samyang 14 for fun but while people like the images with that I still prefer the 24. lotsa fun!

d800: 16-35, 24-70, 70-200 f/4, and 60mm macro. Done. Anything not covered in the above list, I rent.

"...generalist photographer needed three or four lenses."

In days of yore
when cameras were dumb
it was very convenient
to construct such rules of the thumb.

But today they have brains
so why endure the pains
of carrying a bag full of thumbs?

I use primes most of the time ranging from 21mm to 280mm.

If I am shooting my son's soccer games, then I use zoom. I am planning to bring my Nikon 24-70/2.8 and 70-200/2.8 for the MotoGP race at Laguna Seca this July. I might need a longer lens so I might take my Leitaxed 2X APO converter to use my 280/4 APO R on my D3S.

I got a Nikon S mount 50/1.4 (2000 year) for my Nikon SP last Friday and my colleague at work thought I was strange since it didn't get a zoom. "How would you zoom with this?" he asked. I told him, "using my legs" doing a demo. :-)

I am introducing my friend who is new in photography to primes. He uses the two kit zooms he got. I loaned him a 35/2.

If I am going to the beach, I bring out the 18-200 which came with my D300.

"The first standard zoom lens for 35-mm SLR cameras actually intended to replace the ubiquitous 50 mm standard lens and marketed as a kit lens (as we say today) was the Fujinon-Z 43-75 mm 1:3.5-4.5 from 1977."

Don't forget the lens everyone loved to hate but secretly owned: the Nikkor 43-86 of 1963. True, it wasn't marketed as a 50 substitute - but it was one of the first viable midrange zooms. I've owned three or four over the years, and actually have a very late AI one right now that has fairly decent performance.

Another thing a single 35mm-e allows is one less thing to think about - when talking to other parents about tips to grabbing shots of kids, one thing that keeps coming up is a kind of analysis paralysis - too many decisions to be made. Sure, you may 'miss' shots with a fixed lens, but in practice not getting confused equals more keepers. A big part of why the iPhone has been so popular as a camera is the big screen, one button simplicity of it all. I have a VR 24-85 I picked up for vacation(no time to swap lenses at Disney:) but otherwise a 35 or 50 is bolted to the front. And a 1.4 lens isn't just a status symbol - narrow DOF and great bokeh make messy kid's bedrooms look amazing!

You may be right about when normal zooms became popular but Nikon started selling 43-86mm lenses in in 1963 and even had the Nikkorex ZOOM 35 which was a hideous 35mm slr with let another hideous 43-86mm permanently attached. Well it might spontaneously fall off , but then it would be permanently detached. The interchangeable one had a single zoom-focus ring , and the fixed (think ex-tomcat) one had separate zoom and focus rings.

Awful, awful lenses, unless you wanted lots of flare and internal reflection for a special effect like taking backlit outdoor pictures of psychedelic rock bands with bad skin or zooming during exposure.

I'm afraid I'm a bit of a lens junkie. In my Canon days (ultimately a 5d mark 1), I loved my 24-70f2.8L. It was a great combination, but the weight!

Now I've found the same for my om-d: The panny 12-35f2.8. It's a remarkable lens and what I have for walking around.

On the other hand, I'm about to take a trip to Ireland and Scotland. For that I'm taking the panny 7-14 (a wonderful lens!), the oly 12-50 kit (not bad, and water proof. I understand it rains in Ireland) and the oly 75-300. Oh, and for interiors, the 17f1.8. It's a lot, but I doubt that the whole setup will weigh as much as my 5d and 24-70L weighed.

And immediately after my last comment - , this happened:
So, yeah, fast lenses and good high ISO's aren't just for photojournalists - parents need ALL the help they can get!

Hello Mike,

As per some of these comments, I too clearly remember "Modern Photography" and Herb Kettler, and much preferred it over POP. I was dismayed when it shut down and would have gladly sacrificed POP instead.

I would love to read your take on the two mags, and the closing of Modern, etc. For me it would be a fascinating read. I hope you will consider this for a future subject.

As always, I love your writing and check in every day. Keep up the good work.

On a Hamburg-trip I had just 2 oly-m43-lenses with me:
9-18mm and 1,8/45mm - great lightweight-setup :-)
Some few situations I wished to have a 2,8/90-100mm

Summary: I enjoyed travel light!

Pentax ME Super with

SMC Pentax 55mm F1.8

SMC Pentax-A 35-105mm F3.5

SMC Pentax-A 50mm F2.8 Macro

That about rounds it up..Of course when i go 645, 66 or 57. That's another story...

Mike, great article with very interesting commentary by TOP readers.

I've evolved a specific approach to lens selection based on two very different applications.

The first application is that of a pro motorsports photojournalist for the better part of a decade now. And, as you mention above, for that application, the lenses you need are the first criteria, the camera secondary. Interestingly, sports photojournalists take a hybrid approach to lens selection, using zooms from the wide end to 200 mm: a VERY typical kit for a sports or motorsports photojournalist would be: a 17-40mm/4, 24-70/2.8 or 24-105/4 and the venerable 70-200/2.8, the last being so important to PJs that you would have to pry it from their cold, dead hands to get them to give it up. The reason for this multiplicity of zooms in photojournalism is that you need focal length flexibility for a maximal range of different shooting situations: from candid portraits in the paddock, to close-ups in press conferences, to wide for close-in action or "atmosphere" shots, or more practically, just trying to fit the entire length an open-wheel race car in the frame standing only 8 feet away from it.

Interestingly, past 200 mm, sports PJs go all "prime"; 300/2.8s, 400/2.8s (very popular with football photojournalists), and the big guns, the 500/4 and 600/4.5. Even though there are zooms that will reach out to 400 mm or so, nothing beats a big prime when you really need reach (try shooting a motorcycle grand prix at one of the current tracks today with something as wimpy as a 300/2.8–fuggedaboutit!).

The second application, personal photography is different. In that context, I find that camera choice is based on my first consideration, which, quite simply, is what do I really feel like hauling out with me for the day? The lens selection is then based on the system of lenses for that camera. When I used to shoot with a smaller, lighter dSLR than the battle tank that is my pro photojournalism body, I'd take the 17-40 and a 24-105 (something similar).

But with my transition away from dSLRs to mirrorless systems for personal photography (in my case, the Fuji X-Pro1), I shoot with a 35 mm prime (53 mm equiv.) and an 18-55 zoom. My pIan is to end up with two primes, the 14mm and 35mm, and two zooms, the 18-55 and 55-200. This "four-lens" kit should cover me in 99% of the situations I see myself using this camera.

Great article, thought provoking.
My present minimal set for the OM-D consists of the Panasonic 12-35 2.8 and the PL 45 2.8 macro. It fits practically everything I want to do.

But, then, I am so in love with the Oly 75 1.8 that I try to use it even when its focal length is less than optimal. For instance, for most of my portraits, and wide open to soften the detail by its narrow DOF.
But if I didn't have the 75, the PL 45 would suffice.

Rob asked (in reference to my plea for faster glass) " I wonder what lenses have proved a problem for you."

Rob, My camera is an Olympus E-PL1 and the standard kit lenses offer slow performance in indoor situations. I do have the Panasonic 20/1.7 (which is terrific) which performs (focus-wise) meeting my needs. I also have the fun 15mm Body Cap lens which of course focuses instantaneously, what with it not having to focus.


For most people, the very occasional need for a macro lens could be covered with a short extension tube coupled with that short tele you suggest. It would not work that well with portraits but would do well for example for the obligatory ring shot that a wedding photographer needs.
They are now available also for m4/3 and NEX.
Extension tube is among the first accessories I buy for any new camera system.

@Kalli: Sigma make a 17-70mm f/2.8-4 OS lens for APS-C. I seem to recall the older non-OS 17-70mm f/2.8-4.5 being well regarded, hopefully the newer version is just as good.

The latest (third or "C" for "Contemporary") version, the "Sigma 17-70mm F/2.8-4 DC Macro OS HSM C", is shipping for Canon but not for Nikon. That "C" is important. It's the only thing that differentiates it from the second version (and something B&H omits in their naming).

The Canon version reviewed at DxoMark.


The first version of the Sigma 17-70mm f/2.8-4.5 with screw focusing on the Nikon was well regarded. The second version f/2.8-4.5 seemed to have lost something in adding OC/VR/IS (like many of these third party zooms). Hopefully, like the third version of the Sigma 18-50mm f/2.8 DX zoom, this will return to original quality.

Other than aperture it's distortion is the most notable feature that seperates DX "kit lenses" from the "better" zooms. Keeping distortion under control would be nice. I know we have a distortion control in post (well, not in Aperture) but it would be nice to keep it a bit more under control at the wide end. Of course that that price point that might be asking for a quart in a pint pot.

I'm hoping that the Fuji f/2.8-4 kit zoom might push some of the others into making more interesting kit zooms rather than hoping a "standard kit zoom" will be an upselling opportunity.

Even more importantly I'd like to see much faster kit zooms for smaller sensor systems like the Nikon 1. You don't have to move too far from wide open at f/3.5 to f/5.6 to start hitting diffraction. These systems need faster kit lenses (or even faster enthusiast zoom). As another commentor mentioned I'd even give up the bottom part of the wide end and VR to get this (they do have one lens like this but it still f/3.5 to f/5.6).

For years, my basic kit was 28mm, 50mm (for the fast aperture) and 80-210 zoom. Most of the time, the 28mm was on the camera.

This is now stale for me, so thanks to cheap primes on eBay I am mixing things up, trying a 24mm plus some sort of short tele in the 100 to 135 range. While I'm enjoying the 24mm, this is still a work in progress; I haven't yet decided if the non-zooming tele is working for me.

But that's for my personal walkabouts with a film camera; when it's time to take pictures involving external obligations (family or web publication) I grab the Nikon DSLR with the 18-200mm (which is never removed -- a mischievous pixie could weld it onto the camera while I slept and I wouldn't notice) and just get on with it.

Nikon 12-24/4 DX-AFS, 24/2.8D, 35/2D, 50/1.8D, and an 85/1.8D on a D7000, D200, and a D80.

I'm not too fussy about lenses and cameras but I'm very fussy about maintaining a generalist's lens kit. The camera bodies are generalist as well: the D7000 for lowlight/ action; the D200 for landscape/ portraits, and the D80 for knock-about, informational/ Internet stuff.

Hi Mike, Great article and interesting comments. In my film days, I used an OM-2n with the lens combination you suggested - 28, 50, 100 and 200 primes - a nice compact kit. I now use the Olympus 4/3 system and still have 4 lenses: the 7-14, 14-54 and 50-200 zooms (in combination with the EC14 converter) give me the equivalent of 14-560mm on 35mm, plus the wonderful 50mm macro for macro and portrait work. And it all fits in the same size bag as my old film gear. Cheers Kevin


as a "short portrait" tele for NEX I would urge you to try the Sony 50mm/1.8 OSS E-mount. I find it very good on my NEX-7, with very even performance across the field.

It's very cheap, no bigger then the 24/1.8 and probably quite a bit lighter. Plus it's stabilized.

I'll play devil's advocate here. How should a beginner know what focal length they will like most? So I'd like to give some contrarian advice here for a beginner. Get a good, nice handling digital camera, one that you actually want to use frequently, and whatever kit zoom comes with it or is available for little money. Shoot that for a year, then use an exif statistics program to see what parameters you actually set most often. Then select the 20,50,100 photographs you like most and re-run the program. As someone with photographic experience (not someone owning a lot of gear!) to do the same for you. Offer them a drink/pizza. After that, go and buy a fixed focal length closest to that preferred setting, and shoot that one for a year.
Of course the first year's pictures will likely lack formal and aesthetic coherence, yet that may be better than using someone else's focal length for learning.

During the last 6 months I've done a fair amount of indoor photography of people and where I live, f2 is a necessity for it unless one wants to have a somewhat clinical indoor lighting (mostly I'm not using strobes), f1.4 is even better. Trouble is that ability to discern fine tone shifts and having room for adjustment for less than perfect light goes down when increasing ISO, whereas a shallows DOF may not be a problem (depending on situation), particularly with short lenses. Thus, I claim that there are still uses for fast lenses outside of the shallow DOF/showoff category.

What comes to the Sigma 60, I have a Sigma 30/2.8 and while it's a good lens and excellent value, there are far better lenses out there for the same focal length whether one values sharpness or smoothness of rendition, provided that one is ready to spend more.

Interesting: I use a 16, 30, and 60 and am quite satisfied with that at the moment.

Really stupid question: What sort of subjects are you all photographing that requires a sub-1 meter focal distance on a short tele? Very tight headshots? (If I haven't botched my trig, the subject size at 24" from an 85 mm-e is about a foot.)

Thanks, that is a really great article. There's one, in my view obvious, aspect missing, which I will try to elucidate. In my oldfashioned photography education (mainly self-taught in the 1970ies using Dutch classics like the books by Dick Boer & contemporaries) the distinction between viewing angle ('crop', 'framing') and perspective was hammered into my mind. You will have seen these educational picture pairs: up close with a WA, and from afar with a tele, where the main subject is identical in size, but the background is either huge or tiny. The point being: viewpoint determines perspective, focal length determines framing. When I switched to using zooms about a decade ago (because then the optical quality became acceptable to me; there have been good zooms before like the old Nikon 80-200 but they were rare and expensive) I just kept doing the same thing as with primes. Move body to point of view until perspective is correct, then select focal length for correct framing. Using this logic, the entire debate is really moot, and zoom lenses are what they really are: many lenses in one, with some logistical advantages and some optical disadvantages. I agree with the author that precisely this logic is often lost on beginning photographers who start using zoom, because they never change their point of view, and don't even realize that there is this extra, independent dimension represented by perspective.

The 24-50-100 approach is simple enough, right?

Except that most of us are gearheads. We love to buy more gear and experiment. Each system offers strengths and weaknesses. This is what makes this debate all fun.

I tend to use primes more than zooms. It's more fun. I'm not a pro. I agree with earlier comments - zooms are so confusing, you spend time trying to think should I use 28mm or 70mm instead of taking pictures concentrating on what you CAN do with whatever lens you have.

On my m43 system, what's missing is a long tele photo prime/zoom (300mm-equiv plus) f4 or better. I think a lot of canon users will switch once this lens is available.

What's also missing is high quality standard zoom. Interested Olympus went from a zoom setup on 43 system to a all prime system on m43.

Too bad Nikon and canon are concentrating on FF lenses, their DX format is ignored.

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