Freedom through Limitations: Going out in the Field with just one Lens

If on your next dream excursion you could take just one lens, which would it be? Would you opt for a wide angle zoom so useful in capturing those grand landscapes? Or would prefer the versatility of a mid-range zoom that usually includes in its range everything from a moderate wide angle to moderate telephoto? Although versatile, this lens leaves many bored because it has inadequate range to provide dramatic emphasis to the foreground and also because it is not long and powerful enough to compress and isolate a distant subject. Perhaps instead you would choose a long telephoto lens which would allow you to find within the grand landscape a multitude of potential subjects without having to move around much at all. Or perhaps you would reject all of three three options from the holy trinity of lenses and choose instead a Macro lens to bring to your eyes the often hidden beauty of the micro world.

Jade Vines
105mm 2.8 Nikon Macro Lens @F3.5, Focus Stacked Image

Although at first this might seem more like a hypothetical exercise, it actually is not. We should all, beginning and experienced photographers alike, periodically travel with just one lens. Although conventional wisdom often associates creativity with the freedom of no barriers and unlimited choices, creatives have long known that creative bursts are just as likely to come through working with limitations. Why is this so?

Young Tree in a Forest: Mid Range Zoom at 70mm @ F9

Introducing limitations to the process of image making is the ultimate defense against creative block. With one lens–we now have fewer choices to make in creating a compelling image. This reduction of choices helps inspire us to see the world in different ways, moving us out of our comfort zone, which allows us to tap into new sources of creativity! Who would have known that the best way to expand our horizons is working within often self imposed limitations? If we instead work with a full array of lens choices, we may never take the extra steps necessary to make a single lens work, for example moving closer or further away from the subject with a mid range zoom or simplifying a cluttered landscape with a telephoto perspective. By way of analogy from the world of music, one would never think that a musician who opts to play a song using a classic acoustic piano is any less creative than another musician who instead chooses instead an electric piano with a full array of synthesized sounds. In fact, just the opposite may be true. The same holds true for the world of photography. We should never prematurely judge a photographer as somehow less creative because he/she chooses to work within the limitations of one or two lenses. Taking along just a single lens will provide the added advantage of reducing the weight of our backpack, making us more agile and nimble in the field!

Ever Returning Spring
Sony 16-35 2.8 GM Wide Angle Zoom at 30mm, Focus Stacked
Flock of Birds
Sony 10-400 GM Telephoto Zoom @400mm

The Trinity of Zoom Lenses

The Trinity of Zoom lenses is very popular today and for good reason. One can fulfill the vast majority of photographic requirements with these three lenses. The three lenses include a wide angle zoom, mid-range zoom, and telephoto zoom. Popular focal lengths for each of these zooms are 16-35 mm for a wide angle zoom, 24-105 for a mid-range zoom, and a 70-200 (or 100-400 which I prefer) for a telephoto zoom. There is overlap in the range of each of these zooms which is a good thing because it reduces the need to change lenses too often. Frequent changing introduces the possibility of getting dust on the sensor and perhaps more importantly missing out on a decisive moment. Some photographers may opt for a somewhat wider wide angle zoom, for example 12-24mm . I own the Sony 12-24mm extreme wide angle but it seldom gets used because most of the time I can create a superior image with a less extreme focal length. There are times, however, when we definitely need to go wider, but these times are so rare that taking along an extreme wide angle zoom as ones only lens may not be the best choice. In addition to the holy trinity of lenses, we will also want to consider a dedicated macro lens as a single lens option.

Wide Angle Zoom

A wide angle zoom is typically the first lens a beginning landscape photographer buys after purchasing a camera with a standard mid-range zoom lens. He/she wants to go wider and perceives that the kit zoom is not wide enough to effectively capture grand scenes. Disappointment, however, often follows because using this lens effectively will require much practice in developing ones skill set. We are not just capturing wide angle scenes with this lens, but creating compelling compositions that provide a visual flow from major foreground elements, to the mid-ground and background. Lets reviews some of the Pro and Cons of the Wide Angle Zoom.

This lens has received a bad rap lately. Many perceive that the use of this lens to capture grand scenes, especially icons, results in too many quickly captured images that are visually similar and lack creativity. This may be true for the initial spotting of the scene and taking a quick picture, but zeroing in and fine tuning the composition is another mater entirely. Used properly this lens is one of the most difficult but also one of the most rewarding lenses to use. A wide angle zoom , skillfully used, can also highlight your unique vision for the scene even if it is a often photographed location. Another criticism I frequently hear is that with a wide angle zoom one can only pick out one or maybe two compositions for a scene. This criticism reveals more of a users lack of knowledge or experience in the creative use of the wide angle zoom, than it is an accurate assessment of the lens’s potential. As we will soon see, when one gets low and as close as possible to the foreground, even micro movements can and will result in substantially different compositions. The possibilities are virtually limitless. With a wide angle zoom, I can pick out in most situations as many as ten different compositions which is likely a point at which few would even want to venture beyond!

Rising from the Clouds
Sony 16-35 2.8 GM @ 18mm, focused stacke

A wide angle zoom definitely requires slowing down as one gets very close, often within inches from the foreground and finds a visual flow from the foreground, to the mid-ground and background. I have been known to spend up to a couple hours in the field fine tuning my wide angle compositions. When the camera is this close to the foreground, a couple of inches this way or that can dramatically alter the composition. One needs to study thoroughly the scene especially the visually predominant foreground to eliminate or reduce visual distractions. It is almost as if one has in the foreground an intimate or macro scene within the larger scene. The larger scene provides context to the image, but it is the foreground that will make or break the image. Getting this close, usually will also require focus stacking. If one focuses on a very close foreground the rest of the scene will not be in focus even at F-16. If one focuses one third into the scene, which is usually the mid-ground, then the foreground will not be in focus.

Sony 16-35 4.0 Lens @20mm Focus Stacked

A wide angle zoom can also be use to uniquely capture just the main subject without a blending of foreground, mid-ground and a distant background. With the lens inches away from part of the subject, the distortions and exaggerations of perspective of this lens can be put to work to bring out the character of the subject as is evident in the image below of a Japanese Maple, titled Spider-man.

Spider Man
Sony 16-35 2.8 GM @F16

There are instances where a 16-35mm wide angle zoom will not be wide enough to capture both the foreground and background, but those instances are rare. The temptation is to go wider than one needs to go, but for most images one can create a more compelling composition with visual impact through selection of a less extreme wide angle of view. In order to do this, however, one is going to need to get real close, focus stack, and set the tripod up at the right height Although one wants to get a low as possible, going too low will potentially take the mid ground out of view resulting in a less than pleasing composition.

Extreme wide angles can render in certain situations the background and also the mid-ground insignificant and in these cases should be avoided. While it is true that to a certain extent we can correct these distortions through warping in Photoshop, I personally believe our aim should always be to get the image proportions as close as possible to the desired result in camera. Some minor warping will enhance the image, but I can usually spot aggressive warping (or perspective blending using lenses of different focal lengths) because it often calls attention to itself and just does not look natural.

One Enchanted Evening
Sony 16-35 2.8 GM @29mm focus stacked

Next is an instance where an extreme wide angle was definitely needed to give adequate emphasis to both the foreground leaves and the background of the waterfall. I used a 12mm lens, but as previously mentioned I find such instances rare.

Zen Moment
Sony 12-24 4.0 @F14

Wide angles excel in scenes where one wants to create a sense of three dimensionalality through rendering objects in the distance smaller. This is closer to how our eyes actually see the world. Our eyes also tend to scan the scene, looking down and close to the foreground and then out at the larger scene, similar to a near far composition.

Garden in Paradise
Sony 16-35 2.8GM @19mm

If one elects to only take a wide-angle zoom along for the creative challenge of this blog post, it is good to know that most of these zooms extend out to 35mm which some consider closer to a normal focal length. When I use my wide angle zoom I tend to keep it on the camera and frequently move out to its maximum 35mm focal length. With some slight cropping of a 35mm image one can easily create images that are more similar to images taken by a 50mm lens. One can do quite a bit with just a wide angle zoom lens!

Mid Range Zoom

I have met a large number of photographers who admit that they almost never use a mid range zoom. This lens lacks some of the allure of a wide angle zoom that can drastically alter spacial relationships through the exaggeration of the size of foreground elements. It also lacks the power of telephoto zooms that can dramatically compress layers in small portions of a distant scene. Nevertheless, both near far compositions and compression of layers within the scene are possible with the lens. In many ways this is the most challenging zoom lens from the trinity to use and the one that many accomplished photographers eventually come back to as their lens of choice. Although one of my specialties is near far compositions, well over half of my images taken in the past year are within the mid zoom range of 24-105mm.

Lets review some of the pros and cons of mid range zooms

Because the mid range zoom lacks some of the drama that comes easily to wide or telephoto zoom, it forces us to think harder about our compositions and the placement of elements within the scene. This is especially true of grand scenes, but it is also true of more intimate scenes.

I wish I was an Island in the Fog
Sony 24-105 @F7.1, 57mm
Bleeding Hearts of the Forest
Sony 55mm Lens @F4.0 Focus Stacked

There are several excellent professional photographers currently active where the mid-range zoom is their lens of choice, one of which is David Thompson. David is known for his excellent compositions and photo processing skills. Although he always exercises restraint in processing and gravitates toward the less dramatic mid range of focal lengths, he is creating some of the most visually compelling and photographically excellent images out there today.

Bayou Impressions by David Thompson

The mid range is also the focal length range that would be consistent with the images from classic landscape artists, the Hudson River School, and landscape painting icons such as Albert Bierstadt. The more extreme wide angle and highly compressed telephoto perspectives evolved more with the advance of lens technology for photography in the later part of the twentieth century.

Valley of the Yosemite by Albert Bierstadt
We seldom see in Bierstadt’s images the modern day dramatic emphasis of foreground made possible with wide angle lenses. Distant mountain always loom with grandeur in his paintings and he directs our eyes toward the middle of the scene. His paintings would almost all fall within the range of a mid-range zoom.

Most large format photographers also work with equivalent focal lengths that would be well within the range of a modern standard mid range zoom lens. About as wide as one would go in 4 X 5 large format photography is 90mm which is roughly equivalent to 27mm in full frame photography. About as long as one would go in large format photography is 300mm which is roughly equivalent to 89mm in full frame photography. Ansel Adams, who was actually primarily a 8 X 10 photographer, shot primarily in what would be a 35mm equivalent range of 28mm to 80mm. None of this is to suggest we should all aim to emulate the perspectives of these icons from the past, but many of us continue to be inspired by their work and want to include some of their influence in our own creations. Would our own photography take new and better directions if we more often said yes to the mid-range zoom and resisted the temptation for always reaching for lenses in wide angle and telephoto ranges, especially the more extreme reaches of these ranges? Personally I feel we would all benefit from this, especially if we have already spent significant time dabbling in photography using wide angle and telephoto zooms.

A mid-range zoom is often thought as the range that most closely approximates human vision, especially when we are talking about focal lengths with an angle of view of about 40% to 60% which would correspond to the portion of the zoom range on a full frame camera of about 35mm to 60mm. Contrary to popular belief, however, human vision has a very expansive angle of view of about 130% which would be a very extreme wide angle lens. Human eyes, however, are quite different than a lens with large portions of our field of view being blurred and only the central portion sharp. This central portion of our field of vision does correspond to lenses in the 35mm to 60mm range.

Holding on to Paradise
This image of Picture Lake and Mt. Shuksan was taken with a 35mm focal length which provides a well balanced emphasis on the foreground while still maintaining a reasonably large view of the peak. Opting for a wider angle in this case would result in a very diminutive peak and reflection that may not be visually as striking. It is noted that 35mm is also the equivalent focal length used in most cell photo cameras today.

Human vision, however, has far more in common with video than it does with a still camera with the human eyes constantly scanning the scene, focusing on different points , and our brain integrating this information into what we perceive as vision. What is important is that the mid-range focal length typically captures images that will be the closest to what we and others who we share images with will recall seeing on location. Although from a creative perspective we are not always wanting to bring to the viewer an image consistent with their own perception, sometimes we are. In those cases we should be using a mid-range zoom, employing the art and craft of photography to create compelling compositions, and skillfully processing these images. Our fans will instantly recognize a shared vision of the location, but they will still be amazed at our photographic and artistic ability to transform the scene into photographic art.

Hiking in the Fog and Bear Grass
We do not always need a wide angle zoom to create near far compositions. I created this image with a 24-105mm lens at 32mm
Mount Baker at Sunset
We do not always need a long telephoto to isolate a distant peak. This image of Mt. Baker was taken with a 83mm focal length which would be well within the range of most mid-range zooms.
Lupines in the Forest
I captured this image with a 41mm focal length which allowed me to feature the beautiful lupines prominently in the foreground and still have sufficient compression in the scene to visually a convey a sense of a forest in the background. With the selection of a wider focal length, the forest would be much more dispersed and loose its sense as a subject in the image.
Mount Adams Mountain Glory
This image was take with my mid range zoom fully zoomed out to 105 mm and provides an example how a mid-rage zoom at its longest reach can provide a telephoto perspective.

Telephoto Zoom

The telephoto zoom is typically the third lens a beginning photographer purchases after a kit standard mid-range zoom and then a wide angle zoom. Although this lens, with its ability to isolate subjects and compress space, opens up manifold opportunities for visual expression, it often it does not get nearly as much use as it should until a photographer further progresses in their photographic journey. This is likely due to the fact that it takes some time to develop the skills to make this an effective tool in capturing landscape images. In this regard you will want to ask yourself, what is it you like about the scene? What parts of the scene affect you more at an emotional level? Then scan the scene with your eyes without using the camera to pick only details that are consistent with what you like about the scene. Only then reach for the camera with telephoto zoom lens mounted and attempt to isolate the subject. Here are some of the pros and cons of the Telephoto Zoom.

With a telephoto zoom we can pick out many compositions within the larger scene–small vignettes or abstracts that allow us capture some of the essence of the larger scene. If you are more of the lazy type, you need not move far at all to work this lens, and from a given location facing lets say a range of mountains with overlapping ridges one could easily pick out as many as one hundred or more compositions. In such a situation it is far easier to do this with a telephoto than either a wide angle zoom or a mid range zoom. It, however, takes real skill to zero in on the one or two vignettes that result in the most visually compelling images and this skill takes considerable time and practice to develop. In this regard one needs to just get out there and with just the telephoto zoom lens, practice, practice, practice! Dare to take just one lens! If the telephoto range does not already figure prominently in your portfolio, going out in the field with just the telephoto zoom mounted to your camera for a day may be just what the doctor ordered to bring new life and creativity to your images.

Mind Wandering in the Desert
Sony 100-400 GM @101m

Telephoto zooms compress layers within the scene often giving them more or less equal visual weight and what we are left with are beautiful patterns of light and shadow, and lines and shapes. This can be seen above in the nearly monochromatic (gold) image of the sand dues. It can also be seen in the next image titled Family Farm that adds color to the mix taken above the Palouse wheat fields. The red color of the farm house immediately attracts ones attention as a contrasting element in the scene.

Family Farm
Nikon 200-500 @500mm

In the image below taken at a 183mm focal length I focused out toward the center of an alpine lake to capture a beautiful abstract pattern of the melting ice. Telephoto zooms excel at picking out such abstract compositions.

Spring Thaw
Sony 70-300 @183mm

In this next image I was actually at a fairly close range of less than 10 feet from a canyon wall and used a telephoto lens to capture this wonderful pattern of the rocks with diagonal accents. These patterns would be easy to miss just walking through the canyon, but if one slows down one can often spot these small vignettes that come to life through a telephoto perspective.

Rock Tapestry
Nikon 70-200 F4 lends @155mm
Forest Carpet of Clouds
Nikon 200-500 @500

In the above image, Forest Carpet of Clouds, I not only used the telephoto zoom to isolate the forest and create some simple layers of fog, forest and clouds, but I also included some fairly prominent negative space to give the composition a more minimalist feel without distractions. The telephoto zoom range is the best for more easily removing distractions in an image.

Telephotos are also excellent for exaggerating spacial relationships especially those in the far distance. In the image below the mountain looming very large on the horizon is Mt. Baker. If you saw this scene in person the mountain would be a fairly insignificant element in the distance. Even the church on the right would seem very small to the naked eye. With the use of a 400mm focal length, however, I am able to compress the layers within the scene and give the most weight to Mt. Baker in all of her majesty.

Sony 100-400 GM @400mm

Of course the telephoto effect need not always be this pronounced and sometimes all that is needed is some moderate compression like in the next scene of Gig Harbor in Washington State taken with 156mm focal length.

Gig Harbor Sunset
Sony 100-400 GM @156mm

Macro Lens

When weight is not much of a concern, on special occasions I will pack my complete trinity of Sony lenses: a 16-35 2.8 GM wide angle zoom, 24-105 4.0 mid range zoom. and my latest addition the 100-400 GM telephoto zoom lens. But I do not consider this array complete unless I also pack my Sony Macro 90 mm 2.8 lens. On the most special occasions I will only use the Macro lens and wonder why I even took the others! With the macro lens we can open up the often unseen world of small things and easily create unique images that you are unlikely to find in any other photographer’s portfolio. Lets review some of the pros and cons of the Macro Lens.

Orchid Face
Sony 90mm Macro

Although any one of the three lenses from the trinity could potentially be used as a Macro lens, they will not work as good as a dedicated macro lens for this purpose. A true macro lens will have a magnification ratio of 1 to 1, in other words it can capture in focus a small portion of the scene with the size of the object corresponding exactly to the sensor size of the camera. The 24-105 lens would work in a pinch and when one is trying to save weight this would definitely be worth considering as an option. But by way of contrast, the 24-105 closest focusing distance is 15 inches with a magnification ratio at this distance of .32. The closest focusing distance of the dedicated macro is 12 inches (a good working distance) and the magnification ratio at this distance is 1 to 1. The macro lens also has a flatter field which allows better edge to edge sharpness . The zoom lenses all have more of a curved field with critical sharpness only found in the center of the lens. With macro compositions we are often (not always) featuring patterns where it is desirable to have edge to edge sharpness.

Canadian Dog Wood
The flat field of the Sony 90mm Macro was excellent for capturing edge to edge sharpness in this image.
Prayer Plant Leaves
90mm Macro Lens

Of course we are not always interested in edge to edge sharpness and macro lenses, which usually come with a maximum aperture opening of 2.8, are excellent for blurring backgrounds and minimizing distractions at close focusing distances.

Bog Gentium
Sony 90mm Macro

One of the beauties of macro photography is that one can use this lens in all kinds of light all day long, even when conditions would be far less than optimal for one of the other lenses from the trinity. Not only will the lens excel at capturing smaller worlds, but the lens will be able to uncover worlds within small worlds opening up new avenues for creative expression. For this next image, I shot hand held at F 2.8 and took numerous images in manual focus using my body to move the camera in and out of focus. My goal was to capture just a small part of the image in focus with the rest cast in a beautiful bokeh. Using a higher ISO and with the camera’s vibration reduction on, I did not need to use a tripod. In this kind of situation a tripod may actually get in the way of finding the perfect composition through a process that involves a great deal of experimentation. This iterative experimentation is best done hand held.

Tiny Autumn Leave
Although these look like flowers they are actually the tiny leaves about 1/4 to 1/2 inch long. It is a rockery plant growing on micro thin soils covering granite rock boulders at Mt. Baker. Sony 90mm Macro

Although I often prefer to shoot with wide open or nearly wide open apertures for macro photography, I will often take multiple images and then make a decision in post processing which parts of the image I want sharp and which parts to remain blurred. The next image of some tiny Mountain Laurel Flowers in the North Cascades provides an example.

Mountain Laurel
Sony 90mm Macro


I am making the pledge to use the macro lens as my sole lens on trips into the cascade mountains in the coming year. I am sure it will open up new paths for creation of beautiful images to round out my portfolio. Which single lens will you pick for your next adventure to help you break through to a new creative frontier? Ironically by limiting your choices, your creative horizons may now appear more clearly and seem almost limitless. Once you make your single lens choice, you may find out just like I have many times, that the path to creative growth often involves voluntarily placing limits on your choice of a lenses.

6 thoughts on “Freedom through Limitations: Going out in the Field with just one Lens

  1. Wow, incredible article Erwin! Love the challenge of a single lens! I have my 24-70 on most always, with perhaps the wide angle zoom for maybe 20% and my 14mm another 5% and my 100-400 maybe 2% (Not used much ) but love the compression. I don’t have a dedicated macro. 🙃


  2. Thanks so much Mitch. What I find interesting is how ones selection of lenses can change over time. I also use the mid range for the majority of my shots-I may start out with the wide angle zoom but find myself finding a way to make it work at closer to 30mm or even 35mm. I challenge myself to use either the 100-400 or the Macro at least 25% of the time. What ever you are doing it is working well for you!


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