Set Yourself a One Focal Length Challenge

Set Yourself a One Focal Length Challenge

Recently while testing the Leica M9-P I spent 2 weeks exclusively shooting with a 35mm prime lens.

I wouldn’t normally shoot with that focal length but the lens was supplied by Leica with the camera and I wasn’t about to run out and buy another lens just for a 2 week test (they run at several thousand dollars) – so I decided to make the most of it.

The start of the week was a little frustrating – partly because it took a while to get used to the camera and its focusing system – but also partly because of the focal length. As someone who shoots mainly portraits I love longer focal lengths and usually shoot with a zoom to allow me to get in close without getting right in the face of my subjects (I normally shoot with a 24-70mm lens and sometimes even with a 70-200mm lens).

However by the end of the week I realized just how much I’d enjoyed being ‘forced’ to stick with the 35mm lens.

After a day or two I began to get in the zone and started to ‘see’ the opportunities before me to shoot at that focal length.

  • I found myself shooting more environmental portraits and began to pay more attention to backgrounds – using them to give context to the subjects I was shooting.
  • I found myself thinking more creatively about settings – particularly aperture to impact depth of field to impact the surrounds of my subjects.
  • I found myself thinking about how to position ‘me’ as a photographer rather than just how much to zoom (and as a result started mixing up the perspectives I was shooting from).

In doing so I found myself taking shots that I normally wouldn’t take. I did probably miss some shots I normally would get by shooting at a wider focal length – but all in all I think I improved as a photographer in those two weeks than I have for a while.

On viewing some of my shots from the week my wife even commented that my images had more impact and were quite different to normal (and it wasn’t just the camera I was shooting with).

Set Yourself a Challenge to Shoot from One Focal Length this Week

Here’s my challenge to you. Over the next week decide to shoot using one focal length only and see what impact it has on your photography.

For those of you with DSLRS with a prime lens – this shouldn’t be too hard. You’ve got a lens that won’t let you zoom so stick with it for a while week.

For those of you who only have zoom lenses – it might be better to choose a focal length at one end of the spectrum of your zoom (either wide or zoomed in).

Where possible choose a focal length that isn’t in your normal range of shooting. If you zoom in a lot – try a wider perspective. If you usually shoot wide – try a longer focal length.

Over the week I’d love you to drop back to this post to let us know how you go!

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

Some Older Comments

  • Larry Miller October 11, 2012 03:16 am

    Currently I'm shooting with primes only (24, 50 & 85). Recently I spent a week in "Native American" land shooting with the 50mm only. It was so tempting to bring out the 24 and the 85. BUT, I didn't. There's a reason people call this the "nifty-fifty". It brought me back in tune with myself in photography. Geez, I loved that challenge!

  • Larry Miller December 14, 2011 08:13 am

    Personally, I really like the 50mm F1.4 or 1.8 They are simple lenses that can do so much. There are times that they can be a short telephoto, there are times shot vertically it can pass for a very slight wide-angle. And you gotta love the speed of those 50mm marvels. More aperture speed means higher shuter speed for hand-held art. I only carrry 3 lenses in the bag. The 50, an ultrawide zoom and a telephoto zoom. I can carry that 50 on my F2 & F3 all day. It's easy to set myself up with a one focal length challenge. I would never leave home without it..

  • SuperP October 30, 2011 08:13 pm

    I have been shooting with a 35mm on a Leica M for the whole year and It has been the best thing I have done for my own development as a shutterbug.
    Don't think I will be able to go back to a DSLR with zoom anymore except my Hassey 503CW.
    Will be shooting with a 90mm next year.

  • Jason October 3, 2011 09:22 am

    When I do portraits I mainly use a 50mm F1.2L lens from Canon. It forces me to get up close to my subject. A 35mm on a crop sensor would be ok, but at that focal length I find too much distortion for being stuck with ONE lens. Sometimes 35 is fine, depends on the mood, or attitude you are trying to convey... think of bikers, from a low angle at 24mm making them look huge!

    But 50mm on a full size sensor like the 5D mark II is perfect. Imagine how much definition you get out of a picture like that? If you fill your frame with the subjects "face" with 21 megapixels behind you, you can crop to just an eye and have super clarity! Zoom lenses I think are great when there is a lot going on and you have to shoot all over the place NOW. Or a far away object and you have no choice (shuttle launch for instance).

    When I do weddings I keep my 70-200 2.8 on hand, but my "go to lens" is a 24-70. It lets you get just wide enough so that you dont have to keep saying "get closer" that extra 5-10 times.

    Jason
    www.bestexposures.com

  • Carolyn Leyboldt September 9, 2011 04:24 am

    I tend to shoot with my zoom all the time, mainly pet or people portraits, florals and macro images. This was just the impetus I needed to go off and do something else. I only have one prime lens (105mm macro) so I just
    left my kit lens at 35mm and shot all weekend, virtually everything I could think of. Liked some, others not so much. But it did get me moving and thinking out of my comfort zone. Then on Monday morning at 6:30am I was walking the dog when I saw this beautiful image right on my corner. I dragged the poor dog home, picked up the camera which was still set from the weekend and took this shot. I took 5 or 6 from different angles, with and without the sunspot, but chose this one as my favorite. Thanks for your inspiration, your website and your valuable advice. Carolyn [eimg url=' http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=2293120416587&set=a.2058662675290.126557.1506355590&type=1&theater' title='photo.php?fbid=2293120416587&set=a.2058662675290.126557.1506355590&type=1&theater']

  • wendell September 1, 2011 09:17 pm

    hi i would like to know what would be a better lens or shooting or capturing a large bridal party

  • Adrian August 30, 2011 05:49 am

    I was travelling last weekend, and the only lens I got with me was a 24mm.

    It was great to see how things change according the position, even small re-frames can modify the takes of the near objects.

    It did not happen with zooms because it was easy to zoom in or out instead of walk.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/nick_cool2000/

  • TC August 26, 2011 04:04 am

    I just bought a used 85 F1.8 and kept that on the camera for the first few days. I shoot more wide angle then tele, even with my 17-50 on my DX camera. The 85 definitely requires a change of thinking, especially for street photography. Click on "TC" and you will see a few shots I took with the 85.

  • Rosie@leavesnbloom August 21, 2011 09:05 pm

    I made the decision recently to only invest in prime lens. I've had a 50mm prime on my camera for a few weeks now and I love the composition I get with this lens. I've had to think so much more and since I shoot mostly florals I've had to watch where my feet go aswell!

  • Jean-Pierre August 20, 2011 11:18 pm

    Cfbookchick: buy a fotodiox m42/kmount adapter. Will bring your vintage lenses back into play. I'm using the m42 to eos for the 50 and no name 135 2.8, it opens up a world of possibilities. Good luck with your current 50!

  • cfbookchick August 20, 2011 03:37 pm

    Well, since my budget does not allow me to go beyond the 50mm lens that came with the camera I bought last year, I am forced to do everything with that one lens. And I have to really think outside the box with this camera and lens. I am tempted to bring out the old Pentax slr's I used for so many years just for the wealth of lens I have with them, however, I am not tempted to play with film!

  • Jean-Pierre August 20, 2011 05:17 am

    Prefer primes. The kit lens can yield beautiful results but you have to know what you want in the frame BEFORE you look through the viewfinder. Here's one with vintage m42 prime on Canon t3i:

    http://500px.com/photo/1489806

  • Adrian August 19, 2011 11:10 pm

    I was born zoomed. I use to love zooms so I passed from a 35-80mm to a 28-200mm, and lately with DSLR to an 18-105VR (27-160mm equivalent).

    But in the middle of the romance I bough a 50mm f1.7 prime, and then a 28mm f2.8, and then a 24mm f2.8…
    Now the zoom is resting at home most of the time and I am thinking on selling it.

    Why?, I don’t really know.

    Maybe because primes are smaller, lighter and faster than zooms. It is not cool to walk the city with a 500g zoom hanging on the neck. And it is great to shoot interiors without flash.

    Maybe because they force me to walk, explore and think, instead of stand up and zoom.
    With a zoom you only “crop” the image, but the proportions and relations between things remain the same.

    Furthermore, my 28mm is not autofocus, so I have to think about DoF and pre focusing before the take and not looking true the camera. It is also a pleasure to feel this old fashioned aluminum lens.

    Adrian

  • Natalia August 19, 2011 10:08 pm

    Very sound advice. I love shooting architecture and I know I like using my wide-angle 17-40mm lens for this but many times when I go out, I tend to stick to the 50mm 1.4 lens only because it allows me to be more creative and I have a lot of fun with it. When I use the zoom lens, I tend to get frustrated more as I feel the need to take the same picture with the lens zoomed in and out whilst with prime lenses I actually have to think about the shot a lot more. Much more stimulating in my opinion.

  • hunched August 19, 2011 05:11 pm

    i bought a 50mm/1.8 last month. since then, it became fixated in my camera

  • tammysue79 August 19, 2011 01:04 pm

    A few months ago I purchased my Nikkor 50mm f1.4, and honestly I've hardly used my other lenses (17-55mm and 55-200mm kit lenses) since. It has really helped me concentrate on the other settings. I think it's really helping me to learn. :)

  • Raj August 19, 2011 10:48 am

    This post seem like someone written my experience. I have a Nikon D-5000 with the accompanying 18-200mm. When I purchased the 35mm f/1.8 prime, I had a same difficulty in first use, later found the way of getting lot of excellent pictures with sharpness.

  • fomu August 19, 2011 09:14 am

    funny blog. i do street photography and the only lenses i use are my canon 28mm f/2.8 and 50mm f/1.8. i never use a zoom lens. on the street i want to get close and zoom with my legs.

  • fomu August 19, 2011 09:14 am

    funny blog. i do street photography and the only lenses i use are my canon 28mm f/2.8 and 50mm f/1.8. i nver use a zoom lens. on the street i want to get close and zoom with my legs.

  • Val Escobar August 19, 2011 08:55 am

    I enjoyed the article, and I whole heartedly agree. I recently sold a camera with it's lone 70 - 300 mm lens, having... have my 28 -200 falling onto the driveway. I ended up shooting with the one lens for a couple of years.
    Now with my new camera and it's 28- 55 mm. I am have so much fun, though I do miss the "in your face" candid shots during birthdays etc. Shooting in mostly the 30 - 45 range, it seems, it really has given me a vast new perspective. I see so much more (laughing) now. And your right, you really do visualize your surroundings differently, phonographically speaking. While I do have the 55 - 200. I got so use to not changing lens. rarely carry it. (other than the fact, I inevitably allow dust inside).
    Again enjoyed!.

  • Sherif August 19, 2011 08:30 am

    This is a great experience . I passed through it 2 month ago when I had to stick to my nikon 50 mm 1.8 lens for about 10 days but believe me this helped me to learn a lot . I was not happy during firriest 2 day but gradually I got used to it .

  • Cristian Wrbka August 19, 2011 06:51 am

    I agree, I love my 40mm 1.7 lens, for me is the most used lens that I have, even if I go to photograph landscapes or portraits, you use more time in the light rather in the composition and that is reflected in your selection in the end of the day.
    Luck for all.
    Cristian

  • riikka August 19, 2011 05:16 am

    I have done this over the summer, having my 50mm/f1.8 lens attached to Canon 500D. I have liked a lot, learnt to zoom with the feet, and made in my opinion many good pictures. Furthermore, nowadays that all mobile telephones have a wide-angle camera, it feels like I would not need any other lense at all - the only thing I sometimes miss is the ability to focus closer.

    This exercise came with a surprise, however, when a couple of days ago, I changed back to my 18-135 mm Canon zoom lens. I do not seem to be able to get sharp images with it, while with the 50 mm prime this has not been difficult at all. The difference is striking, and I do not quite understand the origin of it. It probably is not that the 18-135 mm zoom is so unsharp by nature. Is there some issue that the camera autofocus system would work better for the large-max-aperture prime? I will try to dig the answer somewhere, but would someone here know, feedback appreciated!

  • Dodi Sasson August 19, 2011 03:00 am

    Enjoy your column very much, and the responses your topics elicit. All interesting and a great learning experience!

  • Bob Wood August 19, 2011 01:34 am

    I am currently doing this exercise with my 50 mm prime. I found it frustrating at first. Having used zoom and telephoto lenses almost exclusively while shooting architecture and landscapes, I enjoyed the challenge and have really warmed up to it. The 50 mm is now my favorite lens.

    This a great exercise to try. It really stretches your creative muscle and makes you work for the good shot. I think you can really have fun doing this while learning and improving your skills.

    Bob

  • Terry August 19, 2011 01:06 am

    One of the benefits that goes unnoticed when using a Leica M is the viewfinder. All is clearly in focus, so the junk, or the good stuff, in the background is seen as well as an area outside the field of view of the lens. This causes one to recompose without thought and get a better picture. I was a rangefinder Leica user for years and I really miss it. I've always thought that a Leica M with a 35mm lens is the IDEAL one lens outfit.

  • Greg August 17, 2011 10:04 pm

    I bought a Sigma 50 for my XSi a couple of months ago and I've only taken it off a couple of times for a Tamaron 70-200 (photographing sporting events). I don't even touch the lens that came with the camera anymore. If I need to get closer or farther out I use my old-school zoom - my feet

  • Greg August 17, 2011 10:03 pm

    I bought a Sigma 50 for my XSi a couple of months ago and I've only taken it off a couple of times for a Tameron 70-200 (photographing sporting events). I don't even touch the lens that came with the camera anymore. If I need to get closer or farther out I use my old-school zoom - my feet

  • Richard August 17, 2011 03:21 pm

    I love my voigtlander 35/1.4. It's the only rangefinder lens I can imagine myself using.

  • Richard August 17, 2011 03:19 pm

    I love my voigtlander 35/1.4. So much so that although I have 6 dslr lens, I only have 1 rangefinder lens.

  • shadowcat August 17, 2011 11:37 am

    i have my 50mm f/1.4 on my camera ever since i purchased it. i love it so much i'm planning to purchase another prime lens like 85mm f/1.8.

  • Kim August 17, 2011 11:25 am

    As a newbie to photography, I read somewhere that it is best to get very comfortable with one lens at a time and what it can do. I have spent several months with a prime lens and nothing else. I enjoy the challenge and feel my skills have improved because I pay more attention to composition and the camera settings than how close or far away I can get to a subject.

  • Kevin S. Brady August 17, 2011 05:43 am

    I have a Nikon D-60 with the accompanying 18-55mm kit zoom. I just purchased the 35mm f/1.8 prime and spent a good part of last weekend in some area parks shooting with just that lens. The idea is that I want to travel light on my next overseas trip next year and only take one lens. Sure, the zoom is more versatile in terms of focal lengths, but I am willing to trade off for a faster lens as I want to be able to shoot well in low-light conditions and do some night shots.

    I haven't taken a whole week's worth of photos yet, but the lens test drive has been good so far. I have to move my feet to get the right shot, but it is helping me think more about my compositions. And it will be nice not having to schlep a bag full of lenses on vacation.

  • Varun Raj Minocha August 17, 2011 01:03 am

    I can only see people with prime lenses commenting here. Those with kits consisting of only zoom lenses don't seem to get this post. :)

    I have to agree though, using a fixed focal length lens does make think harder, and you end up with more creative shots, even if you use a 50mm on a 1.6 crop factor camera.

  • Jaina August 16, 2011 08:27 pm

    I bought myselfa 35mm prime lens last year and it's been my default lens since I got it. I just found I got more interesting photos using it. Sure it can be challenging - sometimes wishing you could just zoom in a little bit, but it's a lot more fun and the photos I get have a bit more to them.

    Definitely agree!

  • Elja Trum August 16, 2011 07:16 pm

    I had a similar experience when I tested the Leica M9 for my blog a couple of months ago.
    I ended up buying the Canon 35mm f/1.4 for my 5D mk2 after enjoying using the 35mm focal length for portaits. And I'm absolutly loving the 35mm focal length!

    Perhaps something for you as well, Darren.. ;)

  • Mike Cohen August 16, 2011 01:28 pm

    I've had my 50mm f/1.8 on my D90 for the past week. Every once in a while I try to use that lens only.

  • Marc W. August 16, 2011 12:50 pm

    Ironically, I forced myself to use only my 50mm f/1.8 this weekend at a family event. I used it 95% of the time. I only took a 10-20mm because I know i wanted to get some family group shots and 50mm would be too tight. After 3 days, I can honestly say I don't think I have put as much thought into casual photos as I did this weekend. Darren's post is spot on for what I experienced.

  • Simon August 16, 2011 11:33 am

    When I bought my D309s last year, I didn't have the money for a 24-70, so I got "only" a 50mm for 6 month, I still think my best shot where took at that time! You learn so much!

  • Scottc August 16, 2011 09:47 am

    This is a great idea for finding new perspectives, one I will try it.

    I've learned a bit similar just by being lazy and not changing lenses, such as in this butteryfly house in Germany with a 60mm macro:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4655860318/

  • Gipukan August 16, 2011 07:09 am

    I replaced my ef 50mm f/1.8 for a ef 20mm f/2.8 to get a wider view on my 6x crop sensors in the XSI and the 7D and i'm extremely happy was able to make that move. The 50mm went for the same price I got it for. This 20mm prime lens now sits a lot more time on my 7D and my 28-135mm is now more in the bag.

    Indeed you learn more about framing with footwork and there is a lot of crop abilities in a 20mm frame!

  • Jarred August 16, 2011 05:02 am

    Darren, Love the website! It has helped me grow a lot over the past year or two. I find it odd how often a post comes up that relates to what I am doing or just have done. Case in point: I bought a 50mm 1.4 Prime lens just a few months ago. I have only ever shot with the lens kit that came with my Nikon and wanted a faster lens. I never knew how much this prime lens would change my photography. Another product of my purchase, is the fact that I lost autofocus with this lens since I don't have an on-camera motor. At first, this was super frustrating! I wanted to get rid of the lens, but loved the pictures that turned out (there were way more that I lost to begin with!).

    After just a few weeks, I realized that I was much more purposeful in my shots. I unknowingly learned to slow down,take my time, and compose (my feet, my body, then my lens) . I now take half the amount shots, but get at least as many if not more keepers. I do have to change lenses when photographing children, but once I get enough keepers then I go back to my prime to get the really good and thoughtful pics!

    Thanks for all the knowledge! I can't wait to see what else I learn this week.

  • Hyde Stevenson August 16, 2011 04:29 am

    Scott,

    I just bought a 50mmf/1.4 and I do agree with you that I did great improvment about composition because you have to think a little bit more than just point and shoot ! ;)

  • Dr. J August 16, 2011 03:57 am

    Great idea! But let's up the ante a bit, shall we? Pick something either really wide (like 16, 17mm) or fairly tight (200, 300, higher if ya got it!)....get out of the 24-70 comfort zone for a while!

  • scott detweiler August 16, 2011 02:44 am

    I tell people to put a 50mm on their camera and leave it there for a month. You will learn so much about composition.

  • Rich Copley August 16, 2011 02:20 am

    I had been contemplating doing this and, thanks to your challenge, think I'll give it a shot - or shots. I'll be interested to see what happens when I'm not spending time in a quandary over what lens to use.

  • Lena August 16, 2011 02:19 am

    I have been doing this the last few times I have gone out. I normally shoot with the 24-70 on my D90 - but upon selling most of my Nikon system, only keeping that 24-70 and a 35mm with my D40x - and switching to Canon, I have been more selective with the lenses I purchase. I did get the kit lens for the focal lenth, because I didn't have enough $$$$ for the 24-70mm 2.8. On vacation, I had had my Canon (7D) for about a month by the time we left. I didn't want to just shoot with my D40x - but my lenses were limited. By vacation I had picked up the 60mm macro. <3 So for most of the vacation, (10 days) I only shot with the 60mm on the 7D. Since then, I have picked up the 50mm 1.4. This has been on my camera since. It definitely changes the perspective, and in tight spots it is hard to figure out what to do. I just had a situation at a baby shower where the women all crowded around. I did get frustrated at first, but I then shot through the women as a frame. Not the same results I wanted, but a different cool result I would normally not have gone for!

  • Roger August 16, 2011 02:14 am

    I totally get your post. I always find myself thinking more about those details when using my 50mm as opposed to when using my 24-70mm. I will definitely give it a try on my zoom but in the lower in of the focal length. Thank you!

  • Mark Kalan August 16, 2011 01:57 am

    My best photos are from a 30 years period with my Leica M6 and a 35mm Summicron.[eimg link='' title='' url='http://farm3.static.flickr.com//72157622960826560_.jpg']

  • Erik Kerstenbeck August 16, 2011 01:47 am

    Hi

    I just acquired a rocking Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 and have been playing around with it contantly - I cannot get over its build quality, speed and sharpness. I have, however, done exactly as you suggested and shot exclusively with a Nikon 100mm Prime. It is a bit challenging, bt once you get to understand the lens, you can always let your feet do the zooming (if it is possible).

    I like to use the prime for close studio work, like this tastely shot of Beer!

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2011/07/01/red-white-and-beer/