Which Three Lenses do You Need for Photography?

Camera lenses

I used an 85mm lens fitted with a 500D close-up lens to create this photo of a Chinese Water Dragon.

Two things occurred to me When I read Phillip VanNostrand’s article The Only Three Lenses You Need for Travel Photography. One, is that his choice of lenses would not be my choice. Two, is that you cannot recommend three lenses for every photographer to use, as everybody’s requirements are different.

Imagine if you went to a showroom to buy a new car and the salesperson said “Sir, the only car for you is a Ford Focus”. Fine, if that’s the car you happen to want. But how annoying would it be if the salesperson insisted that you should buy a Ford Focus if it didn’t fit your needs?

A professional would establish your requirements first by asking you questions. How many miles do you drive a year? How many people does the car need to transport? Do you need lots of storage space? How important is fuel economy? Safety? What is your budget? And so on. When the answers to are known, the salesperson can make a recommendation.

It’s the same for lenses. My needs are different from yours because we are different people with different priorities and requirements.

Please don’t take this as a criticism of Phillip’s article (which is a great read, and the comments are fascinating). I learned this lesson when I wrote my article Buyers’ Guide – Prime Lenses vs Zoom Lenses in which I came down in favour of primes (my personal preference). Some readers quite correctly pointed out that the convenience of zooms makes them invaluable in certain situations. I realized that I was imposing my preferences on other people.

The three lenses I couldn’t do without

So here’s my question. If you could only own three lenses, which ones would they be? That’s right, three lenses to cover you for all the types of photography that you do. And, taking it further, if you could only own one lens, which one would you choose?

It’s a hypothetical question for most, as we are free to buy as many lenses as we like. But there is a semi-serious point behind it. Creativity works best within constraints, and limiting your lens collection to three is certainly a constraint. Also, it is possible to put together a good selection of three lenses that cover you for most situations on a limited budget – there is no need to spend many thousands of dollars on expensive glass if you can’t afford, or don’t want to.

Before you give your answer, have a think about your requirements, because they will drive your choice of lenses. These are my requirements:

  • My lenses must be light and relatively small. I don’t want to carry around a large, heavy bag full of gear.
  • My lenses must be good value for money. I don’t have a budget as such but when I buy a lens I need to know that I will use it a lot, it will last for decades and that I won’t have buyer’s remorse.
  • The autofocus must be reasonably quick and quiet.

To get the debate started, here’s my choice of three lenses, in order of preference. Bear in mind that I’m a Canon user so that naturally influences my choice of lens, and that I use a full-frame camera.

85mm f/1.8 lens

This is my favourite lens. I use the 85mm f/1.8 for portraits, close-up photos and landscapes that benefit from selective framing and compression. It’s light, relatively inexpensive and the image quality is excellent. The only weakness of this lens is that the minimum focusing distance is 85cm (2.8 feet), so it is not so good for close-up photography. I get around that by attaching a 500D close-up lens (this is technically a lens, although I think of it as a filter and I’m not including it in my choice of three) which gives me excellent quality for close-up images as long as I stop down to f/2.8 or smaller.

Camera lenses

The 85mm f/1.8 lens is ideal for portraits, especially those taken in low light, like this one.

Camera lenses

The 500D close-up lens that I use with my 85mm lens for close-up photography.

40mm f/2.8 pancake lens

While I love the quality and versatility of 50mm prime lenses, they are too middle of the road in terms of focal length for me to include one in my choice of three. Instead, I’m selecting the Canon 40mm f/2.8 pancake lens. I love this lens because it is extremely small and has high image quality. On my full-frame camera the focal length sits on the borderline between wide-angle and normal focal lengths, and turns out to be a surprisingly useful focal length. I use this lens a lot and I love it.

Camera lenses

The 40mm lens is ideal for scenic photos like this.

Camera lenses

The 40mm lens is also idea for photos where the composition demands a gentle wide-angle, in this case for the converging verticals effect created by shooting from a low viewpoint.

24mm f/2.8 IS lens

This is the newest addition to my lens collection and while I’m still getting to know it, the 24mm f/2.8 become one of my favourites. There’s something special about the 24mm focal length – it’s ideal for landscapes and scenic photos without being too wide. The maximum aperture of f/2.8 is a little limiting (I like to experiment with wide apertures for creative effect) but I can live with it as the lens is much lighter, cheaper and smaller than the Canon 24mm f/1.4L lens.

Another thing I like about it is the Image Stabilizer (IS). Theoretically with this engaged I can handhold the camera at shutter speeds down to around 1/2 second and still get sharp images. Yet anything moving within the frame will record as a blur – lots of creative potential there.

Camera lenses

The 24mm lens is great for environmental portraiture, where you want to show you subject and include a dramatic background.

If I had to chose just one of these lenses, what a difficult decision! If I could only ever have one lens, and it had to be one of these three, I think I would go for the 85mm f/1.8. Otherwise I would go for something like the Canon 24-105mm f/4L lens. It’s bigger and heavier than my primes but it covers a very useful set of focal lengths.

Your choice

Now it’s your turn. If you could only own three camera lenses, which ones would they be? If you could only own one lens, which would you choose?  Please let us know why. What are your personal requirements? It should make for an interesting discussion.

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Understanding Lenses ebooks

My ebooks Understanding Lenses Part I and Understanding Lenses Part II will help Canon EOS owners decide what lenses to buy for their cameras. They are both filled with lots of tips to getting the most out of your Canon lenses. Click the links to learn more.


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Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

  • Steve

    Well now, this would not be my choice, but I couldn’t do the job with them. Personally a 50mm prime, 24-70mm & 70/200mm would be my choice. They cover what I need in the style that I prefer for my images, in the style that I prefer to shoot, for the subject I prefer to shoot.
    Obviously these wouldn’t all be on the list of a wildlife photosgrapher, or macro fanatic.
    Interesting read, but I’ve yet to see an article on the best lens for shooting style, other than the obvious for wildlife/marco etc.
    Not a criticism of the article, I enjoy learning about why someone likes a particular focal length and how it fits their shooting style.

  • ivica pribilovic

    Hy, i love my Tair 11A 135mm 2.8 with 20 Blades, great Portrait and Bokeh Lens, than my Pentax 50mm 1.8, great sharpness and nice, fast Lens, and i cannot live without my Sigma 10-20mm, cause i love these extreme pov’s, the look and i often shoot where ist not much space, so it is the one i use most?

  • Bhavesh Patel

    24-105 L

  • Jesus Medina

    50mm; 100mm macro; 21mm all made by zeis. The 1 lens would be the 50mm

  • Michael Turk

    I have several options when travelling.

    I often just take my Sony RX100M3. It is compact but is noisy in low light and lacks telephoto reach. It lives on my hip when travelling, (with spare battery and cards in my backpack or bag).

    My interchangeable lens cameras both have APS-C sensors.

    If I want telephoto reach I take a Pentax K-3 with only its compact 55-300mm WR telephoto lens. I will sometimes only take the 17-135mm WR, sometimes both. They are not particularly fast, but they are compact, light and weatherproof. If I take primes only I will usually take a couple of my not-so-fast SMC limited primes: either the 16 or 21mm plus the 70mm. To fill the gap I might use the FA 50mm f/1.7 or the SMC 35mm f/2.4.

    Finally, if I take my A6000, I find my favourite walk-around lens is the Zeiss 16-70 f/4. It lives on my camera. If I need speed and prime sharpness/Bokeh I will take the standard Sony 50mm f/1.8 (or the Meike 35mm f/0.95 for poor light) I haven’t found a satisfactory balance between picture quality and bulk/weight for longer telephoto needs.

  • Red Rose Exile

    My favourite 3 lenses are in order of most usage

    Canon 24-70mm F/2.8L for travel/portraiture/landscape
    Samyang 14mm F2.8 for astrophotography
    Canon 70-200 f/2.8L for Aircraft and landscapes

    If limited to one it would have to be the 24-70

  • Ernst van Deursen

    3x Canon EOS:

    – TS-E 24mm f/3,5 Shift Accompanies me since I bought it 12 years ago.

    – TS-E 45mm f/2,8 Shift Shifting is so much fun, it replaced my 50mm f/1,4 – EF 100mm f/2 Great lightweight portrait lens.
    1x Canon EOS:
    – EF 35mm f/2 IS Lightweight, small, and great image quality.

    3x Leica M:

    – Elmarit-M 24mm f/2,8 ASPH This lens made me in love with Leica-M

    – Summilux-M 50mm f/1,4 Beter bokeh then ASPH version

    – Summilux-M 75mm f/1,4 Favourite design of Dr. Mandler1x Leica M
    – Summilux-M 35mm f/ 1,4 FLE ASPH World’s best 35mm lens.

    3x Exakta VX: Only lefthanded camera in the world
    – Zeiss Jena 35mm f/2,8 Flektogon Worlds first 35mm SLR lens

    – Zeiss Jena 58mm f/2 Biotar Lens design that enabled low light photography
    – Zeiss Jena 75mm f/1,5 Biotar Legendary optical design, gorgeous lens
    1x Exakta VX:
    – Zeiss Jena 75mm f/1,5 Biotar Gorgeous lens

  • Greg

    24-70 f2.8
    50 f1.8 for low light

  • R K

    40 pancake for carry around street, 24 70 2.8 for special occasions and versility of 24/28/35/50 in one lens, 85 1.8 for portraits

  • Guido Bellens

    Hi there,

    Once again those 3 lenses are choosen for a full frame camera. Is it so difficult to add this in your title?
    Which Three Lenses do You Need for Photography on a full frame camera.
    Maybe you can even add 3 lenses for APS-C body’s, that would be great 🙂


  • Leon van den Boom

    sigma art 24mm 1.4,nikon 50mm 1.4 and nikon 85mm 1.8

  • David Murray

    I use a pair of Leicaflex SL bodies with a Leica 28-70mm F3.5-4.5 Vario Elmar R. This covers four focal lengths and I only have to exchange the lens when my film runs out, hence the two identical bodies. Metering in my bodies does not work so I use handheld meters: a Weston Master V for reflected and a Sekonic Studio Deluxe for incident readings. I’m an environmental photographer street as well. Btw, the red plastic lens release tab on both my bodies broke off (it’s a weak spot on them) so I took the lens mount off and removed the pin and spring that secures the lens. I’d noticed some resistance when mounting and removing lenses, this is caused by spring clips in the lens mount. So now I just mount and remove lenses by twisting them. They are quite secure when on the camera.

  • Mahinthan So

    If I had 3 bodies
    21mm 50mm 85mm

    I only had 2 bodies so I can use 35 and 85 to avoid lens swap. I will use 21 only when absolutely needed
    21mm 35mm 85mm

    FYI i own APS-C so 14mm , 23mm and 56mm in fuji

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