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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.

Understanding Lenses ebook bundle

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
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!

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