Gear Theory

The Beauty of Basic: Life with One Lens – By Will Mordell

March 5, 2020

Before we jump in, I have a quote to share:

Limiting options forces creativity. Fishing for a year with only the Pheasant Tail & Partridge has given me deep knowledge about what to do with that simple brown fly, and a deeper understanding of fish. It has taught me that choosing a more simple life doesn’t mean choosing an impoverished life. Rather, simplicity can lead to a more satisfying way of fishing and a more responsible way of living. — Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia.

I cannot think of a finer way to begin this piece. Yvon, the man responsible for one of the greatest outdoor companies of all time, speaks a simple truth about the truth in simplicity. Fishing, like photography or woodworking or any craft, takes time, understanding, a feeling to truly master. And yet, as we move forward, we seem to move back.
The first cameras were simple affairs, with few options for the discerning professional to choose from. And so you became innately familiar with your tool, knowing every nook and cranny, strength and weakness, every possible result you may get and how you will get it. Photographers with their cameras were like fishermen with their rods; when there is only a simple stick and worm to work with, there is nowhere to hide your shortcomings. Technique becomes the name of the game, and the little bit of equipment at your disposal must become an extension of you, no less a part of you than the hand that holds it.

Today, in this age of boundless consumerism, this is not the case. Sure, you can shoot your camera on manual, but you don’t have to. Sure, you can move closer, but why not just pop on any number of zoom lenses? There is a lens, an attachment, or a mode for literally any issue that could arise, and every company, advertisement, and publication will waste no time in telling you how much you need them. It is so easy now to fall into the trap of identifying ourselves by the things we own rather than by the person we are or by what we are capable of, and I am no less guilty of succumbing to this trap than any of you. Ironically, this need for more is how I ended up with the lens in question.

When I got my Fujifilm X-T1, I had the option to buy it with just one lens or two. Thankfully, I opted for one, the 35mm f2 R WR. Now, this lens is not the fastest 35mm offered, overshadowed by Fujifilm’s own f1.4 and Mitakon’s f0.95, yet after owning it, I don’t care. I feel no need to upgrade, not in the slightest. This is my favorite lens I’ve ever owned, not because it is the sharpest or the fastest or the newest, but because it is the one I know best.

Though I did not make it quite as long as Yvon’s year, this little 35mm was my only lens for 6 months. In that time, I came to a deep understanding of the truth in his words, and grew more as an artist than all the time leading up to that combined. By not giving myself any alternatives, I pushed myself more than ever before. Without the option of reaching for a wide angle in the face of a landscape or snapping off portraits with a telephoto, I was forced to find my frame with what I had. To move around and see scenes differently, to work within limitations, and eventually, to transcend them. In a wonderful little paradox, those limitations were, in this case, completely freeing. I was no longer turning my eyes down and taking my hands off the shutter button to switch lenses or find little bits of “necessary” equipment. Instead, my eyes were always up and my finger always on the shutter, fully present.

Eventually, what I can only describe as a shift happened. The camera, and more importantly, the lens, became so natural, so fluid that I knew my framing before it was even up to my eye. I knew how it would behave from back-lighting to lens flares, architecture to portraits, and everything in between. In those 6 months, I took some of the best photos I have ever taken, a diverse bunch in theme, subject, and style, but every single one with the same setup. By the time I even thought about adding a second lens to my collection, I felt vaguely guilty. I knew how I would use it, the reasons I would buy it, what it would let me capture that my 35mm would not. And yet, it wasn’t my lens. I did finally go through with it, and now own its brother, the 23mm f2, a fantastic lens in its own right, but my unwavering love for the 35 remains.

Even as I aspire to own only a handful of clothing pieces, to purge my shelves of cluttered decor, to have little and want less, I cannot seem to do the same with my camera gear. I’ve finally begun to get rid of some here and there, and yet more keep finding their way into my hands. It can be hard for us not to do this with our passions; it is human nature to dive in and acquire all we can, both in material possessions and in knowledge. But there is something to be said for less of the former and more of the latter, and my 35mm has taught me that.

So I’d urge anyone to try this. Not to say that you have to sell your gear, maybe just put it down for a while. Pick one lens and use it for everything they tell you not to do with it. Shoot portraits with a 16mm, take landscapes with a 135. Hell, throw on a fish-eye and don’t take it off until you have nothing left to point it at. Get to know your gear on a deeper level; you’ll be surprised how much confidence you’ll gain, both in your equipment and, more importantly, in yourself.

If you appreciate the sentiment shared here, give this piece by Hamish a read. He shares some wonderful insight on the joys and value in simplicity.

If you’d like to see my work or read more, check out my website or follow me on Instagram.

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  • Reply
    March 5, 2020 at 4:39 pm

    This is just the article I needed as I am currently trying to sell a 23mm f2 in favor of sticking with ONLY my trusty 35mm f2. Are you glad you ended up picking up the 23? or could you have still done without? 90% of my film cameras have 50mm lenses so I figure it is best for consistency to stick with the same when shooting digitally.

    • Reply
      Will Mordell
      March 5, 2020 at 5:41 pm

      I am glad I picked it up, though I could likely have just stuck with my one! The 23 has found a home on my X-T1, primarily for architecture and travel. My little 35mm stays primarily on my X-T2 for paid work, portraiture, and nearly everything else. I too primarily work with 50 or 55mm lenses on nearly all of my film bodies.

  • Reply
    March 5, 2020 at 5:41 pm

    Excellent advice, Will. I need to do that myself and stop thinking about new lenses that I “need.” For 25 years, I used Rolleiflexes with 75mm fixed lenses. That was simplicity because there was no option to change lenses. What you saw was what you got. Years ago, Mike Johnston of The Online Photographer also recommended a plan of one lens one year as a teacher:

  • Reply
    Roger B.
    March 5, 2020 at 9:32 pm

    Very interesting, this post. As an impoverished minimum wage worker aspiring to a photography career during the 1960s, I also started with one lens – because I could not afford more than one. And that lens was also a 35mm f2.0, the first Super-Takumar of that focal length and maximum aperture, on a Pentax H3V. I shot thousands of images with that lens, on roll-yer-own Tri-X from 100′ master spools. I recently found a clean example of the 35/2 on That Auction Site, and have shot it using a PK/M42 adapter on a fullframe K1. Wide open, it’s a soft lens … stopped down past f4, and it performs beautifully, with that rich and slightly warm color range typical of many old Takumars.

  • Reply
    zoran vaskic
    March 17, 2020 at 8:04 am

    I’ve used an x100 for four years with its fixed 35 mm film equivalent lens, and really nothing else. Before buying it I was concerned about the ‘limitation’. I was about to enter into. But then I realized that there was a world of photo opportunities I was never going to exhaust, one lens or not. That relaxed me and I bought the camera. Sure, I want to use different focal lengths, and will with the film cameras I have lined up. But after all this time whats happened is that the one lens is mostly a non issue. The limitations of the focal length I’ve accepted, and am more concerned instead with improving my choice of subject matter and composition. Mostly the Fuji and I get along, but we do have our moments. There are situations where I don’t like the too perfect rendering coming out of it. But then there are other situations where its a world beater and for that I wouldn’t want to give it up. Glad I bought it, and yes, I agree: when your options are limited or narrowed, it simplifies things and you just go ahead without complication…becuz you have no other choice. After a while it becomes your reality and you forget about the ‘limitation’. Which I personally think is over hyped as concerns using one lens. We can get used to anything if we give ourself time

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