The Only 3 Lenses A Photographer Really Needs

Are you diving into photography as a more serious hobby…or even as a potential business owner? Have you started to figure out what lenses you need yet? Are you starting to dig really deep and trying to figure out exactly how much equipment you need to produce the images you want? Let’s explore the only 3 lenses that any photographer really needs.

Are you a portrait photographer, wedding photographer, commercial photographer, or hobbyist? What if I told you the answer to what 3 lenses you need might be exactly the same no matter what kind of photographer you are? Yup. It might not be a super popular opinion but I will tell you the lenses that perform well under any circumstance, the lenses that have gotten thousands of hours of use, and the ones I only pull out once in a blue moon for a photo. And it might just surprise you that I only own 1 zoom lens…and for years I actually had none.

The 3 lenses

Why 3 lenses? Well, I think you can probably get away with only 2, but having 3 different focal lengths does allow more flexibility in every shooting situation. So you can easily create more creative scenes with less effort. Have you seen the newer iPhone or Samsung phones that have the amazing cameras? If you flip to the back and look the newest mobile phones—they have 3 lenses on them. That, my friends, tells you everything you need to know. Covering 3 different focal lengths (wide, normal, telephoto) will give you everything you ever need. The actual length of each of these lenses can vary a little bit, but I will share with you my very favorite lenses, their exact focal length, and why or when you might use them.

The 85mm lens

This puppy is by far the best portrait lens that exists. I said it…fight me. I actually use the Nikon 85mm f/1.8, because at the time I wasn’t willing to spend the extra $$ on the f/1.4, but both lenses are truly incredible. 85mm is on the shorter side of telephoto length but I have found that I don’t often need a longer focal length than 85mm. A medium telephoto would be something between 70-200 where a super telephoto is focal lengths longer than 300mm. The 85mm, however, gives beautiful background bokeh and works surprisingly well for more up close shooting situations. I love the tight crop this lens allows, the ability to make the subject really stand out, and the creamiest of skin tones. Just a gorgeous portrait lens.

senior portrait showing an 85mm 1.8 lens

The 50mm lens

My. Favorite. Lens. If I had to pick one lens for the rest of my life (please don’t make me do that because I like my lenses) this would be it. You can do almost anything with a 50mm lens. Often called a nifty fifty, this was the most common lens found on original 35mm film cameras (like a Pentax K1000, a Nikon f4, Olympus OM-1, Canon AE-1, etc.). The reason this lens was found on all available 35mm cameras is because this lens can really do it all. It is the most “normal” focal length. I shoot with the Nikon 50mm f/1.4 and even though it is a pro level lens it is very affordable at just around $500. Considering I think I could shoot an entire wedding day with this one lens, I do not think there really is another comparable focal length. It is perfection.

The 35mm lens

So at some point you’ll need a wider lens. Not quite as often as you might think, but you will need one. The “wide” level lenses are actually quite varied. You can go super wide at 15mm or 18mm, and even a 24mm will give you beautiful information. But I find that the 35mm goes just wide enough to get all the surrounding information without going so wide that the distortion gets crazy. On a wedding day I love a 35mm for some portraits to give more of a sense of place by including surrounding information. I also enjoy it for tighter interior spaces, like during the getting ready part of photographing a wedding or in the church ceremony, and especially for the dance floor. This is used the least amount of my 3 most important lenses, but it is definitely used. I actually shoot with a Sigma 35mm f/1.4 art lens and it is gorgeous.

Other Lenses

Depending on what you are photographing you might need more specialty lenses, but I stand by the fact that there are only 3 lenses that any photographer really needs. I put a bunch of lenses into the “specialty” category but let me just explain that additionally in my bag I have a 24mm wide lens, a 50mm macro lens, and a 70-200mm telephoto zoom lens (my only zoom lens). Once upon a time I also had a 24-70mm zoom, and a 135mm 2.0 defocus. I purposely moved away from the 24-70mm zoom for personal reasons in my shooting style and just did not use the 135mm nearly enough for what a nice lens it was. If you are a commercial photographer shooting jewelry the macro might be really important. If you are a sports photographer you’ll need a very specialized lens. If you are a landscape photographer you might need a very specific focal length. And if you are an arial photographer well…you might be out of a job because of drone photography. But that’s another post for another day.

Do you need all 3 lenses?

The short answer…no. In my bag I basically have the above 3 lenses (35, 50, 85) and can do almost ALL the things with those 3 focal lengths. They are the 3 lenses that a photographer needs (wide, normal, telephoto). And the 35 sometimes doesn’t even come out of the bag, but I find myself often switching between the 50 and the 85. So all this to say that no matter what you are photographing, you can change your angle, your point of view, and the look of the photo without needing to change a lens. Do not let people talk you into a new lens, when what you might need to do is start to explore how you like to shoot, and that will determine the need (if any) of a new lens for your bag.



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I am a professional photographer & photo educator. I’m here to share with you my best (and easiest) tips and tricks for taking amazing photos. I’m sharing years of knowledge as a teaching artist to help you find a way to share your unique point of view with the world. Welcome to The Photo Method.

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