The Two Lens Solution

Glacier national park, montana, st. mary lake

Wide-angle

Leavenworth, intimate, fall color, river

Telephoto

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m a gearhead, no doubt about it. Lenses are not only addicting to use and collect, but are also often a good investment. The sheer number of lenses in the photography world has grown immensely, with incredible variations in ability and quality. Tilt-sift, macro, telephoto, wide-angle and primes are used by many landscape photographers. I myself have owned lenses in each and every one of those categories. But here’s the thing: in order to create the kind of art I love… I only need two lens. That’s right, two lenses will cover it all!

I once watched a video of Art Wolfe doing a “What’s in the bag” feature and he highlighted a Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II and a Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS and that was it. For macro work, he uses extension tubes and for a trip with wildlife as a focus, he brings a specialized lens (600mm prime for example). At the time I thought it was pretty cool to see a professional photographer in the field that I respect and a photographer with an unlimited budget (and sponsorship from multiple camera companies ) only carry two lenses. It had nothing to do with money and a love of gear, but simply this – how can I create the art I’m interested in and not break my back? Camera gear is heavy and quality glass takes the cake. As a landscape photographer, I spend a great deal of time on the trail carrying my gear mile after mile. There have been plenty of trips where I wish a lens had stayed behind, especially if I didn’t end up using it.

Landscape photography is most interesting when a story is told that goes beyond our normal field of vision. That’s the beauty of the wide-angle and telephoto lens. They don’t see as our eye sees, and as a result, the images are often more compelling. That’s not to say that a great image can’t be taken from 35 – 70mm, but if you study your favorite landscape images, chances are most of them are on the wide or long end. I don’t own a 24-70mm or a 24-105mm. I just sold my 50mm f/1.4 today. I had kept it for a long time just in case I needed something in the 35-70mm range, but the reality is, I rarely ever do. It’s not worth carrying the extra lens when the chance of using it is so remote.

Prime lenses are impractical for landscape photography. It just doesn’t make sense to carry a lens with one focal length when you can carry a lens that covers a wider range. Although one could argue that prime lenses produce images of higher quality, zooms can be fantastic. Just ask anyone who uses a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 or a Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS. Their quality is astounding, and their focal range is far more versatile than a prime.

Tilt-shift lenses are a lot like primes to me: not versatile for what they accomplish. You can create fantastic panoramas with tilt-shift lenses, but you can do that without them as well. You can create  great depth of field with a wider aperture with tilt-shift lenses, but with the advances made in focal blending and high ISO performance, great depth of field can usually be captured with a standard lens as well.

Macro lenses are a little different for me. I enjoy shooting macro, and while it doesn’t happen often, when it does I love having a dedicated macro lens. If I know I’m going on a trip with potential macro subjects, I will carry the Tamron 90mm f/2.8 macro lens. It is phenomenal. I have had so much success with the Tamron, I hesitate to go to extension tubes. Having said that, if I can leave the macro lens home, I often will.

If you’re starting out, chances are you will also go through a similar lens progression. Just don’t be surprised if you end up with two lenses in the end.

Recommendations:

Canon full frame:

Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II

Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS

Canon crop sensor:

Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8

Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS

Nikon full frame:

Nikon 16-35mm f/4

Nikon 70-200mm f/4

Nikon crop sensor:

Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8

Nikon 70-200mm f/4

Sony full frame:

Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 Carl Zeiss

Sony 70-300mm f/4 -5.6G

Sony crop sensor:

Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8

Sony 70-300mm f/4-5.6G

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14 responses to “The Two Lens Solution

  • Ron Coscorrosa

    My camera bag has six lenses, ranging from 14 to 400, and on any long trip, I’ll bring all of them, though only carry a subset with me (especially when hiking or backpacking) to reduce size or weight, and for this I agree that zoom lenses are invaluable and much more practical.

    My only two primes are the 14 (a special case – there is no good Canon zoom that goes that wide), and my 100 macro, which is obviously not a general purpose lens at all but very well suited to its specific purpose.

    I would say the majority of my images these days are < 35, or between 100-200 but there are still a few were that normal focal range is necessary, and a few where a super telephoto is necessary (compressed landscapes of hillsides, abstracts, etc.).

    Interestingly, before selling any lenses it would be useful to see what focal ranges you actually do use, and there's a Lightroom plugin that does this that I just downloaded, I'm curious to see the results (especially comparing "my entire catalog" vs. my "1% of images that are actually worth processing") 🙂

    http://regex.info/blog/lightroom-goodies/data-plot

    • Justin Reznick

      Ron,

      Thanks for the plugin link! Love the macro for sure… but I do disagree with the 14mm prime. I owned one and didn’t use it enough to justify it. 16mm gets the job done for me 99 percent of the time. 1 percent of the 2 million images you shot this year is a ton:). You are the man!

      • Ron Coscorrosa

        Looking at my stats (at least on my recent keepers), I used the 16-35 at 16mm the majority of the time, so having a wide angle prime makes sense for my usage (and that’s what I’m going to tell myself even if it’s not true to justify the cost of the lens – rationalization will get you everywhere!). Now if only I could easily put a polarizer on it…

        Although another way of looking at the stats, instead of “this is what I use the most” is “this is what I’m not using as much as I should.” There are an infinite amount of compositions I miss because I fall into comfortable patterns – perhaps abandoning the wide angle lens for a few trips would help me break out of them. Or maybe I would be completely frustrated at not having all options available.

  • Scott Miller

    I personally have 4 lenses covering 17-400mm and I usually carry them all. The 100-400 gets left behind to save weight on occasion, but every time I do I seem to wish I had it with me. So, as a result I just carry around a heavy pack most of the time. Then again I am a big guy, and at 215 lbs, an extra 3 or 4 pounds on the back is not a huge deal unless I am backpacking with camping gear.

    Since I am a major geek, here are some numbers from my 2012:

    Total Pictures: 6203 (drastically inflated due to bracketing and stuff like that)

    Canon 17-40: 4349
    Canon 24-105: 934
    Canon 100-400mm 349
    Canon 100mm macro (purchased in April): 494

    Sigma 150mm macro (borrowed from J Cram for an afternoon and led to the purchase of the 100mm macro): 56
    Canon 16-35 (again borrowed from J Cram to play with): 12
    Canon 70-200 f4 (once again, it is Mr Cram’s, I used it on one occasion I had left the 100-400 in the car for weight reasons): 6

    In reality this massive number of pictures was shrunk down to around 40 that I actually like and have processed –
    2 with the 100-400
    15 with macro lenses
    2 with the 24-105
    21 with the 17-40

    I still have 10 or so in my “to process bin”, which are also mostly with the 17-40.

    Basically what I am learning is the my 24-105 and my 100-400 aren’t REALLY needed unless I know there will be wildlife around, but I carry them nearly everywhere.

    After owning a macro lens for the first time, there is no way it is leaving my bag. It is just a ton of fun to use, and if the weather doesn’t cooperate with your vision for the outing, the macro can ALWAYS produce something interesting. In addition to helping you pare down the big bag of glass, this exercise helps you determine where to allocate your money toward upgrades. There are rumors of a new canon 14-24 in the pipeline, and since 70% of my images are in the wide range, I will probably line up to pick one up. However, when the 100-400 is inevitably upgraded, I probably won’t bother spending money on that range.

    • Justin Reznick

      Scott,

      Those are some amazing stats! I’m thoroughly impressed with your record keeping!

      Have you considered purchasing the 70-200mm f/4L IS? It’s my favorite lens and covers an incredibly useful focal range. It takes the best of the 24-105 and 100-400.

      For photographing locations like the Palouse, the 100-400 is essential IMO, and I’m currently using the Sony 70-400 with a NEX-7 for that focal range.

      Of course, that goes against the two lens solution, but there’s going to be exceptions here and there; there’s just too much diversity to photograph! I too love having a macro handy and I carry mine more often than not.

      Thanks for the great comment Scott!

      • Scott Miller

        My dirty little secret is I didn’t pay for my 100-400. My father in law bought it thinking he would get in to photography. Then he realized “dear lord only crazy people carry this thing around all the time”. (I am convinced his next thought was “who do I know who is crazy? Scott is crazy!”) If it had been my own money I probably would have picked up a 70-200 and and a teleconverter. But, at this point I don’t use the range enough to justify another lens in that length. Plus, I really like the 100-400 whenever wildlife pops up around me.

  • Bella Remy Photography

    I also have learned that less is more. I use the 24-105mm as my primary lens. I have the nifty 50, but it stays in the bag. A fantastic posts and really helps when we’re all trying to have just what we need.
    Thanks!

  • Richard Harrison

    I just returned from a ten day camping-shooting tour of Death Valley, Mono Lake and the areas in between (discovered Alabama Hills) and i was carrying three lenses. The 17-40, 24-105, and 70-200 2.8. I ran off a couple thousand shots or more during the tour – like Scott’s, inflated due to bracketing – and I haven’t done a strict count but I’d bet that 80% were with the 17-40, 19% with the 24-105 and the remainder with the 70-200. I think the 24-105 and 70-200 counts would have been reversed had I purchased the IS version, but I didn’t. BIG MISTAKE. I had used a 70-200 f2.8 IS in a four day horse event in Lexington, KY last spring and really loved it. Attached to my 7D it was perfect for that sort of event. I sold my 100-400 and then agonized over whether I should go with the f4 IS 70-200 or the f2.8 IS version. I opted for the latter without the IS because of price and rationalized that I have a very steady hand – I avoid tripods and monopods when I can. The rationalization did not hold up. The difference between the f2.8 IS and non-IS is dramatically different. Thus it is increasingly becoming a brick in the bag. And yet I know that with the IS it is a phenomenal piece of glass.

    So I have decided to bite the bullet and sell the non-IS 70-200 and go for either the f4 IS or the f2.8 IS version. My heart says get the f2.8; my head (and wallet) says f4, because I haven’t had that much use for apertures larger than that.

    Justin, you have the f4 IS on your recommendation list. I’m curious though: if there were no significant difference in price would you still opt for the f4 over the f2.8? Do you find that your landscape work is ever particularly constrained by the f4 limitation?

    • Justin Reznick

      Richard,

      Thank you for the comment!

      I am a huge fan of the Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS. It is my favorite piece of glass and a big reason why I shoot Canon. It gets my highest recommendation possible. The f/2.8 is not even a consideration for me (not because of cost) but because of weight. It is significantly heavier: 3.28 pounds vs. 1.67 pounds. The f/2.8 does nothing to effect my landscape work, I would only use that aperture for wildlife or night photography, and I would only use a wide-angle for night photography. My style is completely geared towards having the entire image tack sharp from front to back so I live in f/8 – f/16 for most of my images. The f/2.8 makes complete sense for the horse event in Lexington, but for a landscape trip you won’t miss the f/2.8 in my opinion.

      Thanks again!

  • Robert Lowdon

    I tend to disagree on the added weight of primes. I’ll carry a 24, 35, 50 and an 85, and I don’t notice a weight difference. On the other hand when I add the 300 I can sure feel it.

  • GaryMak

    Would like to know your opinion of the 24-70mm 2.8L instead of the 16-35… I have this lens (and a 5DMKIII) and love it. It’s a “wide angle” at 24mm but, no, not “ultra wide” – but for the extra 8mm, is it worth it in landscape photography? (I have the 70-200 2.8L, which and a 1.4xII tele so have the full range of 24 to nearly 300mm which is very convenient and efficient.) At this point, it would seem to make more sense to go 8-15 fisheye? (However, I hear keeping the lens safe without filter protection is very problematic.) I’m just curious if so much of you ultra-wide angle shots are at the margins (16mm) it would seem that you yourself would want to ratchet down to an 8-15mm…? Would appreciate your viewpoint. Thanks!

    • Justin Reznick

      Gary,

      Thanks for the comment! I”m a huge proponent of the 16-35mm… which is most often used at 16mm. It’s essential for landscape work IMO. The fish eye lens is of little use due to the intense distortion effects. I don’t own the 24-70 because the least interesting focal range for landscapes is 40 – 70mm. With the 16-35mm and the 70-200mm I have the essentials covered. Bottom line – it is ABSOLUTELY worth the extra 8mm! At the wide end, each mmm is dramatic. The 14mm prime is a great tool to push the limits of wide-angle photography as well and is used just to gain that extra 2mm.

  • GaryMak

    Regarding Mr. Harrison’s dilemma 70-200 f4 vs f2.8… Just one man’s experience here… I had the f4 as my first lens and loved it, but sold it and bought the f2.8 because of sports photography. (I understand this is a landscape blog…) It made a major difference in stadium photography where lighting is poor (I’m talking high school sports, not NCAA Div1!) and minimum speeds must be maintained because there’s a big difference shooting a wide receiver at 1/200th vs 1/800th. It also gave me the capability to use the tele-extender 1.4xIII and only increase the f-stop by 1, and retain full autofocus, which is difficult to do with a 1.4x on a f4 and impossible with a 2x.

    On the weight, well, the f2.8 is certainly heavier than the other, of course, but add another lens, the camera, batteries, accessories that you carry and I think it’s a relatively smaller increment than comparing the two lenses side by side. You can buy yourself a carbon-fiber tripod and a good Gitzo head save the weight there…

    So, for things like sports photography or any other fast-paced/action photography, you’ll be squeezed with the f4, but since clouds don’t move very fast in landscape photography, you should be pretty safe with the f4, and certainly agree with Mr. Reznick! Just wanted to add some background based on experience (and a dilemma) I had with both.

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