Why You Should Do the One Camera, One Lens Challenge

There are many reasons and advantages for using different lenses for your photography, especially when you’re doing it for commercial work or specialized projects. Still, we come across photography tests like the “one camera, one lens” challenge, the goal of which is to see what kind of images we’ll come up with if we have to push through the limitations of using just one lens.

Vancouver-based Alastair Bird was once challenged to take on this test while planning for a trip to Cuba. It turned out to be a big deal given his big lens collection and preference for the versatility of using different lenses. Prime lens, one focal length only, his friend said. He responded then by taking with him the Fujifilm X100 with 35mm F2 lens, and did it again in Russia just months ago with Fujifilm X-Pro2 and a 23mm F1.4 lens.

Today, Alastair shares with us his results and why he thinks we should all give it a try. You can watch him speak about his one camera, one lens experience and see his other photos from this challenge in this video by Jeremy Dyson of Dyson Media, or read his story below.

I own many camera lenses — at the last count I have (between the ancient pieces of glass for my Hasselblads and my 4×5 to the lenses I use on a regular basis with my Fuji and Nikon systems) 27 lenses.

In 2012, I was planning a trip to Cuba and Panama with my father. The last thing I wanted was to stick out even more as a tourist than I already would by having a huge DSLR around my neck and a bag full of lenses slung over my shoulder. I wanted to take great photos but didn’t want to be obvious about it. And I didn’t want to suffer in the heat and humidity of Cuba and Panama with a pack horse’s load of equipment on my back.

Over a cup of coffee a friend of mine ‘solved’ my problem for me. We were discussing cameras I could bring and he threw down the proverbial gauntlet and caught me totally off guard with a challenge. In fact, he actually said, “I challenge you to bring only one camera, one lens.”

I remember staring at him blankly with what I’m sure was a very strange look on my face. It never crossed my mind to only bring one lens. I was flummoxed. Then the gears started to turn. Of course, my first reaction was to dismiss his suggestion out of hand as outrageous.

And then I gave it a bit more thought. “Maybe a zoom?”

Nope. Prime lens only. One focal length.

Then I really started thinking. If I was going to take this challenge I had to get it right – I mean, this is Cuba, for goodness’ sake. I feared if I didn’t bring the right lens I was going to be lost, photographically, and I would squander a fantastic opportunity. My options were, of course, endless and it crossed my mind for a moment to shoot with a vintage camera and film. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed and I ended up going with the classic setup of a 35mm camera with a 35mm F2 lens. Only it was with a Fuji X100 in a nice leather case, (I bought it used on Rangefinderforum.com) a few batteries and a handful of SD cards, rather than a Leica M2 with a basket of Tri-X.

How did it go? Well, I enjoyed the experience so much that I did it again, when I traveled to Russia and Berlin this past May. This time I used a Fuji X-Pro2 and a 23mm F1.4 lens rather than the X100, but everything else was the same: one camera; one lens. Fuji; 35mm equivalent.

So why do it? I can only speak for my own experiences, but here are a few reasons:

Because you can.

George Mallory was famously asked by The New York Times why he was going to climb Mount Everest. His response was, “Because it’s There”. Whether or not that was the only reason really doesn’t matter much – it makes for a great story. There is something strangely fun about challenging yourself in a unique way for no other reason than you can. Obviously travelling to Cuba in 2012 is not on par with visiting Everest in 1920, climbing but not summiting in 1921 and, fatefully, attempting the summit again in 1924, but I find Mallory’s rationale compelling. Having only one camera and one lens did strike quite a bit of fear in my heart – well, more trepidation, truth be told – I was rather concerned that I would spend the entire trip wishing for a wider/longer/faster lens that I didn’t have. As it turned out, it took about a day for me to get used to shooting with one lens. Not that I had much choice in the matter, of course.

Logistically, it’s way easier.

How many of us have brought a ton of gear anywhere and 90% of it sits in your bag and never sees the light of day? When I think about my location kit for my commercial work, I have pieces of grip and bits in my camera bag that I have never, ever used. I have been shooting full-time, professionally, for 14 years and some of the pieces of equipment I paid good money for just languish in equipment cases. The whole idea of ‘just in case’ adds untold complications and pounds to your kit and when you’re travelling in many cases you just don’t have that kind of luxury. Airlines are getting so much stricter with cabin baggage weights and sizes, and who wants to have their camera go in the hold? No one, of course, but if it’s a whole lot less likely if it is one lens and one body that fits easily in the smallest carry-on. And you can then cast your eyes to the young man who is lugging a goalie’s hockey bag as his carry-on and not get that uptight.

You don’t have to keep track of as many things. You only have one type of battery (but with the Fujis, bring plenty of them. I would go through 3 a day), and one set of SD cards.

Your travelling companions won’t kill you.

This is way more important than you may think – and it happens a lot more often than anyone cares to admit. I’m serious when I tell you that while you’re trying to figure out which lens to use, and which angle to get, try this; try that; Hmmmm, should I go lower?, your travelling companions are trying to figure out if they can abandon you on the next train to Tuktoyuktuk, “accidentally” lashed to a shipment of dry goods.

Getting your camera out in a hurry, getting the shot you want in a hurry and putting the camera away in a hurry is a skill that EVERY PHOTOGRAPHER should have down pat for two reasons: One, you don’t want to waste any more time than you already have; two, you want to get the shot. One lens means you start to think in terms of where you need to be to get the shot you want. It’s uncanny how with just a little bit of practice you can eyeball the shot you want, pull out the camera, get your shot (or two, or three, or, if you’re feeling bold, four) and keep walking as if nothing happens. And your friends will appreciate the gesture, too. Nothing gets you up to speed on street photography more than a single lens and camera. And you stay alive because your companions don’t kill you. Win-win!

You create a visually compelling narrative that has great cohesion, even with totally disparate subject matter.

This is somewhat self-evident, but it’s a lot easier to create a cohesive narrative when not only is it the same photographer, but also the same camera and same lens. I find that using a single lens makes it a lot easier to edit, too.

It can be hard. Rewarding, but hard.

There are all kinds of trite clichés on the internet about doing difficult things and how they will make you a better person in the end. For me, without question, I am a better photographer because of this challenge. I can’t think of the number of times I WISHED the lens was just a touch wider – a 28 would have been perfect. And then there were times when a 24 would have been better. A nice portrait lens could have been useful, too, or even a boring old 50mm. And yet I didn’t have any of those, and I had to make do with the 35mm focal length. Even with wishing that things were different, I can safely say that I didn’t walk away from any situation totally empty-handed. And in many cases what I got was better than I expected.

But that said, I honestly believe that the experience I had with the single lens was, overall, better than what I could have captured with a bunch of lenses. Of course, the only way to really find out is to travel with a couple of bodies and a quiver of lenses, and I can assure you that won’t happen any time soon.

I challenge you. Take a trip. Look around. Stay in good terms with your travelling companions. Take one camera, one lens. Take what is presented to you. Don’t overthink it. Enjoy.


All images by Alastair Bird. Used with permission.