The beauty of photography is that your creative freedom is infinite. This is also the horror of it. When faced with a million choices, the pressure to choose the “right” one is debilitating. You’ll constantly be second-guessing yourself, wondering if a shot would have looked better with a different lens, from a different angle, with different settings. Sometimes it’s worth eliminating as many of these choices as you can.
This is why people say that if you’re learning to compose photos, use a prime lens instead of a zoom. It takes away some of your choices and forces you to think about the best frame you can take with a single focal length. To take this a step further, one could limit themselves to a single lens and camera for a week, to immerse themselves in the nuances of that specific focal length and focus on other aspects of photography. I did this during one summer’s week with the Nikon 50mm f1.8D, and I was amazed at how it changed my photographic mindset.
In August, I was invited to work as a camp counselor for a LEGO themed summer camp, during which I would help out with running activities while taking photos of the campers. Since I would have to be taking photos on the go and wouldn’t have time for anything elaborate, I took a lightweight D610 + 50mm f1.8 kit, with no other lenses or cameras. Many people love the 50mm focal length, but personally, I’m a 105mm guy. Using a standard lens feels very weird to me, so the idea of having to rely on one for an entire week was somewhat perturbing. I did not expect this limitation to be nearly as inspiring as it turned out to be.
When I arrived at the camp and took photos on the first day, I struggled to find a balance between getting shots that were artistically good, while showing the virtues of the camp. This kind of photography isn’t in my wheelhouse, and getting out of my comfort zone to get good photos of kids at play kept my brain busy. My biological RAM was working at full capacity, and I had little computational power left to think about the technical elements of photography.
It was all about being in the right place to snap a photo that shows something fun happening, and predicting this is a challenging endeavour. Fortunately, by having only a single lens, I was free to concentrate on a smaller pool of options. It may seem trivial, but this simplification was invaluable.
Our minds have a finite ability to multi-task. With any creative field, you want to take as much of the technical load off the brain as possible so you can focus on the artistic side. This is why musicians build up muscle memory – it lets them think about the musicality rather than the notes. Photographers are the same way. If we’re bogged down by considering our technical options, we won’t have the brain power to notice creative opportunities.
Thanks to the limitations imposed by only having a single lens, I was able to get into the flow of things fairly quickly. I knew exactly what my camera would see, so I was able to spot good shooting locations instinctively. When something interesting happened, I didn’t have to worry about framing since I knew exactly what would be in the shot. This added up to a massive speed advantage. Not being able to set up a photo, everything had to be reactive. When the odds of getting a good shot depend on how quickly you react to an event, even a slight increase in your speed makes a difference.
Even more importantly, I was able to focus on the people I was photographing. Portrait photographers are great at this, because they understand that the subject is always the most important element of a photo. No matter how artistically stunning an image is, it’s worthless if the people in the photo aren’t adding to it. Getting past the camera and joining the subject, connecting with them, is so important. They need to be comfortable around you, otherwise they’ll shut down every time you raise the camera. You can’t afford to be an outsider, and if you’re constantly looking down to change lenses you won’t be interacting enough to build connections.
So simplifying things by only using one lens helped me learn a new genre of photography quicker, and get more keeper photos during that week. But did it have any lasting benefit?
Spending a week with a single lens gives you a highly immersive experience. You understand the lens. Everything it can and can’t do becomes clear, and you learn to recognize which opportunities will suit its “look” best. It’s been half a year since that week, and I still remember all of its abilities, quirks, and tricks. When I’m loading my camera bag, it’s easy to know whether the 50mm should come along or be left at home. When I pick it up, I can immediately switch into that 50mm mindset and see the world as it does.
Photography is not technically difficult. Learning to take photos in the moment and capturing authentic emotions is the real challenge. Hence, I have a challenge for you. Pick a lens, any lens, and limit yourself to using only it for a time. A day, a week, a month – whatever you choose. Just jump in and see what happens. Let me know how it goes – you might be surprised at how it changes your photography.