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Inspiration

One Week, One Lens Challenge| The Power of Limitations

By Lauchlan Toal on February 1st 2016

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.

Mud Pit Tug of War

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.

[REWIND: How to See the “Second Shot” | Unlocking Your Creativity]

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.

LEGO Building

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.

Guided Archery

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?

Absolutely.

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.

Jumping into Lake

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.

Lauchlan Toal is a food photographer in Halifax, Nova Scotia. When not playing with his dinner, he can be found chasing bugs, shooting sports, or otherwise having fun with photography. You can follow his work online, or hunt him down on the blogs and forums that he frequents.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Andy & Amii Kauth

    Really enjoyed reading this/great ideas … Nicely chosen images as well–love the one of the muddy kid jumping in the lake!

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    • Lauchlan Toal

      Cheers! That kid was awesome. You can’t really see in the picture, but his right leg was in a cast the whole time yet he was one of the most active kids at the camp. Really cool how he didn’t let it slow him down.

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  2. Stephen Jennings

    I shoot more creatively when I shoot with primes, and I shoot better when I have limited lenses.. looking through past sessions, the ones where I either only brought my 85mm or 85mm + 35mm exceed those I brought a whole bag full of fancy zooms and countless focal lengths. Cool article Lauchlan!

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    • Lauchlan Toal

      Thanks Stephen, an 85/35 combo is pretty fantastic for most subjects. I know lots of wedding photographers who switched to that or a similar prime kit from their 24-70 and 70-200 and never looked back. You have some great shots on Flickr by the way – I can definitely see how the lens can influence your take on a subject.

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  3. Dan Yoates

    Great article. I just got the Fuji x100t, and the fixed prime lens is definitely changing the way I shoot.

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    • Lauchlan Toal

      Thanks Dan, I’ve heard lots of good things about the Fuji, hope you’re enjoying it!

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  4. Jim Johnson

    Limitation is the key to creativity. If someone says, “Draw me a picture”, you are paralyzed with possibility. Every idea is a general one with only the broadest strokes even considered. If someone says, “Draw me a picture of a house” your mind races to all the possibilities of representing a house. Is it a Victorian mansion, a castle, or a cave? What kind of roof ? Windows? etc.

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    • Lauchlan Toal

      Absolutely Jim, I think all the best pieces of art that I’ve seen and created have been done when the artist had to work around limitations and come up with creative solutions. I noticed this in LEGO building a lot – my favourite example being when someone ran out of pieces to finish building a roof, so they left a jagged hole with a power pole falling on the house. That’s much more interesting than a plain old roof.

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  5. norman tesch

    other than wildlife and football i use just primes, that includes basketball and vollyball. you learn where you need to be for that prime lens. you get use to the field of view of each lens. they are usually faster too so when you had to put that zoom lens away when it gets dark many primes it introduces more fun and shooting teniques to experience

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    • Lauchlan Toal

      I agree – primes are perfect for court sports. There really is something fun about using a prime, it takes your mind off the technical things.

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  6. robert raymer

    When I was starting in photography, the one camera, one lens “challenge” was called “necessity”. All I had was a Nikon FM-10 and 35-70mm. I still recommend that anyone starting out in photography just buy a basic camera and a “normal” prime lens. Instead of focusing on gear, megapixels, etc they can learn to focus on composition, the exposure triangle, and subject interaction and building a solid knowledge/experience base before worrying about gear. Of course, Im old fashioned, and also recommend everyone learn on film, but thats just me…

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    • Lauchlan Toal

      I like that – they say necessity is the mother of invention, after all. I have to admit that I’ve still yet to use a film SLR, maybe that’s a challenge I need to undertake.

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    • robert raymer

      If you are going to shoot film, I would honestly suggest working in medium or large format. You can find many quality used MF/LF cameras for very reasonable prices and they will help you shoot better as well as producing potentially better images compared to 35mm. Most MF/LF cameras (with the exception of rangefinders) reverse the image on the ground glass focusing screen, something that forces you to pay more attention to light and composition. That, combined with the manual everything of many MF and all LF cameras really forces you to slow down your work and think about what you are doing, which interestingly can often help you work FASTER when shooting digital.

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  7. Michael Burnham

    VERY Nicely put, I would go farther to say that everyone should do a one camera, one lens, one week challenge every time they get a lew lens to learn it better than just adding it to the arsenal.

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    • Lauchlan Toal

      Thanks Michael, I think that’s a great idea! When you’re forced to use a lens for everything, you really put it through its paces.

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