Essential focal lengths - a minimalist approach


Photography is not a cheap hobby. However, it can be relatively inexpensive to photographers with clear vision of their work, sufficient knowledge and, some skills. Unfortunately  many beginners having none of the above end up paying dearly (and literally) for those shortcomings.

One of the dillemas beginning photographers face is the choice of lenses. These days selection on the market is shamefully vast. Aside from having full lineups for each of several different systems, we also have offers from third party manufacturers and even unorthodox constructions like Lensbaby. Looking at the website of one of the largest photo equipment retailers in USA we have 205 different lenses available for Nikon F mount only. Do you need them all if you are a Nikon shooter? God forbid, no.

For the purpose of this article I want to focus on strictly one and most important feature of every lens and that is it’s focal length. Furthermore I will be considering prime lenses only as those are purest in terms of technical aspect and represent fundamental approach to photography. Prime lenses, unlike zoom constructions, allow photographer to focus on the subject and understand its relation to the space and other elements of surrounding. Primes are truly the only way to comprehend proper composition and framing techniques.

(Note: below discussion is assuming 35mm/135 format system)


So which focal lengths may be considered essential? Let’s start with one that’s probably most obvious and popular but often underestimated and misunderstood– 50mm. The myth says that angle of vision provided by this lens is closest to the one of human eye, which would allegedly explain why this lens has been around since forever. Unfortunately it’s a far stretch from the truth and I encourage everyone to do a little investigative work to find out why.

The truth is that typical fast 50mm lenses are relatively simple constructions – easy to design and manufacture.  Back in the analog days cameras were often sold with 50mm lenses bundled as a kit. Today cameras are usually bundled with zoom lenses but 50mm primes are still a staple of any 35mm format based system and they are usually the most affordable primes.

But what actually makes 50mm so special? Why should we consider this to be an essential focal length? While it does not exactly provide the angle of human vision, 50mm offers a coverage that is somehow unique. Being considered as neither wide nor tele it can actually act either way as long as photographer is skilled enough. For this very reason this focal length requires a god deal of discipline – one must know how to use it in a particular shooting situation. Henri Cartier-Bresson was using 50mm lens almost exclusively and according to some sources as much as 90% of his work was done using this particular focal length. On the other hand Ansel Adams mentioned: “In general, I do not find the normal lens especially desirable, functionally or aesthetically. The angle of view and depth of field characteristics do not seem favorable to me in interpreting space and scale.”

Personally I do not use 50mm extensively but at certain times I will mount such lens on one of my film cameras and it always surprises me how many great shots you can compose with this one while out on the street.

Normal focal length undoubtedly requires a good dose of skill, discipline and imagination to be used effectively but because it’s so widely available and in a way quite versatile it should be considered an essential one.


Wide focal lengths are generally easier to use (up to some point) and possibly more useful in your average daily photographic situation. Focal lengths I would like to consider here as essential would be 28mm/35mm. Some photographers have particular taste for wider angles provided 24mm or 21mm but those focal lengths are considerably harder to use as distortion becomes more apparent with them. I happen to be extremely comfortable with 35mm as it usually provides me with wide enough coverage for street, indoor and landscape photography. If a portrait needs to be taken it can be also achieved with this focal length although understandably full body shots are desirable over headshots.

Some photographers feel more comfortable with 28mm and this would be most typically for street, PR and landscape photography. View angle difference between 28mm and 35mm is too small to usually justify owning lenses of both focal lengths and using them alternatively thus photographers typically develop taste for one or the other at some point.  I have to admit that 28mm has its charm especially for street photo but I still find it personally less versatile than the view angle of 35mm.


When considering telephoto lenses one that definitely comes to mind is 85mm. As a short telephoto this focal length is quite versatile since it allows design of some very fast lenses (typically f/1.4 or f/1.8) without making the entire construction too bulky and overly expensive at the same time. Such lenses are a primary choice for portrait photography providing good separation from the background and enough compression while keeping distortion at very low level.

Personally I find 85mm to be quite versatile focal length serving good not only for portraiture but also for landscape and some candid shots. Wildlife and sport photographers will undoubtedly argue for more reach but we can honestly admit those are rather specialized fields in photography that heavily rely on particulars of the equipment setup.


While combination of 28mm/35mm, 50mm, 85mm provides extremely good focal length base and should satisfy needs of most amateur/hobbyist photographers, some situations may call for more extreme angles.
While fisheye is a very concept based optical construction I will avoid discussing it but it seems that these days ultra wide angles are very popular. Advancement in design and production of lenses allowed the market to see zoom lenses with 12mm at wide end. More importantly those constructions do not require one to mortgage his house in order to acquire such piece of optics. Shooting so wide is without a doubt a unique and fun experience but it’s also hard to deny there is a lot of abuse involved. Ultra wide angles require special care during composition and framing and few photographers have those skills. Furthermore using those constructions in inappropriate situations makes them simply gimmicky. For those reasons I would suggest avoiding such extremely wide angles unless one has a very clear vision of his work. Otherwise anything in between 20mm - 24mm should provide enough coverage for those special situations involving mostly landscape shots.

In case of tele lenses there are many choices above 85mm and depending on particular application they can be well justified. I personally prefer 135mm as a longer alternative to 85mm. Those constructions can be still quite fast while remaining compact while the coverage itself is very versatile. Shallow DOF allow good separation of the background making them very good for portraits while compression is very nice for some tight landscape shots. In fact, for landscape photography I would definitely pick 135mm over 85mm. It is also the focal length that still allows handheld shooting with relative ease.

Some photographers prefer going longer with 180mm or 200mm and those focal lengths are still quite versatile and usually portable. I consider anything above 200mm to be a specialized construction dedicated for a narrow scope of applications like sports or wildlife photography.


If I had to make choice and could use only one prime lens I would pick 50mm (along with Nikon FM3A, haha). If I could have two primes I would settle for 35mm and 85mm. So I guess on a list of essential focal lengths I have to place 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm. I strongly believe that for noncommercial, hobbyist applications those three focal lengths allow vast possibilities. It’s a versatile setup for street, portraiture, landscape, journalism  and many other types of photography. In case of landscape photography, where more extreme focal lengths are desired I could go with 24mm, 50mm, and 135mm.

Otherwise this is really all that most photographers need even thou some of them may think otherwise. But this minimalistic approach is not just its own purpose. There are several advantages that comes with it:

-          Less lenses means less weight to carry – no more bulky backpacks full of gear

-          Less lenses means less money spent – a no brainer

-          No tough decisions during shooting – photographer knows when to use each lens

-          Three focal length can be mastered much easier allowing photographer compose images in his head

I strongly encourage anyone to try this approach. I am speaking out of experience as at some point I realized I have so many lenses cluttering my drawers that I could barely keep up with the inventory and thus understandably there were many lenses that I barely used. So I started selling them off along with some obsolete cameras and other, usually redundant, photo gear. Ever since then I undeniably started focusing more on photography instead of choosing gear. My every day camera of choice is a Fuji X100s with a fixed 35mm equivalent focal length and…honestly there isn’t much I cannot do with this piece of equipment.