How Many Lenses Do You Need?

"Dear Thom: Nikon currently lists 76 lenses on their Web site. How many of them is it realistic to own? I've got the money. Should I collect all 76? Signed Nikkor Fanatic"

Dear Fanatic: The economy is still recovering, so buy them all, preferably through 76 different dealers. But first you need to figure out how to carry them all. Signed Thom.

This is a tough question to answer and an easy one, too. Let's start with that seemingly joking "how are you going to carry them" comment.

Seriously: how many can you carry? The average pro tends to carry perhaps five lenses (14-24, 24-70, 70-200, couple of fast primes), and supplements those from time to time with a handful of others when an assignment specifically calls for it (200-400mm, 16mm fish, macro lens, PC-E lens). But even the basic five lens kit (add 24 and 85 f/1.4) is over 10 pounds of optics. Add two pro bodies, some flashes, some support gear, batteries, etc., and the pro is already carrying 30 pounds around with them.

So right up front we have the wanna-versus-will thing to deal with. Will you actually carry 30 pounds of gear around with you? The answer for a majority of folk is no. Which is why they buy some or all of the top set, then add some lenses for "those times when they don't want to be burdened." So they buy a 24-120mm f/4 and a 70-300mm f/4-5.6 (3 pounds), or a 28-300mm (1.5 pounds). And they end up using those almost all the time, because there's rarely a time when they don't want to be burdened. 

But two lenses and three pounds produces a compromise: no fast apertures. So they start trying to sneak in some fast primes at a pound+ per. Next thing you now they're almost back where they were. So they notice that a third party lens is lighter and decide to pick it up. Have we hit 76 yet?

You'll note that I've been using an FX example. So now that mythical user takes a closer look at DX and says "I'll pick up a lighter DX system for those times when I don't want to be burdened." And low and behold, we lose a pound here and there. Maybe the top end DX kit weighs in at 12 pounds instead of 20 (leaving off the tripods and flash, which are going to be about the same weight no matter what). (And by the way, this is one of the reasons why I constantly harp about missing DX lenses: you can't go from the basic high-grade FX kit to a basic DX kit in Nikon's lens lineup.) So now our user has 10 to 11 lenses, and is still complaining about weight. Should we check out mirrorless? 

One thing that keeps happening in this downsizing is that photographic compromises are being made while trying to achieve a flexible system that you'll carry around with you all the time.

And there-in lies our true answer: do you know what you're trying to do photographically? Do you understand the compromises and are you willing to make them? For 90% of the photos you take, what do you really need and use?

Many people chase lenses like they chase pixels. Because they don't know what they're trying to achieve, they keep buying more lenses hoping that by having a "complete arsenal" that they'll have the right weapon handy for every photographic possibility. Then they leave most of those at home when it really does come time to go out and shoot.

I mentioned this before, but a good basic enthusiast's kit is really five basic lenses: mid-range zoom, telephoto zoom, wide, normal, moderate telephoto fast primes. With those five lenses and a couple of accessories (e.g. extension tube, teleconverter, etc.), you can do 90% of what you need to. Some very well-known pros got by with less. We can easily achieve that basic list in Nikkor FX: 24-70mm or 24-120mm, 70-200mm, plus 24mm, 50mm, 85mm primes. We can't quite achieve that in high quality with Nikkor DX: 16-85mm, no perfect telephoto zoom, no fast wide prime, though we do have 35mm and 50mm primes.

I'd tend to stick with that answer, though: you need five lenses. You can stay with the basic enthusiast kit or modify it slightly to fit your specialty needs, but that gets us back to the do you know what you're trying to do photographically question. If you do, you don't need me to tell you how many lenses to get. You already know. You might want my opinion about whether X or Y is the better choice for Z. That's fine, and I'll try to do a better job at answering that question on the site in the coming year. But you already know how many lenses you need, and probably have them already.

There's a side note to the lens chase/collection issue: some people think that lenses will make their photography stand out: "If I shoot with an X and everyone else uses a Y, then my images will be better." Well, no. They might be different from what you've done before, but there isn't a lens you can buy on the market that hasn't been used to death by some pro seeking to make a style statement. For example, the full-frame fisheyes (10.5mm DX, 16mm FX) are now a mainstay of mountain bike and extreme sports photographers because it changed perspective from the usual stand-offish telephoto renderings and made someone's images stand out. But now everyone's doing it, so it looks "normal." Don't fall into the trap of thinking that "lens = style." A lens is just another tool. You define your own style, and lens choice is only one small part of that. 

So let me close with some questions for you:

  1. How many lenses do you own?
  2. How many of those lenses produce 80% of your images?
  3. Do you have the best possible lens(es) for #2?
  4. Will a new lens change #2?

And because I'm not grading in my usual tough way today, here's the answer sheet:

  1. No more than six.
  2. Two or three.
  3. Yes.
  4. Usually not. It will if the answer to #3 is no. It probably will if the answer to #1 is 1.

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