Skip to main content

Travelling light with a single lens: sometimes a 'nifty fifty' is all you need

35mm lens
(Image credit: Alistair Campbell)

If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably find yourself having a constant internal debate about which lens to take out with you. Of course you can always gear up your military-grade backpack with six lenses, three cameras and a tripod, plus a monopod sticking out the top. (And don’t forget your packed lunch.)

Sometimes, though, it’s better to travel as light as you can: no bag, no boxes of filters, just you and your camera. This is where the dreaded decision comes in. When I first picked up a camera, all I could afford at the time was a Canon EOS 5D Mark II and a single 50mm f/1.4 lens. This was all I had for the first couple of years, and a similar setup is still my default go-to choice now. 

I’m currently shooting with the Fujifilm X-T3 (opens in new tab), a mirrorless camera with a slightly smaller APS-C sensor than my full-frame Canon. On this camera, a 35mm lens offers me a similar frame to the 50mm on the 5D. It feels close to how I see the world with my own eyes – and it offers me the most versatility when I force myself to travel light. I’ll often do this with other lenses, too: working with one lens at a time vastly improves your skills. 

(Image credit: Alistair Campbell)
(opens in new tab)

I was very lucky with this shot of the viaduct: a farmer was burning materials below the bridge, which massively elevated the shot. Over the page I’ve selected a few shots taken over the same day, for the duration of which I only used a single 35mm lens (and made sure I didn't take any others with me) – remember, this is equivalent to a 50mm lens in full frame terms. Shooting with a single prime lens is something I think everyone should try, and I’m sure you will come home with some pleasantly surprising results.

Five times a prime lens might work for you

(Image credit: Alistair Campbell)
(opens in new tab)

01 You'll be able to shoot with shallow depth of field

Typically a prime lens will often have a wide opening aperture, in the region of f/1.2 to f/2. My 35mm f/2 (opens in new tab)lens might not be the fastest lens around, but it will still achieve the much sought-after aesthetic of a blurred background or foreground, particularly if I support the wide aperture with some simple shooting techniques. 

(Image credit: Alistair Campbell)
(opens in new tab)

02 You'll be able to grab some shots of wildlife

My 35mm lens may be too wide for a frame-filling portrait, but you can capture a decent mid-sized shot of most animals in their natural environment. Usually they'll be wide enough to feature full length shots of larger animals, but for something smaller like a squirrel you might have to use a more stealthy approach.

(Image credit: Alistair Campbell)
(opens in new tab)

03 You can get a little 'arty'

Another pleasing option with this 35mm lens is being able to capture
a landscape shot just wide enough to create a small scene, isolating individual subjects within the frame. With a harsher edit, a monochrome conversion and a dash of grain, you could almost call it art… 

(Image credit: Alistair Campbell)
(opens in new tab)

04 The best of both worlds

The 35mm is such a versatile optic. Here, I was able to get a good shot of a horse grazing while still allowing my frame to incorporate quite a large backdrop for the scene. I shot wide-open for much of the weekend, but here I stopped down to f/10 to introduce more detail through the frame, and to show the fields’ patchwork. 

(Image credit: Alistair Campbell)
(opens in new tab)

05 Enjoy capturing some small intimate landscapes

The focal length of my 35mm prime is perfect for capturing small landscape scenes while I’m out taking photographs – just wide enough to feel like a wide shot, but close enough to give your surroundings plenty of detail. I also had the option of walking over to the hedge and getting a close-up shot of this old house filling the frame.

Read more:

• Use white balance like a pro! (opens in new tab)
10 steps to sharper images (opens in new tab)
Top 35mm prime lenses rated (opens in new tab)
Best 50mm lenses (opens in new tab)

Thank you for reading 5 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access

Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1

Alistair is the Features Editor of Digital Camera magazine, and has worked as a professional photographer and video producer.