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, 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)

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)

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 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)

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)

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)

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)

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!
10 steps to sharper images
Top 35mm prime lenses rated
Best 50mm lenses

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