Why I Shoot with Only One Focal Length

Photo by Caroline Tran.

When I first started in photography, I had this weird idea that I needed to cover every focal length range with my lens kit. I convinced myself that I needed to get ANY shot possible at ANY moment.

At one point in my career I carried this to every shoot:

  • Voigtlander 20mm f2.8
  • Canon 35mm f1.8
  • Canon 50mm f1.4
  • Canon 17-40mm f4
  • Canon 70-200mm f2.8

With this kit, I had everything covered from 17mm to 200mm! I was SET.

Boy, what a mistake.

My work was sloppy, inconsistent, had no personal style, I missed shots while changing lenses, and perhaps worst of all, I damaged my back by carrying all of this in a shoulder bag. It took me years to undo the damage I had done to my back, and I credit the heavy bag with eventually causing a herniated disc which I suffer from to this day.

One time, while shooting a wedding ceremony, I was bent down changing my lens from 20mm to 50mm, and being distracted by a guest, completely missed the kiss. I was devastated. I knew my system was a mistake. And slowly it dawned on me: when I looked at my best photos to this point, they were ALL shot on a 50mm lens. I had the other lenses out of fear and insecurity and because, hey, what crazy person does it all with one lens? I’m SUPPOSED to have all the other lenses. That’s what everyone does; it’s what camera companies have taught me to believe.

Me with my Canon 6D and 50mm 1.4 lens. This is the lens I used for nearly my whole career. Photo by Nikki Barron. Edited with Mastin Labs Portra 160 +1.

That winter I sold all of my gear except for the 50mm and 35mm lenses. I was equal parts scared and excited for the next wedding season. As I started my next season I realized I made the best decision of my life; I was free to move around the wedding, never miss a shot, and have a lot more energy to be creative during the wedding day without a painful amount of gear to haul around.

The next ten years of my wedding career I used only these two lenses. And between the two, 80% of my shots were with the 50mm lens, and 20% with the 35mm lens. I understood the angle of view of the 50mm so well at the end of ten years that I could look across a hall, or a quarter mile away and know EXACTLY within a step, where I should stand to get exactly the composition I want.

Shooting as a ‘guest’ at a Catholic wedding many years ago. Photo by Kirk Mastin.

There were a few occasions where things COULD have been tricky. Like shooting Catholic weddings where traditionally the photographer is required to be behind the last pew, putting me miles away from the couple. I reconciled this by getting in touch with the officiant months ahead of time to secure a better spot. I even pretended to be a wedding guest, and with so little gear, just sat in the front with everyone else and took the photos I needed. The irony is that guests were always shooting in the front rows of these weddings while the photographer was usually stuck at the back. Travelling light enabled me to get the shots I wanted while posing as a guest. It all worked out in the end, and everyone was happy.

Towards the later part of my career, this is what I carried:

  • Canon 6D
  • Canon 420EX Flash
  • Canon 50mm f1.4
  • Canon 35mm f1.8
  • Pentax 645 + 75mm f2.8 (because I shoot hybrid: film + digital)

My advice to photographers is to experiment with many lenses and find out what feels right for YOU and try ditching your other lenses for a few events. Trim it down and see what happens. Your day will be easier, you will have less to manage, and your style with get tighter and more consistent.

Good luck and let me know how it goes in the comments below!

Kirk Mastin
Kirk Mastin is the founder and CEO of Mastin Labs. He has shot for the New York Times, LA Times, and has work featured in National Geographic Adventure and Time magazine. Prior to founding Mastin Labs in 2013, Kirk shot weddings on digital and film with his company Mastin Studio.