If you only had one lens to use, what would it be? That’s the question we’ll attempt to answer. Lenses come in all shapes and sizes, but some of them are better at capturing the majority of what’s out there. As you’re about to find out, there is no answer that applies to everyone. There are only a few general rules.
As long as we’re talking lenses, we’re essentially talking about one important factor, the zoom range. That’s what determines your ability to handle faraway subjects or cramped interior spaces. The bigger the range, and the closer the range is to 50mm, the more diverse the lens.
If you're not sure what these sizes mean, see my discussion on what the 'mm' means on a lens.
So, an 18-200mm lens (range of 182mm) handles more situations than a 70-150mm lens (range of 80mm). If I had to pick one lens to use most of the time, I would go with the 18-200. At 18mm, the lens handles interior spaces and landscapes while at 200mm it zooms up to 4x my eye’s ability to see. When you think about it, that’s a pretty large range of views.
But there’s a problem with that fancy 18-200mm lens. It’s expensive. How expensive? You’re looking at something in the range of $1,000 for the Nikkor version. One of the reasons it's so expensive is there is a lot of engineering work needed to create a lens with a large mm range.
Buy an off-brand lens that does everything
So what can you do if you only want to take one lens with you? There are cheaper 18-200mm lenses available. Albeit they won’t have the same quality as the Nikkor version, but that’s not something Photoshop Elements can’t fix. You can get a Tamron 18-250mm lens for as little as $300. For most of your day-to-day photography, that’s more than enough to cover the full zoom range.
If you’re somewhat wary of purchasing off-brand lenses, you can try to find something with a slightly smaller range. In that case, I’d go with Nikon AF-S 18-105mm (or a Canon equivalent). This lens only costs $100 more than the Tamron lens, and although it doesn’t allow you to zoom in as much, it still gives you a good all-purpose range.
And then there’s the third option, which I like best. Do nothing. Just try to anticipate where you will be headed and what you’ll need when you get there. If you’re going to a house party, you’ll probably need a more wide angle lens like an 18-55mm. If you’re going on a hike, you’ll need something that can capture objects faraway in the distance. A lens with a 50-200mm range will be more suitable then. (For example, Lady justice in the image to the right is too far away for you to get the ideal picture using only your feet. You have to zoom in).
There are some photographers who rely entirely on their single focal point 50mm lens. They swear by it and wouldn’t use anything else. And who am I to stop them? Your favorite lens really is a personal thing. It mostly depends on what you like to photograph. If you could care less about zooming with the lens, and you’d rather do it with your feet, then stick with the 50mm.
The gear is only a small part of the whole equation. Having the right lens for the situation will make it easier for you to get a good picture, but not having it available won’t prevent you from taking great pictures either. Sometimes our most creative moments come from a little bit of constraint. There’s a lot you can do when you’re forced to make due with what you’ve got.
Here’s my conclusion. If you feel like bringing all of your gear, bring it. If you don’t, don’t. You don’t need to worry about which lens works for all situations. No lens will ever fit that standard. You can buy a lens with the most versatile zoom range, and it will help you, but it still won’t be perfect.
Ironically, the lens you already use on a regular basis is the lens you should keep on using.
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