Friday 23 February 2018

Just One Lens: A Photography Gear Post. Updated July 28.

Since I wrote this piece in February I've found that I'm using the 55-210 zoom lens more than before as the limited reach of the 16-50mm often feels frustrating. I don't like changing lenses and I don't want to carry the 55-210 on long trips so I've almost decided to get the Sony E 18-135 mentioned in the last paragraph before the postscript. Almost.

Whilst I haven't bought the 18-135 yet I have bought another fixed focal length lens, the Sony E  35mm f1.8 (52.5mm 35mm equivalent). This weighs just 201 grams. I bought it for low light use. It's faster than the Sigma 60mm and is stabilised, which the Sigma isn't. How much will I use it? I'm not sure yet. It's been on one backpacking trip where I took the image below with it.

Ironically  in June Alex Roddie, who started this train of thought about fixed focal length lenses, posted  that he's ditched his Fuji gear for a much lighter Canon PowerShot G9x Mk II with a 10.2-30.6mm zoom lens (28-84 35mm equivalent). It's near the bottom of this interesting piece on the electronics he carries.

Anyway, here's the original post with minor edits.

As I've written before my favourite lenses are zoom lenses. It's over thirty-five years since I last took fixed focal length lenses on a long walk. That was on the Pacific Crest Trail where my most used lenses were Pentax 28mm and 50mm ones (I did have a 75-150mm zoom but that took a dunking in a creek and never recovered before I was half way). Back then wide angle and mid range zooms were generally regarded as poor quality. I wanted one though and just three years later I had one, a Tamron 35-70mm zoom that was judged pretty good. I took it on the Continental Divide Trail along with another Pentax 75-150 zoom and was pleased with the results. I missed a wider option though and over the years changed to 28-70mm and then 24-70mm lenses. These were always by far my most used lenses, as is my current Sony 16-50mm, which is equivalent to 24-75mm in 35mm/full frame terms.

However for quite some time I've been thinking about fixed lenses after reading a piece by Alex Roddie in which he said he saw the world at the 35mm (53mm full-frame equivalent) focal length and his favourite lens was a 35mm one*. I tried to imagine going out with just one fixed length lens and couldn't. When I analysed the 3500+ images I took last year I found that only a few hundred were taken around 30-40mm (see this post) so I clearly don't see the world in that range. My most used focal length by far was 50mm (75mm full-frame equivalent), a short telephoto length, so maybe that was how I saw the world.

*Update: after reading this Alex Roddie commented on Twitter 'I've gravitated towards 23mm (35mm FF equivalent) in the hills, as 50mm equivalent can sometimes be too tight, but still prefer 50mm for most other subjects. I rarely carry more than one prime lens now.'

To find out I've taken just one lens on several local walks in the last week. This is the Sigma E 60mm f2.8, which is equivalent to 90mm on full-frame. It's a sharp lens but one that I hardly use. I took just 36 images with it last year. At a weight of 215 grams it's very light but I've only ever used it on walks from home. All the pictures accompanying this piece bar one were taken with this lens on the Sony a6000 camera.

Just using one fixed lens surprised me. I didn't find it as restrictive as I thought and after the first day I started to 'see' at its focal length, that is I saw compositions that suited it and there were fewer times when I couldn't take the picture I'd seen because I didn't have the right focal length. I could, I thought, manage with this lens alone if I had to.

So will I start carrying and using the Sigma 60mm regularly now? Maybe. For a while. What this exercise has really taught me though is that the 50mm end of my 16-50mm zoom isn't long enough. In the hills and on long walks I usually just take that lens and the Sony 10-18mm wide angle zoom. I do have a Sony E 55-210mm f4.5-6.3 zoom that I sometimes carry and which gives me a huge reach as it's equivalent to full-frame 82.5-315mm. Maybe I should carry it more often. I prefer to have just two lenses and two bodies though, especially on long walks. Both are in cases and accessible while I'm walking and never changing lenses protects the camera sensors from dust and dirt. So ideally I'd like a lens that goes from wide angle to longer than the 16-50mm. Sony has offered a couple of these for a few years but they are quite heavy and bulky. There is the Sony Zeiss 16-70mm f4 lens that is lightweight and compact. It's very expensive though and reviews are mixed with most saying it's not worth the money.

This year though there's a new Sony E 18-135mm (27-202.5mm full-frame equivalent) that sounds like it might be ideal. It's quite compact and weighs just 325 grams. Reviews have been mostly positive. Maybe this is the lens to pair with the 10-18mm. It would certainly give me a much greater range than the 16-50mm at a penalty of 200 grams extra to carry and more bulk. In the meantime the Sigma 60 and the Sony 55-210 are likely to see more use. Otherwise I'll miss that extra reach.

Postscript. Sometimes blog posts bring up entertaining and valuable responses. This one led to interesting threads on social media. Amongst these was this fascinating and useful comment from photographer and writer David Kilpatrick on Facebook  "The 60mm Sigma is a superb lens. It's the one I picked for my article on macro - add extension tubes to it and it beats most macro lenses. I think it is a natural fit. After all, the 'Mountain Elmar' from Leica was 105mm, and the 'Lightweight Elmar' which inherited that title was a 90mm f/4 in a special skinny lightweight mount for alpinists - 90mm being considered the ideal field of view for peak-to-peak photography (the view from the ground always diminishing the apparent height of the mountain or hill - best to get half way up the height of the target). The 60mm is lightweight, and exactly that angle on the A6000." 

I never knew that about 90mm and mountain photography. I'll definitely be taking the Sigma 60mm on my next hill walk. I'd never thought about using extension tubes with it either. I've now ordered some. David's article on macro is on the PhotoclubAlpha site here. David has just started a blog too - so far the only post is a link to this article!


  1. Chris, I've used the 55-210 a fair amount and the image quality is good enough to stand some cropping (you might remember I sent you the kingfisher a while back). We tried the Sony 70-300 on the Alpha 6000 a couple of weeks back, but it's a much bigger and heavier lens and really defeats the object of a small lightweight DSLR; it just seemed to throw the whole feel of the camera out of balance.

    I've been hoping that Sony, or an independent, might release a lightweight 300mm E-mount prime, which would effectively give 450mm range. I think that would be all I'd need for wildlife shots.

    1. Yes, I've had good results from the 55-210, including cropping. I do like the idea of just two lenses - 10-18 & 18-135 - for backpacking trips.

  2. I've just ordered the Sony 18-135 to replace my 16-50 on my Sony a6000. I hope that'll be all the lens I really need, but am wondering if the prime Sony 35 f1.8 would compliment the 18-135 well, or the Sony 10-18. But the latter less good in low light perhaps.

    How have you got on with the 35 1.8 since you posted this Chris?

    1. The 35 f1.8 is a great lens especially in low light but I haven't used it that much and mostly at home and on short walks. On longer walks I take it if weight isn't too much of an issue. The 10-18 is a superb lens and one I always carry. Not as good in low light but far more versatile. I'm still thinking about getting the 18-135. I think it with the 10-18 will be an ideal combination for long walks.

  3. Sorry to ask a bit of a nerdy question Chris, but what camera cleaning equipment do you carry on long distance walks? I'm currently just carrying a few lens cloths and an airbrush. A few pictures I took showed dirt on the sensor, so I bought a sensor cleaning kit for my a6000. I'm always trying to carry less gear, not more! PS. Thank you for bringing the Sony 18-135 to my attention.. Its eaten into my travel budget, but a sound long term investment. It does have vignetting at wide open though, but that diminishes quite early, so I avoid the 18mm area. I don't have access to Lightroom to edit such issues unfortunately.

  4. Jay, I just carry the same as you - lens cloth and blower brush. At home I have two sensor cleaning kits - a VisibleDust Arctic Butterfly that gets rid of most dirt and SmearAway liquid for stubborn dirt. I've never carried either of them. One reason I like to just have two bodies and two lenses is so that I never have to change lenses.

    I recently bought the 18-135 and I'm really pleased with it. I do have Lightroom so the vignetting isn't a problem for me.

  5. Many thanks Chris for all your output. I've just signed up for a week's photography course in the Spanish Sierra Nevada
    with David Lintern this summer. It'd be great to return there and receive further knowledge and advice. I'm really hoping photography can open new vistas - pardon the pun, on any future outdoors adventures. A parallel hobby. Still thinking about a wide angle lens though. The jury's out on that for now.

    1. I hope you have a great time with David Lintern. He's a good friend and an excellent photographer.

      I certainly recommend the Sony E 10-18mm wide angle lens. I've had one for many years and results are superb. It's light and compact too. It is expensive though. A much cheaper alternative, which I bought for night photography, is the Samyang 12mm. It's about the same size and weight and f2 rather than f4. The focal length is fixed of course and it's not stabilised.