The best lens to use is the one that is with you

For the last two months I’ve been taking pictures only with a Fuji X-Pro2 and the 23mm f/2 lens (equivalent to a 35mm format on a full frame). Using only one lens challenges you to think. It makes you move. Forwards, backwards, sideways. There are no options in length or width so you’re forced to consider how you will shoot a situation. For the last few years I’ve mainly been working with an18mm lens (equivalent to a 27mm format on a full frame). So for me there was not much of a shift, except I have to step back a little whereas normally I would step forward.

Paring back your equipment to a minimum is a great relief. Less to carry, less to think about and less time with the physiotherapist soothing your aching shoulders, back and neck. I’ve often worked with three boxes of gear including a variety of lens and lighting. So having just one body and lens is a refreshing experience.

Recently, I was Iran and the guide who knew I was professional photographer, was surprised when I appeared with my one small Fuji body and lens. “I expected to see you with bigger lenses and more bodies,” he said. “No,” I replied. “It’s not the size that counts but the quality of the equipment”.

Using a small camera and one lens makes you less conspicuous, especially in some places I’ve travelled recently, where tourists are not that common. Walking into villages armed to the teeth with a large number of zoom lenses and flashes is confronting for the locals. I know one colleague who worked with five camera bodies, just a wee bit over the top I feel.

The art of street photography requires a sharp eye and quick trigger finger as well as anonymity. This was hardly the circumstance for one photographer I saw carrying two large zoom lenses, a flashlight and other paraphernalia while trying to look inconspicuous on a Melbourne street. I think most people she tried to photograph wanted to run for their lives or hire a lawyer. They certainly weren’t being photographed incognito.

Working with people requires personal skills; you must try to relate to your subject. This is one of the reasons I use a short lens, because it means getting close to the people in order to produce the picture.

On a recent workshop that I was running, a photographer turned up at a mosque with a backpack full of camera gear. By the time he decided which lens to use the moment had passed and he missed the picture. When equipment gets in the way of your pictures you need to seriously think about your photography. After all taking pictures is about observing, reacting and capturing the moment.

Many of the images in the Robert Frank’s book The Americans, were shot on a Leica with a 35mm lens. For Frank it was about working simply and capturing a way of life that most Americans didn’t see or didn’t want to know about. His contemporary, Elliot Erwitt, also mostly used a Leica and a 50mm lens to produce his quirky observations of dogs and humanity in general.

Megan Lewis, the Australian photographer who produced Conversations With The Mob, a book about contemporary Aboriginal life, uses a Fuji XT1 with the 23mm f1.4 lens (equivalent to a 35mm format on a full frame) for many of her projects. She says, “I like to work lightweight and unencumbered by extra equipment. The more I carry the more choices there are and I would rather concentrate on one body and lens. Also, I feel that the less equipment I have the easier it is to interact with the person, which is very important for me”.

Shooting photographs is a very personal experience and we all see images differently. We also have to adapt to the environment, assignment or project we are working on.

Decisive moments or great pictures don’t always happen where or when you expect them. But when they do, the best lens to use is the one that is with you.