As you shoot more each photographer finds their rhythm, the sweet spot and style in the work. That includes equipment as well. Sports and wildlife photographers need fast cameras and long telephoto lenses. Macro or landscape photographers may want a specialized lens that brings them very close or spans the entire horizon. There’s no right or wrong choice if it feels right to the photographer.
As I’ve come back to photography in the last decade it seems my style isn’t planned or structured. I’m really just photographing by walking around — from hiking trails to West Seattle beaches, backyard flowers to Spanish vistas. When I see someone or something interesting, I capture it. I’m shooting for myself, by myself, when I can. The images aren’t for a client or customer, only me. Portability and simplicity matter a lot even as I switch between different cameras or from digital to film. The one type of lens that lets me work seamlessly no matter where I am is around 50mm. For me a lens that fits into the range from 45 to 60 mm just feels right.
Shooting with a 50mm prime gives me a lot of advantages. The Leica Summicron 50/2 and Contax T* 50/1.4 are small and light but wide open can cope with low light while still remaining sharp. The Contax G 45/2 and Nikon 50/1.4 AF Nikkor can do the same with the benefit of autofocus if my preference for manual focus isn’t practical. No matter which I choose I don’t have to get too close on the street another benefit when you’re a big guy that doesn’t want to seem threatening or intrusive.
That’s not to say I don’t have other lenses. I’ve got short telephoto portrait lenses, zooms and a few macro lenses. For example zooms like the Leica 35-70/4 or the Contax Zeiss T* 35-70/3.4 are great classic manual focus gems as sharp as the primes in the same range. They all serve a purpose if I’m believe the extra size and weight are worth leaving every option open. Still they are bigger, longer and heavier than the primes and even when I do carry one it seems more images are made in the 50mm range than at the wide or closer end of the zoom.
For example when I walked the Camino de Santiago in 2019 I took a Nikon FM2 and three Nikkor lenses: a 20/2.8, a 50/1.4 and a 28-50 zoom. Most of the shots from the trip were done with either the 50mm or the long end of the zoom lens, even the landscapes. At the time I didn’t have the confidence to leave the others at home so like a good Boy Scout I hoped to “be prepared” for anything. If I was traveling the Camino with a film camera again I’d stick to one 50mm lens without fear.
Later that summer I took a Black and White photography class at PCNW and challenged myself to shoot as much as possible with my Leica R6.2 and Summicron 50/2. Again and again I found that combo fit my eye for framing, focusing and executing the shot.
So while I have many options for the different cameras in my collection, my go-to-desert-island-must-have-all-around-above-all others lens is a 50mm. I might have a longer zoom or extra prime in there but if I have a 50mm I can shoot anything.