In an ideal world, as photographers, we would be able to do all of our work with a single, compact, fast lens. In reality, even the most minimalist photographers will carry at least one other lens, depending on the situation.
There are some Magnum photographers who are well-known for carrying a minimum of equipment. David Allan Harvey is famous for carrying just a 35mm or 50mm equivalent lens. But even he will have another lens with him. He has cited that he sometimes will carry a 35mm with a 28mm, or perhaps a 35mm and a 50mm.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, famous for shooting the majority of his work with a 50mm, also carried a 35mm and 90mm, with a second M body, in a tiny bag. In the 70’s, which was his last active decade as a photographer before he devoted himself primarily to sketching, he replaced the 35mm with the petite 40mm Summicron.
Another Magnum photographer who didn’t bring that much gear with him, but still had a selection of three lenses, is Josef Koudelka. During the 80’s, he worked with 28mm, 35mm and 50mm lenses. I saw him on the street with a 35mm Summilux on a battered old Leica M4, and on a separate occasion with the same 35mm and M4, plus an Olympus OM film body with a 50mm as well as a Fuji panoramic film camera.
It’s great to be able to shoot with a single fixed focal length, but having another lens or two opens up the possibilities on the street considerably. And as long as you have a small bag to carry the extra bit of equipment conveniently, it can be quite easy to carry this gear, even on a daily basis.
Here are my thoughts on some lens combinations I’ve tried over the years.
Classic Trio: 23mm, 35mm & 56mm (35mm-e, 50mm-e and 90mm-e)
This is a combination that many photojournalists used in the mid-20th century, most notably Cartier-Bresson. There isn’t a huge difference in focal length, but used properly, it can yield very different looks. The 90mm is great for head and shoulders portraits without distortion due to perspective, and the apparent depth of field is considerably shallower than a 50mm, let alone the a 35mm.
The 35mm can be a more appropriate choice than the 50mm while shooting indoors, and the deeper apparent DOF is useful when shooting with a low ISO.
I used with the 35mm/50mm/90mm when I worked in Asia during the ‘90’s as a photojournalist. As the months went by, I found myself skipping the 50mm and using the 35mm or 90mm.
Those are the full frame focal lengths of course. For the Fuji X and its APS-C size, this trio would be the 23mm, 35mm and 56 or 60mm.
The XF 23mm (35mm-e) f1.4 is one of the great Fuji lenses. Solidly built with a pull-back DOF scale for manual focus, first class optics, good AF speed and a wide aperture. Its only minor downside is its bulky for a mirrorless lens. But when you compare it to a pro DSLR with a similarly fast 35mm prime, its overall size and weight, even on a sturdy body like the X-T1 or X-Pro1, isn’t that large or intimidating.
Currently, there are three, X-native 35mm (50mm-e) lenses, and you can’t go wrong with any of them. The first generation XF 35mm f1.4 is another great lens optically, if a step behind on AF speed. The Zeiss Touit 32mm f1.8 is a solidly built lens with decent AF speed, excellent wide open optically and its price has come down since it was first released. The new XF 35mm f2 is as otpically superb as the f1.4, with the additionally bonus of smaller size, lighter weight, weather resistant seals, superior AF performance and lower price.
While I own the 60mm Macro (93mm-e), I would recommend the 56mm (85mm-e) or 90mm (135mm-e) instead.
While the 60mm can focus down to half life size, it has the worst AF performance I’ve ever experienced. I’ve read that the current firmware for the X-T1 and X-T10 changes that considerably, but I haven’t tried it (I still use a pair of the old X-Pro1 bodies). The other issue I found with the 60mm Macro is that it can flare quite easily, even with the hood installed.
The 56mm, on the other hand, has very good AF performance, optically fantastic, and is solidly built. Unless you need the close focusing capability of the 60mm (and even then, you can add that capability to other XF lenses with an extension tube), I would recomemend skipping the 60mm and get either version (standard or APD) of the 56mm. The 90mm is also fantastic, with the added bonus of being weather resistant. More on the 90mm below.
The Smart Duo: 23mm & 56mm or 35mm-e & 90mm-e
While I understand how a considerably more accomplished photographer such as HCB could work with this classic trio of focal lengths so successfully, especially because he loved the 50mm primarily, I found that the 35mm and 90mm worked just fine for me, and saved me the hassle of carrying a third lens.
The 35mm was close enough to the 50mm that I could capture what I needed with a slight adjustment in distance to subject. Any distortion due to overly close distance to subject (e.g. head and shoulder portraits) could easily be solved with the 90mm. Plus the 90mm gave a signficiantly different look (noticeably more compression and narrow field of view) from the moderate wide 35mm. For my taste, there just wasn’t sufficient difference between the 35mm and the 50mm to justify carrying both.
An XF 23mm and XF 56mm would likely cover the majority of one’s general purpose shooting requirements.
The Close Distance Duo: 18mm & 35mm or 28mm-e and 50mm-e
As an alternative to the 35mm and 90mm equivalents, another great duo is combining a 28mm and 50mm. In Fuji X size, that would be the XF 18mm and XF 35mm or Touit 32mm.
This is a great choice if you like doing street photography and have a tendency to get in close. The 18mm has great DOF at f8 or smaller. The 35mm/32mm can isolate subjects wide open and shot relatively close. It’s also good for portraits if one is doing a bit more than just head and shoulders – showing a bit more of the person and their environment.
A 28mm-e and 50mm-e have been my main two lenses for the last six years, although I’m thinking of moving back to the 35mm-e or XF 23mm as my primary optic (more on this below).
Widely spaced Trio: 14mm, 23mm and 90mm or 21mm-e, 35mm-e and 135mm-e
I very much liked the obviously wide look of the 28mm-e for several years. It’s not so wide that it’s difficult to control, which can happen sometimes with even wider lenses. Get the horizon off level, even a little bit, and there are some wild “flying” lines of perspective. The 28mm is more forgiving than that, yet no one would mistake it for a 50mm-e or “normal” lens.
With that said, and the availability of the superb XF 23mm for the interchangeable Fuji X bodies, I’m beginning to appreciate the 35mm-e again. Depending on how one uses it, you can either emphasize or suppress its wide angle. It’s a touch more versatile than the 50mm-e (or Touit 32mm in the case of my Fuji cameras).
When I use the 35mm-e or XF 23mm, I tend to use that for many situations, only turning to a different lens when the situation absolutely calls for it. Keeping that in mind, I’m thinking of putting together a widely spaced trio of lenses.
The XF 23mm (35mm-e) would be the mainstay. I would then supplement it with the very wide XF 14mm (21mm-e). That lens is built as solidly as the XF 23mm, and also has the pull-back action to reveal a DOF scale on the barrel – a wonderful feature for shooting fast on location, with a moderate to small aperture. Going with a focal length this wide also makes it distinctly different from the moderately wide 23mm. A 14mm or 21mm-e is useful when shooting in smaller rooms.
At the other end, I’d like to get the new XF 90mm, or 135mm-e. Towards the end of regularly using the Leica M system, I had divested myself of the 90mm Summicron, yet kept an old 135mm f2.8 Elmarit (the one with the goggles). The jump from a 35mm-e to a 135mm-e is readily apparent. There’s no mistaking when I would need one lens or the other.
The other reason is I really want to replace my XF 60mm, for the earlier mentioned reasons. While the 56mm is a great choice, I’d be interested in getting the 90mm to obtain even more obvious compression.
None of the above is so heavy that it would be an enormous burden to carry all day. Especailly if one uses just a single X body, and is willing to switch lenses as the need arises.
Currently, I frequently carry two X-Pro1 bodies, with one mounting the XF 18mm and the other has the Touit 32mm. Even with two bodies and two lenses, it’s not difficult to carry all day.
A messenger type bag is an obvious solution. The Filson + Magnum Harvey Messenger is perfect for two bodies with a lens each.
Courierware makes a solid, unassuming custom bag called the Incognito Camera bag, and I’ve found the Extra Small or Small sizes to be ideal for a small mirrorless or rangefinder kit. It comes with a removable padded insert that can create three compartments.
The Billingham Hadley Pro is a smart and upscale solution, that will last you for decades. Like the Courierware, it has a very well-made removable padded insert that can be divided into three compartments, plus the insert has padded lid too.
Brady released a slim, fishing style bag that is optimized for rangefinder/mirrorless cameras – the Kennet. It’s based closely on their classic Ariel Trout fishing bag, which was used for years by old school photojournalists. The Kennet’s main compartment is padded and comes with two dividers, and has four exterior pockets: two on the front, two on the ends of the bag. I own an old Gelderburn, and if the Kennet is built like that bag, then expect a quality construction that will last decades.
If you don’t mind a thicker (front to rear) bag than a messenger style bag when walking through crowds, then a small, camera bag is a different solution. In recent years, I’ve used two that work well, although I still prefer the slimmer messenger type bag.
An easily obtainable and affordable bag that has been around for decades is the Domke F-3X Super Compact. It’s a very small camera bag considering its carrying capacity. It can easily hold two rangefinder form or mirrorless bodies with prime lenses mounted, plus two more lenses in permanently sewn in canvas silos. There is one divider that goes in between the silos to separate the two cameras. There are several accessory pockets for miscellaneous items. The main downside of the Domke F-3X is that it has virtually no padding and doesn’t seal that well from challenging weather.
The largest “small” camera bag that I would personally carry is the Billingham 225. It’s easy to carry two mirrorless cameras with lenses mounted, and a third lens in the included insert, all in the well-protected main compartment. There are plenty of additional pockets for added minor gear. When I’m in the midst of shooting, I won’t fully close the bag with its many straps, zippers and buckles. Simply connecting the the carrying handle with the flap closed, is sufficient for street use, the majority of the time.
When the 225 is fully sealed up, however, it’s pretty much impervious to inclement weather. Much more so than the Domke F-3X. Its build quality is typical Billingham: this bag is made to last decades, not just a few years. Besides being the bulkiest of all of the bags I wrote about in this article, the other issue with the 225 is its weight – it’s a very heavy bag for its size, so factor that in if you plan to carry it all day.
In the end, for a daily carry, with the minimal amount of equipment I outline here, I would recommend a messenger style bag like the Harvey, Incognito or Hadley, over the a small camera bag, most of the time.