The most common questions I hear on workshops are always, “What lens do I need to bring?”, “Can I leave my telephoto?”, “Will I need my wide angle?”
My answer is always the same: “Bring them All”.
While that may sound dismissive, or perhaps even sarcastic, the truth is that I genuinely believe that having your full kit of lenses will benefit your creativity and lead to more successful photography.
I do understand why people ask, though. They want to save weight, or they don’t want to have to change lenses outside, or in windy conditions. Perhaps they just want to know what lens I am going to shoot with. These are all legitimate concerns, but whatever the reasoning is, having a full range of focal lengths is always ideal. I like to think of my camera gear as tools in a toolbox. Some tools get used everyday for most projects and others are more specialty pieces of equipment. Even if the tool isn’t used frequently, it should still be available to you. The last thing I want is to be working on a project and look down and realize I don’t have the right gear for the job. Would a carpenter leave his hammer at home?
For most photographers, having a wide (15mm-30mm), medium (24mm-105mm), and telephoto (100mm-400mm) is the standard tool kit (for the purposes of this discussion I am omitting super specialty lenses like fisheyes, tilt-shifts, or prime super telephotos).
Having a focal length range of 15mm-400mm allows you to be ready for just about any photographic situation. These are the lenses that are always in my pack. Sure, it means my pack is heavier and more cumbersome, but it also means I am prepared for whatever may happen in the field.
I have had situations where I was expecting to shoot some wide angle landscapes only to have a bull moose walk out of the willows, making me glad to have had a telephoto on me. Inversely, I have been shooting wildlife when the storm clouds unfolded above me requiring a wide angle lens to capture the scene.
Unexpected subjects and light often surprise me. Rarely do all three lenses get used during a single session, but when you need to change focal lengths you will be glad to have that option.
Beyond just being prepared for the unexpected, I really think having a full complement of focal lengths help photographers think more creatively. For me personally, I struggle with breaking my own expectations of a given location. Often I envision the shot I want to take and for better or worse I will get tunnel vision on that particular vision.
When I have multiple lenses with me, it can offer me the chance to think outside of those preconceived ideas and to focus on what the best image is for the given light and conditions.
It may sound crazy, but just having all my lenses in my pack changes the way I approach a scene. Knowing I have a lens that can focus at close distances helps me to slow down and look for macro scenes. Having my wide angle forces me to find foregrounds that complement the background. When my telephoto is on, my brain is scanning for patterns and layers. If I only had one lens with me, I would only look for shots that fit that lens and I would miss out of potential photo opportunities.
All of that being said, I recognize that for a lot of people it isn’t easy, and sometimes even possible, to carry a lot of heavy gear all of the time. There are certainly hikes were I have to leave lenses behind, and that’s okay. If weight is a concern, I always recommend bringing the medium lens (in my case a 24mm-105mm) because it is the most versatile and can cover a wide range of subjects. You can also stitch together multiple 24mm frames to effectively create a wider angle of view.
In summary, I never want to limit myself photographically when I am in the field. I want to be open to whatever happens and be able to respond accordingly. A mentor of mine always used to say when the light is bad, shoot smaller. We would start by shooting the nice sunrise light with wide angles, capturing the whole scene. As the sun continued to rise and the light got more harsh, we would switch to telephotos to carve out details where the light was still good. Having a full complement of focal lengths will allow the photographer to be flexible and take successful photos no matter what mother nature throws our way.
We all see and photograph differently. When I come upon a scene I may see a beautiful wide angle photo, whereas the person next to me might create a stunning macro shot of a flower. No location has to be photographed in one certain way. So next time we are in the field, feel free to ask me what lenses to bring, but know why my answer will always be the same.
Grant Ordelheide is a Montana-based outdoor and adventure photographer. Growing up in the Colorado Rockies, in a family that explored and played in the outdoors at every opportunity, instilled in him a profound reverence for the landscape. Grant’s love of nature and wild places preceded his love of photography, which emerged as a natural extension and by-product of his adventures in the mountains as an avid backpacker, climber, and snowboarder.
Following his passion, Grant earned a Bachelor’s degree in photography with an emphasis in business from Pacific Union College in California’s Napa Valley. In 2016, Grant was a recipient of the Art Wolfe Next Generation Photographer Grant organized by Luminous Landscape. His work has won numerous awards, including one of the top honors in the U.S. Landscape Photographer of the Year contest. His photos have been published in National Geographic Traveler, Backpacker, Outside, Climbing, The New York Times, The Yosemite Journal, and many other print and online publications. Grant’s fine art prints hang in gallery, corporate, and private collections across the country.
For several years, Grant has shared his eye, expertise, and contagious passion for photographing the outdoors, teaching photography workshops throughout the country. Grant currently resides in Columbia Falls, Montana with his wife Alexis. His work can be viewed at grantordelheide.com.