Project: $1500 camera with just one $25 lens for one month – updated

I am a gear head. How do I know? Because I own about a dozen normal lenses.

Usually I enjoy the choice I have but I was asking myself what would happen if I had no choice and could use only one lens for a whole month?  There is only one way to find out and so I decided that I would limit myself to the Minolta MC Rokkor 1:1.7 55mm which is 45-years-old and cost me $25.

When I started the project I was curious how it would affect my photography. I have always progressed the fastest when I was outside of my comfort zone and I expected that this project would give me many experiences outside my comfort zone.

In this post I will recapitulate my experience so far.

Day 1: Black and White

On day one I decided that the lens alone wouldn’t push me outside of my comfort zone enough so I decided to give myself additional challenges each day which would make the project more interesting.

For day one this was photographing in black and white only because color is usually essential for my pictures. I think it worked quite well as did using 55mm for zoo images.

Day 2: Unknown territory

My challenge on day two was to photography my university because it is such a different subject from my usual landscape photography.

Day 3: Stuck on a tripod

I don’t like using a tripod so I challenged myself to use one on day 3. As I should have expected it wasn’t much fun

Day 4: Just 5 Pictures

This has been my favorite challenge so far: I allowed myself only 5 images. This made me slow down and consider my images a lot longer than I usually do. I felt that my awareness was heightened and my images benefited from  the challenge. I think I will repeat it.

Day 5: Using Film

I loaded an old Minolta XD-7 with some negative film which isn’t developed yet so I can’t show you the results but I can tell you that I enjoyed the experience a lot less than I had hoped.

Day 6: A grey day in February

When I left uni at 4 PM I seriously thought about not taking any pictures because it was such a grey day. But since I wanted to challenge myself everyday I made it my challenge to document just that: A typical day in February. This challenge turned out much better than I would have hoped and in the end I had a few pictures which showed quite well what a day in February looks like.

Day 7: Same place – different light

I have my normal roaming grounds not too far from home which I usually photograph in the glorious light of sunrise or sunset. Today I challenged myself to photograph them in the diffuse light of another gray day. Again it turned out better than I would have hoped.

Preliminary conclusion after week one

So far the project has worked out quite well for me. So far I actually enjoy using just one lens and I don’t feel like I have lost any images because of it. In fact I took many images I wouldn’t have taken otherwise and I broke  away fro many of my usual patterns.

I’ll keep you updated on how my little project progresses in about a week and whether I get fed up with just one lens.

Day 8: Minimalism – Or not

Well I tried to use the snow to reduce my images to the bare essentials because I think my images are often too complicated. I failed. Failing at something is part of any learning process so I am very okay with it.

Day 9: I have to take some pictures today

What do you do when you sit at the desk til 10 pm learning for your next exam with no time for photography? I grabbed the most photogenic subject I could find which happened to be a flower, set up a softbox and tried to capture in in a way I normally wouldn’t capture a plant. I like the first image but all the other images turned out pretty boring.

Day 10: Focusing by foot

Today’s challenge was to take pictures with the focusing ring set to 3m. So I had to focus by changing my distance to the subject. Given the circumstances (solid cloud cover around sunset) I am quite happy with the results.

Day 11: A break

It would have been very stressfull to take some images this day so I gave myself a short break. I want to push myself but not too far.

Day 12: Human interference in nature

My images usually paint a rather romantic image of the nature I photograph so today I tried to photograph how humans shape nature. Again I like the first image but the rest of my images didn’t turn out that well.

Day 13: Back to normal

I had an exam this day so I didn’t give myself any challenge and instead used photography to relax. Since it was a very nice day the resulting images will look rather familiar to those of you who know my usual style.

Day 14: Another golden sunrise

I had another exam this day and didn’t set a challenge so the resulting images fell well within my comfort zone.

I don’t think that my images on this day would have been significantly better had I had a FE 4/16-35, Minolta MC 1.2/58 and Zeiss Makro 2/100 with me which cost me close to 100 times as much as the little Rokkor 1.7/55.

stitch from 5 images

Conclusion after week two

The Minolta MC 1.7/55 feels totally natural to me by now and I am surprised how seldom I feel limited by it. When I started the project I though that using just this one lens would put me out of my comfort zone but far from it. On day 13 and 14, when I photographed my usual roaming grounds in my preferred conditions like I have done a 100 times before there were a few scenes where I could have used another lens or better coatings. But I don’t think that these lenses would have allowed me to create a significantly better series on that day.

Because of the challenges I currently think much more about the images I take and while I don’t think this will quickly turn me into a much better photographer I think the skills I currently improve will have a lasting effect on my photography.

So my conclusion so far is not that gear doesn’t matter, it is that I should continue to put focus on my photo skills.

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I like to be outside with my camera and I am also a gear head with a love for manual lenses.

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36 thoughts on “Project: $1500 camera with just one $25 lens for one month – updated”

  1. You have done the great challenges.
    I have enjoy the way that you constrained yourself.
    Thank you very much for your nice story and most importantly thank you for sharing your experiences.

  2. Hi Phillip, This may turn out the most interesting project in your web site that I have ever read. I think that I have done a similar thing myself without being so conscious in my business trips a couple of times, but obviously my work is the priority in those occasions, so I did not get to have anything done focussed like your project. I would love to try this properly when I have a chance.

    Naturally, I think that this kind of exercise also helps to give your current gear collection a justification from a third angle.

  3. Thanks for sharing your idea ! Always a pleasure to come here and read ! Have anice day ! Btw do you think this challenge would be possible even with 100mm+ lesnses ? I own pentax 135mm f2.5 thinking of doing the same.

  4. Minolta XD is the best! I wish Sony would invent focussing aids as good as that (totally awesome) viewfinder has.

    But for black and white at least, and as long as you have half decent light, I think film is better anyway. Save the digital pixels for shots only the A7S could get

  5. After considering such a direction as initially constructive, I must offer a counterpoint to this whole idea. While I appreciate the intent, you did not produce the stellar results usually send by us in your ‘usual’ manner of shooting. Marks for your subject matter and overall composition are just not what I would have expected Philip Reeve to accept! This forced approach toward creativity with limutations has little merit.

    So, I appeal to your better judgment to return to your former ways and cater freely to your preferences in when, where and what you shoot with. Remove these ideological shackles and allow your true photographic senses to prevail!

    That, or, we will see what the rest of the month provides….I stand ready to be proven wrong.

    PS: love the ram shot!

    1. Thanks for the critical voice, always appreciated!

      Going by likes on flickr or FM my pictures this month are indeed less appealing to the viewers and I am not the least surprised about that. After all I wouldn’t have taken any picture normally because the warm light wasn’t there and I am also less experienced with the new to me subject matter.

      BUT it has been a great experience for me so far because I left my comfort zone. The plan was never to abandon my usual style of photography for good. I am certain that I will return to it in March but I think I will have a wider horizon then and a bit sharper skills.

      1. None of my commentary was meant to take any shine off your efforts, Phil. More of an effort to maintain your honor!

        You’ve got a few weeks to redeem yourselve and make a fool out of me. I look forward to your remaining entries.

  6. Thought I was looking at a train station when I saw the photo of your university… 😉

    How about portrait work for one of the remaining days? Seems to be rather rare on your blog- might be interesting to see some instead of usual landscape/nature shots. Your photos of animals do not count as portraiture, no matter how photogenic those rams are, haha.

    1. Portraits are certainly something I have considered. It is not that I don’t take any but I am rather hesitant to publish them usually because of respect for people’s privacy. So maybe I should dare to arrange a shoot with an amateur model…

        1. No, not at all. We have this freedom of view or freedom of public places … Whatever the translation is. That means you can take shots in public of whatever and whom ever you want. But you can’t use them for advertise without permission. But for exhibitions or art prints – but not for posters for your exhibition. Street photography is a common genre in Germany too.

          I expect Phillip’s decision to be a private one (not posting images of his friends and family).

  7. I think it’s a great challenge and everyone should do things like these once in a while. I like the approach that you only used one lens. I read somewhere that Zack Arias when started his carrier as a photographer had only one lens for all his jobs. Which was a 35mm fujinon something. He used it for everything cause he didn’t have enough money to buy anything else. He pointed out that it helped him a lot more than using expensive equipments and a collection of lenses because with limited options you have to be creative with your photos. Learn and create new techniques etc.

    I started taking photos somewhat 2 months ago as a hobby and your blog helped me a lot choosing my Minolta MD lenses. So keep up the good work Phillip. 🙂

  8. Hello Philip, could you recommend a lens that can be used adapted on a Sony APS-C E mount camera with a close focus distance less than 50cm? Right now, am using Contax G 28 and 45 mm lenses, but would prefer a manual lenses that isn’t big and with a closer focusing distance ..

    1. Maybe the HD DA Pentax 35mm f.2.8 macro with aperture setting adapter; or the SMC Takumar 50mm 4.0. Both lenses are satisfying objects in themselves, even before you take your first photo with one. The former seems to work full frame in close, and at a 1.10-1.15x crop at infinity focus. FYI.

      The tiny HD DA (or SMC) Pentax 40mm f.2.4 pancake lens seems to take a high quality close-up lens very well indeed — search out a recent post on this with image examples at pentaxforums.com (Sony accessory lens featured). This “crop format” lens also works full frame, it is said, stopped down: onward from between f.3.5 and f.4.0. The Voigtlander 40mm f.2.0 Ultron SLII works very synergistically with its dedicated close-up lens to yield a 1:4 magnification ratio (see test images on the f-stoppers website within their review of this excellent handling pancake lens).

      A Canon EF 28mm f.2.8 IS USM with suitable AF adapter has the best close focus performance and the least focus shift on stopping down of Canon’s 3 smaller image stabilized prime lenses, and with decent bokeh. I can’t vouch for AF performance on your own Sony, but being a USM model, manual focus operation should be acceptable. Stabilization as an equivalent 42mm ‘wide-normal’ is a real plus on small Sony APS-C mirrorless models (I have an A5000, BTW, with Kinoteknic and Elvid LCDVF focusing aids, as well as a Canon M3 w/ EVF for APS-C duties; just secured a barely used A7 II to replace my A7 this past evening, I’m pleased to say!).

      I hope this helps a bit.

        1. Here is a search thread on eBay that should locate what you’re looking for. I have one for A-mount to E-mount with aperture control. Don’t know which Pentax mount (DA, K) you’re thinking of – take a peek at the listings:

          http://www.ebay.com/sch/i.html?_odkw=adapter+ring+for+pentax+lens+to+sony+e+mount&_osacat=0&_from=R40&_trksid=p2045573.m570.l1313.TR0.TRC0.H0.Xadapter+ring+with+aperture+control+for+pentax+lens+to+sony+e+mount.TRS0&_nkw=adapter+ring+with+aperture+control+for+pentax+lens+to+sony+e+mount&_sacat=0

        2. I’ve been ‘slowed down’ recently and am looking forward to feeling fitter as the weather warms up here in the Great Lakes region, so I have a long backlog of experiments to carry out. One project is to settle on aperture controlling adapters to Sony E/FE and to Canon EOS EF-M for my Pentax DA lenses, et.al., Phillip. The last I checked, I saw only one possible candidate listed on eBay.

          To the end of making the adapter hunt a swifter, more systematic, and less trial-and-error process, I am starting to shop for an accurate digital micrometer to help in speeding up evaluations. For the EOS-M adapters, I may find I can get ahead of the game by learning what Canon DSLR users have found works for adapting the likes of the mighty (big!) 14-24mm Nikkor to their DSLRs; and of course, the m42 Takumars, etc., the Canon video guys sometimes like… and then adapting to Canon’s own EF/EF-S to EF-M converting adapter for the M-body cameras. I just don’t know… Anyway, I’m sticking with an ‘M’ body for one APS-C ‘complement’ to the A7 II that just arrived here (A5000 being the other; useful for longer telephoto and macro ‘reach’) because of the tiny EOS-M 11-22mm, 22mm/2.0, and possibly, the 28mm/3.5 ring lighted macro — each very underrated for optics and unique, and thus “irreplaceable” in their way, at anything like their physical size and m4/3’s-like feather weight. Don’t let the thoroughly irrelevant “kit zoom” options or a few plastic bayonets for EF-M fool you about what the aforementioned lenses, plus Canon’s DSLR pancakes and EF stabilized primes, can pull off. A7 series compatibility there, too.

          I encourage anyone with more suggestions for Sony mirrorless-centric adapters to let us all know what they’ve discovered, being as specific as you can. Thanks all.

  9. Hi Phillip
    i know only the pictures in your flickr steam so my judgement is based on this and i really like the photos that came out in your project. Some new views to the wold…… i really enjoy this!

  10. Hi Phillip,
    It’s funny how much I’ve come to appreciate this site. The things you appreciate in lenses are usually very different from what I do. For instance the only AF lens I own is the sel35f28za, a lens you didn’t like. I like it so much (mostly because of the size) I bought it a second time after my first copy was stolen.

    In spite of this difference of opinion this is the only photography website I follow on line. I’m not even a big gear head. I have 3 camera bodies and 12 lenses that I use for my sole income. However, I find myself checking this site daily for updates. Keep it up.

  11. Thank you, Phillip. This post has indeed offered me a new perspective on photography. I think i will do something similar very soon to challenge myself. I particularly love the leaves-in-water photo and the golden-leaf one. Keep it up. Cheers!

  12. My picks are so far:
    – wooden bench on Day 6, which stands out calmly.
    – the sheep’s face on Day 13, as if it was saying to you, “How was your exam at college?”
    – golden mellow leaf on Day 14

    This is an excellent project!

  13. Nice experiment, Phillip. I shot entirely with the Sony Zeiss 35 1.4 Distagon (an excellent lens) for about 5 months when I first purchased a Sony A7R2. Why? Primarily economics and efficiency. But also because I wanted to ensure that I was serious about my path. The point is similar to how the Minolta was “totally natural” to you. By the time, I purchased my next lens (the Zeiss Distagon 85 1.8), the 35 1.4 was an extension of me. I knew exactly what it would do and exactly how to get to the shot I was looking for. At first, the 85 was shocking to me… but I now have 8 lens, 5 of which are vintage, and I’m slowly getting to the same circumstance with each lens, where I innately know what the lens will do and how.

  14. Hi, Phillip
    I wonder why you choose Minolta 1.7/55 at first place? Any particular reason?
    I read your review about this lens, it’s not the sharpest 50mm lens. But it has nicer bokeh than other vintage 50mm lenses.
    Is that the reason?

    1. It is very well built, smallish and as you mentioned the bokeh is a bit nicer that that of many other normal lenses. i enjoy shooting with it. The purpose of this project was to find out how I would fare without all the fancy gear so I wanted to use one of the cheapest lenses I own.

  15. Thank you for this article and all the rest, Phillip. It has inspired me to bring a bit more rigor to a little exercise that I’ve been doing, trying to bring my A7II + FE55 almost everywhere I go. I’ll be using some of your ideas to add extra constraints on different days.

    Hope your exams went well.

  16. Great article. Thanks! I’ve also been following this site with interest for a long time. I’ve been a Fuji shooter for the last 1½ years (Nikon before that), but because of my current habit of shooting with just vintage lenses (mostly Pentax M/K-series), I finally decided to pull the trigger on A7 II, which is ideal for these kind of lenses. Keeping just the X100T besides it. I’ve actually bought the MC 55mm f/1.7 pretty recently, partly because of your favourable review (as well as Jonas Rask’s) and I can agree it’s a really fine piece of glass. I really love how it renders the images and it’s more than sharp enough for shooting wide open. Quickly became one of my favourites. So it’s really fun to follow this little project. Keep it up!

  17. Great conclusion!!!
    Thank you very much for your review. I have been following your blog for quite somtime and it is very useful. Thank you very much again for sharing.

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