The Virtues of Using a Fixed-Lens Camera

I own two cameras (not counting my iPhone): the Olympus Pen-F and the Fujifilm X100F. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, and each has its own feature set. But there is one big difference between them: the X100F has a fixed prime lens.

When most people think of a “good” camera, they think of a DSLR, a big, unwieldy beast with humungous lenses. They see this as part of a kit, one element in a big bag of stuff needed to take photos: extra lenses, filters, tripods, flashes, and more. (I exaggerate, but only slightly.)

But there are a handful of excellent cameras that don’t require all that stuff. I’m not talking about small point-and-shoot cameras, but rather full-featured cameras that offer the quality and features that are found on DSLRs. Ricoh, Sony, and Leica all make fixed-lens cameras, and Fujifilm’s X100F is a great example of how to create a compact, full-featured camera that can shoot wonderful photos. Among this type of camera, the X100F is one of the only models that has a viewfinder. (Some people may not find this feature important, but I cannot shoot pictures looking at an LCD screen.)

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Most point-and-shoot cameras have zoom lenses, and there’s a reason for this. They are designed to be versatile tools for landscapes, portraits, and close-ups of pets and family. Some do this very well; I had a small Panasonic camera some years ago with a great lens, that was quick to focus, and that made sharp photos. But I oscillated between zooming in and out each time I took a photo, or sometimes just leaving the lens alone, ignoring that extra step. And it didn’t have a viewfinder, so it was hard to shoot in sunlight.

Using a fixed prime lens camera introduces constraints. You can only zoom with your feet, so you have to compose your images carefully. But it frees you from thinking, “Which lens should I use for this photo? Or how much should I zoom in or out?” And it frees you from carrying around additional lenses, and changing them for each subject. I like the simplicity that prods me to look around and compose in my mind, then raise the camera and shoot.

With just one focal length, your mind starts thinking about that field of view. When you look around, searching for subjects for photos, you automatically scale them with the camera’s lens in mind. You don’t look at something and think that you can zoom in or out. You start seeing the world in (in the case of the X100F) a 35mm focal length. Of course, you can always crop – as I did in the photo below – and with the X100F’s 24 Mp photos, you have plenty of leeway.

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Back in the old days of film, most people shot photos on fixed-lens cameras. Instamatics, Polaroids, and other cheap cameras all had simple lenses. SLRs separated casual snapshooters from photographers. And today, most people shoot on fixed-lens cameras as well; their smartphones. A couple of dual-lens smartphones offer two options, wide and short telephoto, and you can always use digital zoom on a smartphone (though most people probably don’t know how to do this), but the majority of people zoom with their feet.

I use the Pen-F because there are types of photos and locations where I want the flexibility of having multiple lenses. I plan to take a trip to Stonehenge soon; it’s about two hours from where I live. I’ll bring both cameras, and several lenses, so I can get close-ups, long shots, and more.

But with the fixed-lens X100F, I can walk around and take pictures without having to carry any extra gear, and, especially, with my mind free of all those possibilities. I can use the camera as a simple tool, an extension of my eye, as I look for subjects that seem attractive. This simplicity is liberating. As Shunryu Suzuki said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” This type of camera lets my beginner’s mind work.

Some photographers recommend using a “one camera, one lens” approach for a certain time to get used to that combination. They generally recommend a prime lens (i.e., a lens that does not zoom), so you free yourself from having too much choice. This is a great way to learn how constraints can give you more freedom.

A fixed-lens camera isn’t for everyone. The X100F is popular among street photographers because its semi-wide angle lens is good for that environment, and it’s a compact camera that doesn’t stand out too much. If you shoot a wide variety of subjects, then this might not be for you, but at a minimum it’s worth a try.

8 thoughts on “The Virtues of Using a Fixed-Lens Camera

  1. As a non-owner of a Fuji X100 camera, but owning Olympus cameras and the Olympus 17mm f/1.8 lens, I don’t see what I’d gain by buying a Fuji. Which is not in any way a criticism of the Fuji which I am sure is a very good camera, it just seems that there’s so much overlap between the two cameras that it would not be a good use of money to buy a Fuji on top of that. Maybe you can shed some light on that, since you own both cameras.

    I agree 100% that a prime lens can have benefits.

    • I bought the Fuji because I wanted to have a different type of camera (different system, and with optical viewfinder). I certainly agree that an Olympus with a single lens is nearly the same, but the Fuji is much more compact than the Olympus with that lens. There is a 17mm f 2.8 Olympus lens, but I don’t find it very good. The 20mm Panasonic is a lot better, and is very compact.

      I just find it different using the Fuji – not just because of the type of camera, but because I know it’s the only lens I can use. With my Pen-F, I often think, “Rats, I wish I had this lens instead…”

  2. As a non-owner of a Fuji X100 camera, but owning Olympus cameras and the Olympus 17mm f/1.8 lens, I don’t see what I’d gain by buying a Fuji. Which is not in any way a criticism of the Fuji which I am sure is a very good camera, it just seems that there’s so much overlap between the two cameras that it would not be a good use of money to buy a Fuji on top of that. Maybe you can shed some light on that, since you own both cameras.

    I agree 100% that a prime lens can have benefits.

    • I bought the Fuji because I wanted to have a different type of camera (different system, and with optical viewfinder). I certainly agree that an Olympus with a single lens is nearly the same, but the Fuji is much more compact than the Olympus with that lens. There is a 17mm f 2.8 Olympus lens, but I don’t find it very good. The 20mm Panasonic is a lot better, and is very compact.

      I just find it different using the Fuji – not just because of the type of camera, but because I know it’s the only lens I can use. With my Pen-F, I often think, “Rats, I wish I had this lens instead…”

  3. The Fuji also has a leaf shutter which is really nice for outdoor portraits in contrasty lighting conditions. Nice article!

  4. The Fuji also has a leaf shutter which is really nice for outdoor portraits in contrasty lighting conditions. Nice article!

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