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5 Reasons to Do 35mm Travel Photography (+ Tips)

reasons to try 35mm travel photography

I love 35mm travel photography. With my 35mm f/1.4 lens on a full-frame body, I can photograph just about anything; it’s the most versatile prime lens in my kit, it’s fast, and it’s super sharp.

Traveling with a 35mm lens opens up wonderful opportunities to capture the world around you. I use my 35mm prime more than any other lens because it can handle so many different subjects, from portraits and landscapes to architecture and food. In fact, if I could take only one prime lens with me when I travel, it would be my 35mm.

Below, I explain my top five reasons to use a 35mm prime lens for travel shooting – and I share a handful of tips and tricks to help you level up your 35mm images.

Let’s get started!

5 reasons to love 35mm travel photography

For over 10 years now, I’ve been using my 35mm lens for travel photography (and plenty of other genres, too!). I was initially hesitant to buy it – I was worried about the price and the quality of the background bokeh – but I eventually took the leap, and I’m so glad I did!

Note that, if you’re reading this article and own a crop-sensor camera, you’ll need to think in terms of equivalent focal lengths. So if you use an APS-C camera, the advice I give applies to (roughly) 24mm lenses, and if you use a four-thirds camera, you’ll need a 17mm lens to get a 35mm focal length equivalent.

Singapore at night 35mm travel photography
Nikon D800 | 35mm | f/4.5 | 2.5s | ISO 400

1. 35mm lenses offer an outstanding field of view

I love the field of view on my 35mm lens. It’s a little wider than we see – not including our peripheral vision – but it still provides a very natural-looking photo. For travel photography, 35mm lenses offer a wide-enough view without going too wide.

This field of view produces a very documentary look and feel. It shows the scene the way we see it in real life. And because it’s not excessively wide, it won’t introduce much distortion into your travel compositions.

2. 35mm lenses are compact

Size and weight matter a lot when traveling. It’s often tough to know what gear to pack when heading off on a trip. Do you take a big, heavy zoom lens? Or do you opt for a fast, versatile, lightweight 35mm lens?

Personally, I’m a fan of keeping things light and comfortable, which is why I go with the 35mm option. Now, a 35mm f/1.4 is larger and heavier than 35mm f/1.8 and f/2 lenses. But they’re all pretty easy to carry, and I do prefer the f/1.4 version because of the added low-light performance and improved bokeh.

It’s also important to realize that the actual size and weight depend on your camera system. But while my Nikon 35mm f/1.4G is one of the largest and heaviest 35mm lenses on the market, I still have no problem taking it with me when traveling.

Rice being transplanted 35mm travel photography
Nikon D800 | 35mm | f/6.3 | 1/800s | ISO 200

3. The fixed focal length forces you to move

Some photographers might view this as a downside of 35mm lenses (or any other prime lens, for that matter). But I disagree. I believe that we are forced to be more creative when using a prime lens because we have to move to capture the composition we want. Zooming is not an option, and that’s a good thing!

Girls lining up for a Chinese new year parade 35mm travel photography
Nikon D800 | 35mm | f/5.6 | 1/640s | ISO 200

With a 35mm lens attached to your camera when you travel, you’ll have to move more frequently – and as a consequence, you’ll see the world in different ways. The first composition you frame up in a photograph is not always the most interesting.

If you work with a zoom lens, you’ll be tempted to simply move the focal length back and forth without changing your perspective. But with a 35mm prime, you have to physically move to capture an alternative composition. The background will change, the light’s interaction with your subject will change, and you’ll realize how much more you can do with a little movement.

Bangkok streets at night
Nikon D800 | 35mm | f/9 | 1/6s | ISO 800

4. A 35mm lens produces fabulous bokeh

You may not realize this, but the background blur produced by 35mm lenses is gorgeous.

You don’t even need a 35mm f/1.4 lens to take photos with great bokeh. Even at f/1.8, a 35mm lens can deliver deliciously blurry backgrounds. And the closer you get to your subject, the better the background will look.

fresh chilies 35mm travel photography
Nikon D800 | 35mm | f/1.4 | 1/4000s | ISO 50

As you use a 35mm prime lens more and more for travel photography, you will get a great feel for its bokeh effects. I’ve taken so many photos with my 35mm f/1.4 that I can predict how blurred my background will be in advance! Of course, you don’t always need to shoot at f/1.4 or even f/1.8 to achieve a blurry background (and sometimes such an ultra-wide aperture will produce a too-shallow depth of field). So don’t be afraid to narrow the aperture as needed.

5. 35mm primes are sharp

I know that if I take a photo with my 35mm prime lens and it doesn’t turn out sharp, then it’s my fault. Why? Because the optics are fantastic!

Over the years, I’ve owned and used many zoom lenses, some of them better than others. And they weren’t always sharp at every focal length. That’s the nature of zooms.

But primes – and not just 35mm primes – are consistently sharp. Even the cheap primes tend to offer pro-level sharpness. When you work with a lens like that and you end up with a blurry shot, then you know it’s your problem, not the lens’s (and you can take steps to fix the issue!).

rocky shore line
Nikon D700 | 35mm | f/9 | 1/320s | ISO 200

35mm travel photography tips

If you use a 35mm lens for travel photography, you can produce some terrific results. (And if you’re used to working with a zoom lens, you may be surprised by how versatile a 35mm prime lens actually is!)

Here are some tips to help you capture top-notch 35mm travel images:

1. Commit to using your 35mm lens regularly

Getting a feel for a prime lens is generally different than getting a feel for a zoom lens – and the more committed you are to shooting with your 35mm lens, the quicker you’ll get used to it.

You’ll begin to understand the types of compositions you can capture, and choosing the right aperture setting will become instinctive. You’ll know how close you are to your subject and the aperture you need to capture a perfect amount of blur.

For travel landscapes, interiors, portraits, and any other type of photo you want to take, you’ll easily determine where to position yourself. And you’ll know – before you even bring your camera to your eye – what you’re capturing, whether you need to move, or whether you might need to switch lenses completely.

parade performance in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Nikon D800 | 35mm | f/5.6 | 1/400s | ISO 200

2. Use your 35mm lens for candid portraits

Many photographers think you need a long lens to capture candid portraits while traveling. And sure, a long lens will allow you to stand back and go unnoticed, but the farther you are from your subject, the more you’ll end up with a disconnect – a lack of intimacy – in the final image.

That’s why I encourage you to use a 35mm lens instead! I love using my 35mm lens for candid street-style portraits when I travel, and I find it works especially well in busy places like city squares and markets.

When I find someone I want to capture, I move in close. I don’t photograph them immediately; instead, I take pictures of other subjects. I’m not concerned with remaining anonymous because if the person doesn’t think I am photographing them, it doesn’t matter if they can see me and my camera.

I keep both eyes open so I can see my intended subject. When they’re not looking, I’ll quickly compose and capture a photo, then I’ll move my camera away so it’s not pointed at their face. If they look up when they hear me taking a photo, my camera will already be pointed in a different direction.

Girl on the phone at the market
Nikon D800 | 35mm | f/3.5 | 1/500s | ISO 400

3. Shoot some environmental travel portraits

When I include people in my photos, while I do sometimes capture candid shots (see the previous tip!), I prefer to engage with my subjects directly. I love making environmental portraits of artists and workers doing what they do.

woman on the phone at the train station 35mm travel photography
Nikon D700 | 35mm | f/3.5 | 1/30s | ISO 250

I start by showing an interest in their activity, even if we speak no common language. People in public places are generally happy that someone has taken notice, and with my 35mm lens, I can position myself close enough that I can have a normal conversation and take photos at the same time. (With a longer focal length, I feel more awkward, especially in noisy places where I have to raise my voice to be heard.)

Of course, I’m always careful to avoid disrupting the flow of their business when taking photos.

4. Use your 35mm lens to capture a variety of images

You can use a 35mm lens for all types of subjects and compositions, including travel landscapes, architecture, portraits, street scenes, and more. Don’t get stuck thinking that you need a wide lens for landscapes and a 50mm prime for portraits.

So have fun with your 35mm lens. Shoot whatever interests you! I’d even encourage you to use it for food photography while traveling (it’s easy to remain seated and take a few quick snaps of the culinary delight you’ve been served).

Photograph the rooms you stay in. Capture the beautiful hotel lobbies. Shoot the bus, tram, taxi, or tuk-tuk that takes you places and the fabulous sunsets from the rooftop bar. You can do all of this with a 35mm lens!

chicken lunch served on bamboo and banana leaf
Nikon D700 | 35mm | f/2 | 1/125s | ISO 800

5. Always look for alternative angles

When working with a 35mm prime lens, try to think differently. With a 35mm prime lens on your camera, you’re forced to move, so use that momentum and experiment constantly with compositions. Look for alternative angles and take a huge variety of pictures. 

Remember: The first angle you notice isn’t always the best – yet it’s often the only angle many beginners try! Move around, and as you move, watch the background. Notice how it changes in relation to your subject. Look at the light and how it reflects differently depending on your position.

Two Karen men with their elephants
Nikon D700 | 35mm | f/5.6 | 1/320s | ISO 200

35mm travel photography: final words

A 35mm prime lens is a versatile and practical travel lens. If you usually photograph with zooms, you may need to practice with a 35mm prime to become more familiar with the focal length – but you’ll quickly get the hang of it!

So take your 35mm lens everywhere. Use it often. After all, if it remains at home or in the bottom of your camera bag, how will you ever discover the joys of 35mm travel photography?

Do you plan to do 35mm travel shooting? Where will you travel next? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Kevin Landwer-Johan
Kevin Landwer-Johan

Kevin Landwer-Johan is a photographer, photography teacher, and author with over 30 years of experience that he loves to share with others.

Check out his website and his Buy Me a Coffee page.

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