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The Only Three Lenses You Need for Travel Photography

The only three lenses you need for travel photography anywhere in the world are a fisheye lens, a 50mm, and a 135mm (or similar telephoto).

You can agree and finish this article right here, or you can read on to see exactly why I would choose only these three lenses to take with me anywhere in the world.

Canon fisheye 15mm 2.8
Night shot from atop a bridge in Moscow, using the Canon fisheye 15mm f/2.8

The Three Key Travel Photography Lenses

Before I say anything else, the fisheye I have in mind has an aperture of f/2.8, the 50mm has an aperture of f/1.4, and the 135 has an aperture of f/2.0. Popular, cheaper variations on these lenses would be the 24mm f/2.8, 50mm f/1.8, and the 100mm f/2.8 Macro. I’d also like to address what I imagine a popular response to this article might be: “What about the 24-105mm?” This lens is weak for a couple of reasons. The maximum aperture on this lens is f/4, which ends up being very limiting if you are trying to travel light (and going without an off camera flash).  Also, prime lenses are always superior in quality to zoom lenses. There are less moving parts and the image quality is cleaner. If you think having just one lens to cover a greater range is easier, just remember what you gain in convenience (by having one lens) you lose in quality, weight, and ability to “see” in the dark.

Each of these lenses are used for very specific reasons. Just as we wear different shoes for different purposes throughout our week, such as; sneakers for exercise, dress shoes for work, and slippers around the house – we use different lenses to convey different feelings, emotions, and to use as different tools to capture our experiences. Some lenses really are better than others for certain things. For example, portraits are best taken with lenses between 85mm and 135mm. The distortion to the face/ears is minimized and the truest proportions are found in this range.

On the other hand, you wouldn’t normally reach for a lens like this when shooting a landscape scene (there are always exceptions to every rule, and it’s fun to see what happens when you break the general guidelines). Great lenses for landscapes tend to be a bit wider, somewhere between 15mm and 50mm. I recently took only these three lenses with me on the Trans Siberian Railway from Russia through Mongolia into China. Here are MY reasons for bringing the 15mm Fisheye, 50mm f/1.4, and the Canon 135mm f/2.0 with me on this trip of a lifetime.

The Canon Fisheye 15mm f/2.8

canon fisheye 15mm
From Moscow, Russia

The Canon 15mm lens is my antidote to boring building pictures. When traveling abroad (or around your own town/city/village), interesting buildings are inevitably photographed. Oh, that old bridge with locks attached to it? Better take a picture. Oh, look at that old cathedral in the Kremlin, better take a picture. If it’s there, it must be important. Well, you can add your photo to 1.5 million other photographs right there on Flickr or Google images that look exactly like the one you just took.

What will you do to differentiate yourself? How can you take a picture that will make someone pause for more than half a second?  Ad companies are excited when someone spends 4-8 seconds looking at a photo. Can you get someone to look at one photo for that long? What would it take? For me, I decided I would never take boring, straight photos of buildings ever again. I’d either edit them in unusual ways (like creating an HDR image, or process it in very contrasted black and white), at unusual times of day, or I would attempt to photograph it differently than every other tourist before me.

canon fisheye 15mm
The subways in Moscow, Russia
Canon fisheye 15mm 2.8
Selfies are easy with the fisheye lens. That bag on my shoulder could hold my camera, three lenses, my laptop, batteries, some magazines and a book.

Shooting with a fisheye lens can be really fun, actually. Hold your camera up to your eye with a fisheye lens on, move the camera upwards and watch the horizon bend down sharply at the sides, creating a “globe” feel to your image. Tilt the camera down and watch the earth curve up like a big “U”. Buildings become warped and distorted in unusual ways, like a piece of Gaudi’s architecture. Stand in the middle of the street and point the camera straight upwards and watch the buildings on the side loom over you, like in a Dr. Seuss book.

canon fisheye 15mm
My bunkmates on the Trans Siberian Railway

Fisheye lenses can capture an entire room, cabin of a train, or a bathroom easily. They make selfies on your DSLR incredibly easy. You can take incredible photos of the stars at night. And best of all, they are great for doing the Camera Toss. (I suppose I should recommend NOT trying this ever, anywhere). Fisheye lenses add an element of fun and whimsy to travel photos, which I find otherwise a bit boring and predictable. It’s also an incredibly light and compact lens to travel with, which is why I always bring it along on my trips now.

canon fisheye 15mm
My camera toss, where I throw my camera with a fisheye lens high up into the air to capture a scene like this

The 50mm f/1.4

The 50mm lens is a standard, go-to, all-around lens. And while the Fisheye lens brings a lot of whimsy and fun to my travel pictures, some scenes just don’t call for that. I’ve heard it said that the 50mm is the closest representation to what we see naturally with our eyes. This lens is my best choice of the three options for Canon 50mm lenses. For only about $300, this lens has fantastic optics and a powerful aperture. It’s made of real glass lenses unlike the cheaper, lower quality 50mm f/1.8. And it focuses fast, unlike the much more expensive 50mm f/1.2, which happens to be twice as heavy.

Canon 50mm 1.4
A garden scene in Moscow, Russia taken with the 50mm f/1.4. Such lovely bokeh!

This is a great, inconspicuous lens on a camera body because it doesn’t stick out too much like a 70-200mm would, and the quality is just superb, as I’ve already said. It is extremely lightweight, and you could honestly walk around the entire day with just this lens. What I associate most with the 50mm f/1.4 lens is street photography. I love to take that lens and get lost down side streets and alleyways. I like to take photos of strangers on the street with this lens. The focal length is just right, so it feels as though the viewer is standing there by him or herself. It captures just enough of a scene to convey what is there.

Canon 50mm 1.4
A retired math teacher from Texas on the Trans Siberian Railway

The 50mm f/1.4 is also a great lens for portraits (though I prefer the 135mm f/2.0). It produces lovely bokeh. It forces you to get up close to your subject, making the portrait more intimate. You can’t hide behind a telephoto like the 135mm or a 70-200mm. You are an arm’s distance away, and being that close sometimes shows up on the subject’s face in interesting ways.

low light with the Canon 50mm 1.4
My Mongolian host preparing milk tea in the yurt.

The last thing that I think the 50mm f/1.4 does best, is capture images in low light situations. Trying to capture dinner in a restaurant at night using candlelight only? Totally possible. That light reflecting across the river at night? 50mm does it best! Sleeping in yurts for four nights in a row? Getting that delicious yurt light from the top of the tent is easy with the 50mm.

Canon 50mm 1.4
Taken in the back alleys of Beijing, China with my 50mm lens, my favorite street photography lens.

Fun fact: of my top 200 images from the trip, 112 of them were taken with the 50mm.

The 135mm f/2.0

The granddaddy of all these lenses, the 135mm f/2.0 has a special POW feel to it. Because it is a telephoto, it pulls the background in for a nice compact feel to the images. It is a great portrait lens as it completely obliterates the background in a sea of dreamy bokeh. And one special fact about the Canon 135mm f/2.0: it has the ability to focus at a distance of 1 meter (3 feet), which makes it almost like a macro lens.

Canon 135mm 2.0
My host on the left, after we road horseback from one village to the next, in Mongolia. Taken with the 135mm f/2.0

This lens is fun for me because it has similar properties to the 70-200mm, but it weighs nearly half as much, which will save your back and shoulders after a long day of walking around. This is a fun lens to spy on people from afar, if you are afraid of the straight-on street style encounters you get with the 50mm. This is actually a really interesting lens to do landscapes with if you have enough room. Look at this side-by-side comparison of basically the two same scenes, and look what the 135mm does to the mountains and landscape in the background. It really pulls them towards you, the viewer and truly implies the scope of the scene.

Fisheye versus 135mm
The same view from the fisheye and the 135mm. Notice the mountain with the bright spot in the background of the fisheye; it’s almost non-existent. With the telephoto the mountain becomes a major player in the photo.
Canon 135mm 2.0
Taken on my way to the oldest and deepest freshwater lake in the world. Lake Baikal, in Siberia, Russia.
canon 135mm 2.0
In the Kremlin, Moscow, Russia. This is one instance where I enjoy breaking the rules and using a telephoto lens to capture an idea of a building, rather than the whole thing with a 50mm or Fisheye lens.

The Three Essential Travel Photography Lenses: Conclusion

I hope these images and words have inspired you. It’s really fun to limit yourself to prime lenses and feel how they work (and don’t work) in various situations. Being that close to just a few lenses over a month of travel really allows you to get to know the equipment well. So now let’s see some travel photos you’ve taken with prime lenses!

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Phillip Van Nostrand
Phillip Van Nostrand

built his photography business in Santa Barbara, CA and New York City, where he has shot over 140 weddings, countless head shots, and events for the past 9 years. Currently living in NY, he manages to travel abroad at least once a year and is up to 30 countries traveled. Published in the New York Times, Huffington Post, New York Times Magazine, featured in Santa Barbara Dining and Destinations Magazine, Cretus Mag, and San Diego Style Weddings magazine. You can connect with him on his blog and on instagram.

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