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Struggling to decide on the best travel photography lens for your needs? Not sure which lenses to take on your next trip?
You’re not alone.
Picking out the perfect travel lenses is tough. Fortunately, as a frequent traveler, I’ve come up with quite a few tips for picking the right travel photography lenses – and that’s what this article is all about.
So if you want to know my recommendations for the perfect lenses, keep reading!
This is actually a question I’ve thought long and hard about having gone on several overseas and interstate trips over the past few years. The answers that I’ve come up with have varied from trip to trip considerably and have depended upon a number of factors including the length of the trip, the nature of the trip, my current ‘favorite’ lens and my current phase of photography (I tend to go through phases where my style in photography changes a bit).
A lens can make or break you in terms of image quality. I constantly advise people to get the best one that they can afford as an upgrade in lens will usually lead to much greater improvements in image quality than an upgrade in camera body.
The main considerations that you’ll probably want to consider when buying a lens for travel include:
Weight – unless you’re lucky enough to be traveling first class and with your own personal porter to haul around your camera kit you probably will need to limit your lens choice to a couple of lenses simply because of the size and weight that they take up in your bags. I am lucky enough to own 5 Canon SLR lenses at present and am always tempted to pack each one because they are all ideal for some scenario or another – however if I did (and if I included an external flash, tripod, filters, spare batteries, charger etc etc) I’d end up with a fully loaded and very heavy camera bag.
The risk of everything getting stolen, the strain it takes to lift it on those long days of traveling and the fact that the more lenses you take the more time you spend changing lenses and the less time you enjoy your trip has taught me to take the ‘less is more’ approach.
Versatility – travel photography presents you with a unique challenge that many other types of photography do not in that the situations that you might like to photograph can vary incredibly over your trip. Depending upon your destination and the type of shots you take you’ll probably a lens (or combination of them) that is versatile and gives you a range of focal lengths. So if taking just one a zoom with a wide range might be best or if you’re able to take more than one a combination of different lengths could be worth while.
On my last trip (to Turkey) I had days where I was shooting paintings in low light in caves (flash not permitted), to taking shots at sunrise of landscapes from hot air balloons, to shooting shots of my wife in front of buildings (tourist style), to shooting dancing scenes in the evening. The variety of lighting conditions, distance to subjects and other requirements means you need to be prepared for literally anything. As a result a lens that is as versatile as possible in terms of zoom size and speed can be well worth investing in.
Lens Speed – one of the factors that I hear many travelers complaining about after a trip is that once the sun went down their photo quality also went down. Depending upon your destination, low light situations are common when traveling. Galleries or ancient buildings where you can’t shoot with a flash, dinners at night etc all present photographers with real challenges which can be helped by investing in the ‘fastest’ lens you can afford.
The speed of a lens is signified by the number that usually appears after the ‘f’ on the lens (it’s aperture). For example – the 18-55mm lens that is usually bundled with a Digital Rebel XT has an aperture of f/3.4-5.6. This means at the 18mm focal length the aperture is f/3.5 and at the 55mm focal length it has a maximum of f/5.6. The lower the number the more light the lens allows to hit your image sensor and the faster shutter speed you’ll be able to shoot at (ie the lower the number the faster the lens). When shooting in low light a fast lens is a real advantage.
Other Factors – Of course there are other factors to consider – not the least of which is cost. As I say above, invest more into your lenses if possible as the improvements to photos are often made in this area. Having said that, just because you can’t afford a pro lens doesn’t mean you can’t take great shots. Other factors will include the type of shots you tend to take (ie if you are into macro shots you might want to invest in a macro specific lens, if you’re going to sporting events you might want something with extra length etc).
I’ve avoided the question for long enough now so let me run through a few options for Canon DSLR owners (I’m sure there are equivalents for other brands). As I’ve said above, when I travel these days I tend to take 2 lenses – one is a versatile zoom which will cover a range of focal lengths and the other is a light weight, small and fast prime lens (a prime lens is one with a fixed focal length. Prime lenses are traditionally good quality and faster than zooms). Of course the two lenses I talk about below are based upon my own budget, photographic style and preferences. I’ve added a few other alternatives into the mix which others might consider.
Let me start by saying that this lens is not cheap – in fact it’s one saved up for and have only just purchased. However if your budget will stretch you might want to look at this one. I list it here for a number of reasons:
• it’s image quality is renowned as one of the best zoom lenses going around. This is an ‘L’ series lens which is a ‘luxury’ or Pro level.
• focal length is wide and will cover a variety of situations and needs
• while f/4 isn’t super fast it will do you fine in many lighting situations – especially anything shot in daylight. It’s f/4 across all focal lengths so it is faster than the 18-55mm at full extension.
• this lens has Image Stabilization (IS) which will allow you to handhold shots at up to 2 stops faster than normal (this means in low light you can slow your shutter speed a couple of stops without suffering camera shake).
Of course for every positive there is a negative and this camera’s include:
• Weight/Size – this is not the lightest lens going around and by the end of a day of it hanging around your neck you’ll know about it
• Price – the weight it adds to your neck will be taken from your wallet – it’s not cheap
• Speed – as I say above, f/4 is ok, but it’s not the fastest option going around.
Alternatives to the 24-105mm f/4L IS
A couple of alternatives come to mind.
• Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM – in the same price league and with similar quality and weight, but faster (aperture of 2.8 across all focal lengths), without image stabilization, shorter zoom range. So if you’re shooting at low light a lot (especially moving objects which IS won’t freeze) and you don’t mind loosing the top end focal length it might be an option.
• Canon EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM – this is a much more affordable option but you do sacrifice image quality (as you’d expect). It has a longer focal length, still has Image Stabilization and at 28mm is faster than the 24-105mm (but is slower at the other end of the zoom). It’s also a bit lighter and smaller. I’ve owned this lens for a while now and have usually included it in my kit when traveling. It’s images are not as good as my L series lenses but it’s a good general purpose lens.
Whereas my last suggestion was very expensive this one is at the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of cost and is one of the most affordable lenses you’ll find in the Canon range when you consider the quality of the images it produces.
While this lens is not much to look at in terms of size, weight or even construction it is significantly faster than any of the other lenses mentioned above at f/1.8. This will allow you to shoot at quite low light levels, especially if you up your ISO (remember you get grain at higher ISO). I use this lens when I don’t want to lug the other one around with me (I leave it locked up at the hotel), especially at night.
The Positives for this lens are:
• Speed – f/1.8 is the fastest lens I’ve currently got in my collection. It’s great indoors especially when a flash is not allowed or appropriate.
• Weight/Size – you can fit it in your pocket easily and will hardly know it’s there – perfect for taking out at night or when you need to travel especially light
• Price – last time I looked on Amazon it was just over $100 USD
• Quality – while it’s no ‘L’ Series lens many argue that when you consider it’s price it’s one of the best quality lenses going around on a ‘dollar to quality ratio’.
• Focal length – although you’re limited to one focal length it is a useful one. I find it works well with portraits and in getting in nice and close for tightly framed shots of things in street-scapes etc.
On the downside of this lens:
• Focal length – it is a handy length for some shots but not having a zoom can be frustrating if you’re used to that. It’s also a little too long for landscapes (especially on non full frame cameras where it’s the equivalent of an 80mm lens.
• Build Quality – this lens can be a little hard to take seriously when you first pick it up because it’s so light that it feels like a toy. It’s quite ‘plasticy’. It is also a reasonably noisy lens and not the fastest at focussing in low light.
Alternatives to the 50mm f/1.8
The following lenses are alternatives to the 50mm f/1.8 in terms of their speed and size
• Canon EF 50mm f1.4 USM – if the focal length is right but you’re a bit put off by the quality of the f/1.8 lens you might want to spend a bit more (actually it’s more than 4 times more) and get it’s faster big brother – the f/1.4 version. Once again it’s small, light and takes sharp pictures. Despite it being more expensive it’s still quite reasonably priced and is significantly better in terms of quality of build and image. While I love my f/1.8 I wish I’d spent a little more and got this one instead.
• Canon EF 28mm f/1.8 USM – worth considering also when using a non full frame camera is a wider angle lens like this 28mm one (equivalent of a 45mm lens). In many ways this one has a very similar feature list to the f/1.4 lens. It’s small, light, fast and not too expensive.
• Canon EF 20mm f/2.8 USM – go even wider angle with a 20mm lens. It’s not as small as either of the 50mm lenses but is still small enough and gets some very positive reviews.
If money is no object and you don’t mind lugging around extra gear here are a few more ‘L’ Series lenses that I know friends take with them. They’re not cheap or light but the results are stunning.
• Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM or the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM – two wider angle zoom which would match well with the 24-105mm lens. The 16-35mm is especially useful as a faster lens. These lenses are great for portrait and landscape work. I own the 17-40mm lens and it is a lens I’d strongly consider taking away (it’d be my number 1 above if I hadn’t just bought the 24-105mm and if weight wasn’t an issue I’d take it in addition to the other two every time).
• Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM or the Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM – if you think you’ll need some extra length on a zoom I’m a big fan of the 70-200mm range. Of course the 2.8 version is faster and great for lower light situations. Couple these with one of Canon’s lens extenders and you will add even more length. Keep in mind that these are sizeable lenses to travel with and because they are both white they can draw attention to you and could make you a target for people who might want to take them off your hands.
Lastly I have one friend who swears by the Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM when he travels. He’s a big landscape shooter but also loves getting in close to people for wide angle portraits. His shots are always interesting and so this could also be a good option as it’s not a huge or weighty lens and it won’t break the bank as much as an L-Series lens. As I think about it this would probably complement the 24-105mm lens nicely in terms of focal length as it’d give you an almost unbroken range (apart from 22-24mm) from 10mm to 105mm.
Now that you’ve finished this article, you hopefully have a better sense of the best travel lens (or lenses!) for your needs.
So grab the perfect lens.
And have fun on your trip!
Now over to you:
What travel lenses have you used in the past? What’s your favorite travel photography lens? Share your thoughts (and travel images!) in the comments below.