The type of camera kit you travel with can be completely different from equipment used for regular day-to-day photography work. Depending on the job, a variety of equipment from different cameras bodies, lenses, and lighting gear lets you choose the appropriate items for shooting a certain subject in a certain scenario. However, when it comes to travel photography your choices have to be more clear-cut and succinct.
There are many factors to take into consideration which we will cover in this article with the assumption of you starting off with either a DSLR or mirrorless camera which can take interchangeable lenses. Its clearly an option to travel with just a smartphone or compact camera for the ultimate in weight saving, but here we are talking about getting the best image quality at all focal lengths and that’s where interchangeable lenses hit the mark.
Best Travel Lenses: General Considerations
One of the main factors to consider when travelling is not just image quality, but also size and weight. We can only take so much weight on transport and nobody wants to be carrying around all day a complete lens collection which weighs the same as a small child. Therefore, you need to whittle your kit down to the essentials, which will cover all the bases.
One lens may not be able to do everything, so it may be you end up with two or maybe three lenses which can cover all of the focal ranges needed. Plenty of cameras these days come with a kit lens, probably a consumer level zoom, which will do the job, but you will soon be wanting for better image quality and diving into the higher end of the market.
Buying into a high-end lens is a worthy investment as they tend to hold their prices and are built for the working photographer, i.e. they are weather sealed and have the rugged build quality needed to take the day-to-day escapades of travelling.
The realities of life usually dictate a budget being set for how much can be spent on your lens kit. Generally, the more expensive the lens, the better the quality, but also they weigh the most. Consumer lenses are the most lightweight, which means lens choice will be a balance between image quality, weight savings, and cost.
Personally, I would always opt for the best image quality, which means the heaviest of lenses in any scenario, but that’s just a personal choice. However, I have known photographers with physical disabilities where a huge zoom lens is just not viable as a travel lens, which meant the choices were lightweight primes or more consumer level zoom lenses.
At the end of the article we will give a few general recommendations as a start off point, but you can also check out the second-hand market as long as your choices come from reputable dealers or sellers.
What Makes a Good Lens
A camera lens is made up of lots of elements (that includes lens elements) which can dictate the image quality, weight and size. firstly, the aperture of a lens changes in size, letting in less or more light. This is measured in f numbers with the lowest numbers having the widest apertures/openings.
Generalizing, the ideal is to own a lens with the lowest f-number. Top quality zoom lenses usually have an aperture of f/2.8. Prime lenses, which have a fixed focal length can go even wider to the likes of f/1.8 or even f/0.9 on some of the newer lenses optimized for mirrorless camera bodies. The problem for the travel photographer is that the wider the aperture, generally the heavier the lens. A consumer-grade zoom lens may have an aperture of f/3.5-5.6 which can suffice if you are shooting in reasonably lit environments and weigh far less than a big zoom with f/2.8.
Focal length is a big deciding factor. Measured in millimeters (mm), the smaller the number, the more wide-angle the lens. The bigger the number, the more telephoto (e.g. a 14mm lens is very wide-angle, while a 200mm lens is very telephoto or zoomed in to a subject). This is further complicated as good quality camera bodies house either a full-frame sensor or APS-C sensor. An APS-C sensor, or crop sensor, crops an image by 1.6x, giving the impression of being a little more zoomed in. This means that a 100mm lens on a full-frame sensor will be 160mm on an APS-C sensor.
Ideally, you want to cover wide-angle to telephoto focal ranges, which will equate to around 14mm for wide-angle and up to 200mm at the telephoto end. A great all-rounder lens is a 24-70mm f/2.8, but if you wanted to cover all bases you could use three lenses in the shape of a 14-24mm zoom wide-angle, 24-70mm for standard focal lengths, and a 70-200mm for telephoto. Usually, the bigger the focal range of zoom the less the image quality, so it’s not always advisable to buy a lens with an extreme range from ultra-wide to ultra-telephoto.
One advantage of the higher quality lenses is that they usually have image stabilization. The most popular makes have their own versions which allow you to use much lower shutter speeds while still hand holding the camera. Generally you don’t want a shutter speed less than the focal length you are using, e.g. a 200mm focal length will need 1/200th of a second. Most image stabilization systems can give you three to five stops of extra play, which means the same 200mm lens at 1/200th can now use 1/25th of a second and still get sharp images.
Size and weight are a careful balancing act when it comes to travel lenses. Travelling as light as possible is key, but the best quality lenses are heavy…hmmm. Ultimately, this means there will be some compromise if you want the best image quality, but mirrorless cameras and their new breed of lenses are giving the same image quality in a far lighter package. However, these solutions will also cost you the most.
So Which Lenses Are Best?
This will depend on your brand of camera body and sensor format, be it a Micro Four Thirds, crop sensor or full-frame sensor. Trying to get away with the least amount of camera lenses possible, a 24-70mm lens is a great focal length, but that depends on if your camera brand has this lens in its lineup.
A good high-end lens for Micro Four Thirds could be the Olympus M.Zuiko 12-100mm f/4 IS PRO. At the cheaper end of the spectrum the Olympus M.Zuiko ED 14-150mm f/4-5.6 II.
Sony is starting to produce great lenses throughout the price points, with one medium-priced option being the Sony 18-105mm f/4 OSS G or Sony E 18-135 f/3.5-5.6 OSS. Both Nikon and Canon produce their own interpretations of a 24-70mm, which although pricey and heavy, will never let you down. Cheaper and lighter weight could be the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G ED VR or Sigma 18-300mm f/3.5-6.3 DC MACRO OS HSM.
Whichever lens you buy, it’s always advisable to stick on a UV filter. it’s not just to cut out UV light, but it also protects the lenses front element. It’s better replacing a cheap filter than a complete lens.
Picking the least amount of lenses needed to cover all your travelling needs is always a compromise. Size and weight will always be key, but if you can handle the extra weight, the added image quality is worth it.