One of the things that usually find themselves inside the backpack during the early stages of packing for a trip are cameras and lenses, particularly if you take travel photography somewhat seriously. For many, a point and shoot camera is enough (some have superb zooms), but there are others who want to take their photography to the next step and bring home images that could very well be the cover shot of National Geographic’s next issue. Well almost. If you are one of them you’ll probably want to know which is the best lens for travel photography, one that can take care of most situations avoiding the extra bulk and weight.
The equipment needed to be able to shoot in a wide range of conditions is expensive, heavy and bulky, and thus trying to save money and space becomes essential, particularly on long trips unless you’re a photographer on assignment. Thus the question is: what is the best camera lens for your DSLR that will let you shoot in a wide range of conditions and give you the flexibility to take my photography to then next level?
I am the proud owner of a Nikon D90, bought it right before my round the world trip together with a Nikon 18-135mm 3.5-5.6 lens and a Nikon f1.8 50 mm lens, plus a tripod and some extra gear. The reasons I bought these camera lenses and not anothers were:
I have to say that after using it for over a year I am very pleased with it. Sure, there are times when extra zoom would come in handy, but I also want the final picture to be as sharp as possible. Plus I didn’t want to have to worry about my lens hitting something because it had extended itself.
As for the 50mm f1.8, I bought it because it is very cheap (just over 100 USD) and I wanted a fast lens I could use during low light conditions and when shooting portraits or close subjects. However I have to admit I have barely used it. The D90 is not a full frame camera (meaning that the sensor if not equivalent to a 35mm film) and has a crop factor of 1.5, which results in the lens being a 75mm lens in reality. As there are no zoom capabilities I found too often that I was not close enough or far enough from the subject, and could not move for one reason or another, thus it not being as flexible as I would have liked. Looking back, if I had the money I would purchase a 18-70mm instead, giving me the flexibility I needed.
But these are only my thoughts! To help you make a better decision I have asked the same question to fellow travel bloggers and experienced professional photographers who were happy to answer this question: Daniel Shah, Daniel Nahabedian, Dave Boskill and Bethany Savlon.
Which is the Best Lens for Travel Photography?
Daniel Shah says:
Currently I just take one lens with me to my treks and adventures i.e. 18-135mm and honestly speaking, brands matter when you are really becoming a pro, not for beginners.”
Daniel Nahabedian responds:
“If I planned to travel with only one lens and had the money to invest in a good one, I’d definitely go with an 18-200mm. The idea is to be able to cover a wide focal range so you can be prepared in any situation. 18mm is fine to capture nice wide angle landscapes and the 200mm end is perfect to zoom in that worker in the rice fields from afar. Now the best option of course would be to get a fast lens. Even a f/2.8 is enough in most situations. However fast lenses covering a wide range are not cheap.”
“Is it essential to buy ‘brand camera lenses’? If you have the money, go for it! If you are very serious in your photography, you should invest. Lenses are the most important things to buy. However, if Photography is just a hobby or you are just starting in the field, Sigma or Tamron lenses work very well and deliver excellent results, and they are much cheaper. When I first started traveling, I bought an 18-250mm from Sigma. While not a fast lens at all (3.5-6), I found it perfect in most situations. In low light, I just cranked up the ISO and shot away (noise is easily removable in post-processing.)”
“If I had to take a second lens, I’d either go for a 50mm prime f/1.8 (excellent for portraits) or a 24-70mm 2.8 which could easily replace the 18-200mm for street photography. Both lenses are suitable for full frame or cropped sensors.”
Bethany Savlon comments:
“For the beginner or anyone looking for a lightweight, all purpose lens the 18-200 3.5 is a good choice. It gives enough wide angle and enough zoom to cover most of your needs without all the added weight. For someone look to take their photography to the next level the 24-70 2.8 is a phenomenal lens. As far as price the 24-70 is not cheap, usually runs around $1500 and it is also not light weight by any means but the pictures are unbelievable. If you have an 18-200 and have a little bit of extra money and want a fun, lightweight lens try out the 50mm 1.8 or the 35mm 1.8 – both will give you dramatically different photos than the 18-200, are reasonably priced (a couple hundred to a few hundred bucks) and are small and lightweight. I would never consider traveling or shooting a wedding without my 35mm 1.8.
As for brand name, I say always buy brand name when you can, if you can. This can be tough for a lot of people, myself included, because brand name will always cost more. If you can’t afford the brand name then do your research on the generic names and go with that. My other suggestion (especially if you are tough on your gear) is to shop used. KEH sells a lot of great used lenses and they have a great warranty. You can save yourself a LOT of money by purchasing a solid, used lens.
My last bit of advice is try not to get too caught up on needing an expensive lens. You can still take great photos with all different types and brand names of lenses and you shouldn’t go broke trying to just buy one lens. Working with what you have can teach you to create images that other people wouldn’t even think about.”
Dave Bouskill replies:
“To narrow it down to just one lens is pretty hard. It really depends on your type of photography. Someone who loves to photograph people and lifestyle will surely have a different lens in mind then someone who loves to shoot primarily landscapes. A lot of emphasis has been put on trying to make the all round do everything lens that offers lightweight, excellent image quality and covers all focal lengths. This has proven an impossibility (for now) so you have to be willing to sacrifice something. Bear in mind I am a Canon user and believe that they make the best lenses out there. I have tried others but have always come back to Canon. Great quality build, reliability and awesome optics.
In my opinion the best all round travel lens for people on a budget that I would choose would be the Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM. It is an EF-S lens which means it is meant for a crop sensor camera not a full frame. Most people probably shoot with a crop sensor nowadays. This lens has good image quality, image stabilization which can give you up to an extra 3 stops hand held and has a good focal range (28-135 35mm equivalent). This allows you to shoot landscapes and people all within one lens. Exactly what I would look for in an everyday walk around travel lens. The reason I would not choose something like the 18-200 IS is that the image quality is quite bad at the 200mm range and in my opinion IQ far outweighs a little extra reach.
For a full frame camera I would choose theCanon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM. This has great image quality, perfect focal length and is relatively fast at F4 all the way through the focal lengths. If money was no object the Canon EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 L IS USM is the ultimate all round lens on the market. But at $2700USD is out of most peoples price range.
If I was to bring one other lens it would be the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM. Sharp as a tack, great for low light photography and shallow DOF work. If money is an issue the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II is substantially cheaper and offers great results if you stop it down to a 2.0. I never leave home without this lens.”
These opinions are meant to point you in the right direction, but ultimately it will be you who will make the purchase. Only you know what your budget is, what you will be shooting mostly and your photography experience. If price is a factor the Nikon 18-135 mm (or equivalent in other brands) is great value for money. You can purchase it in Amazon (the widget below includes this and other lenses- buying it from here will not cost you more and will help me keep this site useful) or hit your local camera store if you can, and hold the lenses that have made the final cut. Check their bulk, their weight, their shooting capabilities, their comfort… and then buy!
Other Resources and Articles to Help You Improve Your Travel Photography
These articles and ebooks are for photographers of all levels but special attention has been given to the beginner or amateur. They contain simple and medium techniques, tips and tricks that will help you progress quickly and get better results from your camera, no matter what kind you own.
[Photo credits @Flickr: self, kakissel, armno-old, self]
Has this article helped you decide? Do you have a favorite lens of your own? Which lens do you always carry with you, and which would you never carry again? Got any questions? Share your opinion below, and this post too if you think others might find it helpful!
48 responses to “Which is the Best Lens for Travel Photography?”
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Hi, I'm Federico. Join me as I travel the world visiting world famous destinations and explore those not as known, offering money saving tips and unique insights for your ultimate trip.
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