Which is the Best Lens for Travel Photography?

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. Or almost. If you're one of them you'll probably want to know which is the best camera lens for travel photography, one that can take care of most situations avoiding the extra bulk and weight.

Updated May 2017: This post has been updated to include newer lens models and advice that will allow you make a better decision.

best interchangable lens for travel

Which is the Best Lens For Travel Photography? Is there a Single One Lens?

​Unfortunately, no. Let me explain.

The lens (and camera) you and I need when traveling will vary from trip to trip considerably and depend on a number of factors including the length of the trip, the nature of the trip, who I'm traveling with and what we plan to take pictures of.

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. But then again you can edit your images in post processing once you get back home- the question is if you'll take the time to do so.

The main considerations that you’ll probably want to consider when buying a lens for travel include:

Weight. Are you ready to carry photography gear that weighs more than 5 kg (10 lbs) on an extended holiday with your family?  I don't think so.

Versatility: It's hot... humid...your kid is tired and your partner/ friend is waiting for you to switch lenses, adjust the tripod, switch filters... wouldn't life be easier if you only had one lens?

Speed. Do you plan on taking a lot of pictures with low light? You're going to have to make a compromise if you want a zoom lens as these aren't as fast.

Other reasons.​ The most important one being cost. Another is storage. How are you going to carry it/ them?

travel photography

A good camera and a backpack is all you need to enjoy travel photography.

The Best Way to Store Camera Lenses When Traveling

You may not have thought about it, but this is a very important point to consider prior to buying a great DSLR lens for travel. How are you going to carry it? Don't count on hanging it by your neck or shoulder all the time- you'll end up sore, very sore.

At the end of the day you really only have three options.​ Getting a camera backpack, buying a hard case or carrying it in your everyday backpack. 

​Camera Backpacks/ Shoulder Bags

​These backpacks are designed specifically for carrying cameras. They are all well padded and have different storage areas for the main body and lens, additional lenses, filters and other gear. I used to have one for many years with a padded camera sleeve, but ditched it for my 10 month round the world trip because I didn't want to carry an additional third backpack.

Lowerpro and Tenba have some great ones, with those by Tenba being somewhat more versatile.
camera backpack

How much photography gear are you really going to carry when you travel?

Hard & Waterproof Camera Cases

These hard plastic camera cases are large and durable, but definitely not good for traveling. I wouldn't even consider one, unless you want it to keep your camera securely stored at home.

Camera Sleeves

Your third option is a camera sleeve bag , and this is what I've been using for the past few years and trips. I took out the sleeve from my camera backpack and placed it in the daypack of my travel backpack. A camera sleeve is basically a padded shoulder/ messenger bag that you can carry independently or use with any backpack you have (as long as it's large enough). It may not be as fashion or practical as a backpack but if you want to travel light this is probably your best option.

The Best Way to Clean a Camera Lens On the Road

​This is another point you have to consider when buying your ideal DSLR lens for travel. Premium glass (lenses) are expensive and need to be taken care of very well- will you be diligent enough to follow throw? 

Non premium camera lenses still have to be taken care of , and you're going to need a bit of extra equipment, but you might not have to be as careful. You'll still want to make sure the lenses are clean as dirty glass can lead to blurry images. Should sand get inside the lens there's a chance it might stop working if you don't clean it as soon as possible. 

How should you clean it then when on the road? There are different ways but all are very similar:​

  1. Cleaning the exterior of the lens, including the lens hood – Start by using wet microfiber cloth to remove any dust or dirt from lens exterior and lens hood. I apply the same optical formula that contains anti-static material on microfiber cloth or if the lens is too dirty, I start off by using regular water (distilled water would work best) and then finish off with using the solution. To clean the rubber zoom and focus rings, I use an ordinary toothbrush, which works great for removing particles in between the rubber lines.
  2. Cleaning the lens mount – a very important part of the process that sometimes requires me to clean the mount several times due to oil and dirt. Apply the same lens cleaning solution on microfiber cloth and clean the mount thoroughly. Don’t forget to clean the round contacts on the lens as well.
  3. Cleaning the rear and the front optical elements – I find microfiber cloth to be unsafe for cleaning optical lens elements, especially if you reuse the same microfiber cloth that you use to clean your lenses outside. Also, sometimes microfiber cloth will leave particles that are hard to remove with the rocket blower, so I rely on lens cleaning tissues instead. They clean glass very well and if they leave anything on the lens, it can be easily removed by the rocket blower.
best all around travel lens

​Choose the Travel Lens You Really Need

The equipment you'll need 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 single best camera lens for travel photography that will let you shoot in a wide range of conditions and give you the flexibility to take your images to then next level?

I own 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:

  1. I chose a brand name because at the time it was be part of the kit, saving a few dollars.
  2. After hours of searching online I concluded that the 18-135mm is sharper than the 18-200mm
  3. Lenses with long zooms can suffer from creep, referring to the fact that because of weight, when hanging from the shoulder the lens extends itself because of its own weight. You then run the risk of hitting it against something or simply scraping the glass.

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 (at a price I can afford). 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 asked the same question to fellow travel bloggers and experienced professional photographers : Daniel Shah, Daniel Nahabedian, Dave Boskill and Bethany Savlon.

Which is the Best DSLR Lens for Travel Photography? 4 Pro Photographers Answer

​Here's what they answered:

Daniel Shah 

"I'll take a 18-135mm lens because it will give me possibility to shoot wide as well as tele. For traveling, I would want to buy 10-22 mm Canon or any other that gives me more possibility to take wide shots. And definitely I would want a faster lens like f1.8 18-200 since it would give me more possibility to take faraway subjects in low light conditions.

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."

Danial Shah is a traveler, blogger and photographer based in Pakistan. He's trekked to the K2 base camp and explored most of the country.

nikon 18-70

Daniel Nahabedian

"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."

Daniel Nahabedian is a professional photographer who spends a good portion of his time exploring remote locations looking for the ultimate shot. Check examples of his in his photography at www.canvas-of-light.com

tamron 18-270
Tamron's 18-270 mm lens

Bethany Savlon

"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."

Bethany is a professional photographer who is traveling around the world with her partner Randy, a professional journalist. Check their photos and read about their trips in their popular blog www.beersandbeans.com

Dave Bouskill 

"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 the Canon 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 it 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."

Dave was recently requested by Olympus cameras to become part of their test team and together with his partner Debra they constantly travel the world speak about their adventures in www.theplanetd.com 

What Lens Do I Recommend?

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.

But I know you'd appreciate a specific answer, one that will point you in the right direction. I've visited more than 80 countries and take my Nikon DSLR everywhere , and while I used to take all my gear with me I stopped doing it some time ago. It's too bulky, heavy, and I end up not using everything.

Nowadays I just take my 18-135 mm Nikon lens which may not be the best camera lens for long distance photography but I do find it to be one of the best all purpose camera lenses, and only sometimes the filters. Having a good zoom is very important for versatility and allows me to take many kinds of pictures with a single lens. I can take pictures of monkeys on trees and then immediately a nice portrait of a local carrying a basket with fish by simply making a few adjustments.

This said, what do I recommend?​

If price is a factor the Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-140mm f/3.5-5.6G ED (or equivalent in other brands) is great value for money . ​

If you own a Canon camera then the Canon EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS is the equivalent lens for that brand. It is 5 mm shorter in terms of focus, but you won't even notice.​

Finally, there's another lens I would definitely consider if I was in the market for a great overall travel lens today. The Sigma 18-250mm f3.5-6.3 DC MACRO OS HSM is almost the same size and weight as the18-200 mm lens (giving you an extra 50 mm), the latest generation optical stabilizer and fantastic autofocus.

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.

10 Simple Tips to Dramatically Improve Your Photos
How to Use Depth of Field
30 Free Photography Ebooks

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!

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