Although traveling around the world is easier than it has ever been, airlines, in particular, seem to be trying to make it as uncomfortable and inconvenient as possible. For photographers, this means having to check bags full of precious camera gear that in years past could be carried on. What’s more, with restrictions on the number of carry-on bags, the chances are even higher that you will be forced to check your camera bag when you fly somewhere.
As a result, there has been a movement in the travel photography industry to move fast and light, and take far less gear than was previously the norm. In that spirit, we’ve devised a few guidelines for selecting the best lenses that will fit the bill for most travel occasions.
Here’s what to look for:
Weight (or Lack Thereof)
Less is more here. The lighter the lens, the lighter your bag, and the easier it is for you to carry. This comes in handy for all aspects of your journey, from flights or train rides to wandering around your destination for days at a time. The more weight you shed, the faster you’ll be able to move, and the more your neck, shoulders, and back will thank you. Additionally, the lighter your lenses, the more lenses you can bring, and the greater the focal range you can cover. For example, ditch your enormous telephoto lens in favor of a wide-angle lens and a short zoom. You’ll have a greater variability of focal length and less weight to carry as well, even with an additional lens in your bag.
A fast lens is critical if you are to maximize the situations in which you can shoot. Far too many travelers take along lenses that have a maximum aperture that’s simply too small to allow for low-light shooting. You will likely encounter a variety of situations that call for a fast lens: city views at dusk, perusing museums that don’t allow flash photography, portraits in ancient ruins where light is at a premium, and the like. Don’t fall into that trap and bring along a fast lens that will allow you to shoot from sunrise to sunset (and before and after that too!).
Of course, fast lenses are pricier, so invest in the fastest lens you can afford. Look for something that opens to f/2.8, or even better f/1.4, to give yourself the greatest flexibility in terms of the lighting under which you can use the lens. But beware - faster lenses weigh more, so consider having one lens that opens to f/2.8 or f/1.4 and save weight on your other lenses by taking something in the f/4 range.
Naturally, you will want to buy lenses that give you the greatest versatility possible. The subject matter you photograph will change drastically from location to location - from indoors to outdoors, portraits to landscapes, architectural images to slow-shutter night time shots. As a result, having a couple of lenses suited for different purposes will give you the greatest range in terms of what you can photograph and photograph well.
The “nifty fifty” 50mm lens is a great all-around lens that will allow you to photograph many different scenes, from landscapes to portraits and everything in between. Nifty fifties are small, lightweight, and fast, so they check all the boxes on our list. Of course, the nifty fifty can’t do it all. For example, if you’ll be on safari in Africa, a nifty fifty won’t cut it on its own and you’ll need a longer focal length of at least 200mm as well.
That being said, you can create a kit that is extremely versatile if you’re purposeful about it. Pair your nifty fifty with a wide-angle 16-35mm f/4 zoom and a zoom like a 70-200mm f/4. Between those three lenses, you will have just about all the focal range you need for the varied subject matter you will encounter. Another highly versatile kit would be three prime lenses - a wide-angle 24mm or 28mm f/2.8, a 50mm f/1.4, and a 135mm f/2.8.
Granted, having three lenses in your kit will push the boundaries of traveling light and fast, so the alternative would be to take just one or two lenses that fit the most situations you’ll encounter on your trip. If you’ll be exploring cities or taking portraits, the nifty fifty might be all you need. If landscapes will be your primary subject, go wide-angle and take a 24mm f/2.8. For wildlife, go big and take something like a 200mm f/2.8. For most travelers, however, two lenses - a small prime lens (i.e. the nifty fifty) and a versatile zoom (i.e. 24-105mm f/4) will usually get the job done.
When taking just one or two lenses, you will limit yourself to the types of images you can take, but if you cater your lens choices to the type of photography you will most likely be doing, you should be able to get the shots you want.
There is no hard and fast rule for the ideal travel photography lenses. Ultimately, what you take on your trip will depend not just on the type of photos you want to shoot, but also on your camera system and your personal preferences regarding the types of images you want to create. Nonetheless, if you’re looking to fill out your kit for upcoming travels, focus on getting the best glass you can. Look for speed, minimal weight, and a measure of versatility and you’ll be well-equipped for just about any travels.