Buying lenses for travel photography

A student-to-be wrote me question about what to bring to a class later this year. His question was specific to the class I am teaching but also broad enough that I suspect I will be revisiting the same topic in the future. So I figured I would kill two birds with one stone and make a blog entry out of the answer to his wise question.

The question:

I am going to take your travel photography class this fall so want to take the liberty to ask you a question in advance. I am trying to complete my travel lens kit and need some advice. I have a D90 with these lenses: 18-135mm 3.5/5.6 and a 50mm/1.4. I realize that personal preferences come into play, but I do find myself liking to shoot wider these days, although there are times when I also want more focal length.

The answer:

It depends….


Lenses are like cameras and computers. They solve a given problem, nothing more. Selecting which lens to use, buy or take on a given shoot is a series of compromises where issues such as weight, size, and cost need to be balanced against issues like maximum aperture, zoom range, close focus capability, etc. The ideal lens for me, in a perfect world, would be 18mm to 360mm f/2.0 (effective focal length for 35mm film) that would not cost an arm and a leg while also being easily hand hold-able. (Before you laugh at my wild idea, remember, as they say, everybody has a dream.)

Since that lens is not available (yet,) the question is, what would I be thinking about as I assemble my array of lenses for travel photography? That depends on where I am going, what I am photographing and especially on how I am getting around once I am “on location.”

In many ways the issue of local transport is key. On many of my “travel” jobs, I am working with a driver and a guide/translator, so I tend to have lots of gear with me in the car, even if the bigger, heavier stuff spends most of the time in the car and only gets used occasionally. On smaller jobs, where less gear is the norm, I regularly start the planning for each shoot doing a kind of mental calculation that goes something like: “what will I really need, how much can I carry and how far will I be going?”

Right now, when I know I will be walking longer distances, I carry Olympus zoom lenses that have the effective focal length of (after the conversion) of 18 to 36, 28 to 80, 80 to 300, (and sometimes but not often 140 to 600. I tend to leave that behind because it is big and heavy and I end up using it the least, if at all.) Those first three lenses give me an extraordinary range of coverage and they also overlap, so I have back up in case one lens fails/breaks. I carry two and sometimes three bodies because I find it faster to switch to a different lens or to get to a new battery/new memory card via switching bodies rather than actually changing lenses, batteries or memory cards. Plus multiple camera bodies make sure I have “back-up” in case one camera fails.

Though I have become pretty used to using zoom lenses, I was a fixed focal length shooter for a long time. Zooms can make photographers (including me) lazy. Someone wiser than I once said, the best zoom is your feet, so what I should be doing is walking up and down to get the framing just right. Since I do almost no post-production or cropping, and I am trying to get everything right in camera, this becomes a big part of my working process.

Zooms certainly can make this easier but I am hoping to be moving away from zooms in the near future. The reason I say that is because the lenses I have long wanted are coming to the market finally. By way of background, I was “happiest” with my gear when I used Contax rangefinder camera with a 21mm f/2.8, a 35mm f/2.0 and a 90mm f/2.8. Those three lenses covered 95% of the situations I encountered, worked well in low light and traveled well, since they (and the camera were so small.)

The Olympus PEN cameras that I currently use are a lot like the Contax G-2 rangefinder camera that I used to use. Olympus recently announced a new set of fixed focal length lenses, with an effective focal length of (after the conversion) of 24mm f/2 and 90mm f/1.8. I look forward to using those, though I will still probably use the 80 to 300 f/4 – 5.6 as both a back up lens and to cover the longer focal lengths. I am still looking at the options for a “normal” fixed focal length lens, which can be very useful in terms of working in low light and creating images with shallow depth of field.

Now, I am not suggesting anyone go out and switch over to the Olympus PEN cameras, or to any other specific brand for that matter. What I am suggesting, as I always do when I am asked about gear, is to ask the questioner to clarify what do they need and what can they get rid of? A way of appreciating this is to think, yes, the Canon 5D is great camera that has a full frame chip that makes great image files. It is also a tank to carry around day in and day out. The Nikon D3 bodies are great, especially in low light, but…. They cost a fortune and weigh a ton.

So, what to buy? Well I would never say anything so specific. I would look carefully at what you really need. For example, I would look, via your computer to see exactly which percentage of your images are made with which lenses and at what focal lengths. With the EXIF info that is recorded in most digital cameras you actually can find out what focal length lens was used for a given image. You might be surprised to learn how often you use a wide angle or a normal lens, possibly arguing to purchase one of those as a fixed focal length lens.

I did just such a research project recently to determine which images were made with my table-top tripod. I was stunned to find how often I use it successfully to shoot at speeds lower than 1/8 of a second or longer.

With that information in hand it should be easier to figure out which lenses, if any to get. If you found by looking at your work you were constantly shooting wide angles and found yourself wanting wider, that might suggest a wider zoom (or a wider fixed focal length lens which can be smaller and cheaper.) For me, I use long lenses very rarely, so if I had to choose which lenses in my bag were going to be slower in maximum aperture and/or lower in cost/quality, I would definitely give something up on the “long lens” end of the lens spectrum. Wildlife photographers would look at the same question from the opposite perspective, spending their money on (and carrying the weight) of longer lenses. The one lens I would encourage most travel photographers to have is some kind of fixed focal length, large aperture normal lens like a 50mm f/1.4 or 1.8, which is great in low light as well as for simple portraits, plus it is so small and light it is easy to keep around.

The one thing I also would encourage any travel photographer to do is buy a table-top tripod. I have blogged at great length how those simple devices can open up a world of options for photography at night, indoors, etc. Some of those blog entries are at:

Everything in digital photography is a compromise, since the perfect lens, camera and computer have yet to be invented. It probably never will be either, since each user’s needs are different. Accepting that idea of defining your own unique needs will get you a lot further in figuring out what you need for travel photography than will listening to a salesman or a blogger (even me.)

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