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Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Traveler’s Lens

How digital tech and lens evolution work together for travel photography

Labels: LensesGear

This Article Features Photo Zoom


145mm (232mm equivalent)1⁄125 sec. at ƒ/5, ISO 200
To outfit my first SLR, purchased in what seems like a hundred years ago, I acquired a 28mm and an 80-200mm zoom. Now, decades later, my basic travel kit still relies on two camera bodies and this simple lens combination; only today, the wide choice is a 10-20mm lens (to achieve the roughly 16mm view that I grew accustomed to with film) and a 70-300mm or 18-200mm zoom that I interchange, depending on how strong the lens needs to be for the subjects I’ll encounter.

Armed with a wide zoom and a telephoto zoom, there’s little that a travel photographer can’t accomplish. The purpose here is to call attention to just how versatile the medium telephoto can be as an invaluable travel lens.

It’s safe to say that the primary reason that the vast majority of photographers choose to step up to an SLR in the first place is to achieve two key benefits that otherwise limit compact fixed-lens cameras: 1) eliminate shutter lag; and 2) add the ability to attach a telephoto lens to capture more distant subjects. Manufac-turers are responding to demand by offering camera-and-lens kits with lenses that are much more useful than the tepid 18-55mm. Once you start shooting with a telephoto zoom, you’ll quickly begin to enjoy the creative control that the broad spectrum of focal lengths affords you across a range of subjects.

While cameras have evolved rapidly with digital technology advancements related to sensor capacity and computing power in a continuing cycle of impending obsolescence, lenses have remained a sound investment. With each new step up in megapixels and image improvement, passed-over cameras, like old laptops, become as valuable as paperweights. Focal length and the ability to create compositions remains largely constant over time, and as of yet, there are virtually no digital substitutes for a lens’ resolving power or optical personality, which is why it’s always regrettable to see buyers splurge on a camera body and scrimp on lens quality or utility.

A number of manufacturers offer zooms with a maximum focal length of 200mm to 300mm. There are two primary features that you’ll want. First, it’s useful for the maximum aperture not to exceed ƒ/5.6. Beyond that aperture, the lens will lack sufficient light-gathering capabilities in lower-light situations, causing you to rely on higher ISO settings—perhaps 800 and above. While the latest models of digital cameras do an excellent job of minimizing noise at higher ISO settings, I’d rather place more responsibility on the quality of the lens. The second important feature, and one that goes hand in hand with aperture, is image stabilization. Now that stabilization has become an affordable option, there’s no excuse for using a lens without it.

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