A Traveler’s Lens

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. Over time, the most basic of zoom ranges—80-200mm—has evolved to some degree, but the fundamental utility has remained the same. Manufacturers have stretched the parameters on both ends of the focal range, first to 70-200mm, then to 70-300mm. Now, smaller-sensor digital cameras make the 18-200mm an option in the same category.

150mm (240mm equivalent); 1?100 sec. at ƒ/5.6, ISO 400

Marketplaces are great fun for undisturbed portraits of people, especially women. I say this not as some chauvinistic stereotype of the female shopper, but the simple fact that in most exotic cultures around the world, women are doing a better job of maintaining their traditional colorful dress than are the men. In markets, shoppers often are so intent on examining the wares that they’re oblivious to the photographer. In Jaipur, India, these brightly dressed women had no sooner dropped off their heavy, head-carried loads of produce before they directly crossed the street to spend their few newly earned rupees on silk. Open shade under trees tempered midday contrast, but provided enough light to shoot handheld with a telephoto. Without benefit of distance, the same proud women likely would take some offense at being focused on as a curiosity. In Guizhou, China, a Gejia shopper inspects bundles of porcelain bowls. Without this distraction and a telephoto lens to provide separation, it would not be possible to capture such a genuine moment. In both photos, the shallow depth of field of the telephoto adds the pleasing effect of placing the key subjects against an out-of-focus background to limit clutter in the image, a primary function of a portrait lens.

135mm (216mm equivalent); 1?100 sec. at ƒ/5.6, ISO 400/

Most of the time, the objective of the travel photographer is to be inconspicuous, and as that’s hard to do as a completely conspicuous Western tourist, the next best thing is to look unassuming, which is why I like to use as small a lens/camera package as possible, avoiding the large ƒ/2.8 pro lenses that, when pointed in a subject’s direction, are about as subtle as a cannon barrel. This young mother in Varanasi took notice of my interest and directed her gaze into the lens. A medium telephoto has always been the preferred portrait lens, since the natural compression effect of the lens tends to flatter facial features. It’s not uncommon for fashion photographers to use 300mm or longer on location shoots (models on a beach), both for that effect and to make use of such lenses’ extremely shallow depth of field.

The advent of the smaller-sensor (APS-C) digital cameras has actually enhanced the possibilities of this zoom range. The 70-300mm range that added magnification to the high end when it became popular for film users has become a bit too strong for everyday use (though stabilization tempers that comment somewhat). Still, handholding an effective 480mm lens without camera movement is a daunting task, and such a telephoto isn’t commonly useful for most travel photography. The smaller-sensor camera, along with improved lens construction and design, provides a great advantage to the travel photographer in the form of the 18-200mm range as an exceptionally versatile, nearly do-it-all lens (think effective 28-300mm) without sacrificing too much in the ƒ-stop cate-gory, as these lenses generally have an aperture range of about ƒ/3.5-5.6. The 18-200mm may well be the travel photographer’s new 70-200mm or 70-300mm substitute in a much smaller, more packable size. And the 18mm (28mm) is very useful for taking wide, but not too distorted, landscapes.

127mm (203mm equivalent); 1?320 sec. at ƒ/8, ISO 200 This long-distance view of the Thikse Gompa in Ladakh, India, demonstrates the use of a telephoto to composite three widely separated subjects into a single image as though they were closely related to each other. It has always been assumed that the “normal” lens is 50mm, but to me, the eye seems to be able to take in a scene with more apparent magnification and peripheral vision, both at the same time, through a complex visual process of pans and scans and zooms all in the same mental image. In many ways, a medium telephoto represents how the eye sees multiple subjects in a scene, at least from a centrally focused point of view. Wide-angle lenses tend to overemphasize the foreground and diminish the background, so that the end result seems unfaithful to the grander impact afforded by your own vision. Here, a stabilized zoom, supported on a convenient chorten, made it possible to stop down to ƒ/8 for a bi
t of extra depth of field, just enough to hold adequate sharpness from foreground to background.

165mm (264mm equivalent); 1?90 sec. at ƒ/5.6, ISO 200 The optical compression of the telephoto blows up the background of golden spires and shrines of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar, and puts visitors in proper perspective to the size of the place. The magnification of the lens, here at just under 300mm (effective), has the effect of stacking up the subject details, essentially placing the real dimensions of subjects in foreground and background planes in relative juxtaposition. Thus, a five-foot person closer to the camera is seen in roughly the same size parity as a five-foot Buddha, which is farther from the camera. In contrast, a wider focal length would give the foreground the appearance of greater emphasis. In this way, the telephoto lens brings a sense of powerful dimension to a scene of grand subjects, whether massive pagoda or imposing mountains.

The benefit of stabilization can be seen even in the viewfinder, and most users find they can shoot handheld or on a monopod at shutter speeds about three stops slower than previously possible and consistently get sharp images. That’s an invaluable feature for low-light photography, long-distance portraiture and telephoto landscapes, all taken without a tripod.

With a steady telephoto, you can capture natural portraits without disturbing the subject or calling attention to yourself. For posed portraits, the telephoto perspective flattens the subject’s facial features for a professional effect. (Portrait lenses traditionally have been in the 100-150mm range, but even 300-400mm often is used for outdoor fashion work.) With grand landscapes and major monuments, the compression of a telephoto brings widely spaced features into visual juxtaposition, lending a powerful perspective to the picture.

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