Aurora, Chena Hot Springs, Alaska. Travel photography is about conveying a sense of space that’s evocative, rather than precise. Lens choice helps to transport a viewer to a destination. Photo by Mark Edward Harris
Editor’s Note: This piece first appeared in our Summer issue and reflects the products available at the time of publication. To see our coverage of new lenses, visit our Gear/Lenses and News sections.
In any travel photo essay, images from a number of photographic genres will be called for to tell the full story from a given destination. Travel categories range from portrait, wildlife and landscape, to food, architecture and interior photography. In fact, I don’t think there’s another type of photography that does, for a lack of a better expression, require the wearing of so many “hats.” This isn’t a bad thing; it opens us up to opportunities that photographers working in other genres might never get to experience.
A lot of travel photographers seek the holy grail of lenses—something that’s light enough to take anywhere but versatile enough to capture whatever magical moment comes along. There’s a lot of debate over the “perfect” focal lengths for travel, but if I could have only one lens for these assignments, it would be a 24-70mm ƒ/2.8 zoom (18-55mm with an APS sensor). These focal lengths give me enough range to capture dramatic landscapes and cityscapes as well as classic environmental and “eyes are the window to the soul”-type portraits. The latter is aided by the relatively fast ƒ/2.8 aperture, which allows for shooting with a shallow depth of field. If you like the bokeh effect, stay away from lenses with variable ƒ-stops, that is, lenses whose widest aperture changes as you zoom in. You’ll end up with a larger and more expensive lens with a fixed aperture, but for pros and serious amateurs, the visual payoff is worth it.
While the 24-70mm can cover most travel photo opportunities, there are many who call for going beyond those boundaries. A recent Volcanoes Safaris trek to photograph mountain gorillas in Rwanda required me to bring a 70-200mm to get up close and personal with these magnificent primates while a 150-600mm allowed me to get images of flocks of cranes during their annual migration rest stop in Nebraska’s Central Platte River Valley. On the other end of the focal spectrum, a Fujifilm Fujinon XF14mm F2.8 R (full-frame equivalent 21mm) gave me the extra coverage needed to capture the incredible dance of an Alaskan aurora on a Midnight Son Tours expedition.
While great short zoom travel lenses such as the AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm ƒ/2.8G ED or the Canon EF 24-105mm ƒ/4L IS cover the focal length of a fast 50mm prime, they can’t compete with a lens such as the Canon EF 50mm ƒ/1.2L when it comes to working in extreme low-light situations without resorting to high ISOs. These extremely shallow depth of fields give the resulting image a dramatic cinematic quality. I’ll often throw a fast 50mm into my Tamrac camera backpack specifically for this purpose.
Dramatic eyes are the “window to the soul,” and excellent portraits are often achieved with the combination of a shallow depth of field and the compression of a lens in the 70mm-200mm focal-length range for full-frame cameras. Many photographers find that the slow, variable ƒ-stop zoom lenses within these focal lengths won’t allow for getting a wide enough aperture to achieve the very shallow depth of field needed to drop the background sufficiently out of focus for the desired effect. If you don’t have a fast zoom, a better option is a fixed lens in that range with a fast aperture, that is, one that can open up to at least ƒ/2.8 at any focal length. My AF-S NIKKOR 85mm ƒ/1.8G and Micro-NIKKOR 105mm ƒ/2.8 have been used for this approach with very successful results.
When it comes to photographing wildlife, long lenses are the name of the game. These lenses, especially ones with fast apertures—for example, a 300mm ƒ/2.8—can be extremely heavy and should be mounted directly onto a monopod or tripod, rather than the camera bearing the weight. The latter could result in the bending of the camera’s mounting ring. A mounting collar is provided with professional lenses for that purpose. If a monopod or tripod is used, vibration control/image stabilization should be disengaged on the lens.
Using shallow depth of field to separate an animal from a busy background and a fast motordrive to capture action are often used in combination. A camera and lens combination that can focus fast and track in the autofocus continuous mode can mean the difference between a tack-sharp and a soft image.
Wide-angles and small ƒ-stops are often utilized in tandem for dramatic landscapes and cityscapes. A graduated neutral-density filter can bring in a light sky, and a polarizer can enrich a blue sky and reduce reflections in water, so it’s good to have filters for all of your lens filter sizes. Wide lenses are the norm for photographing buildings and interiors, since there’s usually not enough room to get far enough away to use any other type of lens. Wide-angles can show unwanted distortion, however. In the “old days,” view cameras with bellows could be used to “straighten out” a building. The major 35mm camera companies manufacture perspective-control lenses for in-camera correction. Programs such as Lightroom and Photoshop can make the necessary adjustments in post-processing.
Getting up close and personal with smaller subject matter with a macro lens can be a nice change of pace in a travel photo essay. Food, in particular, is an important part of the travel experience. Most lenses can’t focus closely enough to inspire the Pavlov’s bell response that great food photography can elicit. A macro lens, tripod, cable release and small reflector are my basic tools for food photography.
The following lenses offer a coverage range from superwide to extreme telephoto without breaking the bank or the back.
Lenses For Travel
Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 7-14mm F/2.8 PRO. The Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 7-14mm F2.8 PRO lens for Micro Four Thirds cameras has a 35mm 14-28mm full-frame equivalent, the perfect focal lengths for those who find themselves in tight architectural and geological spaces or want to capture great expanses. The lightweight splash- and dustproof lens can focus to just under three inches for extreme close-ups and has a constant ƒ/2.8 aperture, making it a valuable tool in low-light, non-tripod situations. Price: $1,299. Website: getolympus.com
Tamron SP 15-30mm F/2.8 VC USD. Tamron’s ultra-wide-angle ƒ/2.8 zoom lens for Nikon, Canon and Sony full-frame cameras offers image stabilization (except for the Sony model, which has that feature in its body) and excellent corner-to-corner image quality. As one of Tamron’s SP (Super Performance)-series lenses, its XGM (eXpanded Glass Molded Aspherical) element in the first lens group, combined with several LD (Low Dispersion) elements, helps enhance sharpness while taming chromatic aberrations that often affect wide-angle lenses. Price: $1,199. Website: tamron-usa.com
Fujifilm Fujinon XF14mm F/2.8 R. With a full-frame equivalent of 21mm, the Fujinon XF14mm F2.8 R is wide enough for dramatic land and cityscapes while small and fast enough for street photographers who like a wider view of the intimate, high-energy world around them. The lens can focus to approximately 7 inches for those who want to get up close and extremely personal with their subject matter, whether it be people, flowers or anything in between. Price: $899. Website: fujifilmusa.com
Panasonic Lumix G 25mm F/1.7 ASPH. The economical Panasonic Lumix G 25mm F/1.7 ASPH is a fast Micro Four Thirds lens that opens up low-light opportunities without denting the wallet. The Micro Four Thirds sensor/lens specification provides a more compact option for photographers wanting high-quality results from a smaller camera/lens package. Unlike most other formats, the Micro Four Thirds lenses from each brand are interchangeable. Price: $248. Website: panasonic.com
Rokinon 35mm F/1.2 ED AS UMC CS. A superfast ƒ/1.2 prime lens for mirrorless cameras, the 35mm ƒ/1.2 ED AS UMC CS lens (52.5mm full-frame equivalent) from Rokinon is designed for APS-C-format cameras. The optical design incorporates one extra-low dispersion element and two aspherical elements to minimize both chromatic and spherical aberrations. Its manual-focus design gives photographers precise focusing control down to 1.25 feet while its rounded nine-blade diaphragm enhances the bokeh at wider apertures. Price: $456. Website: rokinon.com
Sony FE 85mm F/1.4 GM. The Sony FE 85mm F1.4 GM for its full-frame cameras combines the compression of a longer lens with a fast aperture, making it an ideal portrait lens. While this E-mount lens has an SSM Focus System, a manual aperture ring helps dial in focus in tricky autofocus-confusing situations as well as decreasing the minimum focusing distance from 2.79 feet in autofocus to 2.62 feet. The lens’ Nano AR coating eliminates unwanted flare and ghosting. Price: $1,798. Website: sony.com
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm F/2.8E ED VR. For Nikon full-frame shooters, this is the must-have lens because of the focal lengths it covers and its fast, continuous ƒ/2.8 aperture. The latest incarnation of the lens adds three to four stops of VR (Vibration Reduction) image stabilization. Price: $2,397. Website: nikonusa.com
Canon EF 100mm F/2.8L Macro IS USM. The beauty is in the details, and Canon’s 100mm macro (160mm equivalent focal length on Canon APS-C cameras) with Hybrid Image Stabilization can assure they’re tack-sharp. Focusing as close as 0.99 feet, its large aperture range from ƒ/2.8 to ƒ/32 adds to the creative possibilities, allowing the photographer to highlight specific areas of an image while turning others into a beautiful, graduated bokeh. Price: $799. Website: usa.canon.com
Sigma 150-600mm F/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sports. The 150-600mm F/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sports lens comes in Canon EF, Nikon F (FX) and Sigma SA bayonet mounts. The dust- and splash-proof lens offers professional-grade optics and an Optical Stabilizer (OS) that features an accelerometer for improved vertical and horizontal panning, particularly useful for wildlife and motorsports photography. The lens gives up some of the benefits of a fast, continuous ƒ-stop telephoto, but for many the incredible versatility in terms of focal range, weight, value and sharpness is well worth the loss of a couple of ƒ-stops. Price: $1,999. Website: sigmaphoto.com