One way to think about these types of lenses is that they’re go-anywhere, do-anything devices. That’s because travel encompasses such a broad range of subject matter. Travel photographers shoot landscapes and architecture, but they also make portraits and shoot close-up photos. They may capture sports, wildlife and street photography, too.
So how can a lens be designed to do all of this well?
Defining Your Travel Lens
One way to think about travel lenses is to consider their versatility—specifically as it relates to the ability to cover a variety of compositional needs from wide-angle to telephoto. They may not do everything well, but they’re typically versatile enough to do multiple things well.
There is no textbook definition of an ideal travel lens, but for many, it is a wide-to-tele zoom lens such as a 24-70mm. Depending on your particular emphasis, however, you may prefer a wider zoom range (such as 16-35mm or 17-50mm) or a telephoto zoom (such as a 70-200mm). Wildlife shooters, for instance, are sure to prefer the reach of a longer zoom, while scenic and architecture photographers may choose the greater angle of view provided by a shorter lens.
Many lenses are versatile, but it helps to start by considering the type of subjects you most enjoy photographing and choose a lens that will do that well.
Another aspect of travel lenses is size and weight. Is the lens compact and light, ideal for stowing in a carry-on bag and for long days of walking with a camera in hand? A travel lens is going to encounter its share of bumps and bruises, too, so the best ones are built to withstand the rigors of travel by planes, trains and automobiles, and ideally sealed and coated to protect against moisture and dirt.
Size and weight have consistently come down in recent years as more and more photographers have traded larger DSLRs for smaller mirrorless cameras. These compact cameras pair especially well with compact lenses. A photographer could carry a trio of primes (say a 28mm, 50mm and 85mm) without sacrificing too much weight compared to a DSLR outfitted with a fast zoom, but there’s still a lot to be said for the all-in-one versatility of a zoom that’s purpose-built for travel, so that’s our focus here.
Photographers with an arsenal of DSLR lenses will be happy to know that adapters are available to affix those lenses to their compact mirrorless cameras, and good adapters don’t impact focal lengths at all—so wide angles stay wide—and the lens will still focus correctly. So make sure not to skimp on such an important lens accessory.
Knowing The Tradeoff
One tradeoff that occurs when shopping for a travel lens is that of speed for portability. The larger the maximum aperture (say ƒ/2 or ƒ/2.8), the larger and heavier the lens.
Zoom lenses can get around this with a variable maximum aperture (say ƒ/3.5-5.6), which makes lenses smaller, lighter and more affordable. It also enables astonishing focal range from ultrawide to super-telephoto, all within a single lens.
However, if shooting wide open to produce beautifully shallow depth of field is important, investing in a fixed f/2.8 zoom is likely worth it. And if it’s the sole focus of your travel, consider instead a fast prime portrait lens.
When I’m going to be on my feet for many hours, I don’t want to carry more gear than is necessary. Because I know I’ll be confronted with a variety of subjects, I turn to my 24-70mm lens every time. It’s a very versatile lens for landscapes and portraits and everything in between.
And because it’s a fast f/2.8 lens, I can create beautiful shallow depth of field for portraits too—and shoot in low light if the location demands it without resorting to upping the ISO.
2019 Travel Lenses
Canon RF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM: Canon’s compact mirrorless EOS R lineup continues to grow with the addition of new bodies and new lenses designed to pair with the compact and powerful full-frame system. The newly announced RF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM is a telephoto zoom that practically defies logic, sporting both a fast f/2.8 maximum aperture and a surprisingly compact frame expected to come in about half the size of a typical 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom. Designed to make the most of the RF mount’s fast autofocus capabilities, this quality compact 70-200mm is sure to be among any traveling photographer’s favorite zooms. Price: $1,299. Website: usa.canon.com
Fujifilm GF 100-200mm f/5.6 R LM OIS WR: Fujifilm’s GFX mirrorless camera offers one of the physically largest sensors available in a body sized similarly to a full-frame pro DSLR. A new optically stabilized telephoto zoom for that medium-format digital camera is the GF 100-200mm f/5.6 R LM OIS WR. It sounds even more telephoto than it is because of its .79x crop factor, so in practice, this lens approximates the coverage of an 80-160mm lens on a full-frame DSLR. For photographers who want maximum resolution and the added image quality and medium format look, the GFX paired with this 100-200mm zoom makes medium format more portable than ever. The short-to-mid telephoto range makes the lens especially well-suited to portraits, and its nine rounded aperture blades produce beautiful bokeh. Estimated Street Price: $2,000. Website: fujifilm.com
Nikon NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S: Last fall, Nikon entered the full-frame mirrorless camera game with its compact Z 6 and Z 7 bodies, and the company continues to add lenses to round out the Z system lineup. One of the newest additions is an ideal general-purpose travel lens: the NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S. Purposely built to cover everything from wide angles to short telephoto without sacrificing speed or image quality, the lens has a fast ƒ/2.8 maximum aperture and nine rounded aperture blades to produce smooth bokeh. A built-in LED on the barrel displays information, including focal length, focal distance and depth of field, while a programmable function button makes the lens more versatile as it can engage focusing, image stabilization and more based on the photographer’s preference. The lens is notably smaller and lighter than a comparable 24-70mm F-mount lens, making it an ideal choice for travel. Estimated Street Price: $2,299. Website: nikonusa.com
Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-200mm f/3.5-6.3: Micro Four Thirds camera users can carry a single lens for travel and tackle practically every compositional need thanks to the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-200mm extreme zoom. Though it covers a whopping range equivalent to 24mm on the wide end and 400mm fully extended, this lens also features a variable maximum aperture (ƒ/3.5 to ƒ/6.3), which keeps its size down. It’s under 4 inches long and weighs just a pound. It can also focus under 4 inches, and while it doesn’t produce a true 1:1 macro reproduction ratio, it’s one more facet of this superzoom’s versatility. Estimated Street Price: $899. Website: getolympus.com
Panasonic Lumix S 24-105mm f/4 Macro OIS: Optically stabilized and built to resist dirt, dust, moisture and freezing temperatures, the LUMIX 24-105mm f/4 Macro lens brings pro-quality and a rugged build to users of Panasonic’s LUMIX S Series mirrorless cameras. Mounted on S1 and S1R bodies, the lens offers up to six stops of shake reduction. Because it’s an f/4 lens, it’s also reasonably compact given its larger than average zoom range. Serious close-up photographers may prefer a dedicated macro prime lens, though this zoom does deliver .5x magnification and focusing closer than 1 foot. Estimated Street Price: $1,299. Website: shop.panasonic.com
Rokinon 85mm f/1.8: Some photographers prefer traveling with prime lenses instead of zooms. Portrait photographers, in particular, may prefer fast primes for their ability to open wide and produce shallow depth of field that naturally sets the subject apart from the background. Rokinon’s 85mm f/1.8 is just such a portrait lens. Built for APS-C mirrorless cameras from Canon, Fujifilm and Sony, and with a Micro Four Thirds version to follow, this manual focus lens is compact and sports a nine-bladed aperture for smooth bokeh. Based on the crop factor, when used with APS-C sensors the lens is approximately equivalent to a 128mm or 136mm telephoto prime. And without all the bells and whistles, this lens is very affordable, too. Estimated Street Price: $299. Website: rokinon.com
Sigma 60-600mm F4.5-6.3 DG OS HSM: If a photographer’s travel plans include shooting sports, wildlife or any other subject matter that requires serious telephoto power, must he or she carry a second lens to cover those long focal lengths? Not with Sigma’s 60-600mm F4.5-6.3 DG OS HSM super-telephoto zoom. Made for full-frame Canon, Nikon and Sigma DSLRs, this extreme zoom lens covers everything from normal angles of view (at the 60mm end) to portraits (in the 70-150mm range) and well beyond, all the way up to a whopping 600mm. That’s the kind of focal length professional sports photographers and wildlife shooters use to reach out and fill the frame with distant subjects. Here, though, that power is built into a lens that also offers normal focal lengths. It’s not small, but it features a variable maximum aperture of f/4.5-6.3 to minimize size and weight compared to other 600mm lenses. It weighs in at nearly 6 pounds and measures just under 11 inches in length, so built-in optical image stabilization is crucial. It offers up to four stops of vibration reduction, most helpful when handholding such a long telephoto. Estimated Street Price: $1,899. Website: sigmaphoto.com
Sony E 18-135mm F3.5-5.6 OSS: Sony’s full-frame mirrorless cameras receive a lot of press, but the company’s smallest and lightest bodies are actually those with APS-C sensors. And for photographers who want to travel as light as possible with these, Sony offers the 18-135mm F3.5-5.6 OSS lens. Covering an extreme range of focal lengths equivalent to 27-202mm, this versatile lens is useful for everything from wide-angle scenics to street photography, portraiture and even subjects that require significant telephoto reach. The variable maximum aperture helps keep this lens downright tiny given its wide focal range, and optical image stabilization helps when handholding at longer focal lengths. Plus, it’s affordable, too. Estimated Street Price: $499. Website: sony.com
Tamron SP 15-30mm F/2.8 Di VC USD G2: The SP 15-30mm F/2.8 Di VC USD G2 is a second-generation ultrawide zoom from Tamron, built for use on full-frame Canon and Nikon DSLRs. It incorporates 4.5 stops of image stabilization, which enables handholding at very slow shutter speeds given its short focal length, and improved autofocus and lens coatings to fight ghosting and flare and fend off moisture and oil from the front element. A fast f/2.8 maximum aperture makes it great for use in low-light conditions, and since the lens is moisture sealed as well, it’s an ideal option for travel in rainy or snowy environments. Estimated Street Price: $1,299. Website: tamron-usa.com
Metabones T Smart Adapter: Photographers who have added Sony mirrorless cameras to their kits can adapt Canon, Sigma and Tamron EF lenses to fit the Sony E mount with a Metabones T Smart adapter. Built to retain all of the functionality of a lens, including maintaining consistent apertures and focal lengths, functional autofocus (although with limitations at certain apertures and AF modes) and permitting the photographer to choose between in-body image stabilization or the lens’ optical image stabilization, the T Smart adapters work with full frame or APS-C sensors for both still photography and video. The adapters also feature a programmable button that can be assigned one of more than 50 functions, including aperture preview or Eye-AF.
Estimated Street Price: $399. Website: metabones.com