While there’s no single defining characteristic that makes something a travel lens, there are definitely pieces of glass that are geared for work on the road. When it comes to zooms for travel, one focal length range must be covered—a 24-70mm for a full frame camera or a 16, 17, or 18-55mm for a camera with an APS-C sensor.
With travel photography, it’s always a balancing act between weight and productivity. Starting out with a clear idea of what you want to achieve and the potential photo ops you are likely to encounter will help clarify which lenses to pack and which ones can take a vacation at home.
Keep in mind that regardless of the lens you have attached to your camera when you’re exploring the world, focusing in on unique aspects of the cultures and places will yield stronger photographic results and more meaningful experiences by delving deeper into your subjects. Keep in mind the travel magazine editor’s mantra: “A location is not a story.” Their writers search out unique aspects of a culture or place. We can do the same with our cameras.
My week in Chile can serve as an example of producing two dramatically different stories from a single trip and the lens choices needed to accomplish them.
Because of its geography stretching over 2,670 miles north to south through many ecoregions, Chile could easily be dubbed a land of a thousand photo stories. The Andes tower to the east, its long and narrow coast teems with sea life, the country is dotted with world-class wine regions, and its cities and towns have a vibrant street life. There are fascinating stories for every genre of photography; we just need to define the subjects to produce focused photo essays.
Instead of a general story on Valparaíso, Chile, nicknamed the “Jewel of the Pacific,” for instance, I documented how the city has turned its graffiti problem into a citywide outdoor museum with street artists creating fantastic murals. I used my NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8 on my Nikon D850 body for the entire series. This set-up was perfect for the Valparaíso project and is well suited for other travel-related imagery from landscapes and cityscapes to general street photography and environmental portraiture. It would have, however, fallen short for the second Chilean story I needed to produce out of the same trip.
Chiloé National Park on the island of Chiloé has a great diversity of marine life, including blue and sei whales, Magellanic and Humboldt penguins, Chilean and Peale’s dolphins, marine otters and sea lions. When travel photography includes wildlife, longer lenses are the name of the game. This makes for a heavier camera bag but opens up photo opportunities that would not otherwise be possible. All-in-one super telephotos such as Tamron and Sigma’s 150-600mm f/5-6.3 lenses can cover an incredible focal range but have f/stops that close down as you zoom in. Once again, this is the balancing act. Weight, cost and convenience versus giving up lens speed and a bit of bokeh. Ironically, one of my favorite shots from the trip was of a sunset, shot from the deck of my hotel, the Tierra Chiloé. Without packing a long lens for the wildlife part of my Chile trip, this image of the unique sunset with the huge ball of the sun would not have been possible. Travel photography will give us an endless amount of opportunities; we just have to be open to them and know how to translate what we see with our eyes onto our sensors.
Canon EF-S 17–55mm f/2.8 IS USM
Designed for use with Canon EOS DSLR cameras with APS-C sized sensors, the Canon EF-S 17–55mm f/2.8 IS USM combines a fast autofocus with image stabilization for consistent image quality. The constant f/2.8 maximum aperture throughout the zoom range opens up low light possibilities and bokeh-infused portraits. Its precision lens focuses the light rays into a single point to reduce aberration, while its ring-type USM permits manual focusing without the delay caused by having to switch out of auto mode.
Price: $880 Website: usa.canon.com
Sigma 17-50mm F2.8 EX DC (OS) HSM Zoom Lens
The lightweight and compact The Sigma 17-50mm F2.8 EX DC (OS) HSM zoom is designed for DSLR cameras with APS-C size sensors. The lens has a fast f/2.8 maximum aperture throughout the entire zoom range. It features a construction of 17 elements in 13 groups with glass that corrects for flare, ghosting and aberrations. Sigma’s OS (Optical Stabilization) expands handheld shooting opportunities up to 4 stops without apparent camera shake. The lens is also equipped with Sigma’s Hyper-Sonic Motor (HSM), which provides for fast and quiet autofocusing.
Price: $370 Website: sigmaphoto.com
Sony E PZ 18-105mm F4 G OSS Lens
The major focal lengths for travel photography can be covered with Sony’s E PZ 18-105mm F4 G OSS lens. Designed for Sony’s APS-C-format E-mount cameras, the lens has a 27-157.5mm 35mm equivalent zoom range and a constant f/4 aperture for consistency through all focal lengths. Its optical SteadyShot image stabilization reduces the effects of camera shake, especially at the lens’ longer focal lengths while its internal focus design keeps the overall length of the lens from changing during focusing. The zoom’s rounded seven-blade diaphragm contributes to elegant bokeh quality when working with selective focus techniques with wider apertures.
Price: $600 Website: sony.com
Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-100mm f/4 IS PRO Lens
The Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-100mm f/4 IS PRO has a 35mm equivalent coverage of 24-200mm for its Micro Four Thirds mirrorless cameras. This makes it a great all-in-one travel lens, going from wide-angle way into the telephoto. It’s able to maintain a constant maximum aperture of f/4, something not common when traversing such a wide range of focal lengths. The lens’ optical image stabilization system works in conjunction with the Olympus camera’s 5-axis image stabilization to form Sync IS, which compensates for up to 6.5 stops of camera shake. A manual focus clutch permits fast changing to manual focus for more precise control.
Price: $1,170 Website: cameras.olympus.com/en-us
Fujifilm XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR Lens
With a 24-82.5mm 35mm equivalent, Fujifilm’s XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR lens gives great coverage from wide-angle to portrait-length perspectives. The constant f/2.8 maximum aperture makes it an effective lens to work within low-light situations regardless of focal length, while its 9-blade circular diaphragm renders a pleasing bokeh. In the macro mode at the wide-angle end of the lens, the minimum focus distance is 11.8 inches, opening up additional travel imagery opportunities by focusing in on the macro world around us.
Price: $1,200 Website: fujifilmusa.com
Tokina AT-X 116 f/2.8 PRO DX II (11-16mm) Lens
The AT-X 116 f/2.8 PRO DX II (11-16mm) is an ultra-wide-angle autofocus zoom designed for digital cameras with APS-C sensors. Nine diaphragm blades help to produce soft out-of-focus backgrounds while two Super-Low Dispersion glass elements and two aspheric elements help to achieve excellent contrast, sharpness and minimal chromatic aberration. Tokina’s One-Touch Focus Clutch Mechanism allows the photographer to switch between autofocus and manual focus with a push or pull of the focus ring; no need to adjust the AF/MF switch on the camera body. A constant f/2.8 maximum aperture makes it a great lens for working in low light or when trying to create a bokeh, an especially effective tool for portraiture on location.
Price: $400 Website: tokinausa.com
Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2
The 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2 features three low dispersion (LD) glass elements to reduce chromatic aberrations and color fringing throughout its zoom range. The lens incorporates a FLEX ZOOM LOCK mechanism to permit locking the zoom position at any focal length position to prevent accidental zoom extension. For handholding, its Vibration Compensation (VC) is a 4.5-stop-effective image stabilization mechanism that helps to reduce the appearance of camera shake when working with slower shutter speeds. Three separate VC modes are for various shooting scenarios: Mode 1 is a balanced setting for general use; Mode 2 is designed exclusively for panning movements; Mode 3 is optimized to stabilize only during capture without stabilizing the viewfinder image. Its Ultrasonic Silent Drive (USD) autofocus motor delivers quick and precise focusing performance to suit working with moving subjects. This motor also allows for full-time manual focus control.
Price: $1,400 Website: tamron-usa.com
Nikon NIKKOR 28mm f/1.4E ED
The Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 28mm 1.4 E ED replaces the NIKKOR 28mm f/1.4D as the company’s latest super-fast, state-of-the-art fixed wide-angle lens. Sharpness and fast focus in extremely low light situations make this an impressive piece of glass. It’s especially well-suited for astrophotography, low-light street and documentary photography. An extremely selective focus with a magnificent bokeh can be achieved with its f/1.4 aperture, two f/stops wider than most top-of-the-line short zoom lenses.
Price: $2,000 (B&H) Website: nikonusa.com