Travel Photography with One Lens

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It can be a real pain in the neck/backside to carry a whole swag of lenses. Of course the lens on the camera never seems to be the right one for the ‘shot of a lifetime’ that’s just presented itself. By the time you shuffled through your bag, retrieved the vital optic, removed the caps, detached and safely stowed the current lens…the moment has evaporated!

It is tempting to turn to an all-in-one travel lens. Here are a few observations.

No matter how many lenses you have with you there will always be situations where you would like to go wider or have more telephoto reach. However for most subjects you can find alternate ways of composing the image. If you can’t get close enough to fill the frame then find a different viewpoint that uses the subjects surroundings in a more interesting way perhaps using the lines of a foreground subject to push the eye towards the main subject  Try not worry about the shots that you can’t take, instead think about the myriad shots you can take!

Of course if you have travelled all the way to Africa to photograph the wildlife it would be hard to get away with short lens, you would need to get much too close than would be good for the welfare of the animal (or yours).

For more general travel everything from the narrow streets of Italy, the national parks of the USA, through to grab shots anywhere a more modest range should suffice.
All the major manufactures have ‘all-in-one’ lenses (often 18-200mm). Tamron and Sigma have pushed the range out to 18-270mm and are available for Nikon/Canon/Pentax/Sony Alpha. For Micro43 both Olympus and Panasonic have lenses in the 14-140* range. The very recent Tamron 14-150 is another option. However the lack of built-in stabilisation will limit its usefulness at full zoom for Panasonic users. Olympus cameras have stabilisation in the body so no problem there. 

Unfortunately these big ranges tend to deliver fairly poor results. If you are wondering if you will really see the difference and if I am just being overly picky, well it depends on your needs and expectations. If you will only ever view the images on the computer or if you never print images bigger than postcard size the lack of fine detail won’t matter too much. Sharpness aside though you will still strike problems. Some of these ‘super zooms’ have horrendously small maximum apertures when at full magnification sometimes only f6.3 – far from super! If you already have a lens like this you’ve probably noticed how much the camera/lens hunts around for focus in low-light. Distortion is also a problem where straight lines become curved, while less of a problem with organic shapes in nature, it is very noticeable with horizons, sides of buildings etc.

For less optical compromises I prefer a shorter range. I recently took delivery of a Canon 18-135 STM to use with my 70D and have been generally impressed by the quality. Nikon have extended the range to 18-140mm and the lens gets good reviews.

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For Full-Frame users (you’ll know who you are) the news is better for Nikon fans than for Canon aficionados. The Nikon AF-S 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR is a very reasonable performer (distortion aside) delivering good sharpness at the wide to short ‘tele’ range but soft at the long end. It’s a big, heavy lens and of course not cheap.

When using my Canon 5D MkII my preferred lens for travel was the 24-105mm* L series lens. Not a lot of telephoto but I liked the extra wide angle. For my style of pictures; people in close, a few street/landscapes the freedom of working with just one lens out-weighed the few pictures I couldn’t get.

When you are travelling, space and baggage allowance is at a premium. So if you are looking to keep to one lens here is a summary of my recommendations:

1. If you don’t need a lot of telephoto reach and you are using a typical Nikon/Canon/Pentax/Sony DSLR I suggest you look at a lens in the 18-135/18-140 range. It will do most thing pretty well. If you have a bit of spare space maybe add a cheap 50mm f1.8 for when you are in low-light.

2. If you are a Micro43 user the Panasonic 14-140* seems reasonable.

3. Full-Frame users, well you are obviously prepared to carry more weight so you might be better to carry two big aperture lenses.

4. If you are travelling to Africa specifically to photograph the wildlife you will probably need more telephoto reach (up to about 400mm for typical Canon/Nikon/Pentax/Sony or 300mm for 43 Micro). This will preclude an all in one lens solution if you want to do some wide angle stuff too e.g. landscapes. You might actually be better of to carry a high-end ‘bridge’ camera with reasonable size sensor. Have a look at the  Panasonic FZ1000.

*(I will be explaining why the numbers change from system to system – sensor size, Full-frame, cropping factors etc. in an upcoming post).

One Response to Travel Photography with One Lens

  1. This is exactly the post I needed a couple of months ago before I went on holiday to New York! I wanted to take just one lens but was reluctant to buy another zoom lens, given I’ve got the Nikon 18-55 and 55-200 kit lenses the camera came with, (which, incidentally, I never use these days). I’ve been so loving my 50mm f1.8 but wanted a wider angle for New York, so I bought a 35mm f1.8. I found this was perfect for the sort of street and scenery photography I was doing there. I think this lens will also be the one that stays on my camera most of the time going forward.

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