Best lenses for travel photography
 

Guide to the essential lenses for travel photography (December 2016)

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I have been asked many times what is the top travel camera “at the moment”. I was never asked however what are the best lenses for travel photography.

We spend lots of energy searching for a new travel camera, we go through websites, comparisons, features and obviously best prices.

And the lenses?

Whatever comes with the camera is fine.

I personally thinks it is a bit of a mistake and let me explain why.

The same camera with different lenses, at the same focal length, can perform really differently. Prof. Marc Levoy published an interesting lecture on lenses with examples of photos. By the way, this is part of an 18-lectures workshop from his original Stanford course, highly suggested to anyone.

Saving on lenses may under perform your camera. It’s a bit like buying a Ferrari and saving on the engine, maybe even downgrading to a Fiat 500 engine.

This is of course a bit of a drastic example but I wanted to just give an idea.

As a rule of thumb I usually suggest to spend as much money for your camera as well as for your first lens, in case this is an all round.

There is another good point about investing more in lenses.

Usually when we upgrade to an upper level camera we tend to carry with us the lenses we already have. That is why it is a good idea to be more selective in what we buy.

Melbourne-Daily-Photo-Blog-Bang Bao- Harbour- Koh Chang- Sunset- Thailand- Water Village-Koh Chang_20130103_293_4_5-Edit-2

One of the fantastic photo locations of Koh Chang

Lenses for travel photography

First thing first, this post is not really about wild life photography. In that case you would need zoom lenses, either for a safari or birds photography, or maybe a macro lens, in case you are interested to the “micro” world.

I own a few lenses that range from 12mm to 200mm focal length. I occasionally also review few zoom lenses on some trips, like the Panasonic Leica 100-400mm I had on a zoo safari trip.

What I have being noticing, along my last years of travelling, is that I probably just need 2 lenses in my trips, maybe 3 of them. Sometime even 1 is enough.

  • All round zoom lens
  • Prime 5omm
  • Super wide angle
Sunset at Pulau Padar

Sunset at Pulau Padar

All round zoom lens/wide angle

My favourite is the range 24-120mm or 24-105mm or even 24-80mm.

You will see later some lens suggestions based on the manufacturer, however, as a rule of thumb, the quicker is the lens the more photo opportunities you will have.

Possibly go for an aperture of f/2.8, or even lower. Unfortunately these are the most expensive lenses

Why do you want to do that?

Because with a smaller aperture value (bigger hole) you will :

  1. have a smaller depth of field, in case you like to make photos of travel details, and a nicer bokeh, which is the area out of focus in the background (in doing that you give more importance to your subject, think a portrait)
  2. allow more light into your camera (bigger hole), with the possibility to make photos even in low light environments without tripod.

Why having a zoom lens starting as wide as 24mm?

Because it is a nice wide angle to have for most of the travel photos, think panoramas or just even walking in the lanes of a city.

Why 80 to 120mm as the upper value of the zoom lens?

Because you will rarely use over that when travelling. It may happen of course and you may regret you do not have 200 or 400mm however sometime we need to take decisions and optimise on costs.

I prefer to invest on a better 24-120mm than an even wider 18-300mm which does not perform as well. It’s more of a quality over quantity. Beside, that kind of zooms tends to be quite heavy as well, something you would rather like to avoid when walking the all day with it.

I like to remind that we do have another natural zoom, our legs. Sometime we forget about that, we are a bit lazy.

Last important thing.

I always talk about equivalent focal length.

What does it mean? Well if you have a 50mm lens

  • on a full sensor camera, than the equivalent focal length is exactly the same, 50mm
  • on a APS-C sensor, multiply roughly by 1.5, and your lens is actually a t5mm (it’s in the range 1.5-1.6, based on manufacturer)
  • on a MFT sensor, multiply by 2, your lens is now a 100mm

As an example, if you have a Panasonic G85 (great camera by the way) with a MFT sensor, then I would probably suggest a 12-60mm lens, which is, in equivalent focal length, a 24-120mm.

Sunset on Mont Choisy Beach, Mauritius

Sunset on Mont Choisy Beach, Mauritius. Nikon D610, Nikkor 24-120mm 1:4G (24mm, 8 sec at f/10, ISO 100)

Prime lenses for travel photography

Prime lenses are the ones without any zoom, just one fixed focal length.

There are few benefits with the prime lenses:

  • cheaper
  • great quality
  • light
  • small

They do only one thing however they do it extremely well.

When I travel with the Nikon D610, I always have with me the Nikon 50mm 1:1.8. The quality is just outstanding. It’s super light and so small that I tend to forget it in my jacket.

When I visit markets or small lanes in a city for some street photography, I remove my 24-120mm and install this 50mm instead.

Suddenly people do not notice me, I become a tourist as many others.

With the all round lens, people look at me as a super pro and they become shy, they don’t want to be photographed, or even ask money for it.

When travelling, the smaller camera you have the easier will be to walk unnoticed. And being seen with a big, supposedly expensive camera+lens, can be a problem in some countries.

The alternative solution to an all round lens would be to have 3 primes that cover possibly the 24mm, 50mm and 100mm focal length

Quality wise may be probably the best solution however, when travelling, I do not think it is very practical to keep changing lenses.

Although very small, you always add a possibility that the camera, or the lens, may fall during the change. Dust may be introduced on the sensor as well.

I usually travel with the 24-120mm on and change it with the 50mm only when I know it works better (markets, lanes, street photography)

The meat market in Port Louis, Mauritius

The meat market in Port Louis, Mauritius. Nikon D610, Nikkor 50mm 1:1.8G (50mm, 1/640 at f/1.8, ISO 1600)

Super wide lenses for interiors, and not only

I have also a 12-24mm lens. It is considered to be super wide. Keep in mind that the human eye has a comparable focal length of around 43mm.

This is a lens I typically use for interior and architectural photography.

On a generic trip I usually leave it at home, however if I know I am going to visit some capital cities, I usually take it with me.

I like to use the 12mm in churches, galleries or tall building, when photographing from the ground level.

I use this wide angle also for some landscape photography, but only when my subject is actually in the foreground.

As an example, think a photo of a pier and you stand at the beginning of it. The pier will appear much bigger.

Historical Collins 333, the CBA Bank

Historical Collins 333, the CBA Bank. Nikon D610, Nikkor 14-24mm 1:2.8 (15mm, 1/30sec at f/2.8, ISO 1000, no tripod allowed)

Super zoom lenses

In most of the trips you will not need a super zoom lens (say over 120mm).

Personally I would suggest to buy it only if you will be in a safari or you plan to attend a sport event for which the super zoom is essential.

I always say to use our legs as a first form of zoom. They usually work pretty well.

The bigger is the zoom focal length, the heavier is the lens. If you are travelling, and carrying your bag, it will become a real pain, especially for your back.

Super zoom lenses are usually not allowed in stadiums or important sport events.

I have a 70-200mm which I take with me only if I am sure I will attend some local interesting events, this could be a polo game in Mongolia, as an example.

However, if you are attending a polo game in UK you will be most likely asked to not use your camera as they will believe you are a professional photographer and you would need special agreements etc.

A close-up of an elephant eye with an equivalent 200-800mm telephoto lens (Panasonic Leica 100-400mm)

A close-up of an elephant eye with an equivalent 200-800mm telephoto lens (Panasonic Leica 100-400mm)

Here below I have listed some of the best lenses for travel photography, or at least the ones I would not hesitate to buy, based on available budget of course.

Best Canon lenses for travel

When you look for a Canon lens you notice that, in the name, there is either an EF or EF-S.

Without going too much into the details, the EF-S lenses were created to work uniquely with Canon APS-C DSLR meanwhile the EF were designed for both, full sensor and APS-C.

If you have an APS-C DSLR and you are thinking to upgrade to a full sensor, sooner or later, it pays off to buy EF lenses. They are usually more expensive but you will be able to use them with your future DSLR.

In the last years, Canon has also introduced the EF-M lenses. These lenses can be used uniquely with the Canon Mirrorless cameras.

These are the Canon lenses that I would not hesitate to buy for my travel photography

All-round lens : Canon EF 24-105mm F4L IS II USM

This lens has been designed for full sensor however, as we said, it can be used also on APS-C (remember that the focal length should be multiplied by 1.5-1.6, if this is the case)

Canon EF 24-105mm F4L IS II USM

It has image stabilisation, for which Canon claims 4 stops of shake reduction. The EF 24-105mm is both dust-proof and moisture-proof

It is not a cheap lens however the quality is really outstanding. Check the best price in USA (soon in Australia too)

You can still find in the market the previous model, the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM, which is still a great lens however at a more affordable price. It provides less shake reduction, 3 instead of 4 stops and few other minor differences.

If in Australia, DWI is currently having a 50% discount on the old model (only few left).

All-round lens : Canon EF-S 18-135mm F3.5-5.6 IS USM

The previous lens can be an expensive option if you have a Canon APS-C DSLR and you are not really sure you are going to upgrade your camera in future.

Also remember that because you are using an APS-C DSLR the equivalent focal length becomes approx 38-168mm, therefore you are going to miss out on the nice 24mm wide angle

The alternative is the Canon EF-S 18-135mm F3.5-5.6 IS USM which works uniquely on APS-C DSLR. The equivalent focal length is approx 28-216mm that is really more than usually needed for travel.

Canon EF-S 18-135mm F3.5-5.6 IS USM

It’s also a cheaper option than the previous lens however it is not a sealed lens, which for travel photography is quite handy to have, especially for the dust. The image stabilisation is also not as great.

The 24-105mm has better quality in the glass elements, based on Canon description, and it has a constant maximum aperture at f/4.

The maximum aperture of the 18-135mm changes, from f/3.5 to f/5.6, based on the focal length you use.

This lens is cheaper than the previous one, however it offers less quality overall. Check the best price in USA or Australia

If on limited budget, I would probably go for the old model of the previous lens, the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM which you can find at a similar price as the 18-135mm.

Prime : Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM

It is small, it is super light, it is an amazing quality lens….it is basically a no-brain Canon lens for travel to buy

This is a #1 Best seller in Amazon, and for a good reason. It’s rare to find a 5 stars rated lens, with over 1100 comments.

Canon EF 50mm f1.8 STM

At just over $100 this is a lens to buy and carry with you everytime you are in a city or town. Are you planning to visit a market? Use this lens. Are you planning some street photography? Use this lens….and I could keep going.

It’s absolutely the best value for money lens you can have.

Check the best price in USA or in Australia, at the moment with a 25% discount

Super wide angle : Sigma 12-24mm f/4.5-5.6 AF II DG HSM for Canon

This is what I use with my camera (although with a Nikon adaptor).

As I previously said, it is not a lens I would always carry with me. It is more for special occasions.

Sigma 12-24mm f4.5-5.6 AF II DG HSM

There are other quicker Canon and Sigma lenses, however they are move expensive, beside being quite heavy to carry around on a trip.

I cannot justify the much higher price for the limited usage of this focal range I do.

With a price below the $1000 mark, I am extremely happy of the results

Check the best price in USA or Australia

Summary table for Canon lenses for travel

Type Brand Lens Name Price Notes
All-Round Canon EF 24-105mm F4L IS II USM $$$ Full Sensor and APS-C, 4 stops IS
All-Round Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM $$ FS and APS-C, 3 stops IS, old model
All-Round Canon EF-S 18-135mm F3.5-5.6 IS USM $$ Only APS-C, IS not as good as 24-105mm
Prime Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM $ Must have for street and markets
Wide Sigma 12-24mm f/4.5-5.6 AF II DG HSM $$$ Good $ compromise for super-wide lens
Kids walking to school

Kids walking to school (one of my first photos 🙂 ). Canon EOS 40D, Canon 18-200mm (18mm, 1/25sec at f/13, ISO 100)

Best Nikon lenses for travel

When you look into the Nikon list of lenses you will notice both AF-P and AF-S lenses. Sometime even the same lens is available in both types.

What is the difference?

The AF-P lenses have a pulse motor, so silent you will not even notice it, fantastic for video also because the autofocus is very smooth.

The AF-S lenses have a wave motor, still very quiet however just enough noisy you can hear it during videos. The autofocus is quicker, perfect for still photography.

You can read more details about the differences in this Nikon article.

The AF-S lenses have two practical switches on the lens itself. The AF/MF and the VR O/OFF. I use them quite a bit. I find them very easy to use, instead of going through configuration, as you need, instead, with the AF-P.

Not all the Nikon cameras support AF-P as they do not have a firmware to control VR and AF/MF. You may need a new camera firmware, if available.

Moreover there are FX lense and DX lense. The DX are usually cheaper and dedicated to the APS-C sensor cameras meanwhile the FX are more for the full sensor.

In saying that you could use :

  • a FX on a APS-C camera (remember the crop factor of approx 1.6x due to the APS-C sensor size)
  • a DX on a Full Sensor Nikon (the photo is automatically cropted by the camera)

All-round lens : Nikon AF-P DX NIKKOR 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 VR

One of the newest and best entry-level Nikon lenses for travel photography dedicated to the APS-C sensor cameras.

It has an equivalent focal length of 28-88mm which is great for most the photography when you are travelling.

It is provided as a kit lens in some of the new models, which is really a good value.

There is only once issue. Be sure before you buy it, that your camera firmware does support it (it’s an AF-P lens) otherwise you will not be able to use autofocus.

Check the best price in USA or Australia (in Australia this lens is currently sold at just over $100!!)

Nikon-AF-P-DX-NIKKOR-18-55mm-f3.5-5.6-VR-min

All-round lens : Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 24-120mm f/4G ED

This is my workhorse. I have bought it 4 years ago and I have abused it since. I can’t believe it is still alive and it works amazingly well. I dropped it also in a couple of occasions, sigh, but still there, working as usual.

It has a fantastic wide focal range, from 24 to 120mm. I have always experienced a nice contrast in my photos as well as sharpness and colors. And,as I said, it’s tough, perfect for travelling

It may be not the quickest lens in the Nikon market and if you want one I would probably suggest the NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED, although over 50% more expensive, which I cannot justify for my travel photography.

The maximum aperture of 2.8 would help especially in the market and dark environment however in that cases I tend to use the 50mm prime (more on this later) which has a great advantage: it’s very small, especially if compared to these all-round lenses.

Check the best price in USA or Australia. At the moment Nikon USA is also offering a Certified Refurbished at almost 50% discount (it will go soon I suspect)

Nikon-AF-S-Nikkor-24-120mm-f4G-ED-VR-min

Prime : Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G

This is my second workhorse when visiting interiors like churches, galleries etc. and, generally speaking, in low light environments like markets

This is also an amazing lens for portraits.

My only suggestion with this lens is to practice with it before you start your trip.

When used at f/1.8 the depth of field is extremely narrow and it is easy to have some photos where your subject is not that sharp. We are talking of a DoF of centimetres. It took me some practice before I felt fully confident.

This lens is super sharp with an amazing contrast and great colours. On Amazon, it has a 5 stars rating out of almost 1500 comments. I take it as a good indication of a great lens 🙂 and not just my feeling.

It’s so light I usually forget it in my bag or jacket

Check the best price in USA or Australia

Super wide angle : Sigma 12-24mm f/4.5-5.6 AF II DG HSM for Nikon

This is a lens I already highlighted in the Canon section.

It’s a good compromise of quality, price and weight. There are Nikkor alternatives, however they are much more expensive and, most important, heavier.

In saying that, if your travel photography has a predominance of interior and architectural photography, than the Nikkor AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8G may be a more optimal solution.

Sigma 12-24mm f4.5-5.6 AF II DG HSM

With a price below the $1000 mark, I am extremely happy of the results

Check the best price in USA or Australia

Summary table for Nikon lenses for travel

Type Brand Lens Name Price Notes
All-Round Nikon AF-P DX NIKKOR 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 VR $$ Entry-level all-round lens
All-Round Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 24-120mm f/4G ED $$$ Great travel photography workhorse
All-Round Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED $$$$ Amazing and unique lens, 70mm may be not enough
Prime Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G $ Essential in the markets
Wide Sigma 12-24mm f/4.5-5.6 AF II DG HSM $$$ Good $ compromise for super-wide lens

Best Fuji lenses for travel

Also in the Fujifilm list there are two families of lenses: XF and XC

The XF lenses are built in metal and offer a larger aperture. They have an aperture ring (except the tiny XF 27mm f/2.8 pancake) and a switch for OIS. They are manufactured in Japan.

The XC lenses are dedicated to the entry-level market, built in plastic, offering smaller aperture and without aperture ring and OIS switch. Due to its construction (less “glass” inside) they are usually smaller and lighter. They are not built in Japan.

All-round lens : Fujifilm XF 16-55mm F2.8 R LM WR

This is a lens I reviewed few months ago and I absolutely loved it.

With an equivalent focal length of 24-84mm covers most of the travel photography needs.

It is a tough lens, weather resistant and dust proof, just perfect for any trip you have in mind.

The maximum aperture, f/2.8, makes this lens great also in low light condition

I can only suggest it. Read more details on my review

If you do not feel that the maximum focal length of 84mm is enough for your travel photos, you may have a look at the Fujifilm XF 18-135mm  which, with an equivalent focal length of 24-200mm covers really all you need. It’s cheaper, however you have to compromise with the maximum variable aperture of f/3.5-5.6

Check the best price in USA or Australia

Fujifilm XF 16-55mm F2.8 R LM WR

Prime : Fujifilm XF 35mm F2 R WR

This is a lens I tested only for a couple of hours and I did not want to give it back to the Fujifilm guys. Hopefully I will be able to review it sooner rather than later.

I still remember the great speed and the sharpness in the produced photos. Best of all is the size and weight. Another lens you can forget in your jacket, so tiny

It is a 50mm equivalent focal range that you can use in low light environments as churches or markets. Together with a Fujifilm camera it makes such a tiny package that you will not feel noticed. Amazing for portraits.

This lens is a must have for your travel photography, full stop.

Check the best price in USA or Australia

Fujifilm XF 35mm F2 R WR

Super wide angle : Fujifilm XF 10-24mm F4 R OIS

This is the only super wide angle lens that Fujifilm offers.

There is actually a prime XF 14mm F2.8 however I do not think there is much gain if you already own a 16-55mm, otherwise it could be another option.

It is not a cheap or light lens being a premium gear with lots of “glass”. Again, if you love super-wide, this is the solution.

Check the best price in USA or Australia

Fujifilm-XF-10-24mm-F4

Summary table for Fuji lenses for travel

Type Brand Lens Name Price Notes
All-Round Fujifilm Fujinon XF 16-55mm F2.8 R LM WR $$$ In my opinion the best travel lens made by Fujifilm
All-Round Fujifilm Fujinon XF 18-135mm F3.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR $$ Great super zoom, compromise with max variable aperture
Prime Fujifilm Fujinon XF 35mm F2 R WR $ Must have Fujinon prime
Wide Fujifilm Fujinon XF 10-24mm F4 R OIS $$ The widest angle made by Fujinon you can have

Best Sony lenses for travel

Best travel lenses for A7

Best travel lenses for sony a6000

Working on the full list  (09/Dec/2016)

Best micro four thirds lenses for travel

Best Olympus lenses for travel

Best Panasonic lenses for travel

Working on the full list  (09/Dec/2016)

Final thoughts

Still thinking (09/Dec/2016)

Enjoy your travel photography!!


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Stefano Ferro
Stefano is a cycling, movie and life style photographer with a big love for landscape & travel photography. When in Melbourne, his hometown, you will see him cycling around at sunset or sunrise looking for the best spot for a photo of this beautiful city. It is quite amazing how much photography gear he can pack on his bike :o

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