Travel Photography: Let's Talk Lenses

Now that it's summer and it's peak travel season, I thought I'd answer some questions about travel photography that I am constantly being emailed about.  It's no secret that I'm obsessed with travel and am always photographing my experiences.  If you follow me on Instagram, you definitely know that ;)

About a year ago, I wrote an article for my friend Margo at The Overseas Escape called "8 Rules for Amazing Travel Photography".  At the time of writing, I was meandering my way through the incredible country of Taiwan immersed in all things culture.  Today, I am sitting in my sunny apartment in Los Angeles planning my next crazy adventure - a camping road trip through Iceland!

After writing that article for Margo, the number one question I'm always asked is, "what lens do I use?"  Often times this comes from a situation where someone is about to embark on a trip, ready to buy a lens, but completely lost at what exactly to buy.

Before I get any further, let me just tell you that there is no right answer.  It all comes down to what works for you physically and photographically.

Keep in mind:

There's a number of things to consider when choosing a lens for travel photography:

  • How heavy is it?
  • How big is it?
  • Do you want one single lens that does it all?  Or do you want to carry around multiple lenses?
  • What camera will you be shooting with?

If you're someone who prefers a smaller and lighter lens, consider that during your shopping.  Think about how much weight you'll be carrying each day.  Go to the camera store and weigh your options if you can - literally!  (yay for cheesy jokes!)

Hiking the Zion Narrows in 2014.  Shot with a Canon 5D Mark ii and Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8.  In early 2016 I framed and hung this photo above my bed - woo hoo!

Hiking the Zion Narrows in 2014.  Shot with a Canon 5D Mark ii and Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8.  In early 2016 I framed and hung this photo above my bed - woo hoo!

Primes versus zooms:

If you don't already know, here's the low down on prime lenses versus zoom lenses.

Primes: a fix-focal length lens, meaning you can only back up or move closer to your subject to get closer to it or further from it.

Zooms: a lens that enables you to move through a range of focal lengths, meaning you can "zoom in" or "zoom out" to get the framing you desire.

If you choose to use primes, you will most likely have to carry more than one with you to achieve varieties in framing.  If you choose to use a zoom, you will most likely walk around with a single lens.

I rarely shoot with prime lenses when I travel simply because I am usually working too fast.  I see something, I snap a photo of it, take the moment in, and continue on.  I don't enjoy rifling through my bag trying to find the right lens for the scenery.  For me, the "right lens" is the one that's on my camera - the one that was there in time to capture the moment.  So why not make it a versatile one, eh?  Plus, I don't want to weigh my bag down any more than I have to.  Gotta make room for those souvenirs!

That being said, some people with keen eyes like the "look" that prime lenses produce.  Plus, they are usually lighter in weight.  But keep in mind that you'll probably be lugging a few of them, so chances are the overall weight will be the same.  

This is why there's no right answer - it's just up to you, your aesthetic, and what you feel like carrying around.

Hiking The Narrows in Zion National Park, UT in 2014.  The grey water-tight camera bag holds my Canon 5D Mark ii with Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 lens.  Thank goodness for that bag because the water height was over my head a few times during the hike and the bag was submerged!

Hiking The Narrows in Zion National Park, UT in 2014.  The grey water-tight camera bag holds my Canon 5D Mark ii with Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 lens.  Thank goodness for that bag because the water height was over my head a few times during the hike and the bag was submerged!

Focal length:

18, 24, 35, 50 - what are all these numbers you're throwing at me?!  I promise they're not the numbers from Lost.  (Am I 10 years too late with that joke?)

When I was first learning lenses, I used to think of focal length in inches.  So if you're shooting with an 18mm lens, your subject needs to be at least 1.8ft away.  If you're shooting with a 24mm lens, your subject needs to be 2.4ft away.  If you're shooting with a 100mm lens, your subject needs to be 10ft away.  Make sense?

Not to say that those are the golden rules.  By no means do you have to be a set amount of feet away from your subject!  But if you loosely understand how that works, it might help you to visualize what the intended use of the lens is.  So an 18mm lens is intended for wide angle shots because the angle of view covers everything 1.8ft in front of it and beyond.  Whereas a 100mm lens can only see 10ft and beyond, making it good for close-up shots.

Hopefully that didn't totally confuse you.  But if it did, just know that 18mm is a wide-angle and 100mm is a telephoto.

Think about what you will be shooting.  Chances are you'll want to take wide angle shots of the scenery.  You'll want to take some closeups of food.  You'll want to take that photo of so-and-so in front of [insert tourist icon here].

You'll want a variety of focal lengths to capture all of these things.

An oldie from 2012!  Here, I'm shooting with a Canon 5D Mark ii body and a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens.  My boyfriend shot this photo of me with a Canon 6D body and my Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 lens.

An oldie from 2012!  Here, I'm shooting with a Canon 5D Mark ii body and a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens.  My boyfriend shot this photo of me with a Canon 6D body and my Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 lens.

F/2.8 what?

Hopefully if you're buying a lens, you're at least a little familiar with what aperture is.  If not, that's totally okay.  It's basically a measure of how much light is let in through the lens.  This is one of the deciding factors on whether your lens will allow you to take photos in low-light situations.  Generally, this will really only affect you in the evening or early morning before/after the sun is up.

Lenses with a lower "f"-number are generally more expensive because they allow more light to pass through.  Lenses with a higher "f"-number are generally lens expensive, but limit your shooting abilities once the sun starts to fade. 

If you don't have a flash or don't like using a flash, you'll want to prioritize getting a lens with low-light capabilities.

Disclaimer: I fully admit that I am a full-blown aperture snob.

There, I said it.  Phew!  Please don't judge me :)

Here's what I use:

I shoot with a Canon 5D Mark ii.  For travel photography, I almost always exclusively shoot with a Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8.

Why?

The Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 is the less expensive alternative to the well-known Canon 24-70mm f/2.8.  I found them to be nearly the same lens for photography, so I let the price sway me.  Personally, I always travel with a zoom lens because it's a bit more versatile, even though it can be heavier.  This lens allows me to get wide landscape/city shots, but also gives me the option of close-up portraits if I want. 

Here you can see me in Yosemite National Park (hiking the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail) in 2016 with my trusty Canon 5D Mark ii and Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 setup.

Here you can see me in Yosemite National Park (hiking the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail) in 2016 with my trusty Canon 5D Mark ii and Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 setup.

My overall recommendation:

Go for a zoom lens that gives you a good range from wide-angle to medium/telephoto lens.  If you're not sure what that means, check out the description of the lens on the product page.  A 24-70mm lens is a good baseline for most full-frame cameras.  For cropped sensor cameras, an 18-55mm is a good baseline lens.

If low-light capabilities are a priority, you'll want to get something in the f/1.8-f/4 range.

Note: if you're just starting out, I definitely recommend a zoom lens.  If you're a pro photographer, try some primes for the experience.  Every now and then I bring a prime with me to encourage creativity.  That being said, I have found my 24-70mm to be my constant.

But what about a 50mm lens?

50mm lenses have broken out almost as a fad in blogging.  Don't get me wrong, it's a fantastic lens, but it certainly doesn't work for everything.  If a 50mm is all you've got for traveling, you might was to consider buying another lens.  It limits you since you can't really shoot wide shots with it unless you are able to back way up... which isn't realistic if you're at the top of Notre Dame Cathedral and want to get an awesome wide-angle view of Paris.  Plus, you will constantly be backing up or walking closer to your subjects instead of having the luxury to just... zoom in or out.

I hope this is helpful!  Please leave a comment if you have any questions or if there's any other topics you'd like me to cover!  Bon voyage~ :)

(Just a quick note in case anyone asks - the header image is of my boyfriend in NYC in 2013 shooting with a Canon 6D body and a Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 lens.  We were borrowing the lens from a friend of mine to test it out!  The shot was taken by me with my Canon 5D Mark ii body and Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 lens)