How To Buy Your First Lens for Travel

6

Shot with Nikkor 18-200mmCapturing memories through photos while you travel is something that nearly all of us do, and an increasing number of people are taking better cameras along for the ride.  The popularity of detachable lens cameras such as DSLRs and Micro Four-Thirds has given us the opportunity to take much better photos than in the past, while giving more options than we can sometimes handle.

When we travel with a camera, we want flexibility.  Not the body-bending type (though that doesn’t hurt), but instead a way to handle a variety of shooting conditions with the least amount of gear.  It’s with that flexibility in mind that we’ll try to find the best one for your needs.  It’s worth saying that life is about compromises, and so are lenses.

 

As part of a new series aimed at those taking that next step with their photography gear, we aim to help make sense out of all the options out there.  With that, we’ll try to keep the jargon to a minimum and stick to the basics and what matters most.

 

Kit Lens

canon18-55--tmaWhen we talk about a kit lens, we’re talking about the lens that typically comes with the camera when you first take it out of the box.  It’s the friendly starter lens that most of us begin with as we move out of the point & shoot world.

A typical kit lens is a lightweight, “walk around” zoom lens.  It gives you some flexibility to shoot in a variety of situations as you get your feet wet.

 

Common lenses:

 

What it does for you:

You need something to start taking photos with, and the kit lens is exactly that.  With it, you’ll have a taste of shooting a bit wider for landscapes and zooming in a bit for portraits and monkeys (and portraits of monkeys).

The kit lens won’t have the best picture quality around, but still well ahead of your typical point and shoot of yesterday.

 

Pros:

Low cost (You probably already have it)

Lightweight

 

Cons:

Not terribly sharp

Build quality is typically on the lower end (plastic mounts)

Smaller maximum aperture means less flexibility in low light situations

 

Good for:

Starting out

Keeping your weight down

 

 

Superzoom Lens

Particularly popular for the traveler is the so-called “superzoom" lens. These are often seen as the best all-round lens for a traveler who wants the flexibility of the zoom without having to carry a couple of lenses around to do it.

 

Common lenses:

 

What it does for you:

nikon18-200mm-tmaThe “superzoom” lens has a much larger zoom, typically in the 8x to 10x range, than the average zoom lens.  This enables you to shoot some landscape shots at the wider end (zoomed out), while also being able to zoom in and capture the bird in the tree, all without swapping a lens.  Awesome, right?

All that flexibility with the zoom comes at a cost though.  Picture quality takes a hit with all of the complicated internals of the lens.  You’re getting a jack-of-all-trades here; good for a lot of things, not great at any one of them.

The weight of the superzoom lens can be more than the two other lenses it replaces the need for.  It will also cost more than the two lenses purchased separately, but the benefit you get with never needing to swap the lens is often worth it for a traveler.

 

Pros:

Large zoom range (typically 8x-10x)

Many have some sort of image stabilization

Often covers zoom range of two lenses

 

Cons:

Heavy

Expensive

Smaller maximum aperture means you have to be careful with camera shake, especially at longer zooms and lower light situations.

Picture quality is average

Complicated internals are more expensive to fix

Protrudes from the camera

Good for:

Carrying one lens only

A mix of landscapes and far away objects

 

Prime Lens

Also known as fixed focal length (read: no zoom), and sometimes “pancake” lenses, the prime lens is a photography staple.  As lenses go, these are the least complicated internally, which means less weight, smaller size, and cheaper price.

It also means that they are much sharper than the typical zoom lens.

 

Common lenses:

 

What it does for you:

panasonic20mm-tmaWhat the prime lens lacks in zoom, it makes it up in other ways.  First, the prime lens can let in a lot more light, and we call this a “brighter lens.”  This is good for shooting in lower-light situations like a milonga in Buenos Aires, or a street in Paris at night, particularly when you don’t have a tripod at your disposal.  It can do this because of a much larger maximum aperture (small f number).

That larger maximum aperture also means that you can shoot with a shallower depth of field.  Think of that soft, out of focus background you often see in portraits.

You’re losing that thing that is at the top of so many lists when people are looking at a camera or a lens though, and that is the zoom.  That alone will turn off many people, particularly those just starting out.  Want to zoom in?  You’ll have to walk forward. 

 

Pros:

Shot with Nikkor 35mm f1.8Much sharper than zoom lenses

Large apertures (small number) make for better shooting in low-light, and control of depth of field (bokeh)

Lightweight

Small size

Inexpensive

 

Cons:

No zoom (you’ll have to move your feet to compose your shot)

Typically not suitable for landscapes

 

Good for:

The sharpest photos and best picture quality of the standard travel lenses

Portraits

Low-light situations

 

Bad for:

Landscapes

Far away objects

 

Conclusion

Clear as mud?  The story here is that there is no one-size-fits-all in the world of travel lenses.  Depending on your budget, and what you are most interested in shooting, there is likely a best one for you.

If you’re just starting out, I’d recommend you begin by taking what you’ve got, and learning with that a bit before you begin dropping cash on expensive pieces of glass.  Maybe you’ll turn into a serious hobbyist, or maybe your expensive new toy will be gathering dust in 3 weeks.

 

Next time we’ll look at some of the other types of lenses you can take with you on your next adventure.

 

Are you struggling to find the perfect travel lens that fits your needs?  Let us know in the comments and maybe we can help out.  If not, we’d love to hear what lens(es) you travel with.

 

6 Responses

  1. Cassie

    Great starter guide to lenses, I wish I’d seen this a year and a half ago when I knew nothing and was arguing with Kevin about why I thought we needed the kit lens! He said we didn’t so we skipped it and just bought the body and an 18-200. That, and my brand, spanking new 35mm prime, cover most purposes.

    Reply
  2. dylan

    If you’re looking for a Canon 50mm Primary, they offer a much cheaper version – about a hundred bucks. It’s f/1.8 – still very fast. I’m sure it’s not as great as the f/1.4, but at a quarter of the price, you can’t go wrong! It’s way way way better than the kit lens.

    I also travel with a EF-S 10-22mm for wide angle sky / landscape shots. My favorite at this point is the EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM. Neither of these are particularly good starter lenses i suppose, but I do wish I’d started with something better than the kit lens when I go back and look at all the crappy bland photos I took with that cheap plastic 18-55mm

    Reply
    • dylan

      Actually I should have said the EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM is a great starter lens, except it’s damn expensive….

      Reply
  3. Dustin Main

    Thanks Dylan. We’ll have some followups with ultra-wides and artistic lenses in the future, as well as some lenses that are a step up (like the 17-55 2.8 you mentioned).

    Reply

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