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Picking The Best Camera Lens for Travel Photography

By Dustin Main Cameras, Take Better Photos8 Comments


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Capturing memories through photos is something that nearly all of us do while traveling, 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. At the same time, it’s also given us more options and decisions to make 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 the 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.

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Kit Lens

When 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 Kit Lenses for Travel

What A Kit Lens Does for You

Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G Vibration Reduction II Zoom Lens with Auto Focus for Nikon DSLR Cameras

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 it should still be well ahead of your typical point and shoot of yesterday.


  • Low/no cost (it probably comes with the camera)
  • Lightweight
  • Not terribly sharp
  • Build quality is typically on the lower end (eg. plastic mounts)
  • Smaller maximum aperture means less flexibility in low light situations

What Is a Kit Lens Good For?

  • Starting out
  • Keeping the weight down

Superzoom Lens

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

Common SuperZoom Lenses for Travel

What a SuperZoom Lens Does for You

AF-S DX Nkr 18-200mm F/3.5-5.6G ED VR II

The “superzoom” lens has a much larger zoom than the average zoom lens, typically in the 8-10x range.  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, but not great at any one of them.

The weight of the superzoom lens can also be more than the two other lenses it replaces the need for. It will likely cost more than the two lenses purchased separately as well, but the benefit of never needing to swap the lens is often worth it for travelers.

  • Large zoom range (typically 8-10x)
  • Many have some sort of image stabilization
  • Often covers zoom range of two lenses
  • 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

What is a SuperZoom Lens 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 in theory, a cheaper price.

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

Common Prime Lenses for Travel

What a Prime Lens Does for You

Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8G Lens with Auto Focus for Nikon DSLR Cameras

What the prime lens lacks in zoom, it makes up for in other ways. First, a 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, especially 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 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, however: 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:

  • Much sharper than zoom lenses
  • Large apertures (small f-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

What Is a Prime Lens Good For?

  • The sharpest photos and best picture quality of the standard travel lenses
  • Portraits
  • Low-light situations

What Is a Prime Lens Bad For?

  • Landscapes
  • Far away objects

Conclusion

Clear as mud? The big 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, however, there’s likely still 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 three 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. Either way, we’d love to hear what lens(es) you travel with.

About the Author
Dustin Main

Dustin Main

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Dustin just can't get enough travel or technology, but when he's not directly feeding one of those insatiable habits, you can probably find him at some far away ice cream shop taking pictures of empty cups. That, or on top of a mountain somewhere shooting photos and finding adventures to share on his website "A Skinny Escape".

Comments

  1. Avatar

    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.

    1. Dustin Main Author

      Glad you’re sorted Cassie.

      What other photography-related resources are you interested in?

  2. Avatar

    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

    1. Avatar

      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….

  3. Dustin Main Author

    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).

  4. Avatar

    I purchased 4 lens immediately without knowing anything about the camera. I just wanted to have what I needed. After playing with things for a year doing everything from sport games to landscape I still was not satisfied. Then I read a article about a professional that only takes a 50 mm lens. I then tried that. Using the 50 mm lens for a week. Now when I go on vacation I only need one lens. That lens will take care of 99.9.

  5. Avatar

    Hi, I would appreciate your comments about a lens I am looking for. I am trying to graduate from kit lenses. I want to start night photography. I am looking for a lens with f1.8 but not a prime as I would like to use it or landscape photos as well . I need to buy a body as well . I am leaning towards Cannon. Any feed back will be good.
    Cheers

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