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DSLR 101: Choosing the perfect lens for travel photography

DSLR 101: Choosing the perfect lens for travel photography

A camera is only as good as its lens.

You could splash out thousands of dollars on a state-of-the-art camera that can operate in outer space and tie your shoes for you, but your photos will still come out looking mediocre if you have a cheap shitty lens.

The camera body itself is mostly just an image processing tool (no shoe tying, unfortunately). It’s really the lens that will turn your photos into something you’ve drooled over in National Geographic.

Last week I gave you my recommendations on choosing a DSLR camera, so now it’s time to look at the best lenses to go along with it depending on your style of travel photography.

Remember: You might get a cheaper price purchasing your lens online. You could also look into getting your camera equipment second hand – I did this with my lens and saved about $350 off RRP. If the equipment is in good condition, then it should be the same as buying it new but without the warranty.


LENS BASICS

Most camera bodies will come with a kit lens, though you can buy them without. My Canon came with twin lens kit including an 18-55mm and 55-200mm zoom lens. They did the job perfectly at first and were great for me to learn the ins-and-outs of the camera.

Lens types:

  • Wide Angle – usually 20mm or below are considered wide angle. This will fit most of what you can see in the photo. Great for landscapes.
  • Telephoto – above 50mm is usually considered telephoto. This gets up close to objects when you’re standing at a distance.
  • Zoom – allows you to both zoom out to wide angles and in close to objects. You can change between wide angle and telephoto with one lens.
  • Fixed length – features no zoom, and is often used for photos that are similar to what the human eye would see when you are looking at an object.
  • Macro – focuses on objects that are very close to the lens.

What to look for:

  • Aperture/f-number – the aperture defines how much light is let through the lens. The f-number will usually will be somewhere between f1.8 (where you can create a nice background blur) and f16 (where everything in the photo is in focus). Some zoom lenses will have a range of apertures.
  • Zoom/focal length – this is how far you can zoom in or out. A wide angle lens might start at about 10-12mm (for super wide angle such as a fisheye lens) and a telephoto zoom lens might go up to 300mm (for zooming in to an object from a far distance).
  • Weight – There are a number of lenses that take fabulous photos but weigh a ton, and you may regret the heavy lens when you’re lugging it around later. My 15-85mm zoom lens weighs about 550g (1.25 lb) and I wouldn’t want to get anything heavier than that, but if you’re ok with carrying around a heavier lens, go for it!

LENS RECOMMENDATIONS

Sydney 1

Landscapes

Lenses that zoom out to a wide angle are great for landscapes, though be aware that super wide angle lenses may warp the photo around the edges. This can make a cool effect but for beginners it’s probably best to start around the 18mm mark.

Lens apertures of f4 and above are also good for landscapes, as they keep everything in the photo in focus. You don’t want to have a tree in the foreground in focus, only to have the mountains in the background blurry.

Zack

Portraits

Lenses with apertures of f1.4-f3 are great for portraits as the subject will be in focus while the background blurs.

I took the above portrait of my nephew with a 50mm prime lens and an aperture of f1.8. This is a common lens (usually referred to as a ‘nifty fifty’) and is fairly cheap, versatile, and very light.

Bali, Indonesia

Animals

Telephoto (or Zoom) lenses are great for animal photography as you can appear to get up close when you’re actually standing at a distance.

The above photo was with my current travel lens zoomed in to 85mm, and I was standing maybe 5-7 metres (16-22 feet) away from the monkey. But if you’re seriously into animal photography and want to catch a few cheetahs and rhinos from a distance on an African safari, you’re going to want a telephoto lens that will zoom in to 200mm or 300mm.

Bali 19

Indoors

You can use various lenses for indoor photography. I’d generally stick to wide angles – under 35mm for photos of objects or portraits, and 18mm or lower if you want to take a photo of a room and fit in as much of the space as possible.

Wide apertures are also useful as they will allow you to use a faster shutter speed when taking the photo (reducing the chances of blur from movement). An external flash is also great if you’re planning on doing a lot of indoor photography.

Bali, Indonesia

General Travel

If you only want to carry one lens with you on your travels, you need a light and versatile lens. I’ve upgraded from my kit lenses to a 15-85mm zoom lens for general travel photography. Before I made the purchase, I did some research on the best lenses for travel photography and I’m glad I chose this one as it does the job perfectly. The zoom range is wider than my old 18-55mm kit lens, and the photo quality is also much better.

Lenses used for general travel photography usually have a large zoom range, often ranging somewhere between 15mm-105mm. These lenses will give you flexibility with zoom for both close ups and landscapes.


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Ashlea Wheeler

This post was written by Ashlea, a colourfully clothed and excitable vegetarian who loves photography and exploring the world. Find out more about me.

30 Responses to “DSLR 101: Choosing the perfect lens for travel photography”

  1. MissLilly

    When I’m travelling I use my canon 17-85mm which I find is quite a flexible lens. Depends where I’m going I may take my 50mm too which I love! There is a downside though, it’s heavy!!! At the end of the day I have lots of backpain 🙁

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Oh that’s no good, travel lenses certainly can be heavy! When I purchased my 15-85mm it was a bit heavier than I’d hoped, but the picture quality makes it so worth it. I also considered the 17-85mm when I was looking at purchasing my travel lens, it’s a good choice! 🙂

      Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      I’m glad I could be of assistance Laura! Believe me, you won’t regret it. A better lens makes the world of difference for your photos, though I have to admit yours are lovely already. Those Blue Lagoon photos are seriously awesome!

      Reply
  2. Paulaena Marie

    Amazing post and just in time! I’m hopefully going to Paris in a month and planning to take my DSLR; I can’t wait to try out these tips 🙂

    Tweezers and Tongs

    Reply
  3. Leah of The Mochilera Diaries

    Ahh, all the wildlife photography opportunities I’ve missed because I never ponied up for a good zoom lens! I operate mainly with my stock lens and when I think of it I might switch to my nifty fifty, but those are the only two lenses I’ve ever had. I like the sound of the one you’ve got, I might just have to buy one for myself 🙂

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      I know what you mean Leah! All those opportunities where we’ve been kicking ourselves for not having the perfect lens on hand. A nifty fifty is a great lens, though not ideal for all travel photography as it has no zoom. It’s good that you’ve got both. I really love my new lens as the zoom rage is so much wider than my old kit lens! 🙂

      Reply
  4. Jordan

    Great post! I just got a Sony A6000 and now am searching for potential lens in the future! This is really helpful 🙂

    Reply
  5. Sarah

    It took me forever to decide on an upgrade for an all round travel lens. I don’t know how many youtube videos I watched to compare my favourites! In the end, I went wit a Sigma 17-50mm: not much different than the kit lens in terms of range, but definitely an upgrade in photo quality and great value. Now let’s see when I can upgrade to a full frame camera…

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      I did exactly the same thing when I was researching my new travel lens! It takes so much effort to figure out which will be best for your needs, especially if you’re not so familiar with the specifics of lenses. I can imagine your new lens would take much better photos than the kit lens, they’re not usually the best quality so any upgrade would be good! Thanks for your comment Sarah 🙂

      Reply
  6. Chandra

    You put a lot of time into this article. Thank you. Your efforts are appreciated. A dear friend of mine bought me a Nikon D7100 for Christmas. Since then, I’ve added 2 new lenses, a “nifty fifty” of course, and a Tamron 17-50 f/2.8. I really like both, but I get what you’re saying about weight. The Tamron is a heavy bugger. An extended amount of time around my neck will have my neck screaming for a hot bath. Wish I’d found your article before I purchased.

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Thanks for your comment Chandra! The wide angle lenses can be sooo heavy, mine also kills my shoulder after I’ve been carrying it around for days on end. But I just tell myself that the quality photos I’m getting make it worth it!

      Reply
  7. Fabian

    Hey!
    Im quite new at this, but i just bought a Nikon d5300 with a tamron 18-270 pzd lens with it. Im going to travel to asia, Australia and New Zealand this year, but im considering getting a Nikon 18-105 instead. What would you recommend?
    Im afraid of loosing too much quality and sharpness with The tamron lens! (i Will Probably mostly take landscape, City pictures and portraits of The people we meet)

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Hi Fabian, thank for your comment! Unfortunately I haven’t had any experience with the Tamron lenses, but when I chose my new lens I went with a Canon one (same as my camera body) because I felt like it would do a better job than a different brand. I’m not sure what the quality is like with Tamron but they are much cheaper, so I would imagine there would be a sacrifice in quality there. I’d go with a Nikon if you have the cash, and an 18-105 would be a great lens for travelling 🙂

      Reply
    • Chandra

      I love my Tamron lens. Although heavier than some of my other Nikon lenses, I have not noticed any loss in quality in my landscapes.

      Reply
  8. Sandra

    Hi Ashlea, I’m going to Jamaica soon and I’m still trying to decide which lenses to take with me. I’ll be taking mainly scenic pictures as well as people I meet and I own canon 650D. I’ve decided I’m only taking 3 lenses and I have the following to choose from: 10-18 f4.5-5.6, 100mm f2.8 USM macro, 18-200, 40mm 2.8, 50mm f1.4, 85mm f1.8, 15-85 & 70-300. Also from that list is there any other lens I could buy to enhance my collection as well as sell one which is obsolete?

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Hi Sandra, that’s great to hear about your Jamaica trip! I would probably suggest the 40mm or 50mm lens for portraits, the 10-18mm for landscapes, and the 15-85 for general photography. Though if you’re planning on doing any wildlife spotting, then maybe the 18-200mm or 70-300mm would be useful.

      Reply
  9. Sandra

    Thanks for that Ashlea. Is there any lens from that list you would get rid of? I was thinking of selling 15-85 and replacing it with 24-105. What do you think? Also I’ve been looking at 70-200 f2.8 to replace 70-300 but can only afford to buy one lens before leaving on my trip. Which would you buy & why?

    Reply
    • Chandra Jahnke

      Is the 70-300 a kit lens? If it is, I would replace that one first. Just my 2 cents. The DOF just isn’t there on a kit lens.
      If it was me going to Jamaica, I’d take a wide angle and a nifty fifty. And maybe one telephoto if you are planning on any wildlife or street photography. I have a 50mm 1.4 and a 17-50mm 2.8 that I absolutely love. I never leave home without them and rarely use anything else. Although, I might be tempted to use a70-200 2.8 for exotic wildlife and street photography.

      Reply
  10. Sandra

    Hi Chandra, thanks for your comments. 70-300 is a kit lens and I’ve been looking to change it for 70-200 f2.8 for sometime but was undecided. After reading your comments I think I’ve settled on taking 50mm 1.4 or 85mm 1.8, 15-85 mm & 70-300. My trip is not until later this year so I may have the money to buy 70-200 by then.

    Reply
  11. Michelle

    Hi Ashlea,

    Loved the post! I’m planning a trip to Europe and I was wondering if you could get me some input with wide angle lens, good travel lens for my Nikon D7000 .
    Let me know, would love you input 🙂

    Thanks!

    Reply

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