Photography 101: The Best DSLR Travel Lens

Stephen F. Dennstedt

The best DSLR travel lens is? That’s a pretty provocative question to start a blog post with. Lenses, like camera bodies, can be very, VERY subjective. Everyone has their favourites (and opinions). To narrow the choice to just one lens is really impossible—even for experienced photographers.

When I insert the word travel into the question it implies movement—that you’re going to be on the go: trains, planes and automobiles (that sort of thing). That suggests there will be weight and size constraints imposed on your photography kit. There are lots of questions to be asked beforehand. We’ll get to those in a minute.

I specified in the title that we’re talking DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) cameras and not iPhone, point & shoot or micro four thirds cameras. And I’m not really talking brands per se as much as I’m talking focal length (FL). I’ve been a Canon shooter since 2009 when I switched from film to digital. Before that I primarily shot Nikon, Leica and Rolleiflex but have lots of experience with other brands as well. Like I said earlier, this isn’t about brands—it’s about focal length.

Church – Acanceh, Yucatan (Ultra Wide-Angle FL)

If you’re travelling you will be photographing many different venues: landscapes, seascapes, cityscapes, architecture, people and maybe even wildlife. That’s a lot to ask of just one lens I’m afraid. In my opinion that kind of shooting demands a zoom lens and even then you will be zooming further with your feet (moving closer to or farther away from your subject). You want a FL range that is compatible with as many scenarios as possible. At a minimum that would include a modest wide-angle to modest telephoto FL range. On a full-frame camera that would include a 24-70mm or a 24-105mm FL zoom range.

Street Portrait – Huaraz, Peru (Modest Telephoto FL)

On an APS-C crop-sensor camera (Canon 1.6x or Nikon 1.5x) you will have a FL multiplier to deal with. To get approximately the same results you will need a wider wide-angle like a 16-35mm FL zoom range. Multiply the FL by the crop factor (FL multiplier) to get the full-frame equivalent: Canon 16-35mm x 1.6x crop factor = 25.6-56mm full-frame equivalent. You keep most of your wide-angle advantage but lose some of your telephoto reach (an 18-55mm kit lens might also be an option). Drumroll please, if I could travel with only one lens it would be a 24-105mm zoom lens on a full-frame camera (or its equivalent on a crop-sensor camera).

Galapagos Islands – Ecuador (Wide-Angle FL)

I travelled with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM zoom lens (amongst others) for almost six years as I trekked through Mexico, Cuba, Central and South America. It was on my camera about 80% of the time while capturing all the travel scenarios mentioned before. At the wide end (24mm) it was great at recording the big picture and at the long end (105mm) it did a good job of capturing street portraits. If I had the luxury of carrying two lenses in my kit I would choose a 24-70mm zoom (usually providing better overall resolution) and a 70-200mm zoom. With those two lenses there wouldn’t be much I couldn’t photograph.

Field Notes: This was only a discussion about a “what-if” scenario. If you’re a professional or serious amateur photographer you will be packing more than one lens with you. I actually carry two DSLR camera bodies (a full-frame and a crop-sensor) and five lenses (four zooms and one prime). I can cover a focal length spread of 16mm all the way to 400mm on my full-frame camera and base apertures of f/1.4 to f/5.6. These focal lengths all increase when I place these lenses on my crop-sensor camera. But if push-came-to-shove I am confident I could survive with just a 24-105mm (or preferably a 24-70mm and 70-200mm). SFD


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