Best Camera Lens for Travel Photography

The London Eye 0n London's Southbank, England
The London Eye 0n London’s Southbank, England

In my last post I talked about the best camera to use for travel photography. If you missed it you can find it here.
This time I want to talk about the best camera lens for travel photography.

In that article I inferred that the best camera to have is a mirrorless. That doesn’t mean that in this article I’ve assumed that you will have one.
As in Ice Cream, there are many different flavours.
There are lots of different lenses that do the same thing. There are lots of different lenses that do specific things.

Types of lenses

To ensure consistency I’ve quoted the 35mm equivalent when quoting a focal length.
Why?
Well most, if not all, camera manufacturers usually quote that in their literature. 
To cover all the different size focal lengths from each manufacturer would be confusing. E.G. a full frame camera body lens of 50mm is exactly that, 50mm.
A DSLR crop sensor camera is usually around 1.6 which means 50mm is 32mm. 
To confuse you even more, some mirrorless cameras have crop sensors of around 2, which means a 50mm lens is 25mm. AAGH!!!
More on that in a future post.

Now we’ve cleared that up, let’s go to the best camera lens for travel photography.

Built in Lenses

There are some top end compact and low end mirrorless cameras that have a built in lens.
An example of both would be the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 III and Fujifilm X100F
Most of the lenses that come with these cameras tend to be telephoto lenses and that’s when you need to be careful.
Some of them use both Optical and Digital zooms.
If you recall from the Best camera equipment for travel photography, a digital zoom is the same as having an image on your computer screen and cropping it.
That means you end up with a smaller picture size, e.g. 1000 x 1000 becomes 500 x 500 Pixels. 

If you zoom in optically the size remains the same and so does the resolution, allowing for bigger prints or digital sizes at better quality 

So, if you are looking at a lens on a camera, ensure that you know whether it’s using optical or digital to zoom.
Just because it uses digital doesn’t mean you should disregard it. 
If it also has an optical zoom as well, then you can choose to use the digital zoom sparingly.

Built in Telephoto lenses tend to range from around a minimum of 28mm to sometimes around 250mm. 
When it’s longer than that, then it’s usually at the long end that the digital zoom comes into play.

If you are going for an all-rounder, which you would be if you are considering a compact camera, then 28-150mm is the sweet spot. 
If you can get wider than 28mm, say 24mm, than all the better. Remember you can always, where practical, zoom in with your feet.

Great Langdale in the Langdale ranges ,Lake District, England
Great Langdale in the Langdale ranges ,Lake District, England

Click on the above image to view a larger version and for other options

Interchangeable lenses

Now we are talking about a separate lens. That is, a lens that can be removed from the camera. 

With interchangeable lenses, you need to establish what you can afford and whether you want more than one lens.

The first camera I had (which was a film camera, but the principle is the same) had a 28-200mm lens.
I also had a 1.5 Teleconverter with it, which meant that I could get a maximum zoom of 300mm.

So, there are other ways of having flexibility with only having one lens.

But if you are thinking about going for a camera with Interchangeable lenses, then it’s worth the price to invest in glass. 
The thing is that the lens is a more important and longer-term investment than the camera body. 
If you get a good lens, then you will keep it far longer than the camera body.

Telephoto Lenses

With a telephoto lens you have options with what you want to carry. 
And there are some genre’s that need telephoto lens. Wildlife and entertainment are hard to do without having a Zoom. 
Street, Architectural and even Landscapes can give you different viewpoints that you wouldn’t get if you have a fixed focal or prime lens.

As I mentioned in the Built in Lenses section above, the usual sweet spot for a generalist is 28-150mm. 

So, you’ve decided on the length of zoom you have. 
Now you need to decide on how ‘fast’ you want it to be. What’s Fast? Well that relates to the maximum aperture size. 

Most consumer lenses are around F4.5 and as you zoom out, so the maximum will be higher. A range of 4.5- 6.5 is common. 
They are fine for the majority of Travel Photography subjects. 

However, if you want to get serious, then the next level up are pro lenses. 
They tend to have a fixed aperture i.e. don’t change as you zoom. But not only are they a lot more expensive they are also heavier and bigger. 
So you have not only have to consider your budget you have to consider your back as well!

Prime or Fixed Focal lenses

What’s a prime lens? Well basically it’s a fixed length. 
The most popular Prime Lens length is 80mm, as it’s a bit of an all-rounder and matches what you see with your eyes. 

A prime lens is more restrictive but usually offer you better quality.
Unlike the Telephoto lens, they have fixed apertures like a pro telephoto. 

If you buy one with a large aperture of f1.2 or 2.4 you have a lot more flexibility when it comes to getting different areas of your photo in focus. 

But they are probably not so good for Wildlife but depending on the size you can use it for pretty much anything.
As I said before you can still zoom with your feet.

Wide-Angle Lenses

They are normally around 20-24mm and offer you, as the name suggests, a wide-angle view which can be also used for an artistic interpretation of a subject. 

Some street photographers and Photo-Journalists use them a fair bit.
However it’s landscape photographers that use them the most. Getting a full wide landscape can be very satisfying.

Speciality Lenses

There are many types of speciality lenses. 

Tilt and shift lenses are mainly used to correct that narrowing of a building that you get when taking some architectural shots. 

Macro lenses are great for small objects such as insects and flowers. 
A macro setting is often built into some camera bodies. But more often or not you usually need to have a prime lens that has that facility as well. 

Then there are super telephotos for wildlife and sports. 
You see them around the boundary in sports stadium. 
As there are not many, if any, consumer level super telephoto lens, they are big and expensive.

Then there are the distortion type lenses, such as those that manufacturers like Lens Baby makes. 
Most popular of these are the Fish Eye lenses, a wide angle that makes everything look like it was in a fishbowl. 

Again, whether you have these or not depends on what type of Travel photography you are going to specialise in

Kangaroo Paw in Kings Park Perth Australia
Kangaroo Paw in Kings Park Perth Australia

Which ones to buy and/or use

In Different types of Travel Photography, I go through the types of Travel Photography genres. 

Let’s map those genres to a specific lens and wrap up this article on the best camera lens for travel photography.

General – Telephoto Lens plus a 80mm Prime Lens

People and Street – 50 or 80MM Prime Lens plus a 28-150mm Telephoto

Journalistic or lifestyle – 80 or 100mm Prime Lens plus a Telephoto Lens of 28-150mm

Landscape – 24mm Wide-Angle plus a Telephoto with a minimum focal length of 100mm

Architectural – 24-100mm Telephoto and a 35 or 50mm ‘Fast’ Lens i.e. F1.2 or 2.4.

Wildlife and Nature – Big Telephoto as long as you can afford (*See below) plus a Macro if you are intending to shoot flowers or insects or the smaller world.

*There is always the option to hire a lens, depending on your location. 
A couple of years ago, I hired a 100-400mm Canon Lens for a trip I did to Northern Canada to see the Polar Bears. 
Often you may not use some of the more specialist lenses all the time, so It’s a good idea to hire them. 
More on this in another post.

Food and Drink – Food and Drink is a tricky genre to suggest the best lens for. 

If you are looking to take low light plated food, e.g. in a restaurant, then you would need a wide angle or 50mm lens with a large maximum aperture of F1.2 or 2.4. 

However, if you are taking images of food in its raw state e.g. farming or even a farmers’ market, then a telephoto may be the best way to go. 
Same applies to drink. Vineyards, Wineries and breweries are semi landscape. 
And you can be really creative using a macro lens to shoot bottles of Wine or Spirits or even fluid in a glass.

Entertainment – Like Street Photography with the exception that you many need a fast lens if you are inside a concert hall and flash is not allowed

As you can see there are lots of different ways of looking at the lens you may require.
If you are not sure then the best way to start is, as I’ve indicated in the general genre, to purchase a telephoto and if possible a 80mm lens.

Summary

Finding the best camera lens for travel photography can be a challenge. 

Two things to remember:

1. The quality and build of a lens is more important to the quality of your images than the camera body. 

2. You are likely to keep your lens for a lot longer than the camera body. 

So, ensure you spend as much as you can afford on your lens. 

There are many types of lenses but the most useful tend to be telephotos of around 28-150mm and 50 or 80mm prime lens.

Unless you are specialising in some tight niche, then purchasing a speciality lens like a fish eye or tilt and shift lens is not advisable, as you won’t get the use out of it. 

Remember you have the option, most of the time to hire some speciality lenses.

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