Jordana Wright talks about what you really need for travel photography. This article explains choosing the right lens. It’s from her book The Enthusiast’s Guide to Travel published by Rocky Nook.

Carry every lens you’ve got or not…

In the early days of my career, I used to travel with every lens I owned. I figured that given my level of investment in glass, it was foolish to leave anything behind. As time went on, I realized that changing lenses on the go was a hindrance and that carrying fewer, more versatile lenses allowed me greater portability and flexibility.

Red-eyed tree frog, Mombacho Volcano, Nicaragua ISO 800; 1/125 sec.; f/6.3; 95mm
Red-eyed tree frog, Mombacho Volcano, Nicaragua
1/125 sec f/6.3 ISO 800 95mm

Zooming by walking

True, sometimes I have to compose a shot by moving closer to my subject or backing away to make the focal length work for the given scenario, but I have found that reducing the number of lenses I bring increases the creativity required for achieving my desired shot. Unless I need a specialty lens, I usually limit myself to one zoom lens, one prime lens, and one wide-angle lens. All of the lenses discussed here are used on my Canon cameras (I’m not a rabid Canon evangelist—it’s just what I happened to start with sixteen years ago, and if it ain’t broke…), but there are equivalent lenses for most camera makes and models.

Granada, Nicaragua ISO 100; 1/200 sec.; f/6.3; 171mm
Granada, Nicaragua
1/200 sec f/6.3 ISO 100 171mm

Zoom Lenses

My current go-to travel lens is the Sigma 18–300mm f/3.5–6.3 (for cropped sensor cameras). I bought this lens last year to replace two lenses I regularly used on my travels, a 17–85mm and a 70–300mm. It was the first third-party lens I ever purchased and I love it. It’s not the fastest lens on the market, but it is definitely competitive in its price point. This is the lens I use most frequently because of its versatility. I’ve shot everything from macro to architecture with this lens. If I had to limit myself to just one lens when I travel, it would be this one. My advice is to find a zoom lens you love, learn its nuances well (sharpest apertures, points of exaggerated distortion, whether or not you trust its image stabilization, etc.), and keep it as the default lens on your camera.

Canon 50mm f/1.8 (left) and Canon 24mm f/2.8 (right)
L-R: Canon 50mm f/1.8 and Canon 24mm f/2.8

Prime Lenses

It’s hard to go wrong with a 50mm prime lens. A 50mm is lightweight, it’s easy to get tack-sharp focus, it can be used for a variety of scenarios, and it’s fairly true to what the eye sees naturally. You can find a variety of great 50mm lenses on the market, from Canon’s cheap f/1.8 to their costly f/1.2. Buy the best glass you can afford. I opted for the f/1.8 long ago when I was still a newbie, and to this day I use it as a backup lens. A couple of years ago I swapped out the 50mm for Canon’s 24mm f/2.8 pancake lens as my go-to travel prime. I love how small, light, and unobtrusive it is. When I shoot street photography, food, or in crowds, I feel confident that I can get my shot without drawing undue attention to myself. It works beautifully for handheld low-light shots. Also, it can fit in a purse or a pocket if needed so I can always keep a backup lens on hand. With such a small-sized lens, it’s hard to feel bad about doubling up on the focal lengths I carry with me.

Arches National Park, Moab, Utah ISO 640; 1/125 sec.; f/13; 10mm
Arches National Park, Moab, Utah
1/125 sec f/13 ISO 640 10mm

Wide-Angle Lenses

When I want to shoot wide-angle on the road, I primarily rely on my Canon 10–22mm f/3.5- 4.5. It’s a fantastic lens offering a unique perspective on the world. The 10–22mm is great for capturing full scenes when crowds or structures don’t leave me much room to back up. I love this lens for architecture, landscapes, and any situation where I want to work the inherent distortion issues to my stylistic advantage. Many photographers swear by fisheye lenses, and I can’t say I blame them. Over the course of a couple of years, I had joint custody of a friend’s Rokinon 8mm f/3.5 and I used it on multiple trips. Though I love the lens for very specific types of shots I want to make, it isn’t an ideal lens for every scenario. I can’t see myself using a fisheye often enough to buy one, but it’s a great option for a rental and very fun to use for unique travel images.

One of the few shots I dreamed up ahead of time was this bizarre fisheye perspective of a cork donkey. Andalusia, Spain ISO 100; 1/320; f/3.5; 8mm
One of the few shots I dreamed up ahead of time was this bizarre fisheye perspective of a cork donkey.
Andalusia, Spain  1/320 sec f/3.5 ISO 100 8mm

Other Options, Accessories, and Ideas

There are lots of no-brainer options for other must-have lenses in certain scenarios. Going on safari? Bring a telephoto. Obsessed with architecture? A tilt-shift is a great choice. Want that low-res Instagram look? Try a plastic toy lens like the Diana 20mm. Want to get uber-creative? Lensbaby has a wide range of fun, customizable lenses that offer beautiful bokeh, interesting distortion, and the tilt-shift look at an affordable price.

Want to make your existing lenses more versatile? Investigate screw-on magnifiers and effect filters, or invest in an extension tube. Regardless of your lens choices, treat them well on the road. Travel can lead to major dust and debris, so make sure you’re using your front and rear caps when the lenses are in your bag. As the queen of smashing into stuff and falling down on trails, I take my lens protection very seriously! I invest in lens hoods and high-quality UV filters to protect my glass. Better a bruised bum and cracked filter than a busted lens! Finally, with any lens, make practice your priority. A $13,000 investment in the nicest lens of all time is a poor use of money if you hit the road on a once-in-a-lifetime trip not knowing how to use it!

See all of the great photographic skills books from Rocky Nook.

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