There is a large variety of lenses: wide angle, normal or standard, and telephoto lenses, wide angle zoom, standard zoom, and telephoto zoom lenses, and don’t forget there are also zoom lenses which go across the categories as I discussed in Part III of the series. As the great American jazz and popular music singer, Peggy Lee asked in one of her famous songs, “Is that all there is?,” in the world of photographic lenses, the answer is, no.
There are also super telephoto lenses, and super telephoto zoom lenses, as well as specialty lenses such as fisheye, macro (close-up), perspective control lenses, and selective focus lenses.
Lens development has simultaneously taken two distinct roads; single focal length lenses and specialty lenses for single purposes, and zoom lenses designed to handle a range of purposes via their range of focal lengths.
If one had unlimited funds, an unlimited carry-on bag size, and an unlimited weight allowance for carry-on, as well as a back and shoulders with the strength of Arnold Schwarzenegger's in his prime, you could carry the perfect lens for every situation while you travel. The trouble is, there aren’t many in this world who can say each of the above is true, so the rest of us are stuck making compromises and carefully thought out choices.
So, what kinds of photographic situations can we expect to find while we travel. Here are a few which I’ve run into:
- Cityscapes and buildings in cities with narrow streets so that it is difficult to get much distance between you and the buildings you wish to photography,
- Landscapes and seascapes with wonderful, wide vistas,
- Building interiors with low light and tight spaces,
- Animal wildlife in the distance,
- Gorgeous flowers in gardens and the wild,
- Markets in city squares,
- Architectural sites,
- Archaeological ruins,
- Mechanical marvels,
- Interesting people at work or play,
- Great works of art,
- Children enjoying amusement parks,
- Theme parks,
- Low light and bright light conditions.
Here’s an important caveat. Lens choices for standard 35mm SLRs and full size sensor based DSLRs such as the Nikon D700 would be the same, but lens choices, especially wide angle lens choices for smaller sensor based DSLRs, such as the DX size sensor Nikon D300, will be different due to the “crop factor” of their smaller size sensor.
For any trip, you want to have wide angle capability. You want it for landscapes, cityscapes and seascapes. You want it for cities with narrow streets for architectural photographs. You want it for market and theme park panorama style shots. You want it for indoor shots where you just can’t get back far enough to include all the details you desire in the image.
Traditionally, a 28mm lens on an SLR camera (FX based DSLR too) is considered a great wide angle lens focal length, having a wide field of view. Unfortunately, on a DX sensor based camera, the 28mm lens has the equivalent field of view of a 42mm lens, and therefore becomes a normal or standard lens.
It’s no coincidence that the kit lenses introduced with the early Nikon DSLRs were 18–55mm, 18–70mm or 18–105mm zoom lenses. On those Nikon DX based cameras, an 18mm lens is the equivalent of the traditional 28mm lens.
For years, a normal or standard lens (50mm) was considered the typical walking around lens, for good reason. Lenses in the normal range have the same basic field of view we see with our own eyes. You want a lens in this range. For a DX cameras this would be a lens with a focal length around 35mm.
It’s my personal preference to want a telephoto lens, there are many times in a landscape you want narrower view, magnified to get more detail. There might be an important archaeological site on a hill in the distance, or in a wonderful view of a city, you might want to zero-in on a particular site and capture it’s details. A lens with a focal length between 200mm and 300mm will work nicely for most travel telephoto shots. Remember that a telephoto lens’ magnification properties are not increased when attached to a DX based DSLR, even though the field of view is narrowed.
If I’m traveling to the Netherlands in spring, or to a botanical garden, I’m going to bring a macro lens with me to get great flower close-ups. The most popular focal lengths of macro lenses are 85mm and 105mm. If you’re trying to get insect in garden photographs you might want a longer macro lens to permit you to keep your distance, but a telephoto lens could suffice for those shots.
If you’re going on an African safari, or perhaps to the Galapagos for wildlife photos, or possibly into national parks to photograph eagles and hawks, a super telephoto lens might be a great lens to take along, such as a 400mm to 500mm lens, and possibly a teleconverter to lengthen the focal length even more.
It’s important to mention that in each of the above circumstances there are a variety of lenses with a variety of qualities and speeds fitting different budgets. That can make the choice of lenses more difficult, but when choosing your lenses, these qualities must be taken into account.
As mentioned above, there are other specialty lenses, but for travel, they rarely come into play. For travel, one of the biggest considerations is weight and volume. Hence zoom lenses are a staple for travel photographers, as they can act as multiple lenses rolled into one.
After you know to where you’re traveling, researching trip details is not only important to maximize the quality of the trip itself, but also to help you reveal the photographic opportunities you’ll encounter before you leave. That, will enable you to intelligently choose the lenses you should take with you.