Currently, I primarily use a Nikon D200 for travel, which has a DX size sensor. I may be moving to an FX sensor (full size sensor) based Nikon camera later this year. For this article I’ll have two sets of recommendations for travelers, one for full size sensor based DSLRs and SLRs, and one for the smaller DX/APS-C size sensor based DSLRs.
Most travel I take includes the following photographic opportunities:
- Landscape, cityscape, and possibly seascape,
- Macro or closeup,
- Interior building,
- Intermediate to distant or telephoto,
- People at work, and at play,
- Local culture,
- Low light opportunities.
- Wildlife (flora and fauna),
- The unanticipated.
Travel today is not easy, or inexpensive. The likelihood of returning to most travel locations far from home is small, so you have to make the most of your photographic opportunities when you find them.
Always treat each photographic opportunity as unique, never to be found again.
I take the lenses I need to capture the photographic opportunities I expect, and try to build in enough flexibility to meet the ones which are unexpected.
When making lens choices, the specifics for travel I consider are (All the other lens characteristics come into play when choosing the precise lens in each class including cost, and the expected frequency of use.):
- Expected photographic opportunities for which specific focal lengths would apply,
- Expected available light conditions,
- Lens weight,
- Lens storage space.
I mostly use zoom lenses, as they have come a long way in quality and functionality. They give you great focal length flexibility to frame images. Zoom lenses can contain the equivalent of multiple prime lenses, thus reducing the number of lenses you need to carry, weight and storage space.
For DX/APS-C sensor DSLRs:
- Super Wide Angle Zoom Lens: Sigma 10-20mm F4-5.6 EX DC HSM. For interiors and narrow street cityscapes this is an exceptional lens at an excellent price. While it isn’t a particularly fast lens, for low light conditions, with todays better DX/APS-C DSLRs you should be able to use an ISO up to 400 with excellent results counteracting the lens’ speed.
- Wide Angle to Mid-Telephoto Zoom Lens: AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II. This lens covers the range of focal lengths for most of the remaining travel coverage desired, from wide angle, through normal, through much of the low/mid telephoto range. This is an excellent walking around lens with amazing quality for its price. It produces very sharp images. It’s slowness is made up by its VR capability.
- Normal to Upper/Mid Range Telephoto: AF-S VR Zoom-NIKKOR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED. If it’s unlikely I’ll be taking wildlife photos, but feel I have a need for a longer reach than the 200mm of the 18–200mm zoom, I take this lens with me. It’s optics are good, but not as good as the 18–200mm. It will give me fine photos, and it’s extremely light weight, which is important at this point, with the other lenses.
- Normal to Upper Range Telephoto: AF VR Zoom-NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED. From a weight and compact size spec, this is an amazing lens, and it has excellent optics. You can use this lens without the need of a heavy duty tripod. A Gitzo Traveler, Series 2 will work. The downside of this lens is that it’s slow to auto-focus, and depends on the camera’s focus motor for auto-focus. Nevertheless, if I’m taking wildlife photos, this is the lens I travel with and recommend. With its excellent VR, I have successfully handheld this lens at 400mm. In bright conditions, you can use a 1.4X teleconverter to beef it up to 550mm with very good results. You can’t handhold it at 550mm.
- Macro Lens: AF-S VR Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED. This is a great prime lens and a great focal length for many if not most closeup shots of wildlife. If I’m going where flower closeup or other macro opportunities will be available, I never leave home without it.
- Wide Angle to Normal Zoom Lens: AF Zoom-NIKKOR 24-85mm f/2.8-4D IF. While it doesn't have the quite the angle of view of the 10–20mm Sigma lens above, at its 16mm equivalent I am in the middle of the Sigma’s range, and that should generally be very satisfactory. The lens is faster along its range than the lenses for the DX camera above.
- Normal to Mid-Telephoto Zoom Lens: AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II. This is a fabulous lens, and you pay for it, but there really is no middle ground for this focal length range with VR. Everything about this lens is top level professional. It’s only downside is it weighs 3.4lbs.
- Normal to Upper/Mid Range Telephoto: AF-S VR Zoom-NIKKOR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED. If it’s unlikely I’ll be taking wildlife photos, but feel I have a need for a longer reach than the 200mm of the 70–200mm zoom, I'll take this lens with me. (See discussion above.)
- Normal to Upper Range Telephoto: AF VR Zoom-NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED. Note I can actually skip the 70–300mm, and the 70-200mm lens for the FX camera, and still have the focal length range, and I'm at only 2 general purpose lenses, if I take the 80–400mm lens and have greater capability, but by doing this, my overall lens weight does increase. (See remaining discussion above) That being said, I doubt I would ever leave the 20-200mm home considering the quality and flexibility of the lens.
- Macro Lens: AF-S VR Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED. (See discussion above)
Second, if I was going to a place with a special photographic opportunity, I’d seriously consider renting a supplementary lens. For example, if I was going on an African Safari, I'd seriously consider renting a 500mm, 600mm, or 800mm lens.
In addition, at the current time, Sigma is about to replace its “Bigma” zoom lens, 50–500mm, with an optically stabilized APO 70-200 F2.8 EX DG OS HSM version. According to the quality of this lens, I may substitute it for the AF VR Zoom-NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED.
I hope this seven part series hasn’t confused your issues too much, and it works well as a guide for your lens purchases and lens travel decisions.