Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Choosing Lenses for Your DSLR Travel Kit, Part II

AF-S-VR-Micro-NIKKOR-105mm-f-2 8G-IF-EDIn Choosing Lenses for Your DSLR Travel Kit, Part I, I discussed travel photography's many challenges including luggage weight limits, number of luggage pieces permitted, locations with unknown restrictions, bad weather when you least expect it, and others.

I discussed the two major factors that influence which lenses you put in your photo travel “kit,” travel weight and volume, and the varying conditions, limitations and circumstances of your destination's photographic opportunities.

This week, in Part II, I will discuss specific lens choices for three particular travel locations and types of travel you might choose to take which you can use as exemplars.

In Part I, I concluded that when we total the factors influencing our lens' decisions, it primarily points to choosing fast (at least f/4, but f/2.8 is better) zoom lenses. There are also times when prime lenses are great choices to augment travel zoom lenses for specific purposes.
  • Urban Travel: Photography in cities include unique challenges. Narrow city streets, can make it hard to fully frame your subjects because you can't get very far from them, without wide angle lenses. Building shapes, sizes, and especially heights sometimes enlarge the dynamic range of urban scenes which exceed the ability of the camera. Even while the need for wide angle lenses is critical for urban photography, the opportunities for portraits, in parks, along rivers, and other areas require longer focal lengths.

    For a full size sensor DSLR, a standard urban photography kit should include lenses like the 16-35mm f/4G VR, 24-70mm f/2.8, and 70-200mm f/2.8 VR lens so you have fast zoom lens coverage from at least 16–200mm with much of the coverage having VR (vibration reduction) capability. For a DX or APS-C sensor cameras, a standard kit should substitute a lens like a 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5 for the 16–35mm lens, and utilize the others in the full size sensor kit. These lenses give you the versatility you need for the myriad of urban opportunities you'll encounter, yet keep the number of lenses needed to a minimum. In particular, the widest angle zoom is great for museum photography, and historic buildings where you need speed to combat “no flash permitted” restrictions, and a large angle of view to encompass the scene or subject.


  • Island Travel: The variety of photographic opportunities on islands can be staggering, from gorgeous seascapes, to magnificent landscapes, to fascinating small towns, and special sights.  For a full size or DX/APS-C sensor DSLR, the standard island photography kit is the same as the urban kit listed above. These lenses give you the versatility you need for the myriad of island settings you'll encounter, and keep the number of lenses to a minimum.

    In addition to the basics, on islands there may be opportunities where a longer telephoto zoom or teleconverter would be a welcome addition to your kit. For example, you may come upon wildlife opportunities, such as I've found on islands like Aruba, Maui, or Puerto Rico. A 1.7x or 2x teleconverter on the 70–200mm f/2.8 VR lens could take it to as long as 400mm. Another option would be a compact zoom telephoto lens, such as the Nikkor AF 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED VR or the Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM. These two lenses are not overly fast like some of their larger and heavier counterparts, but they will be fine in most lighting conditions and since they are compact, they're great for travel.


  • Safari Travel: More and more I notice that travelers and photographers are taking notice of the dwindling population of wild animals, and the number of wildlife species nearing extinction, the world over, especially in Africa. They are embarking on photo safaris to see these animals before they and their habitats disappear.

    For example, the number of wild African lions has fallen sharply in the last 100 years, from 200K just a century ago, to as few as 25K to 40K remaining in the wild today. African Lions have vanished from about 80% of the areas where they once roamed. Only seven countries, Botswana, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe are believed to be home to more than 1,000 lions each, according to the Panthera conservation group.

    On safari, the varied landscapes probably exceed that of almost any other journey, from bustling cities, to small villages, to the vast plains of savannas, to mountains, lakes, near-by and distant wildlife, from landscapes, to close-ups and subjects far in the distance.

    For either a full size sensor or DX/APS-C sensor DSLR, my choices for a safari photography kit have some of the choices of the urban kit, but by necessity includes at least one long focal length zoom or prime lens. It includes a 24-70mm f/2.8, for urban, village, landscape scenes, and a 70-200mm f/2.8 VR lens for the many portraits and short distance scenes. These lenses can give you the versatility you need for the many urban, village and landscape scenes you'll probably encounter.

    For the more distant wildlife you need a much longer lens. Two general possibilities fit the bill for me. The Nikkor 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II which has no Canon equivalent would be a fine choice for many, though I believe its limit of 400mm is a bit short for safaris. It's one of the reasons I have and regularly use a 500mm f/4G ED VR lens for wildlife. For flexibility I use both a 1.7x (850mm) and a 2x (1,000mm) teleconverter with this lens for extra reach, as needed. While either of these lenses are heavy (as much as 8.5 lbs) they do the job that other lenses can't, yet are fast enough to handle low light conditions. Longer lenses like the Nikon or Canon 600mm (Canon has an 800mm, but it's slower at f/5.6.) could be useful, but they are heavier and larger than their 500mm lenses and therefore less useful for most people when traveling.
I hope these three examples will help you when you're making your photo travel kit lens choices. I hope they will help you “choose wisely.”

11 comments:

Alice in Dallas said...

Ned, pro lenses are too expensive. What way do I do?

Ned S. Levi said...

Alice, as I mentioned, you want, "fast zoom lens coverage from at least 16–200mm with much of the coverage having VR (vibration reduction) capability."

So, if you're using a DX/APS-C camera, you can go with somewhat slower lenses with reasonable speed, not fast, good focal length coverage, some VR, and less cost. You can go with lenses like the Sigma 10-20mm (FX equivalent of 15mm-30mm) and the Nikon 18-200mm VR (FX equivalent of 27-300mm). There are many less expensive choice which will work fine for you.

I started with ideal type choices to give everyone a starting point.

John said...

Thanks for advice Ned.
I am planning a trip to DC in about a month with kids.
I was thinking of just bringing my 18-200.
I will now definitely bring my Nikon 10-24. I often travel with a 35 1.8 as well but am considering bringing my 35-70 2.8 instead. It's not VR but is sharp. Which would you bring if you had the 18-200 and 10-24?

Ned S. Levi said...

John, as mentioned, my basic travel kit includes:
Nikkor AF-S 16-35mm f/4G ED VR
Nikkor AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G ED
Nikkor AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II

I may or may not take other lenses according to my specific destination and what I expect there.

Please note that the 24-70mm while one of the best zoom lenses ever produced by Nikon, is not VR. I wish it was, but it's not. In a city the 24-70mm is my walking around lens, and I'll take about 65% of my urban shots with it. It's fast, it's sharp, and has a great IQ throughout its range.

From your lenses, I assume you have a Nikon DX sensor based camera. Personally I think the 35-70mm f/2.8 will be a more useful lens than the 35mm f/1.8 prime. You're looking only at a 1.33 stop difference between the two lenses.

Don't get me wrong. I like primes, but for travel photography, I like prime lenses only for specific purposes, not for general work for the reasons explained in the 2 article series. Periodically I use the following 3 prime lenses while traveling:

Nikkor AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED
Nikkor AF-S 500mm f/4G ED VR (VRII, IF, N)
Sigma 15mm f/2.8 EX DG AF Diagonal Fisheye

I use the 105mm for macro work, such as when I visit a botanic garden. I use the fisheye for interesting and "expressive" indoor or landscape work. I use the 500mm for wildlife photography.

Enjoy your DC trip with your kids. How long will you be there, and will you have a car when there? If you can say, how old are the kids? I may have some ideas for your trip. If you would prefer to communicate privately, click on the "Contact Us!" link at the top and fill out the form. I'll send you an email in reply.

Ned

Howard Carson, Managing Editor said...

Ned - I think that listing the best of the best for each category is great. Problem is, the best of the best in terms of lens quality is not necessarily the best with respect to fatigue caused by the serious weight of Nikkor f/2.8 lenses when they're hauled around all day on a walkabout. That sort of weight may go unnoticed by the 18-40 year old range, but that weight ante can be tiring for even well-conditioned 40+ all-day wanderers. Fatigue is the most oft-cited reason that gorgeous late-day light sometimes passes unnoticed and unphotographed by travelers. Canon trumped Nikon some years ago with its superb line of f/4 lenses. Nikon finally answered that 'bell' by releasing the 24-120 f/4 VRII zoom - IMO the best all-purpose travel lens ever made by any company.

Ned S. Levi said...

Howard, your comment is well taken.

I will add that as a 60+ photographer, who walked around Brooklyn last Sunday with one other 60+ photographer who has the same basic pro equipment I carry, from about 8:30am until 5:00pm, save for lunch, we never really got tired all day. In fact, it was exhilarating. I will say that a number of 20-30 somethings we were with all day were dragging by 2:30pm, despite most having lighter camera/lenses.

I think it's really what you get used to using. Heck, I even drag around my 500mm lens on my camera, both on a tripod with gimbal mount hiking for hours on end through wildlife refuges often.

For many, your point about weight is absolutely valid, and if the f/2.8 lenses are too much for someone to carry, then they should seek lighter weight lenses, and cameras (I use a grip with mine which adds weight, especially because it holds an EL-EN4a battery.). In fact, the overall weight of one's travel "kit" is important.

On the other hand, there are many for whom, those f/2.8 lenses are "music to their ears."

Thanks very much for making your important and astute point.

John said...

Ned,
Thanks. I will bring the 35-70 instead of the 35.
My girls are 9 and 11. Will have car but hope to keep valeted most of the trip and use metro. Probably use car for Mount Vernon. Leaving tomorrow.

John said...

Ned,
Thanks for all your sound advice.
My trip was a big success both as a family vacation and photographically.
A little preparation went a long way.
While not strictly adhering to all your advice I did what I could with my current lenses.
In the AM I put on my 18-200 and had my 10-24 and 35-70 2.8 in the bag.
Upon going into museums/ buildings I usually switched out to my wide angle sometimes switching back.
Before heading out for dinner I would leave bag in room and only carry the 35-70. This worked for environmental portraits indoors and for hand held landscape/architecture during twilight. I found it empowering having limited gear and doing what you can with one limited range zoom. I found that I looked forward to have these limitations at the end of the day. I also enjoyed using the shallow DOF that the 2.8 gave me. I shot with this wide open for nearly all portrait type shots. One other thing, this lens is older without some new flare reducing coatings. I loved playing with the flare behind my subjects with the setting sun, and I'm not sure I could have used flare as creatively with newer expensive equipment. I decided not too complain about the flare with this lens but instead embrace it.

Ned S. Levi said...

Thanks very much John.

I love your quote, "A little preparation went a long way."

I'm going to use it for an upcoming workshop I'm going to be teaching. It's the first time for this one, and I'm beginning my preparation now.

The title is "Travel Photography, Preparation & Postprocessing."

By the way, It's extremely rare I take even the majority of my lenses with me when I travel.

With regard to your lens flare which you mentioned. Did you have a protective filter on the lens, or was it "bare?" I ask because sometimes the protective filter, especially on older lenses can cause lens flare. Just enough light bounces off the lens to the inside of the filter, then back to the lens. When I see that, I take off the filter temporarily for the shots, then put it back. Did you use your lens hood? Except for the very wide lenses or zooms, the lens hood is often deep enough to prevent flare.

You mentioned you're going to embrace the flare. Sometimes the flare can really add to the photograph. I was watching a National Geographic Special last week and the videographer used flare wonderfully.

Thanks for your readership and thoughtful comment.

John said...

Ned,
The hood on this lens is fairly thin and I always keep it on, even with flash indoors. With my other two lenses that I brought the hood gives me shadows when I use flash and must remember to remove.

I kept the the clear filter on. I did some non-scientific tests with and without filter in the past and did not notice a significant difference.
The low sun was often in the frame or bright rays were emanating from behind subject with back lit hair so hood did not get a chance to block direct rays. I warmed up the white balance in post processing to enhance the effects.

Ned S. Levi said...

Low suns are difficult no matter what we do as photographers John. The flare, under the circumstance was probably unavoidable, but next time you're in the same situation, with the same lens, just try taking off the filter and see what happens. It might be worth the try.

Regards,

Ned

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