Monday, April 12, 2010

Lenses for Travel Photography - Part VII (Lenses I use and recommend for travel and why)

Cutaway of Zoom Telephoto LensThis week concludes my seven part series about lenses for travel photography, I discuss the lenses I use and recommend for travel. The series is primarily meant for SLR and DSLR camera users, who can attach a variety of lenses to their cameras to support their creativity, and suit the needs of their photographic opportunities.

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,
  • Architectural,
  • Interior building,
  • Intermediate to distant or telephoto,
  • People at work, and at play,
  • Local culture,
  • Religious
  • Low light opportunities.
In addition to the general list above, I may encounter:
  • Wildlife (flora and fauna),
  • Sports,
  • Arts,
  • The unanticipated.
Independence Hall, Philadelphia, PAI pack to be well prepared for my travels. While I don’t want excess weight or equipment which is highly unlikely to be used, I don’t want to leave anything out just to pack light.

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.

San Diego Wild Animal ParkI 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.
Galapagos PenguinsSo, what do I take and why? I will list the lenses in focal length order. It should be easy to extrapolate this information for your camera brand and specific camera model.

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.
For FX/Full size sensor DSLRs and SLRs:
  • 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)
Amtrak's Auto TrainI have two remaining caveats to remember. First, I remind you, price is a consideration, and you may want to spend less, but the focal length ranges of the lenses are still what you should look for, in my opinion.

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.


Reuben said...

A terrific ending to a great series. Thanks Ned.

Barry said...

So, Ned, you've recommended the Nikon 24-85mm over the 24-70mm. The 24-70mm is f/2.8 along the complete range, while the 24-85-mm isn't. The 24-85mm build isn't as good because is uses plastic. So how come the recommendation?

Barry said...

Oh, and if you can, why not the 24-120mm if you're going that way?

Ned S. Levi said...

Hi Barry. I'd like to start off by saying these are my preferences and other photographers may have other ideas and preferences which are just as valid as mine. My purpose in the series was to get people aware of how to make lens choices and then figure out what met their needs. It wasn't to get everyone to buy the same lenses I purchase.

Actually, there is another major difference in the 24-70mm and the 24-85mm lens. The 24-70mm is AF-S, while the 24-85mm depends on the motor in the camera to run autofocus. As a result, many consumer level cameras can't use this lens, as they don't have an internal camera focusing motor. The D40, D3000 and D5000 come to mind immediately.

Let me get the Nikkor 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6 IF-ED AF-S VR out of the way first. Its optics aren't nearly as good as the other lenses being discussed. You've got to be in the f/8 and above for really sharp focus.

As to the 24-85mm vs. the 24-70mm, let me first say the 24-70mm is an excellent lens, and you pay for it, as it costs $1,145 more than the 24-85mm. I don't think it's actually worth that difference.

The 24-85mm is AF, but unlike some much longer AF lenses, this one focuses extremely quickly, so AF vs. AF-S in this case isn't a problem.

It's not a Nikon pro build, as it contains plastic, but it's far better than the typical consumer lens, and there's metal at all important points. It focuses well and zooms smoothly. It is sharpest toward the f/5.6 which is good because you still have excellent speed. Its distortion is pretty low and easily fixed in post processing. In fact, its distortions are actually better than the 24-70mm, especially at the 24mm end. The contrast is a little flat at the large aperture settings, but that's pretty easy to accommodate.

I like the 24-85mm range, as it reduces lens swapping, and considering all of the above, and that price mentioned, I chose the 24-85mm lens.

Karen said...

Wonderful series Ned. If only I had some cash to add to my lenses now.

Barry said...

Thanks for the explanation Ned. Your choice makes a lot of sense to me now.

Paul said...

Ned, can you go into why you would choose the AF-S VR Zoom-NIKKOR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED a bit more, considering you're covered by the 18-200mm and 80-400mm for DX cameras?

Ned S. Levi said...

Paul, actually I should have included the AF-S VR Zoom-NIKKOR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED, in both lists. I'm going to edit the article now to include it.

Whether we're talking the DX or FX list, without the 80-400mm lens, both lists would stop at 200mm, without the 70-300mm, which for many trips, is probably enough. If I'm not shooting wildife, but want more reach than 200mm then I'll take the 70-300mm because it's so compact and light, and takes pretty nice photos. It can even get some nice wildlife shots if the animals aren't too far away.

Debra said...

Ned, how slow is the 80-400mm to focus?

Ned S. Levi said...

It's slow, in part because of the amount of light picked up by the autofocus sensors. If the light is too low, the sensors hunt.

I use the limit switch, so that I cut down the focus range significantly. That really speeds the process up. If I'm trying to take a photo of a flying bird I use Group dynamic autofocus, with continuous focusing. That way it speeds up the lock, and holds it in place, as long as I keep the birds withing the group area.

Considering I get lots of great shots with the lens, you can take it from there, that once you get used to the lens, the focus speed is ok.

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