All of us photobugs and travel-junkies have struggled with the age-old question: which lens should I bring on my River Escapes backwaters adventure or my Roman holiday or my trip to the moon?
As a casual photographer, I’m not crazy about specs. I don’t get the numbers and technical terms! JUST TELL IT TO ME STRAIGHT! I know there are people out there who are like me, so Ben, Milo, and I will make it as easy as possible to understand which lens YOU need to bring on your next vacation! We’d also love to know what YOU brought on your last vacation!
See which of description fits you best:
- I’m out to shoot wildlife. Tell me what I need to know.
- I love architecture and the built world. What should I bring with me?
- I’m a tourist who’s going to stick out like a sore thumb, but I really want to capture candid portraits of interesting people– help!
- I’m going to a naturey place filled with dust/humidity/dirt/whatever and I don’t want to constantly change my lens. What’s the best daily walk-around lens?
- I’m going on a service trip and I’ll be working on a construction site. How do I make it look epic?
- Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS USM with 2x extender
- Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM
- Canon EF 50mm f/1.8
- Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM
- Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS
ALRIGHT, I’M READY!! NOW SHOW ME THE 5 LENSES I SHOULD BRING ON MY NEXT VACATION!!!
I’m out to shoot wildlife. Tell me what I need to know.
You’re most like birder and photographer Ben! Here’s his thought process before finally deciding on 70-200mm with a 2x extender:
When my friends and I sit at home and fantasize about the perfect lens for nature photography, the first names to come out of our mouths are usually the Sigma APO 200-500mm F2.8 EX DG and the Canon EF 1200mm f/5.6L USM. These, however, are fantasy and fantasy alone as their costs and weights are simply shocking. The Canon lens may be the rarest lens in the world (rumor is that five in total have been made) and its price reflects that, coming in at about $90,000 USD. So we quickly snap back to reality and talk about more reasonable lenses.
The ideal lens:
The first lens is the most expensive lens I would ever consider buying, and that is the Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS USM. Simply put, it is the best lens for nature photography. However, it is very expensive and thus most people shy away from buying it. I have a friend who is a serious photographer, and he generally rents the lens for a month or two when he travels to Chile or, more recently, Churchill, Manitoba. The photos he takes with it are absolutely stunning, and I often dream about having it on one my trips. (Check out his work at www.andyjohnsonphotography.com). Besides the price, the other major problem with the lens is the weight. At around 9 lbs, the 500mm weighs as much as a baby, but if you have the money to buy it and the muscles to carry it, it is the best possible lens for nature photography.
The popular picks:
Before I had set off for India I had a predicament. I needed a new lens and I did not know what to get. I had narrowed my options down to two: the Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM or the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS USM. In the nature photography world, there is a raging debate about choosing between these two. The fixed length 400mm is a fantastic lens; it is sturdy, it is fairly light, and it takes great photos. I have several friends who own it and they could not speak more highly of it. Unlike the 100-400mm, the 400mm does not have IS (Image Stabilizer), but this is not a big issue for photographers who use a tripod or shoot with high shutter speeds. In addition, for bird photography, the fixed focal length is not a problem since everything being shot is small and far away, and prime lenses take slightly sharper pictures. However, in other situations, both the IS and the zoom capability of the 100-400mm are huge benefits. This was the one reason why I tended to shy away from the fixed 400mm. To be honest, both of these lenses are fantastic and will work beautifully if you are trying to photograph wildlife. In the end though, I did not go with either lens. I went with a different option that I have not regretted for a second.
And Ben’s fave, the all-rounder:
In my opinion the best lens Canon ever made is the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM. My sister used it for years when photographing sports for her high school. This lens is unbelievably good. It does not have the reach of a 400 or 500mm, but that can be corrected by using a teleconverter or extender. Since my family already owned the 70-200mm, it was really a no-brainer for me to choose it.
For my India trip, I purchased a 2x extender, and the combination works beautifully. The extender makes the lens 140-400mm and only increases the F-stop from 2.8 to 5.6; this means the auto-focus still works fine. When I’m out in the daylight taking wildlife photos, I have a 400mm f/5.6 lens. If I go to cultural sites in the evening, I can take the extender off to get a low light, wider angle f/2.8 70mm lens. The 70-200mm with the 2x extender is extraordinarily flexible.
Milo’s Interjection “Know your subject:”
I shoot both landscape and wildlife… I just consider it all nature photography and when I’m on the go I want to have the flexibility to capture both. It’s important to consider whether you’d rather shoot the details of a place, or the big picture. It’s not necessary to choose one or the other, but changing lenses is inconvenient and should generally be kept to a minimum. In most cases when I go out shooting in the wild, I have my 70-300mm on the camera. The logic? If I have a wide-angle lens attached and I see a rare bird or animal racing past, I can’t quickly switch to my telephoto lens and capture it before it makes off. On the other hand, if I see a landscape or forest shot I absolutely must catch, I can carefully and leisurely switch lenses without worrying about making any drastic camera safety errors. Again, the 70-300mm has a great range for most wildlife situations – from semi-macro to large animals over a hundred feet away, to birds in the canopy overhead.
These four lenses to me (Ben) are the best lenses for nature photography. The 500mm is amazing but also quite expensive. The fixed 400mm is great for bird photography, but it does not have the flexibility of 100-400mm zoom. My personal favorite, though, is the 70-200mm with the 2x extender.
Wildlife holidays to bring your 70-200mm with 2x extender or 70-300mm on:
- Kenyan safari that is rich with birdlife, wildlife, and charismatic megafauna (ie: elephants, rhinos, hippos, and more!)
- Birding trip to Colombia, the country with the most bird species ANYWHERE in the world
- Western Ghats in India where you may find Yellow-billed Babblers and elusive jungle species such as the Great Indian Hornbill!!
I love architecture and the built world. What should I bring with me?
You’re most like architecture student and urbanite Chi-Chi! Here are her thoughts and experiences with the 10-22mm.
You’ll want to bring a wide angle! As an architecture student who spent a semester in Rome with a Canon Rebel TXi, I brought the ultra-wide angle 10-22mm to make up for my camera’s crop factor. (Since my camera isn’t a full frame camera, a normal wide angle won’t make a drastic difference, so I have to get an ultra-wide angle.) Just remember this: “[if it’s a] big thing or [I’m in a] small space, the wide angle takes 1st place.” I made that one up, but it’s cute, right?
Why it’s good:
Ever been in one of those situations where you’re standing in the corner of the room and you still can’t get the full effect of the room in one shot? You’ll never have to worry again if you’re in a tight interior space or if you’re trying to fit a really tall skyscraper into the frame. That’s what the wide-angle is for. This lens is good in any tight situation, include tight crowds when you need to stand really close to who you’re taking photos of.
Why it’s bad:
The worst thing about this lens is the serious distortion! If you ever worry about looking big in photos, avoid standing near the edge of the frame if you’re being shot with a wide angle. If a typical camera set up adds pounds, a camera with a wide angle adds tonnes. Let me show you what I mean…
Architectural holidays to bring your 10-22mm on:
- A Roman holiday to shoot colossal architectural wonders from tight streets
- Exploring Gaudi’s architecture in beautiful Barcelona
- A Rajasthan adventure across Jaipur, Jodhpur, and more: gallivanting through colorful Indian cities, exploring stepwells, castles, palatial gardens
- Visiting James Bond-esque modern villas tucked away in the hills of Los Angeles
- Paris- need I say more?
I’m a tourist who’s going to stick out like a sore thumb, but I really want to capture candid portraits of interesting people– help!
You’re most like Milo, 6’4″ (193cm) with a penchant for portraiture!
Milo’s Take “Shoot from afar:”
If what you want is candid photographs, you’ll need to be able to shoot from a good distance without loss of quality. A telephoto is the obvious choice – range, sharpness (on a good model), and of course, the narrow angle of view has a very aesthetically pleasing effect on the eye (which also compensates for the narrow depth of field in many cases). I shoot with a 70-300mm – an ideal range for most travelers. When paired with a wide-angle (in my books, anything between 10mm and 20mm) to cover big-picture photos, this lens is perfect for cropped landscapes, candid portraits, posed portraits, and shots of just about anything you notice walking on the street.
Chi-Chi Chooses to Keep People in Focus:
By using a 50mm 1.8f lens, I am able to keep everything else nice and blurry and non-descript while keeping the person in focus. That’s what’s great with this lens. It’s made of plastic, it’s small and light, and it’s easy on the wallet… or is it bank?? Piggy bank? I don’t know what the saying is, but let me tell you, you will never spend another $100 USD as well as you will have on this lens. Here are some quick pics I took. They aren’t anything amazing, but you get the picture. (Oh God, too punny.) The biggest drawback is that you have to stand really really far away if you want to take a picture of something near you (for example a friend travelling with you) or big (a stained glass window in the Notre Dame is one example I’ve struggled with– stupidly).
Fun fact: it does wonders for food photography, too! Yum!!!
Ooh! Ooh! And another fun fact: did you know your eyeball sees like the 50mm? Next time, try looking with both eyes open, with one looking through the viewfinder… it’s the exact same focal distance!
I’m going to a naturey place filled with dust/humidity/dirt/whatever and I don’t want to constantly change my lens. What’s the best daily walk-around lens?
From desert nights to monsoon rains, Milo shoots all and tells all.
Why there isn’t a magic lens:
I was recently shooting for over a month in Jordan, in a very dusty environment (more photos of that at my Flickr). Now I shoot in India during monsoon season, where humidity is a very real threat – a friend of mine recently had to deal with fungus in her lens. One obviously doesn’t want water droplets or large particles of dust landing inside the camera when changing a lens, so having something with a wide focal range is necessary. That said, lenses with extremely wide focal ranges generally suffer a loss in quality, due to manufacturers needing to focus on a variety of lens elements rather than a single set.
If you already own an SLR, chances are that you own an 18-55mm lens or something with a similar range. This is because it’s an all-around useful range to have – 18mm for landscapes and indoor shots, and 55mm for semi-macro. You’re left with over 30mm of range to play with – it’s extremely versatile. The reason you probably own this type of lens is that camera manufacturers recognize its effectiveness and generally provide one when selling a camera package. I shoot all my landscapes, including panoramas with this lens, and I used to shoot all my portraits with it as well. The only really negative aspect of this lens is that it’s a very disappointing tool for wildlife photography. 55mm simply doesn’t provide enough reach to capture anything smaller than an oncoming elephant further than 30 or 40 feet away. However, pair this lens with one of the aforementioned telephotos and you’re golden… or at least shiny.
I love to shoot landscapes!
Milo takes the wide angle out for a spin.
I love shooting landscapes with an ultra wide angle 10-22mm lens because the field of view is so enormous. At 10mm, I’m practically shooting a panorama that would take me at least two horizontal images stitched together to accomplish with an 18mm or higher. This saves both time and memory, and is much more accurate despite the inevitable distortion. Most people consider distortion a negative effect, but with a wide-angle landscape photograph, it generally works out for the best. Whatever is in the center of the frame – usually the most interesting element (such as mountains, rivers, out-of-place buildings, whatever) of the photograph, remains realistically proportional, while the areas surrounding it become warped. This both draws attention to the intended subject and gives an expansive effect that mimics the human field of view – something impossible to replicate with any other type of lens. The warping is particularly fantastic with meteorological features – clouds become extremely dramatic and the ground stretches into the foreground, putting the viewer right in the heat of the moment. Wide-angle lenses are also great because their minimum focal range is tiny – you can be millimeters away from your subject and still be able to focus – a very different point of view from two or three feet away.
I’m going on a service trip and I’ll be working on a construction site. How do I make it look epic?
You’re in luck… who knew Chi-Chi’s trusted 10-22mm wide angle was so versatile?
BUT WAIT WAIT!! Don’t forget!!! At the end of the day, it’s all about your own decisions! Your choices, your budget, your ideal vacation, your ideal subject… so take these recommendations as simply that, recommendations from 3 snap-happy interns in Southern India!
Remember to let us know which lens(es) you brought on your latest adventure in the comments below!!
A little note:
We are all Canon users, but these tips apply for any (d)SLR user! If budget is a concern, you could also try out 3rd party lens manufacturers like Sigma or Tokina. Ben uses a Canon Rebel XS; Chi-Chi uses a Canon Rebel Tx2i; and Milo uses a Canon Rebel T3.