So you’ve just got a Canon DSLR and are excited about doing some travel photography. You have a strong will to shoot, and the confidence that you “have an eye.” You do have an eye, I promise you. You couldn’t be reading these words if you didn’t have at least one.
Travel photography is challenging because you typically don’t control lighting, won’t have a lot of time to set up shots, and can’t plan on circumstances. You will encounter a wide array of subjects, distance between you and your subjects, and lighting conditions – and no one lens can do everything. Thus, I’m addressing what I like to call the lens dilemma – which lenses or set of lenses are ideal for travel photography.
Most people get an inexpensive ‘kit lens’ with their first DSLR – maybe not realizing the important role that glass plays in image quality and the limitations your lens will have on the pictures you can take. A lot of photographers say gear doesn’t matter, and there’s truth in that – but this post is meant to address the constraints or opportunities gear can bring to your photography. Gear matters in travel photography, and I’m here to help you choose wisely.
Before I keep going, I’ll tell you a story. After my 30 year-old Pentax film camera became more a decoration than an instrument, I decided to buy a DSLR. So with a tight budget and more research into camera bodies than lenses, I went to the electronics market in Seoul and bought a DSLR. I got a Canon Rebel 4 with a Tamron 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3. With a trip to the rain forest of Malaysian Borneo coming up, I was confident that my cool new camera setup could cover all the bases, from landscape to wildlife.
I was wrong.
After reviewing my photos from my time in Borneo, I was really disappointed with a lot of my shots. The sharpness and color rendering of my landscapes wasn’t great, the autofocus was slow and unreliable, and the wildlife shots were painful.
Shooting primates under a rain forest canopy from a moving boat at a great distance with a lens that has a maximum aperture of f/6.3 at 200mm meant I couldn’t get a lot of the shots I had planned on getting. I would have to use an incredibly fast shutter speed to combat all the movement, which would shoot my ISO up to unusable levels.
I only realized afterwards, when I started seriously studying lenses and their qualities, that my lens had serious drawbacks that limited the shots I could take.
Lenses can only do a certain amount of things really well. I’ll try to explain that in simple terms using my Tamron 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 as an example, and my Canon 50mm f/1.8 for comparison.
The strengths of the Tamron 18-200mm were its’ small size and portability, and that it covered a large focal range from wide to telephoto. In that sense, it was a good travel lens. I only needed one lens which I carried around in a small messenger bag.
What it didn’t do well was basically everything else that’s actually relevant to image quality and photographic flexibility. The variable aperture of f/3.5-6.3 meant that at 18mm, the widest aperture was only f/3.5, which does not let in a lot of light. At 200mm, the widest aperture was f/6.3 – an aperture that is basically useless for low light conditions often surrounding wildlife photography. A lot of inexpensive lenses have a variable aperture, which means that as you zoom in, the lens lets in less light.
In addition to the variable aperture, an inexpensive lens that can zoom between 18mm and 200mm is naturally inhibited by having all that glass moving around. Sharpness, color contrast, distortion, chromatic aberrations, and color fringing are all usually disappointing with a lens that covers ultra-wide to telephoto focal lengths. Again, lenses can only do a limited amount of things well.
The Canon 50mm f/1.8, on the other hand, does a few things really well. As a lens with a fixed focal length – meaning you can’t zoom in or out – it was designed with focus on producing sharp, quality images only at 50mm. With a maximum aperture of f/1.8, it also lets in a massive amount of light; which is great for low-light shooting as well as dramatic blurred backgrounds.
Yet if I’m traveling around only using a 50mm, I don’t have the flexibility to shoot ultra-wide for landscapes or architecture, nor can I shoot subjects that are far away. Thus, the lens dilemma. What lens or set of lenses do I need to cover all aspects of travel photography?
I’m personally a long term traveler who is interested in all kinds of photography, and I shoot full frame with a Canon 6D. I have a Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 for astro-photography, a Canon 17-40mm f/4L for landscape, architecture, and general-purpose walk around. Then I have the Canon 50mm f/1.8 for street photography and general purpose, and a Canon 200mm f/2.8L for wildlife and sneaky people shots on the street. I have macro tubes I can attach to my 50mm and 200mm, so I can also get very close up to insects and small things.
That’s excessive for most people going on vacation, so I’ll try to narrow down a selection of three lenses I recommend for both crop sensor and full frame, assuming a consumer to prosumer budget. My criteria will focus on landscape, street, and people photography, with emphasis on budget, portability, and performance.
Crop sensor cameras are a great introduction to travel photography, as they’re less expensive than full frame cameras, offer great image quality, and are light and portable. Here are my three top Canon lenses for travel photography on crop sensor DSLRs.
1. Canon EF-S 17-55 f/2.8 IS USM
At a little less than $900, this lens isn’t cheap. I had to include it though, because if I could choose just one lens to travel with for a crop sensor camera, it would be this one. With a constant aperture of f/2.8, Image Stabilization and high quality UD glass elements, this lens can cover landscape, street photography, and portrait situations – not to mention low-light shooting. The focal range from 17-55mm, which is equivalent to 27-88mm on a full frame, is extremely versatile. I actually miss this lens. Tamron has a cheaper equivalent to this lens that has similar properties, but I haven’t used it.
2. Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 AT-X 116 Pro DX
At under $450, this is an excellent, affordable ultra-wide angle zoom lens with a constant aperture of f/2.8. With a full frame equivalent of 17-25mm, it is a great focal range for landscape and architecture. The ultra-wide perspective sucks in such a broad perspective that it can produce really interesting street and people pictures if you use it creatively. With a fast constant aperture of f/2.8, it is also great for low-light shooting and astro-photography.
3. Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM
The Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM is perfect for shooting portraits, and potentially wildlife. With a 137mm equivalent on a full frame camera, this medium telephoto is excellent for getting portraits on the street while keeping your distance, and is ideal for low-light conditions. It’s light and small, and the huge f/1.8 aperture will destroy backgrounds in dreamy, creamy, unfocused blurriness. At around $370 after mail-in rebate, I think it’s a really good deal.
With those three lenses, all of the focal lengths vital to travel photography are covered. Image quality is not compromised, and it’s easy to know which lens to put on before going out, because each has a pretty distinct purpose. There are other lenses that cover the same focal range for crop bodies, but I tried to keep the budget low, and I haven’t touched every lens in the world.
Getting a full frame camera body isn’t really necessary for travel photography – the bodies are typically bigger, heavier, and much more expensive. Knowing that I was taking photography increasingly seriously, however, I switched to full frame for the high ISO performance and the larger field of view. Here are my picks for the best Canon lenses for travel photography.
1. Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM
This is my favorite travel lens. The 17-40mm focal range covers landscape, architecture, and street photography. At $700 after rebate and 475 grams, it is also one of Canon’s least expensive and smallest professional grade L lenses. The weather sealing and dust proofing mean you can take it from desert sand dunes to humid rain forests without worry. The constant f/4 aperture isn’t great, but ultra-wide lenses are typically used at higher apertures for greater depth of field anyways.
2. Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II
The 50mm 1.8 is a no-brainer at just over $100. It is the best value lens in terms of cost/quality. The popular 50mm focal length make it excellent for street photography, and the f/1.8 aperture give you artistic flexibility and low light usability. It’s small, light, and cheap – so you don’t really have to worry about it attracting attention or breaking/getting stolen. This is the lens I use when I’m going into a dangerous area where the odds of getting attacked or robbed are high. I would have recommended this in the crop sensor section as well, but the 50mm focal length was already covered.
3. Canon EF 200mm f/2.8L II USM
I know this is a weird lens to recommend for travel photography, but I can’t recommend it enough. It’s one of Canon’s cheapest L lenses, it’s relatively light for a 200mm f/2.8, and being a prime, the image quality is outstanding. Why would I recommend a 200mm telephoto for travel? Because the compression you get, isolating subjects from their background, is amazing for photographing people, landscapes, and general stuff. The long zoom helps you stay away from your subject, so as not to interfere with the natural setting. In addition, landscapes with a telephoto lens can be really interesting, isolating mountain peaks or creating a lot of depth.
The Canon 70-200 F4 would also be an awesome travel lens, but the fact that it’s flashy and white makes it too expensive-looking for me to feel comfortable using it.
Both Sigma and Tamron have their own versions of the 18-50mm focal length with the F2.8 aperture, and both are available with or without image stabilization. They offer good options that are less expensive.
There are a lot of lenses out there I haven’t used and that could be awesome additions or replacements to this list. At the end of the day, it’s not the camera taking the picture – it’s the photographer. However, that piece of glass is your camera’s window to the world, and each lens offers a different window with different strengths and weaknesses.
This is my personal selection based on my preferences, my style, and my budget. What’s your setup for travel photography? Do you have a single lens, or do you have a multi-lens setup? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!