In a perfect world, when on a journey comprising of leisure-travel and photography, it would be great to have a full arsenal of lenses with me. But I much prefer to travel light, with as little camera equipment as possible, so all that great extra lens gear is going to stay home.
As a result, I often travel with just one, or a maximum of two small sized lenses. And in addition to keeping the load light, having a small setup means it is easier to be more innocuous and blend in more easily with the crowd to capture candid moments. It also allows me to shoot more quickly, without having to change lenses for each shot, which vastly reduces the chance of missing the capture of a fleeting moment.
But I didn’t always think this way. I used to often travel with 4-5 heavy lenses, and sometimes with more than one camera body too. But those days are over and I am now more about comfort, convenience, and getting a few key shots along the way, preferring to use interesting available light, unique subjects, or trying to create eye-catching compositions over worrying about bringing my best camera gear to try and nab the most perfect pixels.
Having a limited number of lenses on hand also forces you to think more outside of the box to create the best shot you can of a scene using what you have. That often means working a bit more and pushing yourself harder, but the result can be a more creative image than what might be a merely typical shot if you had brought your full range of lenses with you.
Believe it or not, my favorite travel lens has become a very inexpensive and light weight wide-angle Samyang lens I bought a couple of years ago which cost less than US$300. I also talked a bit about the technical aspects of this lens in another post here if you are interested.
So why do I like this specific lens so much for travel photography?
For one, it is an 18mm effective focal length APS-C lens (12mm before the crop factor) that weighs only half a pound and which allows me to capture wider and more unusual looking compositions of locations than with a more common 50mm walk-around lens. Plus, wide-angle can provide a more interesting visual perspective than how one is able to view a scene with just the naked-eye. Shooting at 18mm also means I rarely miss being able to get everything I want into the shot at any given location. And if my framing happens to be a bit too wide, I can always crop the image later.
This particular Samyang lens is manual focus and designed in such a way that anything at a focal distance beyond 3 feet away from the camera can be shot at a focus setting of infinity. So most times all I do is just pull the camera out, set the manual aperture to either F/8 or F/11 (I always leave the focus ring set to infinity anyway), the camera’s program mode is set to aperture priority, and then just shoot quickly without worrying about much else. This keeps me light and I almost never miss the shot of a fast changing scene. I can also snap a quick memory of something as I am passing by a location without having to slow down.
I was recently in Spain and the five images seen throughout this post are all shots I took there with the Samyang lens. If you were to spend some time “pixel peeping” at the full resolution files of some of these images you would no doubt find a few technical flaws, but nothing I could not live with. And had I brought bigger, heavier, and better gear with me, it wouldn’t have made much difference to my overall goal. In fact, equipped with my heavier camera and lenses, I might have even missed a few of these shots because of having been too slow or too unwilling to make the effort to get myself setup in some of these busy locations.
In sum, I believe that best lens for travel photography is always the one you have with you at any given time. Partly because it is nice to spend time, when in a far-away and interesting place, being present in the moment and less consumed with your gear. I personally try to focus on fully enjoying my surroundings, when in locations I have made a great effort to travel to, and not worrying if I brought the right lens for every shot. Travel light, bring a couple of small lenses, get a few great shots, and don’t forget to still have a great time during your travels.