Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.
"I'm going on vacation. What lens should I take?"
Well, now, that's a simple question, and I ought to able to give a simple answer. I never can. About once a week someone comes into our gallery, scrutinizes my collection of images from around the world, and then assumes (with scant evidence) that I know everything about photography.
Nobody assumes that buying a sauce pan will make you a chef, but many photographers seem to assume that buying just the right lens will make them into a photographer. Certainly our gallery visitors don't want to get into a deep philosophical discussion with a cranky curmudgeon. A simple answer would do.
This question has an answer, even if it is not so simple.
I begin by steering the conversation toward the nature of the questioner's vacation and the range of their interests. What I'm looking for is an idea of what kind of pictures they want to take—and how hard they want to work at it. (This is supposed to be a vacation, after all, and because they are asking a question like this I know they are amateurs. Pros would be asking different questions.) For instance, are they touring the cathedrals of France or are they going on safari in Tanzania? Cruising the Greek Isles with friends or hiking for two weeks in the rain forest of Brazil?
Different types of travel require radically different equipment choices. Concentrating on the pictures instead of the equipment is the path to sanity here. If you can figure out what kind of pictures you want to take, equipment selection gets much, much easier.
So let's consider several travel scenarios:
- Cultural Travel
You are exploring Europe's rich cultural heritage—lots of museums, cathedrals and architecture, rides on canal boats through Amsterdam, and generally gawking at impressive castles and towers.
First of all, take the kit lens that came with your digital SLR. Usually this is something like an 18-55mm, and it covers from a moderate wide angle to a short telephoto view. If you want to upgrade, then consider something like an 18-105mm or the ideal "vacation lens," an 18-200mm. If you are going to carry just one lens, that would be it. If you are able to carry another lens, then seriously consider a really wide-angle lens, like a 10-22mm or a 12-24mm lens. These superwides make eye-popping images out of cramped interiors. And they aren't big and heavy.
- Wildlife Expedition
You are going on an African safari-style trip. How far away will the animals be? No one knows for sure. Leopards may be hidden in a distant tree while lions are sleeping in the shade of your Land Rover. But this we know: You'll be shooting from the vehicle with little chance to move closer. So you will need a long-range zoom lens. This is where the 100-400mm comes into its own. It is sizable but you won't need to carry it long distances. A lighter alternative is the 70-300mm lens, which will often be long enough. Anything less is inviting disappointment. Take a beanbag or something soft you can steady the lens with as you stand up to shoot out of the Land Rover's sunroof. Also, take along that shorter kit lens, too; you'll want camp photos and you'll be close enough to animals occasionally.
- Nature Trek
This is different than wildlife photography. Whether you are hiking the rain forest or the Canadian Rockies, you'll want a wide-angle zoom. You might also carry something that will get out to medium telephoto—about 200mm. In the rain forest, using the really long zoom will be difficult, since rain forests tend to be dark. And in the mountains, long telephoto shots are not very satisfying. It's the juxtaposition of the nearby meadow flowers or turquoise lake that sets off the mountains' grandeur. Consider adding to this kit a true macro lens (not just a zoom that has a macro range). Examples of these would be a 60mm f/2.8 or a 100mm f/2.8. No other lens is as useful when you want to get to the heart of wildflowers, tiny mushrooms, and insects.
- Nightlife and After Dark
Much of the romance and color of travel doesn't happen in broad daylight but instead after the sun goes down. Luckily, we now have digital cameras that can truly capture the color and flavor of the night. To photograph effectively after sundown, you'll need one of three pieces of equipment (and maybe all of them): a camera that can deliver high ISO, a tripod, or a fast lens.
- For the lens part, you need f/2.8 or faster.
(A f/1.4 really delivers.) You can easily break the bank buying these paragons of the glassmakers' art. However, consider several affordable alternatives, like a 17-50mm f/2.8 zoom that isn't too big or expensive. Or look at a 24mm f/2.8 fixed focal length, which will be unobtrusive yet offer great image quality in tough situations. A 50mm f/1.4 or f/1.8 also is a good choice, but it won't deliver a wide view. Note this: Many zoom lenses are f/2.8 at the wide-angle end and then slow down to f/4 or f/5.6 at the telephoto extreme—not much good for night photography.
- Going Creative and Experimental
Let us suppose you have just plain had it with standard postcard shots. Or let's assume you have a creative itch that just has to get scratched. Okay, take a Lensbaby. These endearing oddities do things ordinary lenses only dream about—like bending. Tip them this way or that and suddenly the picture has a strange, lovely, soft-focus look with just a bit in sharp focus. Lensbabies always deliver pictures with soft edges that would get them thrown out of most lens sharpness contests, but the resulting images have a romantic, sometimes antiquated look, as if envisioned by some antediluvian seer. If that is not enough, take some interchangeable elements, allowing you to replace the sharp glass element with a decidedly soft and wavy plastic one. Fun! And your vacation photos will be way, way different.
- Final Advice
If this is a vacation, then take only what will be fun. If you enjoy being a pack mule, then by all means lug every last clunker of a lens you've got. Otherwise, less is definitely more.