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Peter McBride shot this photo of a family dressed up for Dia de los Muertos after dark. A fast aperture on your lens and a modern digital camera set to 3200 ISO have the ability to turn night into day. (Photograph by Peter McBride)

Photo Tip: The Benefits of Traveling Light

One of the greatest things about photography is that it rewards time spent taking pictures more than it rewards money spent on camera gear.

I often fantasize about heading out the door with just one camera hanging around my neck. But when I go on the road to take pictures for Traveler that’s not really possible. Because I’m supposed to get great photos no matter what, I often need to rely on different lenses to make a situation look more photogenic than it might in real life.

But there are benefits to traveling light when you’re out making pictures.

If I could bring only one lens, it would be a 35mm effective focal length. (When I say effective focal length, I’m referring to the field of view that would be shown with that lens on a 35mm film or full frame digital camera. To know what to use on a cropped-sensor camera you need to use that camera’s focal length multiplication factor. For example, when I say 35mm, to get a similar field of view on a typical cropped sensor DSLR camera you should use a 24mm lens).

Why I like it: The 35mm lens, to me, provides a slightly wider view that helps you show not only your subjects, but also their surroundings. But it’s not so wide that it introduces a distorted look. In other words, it makes me work to get a good photograph instead of trying to make my pictures interesting by introducing an exotic optical view of the world.

I do admit it’s convenient to have a zoom lens. Ultimately, I end up carrying less gear, which helps me make better pictures because I’m thinking more about the photograph than which gadget to pull out of my bag next.

Many photographers think a lens with an extensive zoom range, wide to telephoto, will provide everything they need. But affordable versions of these lenses have very small maximum f-stop openings (around f/5.6) making it difficult to get good pictures in low light without using a flash.

As the newest generation of digital cameras have increased high ISO sensitivity, this matters less and less, but image quality is still best at lower ISO settings. I personally don’t like to use lenses that are slower than f/2.8, so, for me, the ideal zoom lens would be 24-105mm f/2.8.

Since constant fast aperture lenses are very expensive, it’s difficult for non-pros to justify the expense.

One way to have the best of both worlds is to use a moderately fast f-stop lens. Most folks can probably make do using the lens that came with their camera kit if they purchase an additional a 35mm or 50mm equivalent fixed focal length lens. These are available with fast apertures (f/1.8 or faster) for much less money and in a much smaller, lighter package.

Even with a camera that performs well at 3200 ISO the difference between f/4 and f/1.8 is quite shocking. It’s almost like you can see in the dark. (Check out the photograph above, taken by Peter McBride for a story that ran in the November 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveler, for evidence of this.)

For years I only used fixed focal length lenses because they were better optically than zooms. That is still true for a few exotic (and expensive) lenses, but not really an issue anymore for most people.

Twenty years ago there was probably a good argument to be made that single focal length lenses were better. If your intention is to photograph test patterns instead of interesting subjects that may still be true, but zoom lenses now are more than good enough to satisfy most photographic needs.

However, I have to offer a word of caution to photographers using zoom lenses.

As a photo editor, I see the same problem over and over, even when I’m looking at pictures from experienced photographers. As I’m reviewing a set of pictures, I see that the photographer zooms out on the picture, including more and more in the frame. In my opinion this is a great composition destroyer.

I also notice that many photographers don’t take vertical photos anymore–or rarely. I blame this phenomenon on the existence of high-quality ultra-wide-angle lenses (16-35 mm or wider). Basically, photographers zoom out to include more top to bottom and don’t pay attention to what’s happening on the sides of the picture. I guess they forget that they can just turn the camera sideways. Also, the covers of magazines are always vertical.

I’m not suggesting that everyone should carry around a bagful of lenses, but there is one way to counteract the tendency to use zoom as a crutch: Decide what focal length setting you are going to use for a particular scene, and keep it there until you think you’ve worked out all the possible photos. Only then should you choose another setting.

It’s a great way to force yourself to make better compositions–and gives you the satisfaction and freedom that come with traveling light.

Dan Westergren is director of photography for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow him on Twitter @dwestergren and on Instagram @danwestergren.

Do you have something you want to ask Dan about travel photography? He’ll be answering reader questions periodically on the blog, so be sure to leave a comment.