A lot of amateur photographers find it difficult to zero in on the best travel photography lens for their vacations. Most feel they should pack everything that they own. There can be many arguments against this kind of thinking. Off late, airlines have put in a lot of restrictions in terms of baggage limits. Which means, that in all probability, you have to plan well in advance in order to pack to confirm with airline regulations and to avoid extra baggage charges. You would likely be carrying your photography gear as your cabin baggage. That is unless you want to entrust your equipment, worth thousands of dollars, in the hands of some individual who makes a career out of chucking fragile equipment 10 feet away.
There is only so much that you can carry as cabin baggage. You need to rethink carefully about what you want to pack in that small bag. This is where you have to think long and hard about the type of lenses that you normally use when you travel. You can do this analysis very easily using Lightroom. You will be surprised at your own findings.
Arguments in favor of wide angle lenses – ease in shooting hand-held
Ultra-wide angle lenses have many pluses in their favor when it comes to travel photography. To start off, these lenses are easier to hand-hold and shoot with. They are lighter than their telephoto cousins and more convenient because the focusing and the zoom rings are closer than on tele-lenses. Everything falls into hand. No wonder a lot of professionals consider wide angle and ultra-wide angle lenses to be the best travel photography lens.
You don’t need image stabilization and tripod
Even if an ultra-wide angle lens is not stabilized, you will probably end up keeping more of your hand-held shots made with such a lens, than you would with a telephoto. All you have to do is shoot with a shutter speed that is slightly faster than the inverse of the focal length at which you are shooting.
Let’s say you are shooting with the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. This lens does not have image stabilization. But as long as you are shooting faster than 1/14 sec (at wide angle) or faster than 1/24 sec (when shooting at the tele end), you won’t miss image stabilization. Additionally, for that same reason you can also get away shooting without a tripod. However, for best results and for creative photography it is best to use a tripod.
Best travel photography lens to capture a feel of the place
Personally, I love the wide angle and the ultra-wide angle lenses, because they give the best results when you factor in the amount of the scene that you can capture with them. I have seen far too many portrait images on Flickr and other social media platforms where the photographer has made a tight cropped composition. Then when I looked at the caption I realized that the portrait was shot at an exotic location! But there was no way of telling that by looking at the image! The photographer might well have shot this in his/her backyard, written the same caption and no one would have known.
Unfortunately, zoom lenses, and especially tele-zooms, have made modern digital photographers a lazy lot. It is so much more convenient to turn the zoom ring and make images from a distance. Getting in close has become somewhat of a lost art. Tele lenses can never give you the same result as a wide angle lens when you want to capture the feel of a place that you are standing in. Wide angle lenses are the best travel photography lens for such purposes. They simply capture a lot more of the scene giving the viewer a truer picture of where you have been. Remember, there are always two people in a photograph – the photographer and the viewer.
Bigger depth of field
Ultra-wide angle and wide-angle lenses offer a bigger depth of field compared to tele-lenses. One thing that travel photos desperately need is a bigger depth of field. Be it the Taj at early morning, or the Colosseum during the blue hour or the Mont Saint-Michel, or even a humble bed of tulip somewhere in Holland, you need big depth of field to capture the essence of the place. Wide angle lenses are the best travel photography lens in the business to give you that. But why stop at just exotic locations? You can shoot excellent street photos with an ultra-wide angle or a wide-angle lens.
The extra field of view can come in handy when shooting something like the Qutub Minar or the Tower of Pisa or the Eiffel Tower from a close distance. Try shooting an image of these landmarks using a tele-lens from a close distance. It’s an optical impossibility. The ultra-wide angle lens such as the Nikkor 14-24mm is a life saver in such situations. It’s a lot better than crawling on your knees or laying on your underbelly and shoot upwards.
Capture backgrounds in their true perspective
Tele-lenses tend to suck the background in when you zoom in really close with them. Anything behind the subject will appear larger than they actually are in real life. Wide angle lenses, on the other hand, tend to push things back in perspective. Thus, with a wide angle lens things appear more natural.
Arguments against wide angle lenses
Unfortunately, even the best travel photography lens has its Achilles Heel. The most rigorous argument against these lenses have been the severe barrel distortion that they suffer from. Wider the lens the more pronounced seem to be the distortion. Almost all of that can be corrected in Lightroom and Photoshop. So that’s not an issue anymore. In anyways when shooting landscapes, street photography etc. barrel and pincushion distortion is not going to make too much of an effect. The question is can you make portraits using an ultra-wide angle or wide angle lens? The answer is yes you can. The trick is in never getting too close to your subject and always keeping the subject near the middle of the frame.
If you get too close facial features will appear distorted. In any case distortion will always happen towards the fringes of the frame. So, by keeping the subject in the middle you can avoid that. But on the plus side you capture a lot more of the scene thereby creating contextual portraits.
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