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An ideal lens for travel photography needs to be compact and versatile. For example, the 70-200mm f/2.8 lens that is made by several manufacturers is a stalwart for pros and enthusiasts alike, and certainly fits into the versatile category, but these lenses are far from compact so they will be left out of this particular discussion. Also left out will be “fast lenses,” which is shorthand for a wide maximum aperture. While certainly an important factor in choosing a lens, we will downplay it for now, given that most fast lenses are either large-body zooms and, therefore, not compact or small primes and not particularly versatile. Also, this article will discuss lenses for full-frame DSLRs, leaving those strictly compatible with APS-C format cameras for another article. Of course, “full-frame” lenses can also be used on APS-C cameras—just be sure to calculate the crop factor of the sensor to get the equivalent focal length for the lens.
This is perhaps the epitome of an all-purpose travel lens for the Canon EF mount—supremely versatile from wide-angle to portrait-length telephoto and with a constant f/4 maximum aperture throughout the zoom range. The lens features optical image stabilization to control blur when shooting in dim light or at telephoto lengths, and a USM motor for fast, accurate, and quiet autofocus action. Manual-focus override enables precise focus placement at any time and its minimum focus distance is 1.5'. As an L-Series lens, you can expect not only the best in optical design but also a durable, weather-resistant build that is just 4.2" long.
While the Nikon 24-120mm f/4 would be the comparable lens to the above Canon, I prefer to mix in some long zoom into this stew. The 28-300mm is about as versatile a lens as you’re going to find, ranging from inclusive wide-angle to long telephoto reach, and it measures just 4.5" long. It really is a do-everything lens; ideal for travel. It does extend quite long when at 300mm and a drawback might be the relatively slow maximum aperture at the telephoto end, but its VR II Image Stabilization system with 3.5 shutter-speed-stop equivalence will reduce blur, and its optical design consisting of aspherical and extra-low dispersion glass elements minimizes aberrations. A Silent Wave AF motor provides fast and quiet action and manual focus override is supported. If you use this lens on an APS-C format camera, its 35mm focal length equivalence is 42-450mm.
Although Nikon and Canon also make high-end 16-35mm lenses, I went with the Sony A-mount lens. The Sony is slightly heavier than the offerings from the other two makers, but not significantly. While those two have image stabilization in the lens, Sony features its SteadyShot I.S. in its DSLR cameras. All three are exceptional pro-level lenses. This Sony ultra-wide-angle zoom is ideal for architectural interiors and exteriors; it is also useful for landscapes and wide cityscapes and for including everybody at the dinner table. It features its Super Sonic Wave Motor for smooth and silent autofocus and offers a focus hold button and an auto clutch to prevent the manual focus ring from rotating when in autofocus mode. ED and Super ED glass elements reduce aberrations and Zeiss T* lens coating reduces flare. When used on a Sony A-mount APS-C format camera, the equivalent focal length is 24-52.5mm.
Small is the most notable feature of this Nikon FX lens. It measures just 3.2" and weighs 1 lb. With a focal-length range from full wide-angle to portrait length telephoto, it will cover almost all of your travel-photo needs. The Silent Wave Motor provides fast and quiet autofocus, VR image stabilization benefits shooting in low light, and an optical design with one ED and three aspherical lens elements reduces aberrations. Some distortion at its widest angle might be the only complaint about this lens but, for considering its size and price, it is a perfect travel companion.
Size and affordability are what distinguish this lens, but it doesn’t hurt that you can go from wide angle to full telephoto with a simple turn of the zoom ring, either. No one will mistake this for the famed 24-70mm f/2.8 but, for carry-ability and versatility, it will take on all comers. An ultrasonic autofocus motor provides smooth AF action, and manual-focus override is supported on its internal lens system. It may be best used just in daylight, as its variable aperture is not particularly fast but with optical image stabilization and a steady hand, you’ll be just fine with this “walk-around” gem.