At some point, in the photographic journeys of many of us, we suffer from a chronic (or acute) case of Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS) and we keep buying stuff (thank YOU for shopping at B&H Photo!) that ends up in our camera bags. We launch into a holiday or family vacation wanting to be prepared for any photographic challenge, regardless of our destination. Super-telephoto action? Check. Wide-angle landscapes? Check. Moody street scenes? Check. Night? Check. Underwater? Check. Full-sized tripod? Check. Travel tripod? Check. But, what if we want to simplify things and head out into the unknown with a single lens (and maybe no camera bag)? After all, there are those who can play a full round of golf, and shoot a low score, with only a 7 iron. What is your photographic 7 iron? Can you be a one-lens traveler?
There is something incredibly appealing about packing for a trip and not having to figure out mentally how much back and shoulder pain you will be enduring due to the weight of your luggage plus your camera gear, right? In my head, it is super romantic to envision myself casually strolling up a cobblestone street somewhere unencumbered by photo gear with only a small camera and lens swinging happily from a camera strap—observing, relaxing, enjoying the day, and capturing the occasional scene or moment.
Do you want to be a one-lens traveler? Have you considered this? Here are some ramblings about how to prepare your gear and yourself for the adventure.
1. Be Logical
If you are going on an African safari or crossing the tundra in search of close-up candid shots of polar bears, you’ll be setting out with a long super-telephoto lens. If that is the only lens you want to haul, then, by all means, just haul that lens. But, you wouldn’t set out on such an adventure with a 50mm lens or wide-angle glass. And, conversely, if you are in the close confines and narrow streets of a storied village, you won’t want to be humping around with a 500mm f/2.8 lens, unless that is your thing.
Think about the photos you want to capture and the photos you can capture and pick a focal length that works for you.
2. Analyze Your Habits
Did you take a trip to a similar place last year or the year before? Fire up your computer and use your metadata to your advantage. Were you carrying a 24-105mm zoom with you and, are you now seeing that most of the images you took were around 80mm of focal length? Now you can slap on a single 85mm lens and embrace that perspective of the world toward which your mind’s eye seems to gravitate naturally.
3. Ultimate Flexibility
Note that when I say, “one-lens,” I do not say, “one prime lens,” or, “one zoom lens.” One lens is one lens. It is up to you if you want to zoom or go with a prime. And, if you want to carry one zoom lens that gives you the ability to go from moderately wide-angle to extreme super-telephoto, the all-in-one zoom lens might be your one-lens travel companion. If you are going to carry one lens and you want to be prepared for the maximum number of photographic opportunities, this genre of zoom lens is your obvious choice, but it does have some drawbacks that I reference in the buying guide I linked above.
4. The Standard Zoom
The professional 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom lens has become known by many as “the standard zoom” because it brackets the “normal” focal length of 50mm. Most of these lenses are optically brilliant and ride on the front of the cameras of many professional photographers because of their optics and the fact that one lens lets you go wide when needed, but also zoom in to a nice portrait focal length. But, because of their ability to capture images of the highest quality, they come at a premium price and are also large and heavy. Limited flexibility, fantastic image quality—at a price, and weight. Note: shooters of mirrorless or crop-sensor cameras might have smaller and lighter equivalent options at their disposal.
5. The Standard Prime
The 50mm lens is the standard focal length for 35mm shooting. The running joke is that if you want your 50mm to pretend it is a 24-70mm zoom, just take a few steps forward or backward before you release the shutter. I wax poetic about it here, but if I want to travel with a single lens, this is what I inevitably choose. In my case, it’s a Fujifilm XF 35mm f/1.4 R lens, which gives me an equivalent field of view of a 50mm lens on a full-frame camera. Circling back to that romantic notion I imagined before, this focal length lens rode almost exclusively with some of the world’s most storied photographers. I find this lens great for candid shots and portraits with just enough reach that I don’t have to get in people’s faces and, while I sometimes wish it was wider, you can certainly capture an expansive vista with this lens. Pro tip: the 50mm lens is fantastic for shooting panoramic landscapes—roll it vertical and pan and stitch the photos together for an epic pano and you’ll stop wishing you had a wide-angle lens.
6. Slightly Wider
If I knew my goal were “street photography,” I would likely strap on a 35mm focal length lens and head out without hesitation. Like the 50mm lens, this prime is versatile in its own right, without feeling the need to zoom. I have traveled with this focal length before, but I found myself wanting my 50mm back to get just a little bit closer. But, many street photographers (and coworkers) swear by this classic focal length for service as a jack-of-all-trades lens. In fact, there are more than a couple of prime lens point-and-shoot cameras that employ lenses at or near this focal length.
7. Slightly Longer
It is not common, but there are no rules against heading out with only a portrait lens on your camera. Moderate telephoto allows you to get overhead details, or reach across the street for a shot, and, if you are an extrovert, you can hit up strangers for bokeh-filled portraits or not hit up strangers for candid shots. The limit here is that wide-angle is definitely out and the circa 85mm focal length does not usually lend itself to smaller and lighter. In fact, some 85mm or 105mm portrait lenses can be pretty sizable—something to consider.
8. See the Smaller World
Here is a curve ball for you. What if your one lens were a macro lens? You could explore the world looking for tiny details, but also have a focal length friendly toward other types of photography when needed. Check the market for macro lenses around the 50mm focal length. Now that I think about it, one of the limits of one-lens travel is that the world of macro photography gets completely overlooked and, if you did see something small to photograph, you’d have to settle for less-than-close, or slap on some extension tubes and get a bit closer (another idea for the one-lens traveler—extension tubes). The obvious advantage to having a macro as your one lens is the ability to do macro photos on demand. The disadvantage is that you will be operating, usually, at a smaller maximum aperture than non-macro prime lenses of that focal length. However, you’ll still have more light-gathering power than many zoom lenses—especially all-in-one zooms.
9. You Have Another Lens
How many of us are truly one-lens travelers these days? I am guessing almost none of us. Yes, I sometimes head out with just my 50mm lens, but I actually have two lenses with me, right? No, not a trick question, I have another lens in my pocket integrated into my smartphone. I know the equivalent focal length of my smartphone is approximately 29mm, so if I need a wider shot, I just reach into my pocket and pull out my landscape camera. So, check the focal length equivalent of your smartphone and remember, in the back of your head, that you have that focal length covered.
10. Embrace the Limits
By embarking on an adventure with only a single lens, you are going to limit yourself in some way. With the prime lens, you will have to “zoom with your feet.” With the all-in-one lens, you will be looking for brighter days and testing your camera or lens’s image stabilization when the scenes aren’t bright. Regardless, having a single lens, especially a prime lens, will train your eye to see the world with that specific focal length. After time, you will know, before you raise the camera to your eye, if you can capture that image you see, or not. This is certainly beneficial to how you see photographs. Some of my friends have tried to do the one-lens travel, and come away frustrated by the self-imposed optical limits. Sure, sometimes you will not be able to get the shot that you see, but, instead, let me recommend looking and remembering it and then go about searching for the next photo. The benefits of traveling light cannot be understated. Not every photograph needs to be captured as long as you are out there seeing photographs.
What are your one-lens travel ideas and thoughts? Share them below!
The Nikkor 24mm-120mm f4 for a full frame camera, or the Nikkor 16mm-80mm f2.8-4 (for APS-C) are great lenses to carry when you don't want to carry too much. If you really want to travel light, and plan on doing lots of street photography, the Nikkor DX 35mm f1.8 is a very sharp, and inexpensive lens.
I agree on all of the above...especially that DX35mm—what a great lens!
And, yes, that 24-120mm is a great all-around lens.
Thanks for reading and stopping by!
Great article, Todd! I have gone from bringing all the lenses all the time to bringing just one or two lenses with me. My favorite is a 24mm on a FF body, but in order to challenge myself I have traveled with a 40mm or a 50mm, which feels very tight for me.
Now, instead of changing lenses (or using several cameras) on my travels I embrace the fact that I will find new and different compositions. I will be exploring, moving around places, and thus have a deeper experience of the location. I know I will be unable to capture some views, but that's OK. Really. Sometimes it's better to see, hear and feel a place without worrying about settings and composition.
Well said! I am glad you enjoyed the article and it seems like you are embracing the one(or two!)-lens travel option! Sometimes simplicity is best!
Thanks for stopping by!