For professionals, weekend warriors or newbies to the sport of taking pictures, the lure of new gear is a never-ending temptation. And let’s face it; we truly need that new lens, new flash, battery grip and whatever else the camera manufacturers announce on a never-ending basis. And while it’s a beautiful thing to know anything and everything you might ever need is always within easy reach, the thought of having to haul an over-sized bag of chazerei all day long can make the hardiest of us take pause for a reality check.
Now if you’re a pro going out on assignment, your cameras, lenses and all other toys in your bag are your tools, and without the right tools, you run the risk of compromising your reputation, not to mention future assignments. But even in the case of pro shooters, a bit of thought up front can make the difference between a carry-on bag and one that has to be (heaven forbid) checked in at the ticket counter.
This is one part of the equation where there’s not much wiggle room—your camera is what it is. The good news is that with the exception of the top-tier pro DSLRs, a majority of today’s DSLRs are quite compact, and with the exception of removing any accessory battery grip you might have attached to the camera’s base, there’s not much else you can do. (Just make sure you have the battery charger and spare battery tucked safely away in one of the recesses of your camera bag.)
Optics is one area in which, depending on your personal shooting style and how you’ve filled the gaps of your lens arsenal to date, you have choices. When it comes to optics there are two schools of thought, the first extolling the virtues of fixed, wider aperture and focal length lenses, and the second lauding slower-speed zooms. Both schools of thought have their pluses and minuses and a good argument can be made for either preference.
Size and weight used to be the downside of zooms, but thanks in part to newer optical designs and the increased use of lighter-weight polycarbonate materials, zooms with ridiculously wide focal ranges now rival the size and weight of the average 50mm f/1.4 normal lens—but at the cost of speed.
When it comes to lens speed, many will argue image stabilization (IS), which enables you to hand-hold an f/3.5-5.6 variable aperture lens with results that rival a fixed lens with a faster/wider maximum aperture, levels the playing field. And while this true from a standpoint of image sharpness (assuming your zoom lens is sharp at its widest aperture to begin with), a fixed wide-aperture lens offers greater options in terms of selective focus and will focus far quicker and more accurately than a slower, IS-enabled zoom lens when shooting under low-light conditions.
Regardless of whether you choose to go with fixed focal length lenses or zooms, a serviceable travel kit can easily be built around two lenses.
Fixed Focal Length, Wide-Angle Lenses: If you’re the “fixed lens” type and you’re shooting with a full-frame 35mm DSLR, a good argument can be made for a 24mm for wide-field shots, which allows for about twice the angle of view (24°) of a normal lens. Similarly, if you’re shooting with a compact (APS-C) DSLR, you’ll want a rectilinear (non-fisheye) lens in the 14mm to 18mm range.
Your other option is to shoot with a 15mm/16mm fisheye, and use “de-barrelizing” software to straighten out the image. If you shoot RAW files with a Nikon DSLR, Nikon’s Capture NX or NX2 software has a de-barrelizing application. There are also a number of de-barrelizing software applications available online, many of which are free or shareware. For those shooting with a FourThirds system, I have good news and bad news. The bad news (which isn’t all that bad) is that your only options in fixed focal length wide-angle lenses are the Olympus M.Zuiko 17mm/2.8 (Micro FourThirds) and the 8mm f/3.5 fisheye lenses from Panasonic and Olympus, which like the fisheyes mentioned above, can be corrected using third-party software. The good news is that if you’re shooting with a FourThirds format camera, you’re already toting a light and tight system. (Two points for the home team, eh?). And do keep in mind if the shot you “see” requires a wider-angle lens, you always have the option of stitching multiple images together post capture. Just remember to allow for about 10% overlap between adjacent images.
Fixed Focal Length Telephoto Lenses: As for a long lens to go along with my two-lens, “full-frame 35” travel kit, I’d opt for a 105mm lens, preferably a macro. Just as the 24mm lens takes in about twice the angle of view (AOV) of a normal lens, a 105mm lens takes in about half the AOV (about 20°) of a normal lens (about 48°), and if you are shooting with almost any current DSLR, you can easily crop into the resulting image file and emulate the look of a longer focal length lens—a 150mm, 200mm, and if your files are truly sharp, even 300mm—without compromising the image quality of the final picture, be it for print, and more so for Web applications.
If you’re shooting with an APS-C format DSLR, the long lens you want is in the neighborhood of 60mm to 70mm in order to capture a similar AOV as a 105mm lens on a full-frame DSLR. Here too, I’d recommend a macro lens for the same previously mentioned reasons. FourThird-format shooters can choose between the Panasonic DG Macro-Elmarit 45mm f/2.8 ASPH MEGA O.I.S, Olympus 50mm f/2.0 Macro ED Zuiko, and Sigma’s 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM, which isn’t a macro, but is darned fast. And regardless of whatever camera format you are using, if your telephoto lens of choice is a macro, you also have the technical/creative option of capturing sharp, life-size imagery of your subject, which can add a whole new dimension to the pictures you gather along the way.
Wide-Angle Zooms: Zooms allow for additional flexibility in that they allow you more options in terms being able to capture your subject at varying focal lengths and working distance to your subject. As for weight and size comparisons between fixed focal length wide-angle zooms and their fixed focal length counterparts, in many cases it’s a draw, or at the very least, not great enough to tilt the argument one way or the other.
The price of this extra measure of optical flexibility is lens speed. Unlike prime fixed-aperture lenses sporting maximum apertures as wide as f/1.4, the fastest speed you’re going to find in a wide-angle zoom is f/2.8, and in many cases f/3.5 and slower, which limits you in terms of selective-focus options and under lower lighting can diminish the performance levels of your camera’s AF and AE metering systems. But all things considered, what you gain versus what you lose is a wash. If you’re shooting with a full-frame 35mm DSLR, there are a number of wide zooms in the 12-24mm, 16-35mm, 17-50mm and 17-55mm range with maximum apertures of f/2.8 that enable you to capture sharp, dynamic imagery from a broad choice of wide angle focal lengths.
Shooters using compact, APS-C format DSLRs can choose to use the same lenses mentioned above (at the price of 1.5x or 1.6x magnification) or choose among a selection of wider , format-specific wide-angle zooms in the 10-20mm and 12-24mm range that will capture the same fields of view as 16-35mm zooms made for their full-frame siblings. Take note of the fact that most wide zooms designed for use with compact DSLRs are slower than f/2.8, but “them’s the breaks.” Wide-angle zooms for FourThird/micro FourThird-format cameras include the Olympus Zuiko ED 7-14mm f/4, Panasonic’s Lumix G Vario 7-14mm f/4 ASPH, Sigma’s 8-16mm f/4.5-5.6 DC HSM and the Olympus Zuiko (and M.Zuiko) 9-18mm f/4-5.6 ED. There are also wider, fisheye-to-wide-angle zooms available, but you should read the specifics of each lens to determine if it’s the best choice for your needs.
Telephoto Zooms: Just as the size and weight of wide-angle zooms have come down dramatically over recent years, similarly telephoto zooms have also come down in size and weight (and also at the cost of lens speed). As a result of all these technological breakthroughs, it’s now possible to purchase a number of lightweight telephoto zoom lenses for full-frame and APS-C-format DSLRs in the 70-200mm and 70-300mm or 75-300mm range that can keep you covered for almost any shooting situation that might arise.
While the smallest and lightest of these tele-zooms have smaller maximum apertures, a majority of these mini-zooms are image stabilized, making it possible to hand-hold them under less than desirable lighting conditions.
All-in-One Zooms: Another option for traveling light with a DSLR—full-frame or compact—are the many “All-in-One” zooms that are available from most camera manufacturers and every third-party lens manufacturer.
For full-frame shooters, we currently stock more than a dozen zooms in the 28-300mm range, which keep you covered from wide angle through medium telephoto. Similarly, there are an equal number of choices in the 18-200mm, 18-250mm and 18-270mm range, which in terms of focal range, should be enough to keep the fussiest of shooters happy without having to lug a heavy bag around all day long.
Super-Zoom Digicams: For those not locked into a pre-existing camera system, or simply who want the lightest, most optically flexible camera solution, consider a “super zoom” or “bridge-style” digicam. Basically a point-and-shoot sensor in a DSLR-like camera body and über-zoom lens, super zooms enable you to pack a camera with focal range equivalent to zooms as broad-reaching as 24 to 800mm-plus.
Optically speaking, this goes way beyond the focal range of the lightest of two-lens DSLR kits, while taking up little in the way of precious space in your carry-on baggage or shoulder bag.
In your list of telephoto zoom lenses, you left out the lens I found most useful during three weeks in East Africa: the Panasonic Lumix 100-300. This lens is light, easy to handle, and fast enough for outdoor use. Because of the sensor multiplication factor, the focal lengths of the lens cover 200mm-600mm, great for nature photography. And its stabilization works well. I'd planned to sell the lens after my trip, but I'm going to keep it.