How to Choose The Most Suitable Lens for a Travel Camera (The Complete Guide)

Telephoto lens attached on camera

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Table of Contents

When you have chosen the ideal travel camera and decide on mirrorless or DSLR, the next step is to choose the ideal lens setup for your journeys.

It’s not an easy choice to choose lenses with focus on travel photography. First of all, they should be easy to carry on. Second, they should be better in terms of performance than an average lens.

KIT lenses that come with mirrorless and DSLR in the standard package usually satisfied just one of the 2 criteria we outlined above. They are compact, but in terms of performance, KIT lenses are just an average or below the average lenses.

In this article, you will learn how many lenses you should pursue to have an ideal travel-lens setup and how to choose it. Then we will outline the 3 best setups that will fit almost any traveler. And in the end, we will outline essential accessories for leveraging the full potential of the lenses you have in the setup.

How Many Lenses Do You Need for an Ideal Travel-Friendly Setup

It’s the most often question many of us who are travelers and photo enthusiasts asked. But the answer to this question is (relatively) easy – you need as many lenses as you will actually use while traveling without any discomfort.

Whether you are an experienced photographer or a novice, choosing the right lens setup for travel is always a challenge. Should you bring a single all-round lens, two lenses, or perhaps even more?

So, instead of asking how many lenses you need for an ideal travel-friendly setup, we’d rather encourage you to ask how to choose an ideal lens setup for travel. And then evaluate if you need 1 or more lenses in your backpack. 

How to Choose an Ideal Lens Setup for Travel

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1. Decide about which type of photography do you prefer

First of all, you should decide about what is type of photography you prefer. It’s not the same if you prefer landscapes or cityscapes, or to shoot portraits of people or close-ups, or you are more general and would like to take more general shoots.

For landscapes or cityscapes, you will go more toward wide angles. On the other hand, if you are going to shoot portraits or close-ups you will probably go to lenses with nice background blurring instead of other things.

Generalists will look for a range more than any single performance. The same applies to video shooting as well. So, before you invest a few hundreds of bucks (or even thousands) think about which kind of shoots you want to take.

2. Compactness or uncompromising quality or something in between

When you decide about a preferable type of photography, the next thing is if you prefer more compactness and you are willing to sacrifice some of the quality, or you want to avoid any compromise. And 3rd option is that you are satisfied with something in between.

If you prefer to have a “relatively” lightweight setup you won’t have a lot of options, because you will need to choose one or eventually 2 lenses. It’s the only way to keep a “relatively” lightweight setup. Why do we say “relatively”? Because this setup won’t be lightweight if you compare it with folks who use just an action cam or point & shoot as a travel camera. But it will be pretty lightweight if you compare it with pro photographers.

On the other hand, if you want to invest in a non-compromise setup, the sky is the limit. But you should count to carry a big backpack and also spend a lot of money – probably thousands of dollars.

Besides these 3 extremes, many of us fit into the “something in between” category, and we’d say that if you are also in this category you will find more value in this article.

3 Travel Lens Setups That Fit Almost Everyone

Based on our experience, we identify 3 travel lens setups that fit you no matter your photographic experience.

The first setup would be ideal for anyone who wants to travel with a minimum amount of gear. The second setup is perfect for folks that want to find a balance between the size of travel photo gears and output quality. The third setup is for travelers who are not afraid to keep more lenses and have the best setup in any situation.

1. Single All-Round Lens: The Most Ideal Setup for Travelers Who Want Travelling with Minimum Gears

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Many travel photography enthusiasts want to carry a minimum amount of equipment. Lenses are no exception. It’s no surprise they want to use just a single lens to cover the usual range (from wide to telephoto), even with some trade-offs. Let’s talk about all-round lenses.

In short, all-round lenses are jacks of all trades.

Their greatest value is a very good zoom range and the fact that they can replace 2 or even 3 lenses. This means that they are perfect for everyday use while traveling. Many of them are equipped with great autofocus systems, have excellent image stabilization, and are still relatively compact.

But let’s move to the trade-offs. First of all, all-round lenses do not excel on any particular side. In other words, they are not the sharpest lenses on the market. Sharpness varies greatly on different focal lengths and different apertures. Furthermore, on wide-ends and long-ends geometric distortion such as barrel and pincushion are somewhat noticeable.

Vignetting and chromatic aberration are also something usual in all-round lenses, and some lenses control them better, some worse. Of course, more experienced photographers can overcome many or even all these disadvantages with relative success, but it requires practice.

However, this setup is a great choice for many of us, especially if we travel not just to take photos, but also to spend time with family or friends, and don’t want to carry a bag full of gear all the time.

2. Double Lenses Setup: The Most Ideal Setup for Travelers Who Balance Size of The Gears and Output Quality

Man takes shoots on a mountain

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We said all-round setup is ideal for most of us, but if you are more experienced or comfortable carrying more than 1 lens, combinations of wide zoom + telephoto zoom, or wide zoom + prime could fit you better.

Double lenses setup is ideal for travelers who don’t mind carrying more than 1 lens on them. If you want to take everyday photos with standard wide lengths you can attach a wide zoom lens to your camera and cover it. But if you want to take a nice telephoto or great portrait you always have your additional lens with you.

Most travel photographers who chose 2 lenses setups have either wide zoom + telephoto or wide zoom + prime lenses. Some of them also use their KIT lens as wide zoom and buy an additional prime and (or) telephoto lenses and combine them.

Wide zoom + telephoto

With a wide zoom + telephoto combination, you get a very useful zoom range which is usually between 24-28 mm on the wide end till 200-300 mm on the long end. If it’s within your budget you can buy 2 lenses that outperform any all-round lens with the same focal length range.

In other words, you will get better optical performance with the tradeoff that you need to change lenses.

Wide zoom + prime

Another popular combination is wide zoom + prime lenses. It’s pretty useful for travelers who’d rather take photos with great bokeh and background blur without the need to use long focal lengths and who want to be able to get the best possible low light photos you can get only with fast prime lenses with a maximum aperture of f/1.8 or wider. 

We didn’t show you these lenses, but there are a lot of primes with f/1.4 or even f/1.2 and f/1.0 but their price tag is pretty high so we consider that most travel photographers who are enthusiasts/hobbyists but not professional photographers will be satisfied with affordable f/1.8 lenses.

3. Setup with 3 or More Lenses: The Most Ideal Setup for Travelers Who Want to Have The Best Setup in Any Situation

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If you carry 3 or more lenses on you while traveling, you are probably a more advanced travel photography enthusiast than others. 

To be honest, many of us have more than 3 lenses for our cameras, but we don’t usually bring them all with us when we travel (we know many professional photographers who travel with a single all-round lens). 

However, before you invest in additional lenses you need to know a few things:

  • What would you like to take pictures of?
  • Which range would you like to cover?
  • Which bag do you have?
  • If you travel by airplane, what are the hand luggage limitations?

In the end, we encourage you to not concentrate on just taking photos. Enjoy your vacation!

So, if you are in the decision process of which lenses you should have for your travel photo set we recommend you to start with wide zoom + telephoto zoom or wide + prime and add additional lenses for ranges based on your needs (and the type of travel photography you are most interested in). 

The most usual additional lenses in this setup are:

  • Ultra-wide lenses to take photos with a similar point of view like you get on an action camera;
  • Additional prime lens(es) to cover different focal range(s);
  • Additional telephoto lenses to be able to take photos of some extra distant objects/subjects (i.e. if you take photos/videos of wildlife and want to shoot from a safe distance).

The biggest pros of getting more than 2 lenses are that it will boost your creativity. If you have an ultra-wide lens, plus standard zoom lens, plus prime lens, and one telephoto lens, you will probably take more photos and discover new angles and perspectives.

Also, keep in mind that your camera bag might be heavy, and you might not use it as you planned if you travel with your friend and family. You simply won’t have enough time. But if you want to bring 1 or 2 additional lenses to satisfy your creativity even if you end up taking just a few photos, go for it.

Best Travel Lenses by Camera Type

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In order to keep this article organized we focused here just on how to choose the best travel lens for your camera. 

If you want to see which lenses are the best fit as travel lenses, take a look at the articles we linked below.

For Mirrorless Cameras

Travel lenses for Canon
Travel lenses for Nikon
Travel lenses for Sony

P.S for other brands (Fuji, Panasonic, Olympus…), we will add our recommendations later.

For DSLR cameras

Accessories for Travel Lenses

To Get Better Photos & Videos

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1. UV, ND, and CPL filters

A set of filters is absolutely necessary for travelers who want to get great photos and videos, plus want to protect their lenses from scratches.

Let’s start with protection. You should first buy a UV filter.

These filters prevent UV lights, which is important in film photography because UV lights could have effects on films, but it’s not the case in digital photography. The good side of UV filters is that they won’t affect your photos and videos in any way (of course if you don’t buy the cheapest filters on the market). Because of that many photographers use them to protect lenses from scratches – and you should, especially if you travel somewhere where you can have dust and sand in the air, or you need to clean your lens often.

ND and CPL filters are not protective but their role is to make your photos and videos look nicer.

ND (Neutral Density) filter is used to reduce the amount of light your sensor will receive.

When you are shooting in the noon of a sunny day you may not be able to get the results you want because the strong light – ND filter is a solution. Also if you want to add a moving effect when you shoot a river in the forest you can use it to reduce the amount of light and use a longer exposure. When you want to take photos with wider apertures to get shallow depth of field, you will also use ND filters.

CPL filter is a must for any travel photographer because of its advantages for landscapes and outdoor photos.

It will help you to get a better sky color, eliminate reflections from glossy surfaces and windows, and get better colors of plants and more transparency of water. Overall your landscape photos will look better with a CPL.

All we mentioned will work for videos as well.

Lens hood

Lens hood is important for the prevention of lens flare. Usually, when you buy a lens you will get a lens hood as well. But for some lenses, you need to buy a lens hood separately.

Whenever you take shots on a bright sunny day or have a direct light in front of you we encourage you to mount a lens hood to avoid unwanted flare and ghosts.

To Carry and Protect Your Lenses

Lens in a bag

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Protective ring / bumper

Protective rings and bumpers are necessary for your lenses if you want to keep them free of scratches

You will mount it on a lens and only zoom and focus rings will be not covered. So, you will operate with a lens the same as it is naked, but it will be protected.

Bag or pouch

Another thing that will make your lens free of scratches and easier to carry in a bag or pouch.

If you keep your lens in a bag with other gear, make sure that you have dividers to separate them into their own storage within a bag.

Cleaning set

From time to time, you will need to clean lenses to get rid of fingerprints and/or dust. Also, if you change lenses, the chance is that dust will get inside the sensor. This is the reason why you should have a cleaning set in your bag.

At least you should have a lens pen, cleaning spray, air blower, and a microfiber cloth.

Conclusion

If you were in doubt about an ideal travel-friendly lens setup for your camera, we are pretty sure that now things are clear.

The first thing is setting out the priorities. So, if you prioritize having a lightweight set you should choose a single lens that is a jack of all trades but not excel in anything particular except to make your travel camera set compact and lightweight while at the same time covering long-range and virtually replacing 2 or 3 lenses.

If you want the balance between the size of your set and the quality, you should think about packing 2 lenses. With this setup, you might cover pretty much the same range but also get fantastic quality in wide to mid-range in the first lens and combine it with a second lens for telephoto, great portraits, and background blurring options.

In the end, if you are looking for a travel lens setup without any compromises, you will probably pack more than 2 lenses in your bag. In this case, it all depends on your personal choice.

What’s your choice for the best travel lenses? Do you travel with a single lens, 2 lenses, or even more? Is there anything else we haven’t covered? Let us know!

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