So before we go to far, if you are expecting the answer to the question this article poses, there isn’t one. If there was, it would be a 14-600mm f2.8 pancake lens with optical stabilisation. Of course that is physically impossible today and probably for a long time ahead. The fact is travelling is hard work. Carrying lenses around all day is also hard work. The problem with travel photography is that for one shot we might need a super wide angle to get everything in but for the next shot we want to come in close on some details or shot a candid of a local. So assuming we are going off on the trip of a lifetime, what lens or lenses should be put in our camera bag to ensure we get the very best shots?
The superzoom appeared on the scene in the last years of the film era. Typically they were 28-200mm f4.5-56 and gained a reputation as the perfect travel lenses. Except they were not. The early generations of superzooms were slow, unsharp and often lacking in contrast. Times have moved on though and although modern superzooms are not, by their nature fast lenses, they have greatly improved in image quality. Not only that, the effective range of a super zoom has moved from 28-200 out to 18-300mm and many of them have optical stabilisation built in.
The disadvantages of the super zoom is still its image quality. Although significantly better, they still fall short of other zoom lenses. Another issue is the relatively small maximum aperture. Whilst the low light issues of slow lenses can be alleviated with optical stabilisation, there is no way to get a decent shallow depth of field and i’s associated Bokeh.
Two Fast Zooms
For the quality minded a better option maybe to use two of the faster fixed aperture zooms. There are number of zooms out there now that concentrate on the 16-35 f4 range as well as the more traditional 70-210 f4 lenses. Many of these are also optically stabilised. Throw in a lightweight nifty fifty and you have a good range of relatively fast lenses. The advantages of the f4 lenses are that they are significantly lighter than the 2.8s, maintain similar image quality and only sacrifice a little loss of depth of field. On the downside, you are carry two or three lenses and will need to change lenses if the shot demands it.
Those looking for the ultimate quality and speed will step up to the 2.8 lenses but the trade off is weight. There is a significant difference in weight between the 4s and the 2.8s, which is doubled or tripled according to how many lenses you are carrying.
Three Fast Primes
In the days before zooms were of a high enough quality, the travel photographer would often carry three primes in his bag. These would be a 24 or 28mm, a 50mm and a 135 or 200mm. All would be f2.8 or better, all would be light and all would give excellent image quality. This combination gave the range to cover 95% of subjects easily and would often be combined with a second, lightweight camera body to reduce lens changing. There is no reason why this combination will not work in the digital era too. Its pretty much what I use for traveling, albeit in the guise of a two Fuji X series cameras, one with a fixed 35mm f2 and the other with a 14mm 2.8 and a 60mm, 2.4 macro. The whole kit weights less than a DSLR with one 2.8 zoom.
In the DSLR world there are plethora of excellent lightweight fast prime lenses available giving you a choice ranges to cover. These lenses are often significantly cheaper than equivalent aperture zooms.
A Single Prime
It is, perhaps a negative sign of the times that the plethora of lenses available to us often leads to us buying an optic for every occasion. We can get bogged down in trying to cover every possibility to the detriment of our creativity. A single prime, be it an 18mm or a 200mm will teach you to think harder about your shots. You will need to use your feet and your eyes to find the right combination of position and perspective to make each individual shot work. Carrying a single camera and prime is remarkably liberating, it frees you from the need to try and shoot everything in range and allows you to concentrate solely on what can be achieved.
The obvious disadvantage is that if something unique happens right in front of you and you are using a 200mm, you will struggle to capture it.
As we said at the top, there is no such thing as a perfect travel lens. However the options listed above are probably the best choices or combination of choices to get the best out of your travel images.