Choosing a good lens for traveling

Kayaker on Cape Cod

When I travel with my camera, I consider it an opportunity to make the pictures that I'm really gonna treasure down the road, and I never quite know what sorts of situations I'm going to be facing. Sometimes I want to make a photo that shows the grandeur of a large cathedral or palace, and other times I want to show off little details. So I used to carry a pretty big pro SLR and would have at least two lenses with me and sometimes a flash. This gave me most of the tools I needed to make those neato pictures I want to make big prints of and put on my walls. But it also meant if I bought any souvenirs pretty soon I was awfully weighed down with stuff and had no extra hands to try all the local delicacies from street vendors. If you're walking around allllllllll day, as I often do when some strange exotic land, that gets old in a hurry.

The little village of St. Emilion, in Bordeaux

Longtime friend and one-time client Larisa (last name withheld "for security reasons") was finally able to upgrade her photography capabilities thanks to the new digital SLR that she got for Christmas from her loving, handsome husband. Rowr! Her Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi came as a kit, with an 18-55mm lens, but she's not sure that's going to be sufficient to let her make the kind of photos she wants when she travels to Japan and Latvia this summer. Issues like how easy it is to focus aren't going to affect her, and she readily admits that she's mostly going to use the camera on its automatic settings.

She has a couple of options for buying another lens, and the question arises of whether she wants to get one outside the 18-55 range so that she'll have to carry a second lens along, or to get one that also includes most of that range and gives her some telephoto reach. She's narrowed down her choices to a 55-200, a 28-200, or a 28-135mm lens.

Frankly, I'd take the 55-200 out of the mix right away. It starts out as a darker lens (beginning at f/4.5, rather than f/3.5 like the other two lenses) and only focuses as close as 4 feet, compared to 17 or 20 inches on the other two. There are plenty of times when you want to take photos of something closer to you than four feet.

Notre Dame de Paris. Duh.

I should throw in the caveat there that I don't shoot Canon, simply because I've always owned Nikons and never quite felt like I had to scrap an entire system and start over with all new stuff. Canon makes some great gear, and they're pretty much dominating the digital market these days. The technical information I'm citing here is straight from Canon's website. So while I can't speak to the exact "brand-issues" that may be involved with how Canon lenses and cameras work, there are many general observations that apply to these decisions no matter what you buy.

I found that I just wasn't using the flash much while I was traveling (sorry, David ) so I dropped that from my gear eventually. Most of the time I'm shooting landscapes and am in situations where I don't really want to get in the way of whatever the locals are doing, so I try to shoot unobtrusively. And as I often travel in the winter months when there aren't as many tourists cluttering up the places I visit (you get a much better feel for a place) I found on occasion that it was darned hard to change lenses when the temperatures are bitingly cold. So, lately I've been of the opinion that the decision has to be made in the direction of carrying one versatile lens that will give you as much as possible on both ends: decent wide-angle coverage, and a fairly long telephoto. In fact I like to carry about as long a telephoto as I possibly can, because not only do I like to shoot the whole cathedral but I also want to see the carvings of the tortured sinners high up on the walls. (In an age when literacy was rare, graphic depictions of the sufferings of the afterlife were potent teaching tools.)

Sinners suffering on a cathedral wall in Angoulême

What, then, should Larisa do? Well, it's not entirely simple. Or maybe, it's not as simple as it could be. In a nutshell, wide angle lenses with most digital cameras are not as wide as you think. And telephotos generally reach further than you would expect. So, there are costs and benefits that have to be weighed.

The lens that comes with her kit, the 18-55, is a pretty good wide-angle at the "18" end. But that 18mm lens gives the same range as a 28mm lens would in traditional film format. That's decently wide, but not remarkably wide. More importantly, it's not much of a telephoto at the 55 end, clocking in at the equivalent of 90mm. It lets you get a little closer, but in many circumstances it's not much better than walking a few feet closer to the subject.

So Larisa is going to want to buy one of those longer lenses. If she opts to carry just one lens on her travels, I'd go with the 28-200. On a traditional film camera, that would be about the same as carrying a 46-320mm lens. Not very wide on the wide side, but plenty long on the telephoto side.

She could go with the 28-135, which has the benefit of Image Stabilization. But for me I would end up frustrated using that because I'd want to have more reach than the 135 can provide. And as far as Image Stabilization goes, my suggestion is to just brace your camera and yourself against something when you shoot. That night picture of Notre Dame was a 3-second exposure! No tripod. Just my camera propped up on my glove and wallet on an old stone wall. It's fairly rare that I can't find a convenient lamppost or tree to snug up against, and with a little practice you'd be surprised how much you can get away with in dim light. So you pay a little extra (about 40-50 bucks) for this feature and if you're careful you can get away without it in most situations.

Towers, old and new, in Copenhagen

A couple of final tidbits..

You should get a UV filter for the lens, which will cost you around $20 or so, no matter what you brand you get. Make sure it's UV and not Haze or some other kind of filter. Again, there's technical geek-stuff behind that. Just trust me. And your filter will provide most of the protection you need. Don’t worry about lens caps, which will just slow you down. You should get a lens hood (which Nikon seems to include on most of its comparable lenses, but for which Canon is charg
ing about forty bucks) because it will give you valuable protection for the front of the lens and is very useful in keeping unwanted stray light out of your pictures. You will almost never see any professional photographers who don't have lens hoods on all their glass (technical, cool moniker for lenses) and there's a good reason for that. So Larisa, if you're buying the Canon 28-200, take the $40 you save from not getting the Image Stabilization and spend it on a lens hood.

Armed with all that, go have fun! And say hi to Julie & Andrew for me. And to your mom.

No comments: