Q&A–What type of lens should I get for my trip?

This question was recently submitted by Cheo.

I’m looking to get a fish eye. I’m taking a vacation to Key West and want a lens, but I’m not sure if I’m wasting my money. I have an 18-55mm DX VR. Looking for guidance on panoramic pictures and a bigger lens.

It’s a good question, because one of the worst things that can happen is you take a once-in-a-lifetime trip and aren’t able to achieve the types of shots you wanted. While gear isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of photography, it is important to have the right tools for the job.

Given that Cheo only has the kit lens that came with his Nikon camera, I’ll get to the first item of the fisheye lens. I would not recommend using a fisheye in this circumstance. Fisheye lenses are, as previously mentioned, specialty lenses. They capture an incredibly wide angle-of-view, but also do so with an extreme amount of distortion. However, this distortion is by design. While it can often be corrected for, to a certain degree, in post-processing, it is not ideal for travel photography.

Also, because fisheye lenses have such extreme distortion, they take a lot of practice and experience to use well. In most cases, I would consider a fisheye a “fun” lens, but it’s not always practical for general purpose photography. While it can be a useful tool, like any complicated tool, you need experience to master using it properly, and buying it right before a big trip probably isn’t the time to get your feet wet. If you’re looking for wacky shots, or a specialty image, a fisheye is a fun lens to play with. However, if you’re looking for keepsake images from a family vacation, it’s probably not the right lens to take with you.

So, what will help get those travel photos that will wow you with great memories of that special trip? For travel photography, there are many options.

When it comes to travel landscapes, I enjoy shooting with a wide and ultra-wide lenses, most often. They can produce sweeping landscapes that showcase the scenery that choice destinations offer.

However, there are alternatives that can help you achieve similar shots that might not break your budget. Cheo mentioned that he has an 18-55mm lens that came with his camera. Most new camera buyers buy a camera kit that comes with a body and, most often, an 18-55mm lens. The 18-55mm lens on an APS-C body is a nice start because it gives a wide-angle through short telephoto range of coverage. While a 27mm equivalent field-of-view might not be ultra-wide, in many cases, it should be wide enough to capture nice landscapes in travel destinations.

Paradise Lost

This image was captured with a 16mm lens on an APS-C camera, giving the 35mm full-frame equivalent of 24mm focal length

With travel landscapes, you’re not usually trying to minimize depth-of-field. In fact, the opposite is usually true; you’re typically trying to get as much of the scene as possible in sharp focus. Because of this, having a lens with a very wide aperture is usually not required… you’ll be stopping down the lens anyway.

It’s important to note that not all travel photography is done at the wide-angle side of the spectrum. Quite often, you’ll want to capture details of the places you’ll travel to. As such, it’s nice to have options at both the normal and telephoto range. While Cheo’s 18-55mm has him covered for the wide-angle and normal ranges, it does leave him a bit short on the telephoto side.

You could either supplement the 18-55mm lens with a telephoto zoom, like the popular 55-200mm telephoto zoom meant to complement the 18-55mm kit lens, or you could replace it outright with a full coverage single lens, like the 18-200mm VRII. For Canon users, there are the equivalent 55-250mm and 18-200mm IS lenses, as well as similar options from 3rd party lens makers like Sigma’s 18-250mm OS or Tamron’s 18-270mm VC lenses (Note: 3rd party lenses are offered in a variety of mounts for various systems. You need to make sure you purchase the lens designed for your camera).

The advantages of the 55-200 over the 18-200 are that it’s significantly cheaper and smaller, and since the focal length range isn’t as wide, there are fewer design compromises, resulting in less distortion. However, the 18-200 has the advantage of being a single lens solution. This means you’re only carrying one lens in your bag, which is not a small thing to overlook when you’re dealing with travel luggage. Using only one lens also means the convenience of no lens changes in the field, which means less dust on your sensor and fewer dust spots in your photos.

Since not all of your trip will be of the scenic landscape variety, having a telephoto option along allows you to capture detail shots of the places you go.

Disney

What trip to Disneyland would be complete without a photo of Mickey and Minnie in the parade? Telephoto lenses are great for these kinds of "local flavor" shots.

Dominican Kitten

This stray kitten was photographed in a local shop while on a trip to the Dominican Republic. It was very curious, but very timid, and the shot would not have been possible without a telephoto lens because the kitten would have run away if I got any closer.

For my typical trip to a photogenic location, I’ll typically bring with me:

  1. A standard prime, like a 50mm f/1.8 for low-light shots
  2. An Ultra-wide zoom, like a 12-24mm for APS-C or a 14-24mm for full-frame
  3. A wide-to-normal general purpose zoom like an 18-55mm for APS-C or a 24-70mm for full-frame
  4. A telephoto zoom like a 70-300mm

Or, I can eliminate 2 of those lenses with an 18-200, which covers the standard zoom and telephoto zoom ranges sufficiently. Either way, the tools and coverage of the focal length ranges are available. In many cases, most photographers will consider 18mm to be “wide enough” and skip the ultra-wide option to save weight and cost.

Since Cheo asked about panoramic photography, I’ll give a brief primer on that, as well.

Panoramic photography is a technique, using specialized software or equipment, that allows you to create images that are especially wide in format. Generally speaking, a panoramic photograph will be at least twice as wide as it is high, and the final image will appear as a wide strip.

Panorama

The US Capitol, a panorama stitched together from 4 images

In order to create a panoramic image, one would typically take several images and “stitch” them together using software. Some software is specialized in order to create panoramic images from multiple photographs, such as AutoStitch or Panorama Factory. Other software, such as Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Photoshop Elements, or Windows Live Photo Gallery are more full-featured general-purpose image editors but include panorama stitching functionality.

It used to be that panoramic stitching software was very unforgiving when it came to vertical movement along the horizontal axis, which necessitated a tripod and carefully watched bubble levels to make sure the camera and lens were perfectly level. However, software has advanced significantly, to the point that, with good technique, handheld panoramas are completely feasible. It takes practice to figure out what works and what doesn’t, and different software programs are more or less forgiving than others, but it is possible to get good panoramic images when shooting handheld.

In my experience, it’s best to shoot with a lens or focal length that features as little distortion as possible. For this purpose, I prefer using a normal or telephoto focal length. The software is then able to stitch things together with as few mistakes as possible. 50-70mm is a good range to work in. It’s also best to keep your exposure consistent from image to image, although most software has gotten good at handling minor fluctuations.

Also, while the strict definition of panoramas are long, wide strips, don’t feel like you need to be constrained by that definition. In a pinch, you can certainly take multiple photos with a telephoto lens, and stitch them together to give you the angle-of-view of an ultra-wide lens. It’s just a lot of work, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done or that it won’t produce nice looking images.

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