How to pick a lens for your travels

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Stefan Panaitescu

"My name is Stefan Panaitescu, I am 38 years old and I am from Bucharest, Romania.
I work in sustainability and corporate social responsibility and I love my job.
I am an avid traveler and in my spare time I run a travel blog and I try to get out as much as I can and shoot with my Fuji cameras."

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People are curious. People want to find out more. They want to reach new places, see new things, try different experiences and come back with beautiful memories. In these hard times, people turn more and more to their memories, to the places they loved seeing and they watch pictures of those places on Facebook, on Instagram and so on.

Some time ago I wrote an article detailing my equipment and how I ended up with Fuji, from all the camera manufacturers out there. So, even though I am not famous, people read the article and started asking me questions.

“What lens did you use here? Is this a good lens?” So I decided to share with you a few ideas of how I pick my lens for each trip and things like that.

Before we go further, please bear in mind two things:
1. I am not a professional photographer. I just love taking pictures and I am always studying, practising, wanting to get better.
2. This post is not for the people who are OK with snapshots from holidays and don’t care too much if they take pictures with a phone or with a DSLR.

Considering how far phone technologies have come, if all you do is seeing the pictures on your phone, tablet or even a small laptop, you really don’t need a fancy camera. I got some lovely photos with my phone and I am sure a professional would do things even better. This post is for the people who love photography, those who study the locations before they go there, and who need some help in picking the right tools for each job.

Now, while I am no authority on photo shooting, bellow you can find my thoughts and experiences on what I pack and what you could put in your bag for a photo holiday. I will skip the part where I ask you to consider what type of photographer you are. Do you love city views? Do you love landscape? Street? That will come later.

We will just focus on a photo holiday, and the first thing you need to ask yourself is:
Where will you go?
Will you visit?
1. A city
2. Rural areas
3. Nature trip (water views or mountain)

If you are visiting a city, then what type of city are you visiting?

Fuji X-T20 . Fuji XF18-55mmF2.8-4 @18mm . f/8 . 1/170″ . ISO 200 – There is no right or wrong in the picture above. I could have used a narrower lens or even a wider one

If you visit New York maybe you need something different than if you visit Rome.

So here is what I would do:
If I were to visit a city like New York (Singapore, Tokyo, Hong Kong, etc.) I would bring 3 lenses. Don’t roll your eyes yet and let me explain.

For all demonstrations I will use the lenses available for Fuji X mount because this is my system now.

I would bring a wide lens. Something like the 10-24/f4 or the Samyang 12/f2.

My thinking is this:
While New York or any of those cities I listed above is super crowded, capturing all those skyscrapers from a vantage point with a wide lens would get you some great pictures. Areas like the Brooklyn Bridge would also fit the bill nicely for a wide lens.

Also, in this type of cities a fast lens with an aperture of f2 would rock. Imagine taking pictures in NY or Hong Kong at night. You really need a fast aperture for handheld photos (not getting into ISO sensitivity now or other things and maybe you’re not a fan of carrying a tripod as I do)

Sony Alpha 5000 . Sony E PZ 16-50mmF3.5-5.6 @16mm . f/16 . 1.6″ . ISO 200 – From what I remember the kit lens for the Sony a5000 was a 3.5 at its widest aperture. I couldn’t push the ISO very high (because the a5000 is a low end camera) I had to improvise a small tripod

Also, these cities offer real gems when it comes to street photography and this is where my thinking differs from many street shooters.

I hate moving close to my subject and framing him.

Sony Alpha 6300 . Sigma 16mmF1.4 @16mm . f/8 . 1/50″ . ISO 100 – Above you can see a picture I took with the excellent Sigma 16mm BUT this is rather unusual for me. I never get this close to my subjects because I think they can get distracted by my presence

What I love is to use a zoom and surprise people going on about their business with no visible interruption from my part. But that’s just my style. So for that I would use the Fuji 50-230. I would pick this over the 55-200 because of weight, size and similar picture output (or at least too little difference to justify the cost and size differences).

Taking into account that I hate manual focusing on holidays my dream kit for New York would look like this:
1. Fuji 10-24mm
2. Fuji 50-230mm
3. Fuji 35mm f2 for night and street photos.

An even lighter kit would be:
1. Fuji 18-55mm f/2.8-4
2. Fuji 50-230mm

But these are just suggestions. From this point, you need to think “what do I want to photograph?” And build the kit according to that. For me, being the second time there, I would focus more on street, people, food, etc. so my 50-230 zoom would be my first choice. Other than that I could easily pick either my 18-55mm or a 23mm f2 prime for night, cityscapes, etc.

So that would be New York. But what about Rome?

Well, Rome is a city but I would approach it differently from NY:

  • First, there are no skyscrapers.
  • Second, the most important monuments are illuminated during the night.
  • Third, the city is a maze of small streets, beautiful doors, walls, restaurants, etc.

I think I would split Rome in two parts. During the day I would bring my kit lens, the 18-55mm. That way I could take many pictures on different lengths without changing lenses. However, for night pictures I would bring either the 23mm f2 or the 35mm f2.

That really depends on your style and the focal length you enjoy more.

I think 55mm (82.5mm in FF) is enough for great street pics in Rome. I really don’t think I’d bring my 50-230mm here, even though I could get some amazing shots with it.

Sony Alpha 5000 . Sony E PZ 16-50mmF3.5-5.6 @16mm . f/8 . 4.0″ . ISO 100 – As you can see above the 16mm used here is a bit too tight. It was my only option at the time but I would have loved a 12 or 14mm lens to be able to capture more

I am not a fan of bringing two bodies on my trips or changing lenses too often, so I think I would push heavier on my 18-55mm for street pics and hope for the best. (Places like New York, Tokyo are exceptions to the rule and I would still think hard before packing many lenses)

As a matter of fact, my dream for Rome is to try and photograph it at 23mm (35 equivalent) for more than 85-90% of the pics. I just love that focal length and most of my pics are taken there. 35mm (50 equivalent) is my next favorite focal length.

I think this pretty much covers cities.

Ps: forgot one important aspect.

Sony Alpha 6300 . Sigma 16mmF1.4 @16mm . f/11 . 3.2″ . ISO 800 – The Sigma 16mm 1.4 is a great lens for night photography

If you are a fan of churches, dimly lit interiors, architecture, etc, then upon visiting a city you definitely should arm yourself with a fast prime. I have seen some amazing pictures from inside bookstores, inside churches or palaces and that f2 to f2.8 aperture looked amazing.

You could pull it off with the kit lens from Fuji (since it starts at 2.8) but if you already have a fast prime (23/35/50 doesn’t matter) it will suit your purpose better.

Fuji X-E2 . Fuji XF18-55mmF2.8-4 @18mm . f/8 . 1/18″ . ISO 200 – Another example of where a 35 or a 50 lens would rock. The narrow streets of Chefchaouen

While there are so many cities in the world I think most of them fall in these two categories. Before moving forward, I must tell you an important thing that I forgot to mention in the beginning. This is a guide for people with a tight budget (the 10-24mm mentioned above is an exception and it is easily replaceable).

Yes, if you have the money and a strong back you could get the 16-55mm plus the 50-140mm from Fuji but… Look at their size and tell me if that’s what you want to carry with you on a holiday.

I am 6’3” and weigh 256 pounds (190 cm and 115 kg) and one of the things that brought me to Fuji was the size of the camera and the lenses. After 15 years of weightlifting I could easily place a DSLR in my pack with 2-3 lenses and go out, but why would I do that?

So my thinking in choosing the lighter kit (18-55 + 50-230) was that it weighed less, it was more fun to use. I actually pulled it out more often instead of reaching for my phone for an easy picture, and people wouldn’t mind me so much. I know there are a lot of people who would pick the 16-55mm or the 55-200mm, or even the great 50-140mm, but for me a small pack and ease of use count a lot on my travels.

The next point on my list is: Rural areas
When I am talking of rural areas I am mostly thinking small villages of Italy, France, Spain, etc. From my experience you rarely need a wide lens here if you don’t go outside the towns, into the wilderness. Upon visiting Matera or Locorotondo in Italy, for example, or St Ives in Cornwall, UK for my style of shooting I could do well with one lens.

18-55 kit lens from Fuji.

Sony Alpha 5000 . Sony E PZ 16-50mmF3.5-5.6 @16mm . f/14 . 1/125″ . ISO 100 – Here I used the 16mm kit lens but while I was walking on those narrow streets my lens went to 35 or even 50mm for better composition

If you are worried about night pictures and a fast aperture you could take the 23mm f2 or the 35mm f2.

Things change a bit when you move in Cornwall from a small village to small bays and the magnificent coastline, and here, depending on your budget, you could have:
1. An expensive setup, including the 10-24 plus the 35mm f2
2. A manual, cheap setup including the Samyang 12 plus the 18-55 kit
3. The kit lens plus the new 16mm 2.8 prime (not the 1.4)

If you checked all my pics from the UK (Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and some from the Cotswolds) you will see that I used a 16mm lens on my (ex) Sony body.

Sony Alpha 6300 . Sigma 16mmF1.4 @16mm . f/9 . 1/40″ . ISO 100 – One of my favorite pictures taken with the Sigma 16mm 1.4

Yes, sometimes, it felt too tight (Lulworth Cove for example). Yes, sometimes I wanted more reach (very few times) but in the end, I was more than happy with one single prime lens and the pictures I got.

To this day, I consider the pictures from that trip to be some of the best I ever took and that rather says it all about how many lenses you need to take good photos that you will like.

Sony Alpha 6300 . Sigma 16mmF1.4 @16mm . f/8 . 1/200″ . ISO 100 – 16mm again. However, it was a bit more difficult since I couldn’t back more without entering in the water

Therefore, in my opinion, if you plan to just stick to small villages, I think that one lens would be all you need. However, if you plan to shoot outside, well things change here. That is because there is a huge difference between photographing the sea and taking pictures of mountains.

If you plan to go on a holiday on a location like Lefkada for example, my guess is that you wouldn’t need a zoom unless you want to photograph windsurfers and kites.

Fuji X-T20 . Fuji XF18-55mmF2.8-4 @55mm . f/8 . 1/900″ . ISO 400 – Here is me breaking the rule of wide lenses. With so many people around I had no option but to isolate this frame at a 55mm focal length

What you do need for Lefkada is a wide lens and here the 10-24mm fits the bill perfectly. Unfortunately, that is expensive, so what options do you have?

Well, the kit lens is great but I found sometimes, as stated above, that 18 is a bit too narrow so I would go for the 16/2.8 lens plus the kit.

Fuji X-T1 . Fuji XF18-55mmF2.8-4 @35.80mm . f/8 . 1/110″ . ISO 200 – 23mm in Valencia. I could have used the 18mm size on another occasion but on that day, a lot of people would have appeared in my photo if I went for that focal length

I would use the kit for day pictures while saving the 16mm for those amazing sunsets on this beautiful part of Greece. Yes, Lefkada has peaks and there are people who go deep inside to climb and see the waterfalls but the majority of people stick to the beaches and the world-famous sunsets. So besides shooting at 23 (my fav focal length), the 16 would be my first weapon of choice.

I have been dreaming to visit Lanzarote since last year, and in studying the island and places where to take photos. I realized that my 18-55 kit would suffice with the addition of a wide, fast prime. I do not intend to bring my zoom lens to this island and I am sure that the pics will come out, as I want them to.

Now, when photographing mountains, well, things are very different
Yes, you would need a wide lens but a zoom is also necessary. That is because the mountain offers many possibilities to cut, frame, select special parts of the scenery and you will need a zoom for that.

Look at the picture bellow:

Fuji X-T1 . Fuji XF18-55mmF2.8-4 @22.30mm . f/8 . 1/500″ . ISO 200 – I used the 18-55 lens here at its widest point (18). However, a zoom would have helped me isolate that little house on the right side and maybe frame it for a nice picture

In addition, when it comes to mountain holidays, I think that a fast prime would be nice. Some of the best starry night photos were taken in the mountains and if you play it safe and have some good company, some night pictures might appear in your portfolio.

The thing is that while hiking, you would want to keep your bag light so the above combination (18-55 plus 50-230) plus a small prime (16/23/35) would be perfect. I think that what I wrote above fits most travels and holidays.

I use zoom lenses now because I like to enjoy seeing and visiting more and spending less time with changing lenses, thinking of focal lengths, etc. However, I think that I still am a prime shooter and if it were up to me and if budget allowed I would fill my bag with small, delicious primes covering 16 to 50 and maybe adding the 50-230 zoom to cover the rest of the focal lengths.

As I return to some cities I visited in the past, I try to shoot every holiday in that spot with one focal length.

Sony Alpha 5000 . Sony E PZ 16-50mmF3.5-5.6 @16mm . f/8 . 1/100″ . ISO 100 – No need for wide lenses here

In addition, I think that is a great way to learn more about your camera and photography than zooming in and out all the time. As I said, my favorite focal length is 23mm (35 full-frame equivalent) and I do plan to use this length on many of my pictures in the following trips. However, I am aware that for cities like Rome, Frigiliana, Locorotondo, the 23 would be a bit wide so that is the reason 35mm (50 full-frame equivalent) is my next favorite focal length.

These places are so rich in details, the streets so narrow that I think that these two focal lengths are all I need for a great shoot.

Fuji X-T20 . Fuji XF18-55mmF2.8-4 @22.30mm . f/8 . 1/480″ . ISO 200 – I usually take landscape photos of nature and not portraits but I liked the composition here and I shot it at 23mm

So, there you have it. My ideas about what I would bring for each type of holiday. I hope that this would be of use for you when planning your next holiday. If, of course, you are a photography fan like I am. As more holidays will come I plan to stand true to my commitment and use only certain focal lengths.

I truly think that will boost my confidence and help me become a better photographer in time.