Best Versatile Camera Lenses for Travel Photographers
I believe that a lens is more important than the camera. Without a good lens, you can be using the best camera in the world and still take photos that don’t look quite right.
When you’re traveling, choosing the best lens to take with you is especially challenging. Not only do you need to pick a high-quality lens, but now you need to select maybe 1 or 2 (or maybe 3?) so that what you packed isn’t weighed down by the weight of camera accessories.
I’ve listed out my favorite picks for lenses that are versatile enough to get you through almost every situation you’ll encounter while you’re traveling or at home.
Sony 50mm F/1.8 Lens
This Sony 50mm lens performs really well in low light. It is designed for a full-frame sensor and makes for a good upgrade from a kit lens. This is one of our favorite portrait lenses and you’ll see sharp photos with nice bokeh when you shoot faces or objects with this lens. It is designed for the Sony E-mount.
Rokinon AF 35mm F/1.4
This lens is a great addition for your Sony E-Mount camera. Because it shoots at f/1.4, you're able to take this indoors and shoot in darker locations. Concerts, events, weddings are all times when this lens excels. You can take this outdoors and shoot the stars and get great results when stopping down to f/1.4. Because it is 35mm, you're able to get a wide enough landscape to show some decent foreground and midground elements. Rokinon has been producing quality lenses for a number of years and every iteration they come out with is better and better.
Canon EF 85mm F/1.8 USM
This Canon 85mm is an amazing portrait lens that we recommend (the standard lens size for portraits is 85mm). With this lens, you’ll find a good separation of the background, and most of the subject will be in focus, even at f/1.8! Additionally, the USM will give you silent autofocus. This is a good video lens for close details as well.
Canon EF 50mm F/1.4 USM
Coming in at a very affordable price tag, this 50mm portrait lens from Canon is amazing in low light. The depth of field is shallow, so be careful when shooting portraits and faces, as to not miss the focus on your subject’s eye. We’ve seen that happen when shooting portraits with our 50mm lenses, when shooting at f/1.8! This Canon 50mm is an okay choice for shooting star photos, but don’t expect to get a wide landscape. If this is the only lens you take on a trip, you can stitch photos together after shooting starry skies to make a cool composition.
Canon EF 40mm F/2.8 STM
This lens allows for a bigger picture than using a standard 50mm, so you can take in much more of a scene while still getting crisp photos and background bokeh. This lens comes at a very manageable size and is lightweight, so it’s ideal for taking out with your camera body while on the go or when hiking, as to not weigh down your bags. Fun fact, its nickname is the pancake lens!
Sigma 16mm F/1.4
This Sigma 16mm lens is my favorite pick for Sony APS-C cameras. I got a good deal on it, and it hasn't left my Sony A6000 since its first picture. It's super bright so you can take in indoors, at events and during night shoots. It's a good focal length for street photography and landscapes. I'd stay away from portraits because you'll get a bit of distortion around your subject. If you have an APS-C Sony camera, this lens is a good pick.
Sony 24-70mm F/2.8 G Master
I reviewed the Sony 24-70 f/2.8 G Master courtesy of my friends at Focus Camera. I was hesitant to travel with this lens because it was so big and bulky. I quickly got over that when I started shooting with it. Every picture that I took was unique, and I enjoyed being able to stop down to f/2.8 during some scenarios. It came with me it all over the world and almost never needed to switch lenses.
Sony 24-70mm F/4
The Sony 24-70 f/4 is one of my favorite lenses. Because of its size and price, it's an easy choice if you're looking for a walking around lens. I've found that it's not super sharp at f/4, so I reserve to use it when I want to shoot video or don't need a low aperture. I enjoy having the option to shoot wide and semi-telephoto with only one lens.
Sony 24-105mm F/4 G
The Sony 24-105mm f/4 has always been an 'Oh. I wish I had this lens' type of lens. It's like my Sony 24-70mm f/4, but it reaches even farther at 105mm. If I traveled with only one lens, this would be my pick if I was in the market for one.
Sony 85mm F/1.8
The Sony 85mm f/1.8 is my favorite lens that I don't own. I've watched countless videos and read so many reviews about this lens. I think 85mm is such a great range and Sony seems to have done a fantastic job with this 85mm. I've heard that it's almost the same quality as the G Master version at more than half the price.
Are prime lenses good for travel?
I prefer prime lenses over zoom lenses. Prime lenses are usually sharper than zoom lenses and are also smaller because they have fewer moving parts.
As a travel photographer, having a small camera profile is a win when you’re shooting street photos and want to look more low-key.
I’ve found that only bringing a 50mm lens with me for a day has been more than enough.
Our tips for how to travel with lenses
When you bring cameras and lenses while you travel, it’s important to protect them when you pack your bags for the trip.
I like to travel without checking any bags through when I fly. I carry-on everything! Because of this, I have all of my camera stuff with me on the airplane and can be a little less cautious about having a lot of padding in my camera bag.
When I fly, I also like to put my overhead bag (especially if my camera stuff is inside) on the opposite side of my seat, so that I can keep an eye on the overhead. In the rare event that someone goes into my bag, I’ll be able to see what is going on.
If you do check your bags through, and you have lenses, be careful! I would advise against this, but you can try a couple of precautionary things to protect your gear.
Traveling with lenses: Get a lock for your camera bag
If someone is going to go through your bag, the best thing that you can do to try and stop them is add a lock. You’ll need a TSA-style lock. It’s not a bulletproof plan, but it will make it one step harder for someone to open your bag.
With a TSA lock, the benefit is that if the TSA does need to get into your bag, they will have a special TSA key that won’t break your lock. Any other lock that’s not TSA-approved doesn’t have this benefit, and you’ll wind up with a broken lock or a broken bag.
Lens hacks: Use a lot of cushion around your lenses
Bags go on a journey when you check them. They’re thrown, tossed and trampled during their journey from the check-in counter bag drop to under the airplane and down again on a baggage claim.
The best thing that you can do is try and protect your lenses by padding them with a lens case. A new product I’m using is the KUVRD Universal Lens Cap. It’s a soft lens cap that’s versatile enough to fit a few different types of lens bodies. It’s lightweight and packable, which are two key features that make it great for traveling.
If you haven’t gotten around to purchasing a special lens case, you can use your clothes or something soft. Depending on the size of your lens, you can even put them in a shoe or a sock.