Travel photography can be physically and technically demanding. Not only do you need to stay on the move and maintain a certain awareness of your surroundings while utilizing your knowledge of composition to your advantage to really bring your travel destinations to life. You also need the right gear to pull it off!
This includes carrying only the greatest and best lens for travel photography. But what makes or breaks a good travel photography lens, apart from superior image quality?
Ultimately, it’s a matter of taste. Still, there are some qualities that experts and pro photographers prefer over others.
For instance, travel photography often necessitates carrying as little gear as possible and working only with natural light. That’s why excellent low-light performance is a hallmark of any high-end lens for travel photography. And that’s just one example!
In this guide, I’ll explain many of the key features and attributes that make up a perfect travel lens. Further down below, I will also make some recommendations on the top lenses for travel photography available today for different camera systems.
The Meaning of Focal Length in Travel Photography
Focal length affects the effectiveness and usability of a camera lens for travel photography in just about every way. The most fundamental of these is ergonomics.
Too long of a lens will be unwieldy to use in tight spaces. At the same time, a wide angle lens might not offer the kind of secure grip and stability that you’re after.
But the tradeoffs between focal lengths go much deeper than that! Let’s take a look at how and why in the following segments.
An Intro to Crop Factors and Sensor Sizes
You’re probably already aware of the term “crop factor” in relation to different digital sensor sizes and their effects on images. But what exactly is the crop factor about? And how does a crop sensor camera render photographs differently from a full-frame camera?
The answer is actually pretty simple. Focal length being equal, a larger sensor will always render photography with a wider field of view, greater dynamic range, and a shallower minimum depth of field than a smaller sensor.
The most important takeaway from this is that a 50mm prime lens on a full frame body will produce a different (more “normal”) perspective than on APS-C format (where it will be more like a short telephoto lens).
The “crop factor” is just a factor by which you multiply your lens’ focal length to arrive at the focal length you would need to use on full frame to achieve the same perspective and FOV.
For APS-C, the factor lies at an easy-to-remember 1.5. Because a Micro 4/3 sensor is even smaller than that, its crop factor is 2.0. Hence, a 50mm lens behaves as a 100mm would on full-frame, and so on.
Here is our guide to understanding the difference between crop sensors and full frame cameras.
Pros and Cons of Different Sensor Formats
All of that can be both a boon or a burden depending on your needs.
Travel photographers who specialize in wildlife or event photography, for instance, might prefer the more “zoomed-in” look that smaller sensors provide. It allows them to carry a shorter lens to get the same level of reach that they would with a larger camera body.
This also cuts down on bulk, making for a more luggage-friendly setup.
On the other hand, working professionals who often have to dabble in landscape photography, street photography, or similar genres might find it difficult to achieve truly ultra-wide angle shots with the limited FOV that comes with a crop sensor.
Take a note to assess the benefits and disadvantages of this fact yourself to see which sensor size is best for your travel photography needs.
Using a Telephoto Lens for Travel Photography
Lenses with longer focal lengths are commonly used in travel photography, where portraiture, animal photography, and faraway subjects play a key role.
This mostly includes 80mm and above on full frame bodies and 50mm and above on APS-C.
Telephoto lenses are great for their ability to home in on distant details. They also flatten out and minimize certain optical features and distortions, which again makes them preferable for portraiture.
The downside is that dedicated telephoto lenses are large, bulky, and more difficult to carry than other kinds of lenses. Longer lenses are also much slower on average than shorter ones – finding that elusive 200mm f/2.8 is possible, but it’s going to cost you an arm and a leg, whereas 28mm f/2.8 options are plentiful and relatively cheap by comparison.
In practice, this means that using a telephoto lens for travel photography in low natural light can be very difficult without the help of a flash gun or other additional equipment.
The Value of a Wide Angle Lens
The complete opposite of longer camera lenses is a wide-angle design, generally of a focal length of 35mm or less on full-frame sensors.
These lenses can be produced in an extremely compact form factor which makes them handy and perfect for candid, fast-paced travel photography. They also cover a very wide field of view which can be useful for documenting landscapes and cityscapes and even for close-up portraits on location outdoors.
In the past, a moderately fast wide angle prime lens, in addition to a normal lens of about 50mm (full-frame FOV equivalent) and telephoto was an absolute must-have in every serious travel photographer’s camera bag.
Nowadays, there is an alternative that has seriously challenged that traditional paradigm.
The Convenience and Usefulness of Zoom Lenses for Travel Photography
The zoom lens is a fairly recent innovation, having only been in mass production since the 1960s and only having really supplanted the use of many different prime lenses since the beginning of the century.
The reason why the market eventually swung in favor of zoom lenses is self-explanatory. They combine the fields of view and perspectives of multiple lenses into one, saving a lot of space from any travel photographer’s camera bag.
However, there is also an equally good reason why this shift has taken so long.
First of all, zoom lenses that cover a very wide focal length spectrum (sometimes called a superzoom lens) are optically very hard to design. This is because the more a lens is capable of zooming, the more artifacts, distortions, and other optical flaws creep in, which have to be corrected.
The most straightforward way of implementing such corrections is by the inclusion of more specialized glass elements. Oftentimes especially nowadays, these elements will be specially coated, cut in an aspherical fashion, and made with rare earth-based materials.
Optically, this can bring amazing results. However, it dramatically increases bulk and cost. It gets even worse when a superzoom design has to be both optically stable and provide a fast aperture.
Therefore, the classic choice has always been between the cheap and small do-it-all zoom that optically pales in comparison to even bargain bin prime lenses, or alternatively the jack-of-all-trades professional superzoom that drains both the muscles and the wallet.
Thankfully, the advancement of modern optical science and technology has allowed for many zooms to be practical enough to serve as frontline lenses for working travel photographers, and I included some of the best of these in today’s roundup below!
Choosing the Best Camera Lens for Travel Photography is a Personal Matter
Before we dive right into the specifics of what makes certain lenses a better choice for travel photography than others, I would like to reiterate the value of personal preference.
Simply put, nobody can tell you what the “best lens” of any kind really is in objective terms. Travel photography simply covers too broad of a scope, with way too many disciplines and skill sets to focus on.
Maybe you mostly shoot landscapes on your travel adventures. In that case, super-fast apertures and lightning-fast autofocus probably won’t interest you.
However, the opposite is true should your needs and workload overlap more with those of classic photojournalism.
Some may say that all personal preference aside, optical quality, or the balance between optical quality and price, should be the main concern when choosing a travel lens.
That is a valid point, of course. The problem is that throughout the history of photography, what constitutes “good” optics has changed a lot!
You might not want your favorite, go-to travel lenses to be the sharpest in the whole world, and that’s okay. You might not need a super-compact pancake prime. In fact, I know plenty of photographers who purposely tend to go for larger, bulkier lenses because they prefer those kinds of ergonomics.
In the end, I am just a guy with a camera like anybody. So take my advice with a grain of salt and try to apply it to your own needs and requirements first before acting on it!
Top Wide Angle Prime Lenses for Travel Photography
To kick off this round-up, I am going to take a look at some of the finest wide angle prime travel lenses by lens mount and camera system. No matter where your brand loyalties lie, there is going to be a top-ranking pick for you!
While wide angle primes are becoming a less common sight, they still serve an important purpose for the discerning travel photographer.
They capture a wide field of view and do so while being many times more compact and lightweight than their wide zoom lens counterparts.
Often, their maximum aperture is also much faster than that of comparable zooms, which makes them the only serious option for outdoor photography in low light.
Sony Zeiss Distagon T* FE 35mm f/1.4
With a mouthful of a name like that flaunting none other than Zeiss’ magic fingers involved in its design, it’s no wonder that the Sony Zeiss Distagon T* FE 35mm f/1.4 is a top-flight performer.
Thanks to excellent sharpness, wonderful bokeh rendition at larger apertures, class-leading low-light performance, and very few if any real optical flaws, this is a universally appreciated and desirable lens considered one of the best primes in the Sony FE lineup.
The main downsides of this lens are that it is quite bulky, heavy, and expensive.
The more compact Sony Zeiss Sonnar T* FE 35mm f/2.8 is a similar though much more portable lens at two stops slower of a maximum aperture and can often be had for half the price of its bigger brother.
Sony Zeiss Sonnar T* E 24mm f/1.8
Just as with Sony’s flagship FE full frame lenses, the cream of the crop of its E-series APS-C lineup is also designed in collaboration with Carl Zeiss.
The optical characteristics of this 24mm Sonnar-type lens are very similar to the 35mm-focal length variant I mentioned above. It features an extremely close minimum focusing distance of only 18cm while incorporating all the optical goodies of its full frame brethren like ED and aspherical glass and fully internal focusing.
However, the fast aperture combined with a much wider focal length (equivalent to the FOV that a 35mm lens gives on full frame) makes this the better choice for an APS-C camera.
If you really want to maximize the carry-anywhere factor and aren’t opposed to going wider than 24mm on a crop sensor, then take a look at the Sony E 20mm f/2.8.
A truly fast pancake ultra-wide angle lens like this is rare, and Sony’s example is even relatively affordable! No wonder it’s quickly becoming a darling among travel and street photography pros worldwide.
Nikon 28mm f/1.4E ED
One of the shining jewels of the swansong era of Nikon’s legendary F-mount lens lineup, the 28mm f/1.4E ED is a revamp of the similar 28mm f/1.4D from the 1990s.
Like its predecessor, it’s an optically stunning and physically massive wide angle lens suitable for travel photography and documentary genres in every lighting condition.
Its super-sized maximum aperture has also made it popular among portraitists who don’t favor the traditionally more common choice of a short telephoto lens, preferring to get up close and personal with their subjects.
Those who would prefer to pack light should instead look at the Nikon AF-S 24mm f/1.8G ED. Smaller, much easier to carry, just a smidge wider, and just two-thirds of a stop slower, it’s an excellent alternative, particularly for beginning photographers who don’t want to invest too much into a relatively niche wide angle prime travel lens right away.
Nikon Z 20mm f/1.8 S
The Nikon Z mount is the youngest among the mainline mirrorless camera lens lineups today, and as such it is understandable that the Japanese giant chose to focus on quality over quantity instead of playing catch-up with its competition.
What that mindset has created is a fine lineup of a few outright excellent wide angle prime lenses for Z mount. The most lauded of them all is the Nikon Z 20mm 1/1.8 S, an expensive but optically stunning fast prime with extremely snappy autofocus capabilities and a focal length that is very usable on both full frame and crop sensor bodies.
For street photography aficionados who prefer something a bit more incognito, I recommend the Nikon Z 28mm f/2.8. It’s neither as ultra-wide nor as hyperfast as its bigger brother, but it excels in cramming a ton of good glass into a minuscule package that you can keep on your camera all day long.
Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM
With a fast aperture and a perfect middle-of-the-road focal length that is perfectly suited to crop sensor as well as full frame cameras, the Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM is designed as the flagship wide angle prime lens of the EF DSLR line.
It succeeds in this role thanks to excellent sharpness, low light capability, and real class-leading build quality and ergonomics that rival the best that Nikon and Sony can offer.
Like other superfast wide angles, it is a bit on the larger side. Those who would like to achieve a similar FOV with a lot less metal sticking out of their camera should take a look at the EF-S 24mm f/2.8 STM.
A real pancake, it’s only two stops slower and features similar optical characteristics, making it one of the most useful Canon lenses in its focal range.
Top Normal Primes for Travel Photographers
Unlike wide-angles, whose optical formulas need to be quite complex to maintain distortion-free high image quality, a normal prime is one of the most ancient and simplest formulas to produce.
This makes normal primes many things – cheap, plentiful, fast, exceedingly sharp, and easy to handle. I’m of the opinion that any travel photographer should own a little “nifty fifty” as the simplest kind of walkabout lens.
Not only is it fun to use, but a fixed 50mm (full frame equivalent) is also a hugely versatile lens, perhaps one of the most versatile you can spend your money on!
Nikon AF-S 50mm f1/.8G
Descended from a long line of similar f/1.8 “nifty fifties”, the Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.8G is not just one of the stalwart brand’s best. It is also their cheapest.
For about 50% more, you can invest in the similar AF-S 50mm f/1.4G. However, I would only recommend the move if you have the money to spare and you really need the extra light that the wider aperture gives you.
The basic 1.8 model is just about excellent in terms of optics and deserves its title as one of Nikon’s most popular lenses ever!
Fujifilm XF 35mm f/2R WR
The Fujifilm X System is chock-full of amazing prime lenses, and the XF 35mm f/2R WR is one of the best examples of that fact. Because the X System is APS-C-only, a 35mm lens is a much better choice for a walkabout normal prime than a 50mm.
This particular lens excels because it ticks every imaginable box at a more than reasonable price point. It’s small, light, and exceptionally well-made, with snappy controls and quick, silent autofocus.
What’s more, it’s plenty fast for its focal length, making it a good choice for portraiture and moderate low-light photography, too! As a nice bonus, this lens also features full weather sealing for use on any of the pro-grade Fujifilm X System bodies.
Sony FE 50mm f/1.8
Though it’s not as tiny as some alternatives, Sony’s 50mm f/1.8 more than makes up for that fact with its fast aperture, excellent sharpness, and low price.
There is little to fault with this lens, optically or otherwise. Despite its entry-level nature, it feels just as nice in the hands as any of the brand’s more upscale models, making it the perfect gateway into the Sony mirrorless system.
Canon RF 50mm f/1.8 STM
When the Canon EOS R mirrorless camera system came out, it made a big splash in the world of photography.
Much of that had to do with the inherent innovation and high performance of the new design, but unfortunately, Canon R lenses and cameras also acquired a reputation for being prohibitively expensive.
To fix this problem and allow more young photographers to switch from existing DSLRs to the new R lineup, Canon devised a classic, cheap nifty fifty in the form of the RF 50mm f/1.8 STM.
There’s nothing more to say about the lens other than that it worked on every level that Canon was hoping for. It’s sharp, it’s fast, it’s genuinely affordable, and it does everything it’s meant to do while looking good, being reasonably well-built, and having fun. Bravo!
The Top Telephoto Primes for Travel Photography
As with wide angle lenses, the advantages of telephoto primes over a zoom lens are mainly that they are capable of the same (or superior) image quality at a lower cost and weight as well as at a smaller size.
This makes them particularly relevant to the modern travel photographer who might only require the telephoto end for a few occasional portraits or other specialist shots, not for the bulk of their work.
Sigma 56mm f/1.4 DC DN C
Available for both Micro Four Thirds, Sony E, and Fuji X Mounts, this telephoto lens by Sigma stands out as one of their recent best.
Its excellent sharpness, wide aperture, and sturdy construction are impressive on their own. But what really sets the bar high with this lens is how affordably Sigma manages to market it while making it available for multiple different camera systems, no less!
Yes, there are some higher-quality options with slightly faster apertures of f/1.2. But for the vast majority of photographers who need a reliable, (somewhat) pocketable, and optically solid telephoto lens for travel, this is it.
Nikon Z 85mm f/1.8 S
One of the more affordable recent offerings for Z-mount, the Nikon Z 85mm f/1.8 S is a mid-size telephoto prime with a fast aperture that’s perfect for portraiture on the move.
Its autofocus system lags a bit behind that of its more expensive siblings, but for anything short of very demanding use in sports and action photography, it should suffice.
Simply put, this is a no-nonsense portrait telephoto option for anyone working with the Nikon Z mount in APS-C format or full frame.
Sigma DG HSM Art 50mm f/1.4
Available for multiple lens mounts, including Nikon’s F mount, Canon’s EF, and Sony’s E and A mounts, the Sigma DG HSM Art 50mm f/1.4 is a benchmark for modern crop-sensor telephotos.
It’s a complex optical design with a whopping 13 elements in 8 groups, giving it an incredibly balanced optical profile nearly entirely devoid of aberrations or distortions.
The main thing that the Sigma DG HSM Art 50mm f/1.4 sacrifices in favor of these admirable qualities is price – that might sound a bit counterintuitive for a 3rd party lens like this, but those are the times we live in!
Sigma has since expanded on the high-end performance of this 50mm with a whole family of similar “Art” lenses, many of which are also great choices for travel photography.
The Top Zoom Lenses for Travel Photography
With all that I have said about fixed focal length camera lenses so far, there is no denying that the real deal in convenience lies with zooms.
Whether just to cover the tricky wide end to save on glass or to replace an entire camera bag all at once, a well-made zoom lens with an appropriate zoom range for your needs can very well be one of the best lenses for travel photography, period.
Nikon AF-S FX 24-120mm f/4G ED VR
The modern successor to the original 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6D from the 1990s aka “the Streetsweeper”, this jewel carries on the mantle of one of Nikon’s most versatile walkabout zooms.
Now equipped with built in image stabilization (Vibration Reduction or VR in Nikon lingo) and a constant maximum aperture, the 24-120mm is niftier than ever. Optical performance remains above average to excellent as before, depending on which part of the zoom range is most important to you.
Note that this isn’t meant to be a benchmark lens in terms of optics but rather a usable do-it-all that combines its impressive zoom range with enough character and extra features to stay on your camera all day.
Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM
This is Canon’s spin on the “Streetsweeper” lens concept. Compared to the Nikon alternative, this lens is built tougher, larger, and heavier, with a zoom range that tops out a little bit short.
On the other hand, optical quality is a lot more uniform here, with fewer distortions, especially towards the ultra-wide end.
Thanks to the same f/4 constant aperture, image stabilization, and silent, worry-free autofocus as its rivals, the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM manages to be a serious contender in this tightly packed field of travel camera lenses.
Fujinon XF 16-80mm f/4 R OIS WR
Equivalent to a 24-120mm on full frame, the Fujinon XF 16-80mm f/4 R OIS WR is a perfect showcase of how to adapt a formula like the above to an APS-C lens.
Small, lightweight, yet loaded with all the goodies you would expect from larger pro lenses, such as a constant max aperture, it’s among Fujifilm’s most usable do-it-all lenses for travel.
Unlike some of the faster constant-aperture zooms by Fujifilm, this one is also fully stabilized – another bonus that many travel photographers will surely appreciate!
Sigma 14-24mm f/2.8 DG HSM
Travel-friendly ultra-wide zoom lenses are difficult to design and manufacture, but Sigma managed to wow the industry with its fast 14-24mm f/2.8 DG HSM.
It’s not the most affordable lens by a stretch, but you can’t fault its quality whatsoever.
The big names like Nikon and Canon have their own in-house 14-24mm designs, but the Sigma manages to be fairly competitive in terms of optics while costing a notch less than any of them.
That, and its easily hand-holdable form factor combine to make it probably the single best ultra-wide travel camera lens at the moment.
Sony FE 24-240mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS
Typically, travel lenses zoom within a range of somewhere between 3x and 6x to balance out complexity and optical stability with size and bulk. Nikon’s 24-120mm set the template with a 5x range that has been copied countless times by now.
With one of their latest FE-mount gems, Sony chose to double that and make a 10x superzoom lens that can replace an entire camera bag on its own.
Sure, it hasn’t got a fixed maximum aperture – that would involve ludicrous amounts of overengineering, given the number of focal lengths this thing covers.
If you can make that one concession though, Sony’s FE 24-240mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS is one of the greatest excuses to pack fewer lenses (or maybe just one, in fact) on your next trip.
I hope you enjoyed this take on the best travel-ready camera lenses available in 2023!
The selection included in this guide should contain a good fit for a whole lot of different shooting styles, camera systems, and experience levels.
However, remember that each and every photographer is different. I suggest to just trying out one lens at a time until you find one that fits you, even if what you end up with is not on this list.
Bon voyage, and don’t forget to enjoy your travels!