When I began my work in travel, culture, and humanitarian photography I spent a great deal of time scouring websites, reading forums, checking reviews, making lists, and agonizing before I finally settled on which lenses were best for my needs and my work. So hopefully all my effort can help you save some time and assist you in your research in selecting which lenses are best for you. In addition to travel, humanitarian, and photojournalism work, much of this advice will apply to general photography as well. After you’ve learned all about lenses here, you can have a look at this other post to see what other camera gear and accessories you might want.
Open Windows, San Miguel Duenas, Guatemala
The easy answer to the question of which lens is best for travel photography, right up front, is: an all purpose zoom that goes all the way from wide to telephoto, like an 18-200mm, or a standard zoom like a 24-105mm. See the Standard Zoom section and the One Lens For Travel sections of this post for more information about these. The more difficult answer to that question is addressed in detail by this post. The most difficult answer to this question is: it depends. It depends on you. It depends on your level, interests, and goals as a photographer. It depends on what you most enjoy taking photos of and what type of images you aim to capture. Hopefully this post will help you figure that out, and I’ll address this most complicated answer more at the end of the post.
The primary sources for me in determining which lenses to choose were looking at the websites and blogs of other photographers who do similar work, since they often list and discuss the equipment they use. The initial and most helpful source for me was Karl Grobl, since his work as a humanitarian photojournalist is closest to what I do and what I aspire to do. But some of the other ones I can recall looking at include David duChemin – (who is a travel, art, and humanitarian photographer – he seems to have moved or deleted his “Gear” page), plus Nevada Wier and Bob Krist – both dedicated travel and cultural photographers. Oh, and the books and advice of the ever-enthusiastic Rick Sammon helped out along the way. I then applied what I learned from them to my specific photographic interests, preferences, and tendencies (which can be summed up with the fact that I typically like to zoom in close). In other words, if one of them favors a 50mm prime lens but you know you prefer the versatility of zooms, then adapt what they say to your needs.
For me and many others the ideal combination is a wide angle zoom, a standard (or middle range) zoom, and a telephoto zoom. (If you are interested in just one lens for travel, have a look at the Standard Zoom section, and then also jump down to the bottom of this article for the One Lens for Travel section.) I’m going to stick to the professional level lenses and compare the Canon L lenses first, and discuss other Canon lenses in the One Lens for Travel section below. I’ll try to keep it short and simple, and let you conduct further research on the countless sites dedicated to equipment and reviews.
Click on each lens below to link to its page on Amazon.com. If you plan to purchase any of this equipment from Amazon (or other equipment, accessories, or anything else), I encourage you go to Amazon.com by clicking on the links found throughout this post, and then Amazon will give me a little something for the referral, which will help support my blog. Thanks!
If you wish to first try out a lens before buying it, click on this link to go to BorrowedLenses.com, where you can get great prices on short-term rentals of any lens as well as the latest Canon and Nikon dSLR bodies (as well as video, audio, and lighting equipment).
If you are in the UK or wish to purchase from B&H, Adorama, or direct from Canon see the information at the end of this post for those links. The lenses I chose, which work best for my needs, are indicated by (Y). I apologize to the Nikonistas out there, since all of these lenses are the Canon variety. However, Nikon typically has an equivalent lens for each of these. Just search for the same focal length and have a look at the aperture and price to determine the comparable Nikon (Nikkor) lens. For example here are some equivalents:
Canon 16-35 f/2.8L to Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8
Canon 24-70 f/2.8L to Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8
Canon 70-200 f/2.8L IS to Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8 VR
Check out this post to better Understand Canon Lens Notations – the significance of all the various numbers and letters in a lens name.
Wide Angle Zoom
As humanitarian photojournalist Karl Grobl says, this is the “bread and butter lens” of the photojournalist. This is used for up-close-and-personal shots, for environmental portraits or photos, and for “story-telling” images which include multiple subjects or a larger context.
Open Windows, San Miguel Duenas, Guatemala
EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM (Y)
pros: slightly wider on the wide end which is good for cropped sensors (7D, 60D, Rebels), larger maximum aperture (“faster”) for use in low light situations or for more dramatic depth of field
cons: high price, heavier in weight
notes: get the slim UV filter to avoid vignetting, especially if using a full frame camera like the 5D
filter: 82mm slim filter fits this lens.
notes: The above two images of this post were with this lens. This is the wide angle zoom I chose because I wanted the “faster” f/2.8 aperture to be able to use it effectively in low light situations.
EF 17-40mm f/4L USM
pros: more zoom on the far end, lighter in weight, much lower price
cons: f/4 maximum aperture not as “fast” and slightly less dramatic for shallow depth of field, not quite as wide on the wide end
filter: 77mm slim filter fits this lens.
This is a great “walk-around” all purpose lens, especially for travel or everyday photography. If you want to head out on the streets with just one lens, this is the one to take which will serve you well in most situations you encounter.
EF 24-70 f/2.8L USM (Y)
pros: larger maximum aperture (“faster”) for use in low light situations and more dramatic depth of field
cons: heavier in weight, higher price, less zoom range, no image stabilization
filter: 77mm multi-coated filter or 77mm coated filter fits this lens.
notes: a great all-purpose walk-around lens, though relatively big and heavy. I discuss using this lens, with several photo examples, in this post here.
There is a new EF 24-70 f/2.8L II USM lens plus the new EF 24-70 f/4L IS USM lens, both with the same focal length as above. The first one just listed is an improved, lighter version of the 24-70 f/2.8L, and the second one listed adds Image Stabilization but has an f/4 maximum aperture rather than the f/2.8 maximum aperture of the other 24-70mm lenses. Adding these two new lenses into the mix makes this an even more challenging decision in the Standard Zoom category!
EF 24-105 f/4L IS USM
pros: lighter in weight, image stabilization which will help you gain 2 or 3 stops in speed vs. hand-held non IS (*see below), more zoom range, lower price
cons: f/4 maximum aperture not as “fast” and slightly less dramatic for shallow depth of field
filter: 77mm multi-coated filter or 77mm coated filter fits this lens.
* this means for example, if the proper exposure of a scene is 1/60 at f/5.6, and you want to hold on to that f/5.6 aperture for compositional reasons and not have to sacrifice your chosen depth of field for a faster shutter speed, you could capture it without blur, whereas without the image stabilization (IS) the hand held image may have been blurry.
This is a great lens for portraits, close ups, details, ability to zoom in and capture something far away, sports and action shots, and ability to create dramatic depth of field or blurry backgrounds. There are four versions of the Canon 70-200mm lens – either f/2.8 or f/4, each with or without image stabilization (IS). Oh wait, there are now five versions, with the recent Mark II version of the f/2.8 IS. I think with a lens this long and heavy, you need image stabilization if you are going to be hand holding it, so I will ignore the non-IS versions.
Solola Market, Guatemala
EF 70-200, f/2.8L IS USM
pros: larger maximum aperture (“faster”) for use in low light situations and more dramatic depth of field. The Mark II version of this has a closer minimum focus distance and improved optics
cons: very heavy, very large, higher price, especially the new Mark II version
filter: 77mm multi-coated filter or 77mm coated filter fits this lens.
EF 70-200, f/4L IS USM (Y)
pros: lighter weight, smaller, lower price
cons: f/4 maximum aperture not as “fast” and less dramatic for shallow depth of field
filter: 67mm multi-coated filter or 67mm coated filter fits this lens.
notes: This is the telephoto zoom I chose. I sacrificed the one-stop of aperture for the much more manageable size and weight of the f/4. And since I primarily use it outdoors, and because it has image stabilization, the f/4 aperture only really affects the extent of background blurring. There are several example photos of this lens in action in this post here and also more nice example photos in this post here.
I haven’t used each of these lenses in the field, though I have briefly tested most of them, so my decisions and my pros and cons are sometimes based on my research and from what I’ve learned from others who use them. Consider them starting points for issues you want to consider in your selections. And while there are endless discussions and comparisons regarding image quality, sharpness, sweet spots, etc. for each pair above, I will stay out of that discussion and tell you there are highly regarded professionals who use each of these, that any Canon L series lens is professional quality, that price and/ or largest maximum aperture will often indicate the one that is generally considered “better,” and that you will never regret your choice based on these concerns. Note that many L-series lenses are sealed against and dust, water and weather. Sometimes a front filter is required to complete the weather sealing, such as with the wide angle lenses. I suggest always using a clear, protective UV filter with any lens, preferably a high quality, multi-coated B+W brand filter. If you don’t want to spend that much, at least get a high quality single-coated B+W filter rather than a cheaper Tiffen filter.
When making your choices, I highly recommend going to a store with your camera and actively testing and comparing each pair. The difference in size and weight, and even feel of the lens in your hands, is often dramatic and may help you make your decision. If you are still undecided, rent one for the weekend and work with it. And don’t think that you have to immediately get three lenses in order to do your work. Karl Grobl uses just two of them in his work, and that hasn’t limited him in either humanitarian or travel work. Consider your primary needs, and buy one or two based on that, and combine them with less expensive non-L lenses for now.
If your budget or needs don’t call for L-series lenses, see the One Lens for Travel section below, or look for the closest equivalents of the above lenses in other Canon or Sigma or Tamron, etc. lenses (or in the Nikon lenses if you are over in that camp).
Many photographers rave about prime lenses (lenses of a single focal length, that don’t zoom) for many reasons, including image quality, the purity and simplicity of working with them, and their large maximum apertures (as wide as f/1.2) for very dramatic compositions through use of shallow depth of field. The focal lengths I see used most often are (these are obviously Canon examples):
Canon 35mm f/2
Canon 50mm f/1.8 II (high image quality for about $100!)
Canon 50mm f/1.4 (Y) (a little more costly, but higher quality 50mm)
Canon 85mm f/1.8
Take into consideration if you have a full frame or a cropped sensor, since with a cropped sensor 7D , 60D, or 550D the field of view of the 50mm lens will be closer to an 80mm lens on a full frame 5D camera (or a 35mm film camera), so the field of view of a 35mm will be closer to a 50mm on a full frame or 35mm film camera.
San Miguel Dueñas, Guatemala
One Lens for Travel
I know a lot of people are interested in finding just one lens that is good for travel photography. As I mentioned above the best option is typically the standard, mid-range zoom. Look above for info on the Canon L-series lenses. My choice would be the EF 24-105 f/4L IS USM. For something less expensive Canon offers a couple other great options. For each of these lenses, I would highly recommend getting the optional lens hood (the hood comes with L-series lenses). It helps shade the lens to prevent unwanted lens flare (although lens flare can sometimes be used for a great effect when desired), helps protect the lens from bumps and drops, and makes you look cooler and more professional! And of course always get a good quality, coated B+W brand UV filter for protection – or at least a cheaper Tiffen filter. However, there is a significant difference in the clarity and lack of reflectiveness of a coated B+W filter vs. a standard Tiffen filter, which you can see if you look through them side by side, so those who are concerned about image quality should go with a coated, or better yet multi-coated B+W filter (designated MRC). Also, note that non-L-series lenses are not nearly as well sealed against dust, water and weather as most all of the L-series lenses are.
EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS
pros: less expensive, lighter weight, image stabilization
cons: less zoom range on the telephoto end than the 18-200mm, not a constant minimum aperture like the L-series lenses (the f/3.5-5.6 means your largest aperture at the 18mm wide end will be f/3.5, while the largest aperture at the 135mm telephoto end will be a less dramatic f/5.6), not higher quality USM focusing motor, EF-S means this lens can only be used on cameras with the APS-C sensor, or non-full-frame sensors, so it can be used on all Digital Rebels, 20D-50D, and 7D, but cannot be used on a Canon 5D. However, that means it is optimized for those cameras, especially for the wide end.
Lens hood EW-73B fits this lens, and a 67mm coated filter or 67mm filter.
This is currently one option for the kit lens for the Canon EOS 60D, and is a good choice if you are debating between the kit lens or not.
EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS
pros: more zoom range on the telephoto end, image stabilization, better image quality than the 18-135mm lens.
cons: more expensive, heavier weight, not a constant minimum aperture like the L-series lenses (see above lens), not higher quality USM focusing motor, EF-S for APS-C sensor cameras only (see above lens).
Lens hood EW-78D fits this lens and a 72mm coated filter or 72mm filter.
This is currently another option for the kit lens for the Canon EOS 60D, and is an excellent choice if you are debating between the kit lens or not.
EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM
This is an older lens that seems to have been replaced for the most part by the two lenses above.
pros: less expensive, image stabilization, USM means a faster, quieter auto-focusing motor and full time manual focus (which means you can override the auto-focus by turning the focus ring without having to switch the lens to MF manual focus), EF so can be used with both APS-C and full frame cameras too if you have or wish to upgrade to a 5D.
cons: not a constant minimum aperture like the L-series lenses (see above), less range on both the wide and telephoto ends.
Lens hood EW-78BII fits this lens and a 72mm coated filter or 72mm filter.
The actual answer to the question of which lens is best for travel photography is: it depends. As I said above, it depends on you – on your level, interests, and goals as a photographer. It depends on what you most enjoy taking photos of and what type of images you aim to capture. If you are a photography novice, or just want to be able to capture all or most situations, the all purpose zoom or standard zoom might serve you best. But if you wish to capture more of a certain type of photo that you like, photos that match your specific visual ideas and preferences, you need to reconsider. Do you like sweeping vistas and all encompassing environmental portraits? Do you typically want to capture the entire scene in your shots? Then perhaps a wide angle zoom will work better for you than a standard zoom. Certainly, you will be limited and not able to frame certain shots the way you might want, but you will capture more of the types of images you like, and might simply have to move in closer than usual to get some the other images. Do you like extreme close-ups of people’s faces with dramatically blurry backgrounds, architectural details on buildings, the look of compressed perspective? Then a telephoto zoom rather than a standard zoom will help you capture more of those images you like. Sure, you will not be able to get the wide angle view of spaces, but you might succeed in capturing many more of the dramatic photos you like. Or perhaps you best work like a classic photojournalist and want to capture scenes and portraits more closely to how you see them. Then a single prime lens like a 50mm or 85mm might be the one lens that is perfect for you.
The Best Lens for the Canon 60D
A lot of people ask, “Which is the best lens for the Canon 60D, (or the 7D, or the 550D/T2i or the 5D)?” There isn’t a specific lens that is best for a specific camera. I hope you’ve already learned that from reading this post! A lens will perform exactly the same on each of those cameras or any other camera with an APS-C size sensor. The effective focal lengths will be different with a full frame sensor dSLR, such as the Canon 5D, but they will still be wide angle zooms, medium zooms, etc. The best lens for your camera is the one that is best for you, your work, and the types of photos you take. That being said, the kit lens that Canon has paired up with the 60D, the EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS is an excellent choice for an all-purpose everyday and travel lens. See the EOS 60D with the kit lens on Amazon here.
For related posts, check out other entries in the Lenses Category, the Humanitarian Photography category, and my posts about Fixed vs. Variable Aperture Lenses and Choosing a Lens beyond the Kit Lens, as well as my discussion and recommendations for gear for travel photography.
Purchasing: As I mentioned above, if you plan to purchase any of this equipment, I encourage you to do so by clicking on the links of each of the lenses listed above, which will take you to that page on Amazon.com. Or go directly to Amazon using this link or click on the Amazon logo below. If you purchase through these links, Amazon will give me a little something for the referral, which will help support my blog. Thanks, I appreciate your support!
If you are in the UK, you can click here for the UK Amazon referral link. If you are in another country, click on one of my Amazon links, scroll to the bottom of the page, and click on your country for your local Amazon.
For those interested in purchasing from B&H Photo, Adorama, or direct from Canon, please click on their logos on the Gear page. Thanks!
Renting Lenses: If you wish to first try out a lens before buying it, click on this link to go to BorrowedLenses.com, where you can get great prices on short-term rentals of any lens as well as the latest Canon and Nikon dSLR bodies (as well as video, audio, and lighting equipment).
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