Now here’s problem without a solution, right ?
But the question isn’t rhetorical. I’d like to know what you guys think. If you want to make the best possible travel photographs, how many lenses should you own? What’s the best compromise? One big zoom? One prime? Many primes? A combination? Is it better to sacrifice versatility for convenience and familiarity or should we kit up for all possible situations?
OK, I’ll go first.
This would be my natural answer.
Get one, really, really good lens. Learn how to use it well, how it draws, how it reacts to low light, to highlights, to contrasty situations, to dull lighting, … and stick to it.
Then, I look through my fave pictures of my pre-alt years (i.e., pre Sony + legacy lenses) and find many done with a Nikon D80 and version I 28mm-200mm zoom. At the time I also owned a Micro-Nikkor 55/3.5 and Nikon 50/1.8 plastic kit lens, both of which never made it to my mount, and an old 28/2.8 Sigma with a large scratch made by a key in a bag. The heavy zoom was all I used.
Corrected with DXO, that was a recipe for pretty special photographs ! A 10Mpix CCD and one kit zoom did this …
The zoom lens has many advantages over the multiple prime solution : less dust on the sensor, no frantic lens-swapping and, most of all, consistent one-lens rendering. Even a great range such as Zeiss’s ZM shows slight aesthetical discrepancies between lenses, which can be a nuisance.
So, for a single-lens setup, I’d recommend a solid zoom, possibly a Tri-Elmar or WATE.
Or would I ?
Ever used a single-speed bike ? Simplicity is what draws the crowds. Purity of experience. Get yourself a Distagon 1.4/35 ZM and never look at another lens in your whole life. Sony RX1 users, now is the time to make yourself heard !
Getting to know a lens with such amazing optical personality is a wonderful experience. You shoot hundreds of pictures and every one of them impresses you, adds a feature you’d not thought of before and creates more scenarios in your mind. By the time you’d been round the possibilities, (a) you’re a much better photographer than before and (b) you’re ready to tackle any subject with a deliberately chosen perspective rather than adapt to a scene through a change of focal length (which is basically synonymous to point a).
So, no zoom! I’d definitely recommend using a single prime of the highest quality your wallet and robbing, cheating, organ selling, can buy you.
Or would I ?
Thing is, traveling imposes vastly different conditions and, while a 35 is great for street photography, it really stinks for both cramped interiors and compressed vistas. Replacing that focal length with two others is often far easier.
On my most recent trip to Oxford and the Cotswolds, I took along two lenses I am currently testing for Zeiss : the OTUS 85/1.4 and ZF2 Distagon 25/2. 25-85, a focal combination never tried before and that actually makes a lot of sense for urban use.
25mm is wide enough to serve well in tight historical places, create strong dynamics and produce a very different result to a 35mm lens. 85mm nicely compresses scenes into content-filled and layered frames. And the two are far enough apart that they produce very complementary types of images with no visual overlap whatsoever, no ambiguity of message.
In this otherwise banal street scene, the 85 has filled the frame with lawn, golden stone, blue sky and bare branches. This is an unmistakable Oxford scene on a lovely winter morning. Of course the magnificence of the OTUS’s rendering doesn’t hurt at all … (darn I will miss it when it’s gone).
At the opposite end of the scale, here’s a much more dynamic view inside Gloucester cathedral, where Harry and Ron once hid from a passing troll.
Just as with high-end HiFi systems, one produces an it is here impression, while the other is more you are there. Wideband & monotriods vs Electrostatic & MosFet. A 2 lens setup is a fantastic compromise between “purity” and “adaptability”.
And yes, a zoom could recreate the same geometry, but never with the same aperture settings or the same distinctive rendering of each individual lens.
So rendering consistency is a good thing and a bad thing? Shut up! 😉 What matters is that a 2 lens set-up is the best for travel photography.
Or is it ?
All this is true, but as you get better, your can progressively justify owning more lenses to create different atmospheres, different perspectives …
3 lenses is a traditional setup for many expert photographers. 28-50-90. Or 21-35-75. Or 15-35-135. It all depends on your style and geometry. But 3 lenses definitely let you deal with more scenarios and there is no need for frantic swapping when in a given location.
Obviously, the reasoning behind all this is clear: more lenses mean you can adapt to more situations, provided you have learned to work with each individual lens. Hey but how about this : why not two bodies ? That’s convenient. 4 lenses on 2 bodies mean far less changing, plus the security of a second body when your NEX-5n dies after a long 110)F hike to Z-Bend in Western Australia (oh, that’s still painful, 5 years on …)
So yeah, more is definitively better.
And, as we all know, less is more.
Get one lens, the best lens you can afford, and get to know it well. Oh dear …
So there you have it. DS’s most helpful article yet 😉
Pressed to give answer, I’d go for 2. Stitching is easy these days, so widening a field of view requires very little work. And cropping, from a 36Mpix image, doesn’t make me sweat either. So that 25-85 combination I’ve been using recently feels pretty good. It keeps the bag light, even with a massive OTUS lens as part of the duo. In fact, owning 3 or 4 primes and leaving home with any two seems like a sweet proposition to me.
But what’s your thought on this, guys and gals ? What’s your fave setup and why ? And “gear doesn’t matter, it’s about the tog” doesn’t count as an answer!
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