Thomas Lohr's picture

Backpacking through South-East Asia: zoom vs primes


I'll be travelling to Thailand and Vietnam and plan on doing some documantary and street photography work and need some advice on what equipment to take with me.

Since I'll be backpacking, size and weight are quite an issue and I already decided to leave the 70-200 at home (what a shame). I got some great results with my D750 and a Sigma 28mm 1.8 and my FM2 with a 50mm 1.8 (lenses work on both bodies) when I was in Paris, however the two bodies were quite cumbersome at times and my Tamron 24-70 could replace this setup, making the kit even smaller and lighter (+more versatile).

However, my main concerns against the 24-70 are that it is to big for street photography and that it wouldn't survive the travel since it's build quality is not quite as reassuring as a nikon 70-200's is for example and I would have no backup.

Any suggestions on that or travel photography tips on those countries in general?

Thanks in advance, cheers from Austria!

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Jayson Cruz Santiago's picture

My travel kit was a 28-70 for a long time. It works. Ive also done a trip with just a 50mm. Bottom line, whatever you have you will learn to work within its restrictions. preferably I would have a 24-70 and a 10 or 15mm, something wide just in case, but if you can only take one lens, 24-70 works. As far as street photography is concerned, you learn to pretend to be photographing other things, you'll make it work. My Tamron has lasted me through several trips, wouldn't worry too much about build quality.

Thomas Lohr's picture

Thanks for your reply! The 24-70 it'll be then, I guess. Concerning street photography - you are quite right, and even with a 28mm 1.8 the D750 isn't really a small camera..

Jayson Cruz Santiago's picture

When I went to Nepal i last February I hauled around 4 lenses but only changed out the 28-70 once for my 15mm. I could have saved myself the hassle and just taken that. Im sure you'll do fine with it.

Jayson Cruz Santiago's picture


I've worked as a PJ and Travel fotog for decades and I've learned the hard way that cheap glass will fail. It will fail at the worst possible time. And it will be very difficult to get repaired "out there". That being said my goto glass for a F&L (fast and light) kit is the Nikon 24-70 f2.8. The new VR one is much tougher and I find that it has just enough reach for actualities, wide enough for most 1to1s, and is the perfect balance on the D5. Rarely do I need something wider than 24mm. The next must have is the Nikon 70-200 f2.8. Also tough as nails and the just enough reach to keep me out of harms way. More and more I find I'm using -read filing, the 7. That is the iPhone 7. Small, fast, light weight, very inconspicuous, and great image quality.

Thomas Lohr's picture

Great images! That's quite the type of pictures I hope to achieve. I'm also quite fond of the 24-70 2.8, yet I feel the Tamron 24-70 is more like a 24-55 or 60mm, especially at close focusing distances. If it falls apart I finally have a reason to get the Nikon version and take a 50mm with me as a backup ;)

Jose Ribeiro's picture

Backpacking with D5 and 24-70 VR, is crazy! APS or mirrorless with 18-105mm and a small carbon fiber tripod is the best for traveling light. Nikon is to big and heavy. Sony A6500 & 18-105mm F4. Tripod only needed if you dol blue hour photos. And iPhone 6 or 7. If you like Macro just take some add on lens and don't forget polarized and ND filters.

Thomas Lohr's picture

Thanks a lot for your contribution! I totally agree with you. While it might have been the case that you need (semi-) professional (D)SLRs/rangefindes for great travel images, I am seeing more and more people achieving great results with mirrorless systems. However, I could imagine battery life being an issue?

Kev Sidford's picture

Having travelled around the world from South Africa to Iceland and from Ecuador to Mongolia. I would suggest taking both your 28mm prime and the 70 - 200mm. If your gear hasn't failed you then what makes you think that it will fail on a trip. I would suggest taking loads of small SD Cards and a pile of Silica Gel packs.

Thomas Lohr's picture

Thanks for your input! 28+70-200 is an interesting combination I haven't conidered yet! The problem here is, I've used the Tamron 24-70 for portraits and stuff, that didn't involve rough backpacking and tropical climate.

henry wu's picture

I travel with my D750 and my two trusty primes. The Sigma 35mm 1.4 for portrait shots and the Sigma 20mm 1.4 for landscape shots. It's a tradeoff since you can't really zoom with either of these, but I mostly do portrait and landscape anyways so I'm ok it. Otherwise a zoom like your 24-70 is pretty good, but I'm sure you can see the quality difference between your primes and your zoom lens.

Thomas Lohr's picture

Wow, amazing image, I like the tones, especially of the background!

Quality-wise the Tamron is actually very good, better than my Nikon 50mm 1.4G, nevertheless I agree with you, primes have worked fine for me most of the time. I think I'll manage to squeez them into my backpack somehow..

Tim Driman's picture

Travel today is headed towards mirrorless..No doubt about it...If you have that luxury.

Not a great fan on prime lesnes for travel as your opportunities are so varied and you need as much versatility as you can get.

However 24mm-70mm and 70mm-200mm are icononic for good reasons..... I would really try to make the effort to take both...The 70mm-200mm is really nice to sit back, away from "in your face" and capture candid images....

Here's a thought: I had an 18mm - 200mm f3.5-f5.6 which I absolutely loved and I had great sucess, including lowlight...Not expensive glass either... They then brought out the 18mm-135mm which I believe is very popular.... Also not expensive and may well be worth investing in something like that.....

Thomas Lohr's picture

Thanks for your comment!

Agreed, mirrorless is definitely the way to go for travel photography, the Fuji X Series seems to offer great value for the money!

Colin Johnson's picture

I just got back from 3 weeks in Tibet.
I used pretty much the same setup as last year in Laos:

2x Sony A7r II bodies shot as a pair most of the time.
One mounted with the Sony/Zeiss 35mm F1.4 the other with the Zeiss Basis 85mm F1.8.
I also carried a 16-35 F4 and a 70-300 F4.5/F5.6 but used them for only some landscape shots and to be honest, I could have left them at home.
I also carried a Zeiss Loxia 21mm F2.8, MF prime, which I used for some landscape and all my street photography in Lhasa.

Zooms just won't cut it for the type of work I do.
If you are inside monasteries or temples, there isn't a whole lot of light.
If you are up at 4am to get to the monasteries for morning prayers and beat the tourists - there's not a lot of light either.
F1.4 is a must in these situations + a body with good low light.

The 42MP sensor and built in stabilization is also a must for me.
I have a D5 and D4s at home, but they are too big, too heavy and not suited for travel photography IMHO.

The Sony A7r II allows APS-C crop mode which gives you a 18.8 MP images and a 1.5 crop.
Battery life in temps as low as -25C was not a problem.
I carried 16 batteries and 8 chargers with me, but could have got away with half that amount.

This shot was at 4700 meters and -15C...

More images on Instagram @Aliveinhere

Thomas Lohr's picture

Great image! I'll definitely try bringing at least one of them, if not both, I think your setup would break my back however..
Was the Sonys' battery life an issue on your trip?

Colin Johnson's picture

I had a Landcruiser and a driver, so I only took out what I needed on a day.
Most of the time it was the 35 + 85 and both bodies.

Batteries were better than I imagined.
I figure maybe 30% less on the coldest mornings, when it was around -25C.
I took 16x with me but could have made it with 8x.
I had more trouble with my iPhone 5s dying than the Sony's, to be honest.

The only time one locked up and died, was in front of Everest about a mile in from the base camp in -25C and a gale of wind :(

Ryan Bent's picture

I just got back from Thailand and Cambodia. I went over there with my D800, 24-70mm and 50mm. I used the 24-70 most of the time wandering around outside of the city and then while roaming Bangkok and Chiang Mai I had the 50 to keep my kit a bit smaller. Personally, never felt like I needed any other lenses. I will say, the people there are absolutely amazing and kind. The whole time I was there I was never felt concerned about theft.

Thomas Lohr's picture

Cool setup, thanks for the advice!