Being involved with online photography forums on a regular basis, I constantly see people asking that very question. I also get asked personally from time to time. It's usually something like: ''I'm taking a trip to Italy next month. What lenses do you recommend I bring?'' Or: ''I'm going to McDonalds tomorrow for brunch, should I bring my Canon 800mm or my Canon 11-24mm lens?'' So, being I was faced with this very decision myself recently, I wanted to share with you what lens I brought with me and my thoughts.
I would be spending a month in Vietnam and Thailand and had to decide what to bring with me. So, let me first say that my stay in southeast Asia was for vacation purposes only; I was not there for anything work-related at all. It also was the first time I had ever been to that part of the world, so everything was going to be completely unknown to me there.
I would have liked to take all my gear with me, of course, so I wouldn't miss any photo opportunity: ultra-wides, superteles, and fast primes, but that was not an option. When I travel for pleasure, I like to keep it simple and travel light. I am there to relax, taste new foods, take in different cultures, enjoy the adventure, and did I mention eat new foods? I think I took this trip solely so I could eat there. Now that I think of it, basically all decisions I make revolve around eating.
I knew I would be on my feet walking roughly 8 hours each day for 20-something straight days, so weight was important to me, but I did not need the lightest lens possible and wanted to take from what I already owned. So, I did take just one lens, not the lightest, but only one. I know backpackers and climbers who not only bring just a spork to avoid the weight of carrying a fork and spoon, but then actually cut off the handle to their sporks to make there bag even lighter; every ounce counts, but I'll leave the handles on my sporks.
I knew I wanted to take a zoom lens. Besides the weight and space two or more lenses would take up, only having only one lens would allow me to not change lenses at all obviously. I wanted to just enjoy my time there.. All the photos I got were just a bonus.
So anyway, let's get straight to the point. I took with me for one month to Thailand and Vietnam a Canon 5D Mark III (ungripped) and a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II lens. That's it, no other lenses. I know a lot of people will say that is not traveling light at all, but for me it is, especially when I am accustomed to lugging around three or four bags filled with two gripped bodies, six or seven lenses, flashes, studio lights, stands, modifiers, etc. on a regular basis. One ungripped camera body and one zoom lens is nothing to me. I guess it's all relative.
This was simply my decision; there is no right or wrong answer to this question of what to bring when traveling; it is all a personal preference. I know many of you who read this will say they would have gone with a mirrorless camera, and others will say I took way too little considering I flew to the other side of the planet on four planes and spent about 30 hours in the sky each way (Lima, Peru; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Los Angeles, California; Seoul, Korea; Bangkok Thailand).
The 24-70 is not an exciting lens to me; I find it to be a little bit boring actually, but it is very practical! It covers a lot of standard focal lengths, and the Version II is optically superb and razor sharp. It is a workhorse I use a lot in the studio for all types of photography, and it never fails me with its fast, accurate autofocus. But I prefer shooting ultra-wide for a lot of personal images, and when shooting outdoors for my work in portraits and lifestyle images, I am almost always using a prime lens; 75% of the time a 50mm is on my camera. So, with my lens choice, I did still get 50mm, but could only shoot at f/2.8 instead of getting that sweet f/1.4 bokeh. The upside was I was able to change from 24mm to 35mm, 50mm, and 70mm in a second and never miss a moment.
So did I make the right decision? Do I have any regrets? Well, after I got back home, and over 3,000 photos later, I culled through them and ended up selecting 319 images to edit and share with friends and family from my trip. Of those 319 photos, I wanted to see what focal lengths I used the most. It was pretty dead even between 24mm and 70mm, with a little over 100 images at each of those focal lengths, and about 10 percent each at 35mm and 50mm.
I will say there was a handful of times I do wish I was able to go wider and a few instances I wanted something longer. However, after all was said and done, I thought to myself: "should I have brought a different lens? Would I have been happier if I had maybe had taken a 16-35mm and 85mm prime with me?" That could have been an option; I could have been able to go wider and longer as I wanted at some points, but my conclusion was, "no." Visualizing myself with that setup, I would not have been happy switching lenses so often, and it would have taken away from the trip. There was many times I took a photo of something at 24mm, turned around and shot something else at 70mm, and then again back to 24mm a minute later. If I had to do it all over again, I would have made the same lens choice.
Another plus of my lens decision that I didn't consider beforehand but paid off for me, was it being weather-sealed. Towards the end of the trip in Vietnam, we were hit with about three straight days of pouring rain, all day and night just buckets of water coming down. I got soaked, but I was still able to take photos without any worries about my gear. It all worked flawlessly.
I carried this combo inside my Think Tank Turn Style 20 along with a Joby Gorrillapod Focus mini tripod. This slingbag comes with a rain cover too, which also made me smile in all that rain. Nothing inside my bag got wet at all. This is my favorite bag ever, and I've owned it for about two years. It goes with me everywhere on a daily basis; it's basically my purse (European Carry-all). I can fit a body with two lenses and a flash in the main compartment. In the back inside pocket, I can even fit my 11.6'' Macbook Air and still have space to hold wallet, keys, etc. all in a very small, light, and easy to carry sling bag. Sometimes, I do wish it was just a tad larger, though, even just one inch bigger in every direction. If you're reading this Think Tank, you can call it the "Turnstyle Levine Edition" or just "Turnstyle 25" if you want to be boring about it. But it is still my favorite bag for travel and everyday use, and I have tried a lot of bags!
I would love to hear everyone's thoughts. Where has everyone traveled to internationally? And what did you take with you as far as photography gear when you didn't know what to expect in a foreign country? Was there anything you ever purposely left behind that you wished you had taken? I would like to hear about it. I am just simply sharing my own personal experiences here. My choices are not right for all; everyone has different needs.
If you have any questions about anything I mentioned, the Canon 5D Mark III, the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II, Joby Gorrilapod Focus, my Think Tank slingbag, or even just about my experience in Vietnam or Thailand in general, I would be happy to answer them. Let me know in the comments!