What Lens Should I Bring With Me?

What Lens Should I Bring With Me?

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.

Pre-Trip Thoughts

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.

My Choice

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.

Looking Back

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!

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83 Comments

TJ Jackson's picture

It varies for sure, but going as light/versatile as possible, I do tend to go with my D800E and 24-70 2.8 (versus a gripped body, primes, etc.) I have tried all of the options, as I'm sure most people have, but I gravitate back here. I also have gone smaller with a street-type setup in my RX1R for travel, but find that I want more range and am willing to deal with the weight (though I do love the RX1R for street). I'm sure opinions will vary ...

Dustin Levine's picture

Yes opinions will vary for sure. I tried to meet somewhere in the middle of light and versatile as you mentioned, and also like you, I feel traveling with a DSLR and a 24-70 is personally the best for me.

Light on personal travel and lighter on assignments. The focal length table is interesting. It seems most people shoot primarily on the two "ends" of the zoom range. When they need something a little wider they go for the absolutely widest and vice versa instead of thinking about what focal length actually would be best. Interesting.

Also im curious how so many images wound up on exactly 35 and 50mm? Those are two common prime lens focal lengths and even if youre accustomed to using those i could imagine it would be hard to nail those exactly just by looking in the viewfinder?

Dustin Levine's picture

That's very interesting. I never really looked at what focal lengths I was using before with a zoom lens until after this trip, I typically shoot with primes, but because I was going back and forth constantly up until the night before I left trying to decide what lens to bring, I was curious. I am going to keep an eye on it more often in the future

As a died in the wool Canon user I applaud your choice of body and lens although I would always take the grip as it effectively doubles battery power and is better for portrait shots. I do sympathise with the vision of a weightlifting photographer as I normally carry two bodies (5DII and 1DsIII) along with lenses from 8mm to 300mm including a 100mm macro and an 85mm f1.2. Whew - holiday ruined in an instant not to mention the airport hassle (is it cabin baggage / why does it weigh 17 kg etc.).
However! I have a solution which does not compromise quality (well - not much) and allows real flexibility. The Canon EOS M3 with 4 lenses (22mm f2, 11-22mm IS, 18-55mm IS and 55-200mm IS - I will add the new illuminated macro later this year). Everything is in a 2kg shoulder bag which includes tripod, flash, GPS logger, electronic view finder, batteries, charger, cleaning cloths, remote release etc. OK it isn't studio quality but images can certainly be cropped (from a 24 Mpix sensor) and the flexibility of the camera ensures that there are very few situations that cause problems.
Don't misunderstand me - I will not chuck my DSLRs and solely take my M3 but I must admit to feeling much less shoulder pain of late.

Dustin Levine's picture

I work with a grip on my body, but there was no way I was or will travel with one. It is easier for me to just bring an extra battery and charger. I also knew in advance I was going to have access to electricity every night to charge my batteries. Also the battery for the Canon 5D Mark III is outstanding, and even when shooting all day, I never run out of juice.........Your work kit and travel kit both sound amazing!! You have everything covered as far as focal lengths and being able to go extremely light when you need to........I am sure I will add a mirrorless camera to my kit one day, I am waiting to see what Canon eventually brings to market for full frame, and It will have to have a viewfinder, that is a must for me! The M-series do not have viewfinders if I am correct?

I use Nikons for most of my work but just got back from France and Belgium and did a ton of walking. Brought only my Fuji X-T10 and 18-55 zoom, which is roughly the equivalent to the 24-70. (I brought a couple fast primes as well but they never left the hotel room) Turned out to be the right choice for me - light and reasonably versatile. Last year I traveled with a D-800e and three lenses and it killed me. These were pleasure and not working vacations so making photos was not crucial. Also had a mini tripod which I never used or carried.

Dustin Levine's picture

Yea your setup basically covers the exact focal lengths as mine, but in a much smaller and even lighter package than mine. I also have done that with primes on past travels, and the same thing happens, I never touch them and they either stay in my bag or the hotel all day. So we learn from our ''mistakes''.......but I do travel with that Joby gorillapod all the time, it is small and light enough to fit in my slingbag, but also, I shoot a lot of nightscapes and use a 10stop ND filter during the day often, so it is needed.

Nick Dors's picture

I use a Fuji X100T and had the 2 converters for it. If I bring my DSLR I take the Canon 6D + 40mm 2.8 pancake. Love that focal length for traveling. But on vacation I want to relax and so I only take my X100T with me nowadays..

Dustin Levine's picture

That X100T with convertors is probably a killer combo! And that 40mm pancake too! I imagine that is the smallest and lightest lens Canon makes? I might have to look into maybe adding that to my bag.

Nick Dors's picture

It really is! No noticable loss in AF or sharpness. And yes I believe the 40mm the smallest and lightest. Its actualy a really good lens!

Ps: the Canon 6D is great for traveling. Gps & WiFi + its light and small and has the same image quality as the 5DIII

Dustin Levine's picture

I used to own a 6D......someone spilled a beer on it at an event, and it never worked again!.......So I went with a 5D3 after that for the weather sealing......I do miss the Wifi feature all the time.

Nick Dors's picture

Have to hold on to my beer when shooting, thx for the tip! ;-)

Liam Doran's picture

I travel internationally for work a few times a year and within the U.S. about four/five months a year. I do not travel light. Work is assignment based and I just cant be without. Usually it is for skiing related shoots so in addition to camera gear i also have a full backcountry ski kit...not light. Anyhow here it is
Canon 1DX and Canon 7DMKII or 5DMKII for backup. For lenses I always have Sigma 12-24, 24-105 and 70-200. In addition to those I will bring the 50 1.4A for portraits and the 35 1.4A for general travel work. If U.S. based I will also have the Sigma 120-300 f2.8(its so dang sharp) and even the 150-600 if I think I will need the reach. I also bring my Macbook Pro and G-Tech drives to back up all my work and also have about a years worth of my library with me...because you will ALWAYS get a hi-res request the day you hit the road! Everything is packed into Clike Elite photo packs. Oh and also a few strobes, Lexar 32 gig cards, extra batteries...and who know what else...

Dustin Levine's picture

Wow! Incredible! Traveling with my full kit to a job across town is quite the adventure for me. I can not imagine doing that on an international job, along with a full ski kit! I tip my hat to you sir, that is not easy.

I can see using just the 24-70 f2.8 lens; it's fast. Also the desire to reduce weight.
My wife and I got tickets to a practice round of The Masters Golf Tournament. I went with two cameras hanging from a shoulder harness; I had one lens mounted on each camera: a Canon FD 28mm f2.8 on my Canon New F-1 for the scenic shots and a Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L II on my 5D III for the action and close ups. To reduce weight, I removed the motor drive from my F-1 and the battery grip from the 5D. Carrying the cameras was easier than having a camera hanging from my neck.

Dustin Levine's picture

I've never used one of those dual camera harnesses before, but I've been curious for awhile for the few times I use 2 cameras at once in events. They do seem it would make life easier. I am sure you got some fantastic images at the Masters! I would love to do some golf photography some time.

I've used neck straps since 1980; the one for my Canon A-1 was a wide-band cloth neck strap. But even, after hanging an SLR from the neck for a day, it gets pretty weary. Now, hang a second camera from you neck.
The great thing about the shoulder harness is that it distributes the weight to the shoulders instead of from the neck.
After slinging two cameras at The Masters, I didn't need a chiropractic adjustment; I scheduled a day off to recover, but that wasn't necessary.

kevin perry's picture

I regularly travel pretty rough through Africa, and have always regretted it when I carried a really spare camera kit.

This last winter I was in Niger and Benin (Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ventureforthphoto/ ) and carried a nikon d750 with 85mm 1.4 and 20mm 1.8 primes. I also brought my Sony Rx1R II for 35mm.

It was kind of a perfect setup in that it allowed me to switch focal lengths without changing lenses.

Dustin Levine's picture

So far I have been lucky to not regret traveling light, I always seem to travel too heavy, and bring more than I need. That's why I decided to go ultra light (for me anyway) this time. it obviously would be ideal to have all focal lengths available, but there is always a give and take. When in Africa you never felt the need for anything longer than 85mm?

kevin perry's picture

Trips where I knew I'd be seeing wildlife (Uganda, Madagascar...) I carried a 200mm prime.

This last trip to west africa, the d750 gave me such nice files with the 85mm that I was able to crop down (mostly for those horse festival shots on my IG).

I guess I've just mostly learned not to overdo it on the paring down. I'm headed to Guinea and Guinea-Bissau this winter with a very similar kit, although I'm toying with the idea of a little more reach.

My main criteria is to be able to carry it on my back while riding on the back of a moto taxi for 8-10 hours.

Dustin Levine's picture

Yes, that is what I was thinking, for the wildlife........but I see in your instagram feed is obviously a lot more to see in Africa than wildlife. You took some great images sir! Enjoy your travels this winter!

Slight tangent: how'd you go about visiting Yemen? Felt that it was safe? Obviously Socotra is safe but the mainland is a different question. Very few places I won't consider travelling to and Yemen seems so beautiful, but also seems to carry a large risk to any tourists.

Dave Hachey's picture

I have two basic kits I travel with, Light and Heavy, depending on the trip. Light is usually a Canon 6D with a 24-105 F4 and a 70-200 F4, and a 11.6" MacBook Air. Heavy includes 1D X, 5D3 and 7D2, with 16-36 F2.8, 24-70 F2.8, 70-200 F2.8 and 200-400 F4, with a 13" MacBook Air. If I don't expect to do any nature/wildlife work, I'll leave the 200-400 and a body at home. For personal creative challenges I sometimes only take a single body and lens, just to see what I can do.

Dustin Levine's picture

I know a lot of people, and see a lot of people talk about the 24-105mm for travel........lighter and smaller than the 24-70 f/2.8 and with more reach. It seems like a great choice! I also considered borrowing a 70-200 f/4 for the trip, but in the end decided against it. I did not regret it, and after the trip realized there was only a handful of times I would have taken it out, and wasn't worth it on my back for a month. Like you, I find a Macbook Air is necessary when traveling internationally for long periods of time.

Jason Rogers's picture

Hey Dustin,
A couple years ago, I travelled to Cambodia and Vietnam for a month long trip by myself. My dilemma was the same as ours. I had never been there before. I was going to the legendary Angkor Wat, and other numerous temples in the vast complex for 5 days. I was to be wandering the streets of Phnom Penh, Saigon, and Hoi An, Hue, and Hanoi. I was taking a boat cruise through the water markets of Can Tho and the majestic karsts Halong Bay. I scheduled treks to wander through the mountainous villages of Lao Cai and Sapa, and trudging through the rice paddies of the countryside. So what lenses and/or gear did I decide to bring? Too much. I used my Tamrac bag and stuffed it to the hilt. My 5D Mark III, my 16-35mm 2.8L for the wide angle stuff. My 24-70mm 2.8 L for all the street and walking around stuff, my 70-200mm 2.8L for the telephoto stuff for shy street people. And, my 35mm 1.4L, because, what the heck, why not? My lightweight Manfrotto tripod, my Really Right Stuff L clamp for my camera and pano gear, my Big Stopper and IR lens for long exposure and infrared photos. Extra batteries, memory cards, a battery charger, cleaning clothes, and release cable. I was planning to capture epic panorama photos of ancient Cambodian ruins to the vibrant colors and deeply etched faces of indigenous tribes of Northern Vietnam, Did I use all of my gear and capture all the photos I was hoping for? Yes. Did I REALLY need all of it? No. It was a production to get that pack packed and then to be sure I had it put everything back in it after unpacking. My shoulders were constantly killing me from carrying my pack up to 8 hours and upwards of 20 walking miles per day. I learned my lesson. I'm going to London and Ireland next month. I have a new toy, the 17mm F4 L tilt-shift lens, which is coming. That, my 24-70m and my Mefoto travel tripod. That's all. Well, no, that's not really all, but that's all the heavy stuff. Thanks for the article. It let me laugh at myself and also recall some truly awesome memories of my profoundly amazing trip as well.

Dustin Levine's picture

Hey Jason, that is great! Your trip sounded amazing! We hit a lot of the same cities, Saigon, Hoi An, Hue, Hanoi......Halong Bay was the best for me, breathtaking views! But I did not make it over to Cambodia, maybe one day. I am glad I was able to make you laugh, that is all we can do when we make mistakes, no matter how big or small, laugh and learn from it. I've packed as much as you before on trips, but seems every single time I travel, I bring less and less than the previous trip. I don't know what next for me, what is less than 1 camera and 1 lens? Do you have your photos from Vietnam anywhere up online? I would love to check them out. Take care

28-300, then...if shooting people, 1 fast prime (35, 50), or if shooting ladscape 14-24. The end.

Dustin Levine's picture

That works too! I never used a 28-300mm before, but that is a huge zoom range, and I imagine a great lens for travel! It covers basically all focal lengths besides ultra wide.

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