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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Previous comments
Jim Hofman's picture

After four years of traveling around China with a Pelican case full of Nikon bodies & lenses I finally decided to assemble a "travel kit" based on weight and size. I was spending 30% of the year carrying heavy DSLRs and I hated it. After a lot of research I drank the Fuji Kool Aid and bought an X-E2S plus 4-5 (small) lenses to test. What a difference!!! My whole kit is in a small camera bag now. I spend more time on the streets and less time dealing with a sore shoulder or neck. The image quality hasn't suffered going mirrorless and I'm getting more keepers because I'm shooting longer.

Dustin Levine's picture

I hear nothing but great things about the Fuji X system, and seems every time they upgrade the bodies, they get rid of what people hate, and add features there customers ask for. Were you in China for pleasure or there working?

Jim Hofman's picture

I go to China for business, but shoot street photos during my off hours. A symbiotic relationship.


Garrick Morgenweck's picture

Recently did a trip to Cambodia and Vietnam myself. Took my D810 with a Tamron 24-70 f/2.8 and a 70-200 F/2.8. The 70-200 was just in case as I had never been there and I shoot better than 90% of my stuff at 24-70. The trip continued to confirm that, although having a super wide at Angkor Wat and a few other places might have been handy as well. Personally, I am finding my Mindshift Gear Backlight 26L to be just about perfect for what I do travelling. I also have a small day back I bought for 30,000 KRW in Seoul that I can put my D810/24-70 combo inside of with a few other necessities and stay relatively unassuming on the streets.

Dustin Levine's picture

If you did the trip again, would you have brought a super wide lens in place of the 70-200mm? or only brought the 24-70mm lens?..........Seems a lot of people make the Cambodia trip while visiting Vietnam.

Greg Fina's picture

Spent a lot of time in Asia for work and vacation. I Would have brought 24-70mm or a 20mm f1.8 and 85mm f1.8.

Dustin Levine's picture

Either of those choices would work. Your just either giving up f-stops vs convenience of a zoom. But we also want to have the options of being able to go wide or tele if needed.

Paul Sutherland's picture

I have a dusty old D90 that's traveled the world with me for the last 6 years. It'll get replaced one day but, y'know... I like it and all the buttons are in the right place. All I've ever really used is the 18-200VR and 50mm 1.8. The only time I've ever wished for another lens was on safari in Tanzania where I was seriously undergunned with the 18-200 but had spent all my money on the trip and had none left for new glass. Still got plenty of good shots tho!

Dustin Levine's picture

As they say, if it isn't broke, don't fix it. Use that D90 till it stops working!! You can always rent a lens next time you travel, if buying a new one isn't in the budget......or borrow a lens from a friend, I do that often!

B In SEA's picture

a6000, Zeiss 16-70, Rok 12/2, Sig 30/1.4

Keep the Zeiss on all day, gets you 24-105 equivalent that covers nearly everything in good light. For ultrawide, astro, etc swap on the Rok 12. For environmental portraits and night shooting swap on the Sig 30.

Much more versatile than 5D+24-70, and pretty sure weighs less, especially so if you only carry the zoom during the day and the primes at night.

Dustin Levine's picture

That combination definitely weights less, you right about that!.......I would like to always have a faster lens with me at all times, something f/1.4

Chris Cusick's picture

I've gone through a similar dilemma before, and arrived at the same conclusion, albeit the Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 (I have nothing against the Canon version, it's just impossible to screw it into my Nikon camera). Mine was just a short trip, I have some longer-term travel to come which perhaps might not yield the same results, but from a week in Phnom Penh in Cambodia I noticed a similar kind of trend in my focal length metadata as yourself: I shot a lot at the extremities of the lens (most likely wanting wider or longer at this point) and at/around 50mm, the focal length of my favourite prime I left at home. Interesting to see that you wouldn't do anything differently, I'm starting to get more into travel portraiture and I missed having a longer focal length.

Dustin Levine's picture

Yes, some others have mentioned that too, how we tend to shoot at one extreme or the other when using zoom lenses. I wouldn't have done anything different solely for the convenience, it was nice to just have one lens on the camera all month. I would have loved to bring and ultra wide, something more tele, and a fast prime.........but my back and shoulders would not been happy : )...........And Canon or Nikon, it doesn't matter, they both take photos, you can;t go wrong with either brand.

Andy Chen's picture

I see that most of the folks who have replied are shooting FF. I yearn to make that jump (and would look forward to someday trying my old Nikon glass on a DSLR), but for now, my digital shooting is done in micro 4/3. I travel weekly and minimize what I carry, never checking a bag. Although I own a variety of fast primes and longer zooms, I almost always travel with a Panasonic 12-35 f/2.8 (24-70 FF equivalent) on an E-M1 usually with one additional lens in the bag. Not trying to talk anyone into a smaller format, but rather to point out that the 24-70 equivalent seems to cover the sweet spot for travel photography universally.

John Nixon's picture

I made the leap from an E-M5 and half a dozen lenses a couple of years back and have never regretted it. Not everyone's choice but it works for me. I usually carry 3 primes covering 24-85mm. if weight was that critical, I'd leave out the 50 for the reasons outlined in the article.

Dustin Levine's picture

Hi John, a 24mm, 50mm and 85mm prime setup is super sweet! You can shoot almost anything with that line up.

Dustin Levine's picture

Hey Andy, nothing wrong with Micro 4/3's at all. You can make amazing images with any camera! But if you already have old Nikon lenses laying around, they probably would be given new life on Full Frame DSLR! With each new model of full frame cameras coming out, You can find older generation Full Frame cameras cheaper and cheaper. I bought a original 5D classic for $300!.......It retailed for $3,299 when it was new.

elize meijer's picture

I use my D7100 and Sigma 17-50 2.8 as my go-to lens. I am not a pro, and this covers about 95% of what I like to shoot. If I have space, I will take my 105mm Macro lens with me

Dustin Levine's picture

That is a great combo, covers basically the same exact focal lengths as my setup for travel......I would have liked to have my macro with me a few instances, but it stayed home.

John Nixon's picture

Nice article and an interesting choice. I take a Nikon D610 with 24/2.8, 50/1.8 & 85/1.8 primes. I can get them and a Metz 58 MZ2 in a Billingham Hadley Pro which will also take an iPad and a few bits and pieces - pocket tripod, etc. I take your point about chaining lenses and used to have a Nikkor 24-70 but it was just too big. I still have a 28-200 Nikkor (bought used, cost next to nothing) which I occasionally use as a walk around lens, when I think I'll want the long end, but I wouldn't take it on a month-long trip as my only lens.

Dustin Levine's picture

Thanks for chiming in, your setup is great! it is much more versatile than mine because of the faster lenses and you get a little more reach with the 85mm. When I walk around my town, I definitely prefer 2 or 3 primes on me. But when traveling to a foreign country I have never been to before, the 24-70 was better for me.

Paul Watt's picture

My last trip away was to snowdonia. I took my 5d mk ii, 24-105 f/4 and 70-200 f/4 (along with my nifty fifty). The 24-105 never left the body. I love this lens, covers a really useful focal length and is nice and robust.

Dustin Levine's picture

I would love to go to Snowdonia one day!..........If you had to do the trip again, you would leave the 70-200 and 50mm at home??

Paul Watt's picture

I would leave the 50mm at home, but I'd probably still take the 70-200mm for the compression factor in the mountains. I guess it was just an embarrassment of wide angle composures! I think with all the rest of gear I cart around for landscapes (I do like a long exposure!) the weight gain of the f4 isn't that bad.

bill snead's picture

Hi Dustin,
Noob question: how did you create the list of focal lengths used during a shoot in the image "canon-focallengths-thailand-vietnam-24mm-70mm.jpg"
- was this via Photomechanic/lightroom, or did you just create these longhand cruising thru your selects?

Dustin Levine's picture

Hey Bill!

I just took a screen grab from within Bridge........Lightroom also displays this information (But I am one of the few photographers left that do not use Lightroom, we are a dying breed!)

You just select a folder from within Bridge, and you can see your photos organized by Focal Length, ISO, Aperture, Lens, etc etc etc

Than I just took a screen shot. I hope that helps

eran yardeni's picture

Great timing for this article as i'll be going for 10 days in cyprus next week and i'm still not sure about the setup. it will probably be: 2 D800 bodies with 17-35 f2.8 for landscape and a Nikon 105 f2.8 for macro and portraits. the question is if to bring a 24-70 f2.8 along, as it's far superior for street shots. i'm thinking of buying a travel tripod (a manfrotto befree, perhaps), hope it's a good idea.

Dustin Levine's picture

You can't wrong with any setup, everyone has different needs and shoots different styles. But I wouldn't travel without a tripod, and I love my Joby Gorillapod for travel. Have fun on your trip to Cyprus and enjoy it!...... I must ask why you are bringing 2 D800's with you to though, just as a backup?

eran yardeni's picture

Hi Dustin, i feel that for me (and perhaps many photographers would agree) i can't realy go into full 'vacation mode' and just the thought of a malfunction in the only camera i bring would probably ruin my holiday. in film days i traveled with a huge bundle of exposed films that had their value in gold, naturaly. so a little extra weight is worth it.

Paul Watt's picture

I have a befree tripod (not the carbon fibre one) and I swear by it. Not too heavy, nice and stable and packs down quite small. if only it had a way of attaching a weight to it easily. .....

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