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
eran yardeni's picture

good to know that. i wonder if there's a fix to attach some weight to it for long exposures

Paul Watt's picture

It's fine for long exposures but just sometimes when it's a bit too blowy and I'm exposing for 15+ minutes I could do with a bit more stability.

Timothy Hood's picture

I'm sorry, but I have to call insanity on this. First, I would NEVER let an extra pound prevent me from having my having the desired equipment for the shot. Looking at your shots, it's very clear that you wanted wider and longer focal lengths most of the time (more than 2/3 of your shots were at the extreme ends of the lens. If you don't recognize that at compromise and regret, I'm not sure what could be more apparent.

Currently, I have three lenses which cover the range of ultra-wide to medium-long telephoto. I typically travel with those plus a favorite prime. I'd rather carry a couple of extra pounds (big deal!) than miss a lens I left at home for that once-in-a-lifetime shot. Even if I had to compromise and go lighter for some reason, I would never take less than two.

My kit is a body plus grip, external flash with Graslon diffuser, four lenses and a GoPro. The GoPro mainly serves action video and water duties. All of that fits in a very modestly-sized backpack, often with other electronics as well.

When you look back on your trip and your photos, are you going to think about what a burden it was to carry an extra pound or two, or are your going to be happy you had what you needed to get the shots you wanted without compromise?

Meir Pluznik's picture

My travel kit is Nikon D810, 24-85 nikkor, 70-300 VR nikkor, and 50 1.8D. I carry them in a REI small light weight 18L flash backpack. I warp my lenses w socks, and the camera w clean T shirt. Camera bags are too heavy to walk around!

Dustin Levine's picture

I love REI's stuff! I wish they made a hiking backpack with a small camera compartment that could be accessed from the side. So we wouldn't have to wrap our gear in our socks :)

Your travel set up is nice too, you got everything covered!

Amy Smith's picture

For my little micro 4/3 setup I got some cheap neoprene drawstring bags for the lenses, and shove the whole kit in a little Swiss Gear sling bag I've had forever. It's not a camera bag and only has a teeny bit of padding against the back, but I've tried a zillion other bags and never found one that holds the same amount of stuff without being twice as bulky. I know camera bags have to have padding, but wow are most of them obnoxiously shaped and bulky!

Dustin Levine's picture

Neoprene drawstring bags sound so much nicer than using socks, how fancy! :) But yes finding a camera bag that you love is a hard thing to do. Everybody has different likes and needs. And for different situations. If your sling bags works for you, that is great!

Bob Rhodes's picture

I've photographed China, Taiwan, S Korea and Thailand, with quick trips to Myanmar and Laos. I carry a D-750, a 14-24, a 24-70, a 80-200 and a 60mm prime with tripod and Filters: .6 and .9 Grads, 6 and 10 stop NDF's, and a polarizing filter. Everything fits in a carry-on except the tripod, This gear is a tad heavy but it's on wheels. If it's a quickie trip, the first thing I would cut is the 80-200. I'm 67 years old so hearing whippersnappers whine about weight is amusing. (LOL.) Best regardz.

Dustin Levine's picture

That gave me a laugh, I've never been called a whippersnapper before. I understand you though, what you brought with you is the perfect setup, I would have loved to have that all with me. But the trip was no for work, and I was there for vacation. It might not be that heavy, but after 8-10 hours of walking, every day for 30 days, every ounce makes a difference to me personally.

Amy Smith's picture

I am just an amateur, but I love taking photos - it's an important part of travel for me (the little travel I get to do). I use an Olympus OM-D E-M5 II, and I just got the Olympus 14-150mm for the express purpose of travel. My plan for my next trip is to take that, the Panasonic 20mm 1.7, the Sigma 60mm 2.8, and the Olympus fisheye body cap lens since it takes almost no space and is fun.
The 14-150 is pretty slow, so that's the reason for the primes, I'll switch to those at night.
My next trip is to Walt Disney World, and I've been there so often I think I may just put the fisheye on for daytime all day one day (except possibly the parade) and the 60mm on for the evening, just to get a different view of things.
The 14-150 and the E-M5 are weatherproof, which is a concern of mine, as is weight and size - I carry this whole kit in my purse every day, and transfer it to a small sling bag for traveling. I'd rather have a small camera with me, than a super-nice one back home on the shelf.

Dustin Levine's picture

You are 100% right about having a camera with you that you will actually use. I also agree if your going somewhere you go often to take pictures, bring a completely different lens with you, get some shots you normally wouldn't get with a new view. Weatherproofing is important to me too, as I mentioned I got stuck in a few days of pouring rain in Vietnam, and also I once lost a 6D to someone at an event spilling a beer on it. The 6D has no weathering sealing.

Anonymous's picture

Glad someone wrote this! I can never choose just one. End up with a second lens in my pocket, every time. :-)

Dustin Levine's picture

Yes it is hard to choose sometimes, but we are lucky we have so many choices and options. Up until the very last minute of a trip, I am usually still undecided what to bring as far as photo gear.

Jim Lawrie's picture

It's always interesting to hear that others have to answer the same questions I face each holiday trip away. Last year my travel kit was the 5Diii with the 24-105 F4 but given there were so many shots I felt I didn't have the range for, it lead me to look at a new travel kit. I did similar to Justin and looked at the focal length of most the shots I took. 35mm won hands down but I wonder how many more good shots I would have got if I had some range from the River Boat. This year I purchased some new gear with holidays clearly in my sights (not wanting to take too much weight or gear) and I have gone with the Sony A7Rii with the 24-240 zoom. I also purchased the 35mm Ziess lens for times when I just want to have a camera with me but one kit will be on my strap for the next holiday and hopefully give me everything I need to get some great shots without hauling around tons of gear.

Dustin Levine's picture

I would be curious to hear how you feel about the Sony and 2 lenses vs your 5D after your travels this holiday season. I know a lot of people jumped ship to Sony when these full frame mirrorless cameras starting coming out, but recently have been hearing a few coming back DSLR's. Either way, for vacation, I am sure you will be happy with either of those combinations.

Jon Rolfson's picture

A post-retirement return trip to Sunny Southeast Asia seemed to call for similar lens choices when paired with a newly acquired EOS Rebel T6s. The EF-S 17~55mm f/2.8 IS USM lived on the camera and saw the most use. The very light and surprisingly good EF-S 55~250 f/4-5.6 IS STM provided backup for longer reaches at Angkor Wat and at the Bayon. The Sigma 4.5mm f/2.8 fisheye managed to encompass the entire 120+ feet of Ayutthaya's reclining Buddha, though it was otherwise not much used. A late '80s vintage nifty-fifty (50mm f/1.8) was along for the ride but seldom left the bag, while the EF-S 10~18 f/4.5-5.6 IS STM was used mostly for indoor videos of the in-laws. I had three batteries for the T6s but never managed to use all three batteries in one day.

Dustin Levine's picture

Yes the 17-55mm lens on a T6s gives basically an identical view as a 24-70mm lens on a full frame sensor. But wow you brought 5 lenses with you? That is a lot for travel. But I am sure you were happy you had your 4.5mm for the reclining Buddha! That was one of the few times I do wish I had a wider lens with me, 24mm just didn't cut it at that place, I think even if I had my 16mm with me, it still would not have been wide enough to get that shot. That Buddha is massive ,and there is very little space to back up. I hope you enjoyed your trip to South Easy Asia, an enjoy your retirement too!

Jerfareza Daviano's picture

Hi Dustin, nice article. Bringing more gears for traveling or not has always been a particular problem for me. However I recently made a compromise during my recent trip to Hokkaido, Japan.

I brought my D5300, Tokina 11-16 2.8, Cosina 28-200 3.5, a very small Takumar 55 1.8 plus a lightweight tripod. What surprised me the most is that after trip I analyzed my shots and found out almost 75% I exclusively used my wide angle lens.

The other 2 lenses, well, I did use them but sparingly in specific situations like shooting macro objects or portraits. I guess I have the tendency to shoot more landscapes, but I think an ultra wide angle and a decent zoom are a good combination for a travel shoot.

Dustin Levine's picture

Thanks you Jerfareza! Yes selecting gear to bring for traveling to new places seems to be an issue for everyone. Like you, and me too, seems most people that bring multiple lenses on trips, always come back and say they used only one of the lenses for practically everything. That is why I made the decision from now on to pick one lens, and that's it. Again I just want to enjoy my trips and every ounce less in my bag helps.......I think your choices are great too! Everyone has different needs and wants.

Marni Belavin's picture

Hi, I came across your post doing a random search on google. I’m heading to Thailand and Cambodia this Xmas and was wondering what lens to bring, I was thinking my 16-35, 24-105 and 50mm 1.4. I do have a 24-70 2.8 but I fear I will miss not getting shots wider .. I will miss the 16 range. Did you? However, I totally get where your coming from. Did you find you shot tons on 2.8? I would love to see some of your shots. Thanks

Dustin Levine's picture

Hi Marni! Thanks for chiming in. My trip to Thailand was over 2 years ago already, but from what my memory recalls, there were just a handful of times where I wanted something wider than 24mm, but in the end it probably isn't worth it to carry the extra weight and space of a 16-35mm lens along with a standard zoom, just to maybe get an 5 extra shots.

And as for the the f/2.8 over the f/4, for me personally I definitely am glad I had the f/2.8. One, because I went with only one single lens, I felt it was best to have the largest aperture on me that I could. And second, if you travel outside the city at all during your trip, the night sky is amazing, and at the 24mm end of you lens, and f/2.8, it is perfect for some photos of stars. 24mm and f/4 is really going to push your sensor.

Here is a gallery of my Thailand trip. All images taken with Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 of course........


Marni Belavin's picture

Quick question. With the 24-70 how many shots do you think you used 2.8 aperture.? I am deciding b/w my 24-105 which only takes me to 4.0 or my 24-70 with 2.8. My go to lens is the 105 but I’m curios as you have the travel experience. You pictures are beautiful on your website. Thanks I also have a 50mm that is 1.4.

Dustin Levine's picture

For an exact percentage of images I shot at f/2.8 on my trip, I would have to dig out my hard drive and check the EXIF, but I just quickly looked at the gallery in the link I just sent you above, and there was quite a few times I was shooting wide open. It was especially useful for the astrophotography at night. Shooting at roughly f/2.8 and ISO 3200, where if you have your f/4 lens, to get an equivalent exposure, you would have to shoot at ISO 6400, and introduce a lot more noise in your image depending on the camera body you are using.

Have a wonderful time in Thailand, enjoy your trip! If you need any other help, feel free to email me.