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Lovely Lenses for the Traveller

In this article in my 'Tim's Tips' travel photography series, I am going to talk a little about lenses that a Travel Photographer might find of most use on his travels. Of course, a photographer can never have too many lenses: they all have slightly different uses in slightly different situations and conditions that the photographer will encounter, BUT unless you've got a team of porters at your command, you are going to have to carry them all with you. The days will be hot and sweaty; and the less you have to carry, the happier you will be, and the better photographs you will take.

Everyone has a slightly different style of photgraphy, and over the years that you have been practising this hobby/profession, you will have obtained a good idea of which lenses suit you and your style the best. The first thing to say is that when travelling, you should always feel comfortable with your equipment, so therefore it is best to stick with the lens that feels most suited to your style. When travelling, though, surprise is the order of the day, and you must be prepared for changing weather and conditions. One lens is unlikely to cover all eventualities - you will probably need two or three.

Which ones? That's what we need to decide. I think the answer is fairly easy if we look at what we are trying to achieve. A Travel Photographer wants to capture a range of photographs that provide compelling and attractive shots that capture the essence of a location, and provide lots of the 'Wow' factor'. In order to do this, in order to capture shots that really grab the attention of the picture buyer, we need shots that show a lot, with exceptional depth of field, or we need closeups that portray good closeups of well composed shots that fill the frame. In other words, we need a wide angle lens and we need a telephoto lens.

Which ones? I think that depends on what you are used to. Trying to go too extreme with a lens that you aren't really familiar with is a bad idea on an expensive foreign trip or expedition. If you have no wide-angle experience, I would start with a 35mm, and see how the world looks to you from there for a year or two. After a while you may wish to move to a 24mm, but you do need to be able to know how your composition works with those kind of angles, or the lens is wasted. Personally, I found the 24mm a very easy lens to work with, and for many years it was my 'standard' lens: one with which I took maybe 80% of all my photographs. After some years I felt comfortable moving to an even wider lens, and now use the Nikkor 12-24mm, which with the 1.6 multiplication factor of a DX sensor equates to a 19-38mm on full frame camera body. I find the lens an incredible tool for many types of photographs, but stress that such an extreme view will not suit everyone.

For a telephoto lens, the same reasoning applies. What are you used to? What are you most comfortable using? Then start with that, and see how you progress. My early attempts at tele-photography were all taken with a 135mm lens, which is excellent for travel portaits and general shots of the details that you will encounter. I then moved to a 200mm, and found it most useful at selecting greater detail, but had to cope the smaller aperture and the reduced depth of field. I also needed to get used to the shortening of perspective that such a lens produces. Its not a change you can make overnight, so don't rush to get more and more powerful telephoto lenses, in the hope that because of them, your photographs will improve. They won't: not until you really appreciate all that such a lens can present to you.

I made mention above of the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 12-24mm 1:4 G DX SWM ED IF that I use for my wide-angle shots. I also use the general purpose Nikon AF-S Nikkor 18-200mm 1:3.5-5.6 G DX SWM VR ED IF for detail and close in travel portraiture. You might therefore think that a zoom lens is a good choice for the beginner, as it provides the equivalent of a range of lenses in one handy package. This, however, is not a good idea, either for someone who is starting out in photography, or for someone who is trying to improve and refine their technique to produce top-notch, saleable photographs. The reason is simple: a zoom lens, handled wrongly, will make you lazy and will lessen the quality of your compositions.

As discussed in my page What makes a Great Photo? it is of paramount importance to wander around a lot in your search for a great photograph. As you move about, you will see the different elements of the scene move with relation to each other, and it is only by noticing this and comparing the effects, one with another, that you will start to see when an interesting scene transforms into a magical one. The amount you must move about differs each time. Sometimes you must walk 100 metres to each side of the shot, whilst in other cases a few millimetres will make all the difference. You will know when you see it, but only if you move about. A beginner with a zoom lens is tempted to stand where he is and zoom in and out to try and get the best shot. The final image will never be the best if you do this. Much better to start with a fixed lens: this forces you to move about to frame the shot, and in doing so you will see how other elements in the picture inter-relate with each other.

A zoom lens does have its uses, of course. Sometimes it is not practical to move closer or further away, so your zoom is useful to frame the shot to the best of your ability, and maximise the scene that your sensor will record. However, the real use for a zoom is to simulate the effects of a variety of fixed lenses to alter how the different elements of your scene appear in relation to one another. You have moved around until the composition looks its best, you have got all of the elements of the scene just where you want them: now is the time to use your zoom to adjust how each element presents itself in comparison to others. Sadly, too many people just zoom in and out, thus missing the critical earlier stages in defining your composition.

So, are two lenses enough? I feel that there is every excuse to bring one more: the so-called 'standard' or 50mm lens. This will have a large aperture, often f1.8 or f1.4, and so gives two additional reasons that this will be useful at times. Firstly, with a large aperture like this, you will be able to shoot in lower light conditions, and capture scenes at a time when you don't wish to use flash or other supplementary lighting. Secondly, its large aperture will give you a very small and sharp depth of field, enabling you to take shots that pick out specific details by focus, and leave the rest of the shot blurred. If your camera has a DX sensor, and you are able to take advantage of its 1.6 multiplication factor, the 50mm lens will present the equivalent of an 80mm lens, which is ideal for portraiture, though you must always be careful to focus on the eyes of your subject if you want the shot to really have maximum effect. A tiny depth of field can just as well be a curse as a blessing, resulting in wasted shots you would really rather have kept.


Read other articles in the Tim's Tips series...

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