Jacob weighs in on how to choose the best camera and lens setup for travel photos. This is the first post of our new photography series — more to come!
I’ve always been a little obsessed with camera gear, so I frequently get asked for recommendations by friends. Figuring out the right camera and lens setup for traveling has taken years. Since we recently invested in new gear, I was inspired to put together a more comprehensive list of my favorite cameras and lenses. Read on for tips on how to choose the right gear for your travels, and what you should always look for when purchasing.
If you’re looking for a detailed breakdown of the camera, lenses, and gear we use on our travels, click here to read the full breakdown of all our travel photography gear.
New vs. Used
Buying new or used equipment really depends on personal preference. Generally I buy cameras and lenses new, mainly because I’m looking for the newest model available so I don’t have the option to purchase the same piece of equipment used.
However, if you’re sticking to a budget, buying a used camera and lens is a great option. Generally you can save 20% on gear that’s used and has been refurbished by the manufacturer (i.e. Canon or Sony). To search for cameras and lenses that fit this criteria, Amazon is the best. I recommend filtering your search by ‘Certified Refurbished’ on the left side of Amazon’s search underneath ‘Condition’ for the best results. If gear is discounted more than 20% and being sold by an unknown source, be extra cautious before purchasing. Pay attention to: who is selling the gear, if they’re offering a warranty, and any other details that pertain to its condition.
The Canon 6D was the first full-frame camera I’ve owned and I can’t recommend it enough. The difference in image quality between full-frame and crop sensors is really noticeable. Selena loves this camera because it produces beautiful natural skin tones and smooth fall-off (which basically means everything in front of and behind the subject of the photo has a nice soft look to it). Used Canon gear is also much easier to find than Sony, so if you’re sticking to a budget, a Certified Refurbished Canon 6D is probably the better option for you. If budget isn’t an issue, you could go for the newest version of this camera, the Canon 6D Mark II. Lots of professional photographers swear by Canon because of its consistency in producing beautiful images.
Recently we purchased our first mirrorless camera, the Sony a7RII. In my opinion this camera is more versatile than our Canon because it’s smaller, lighter, and it allows us to shoot higher quality video and higher resolution images than our Canon 6D. This is particularly useful when we want to crop in a lot on a photo. I also love the live tracking autofocus, which is useful for making sure Selena is in focus when I’m shooting her in a situation where she’s moving around. Sony just released a new version of this camera, the Sony a7RIII. However, unless you’re a professional landscape photographer or are planning to shoot video, the added features of this camera are not necessary. You’re better off going for the Canon 6D or a cheaper Sony camera like the Sony a7II.
What to pay attention to when buying a camera:
- Sensor size – there are several advantages to a larger sensor, all contributing to better image quality. Larger sensors have better low light performance, and more control over depth of field, improved dynamic range and color depth.
- Depth of field – a shallow depth of field will allow you to capture images with soft bokeh, a deep depth of field lets you capture landscapes where everything is in focus.
- Dynamic range – a camera with greater dynamic range will perform better in high contrast situations, for instance when you’re shooting bright skies and dark shadows in the same photo.
- Low light performance – a camera with low noise will allow you to shoot better with minimal light, for instance at dawn or dark interiors.
- Weather sealing – if you are going to be traveling, this is essential. You want a camera that won’t break if you happen to get it wet.
- Megapixels – a higher megapixel sensor is only important if you want the ability to crop in on images significantly, or if you plan to make large photo prints.
- Ignore built-in flash capability, especially for travel photography.
Lenses are the most important investment in your camera setup. A great lens on a decent camera will always look better than a kit lens on a $10,000 camera. Good lenses can last decades, you’ll cycle through cameras over time, but your best lenses will stay with you. If you are working out a budget, always prioritize the lens and think long-term. As a rule of thumb, never buy kit lenses. Either buy the camera body only or look for package deals that include a higher end lens.
Before purchasing a lens, always check the product details to make sure it’s compatible with your camera body. Sony and Canon both have a number of camera lines and you’ll want to make sure that the lens you purchase will work with your full-frame sensor. All the lenses that I recommend below are compatible with the brand’s full-frame lineup.
For the purposes of this post, here are some terms I’ll use to classify each lens and what they mean:
- Zoom lens – a lens with an adjustable focal length (i.e. 24-70mm or 16-35mm).
- Prime lens – a lens with a fixed focal length. These lenses tend to be higher quality and faster than a zoom lens at a comparable price.
- Wide angle lens – a lens with a wide field of view, which allows you to fit more of a scene in your image.
- Telephoto lens – a lens with a long focal length. Often used for photographing wildlife, sports or sometimes portraits.
I added a * to any lenses we shoot with below:
Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM – Budget prime lens. I always recommend this lens for people who are new to photography. There is no better lens for the money. Shooting on a prime lens can take some getting used to if you’re used to a zoom lens, but this one produces amazing images and will blow any kit lens out of the water.
Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM – Budget prime lens. This is another good option if you want something a little wider than the 50mm prime I mentioned above. This lens is a great value and still fairly fast at a f/2.8.
Canon EF 16–35mm f/2.8L III – High-end wide angle zoom lens. This is one of the lenses on my wish list. It’s great for landscape photography or anyone who tends to favor wider focal lengths. You can buy the previous version of this lens (used) at a large discount here.
Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II* – High-end zoom lens. This is hands down my favorite travel lens. It’s incredibly sharp, can act as a landscape or portrait lens, and at an f/2.8 it’s fast enough for low-light situations and creating beautiful bokeh. You can find a used version of this lens here, or the original version of this lens, Canon 24-70 f/2.8 I, also used, for less than half the price. The original is still a great lens at a decent value, although not as sharp as the current version.
Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II* – High-end wide angle prime lens. This is one of my favorite prime lenses, it’s incredibly sharp and fast. I love using this for long exposures, especially when shooting night skies.
Sony 50mm f/1.8 – Budget prime lens. This is a budget-friendly utility lens that can be used for all around shooting, including portraits, food and detail shots.
Sony 28mm f/2 – Budget wide angle lens. This lens is a good entry level lens if you favor landscape shooting or wider focal lengths.
Sony 24-70mm G f/2.8 – High-end zoom lens. This is another lens on my wishlist. I’m tempted to replace my 35mm with this lens and make this my go to travel lens. The zoom range makes this a very versatile lens and at an f/2.8 it’s still pretty fast.
Sony 16-35mm G f/2.8 – High-end zoom and wide angle lens. Another lens that I may add to the arsenal at some point in the future, 16-35mm is a great range for everything from cities and fashion to landscapes and interiors.
Sony Distagon 35mm f/1.4* – High-end prime lens. This is the lens I shoot with most frequently. It’s sharp and fast and produces beautiful images. It is a bit heavy compared to other 35mm prime lenses.
Sony Batis 25mm f/2* – High-end wide angle prime lens. This is the lens we tend to use when we are shooting in cities or tight spaces and want to fit more into the images. It’s small and lightweight, which makes it a great travel lens.
Tips for buying lenses:
- Focus on sharpness, contrast, and speed (f-stop).
- Don’t pay too much attention to huge focal ranges, they tend to be cheaply made. A lens with a large range like an 18-200mm (wide angle to telephoto) lens sounds attractive but odds are it isn’t going to produce great images at any of those focal lengths. Typically these lenses will also be significantly slower, making it hard to produce beautiful bokeh or shoot in low-light situations.
- Buy for the future – I don’t really believe in buying mid-range lenses. Either buy a great lens that you will keep long-term, or go with a budget lens like the Sony 50mm f/1.8 or the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 as a stepping stone.