I don’t know about you, but packing for a trip, especially with kids, can be more stressful than the job from which you are taking a vacation.
There’s. So. Much. Stuff. To. Pack.
And I say this as the one member of our marriage who is not usually overseeing the preparations for the children. My wife normally takes care of their suitcases, toothbrushes, toys, and so on. For that, I am undoubtedly forever indebted and will spend the rest of my life making up for it.
I am, however, the documentarian of the family trip. The camera gear alone requires a lengthy to-pack list, and if I didn’t print it out before every trip, I would inevitably forget a crucial piece of gear (a flash, an SD card, the GoPro case).
Nevertheless, my fellow writers, if you are looking to get into photography or already have a camera body but are ready to prioritize your next lens purchase, I have three lenses that are my absolute must-haves for any trip.
I never leave the house without them. Do I take others? Some times. But these three are always always always in my pack.
ONE NOTE: While what you see here are links to Canon lenses, the point here is not the manufacturer but the focal length. You’ll find equivalent lenses from Nikon, Sony, Sigma, Tamron, and so on.
70-200mm telephoto zoom
This is the heaviest of the lenses, but if I’m interested in doing portraits, the kind where you create a silky out-of-focus background with a sharp, intimate look at the subject, it’s this one.
When maxed out at 200mm, the silky background compression combined with wide open apertures can’t be beat. Background compression is when with a zoom lens at its highest focal length, the camera seems to pull the background closer to the subject you’re photographing.
I also love it for candid action photos of my children. Let’s say we’re at a boardwalk amusement park. I like to stay a little distant so they aren’t fully aware I have a camera (kids can be surprisingly self-conscious at an early age) and capture them in their most having-fun state.
There are, however, drawbacks to this lens. One is price. You’re looking at one expensive lens, and I won’t use it on casual day trips to the beach or if there’s an elevated risk of damage.
The other drawback is weight. This baby’s a stone to haul on your shoulder, and having lugged this lens around more than a few weddings, please know that yoga and a good chiropractor may be in order.
I carry it only when I know I’m going to use it, not as a tool to be used when spontaneity calls.
It remains my favorite all-time lens, however, and if I was deserted on an island with only one cylinder of glass, I’d pick this one.
24-70mm standard zoom
Now, while I’ve just touted the portrait quality of the telephoto zoom, and traditionally, it’s been my go-to lens, more and more I find myself reaching for the 24-70mm standard zoom.
Why? It’s the most dynamic lens I have in my bag. It allows you do to so much: medium zoom portraits, wide-angle portraits, candid moments like the one above, landscapes. And at what feels like half the weight of the 70-200mm telephoto zoom, it won’t pinch a nerve in your neck when you carry it.
During the last year or so, I’ve started to take more interest in wide angle portraits, the kind where you get a sense of the person and their environment or place.
And the 24-70mm standard zoom is perfect for that or if you need a quick portrait lens. While it lacks the background compression of the 70-200mm, it does just a fine job when you’re on the fly, you see beautiful light on the face of your spouse, and you want to snap a quick image.
Need a quality photo of that fancy dinner plate? The 24-70mm has you covered. Want to snap a look at a memorable street corner? Can’t go wrong with the 24-70mm. It truly is the most dynamic lens out there.
16-36mm ultra-wide zoom
While I’ll confess to the 16-35mm ultra-wide zoom lens as my least used lens while traveling, it’s also the lens I miss the most if I don’t take it.
Why? Because when I want to grab a landscape or a long-exposure of a waterfall, the ultra-wide zoom is the lens to capture a sense of place.
I’ve traveled with this lens and never taken it out of the bag. And I’ve traveled without it and missed it within the first hour of arriving at a destination. I decided a long time ago it was better to have it along and never use it than to wish I had brought it.
You never know when you’ll want it.
Can you achieve the same results with the 24-70mm at it’s widest angle? Sure! But there’s a noticeable difference between a lens open at 16mm compared to 24mm, and I can’t help it. Maybe I’m greedy. But when I’m in a baseball stadium or at a beautiful lake, I want the widest angle I can get and still grab a quality image.
So as you put together your lens wishlist, ask yourself what kind of images you want to take, particularly when you travel. That will ultimately determine which lens should go at the highest priority.
For whatever it’s worth, consider putting the 24-70mm at the top. You’ll increase image making opportunities by virtue of its wide to medium zoom range.
Dave Pidgeon has a sore back from hauling camera gear and three children, two of whom ranked in the 99th percentile in height and weight. He lives in Lancaster, Pa., with these “tiny” humans and his wife. You can contact him at email@example.com.