Monday, July 11, 2016

The Best Nikon Lens for Traveling

Two of the most popular Amateur Nikon articles are The Best Portrait Lens for Nikon and The Best Nikon Lens(es) for Baby Photos - 5 Points to Check. Similar articles have also received a lot of attention. This is quite understandable: lenses and cameras are (or can be) expensive, and people want to make sure that they're getting the best lens their budget allows.

A beautiful sunset in Santorini. I only had one lens with me. Read on to see which.

Today I want to try to help you with another kind of "best of" scenario: What is the best Nikon lens for traveling or vacations? Just as I had done with the previous "best Nikon lens" articles, this one will also feature a disclaimer: I don't believe in "best lenses". But I do believe in right lenses. What is right for you might not be right for someone else. Nobody can tell you what to buy but yourself. I'd like, however, to help you reach the best possible decision.

So, without further delay, let's take a look at our options.

As a very first assumption, I should mention this: I like traveling light. If you came here expecting to read a comparison of some lenses with a conclusion in the direction of "Take this, this, and this with you", you'll be disappointed. Rather, my goal is to help you choose which one lens you could take with you on your next vacation. One (1), and that's it. If you think you can't make great photos except if you drag three primes and a tripod with you, you have a call from the 1970s on line 1. Zoom lenses and cameras in the year 2016 have reached phenomenally good levels, and you will be reaching your own limits far before the lens reaches its own.

The things, then, we need to consider are these:
  1. Size and weight
  2. Flexibility (read: focal length range)
  3. Low light capabilities (read: maximum aperture)
With budget being a factor as well.

Would I travel with a prime? I would. Should you? Probably not, unless if you're absolutely certain you'll be after a very specific kind of photos. But most people traveling on vacation simply want nice photos for the memories, together with the occasional "artistic expression"-photo. A zoom will serve you far better.

Looking at the factors above more carefully, you'll realize they are all interconnected. There is a price penalty as we get more focal length range and more maximum aperture. At the same time, naturally, size & weight also increase. This of course means that, even if budget is not a problem, other limitations will come into play - such as, in our case, size & weight, but also image quality: a 3x zoom has far less liabilities than a 10x or longer.

Let's take a look at some of the options for a travel zoom lens (for Nikon DX as well as for FX), and then we can talk a bit more about it.

Nikon DX

1. Nikon Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-S VR II
This is the lens that many of you might already have, as it came with your camera. Fantastic travel lens, as it's short, small, light, and overall very convenient. The only drawback is the limited focal length range (and the small maximum aperture at 55mm). If you're wondering whether 55mm is enough for a traveling lens, I can say that I have traveled with nothing but the 18-55, and I didn't feel the need for something longer. Having said that, some of you might.

2. Nikon Nikkor 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-S VR
Basically almost the same thing, with a bit extended range on the long side. This is the lens I had with me on my most recent trip to Santorini. Stellar performer, small, light, reliable in every way. Again, small maximum aperture, but that's to be expected in this price range.

3. Nikon Nikkor 16-80mm f/2.8-4 AF-S VR
Now things are getting more expensive (but also brighter). You lose a bit of focal length on the long end, but you gain some potentially useful on the short one. More importantly, this is a full stop faster lens in terms of aperture, which can be useful. Price is the only minus, but for what it can give you it's (almost) about right.

4. Nikon Nikkor 18-300mm f/3.5-6.3 AF-S VR
Big. Heavy. Expensive (when all is said and done; there's an even more expensive version, with slightly faster maximum aperture on the long end). If you think you might have a use for such a hyper-zoom, it's not a bad option. Honestly, in most cases you simply think you have use for them.

5. Sigma 17-70mm f/2.8-4 OS
Here's a third-party option. Basically, this is what the Nikon 16-80 is, only at exactly half the price! It's a very good lens, pretty well-suited for traveling and vacation photos (also thanks to its macro capabilities). If you'd like the Nikkor but can't afford it, this might be a great option.

Nikon FX

1. Nikon Nikkor 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5 AF-S VR
Basic, inexpensive, and a pretty darn good traveling lens.I've used this lens extensively, and I can definitely recommend it. It has very few flaws optically, it's small and light (for FX standards) and very dependable.Unless you think you need more focal length range, this should definitely be your first choice.

2. Nikon Nikkor 24-120mm f/4 AF-S VR
A significantly more expensive (2x) lens, with two advantages: a) constant f/4 aperture (which, however, is indeed slower than the 24-85 on the short end!); b) slightly longer focal length range. Some people claim it's better optically. I don't see it, really. Especially within the scope of travel photography, it's unthinkable you'll notice any difference. Personally, I'd prefer the 24-85, but this too is a great lens.

3. Nikon Nikkor 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-S VR
The FX option for a super zoom. A pretty good lens, in fact, with a penalty to be paid in terms of price and size/weight. Optically it's probably better than you expect (well, compared to the 18-300 its focal length is more limited), but don't expect any miracles either. For a traveling lens it's fine, but a bit too large/heavy for my taste.

4. Sigma 24-105mm f/4 Art OS
A third-party option virtually identical to the Nikkor 24-120. But its price is... almost on the same level. The explanation? This is a lens of Sigma's 'Art' line, featuring high-quality optics. Indeed, many people swear this is akin to a magic lens. I've tried it only for a while, so I can't offer a detailed opinion. Based on my short experience, it does look excellent. Again, probably an overkill for a travel lens, but if you can afford it I'd probably prefer it to Nikon's

5. Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 VC 
Another third-party option, featuring a constant f/2.8 aperture. In all honesty, this is everything a travel lens should not be: big, heavy, expensive. But if you (think you) need a constant f/2.8 aperture lens, take this rather than the ridiculously priced Nikkor.


Which is the best travel lens for Nikon? Which one should you get? I can't possibly answer that, but hopefully I gave you some food for thought and some options to choose from. I can still tell you what I'd pick, though.

If I had a DX camera, I'd probably pick the 18-105 as the best possible compromise. The 18-140 is almost the same thing, but more expensive. Alternatively, I'd probably get the Sigma 17-70.

If I had an FX camera, I'd certainly pick the 24-85, end of story. But some people might prefer the Sigma 24-105.

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