Most of us prefer to travel light whenever possible. No one wants to lug around heavy suitcases or backpacks on their journey if they can help it.
For photographers, this can present a conundrum. We want to bring the gear needed to come home with amazing images, but carrying a camera, multiple lenses, a tripod, and everything else can really add up.
This is where having a good, all around zoom lens comes in very handy.
Is there a perfect lens that can do it all? No, certainly not. There will always be trade-offs, but the key is finding a lens that provides a happy compromise between performance, convenience, price, and weight.
Use our recommendations below to help choose a convenient, versatile, quality zoom lens that you will be happy to bring along on your next trip without taking up too much space.
But first, let’s take a look at some terms you need to know when picking out a lens…
Lens features to consider:
The focal length of a lens relates to the field of view and amount of magnification a lens has. It is expressed in millimeters.
Simply put, focal length will determine how your lens (and camera) sees the world. If you choose a wide focal length such as 10mm-35mm, you’ll take in an expansive view. If you choose a telephoto focal length such as 100mm-500mm, you’ll take in a narrower field of view, but far off elements will be magnified in your frame. Or, choose something in between (around 50mm) to get a “normal” perspective similar to the human eye.
Of course, some lenses will “zoom,” giving you a range of focal lengths in a single lens. These are the lenses we are primarily interested in for the purposes of this article.
Every lens has a hole in it that lets light into the camera. This hole is called the aperture and it is adjustable to let in more or less light as needed. By selecting an f-stop, we can open up our aperture to brighten or close down the aperture to darken. Here’s what you need to remember… a small f-stop number (such as f/2.8 or f/4) will give you a wider aperture opening that lets in more light. A large f-stop number (such as f/11 or f/22) will give you a smaller aperture opening which will let in less light. Also, if you are trying to blur the background or get just a thin sliver of your photo in focus, then a wide aperture opening such as f/2.8 will help with that, too.
When purchasing a lens, it’s important to be aware of how wide the aperture can actually open because not all lenses are equal in this regard. This is called the maximum aperture. This becomes especially important when photographing in low light conditions such as indoors, sunset, or night.
Generally speaking, more expensive lenses tend to have apertures that can open wider. This means they can let in more light… which helps you have a faster shutter speed and sharper overall images.
To make matters even more confusing, many zoom lenses have what’s called a variable maximum aperture. This means that as you “zoom” through the different focal lengths, your widest available aperture will change.
For example, if you have a lens with a variable maximum aperture of f/3.5 to f/5.6, this means that when you are at the wide angle focal length you can open your aperture to f/3.5. However, as you zoom to the telephoto focal lengths, you will only be able to open your aperture to f/5.6, therefore letting in less light. To compensate, your camera will need either a slower shutter speed or a higher ISO to achieve proper exposure.
Most of the zoom lenses featured below have a variable maximum aperture. It’s simply one of the compromises that often must be made to achieve a lighter and smaller lens. It also makes a lens much more affordable.
This is a feature that will help you get sharp images while holding your camera by hand (i.e. not using a tripod). It’s particularly helpful in low-light situations, and it’s also a great feature to have for travel photography.
The different manufacturers each have their own name for this feature, but the concept is the same. Note that some manufacturers, such as Olympus, choose to include stabilization in the camera body rather than the lens.
Not every lens fits on every camera, so make sure you purchase a lens that will work with your camera’s particular mount. This will be indicated with abbreviations such as Canon EF or Fujifilm X, as examples.
Note that you don’t always have to purchase a lens made by your specific camera manufacturer. There are plenty of third party manufacturers out there such as Sigma and Tamron that make fantastic options for a variety of cameras. This is why it’s important to pay attention to the mount, as that will tell you if it’s compatible with your camera.
Lenses will offer different levels of durability and build quality. Typically speaking, if a lens is weather sealed, it offers a higher level of quality and seals that will keep water, dust, and grit out. For travel, this is definitely a great feature to have. The tradeoff is that weather sealed lenses tend to be a bit heavier. If you end up with a lens that isn’t weather sealed, it will be extra important to keep some lens cloths handy to clean off water droplets and dirt as needed.
Top Zoom Lenses for Travel
Let’s dive into our lens recommendations. We feel that each of these zoom lenses offers a great balance of portability, versatility, performance, image quality, and price.
For the most part, these lenses fall in the mid-range of price. They are not the cheapest, but they are also not the most expensive. Typically, the “kit” zoom lenses—that often come bundled with a camera—are not great. (There are exceptions to this.)
Why consider upgrading your kit lens? When you pay a bit more for a zoom lens such as the ones listed below, you’ll generally get better optics, an extended focal range, tougher construction, quicker and quieter focusing, image stabilization, and larger apertures for low-light work and blurred backgrounds.
Without further ado, here are our top picks for travel lenses…
This is the best all-round zoom lens made for the Fuji mirrorless X-mount cameras. It is weather sealed with a solid build quality. It also features a fast and quiet autofocus system, image stabilizer, and great overall image quality. At the extreme ends of the zoom range, the corners of the image will get a little soft, but that is normal with these types of zoom lenses. It runs $749.
Olympus and Panasonic have teamed up to make lenses that are interchangeable with their cameras, both using the same Micro Four Thirds Mount. This is a huge plus for owners of either system because it means there is a wide variety of lenses available. The 14-140mm lens offers a great zoom range in a very compact, lightweight package. Coming in under $600, it’s a great value for a dust resistant, image stabilized lens that offers sharp images consistently throughout its zoom range.
This is the best travel zoom lens for Sony’s mirrorless crop sensor E-mount cameras. Priced at $649, this lens offers sharp results throughout its zoom range. It also offers smooth, quiet autofocus and image stabilization. The only thing it’s missing is weather sealing, but its excellent image quality makes it a great camera to take travelling regardless.
Designed for Sony’s full frame mirrorless FE-mounts, this lens has an awesome zoom range that will serve you well for travel. Image quality is very good, except at the extreme ends of the zoom range, where sharpness drops off a little bit. If you don’t mind sacrificing some of the telephoto reach for a constant aperture of f/4, you could also consider the Sony FE 24-105mm f/4 G OSS Lens.
If you own a Nikon crop sensor (DX mount), this lens will be the perfect travel companion. It has very few compromises in terms of quality and features, considering the wide range of focal lengths it offers. There are a lot of lens options for Nikon in this category, but the 18-200mm emerges as the winner when you’re looking for a convenient and versatile zoom with solid performance. The main complaint about this lens is that it is prone to “zoom creep.” This is where the weight of the lens itself can end up moving the barrel and zooming on its own when the lens is pointed at an angle. The newest version of this lens includes a lock so that this doesn’t happen when walking around with the camera on your shoulder. It can still happen at times when shooting though, so it’s something that’s important to be aware of.
For full frame (FX mount) camera owners, this lens offers an impressive zoom range at a reasonable price. If you are willing to sacrifice some telephoto reach for a slightly wider angle, constant f/4 aperture lens, check out the Nikon AF-S 24-120mm f/4G ED VR. It’s also lighter and more compact due to its smaller focal range. Either one will give you solid performance that you can count on when you’re travelling.
If you’ve invested in Nikon’s new mirrorless Z-mount full frame (FX) mirrorless camera system, this is a fantastic all around travel lens to pair with it. One of the nice features of this lens is the customizable control ring which, by default, is set to adjust manual focus, but can also be used to control aperture or exposure compensation. Impressively lightweight, compact, and well built, you’ll have a lot of fun bringing this lens on your next trip.
This lens has everything you would expect in an all-round zoom lens designed for cropped sensor (APS-C) cameras. This is the third generation of this lens, and where it really shines is in the newly designed autofocus system which is much quieter and snappier than previous models. If you want a zoom with even more telephoto reach, another good option for APS-C sensors is the Sigma 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 DC Macro OS HSM which is very affordable and even lighter weight than the Canon lens. The trade-off for this cheaper price and more compact size is optical quality. This lens is not quite as sharp corner to corner. One last interesting option to consider is the Tamron 18-400mm F/3.5-6.3 DI-II VC HLD All-in-One Zoom. It has a massive zoom range which does mean it’s heavier than the other two on this list. However, it may be a worthy tradeoff if you want the extended telephoto reach.
For full frame Canon DSLR shooters, this lens is one of your best travel options. At $599 it’s extremely affordable by full frame standards, especially considering the superb image quality it offers. Although it lacks a constant aperture and weather sealing, it does offer stabilization and an extremely quiet and smooth autofocus system. Remember, lenses always come with trade-offs, and in this case the pros outweigh the cons if you’re looking for an all-round travel lens. As an alternative, you can also check out the Tamron 28-300mm f/3.5-6.3 Di VC PZD. Image quality for this lens isn’t as good as the Canon lens, but it does provide a much longer focal length for an affordable price.
The Canon mirrorless system is still quite young, so they are working on building out their lens offerings. That said, this 18-150mm is definitely worth adding to your camera bag as an all-purpose lens made for M-mount mirrorless cameras. It’s a little lens that offers a big zoom range, making it perfect for travel.