Lightening up your photo kit: Lenses I no longer travel with…

The Sigma 300-800 is an excellent and unique telephoto zoom, but it is huge & heavy -- no fun to travel withI’m often asked what lenses I recommend for various photo subjects – typically right before a reader or client is about to head off on a trip. What often goes without saying is what lenses I don’t travel with. In many cases, these were my “go-to” lenses for many years, but a combination of industry trends has helped me lighten up my traveling kit substantially. The changes aren’t for everyone, but they are worth considering for anyone who has begun to dread traveling with all their gear. Before I plunge in, please remember that I’m not saying these lenses aren’t still some of my favorites, or that you shouldn’t rely on them anywhere and everywhere, just that it is always worth thinking about what you are traveling with and why…


Several trends have played a major role in transforming photo gear for traveling:

Airline Hostility

Airlines have gotten more and more strict about what you can bring on planes – at the same time that flights have gotten more crowded and baggage handlers have gotten worse. So smaller and lighter is more important than ever. Every time I find a way to shave a pound or an inch off my traveling kit, I do. This means that, for example, my Nikon 70-200mm f/4 lens finds itself in my camera bag more often than my trusty Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens.
 

Computer-aided lens design and better software tools

It used to be that to get sharp images you had to buy the biggest, heaviest, most expensive pro glass. Computer-aided design tools have allowed lens makers to start turning out excellent models that are smaller and lighter, but still have excellent image quality. Coupled with those improvements, filters that correct for lens distortions have improved dramatically – for example DxO Optics Pro and the newest versions of Adobe’s Raw modules do an excellent job on most common lens issues. As a result, I often travel with my Nikon 24-85mm AF-S VR ED Lens, instead of the much more massive Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens. For anyone whose primary lens is their mid-range zoom, that may not be a great tradeoff, but since I’m usually dragging a long lens along that I use as my primary lens, I’m happy to compromise on my other lenses.

Much better low-light performance from modern DSLRs

When I shot film, or when I first started with digital, ISO 100 or maybe ISO 200 was about all you could get while maintaining image quality. Now, ISO 1600 and even ISO 3200 (or sometimes more) can be used to produce professional-quality images. While lower is still better, this capability makes it possible to travel with a long lens that isn’t massively fast. For example, I used to always bring my Nikon 400mm f/2.8 AF-S Lens along for mammal photography, but now can get excellent results with all the flexibility of a zoom using my Nikon 200-400mm f/4 lens. No, it doesn’t focus as fast or take a teleconverter as well, but the images are great and the zoom can be a life-saver when in a situation where there is limited mobility (like vehicles, boardwalks, etc.)

Another of my favorite lenses that I don’t bring along quite as much as I used to is my Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Lens. It is a lot of fun to use – not just for low-light photography, but for the razor sharp focus with narrow depth of field that large apertures provide. At this point, I’ll remind everyone that there is no substitute for the dramatic effect available with large apertures, but modern software filters are certainly closing the gap and providing increasingly usable alternatives to specialty lenses.

Higher-resolution sensors with excellent image quality

Super-telephotos like the Nikon 500mm f/4 lens, and Nikon 600mm f/4 lens (or the Canon versions) are unbeatable for bird photography, but the high-quality, high-resolution APS-C sensors found in modern prosumer DSLRs make it possible to have a similar effective focal length using a shorter lens – often the only practical option when doing a lot of travel on regional airlines with small planes.
 

New Nikon 80-400mm lens is a game changer

It was easy to be annoyed with the original Nikon 80-400mm. It was slow to focus, and the stabilization was nearly pre-historic. However, the new version – the Nikon 80-400mm AF-S VR ED Lens -- has really revolutionized long lenses. At half the price and around half the size of my Nikon 200-400mm f/4 AF-S VR Lens, it provides similar image quality and very acceptable focusing speed. It even works with Nikon teleconverters (with the obvious compromise in speed and quality). While it is unlikely to get those who’ve made the investment to give up their 200-400mm zoom, it is the quickest way to drop several pounds (savings on the lens, plus ability to use a lighter tripod) and several inches (in your camera bag) at one swoop.

When are lighter lenses the right choice?

Just to make sure I’m really clear, I still own and love using nearly all of the full-scale, heavyweight lenses I’ve shot with over the years. When I can take my truck along, they come too. So I’m not saying you can cut the weight of your photo kit in half without compromises. But the amazing advances in lens technology do mean that you can make your life traveling as a photographer a lot easier without sacrificing your ability to capture the images you’re looking for.

If you want to go even lighter…

Of course you can push your lightening up efforts even further, to a DX (APS-C) sensor camera like the Nikon D7100 and lenses to match, or all the way to a shoulder-bag-sized digital darkroom based on a mirrorless setup.