Back to basics
• What are the best camera lenses to buy?
How do you choose the best lenses for travel photography? A lot depends on what you want to shoot, your own photographic style and how much kit you want to carry. But for all round versatility, a ‘superzoom’ lens perhaps the best lens for traveling.
We all love to travel. And when we’re not traveling (which is most of us, right now, sadly), we’re probably dreaming about the next trip. And in amongst all that planning, you might be thinking about the best camera kit to take. We’ve already got a guide to the best cameras for travel, but if you’ve got a DSLR or a mirrorless camera, you need to work out what lenses to take too. And this is where the superzoom lens comes into its own. These are lenses with extra-long zoom ranges that do the job of a standard zoom lens and a telephoto zoom combined.
When picking a superzoom lens, it’s tempting to go for the biggest zoom range you can get your hands on. Obvious contenders include the Nikon AF-S DX 18-300mm f/3.5-6.3G ED VR, Sigma 18-300mm f/3.5-6.3 DC Macro OS HSM | C and both of Tamron’s 16-300mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD Macro and 18-400mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC HLD lenses, which give class-leading wide-angle and telephoto focal lengths respectively. However, all of these lenses tend to be quite large and weighty. They’re generally more convenient and less heavy than a combination of standard and telephoto zoom lenses but, when you want to travel light or go on walkabout, it’s nicer to have something smaller and more lightweight dangling off your camera strap.
Considering the 1.5x crop factor of most APS-C cameras (1.6x for Canon), a zoom range of around 18-200mm is generally more ideal. This gives you similar wide-angle coverage as from a standard zoom, while stretching your telephoto reach to 300mm in full-frame terms (320mm for Canon). Overall, you’ll get a very generous zoom range in a compact package. Choices are more limited for Canon and Nikon full-frame SLRs. Canon’s EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM is a pricey heavyweight, while Nikon’s AF-S 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR only delivers mediocre image quality. However, both companies have developed attractive and travel-friendly superzooms for their recent mirrorless full-frame cameras.
Is a superzoom the only lens you will need? If you like cities, architecture and culture, we’d suggest having a look at the best ultra-wide lenses too.
Ultra-wide shots aside, though, a superzoom should be able to take care of every other kind of subject. Let’s take a closer look at the best buys for a whole host of different camera brands. Remember, we’re choosing the best lenses for travel, so we’re not just looking at outright zoom range, but at portability, weight and performance too.
10 best lenses for travel
We've chosen this Sigma lens over Canon’s own lenses. The Canon EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM and the newer Nano USM edition are good travel lenses, especially if you’ve already bought one as part of an SLR kit. By contrast, the Canon EF-S 18-200 f/3.5-5.6 IS zoom is a relatively old design with noisy autofocus and sluggish overall performance. We actually prefer the Sigma 18-200mm Contemporary lens to all three Canon zooms. It beats both of the first two for zoom range and eases ahead of the last for compactness and image quality. It’s also only about two-thirds the weight of the Canon 18-200mm lens, and comes complete with a lens hood, while undercutting all of the Canon lenses for price. Even so, the optical path includes three aspherical elements and three SLD (Special Low Dispersion) elements. The only niggle is that the focus ring rotates during autofocus, so you have to keep your fingers clear.
If you want a travel lens for your Canon full-frame SLR, the two choices are Canon’s own EF 28-300mm f3.5-5.6L IS USM, which is too weighty for travelling and hugely expensive to buy, or the Tamron 28-300mm f/3.5-6.3 Di VC PZD which is a little disappointing in terms of sharpness. It pays to go for a more modest zoom range. Even here though, Canon’s up-market EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM is quite chunky and expensive, whereas Sigma’s 24-105mm f/4 DG OS HSM Art lens delivers similar image quality for little more than half the price. We’d actually go for the Canon EF 24-105mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM, which is also available as a kit lens with the EOS 6D Mark II. It’s surprisingly compact and lightweight, has a refined Stepping Motor autofocus system and high-performance 4-stop stabilizer, and delivers super-sharp image quality.
Just as in the SLR camp, Canon offers two 24-105mm ‘RF’ lenses for its mirrorless full-frame EOS RP and EOS R cameras. Again, there’s an up-market L-series f/4 lens, plus a newer option with a variable f/4-7.1 that’s relatively compact and lightweight. This time around, however, there’s also a superzoom option that isn’t overly big and heavy, and doesn’t cost silly money. It comes in the shape of the RF 24-240mm, which squeezes a very useful 10x zoom range into a reasonably lightweight and weather-sealed build. Further attractions include a Nano USM autofocus system which is super-fast for stills and enables smooth and virtually silent focus transitions during movie capture, and a highly effective 5-stop image stabilizer. At the short end of the zoom range, color fringing can be noticeable and barrel distortion is massive, but both of these aberrations are corrected in-camera by default, and when processing raw files. With this lens, Canon is combining optical and digital corrections rather than relying on optical corrections alone.
We recommend this lens for travel, despite the fact there are others with longer zoom ranges. They include Nikon and Sigma 18-300mm options, plus Tamron 16-300mm and 18-400mm lenses. There are also Nikon, Sigma and Tamron 18-200mm zooms available, so you’re really spoilt for choice. For the sake of compactness and keeping the weight down, we’d go for an 18-200mm lens, which nevertheless delivers a generous 27-300mm zoom range in full-frame terms, thanks to the 1.5x crop factor of DX format cameras’ APS-C image sensor. The Tamron 18-200mm is particularly lightweight, partly thanks to having a plastic rather than metal mounting plate. It’s a good performer despite being very inexpensive to buy, but the pricier Sigma edges ahead for image quality. Despite all this, we’d still splash out on the more expensive Nikon 18-200mm featured here, which has better handling thanks to its ring-type ultrasonic autofocus system, which enables the focus ring not to spin during autofocus. It’s also the pick of the whole bunch of superzooms for image quality.
Nikon and Tamron have both manufactured 28-300mm superzoom lenses for many years, offering a travel-friendly option for Nikon full-frame SLRs. There’s not a lot to choose between them for handling, image quality and all-round performance. Both are good rather than great. To make the most of Nikon’s recent full-frame SLRs, it pays to set your sights rather lower in terms of zoom range, and to go for quality instead. The latest edition of Nikon’s 24-120mm VR is our first choice. It’s relatively compact and has excellent handling characteristics. It also gives you more a generous wide-angle perspective at the short end of the zoom range. The flipside, naturally, is that you’ll lose out on powerful telephoto reach, but that's often less useful than you expect anyway.
The list of travel-friendly credentials for this soon-to-be-launched lens is long and impressive. It’s particularly compact and lightweight for a full-frame lens that boasts such an extensive zoom range, yet has a sturdy construction that includes comprehensive weather-seals and a fluorine coating on the front element to repel moisture and grease. Image quality benefits from the inclusion of two aspherical elements, one aspherical ED (Extra-low Dispersion) element and two further ED elements. Nikon’s high-tech ARNEO coating is also applied to minimize ghosting and flare. Not just for stills, the stepping motor-driven autofocus system enables smooth focus transitions during movie capture, along with minimal focus breathing and focus shift when zooming. Ideal, for full-frame Z-series cameras, the lens is also an interesting travel choice for the Z 50, where this camera's 1.5x crop factor gives this lens an effective zoom range of 36-300mm.
NB: This lens was originally due to be launched in April, but has been delayed due to the Covid-19 crisis.
From Fujifilm’s acclaimed XF stable of lenses for its APS-C format mirrorless X-mount cameras, this one has an impressive string of letters after its name. It’s a WR (Weather-Resistant) lens with no less than 20 areas of sealing in its construction. It features a fast and virtually silent LM (Linear Motor) autofocus system that’s super-fast for stills and smooth for movie capture. Handling is enhanced by the ‘R’ control ring, and it has a particularly effective 5-stop OIS (Optical Image Stabilizer). Quality glass includes four aspherical elements and two ED (Extra-low Dispersion) elements. The 7.5x zoom range is a little limited compared with some other travel lenses on the market but this helps to enable a relatively compact construction. Image quality is very impressive overall, although corner-sharpness is a little mediocre towards both ends of the zoom range.
Olympus and Panasonic
Micro Four Thirds format travel zooms from Olympus include the budget-friendly 14-150mm II and the up-market 12-200mm. They’re both very desirable lenses but we prefer this Panasonic option, which splits the two Olympus zooms for selling price, while adding a highly effective 4-stop optical image stabilizer. Thanks to the 2x crop factor of Micro Four Thirds cameras, the effective zoom range is 28-280mm in full-frame terms, thereby nearly matching 18-200mm lenses on APS-C format cameras. It delivers this in a remarkably compact package that weighs a mere 265g. That’s only about half the weight of some APS-C format 18-200mm lenses, making the Panasonic particularly travel-friendly. Even so, it packs a fast autofocus system and quality glass, including three aspherical elements and two ED (Extra-low Dispersion) elements. For a superzoom lens, sharpness is both very good and highly consistent throughout the entire zoom range.
This Tamron superzoom for APS-C format E-mount cameras is strikingly similar to Sony’s own-brand E 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS LE. They’re both exactly the same size and weight, as well as sharing the same minimum focus distance and maximum magnification factor, and they have the same 62mm filter thread. They also both feature stepping motor-based autofocus systems and optical image stabilization. All in all, the Tamron is a compact and lightweight lens with a powerful zoom range, ideal for travel photography. It’s neatly turned out with optional black or silver finishes, and delivers very good image quality. As with the Sony lens, sharpness drops off noticeably at the long end of the zoom range. The Tamron can be much less expensive than the Sony lens in the USA, making it rather better value, but the situation is reversed in some other countries, including the UK.
Although fully compatible with Sony’s APS-C format E-mount cameras, on which this lens has an effective focal length of 36-360mm, this lens really comes into its own on full-frame bodies. It’s typically weighty for a full-frame format superzoom but doesn’t feel overly large and has refined handling. The 10x zoom range kicks off at 24mm, enabling a generously wide maximum viewing angle, and there’s good telephoto reach at the long end. Based on a stepping motor, the autofocus system is quick and quiet, while Optical SteadyShot gives a benefit of around 3-stops in beating camera-shake. The optical path includes no less than five aspherical elements, plus one ED (Extra-low Dispersion) element. Image quality is mostly very good for a superzoom lens although corner-sharpness is a little lacklustre at the short end of the zoom range, and overall sharpness drops off at the long end.
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