A common query seen among online forums asks about the best lenses for use on vacation. Because requirements should always drive your equipment choices, I always ask about the nature of the vacation: is this a family vacation or a photography vacation?
They are usually very different affairs.
Howler monkey, Costa Rica
For photography, a family vacation can be full of compromise. You the photographer are there primarily as the parent, spouse, or even adult companion to older parents, spending your precious leisure time with your loved ones—many of whom don’t spend enough quality time with you throughout the working week. You also may have to carry around supplies for the day’s journey including food, water bottles, a diaper bag, a rain coat, or even a Frisbee, which leaves very little space or strength for heavy, high-quality camera gear. If things go well enough, you can run off fun family snaps, and maybe a few shots of famous places to prove you were there.
You may also not be in charge of the pace of the day’s excursions. Often things can go either painfully slow when traveling with elderly or the very young, or too hastily when cramming an itinerary into a box of time. None of these are photography friendly.
Today's catch on the river, Costa Rica
A photo vacation, however, is a much more focused and self-oriented endeavor. You can shlep as much gear as you can carry, or move at a snail’s pace so you can setup that tripod, macro lens and ring flash. It’s easy to go off trail to capture that bird. If you are fortunate, your loved one has a complementary pursuit. My wife Fran is an avid amateur botanist which allows me to photograph unusual or at least cool looking plants that many would never pay attention to.
But there is hope. You gotta have your photographic wits about you, and be able to instantly identify that decisive moment. Sometimes on a family vacation you can negotiate some photographic self time where you are left alone. And sometimes you are lucky.
Skies over San Jose, Costa Rica
Having gone through this cycle a few times, below are my recommendations that may serve your family vacation photographic needs quite well. One thing to recognize and make peace with: a lot of the lightweight lenses depend on software to overcome optical distortion issues. But the software, such as Lightroom lens corrections, works effectively.
|Camera body||Fuji makes highly regarded small-sized mirrorless cameras and well thought out lenses for the APS-C format. For DSLRs, go with a small APS-C body. Pentax makes a great system with very small lenses. The Canon SL1 is small and capable. Olympus has a very well executed system and excellent glass. Otherwise, just use your smartphone. Software like Camera+ lets you manually control the shooting. Don’t forget the panorama shooting offered by smartphones.|
|Lenses||Tamron superzoom. For FF, 28-300mm f 4.5-5.6 IS VC; for APS-C 16-300mm etc. I have made peace with the all-in-one superzoom lens. Sigma is good too. When you don’t want to haul around heavy glass, especially for street shooting, go for a Canon or Pentax 40mm f2.8 pancake. Surprisingly good image quality, The Canon 40mm will work fine on both FF and APS-C; Pentax APS-C only. Pentax also makes 15mm, 21mm, and 70mm pancake lenses of excellent quality. The Sony E 16mm f2.8 for APS-C has an excellent reputation.|
|Macro lenses||True macro lenses capture images at 1:1 magnification. Everything smaller is a closeup lens. Most macro lenses pack a lot of heavy glass. Your body will thank you for getting the lightweight Canon 500D Closeup Lens. This is a very high quality lens that screws onto the front of your lens like a huge filter. It is intended to be used with zoom lenses, and works very well with the Tamron noted above. You can purchase the Canon 500D in a few filter ring sizes; I prefer the 77mm and then purchase step up rings for smaller diameter lenses.|
|Tripods & heads||Within the past several years there have been several ultra-light collapsing tripods released by the popular Chinese brands like Sirui, Benro, Vanguard and MeFoto. Most of these include a ball head of sorts. All of these are aluminum (carbon fiber is in a different class) highly imperfect. Most are 4-5 sections and when two sections are extended things get close to wobbly. That said, they fold down to under 12 inches, are under 3.5 pounds, and can support a DSLR and a superzoom lens. I chose the ProMaster SC522 and find it usable. That’s about as tepid an endorsement as I can give. I ditched the included ball head for my Acratech Ultimate, but even with the sturdier ball head, the whole works can fit almost anywhere. That’s what makes it valuable on family vacations.|
|Flash||I don’t like on-camera flash, but also don’t like the bulk of larger speed lights. Consider small-sized TTL flashes like the Sunpak RD2000C, with a guide number of 20. Remember to get a diffuser, one of the best is from Joe Demb.|
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