The only three lenses you need for travel photography anywhere in the world are a fisheye lens, a 50mm, and a 135mm (or similar telephoto).
You can agree and finish this article right here, or you can read on to see exactly why I would choose only these three lenses to take with me anywhere in the world.
Before I say anything else, the fisheye I have in mind has an aperture of f/2.8, the 50mm has an aperture of f/1.4, and the 135 has an aperture of f/2.0. Popular, cheaper variations on these lenses would be the 24mm f/2.8, 50mm f/1.8, and the 100mm f/2.8 Macro. I’d also like to address what I imagine a popular response to this article might be: “What about the 24-105mm?” This lens is weak for a couple of reasons. The maximum aperture on this lens is f/4, which ends up being very limiting if you are trying to travel light (and going without an off camera flash). Also, prime lenses are always superior in quality to zoom lenses. There are less moving parts and the image quality is cleaner. If you think having just one lens to cover a greater range is easier, just remember what you gain in convenience (by having one lens) you lose in quality, weight, and ability to “see” in the dark.
Each of these lenses are used for very specific reasons. Just as we wear different shoes for different purposes throughout our week, such as; sneakers for exercise, dress shoes for work, and slippers around the house – we use different lenses to convey different feelings, emotions, and to use as different tools to capture our experiences. Some lenses really are better than others for certain things. For example, portraits are best taken with lenses between 85mm and 135mm. The distortion to the face/ears is minimized and the truest proportions are found in this range.
On the other hand, you wouldn’t normally reach for a lens like this when shooting a landscape scene (there are always exceptions to every rule, and it’s fun to see what happens when you break the general guidelines). Great lenses for landscapes tend to be a bit wider, somewhere between 15mm and 50mm. I recently took only these three lenses with me on the Trans Siberian Railway from Russia through Mongolia into China. Here are MY reasons for bringing the 15mm Fisheye, 50mm f/1.4, and the Canon 135mm f/2.0 with me on this trip of a lifetime.
The Canon Fisheye 15mm f/2.8
The Canon 15mm lens is my antidote to boring building pictures. When traveling abroad (or around your own town/city/village), interesting buildings are inevitably photographed. Oh, that old bridge with locks attached to it? Better take a picture. Oh, look at that old cathedral in the Kremlin, better take a picture. If it’s there, it must be important. Well, you can add your photo to 1.5 million other photographs right there on Flickr or Google images that look exactly like the one you just took.
What will you do to differentiate yourself? How can you take a picture that will make someone pause for more than half a second? Ad companies are excited when someone spends 4-8 seconds looking at a photo. Can you get someone to look at one photo for that long? What would it take? For me, I decided I would never take boring, straight photos of buildings ever again. I’d either edit them in unusual ways (likecreating an HDR image, or process it in very contrasted black and white), at unusual times of day, or I would attempt to photograph it differently than every other tourist before me.
Shooting with a fisheye lens can be really fun, actually. Hold your camera up to your eye with a fisheye lens on, move the camera upwards and watch the horizon bend down sharply at the sides, creating a “globe” feel to your image. Tilt the camera down and watch the earth curve up like a big “U”.