Modern Minimal Versus Traditional Travel Lens Kits

I was looking at another site recently where a photographer was documenting his two-lens travel kit. That led me to thinking about how things have changed over time, both individually and collectively. It's time to update some of my recommendations.

One of my mentors was Galen Rowell. His working two-lens travel kit—granted, his form of travel was generally adventure travel, and extreme adventure at that—was an old 20mm f/4 manual focus lens coupled with a 70-210mm kit-type autofocus telephoto. He was at f/11 so much of the time that he didn’t need fast lenses or special lenses. 

bythom modernminimal

If we go back far enough in time, the two-lens solution was typically just a 35mm and 50mm prime. Maybe a 28mm or 85mm got in there, too, each possibly substituting for one or the other lens. By the 90’s and naughts, traditional photojournalism had devolved mostly to what became a trio of multi-purpose zooms: 14-24mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8, and 70-200mm f/2.8. If there was something you needed to photograph that you couldn’t do with those lenses (plus a Canon CU filter to stick on the 24-70/70-200mms for macros), your need was decidedly specialty.

But realistically, how much of the time do you need more than a two-lens kit? Minimizing lens sets not only keeps your carry weight down, but also means that you're not constantly switching lenses to get "just the right focal length." Thus, today I'm going to write about minimal lens sets, not complete ones.

I can think of lots of ways to approach minimal lens kits. 

  • Superzoom. The most minimalist of all, of course, is to just put a superzoom on the front of your camera and call it a day. 28-300mm, 24-200mm, anything that goes from wide angle to telephoto, and as much into those extremes as possible. Most of you know that I haven't been a big fan of that approach, as the compromises all started to add up quickly and get in your way photographically (slow aperture, focal length breathing, big aberrations/distortion, overall lower MTFs, and so on). Today, however, we have a handful of superzoom lenses that are tolerable in their tradeoffs and can get you to a single lens generic solution. The big drawback you'll still encounter, though, is slower apertures, which impacts the ISO you're using and also tends to lead to meh bokeh.
  • Two Extreme Lenses. When I need a wide range of focal length, I tend to go with a very different (two-lens) approach than superzoom, which interestingly, the photographer in question who prompted this article also uses: (1) wide angle zoom, (2) telephoto zoom. So in the Sony full frame world: 16-35mm f/2.8 or f/4, and a 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 or 100-400mm f/4-5.6. In the Nikon world: 14-24mm f/2.8 and 80-400mm f/4-5.6 (or maybe the 70-200mm f/2.8 and a TC1.4x). Yep, there’s a big gap in the middle, but that’s what I tend to call the Perspective Blah Zone. So many photos have been taken in the 35-70mm range over history that the perspective for virtually every subject has gotten stale, which means that the subject/action/moment/lighting has to work harder for the photo to stand out. Personally, I like the two extreme lens approach because it makes me think about perspective (where I am in relationship to the subject, and why). 
  • Two Purposeful Lenses. On safari you see an example of this all the time: two camera bodies, each with a different lens to cover the variety of situations you generally encounter: 70-200mm for large animals, close approach, herds, etc., and a 500mm (or other long focal length of your choice) for small animals, far approach, detail isolation, etc. A similar thing happens on the sidelines of sports games, though the focal lengths needed vary with the sport. Minimal PJ kits tend this way, too, often with just a 14-24mm and 24-105mm. 
  • The Trio. I already mentioned it, but the 14-24mm, 24-70mm, and 70-200mm f/2.8 trio that every camera maker has some version of is a solid three-lens choice. It also tends to be an expensive three-lens choice. If you’re buying this trio of lenses, you’re committing to a mount due to the cost involved. The f/2.8 aperture tends to make this three lens choice into a  biggish set of lenses, too. Still, I've got a very small pack with my two Z bodies and the Z trio that has plenty of room to carry other things. Mirrorless did make the lens trio tend smaller. Also, note that if you own the trio, you can go out with just two of the three, depending upon what you think you'll encounter (e.g., either 14-70mm, or 24-200mm).
  • The Alternate Trio. I think it was Art Wolfe who I first noticed with a slightly different trio of lenses: 16-35mm, 24-105mm, and 100-400mm, of something like that. Moreover, he was giving up the f/2.8 apertures for f/4 or variable aperture lenses. Alternatively you could go f/2.8 for the wide zoom, f/4 for the mid-range zoom, and variable aperture for the telephoto zoom (or vice versa). You have a lot of choice here these days for an alternate three-lens set. And again, you can strip down to a two lens approach at any time; in Wolfe's case, 16-105mm, or 24-400mm. 

You can’t think about lens kits without also thinking about ease of access. Sure, you can carry a dozen lenses with you, but you’d better be doing very deliberate photography with subjects that are cooperative. That’s because if the right lens isn’t on your camera and stuffed away in a bag with others, you’re going to miss moments in time while you make a lens change. And the more lenses you juggle, typically the longer that change will take (I can do a quick change with a two-lens kit and some sort of sling carry system, but three or more lenses and it tends to need a big backpack that I have to take off and tend to put on the ground while I’m changing).

All that in mind, I’m going to tell you my favorite and suggested two-lens travel kits for various systems/cameras

Why travel? Because that's the primary thing most of you are doing when taking photos. You have day jobs that don't involve photography, so travel is when you get out the camera.

Why two lens? Because that’s more than enough to juggle while you’re traveling. I assert you should give up ultimate flexibility and performance for travel efficiency. These kits are going to vary some by camera and system, too, as I’m trying to find the best two-lens combo for what each camera is capable of. (And yes, I’ve used all these combos for at least one long travel trip or more.) [all links to this site's exclusive advertiser, B&H; prices are retail and may not include any active discount]

  • Olympus E-M10 II-IV — Weren’t expecting that camera, were you? 9-18mm f/4-5.6 and 40-150mm f/4-5.6. Small. Real small. Almost ignorably small, yet still really competent. Not great for low light indoors, so bring a table pod. US$1497 total kit.
  • Olympus E-M1 II or III12-40mm f/2.8 and 40-150mm f/2.8. I’ve never been disappointed when carrying those three items (camera, two lenses). The big compromise is not being able to go below 24mm (effective). However, you have almost no compromise in the 24-300mm (effective) range. US$4297 total kit.
  • Nikon Z50 — Easy, the two-lens set Nikon sells (16-50mm f/3.5-6,3 and 50-250mm f/4.5-6.3). Wickedly competent for size and price. Be a little wary of the VR on the 50-250mm side, though. At 250mm with any vibration (e.g. shooting out a plane window) you need to make sure you aren't transferring any of that to the camera/lens. Nikon makes it easy: US$1300 total kit ordered as one.
  • Nikon Z5, Z6, Z7, Z6 II, Z7 II — I’m going to surprise you here: 14-30mm f/4 S and 24-200mm f/4-6.3. Note that the wide angle zoom is on the camera most of the time for me, and the superzoom comes into play only when I need telephoto, at which it is quite competent, if a bit on the slow aperture side. Minimum US$3797 total kit (Z5 body).
  • Nikon D780, D850 — I seem to be in surprise mode today: 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G and 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E AF-P. These bodies are starting to get on the bigger and heavier end, and thus function a bit less usefully as travel cameras because of that, so I start to compensate with smaller and lighter lenses. I can also suggest the 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G in place of the 24-85mm if you want the focal length extremes and not the mid-range. Bonus: for a D500 user the best two-lens combo is the 16-80mm f/2.8-4E and 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E AF-P or 300mm f/4E PF. Minimum US$3397 total kit (D780 body).
  • Sony A6### — My pick is the Sony 10-18mm f/4 and 70-350mm f/4.5-6.3, particularly if you don’t have an A6500 or A6600 (because of OSS in these lenses). However, that leaves a bigger gap between wide and telephoto than most people can tolerate, basically the range between 28 and 105mm (effective) isn’t covered. So I wouldn’t fault you if you picked the 16-55mm f/2.8G in place of the wide angle zoom. But remember, that lens doesn’t have stabilization, so A6000, A6100, A6300, or A6400 owners beware if that’s important to you. I haven't tested the Tamron 11-20mm f/2.8 and 17-70mm f/2.8 lenses. They might be the better two-lens choice for some. Minimum US$2378 total kit (A6000 body).
  • Sony A7 models, A7CSony 12-24mm f/4, 24-105mm f/4. Yeah, another surprise to many of you. I really like this combination as it takes me way wide up through a reasonable telephoto capability in two excellent lenses optically that don’t weigh me down too much. Minimum US$5173 total kit {A7 Mark III body), but on sale at the moment (US$600 discounts)
  • Canon R6 — Yet another surprise: 24-105mm f/4-7.1 and 70-200mm f/4. The 20mp count of the R6 is what tends to dictate me here: I’m not going for big, wide landscape work when I have this camera in my hands. I tend to be focused more narrowly to make full use of the pixels. Yes, it works really well. Minimum US$4497 total kit.

No, I don't have a Fujifilm combo for you at the moment. I'm still trying to rationalize lenses and Fujifilm X cameras. I don't particularly like the 10-24mm f/4 and 16-80mm f/4 combo, the 16-55mm f/2.8 and 50-140mm f/2.8 are a bit heavy for the Fujifilm bodies I'd use for travel, and I haven't yet tried the 70-300mm f/4-5.6. 

Ditto Panasonic: I don't have enough experience with the S bodies and the L-mount lenses to be able to give you advice there yet. 

Again, the above are kits that I've traveled with and can directly recommend based upon my experiences.

Bonus: One thing that came to mind in writing this article is that I'm not sure there's a perfect way of carrying a two-lens kit that meets all my requirements (security, accessibility, protection, compatibility). 

With the E-M10 and Z50, for instance, I tend to just put the lens not being used in my jacket pocket, as they're definitely small enough for that. If I'm wearing a backpack, these cameras mount to my front shoulder strap via a Peak Design Capture Camera Clip [advertiser link], as they're light and small enough for that to work well. 

Sling bags come in a lot of forms, but I've yet to find one that I think works exactly the way I'd want. I'd say avoid the bags that get carried behind you (and you flip around to access) as they're theft targets. You want your expensive gear in front of you because that's where your attention is. The problem with "front" bags is that they not only tend to get in the way of carrying the accessible camera (on a neck strap?), but that if they're too big they get problematic for seeing your footing. Climbing stairs or avoiding obstacles on trails becomes an issue. The best I've found to date is the CADeN sling (available on Amazon), but it puts a lot of bulk in front of you.

What we really need is a bespoke design specifically for the combo you decide on (as they range in size). It also really needs to be carrying both your camera and extra lens (and perhaps a bit more—phone, papers, etc.) but make those both instantly accessible. Galen's old solution was a neck strap (camera) integrated with a chest pouch he designed (and was made in the 90's by a company no longer in existence). 

Some of the chest vest/harness systems might work, so I'm looking into them again, but then I have the issue that they're not Arca-Swiss compatible, so when I do pull out my tripod, I have to make a change.

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