The One Camera and the One Lens You Need for Travel Photography


A man walks down the steps of Buda Castle at night, Budapest, Hungary. Shot with a Sony Nex7 and a Zeiss Biogon M 28mm lens. (42mm equivalent.) Photo ©Mike Randolph

A reader of my recent post, How Much Gear Should You Take on Your Next Trip? left a comment, and asked a doozy of a question: “So assuming you want serious pics and are happy to carry one body and one lens which lens would you pack knowing you want a good mix of landscapes, wildlife and travel portraits?” (Thanks for the question, Ian.)

First, the camera. I would take a mirrorless camera to save space and weight. I use a Sony Nex7. The autofocus is terrible but I never use it anyway. I use mostly manual focus lenses and set the peaking to red on the ‘medium’ setting, and I also use the focus magnify feature. I’ve gotten very used to this setup and I’m pretty fast with it. The Nex7 is not my favorite camera ever, but there is a lot I like about it. It’s small and light, has a fast motor drive when I need that, the viewfinder is on the left side of the camera (which makes a big difference if you’re left-eye dominant, as I am), and has a tilting LCD screen. The tilting LCD screen has got to be one of the best camera inventions of modern times. It’s extremely useful for getting shots from different perspectives. Whenever I shoot with my Canon 5DII or 7D (which is not that often anymore), that’s what I miss the most.

I keep waiting for the perfect replacement to the Nex7, but so far it hasn’t come. I like the specs on the Fuji XT1, but I haven’t used it yet so I can’t offer a review. Sony’s new A6000 also looks pretty good, but it’s not on the market yet. (One thing is, it’s only half the price of the Fuji XT1.) The Sony a7 is also a good bet, although the shutter is quite loud, which can hamper your shooting if you prefer being discrete. The Olympus E-M1 is a great little camera but I like to use legacy glass (Leica, Zeiss, Voigtlander, Nikon) and on that small sensor, the crop factor (2X) is too extreme for my liking. And at $1,400, I also think it’s overpriced. You can pick up a Canon EOS Rebel T5i for $570, which has a much larger sensor and even though it is a DSLR, it’s about the same size as the E-M1. That’s a difference of $830!

Now comes the hard part. Which lens? Back when I lugged DSLRs around everywhere, I would have said my one go-to lens was the Canon EF 24-105 f/4L IS zoom. (Here’s an interesting link on the optics of that lens, including information on a Sigma equivalent lens.) It was my least favorite L lens, but it was the lens I used most often. Take a look at your best images. What lens were they taken with? Probably in the mid range somewhere. With my Nex7, my one lens of choice would be the Zeiss Biogon M 28mm. With the camera’s 1.5x crop factor, that becomes a 42mm lens which for me is the perfect compromise between a 35mm and a 50mm. It also turns out that 40mm is the true ‘normal’ lens and not the 50mm, as most people think. Here’s a link to more on that if you’re interested. When you think of it, it makes sense. The extremes are super wide-angle and super telephoto, but that’s not how our eyes see the world. So the bread-and-butter focal lengths will always be the most useful.

Or you could just get yourself a Fuji X100s. I’ve been tempted myself. It’s compact, silent, has a 35mm equivalent lens. The downside is it has a non-interchangeable lens. The upside of that, however, is that it has a non-interchangeable lens. Allow me to explain. Using only one focal length all the time can have very positive effects on your photography. You get to really know a certain focal length by looking through it all the time. And that helps you frame images in your mind even before you bring the camera to your eye. You can also compose more intuitively. Faster, better. And you don’t waste time by changing lenses. (Or have to worry about dust on your sensor, though that’s less of a problem these days.) David Hobby, of Strobist fame, made a video about the X100s that is basically a warm and fuzzy love letter to the camera. I don’t know whether he is affiliated with Fuji or not, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe what he says is true. He makes a very convincing case for the camera.

But regarding the original question, there is one area where I’ve let Ian down–wildlife. Unless you’re shooting elephants from not very far away, the 35mm focal length is not going to be much use. Wildlife photography is just too specialized to lend itself to a one-lens solution. I consider the bare minimum reach you’d want is a 300mm lens, and even that is short most of the time. A couple of years ago, I went on an assignment where I was going to be paddling a kayak down a river and I knew that changing lenses would be challenging so I bought a Tamron 18-200 super-zoom lens. On the Nex7 that offered the very useful range of 27-300mm. But I was disappointed with its lack of sharpness. It was also slow (maximum aperture of f/6.3 on the long end) and heavy, and simply unpleasant to use, so I got rid of it. You know, no free lunches and all that.

So there you have it. Mirrorless camera with an equivalent 35mm or 50mm lens–or 42mm :). That works best for the kind of images and subjects I like to shoot. How about you? Leave your comments below.

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27 Responses to The One Camera and the One Lens You Need for Travel Photography

  1. Nikon Newbie 25/03/2014 at 6:59 pm #

    Mike, this is GREAT. You mentioned that you like to use legacy glass. Can you elaborate on that a little? The Buda castle picture has incredible detail and atmosphere. Can we see some more examples of your dream team in action?

  2. Mike Randolph 25/03/2014 at 7:15 pm #

    Thanks NN. How about I answer your question in my next blog post? That way, I can really flesh it out a little and maybe it will be of more use to more people. Thanks for your comment. Stay tuned!

  3. Travllr 25/03/2014 at 8:21 pm #

    I used to shoot all prime lenses but I like a mid-range zoom. Great shot of the Buda Castle.

    • Mike Randolph 25/03/2014 at 8:25 pm #

      Thank you. Yeah, a mid-range zoom is super useful, no doubt about it. But the EOS 24-105 was still a heavy, big beast. I’d rather have my 28mm Zeiss and tuck a lightweight 75mm lens into a pocket, which is what I usually do, but the post was supposed to be a “one lens solution” so that would be cheating. 🙂

      • Ian 27/03/2014 at 3:49 am #

        Cool answer to the question. thanks Mike! I haven’t seen the Sony Nex7 but will check it out, it sure looks like a high spec puppy with lots of good reviews. Impressed you went for the mirror less compact body, guess that goes to show how far technology has come in the last few years with size getting smaller and image quality getting better. Call me old fashioned but I still haven’t quite got my head around moving away from a DSLR to a compact…. Feels like the same fear in making that original transition from film to digital!!

        With some recent motorbike adventure travel in Burma, Patagonia and northern India I’m sure I would have enjoyed a compact in my top pocket far more than my 7D in the day pack….. stop the bike, take off gloves and helmet, take out camera from daypack and case, arghhhh 5 minutes later take a photo! put it all back , ride around a bend and see an even better view and do it all again!! Oh dear just give me that Nex7 nowi LOL !

        Glad you mentioned the bit about Wildlife photography, that really was thrown in as the “doozy’ part of the question! Six months in Africa last year I would have come home totally empty handed without a decent zoom ( I took a Sigma 150-500 and was really thrilled with the quality of the pics.)…so lets agree its definitely a specialized subject that needs a special zoom.
        Would also love to see some more pics from your “dream team ” combo
        Cheers, ian

        • Mike Randolph 27/03/2014 at 4:06 pm #

          You sound like you lead a pretty nice life, Ian! As for compact cameras, I am a huge fan. Keep checking back for an upcoming post on what I think is the best compact camera available today. Happy travels.

  4. Bharat Pania 27/03/2014 at 11:15 am #

    What is special in legacy glass.? Buda castle is Incredible shot. One camera One lance.

  5. Mike Randolph 27/03/2014 at 4:09 pm #

    Bharat, thank you for your kind comment, and thanks for signing up to my newsletter. I’ll tell you what I told Ian: Check back for an upcoming post and I’ll answer your question about legacy glass there. Best regards.

  6. Duckery 03/10/2014 at 2:42 am #

    The newly released Panasonic LX100 sounds like your perfect candidate. Although I can stick with my reliable D600 and Zeiss Distagon 35/2,

  7. Thomas 03/10/2014 at 9:55 pm #

    Finally somebody voting for the 40mm! I would suggest this combo (not digital though): Leica CL + Leica 40mm f2.

    Full frame set-up with Leica quality for 600€. Smaller than the X100s. No charger needed. But skill needed…

    • Mike Randolph 03/11/2014 at 9:18 pm #

      The tiniest lens that Leica makes! I’d love to try it some time…

  8. Yoshi Shimizu 02/11/2014 at 3:23 pm #

    Mike, I just stumbled up your article on one camera one lens. It’s nice to find people who share the same view.
    Though i do use Sony A7 and A7R for my work, my everyday camera and lens combo has been like yours, NEX 7 + Contax g Biogon 28. Now NEX 7 has been replaced with A6000. With NEX 7, It has been a bit of time consuming to convert ARW files to DNG in order to correct colour shift with DNG Flat fied plug-in on LR. YET, I still feel NEX 7 or A6000 and Biogon 28 is the best match.

  9. Mike Randolph 03/11/2014 at 9:13 pm #

    Thanks for your comment, Yoshi. I really enjoyed your website, great work.

    I hear there is a new NEX camera coming out in the new year. I for one, can’t wait because as good as the A7 series is, there are things I like better about the NEX. For anyone else who is interested in this debate, I plan to post about ‘my next mirrorless camera’ soon, so stay tuned.

    • Yoshi Shimizu 04/11/2014 at 8:46 am #

      Thanks, Mike. Look forward to your new post on your next mirrorless! I do agree that NEX ( or A6000 for me now) has its own charm – perhaps its compactness …. easy to carry and use. Since I switched all my gear to Sony A7 series, NEX and A6000 from Canon last year, I only use the following combinations for all my work and am very happy with the results:

      For portraiture
      Sony A7R with Leica Summicron 50mm f2

      For general and journalism
      Sony A7 with CZ 24-70mm f4
      Sony A6000 with CZ biogon 28mm f2.8 (shutter sound is much quieter than the A7 series)


  10. Andrey Eng 19/02/2015 at 2:29 pm #

    Hi Mike,
    I have an A6000 and use a Zeiss Touit 32mm 1.8. Just picked up a Contax 90. Now considering a 21mm Contax G and possibly the 28mm. Is the 21mm worth it or should I pickup a 12mm or 10-18mm for wide angles?

    • Yoshi Shimizu 20/02/2015 at 8:31 am #

      Hi Andrey, I noticed your above thread. I had A6000 + Contax G 28mm for a while. Though I did like the compactness of the combo, the color shift was way too much to bear. I think any contax lens wider than 28mm will have a significant amount of color shift. ….. unless you shoot in BW mode. In the end, I replaced the 28mm with Zeiss 24 f1.8 and am very happy with it. BTW I have purchased Sony RX100 Mark 3 which I tested during one of my assignments and it worked perfectly. I now use RX100 for my daily use and private trips and a backup for my professional work. It is worth checking it out.

    • Mike Randolph 20/02/2015 at 12:40 pm #

      Hi Andrey. I would say it depends on how wide you want to go. I have the Sony 10-18mm. It is pretty extreme. I don’t even actually ‘like’ it as a lens–I’m referring the build of it–but I have to say, it produces excellent results. If you want something truly wide, it’s a great choice. Good luck!

  11. Andrey 23/02/2015 at 4:47 am #

    Thx for the replies. I recently got the Techart Version 3 AF converter. Its a finicky adapter. I decided to give up on my Contax pursuits as the adapters would drive me crazy more than the quality of lenses. Will keep my Touit 32 1.8 and get a 1018 lens.

  12. KTR 20/04/2015 at 5:08 pm #

    I hope that on-line quiz was just supposed to be amusing, and was nopt intended top be taken seriously.

    • Mike Randolph 20/04/2015 at 6:00 pm #

      Thanks for the comment KTR. The answer is a little bit of both. For instance, if you really wanted to get a shot of Bigfoot, you’d want a camera with a LONG battery life and access to long, fast supertelephotos, so if you chose that option, you’d score for DSLR.

      The more serious evaluation of the differences comes afterwards, in my follow-up video. I’d be interested to hear what you think about it.


  13. KTR 20/04/2015 at 5:09 pm #

    Whoops. Two typos and no “Edit” feature.

  14. Mauirie 27/10/2015 at 3:44 am #

    Interesting comments. I travel extensively, and for the paid assinments I still carry 2 Nikon bodies and a suite of ‘pro’ 2.8 lenses – plus, depending on the project Nikon glass from 8mm to 800! And I pretty much always get what I want.

    However travelling on vacation I’ve switched to a Nex7 with Voigtlander 12 and 35mm The Sony-Zeiss 24-70; and occasionally the Sigma Bigma which I have as a Nikon mount plus an E mount adaptor – so it’s all manual, but produces some stunning results. Must say that 500mm x 1.5 factor (750mm) is quite a handful on the wee Nex that calls for near-dead heart rate to execute good frames 🙂

  15. Claudia 22/11/2015 at 10:25 pm #

    I want to get my husband a travel lens for the Sony A 7 I bought him last year?
    What would you recommend?

  16. GJA 15/02/2016 at 7:18 pm #

    Enjoying your blog. Having been a pro Nikon SLR/DSLR user for over 30 years, I’m realizing the benefits of mirrorless cameras, especially for travel and when you have to be on your feet for long periods of time. I also support zooms for street photography. I found the Lumix DMC-FZ1000 a good fit for all of the above, with long zoom range, high quality optics and relative fast f-stop. I was also impressed with your travel piece using the RX100. It’s not necessarily the equipment, but how you use it. Thanks again for your insightful posts.

    • Mike Randolph 16/02/2016 at 3:01 pm #

      Thanks for your kind comment, GJA. Looks like we have similar experiences (I started out with Nikon about 30 years ago, then switched, then switched again!) and we’ve come to more or less the same conclusion. It’s so liberating to have a light camera bag. Thanks again.

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