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Photography

Comparing Four Fantastic Lenses for Travel

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This article is an answer to those seeking simplicity in their travel photography life. It is for someone who loves to take a range of photos while on the road, but doesn't wish to lug around 30 lbs of professional gear to accommodate every possible shooting situation. It is for the traveler for whom photography is important, but it may also have to compete against space in bags for clothes, kid's items or even work projects.

This article will take a look at four different lenses well-suited for travel. They cover a couple of ranges that tackle 80-90% of the shooting situations you will find while abroad. They are lighter and more compact than professional alternatives, and also come with a lower price tag. This makes them suitable for the avid photographer on a budget. Not only useful on the road, back home these lenses often never leave the camera due to their versatility.

I rounded up four likely candidates from a range of manufacturers and brought them with me on a trip to Peru to visit Machu Picchu and venture into the rain forest. The Nikon option was tested on a Nikon D7000 lent to me from BorrowLenses.com while the other three lenses from Sigma, Tamron and Canon were tested on a Canon 7D. I used various lenses on various days and then spent time at Machu Picchu shooting some “side-by-side" comparison shots.

This review of the lenses is a real-world test case. It is not intended to be a laboratory examination of a finite optical discussion. If you are looking for lab-style tech data, I would suggest taking a look at DXO Mark which will allow you to see granular optical data tested on a variety of camera bodies, likely including the camera you shoot with.

Here then are my findings for each lens in no particular order, followed by comparison shots you may download at full size to peek at the pixels if you like.


Why Go With An All-In-One Lens

I have found some great advantages in using an all-in-one lens while traveling. The pros include:

  • Light weight options abound and save my back from stress.
  • The smaller size means a smaller bag. I normally carry a long lens and traveling with these options allowed for me to use a standard, smaller bag for the second camera with travel lens attached. This meant it was brought along on short trips because it was easy to grab.
  • One lens to replace two or three lenses has many advantages, not the least of which is less expense in buying multiple filters or accessories.
  • Less dust is introduced inside the camera due to lens changes (while noting dust will still be created just from the action of the mirror and curtains alone). Less sensor cleaning is a welcome change.

Sigma 18-200mm F3.5-6.3 DC OS

The first lens tested is the Sigma 18-200mm mounted on a Canon 7D. For a long time this has been my go-to lens when people ask me what lens to buy for traveling and they only want to buy/carry one lens. It is the least expensive of the lenses in this test and is made for both Canon and Nikon mounts.

  • Maximum Aperture Range: f/3.5-6.3
  • Weight: 405g / 14.3oz.
  • Dimensions (diameter x length): 70 x 78.1 mm / 2.8 x 3.1 in
  • Filter size: 62mm
  • Average Street Price: $397
  • Manufacturer's Website
  • DXO Mark Info

In Use

In use, the Sigma 18-200mm is a breeze to operate. I just wish the Manual/Automatic switch was located just a bit lower to make it more convenient to adjust when the camera is in hand.

Actually, this is a common complaint with many lenses for me, so take it with a grain of salt. I liked the feel of the rubberized coating of the focus and zoom rings. This may seem like a little thing, but I have found that any time a lens or camera feels good, it gets used more.

The lens attaches to the camera with no hassle and the autofocus is nominally responsive. It doesn't lag to the point of noting and it's not stellar to the point of expounding. It's not the fastest focusing lens in this group but for the price and size, it gets the job done. It did hunt a bit when extended all the way out and the scene in front did not have a lot of depth to it.

One thing of note with this lens is the autofocus noise. It is not deafening, but it is louder than normal. It is high pitched and chatty as the lens fine tunes its lock on a subject. The OS (Optical Stabilization) is not, however, loud or clunky as was the feel of the Tamron below.

Pros and Cons

  • Autofocus noise is louder than other lenses.
  • Good value for the price.
  • Solid performer and consistent. I know of people who have used this lens for 6 years on trips happily.
  • Light for its size. Easy to transport.

NOTE: This lens now has a version II that was unavailable at the time of testing. It retails for $499 and has a hypersonic motor which should be quieter.


Tamron 18-270mm F/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD

Not only does the Tamron 18-270mm sport more zoom capability than the other lenses featured here, it is also the shortest lens in the bunch. Tamron introduced this lens last year amid a large amount of hype as it was pushing the bounds of what an all-in-one was all about. This lens is also lighter than most, weighing in at a hair under one pound.

  • Maximum Aperture Range: f/3.5-6.5
  • Weight: 450g / 15.9oz
  • Dimensions (diameter x length): 74 x 88 mm / 2.9 x 3.5 in
  • Filter size: 62mm
  • Average Street Price: $599
  • Manufacturer's Website
  • DXO Mark Info

In Use

The Tamron 18-270mm lens fits well into just about any camera bag. As it is shorter than other lenses in this review, I had space under my lens while in the bag to store a couple of filters. On the camera, the lens' shortness makes zoom and focus easy for smaller hands. The lens lock is needed as zoom creep will occur with this lens when pointed at the ground. However, the lock is not as conveniently located as that of the Canon 18-200mm listed below.

The zoom has a smooth feel up to a point and then offers just a bit more resistance when passing through the 50mm and longer range. Focus speed of the lens is not lightening quick, but it is smooth and efficient, well suited for the non-professional photographer. I didn't find any hunting with my review lens, even when zoomed in to 270mm (unless I was shooting in very low light when almost every lens hunts).

This lens' weight and shortness, as well as the long zoom, lend it well to use on a smaller DSLR, such as a Canon T3i. Like all lenses in this review, it is designed for the cropped APS-C size sensors and was tested on such. I worry a bit about how far out the lens extends and bumping it on walls, as well as wear over time to all those moving parts (a common worry with all these lenses).

Pros and Cons

  • Small size perfect for travel.
  • Long 15X zoom covers an impressive range.
  • Zoom isn't perfectly smooth through the entire range.
  • Lens lock prevents zoom creep but is not in convenient location.

Nikon 18-200mm AF-S f/3.5-5.6G DX VR II

Nikon also sports an 18-200mm lens ideal for the traveler. The lens has a heavy feel in the hand, a hint to the use of more glass than plastic elements. Focus is fast and quiet, probably the quietest of the test group. It also touts two modes of Vibration Reduction (VR in Nikon parlance) to handle normal camera shake and the more pronounced, constant motion found in some situations, such as walking while shooting.

  • Maximum Aperture Range: f/3.5-5.6
  • Weight: 565 g / 19.9 oz.
  • Dimensions (diameter x length): 77 x 96.5 mm / 3.0 x 3.8 in
  • Filter size: 72mm
  • Average Street Price: $846
  • Manufacturer's Website
  • DXO Mark Info

In Use

One difference I found in the Nikon right away was the position of the focus ring closer in and the zoom ring further out. Once I adapted to this configuration, it became much easier to use with macro shots, for instance, because I did not have to reach as far out in order to tighten focus while manually adjusting. I also enjoyed the ability to switch to manual focus in automatic mode by simply activating the focus ring. In more than one occasion this was a time saver as I didn't have to fiddle around for the Manual/Automatic switch on the side of the barrel.

The zoom on this lens is smooth throughout the range with no noticeable hangups felt from front to back. It does suffer from zoom creep as other models do, but the lock switch on this version will stop the creep from occurring while carrying the camera in a downward configuration. It's not horrible (it's not as if the lens free-falls forward potentially causing damage) but it is annoying, as with all lenses in this test.

On the balance of the zoom creep, the focus is both fast and quiet. Compared to the Sigma, it is virtually silent and shots in hushed environments don't bring unneeded attention. In the field, the lens has a human eye feel when jumping between focus points. 'Snappy' would be an apt description.

Pros and Cons

  • f/5.6 at 200mm range is a nice feature.
  • Focus is wicked fast and snappy.
  • Build quality is solid and has a good feel in the hand.
  • Location of zoom ring is suboptimal when lens hood is placed on backward for transport. Hood covers ring and requires removal before zooming.

Canon EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS

Canon's 18-200mm entry fits the f/3.5-5.6 range expected in this superzoom category and also sports a semi-hidden lock switch to prevent zoom creep. While located underneath the lens, this location is actually better suited to activation while the camera is up to the eye and provides seamless transition for those times when unlocking the lens before shooting is forgotten.

  • Maximum Aperture Range: f/3.5-5.6
  • Weight: 595g / 20.99 oz.
  • Dimensions (diameter x length): 78.6 x 100.5mm / 3.09 x 3.95 in
  • Filter size: 72mm
  • Average Street Price: $568
  • Manufacturer's Website
  • DXO Mark Info

In Use

The Canon entry was a slight bit louder than the Nikon when autofocusing. It also lacks the ability to automatically switch to manual focus without adjusting the switch on the barrel. The zoom is nice and smooth and I found the amount of resistance adequate to hold the lens at most partial zoom location (although, as with all lenses in this article, it would eventually creep forward if pointed too far toward straight down).

In the field, the image stabilization preformed well, allowing at least a two-stop advantage when hand holding and zoomed to 200mm. This lens is the heaviest of the lot and comes with a solid feel because of the amount of actual glass contained in the multiple elements. From my judgement, it also produced the sharpest images from all the lenses tested whether on a tripod or not (see images below to judge for yourself).

Pros and Cons

  • f/5.6 at 200mm range is a nice feature.
  • Focus is accurate and sharp.
  • Sharpest pictures of test set.
  • Lock switch location is useful once learned.

Image Comparison

Below are sample shots taken at the same time and conditions. If you're looking for target tests in a lab, again, check out DXO Mark for all the specific data you can ask for. All tripod shots were taken with any image stabilization turned off. Clicking on an image will open a full sized image. Compare lenses against each other by opening the respective images.

The order of the shots in each section is 18mm distant object on tripod (at maximum, medium and minimum aperture settings), 200mm distant object on tripod (with 270mm added in for the Tamron), 200mm near object on tripod (with 270mm added in for the Tamron), 18mm near object handheld, 200mm distant object handheld.


Sigma

ISO 100, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/1600
ISO 100, 18mm, f/9.0, 1/250
ISO 100, 18mm, f/22, 1/40
ISO 100, 200mm, f/6.3, 1/800
ISO 100, 200mm, f/11, 1/250
ISO 100, 200mm, f/40, 1/20
ISO 100, 200mm, f/6.3, 1/1600
ISO 100, 200mm, f/11, 1/500
ISO 100, 200mm, f/40, 1/40
ISO 100, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/1250
ISO 100, 18mm, f/11, 1/125
ISO 100, 18mm, f/22, 1/40
ISO 100, 200mm, f/6.3, 1/500

Tamron

ISO 100, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/1250
ISO 100, 18mm, f/9.0, 1/200
ISO 100, 18mm, f/22, 1/40
ISO 100, 200mm, f/6.3, 1/640
ISO 100, 200mm, f/11, 1/200
ISO 100, 200mm, f/40, 1/15
ISO 100, 270mm, f/6.3, 1/640
ISO 100, 270mm, f/11, 1/160
ISO 100, 270mm, f/40, 1/15
ISO 100, 184mm, f/6.3, 1/2000
ISO 100, 184mm, f/11, 1/500
ISO 100, 184mm, f/40, 1/40
ISO 100, 270mm, f/6.3, 1/1000
ISO 100, 270mm, f/11, 1/320
ISO 100, 270mm, f/40, 1/30
ISO 100, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/800
ISO 100, 18mm, f/11, 1/1000
ISO 100, 18mm, f/22, 1/25
ISO 100, 270mm, f/6.3, 1/500

Nikon

ISO 100, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/2000
ISO 100, 18mm, f/9.0, 1/320
ISO 100, 18mm, f/22, 1/50
ISO 100, 200mm, f/5.6, 1/1250
ISO 100, 200mm, f/11, 1/400
ISO 100, 200mm, f/36, 1/40
ISO 100, 200mm, f/5.6, 1/1600
ISO 100, 200mm, f/11, 1/400
ISO 100, 200mm, f/36, 1/40
ISO 100, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/1250
ISO 100, 18mm, f/11, 1/160
ISO 100, 18mm, f/22, 1/40
ISO 100, 200mm, f/5.6, 1/800 Normal VR
ISO 100, 200mm, f/5.6, 1/800 Active VR

Canon

ISO 100, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/1600
ISO 100, 18mm, f/9.0, 1/250
ISO 100, 18mm, f/22, 1/40
ISO 100, 200mm, f/5.6, 1/800
ISO 100, 200mm, f/11, 1/200
ISO 100, 200mm, f/36, 1/15
ISO 100, 200mm, f/5.6, 1/1250
ISO 100, 200mm, f/11, 1/320
ISO 100, 200mm, f/36, 1/30
ISO 100, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/1250
ISO 100, 18mm, f/11, 1/125
ISO 100, 18mm, f/22, 1/30
ISO 100, 200mm, f/5.6, 1/500

Thanks for Reading

I believe all of these lenses performed well for their prices. The thing to remember with any wide range, travel lens is that you're sacrificing wide apertures for focal length flexibility. If you've had any experiences with these lenses or others in the same class, please share your results in the comments. Thanks!

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