The complexity of deciding which lenses to pack

Introduction

Now I have way more lenses than anyone possibly needs – luckily this was listed as kind of a requirement in the job description here –  but when that is the case it also gets more difficult to decide what lenses to bring on a trip or an assignment. Going by the discussions in the forums I participate, and on our Discord, it seems I am not alone here.
A community member said it would be interesting to know about my thought process of deciding which lenses to bring on a trip, so here we are.

My approach

These days I often build my kit around lenses that still need to be reviewed. This will also heavily influence what cameras I pick. But let’s forget about that for now and keep it to the lenses I actually own.

ms-optics ms-optical apoqualia 35mm 1.4 fast noctilux angenieux leica m10 24mp 42mp review sharpness bokeh vignetting
Leica M6 | MS-Optics 35mm 1.4 Apoqualia | f/2.0 | Gold 200

No matter where I go, what camera I am using and whether it will be digital or analogue: a fast 35 or 28mm lens is a given. I cannot think of any destination I wouldn’t bring a lens like that.

The next question I ask myself is: do I need the Laowa 9mm 5.6? Whenever I go somewhere with interesting indoor architecture or a bigger city I will bring it.
For pure landscape shooting (and also when only visiting small villages) I may leave it behind though. For this lens to work with landscape pictures a truly spectacular sky with beautiful clouds is mandatory, otherwise there will simply be too much negative space.

zeiss loxia 21mm 2.8 hallstatt hallstadt halstadt austria city snow snowy winter
Sony A7rII | Zeiss Loxia 21mm 2.8 | f/8.0

The gap between 9mm and 35mm is pretty big. Most of the time I am using the Zeiss Loxia 21mm 2.8 here, but if there is the chance to shoot the milky way or I know I will be taking pictures in dimly lit interiors without the option to use a tripod I will go for the Laowa 15mm 2.0 instead.

With these lenses I usually take 90-95% of the pictures on a trip. I often add a slightly longer lens though. Depending on my mood and where I go this will be one of the following: Voigtländer VM 75mm 1.5, Leica 90mm 2.0 pre-Asph, MS-Optics 135mm 2.4 or Sigma 180mm 5.6 Macro. The 75mm 1.5 and 135mm 2.4 have a spectacular entrance pupil/weight ratio, so most of the time I end up with one of those two.

Sony A7rII with metabones Leica-M adapter and MS-Optics Aporis 135mm 2.4 bokeh loca
Sony A7rII | MS-Optics Aporis 135mm 2.4 | f/2.4

Now what is good for me isn’t necessarily good for you, so here are some additional aspects to consider that may aid you in picking and packing wisely.

Carry as few lenses as possible

When I was still running landscape workshops (before Covid) there was always a guy showing up with a full set of f/2.8 zooms in his backpack plus a bunch of primes and sometimes even flashes. Those people are usually also 100% advice-resistant when you tell them to leave some of the stuff behind, because the fear of missing out a shot due to not having “the correct focal length” is always greater than the potential back pain. Don’t be that guy.

Sony A7III | TTArtisan 50mm 1.4E | f/1.4

Now this is a bit of a “Do as I say, not as I do” advice, because there are usually lenses that I need to review – and I like my reviews to have actual pictures, not only my balcony/bookshelf/cat/cactus/lunch – so I might even end up bringing two lenses of the same focal length. But when this is the case I won’t go out with both of them at the same time. First time I was in Istanbul I had review samples of the Laowa 35mm 0.95 and the TTArtisan 50mm 1.4E with me. I used the 35mm throughout most of the trip as my main lens, but decided to use the 50mm instead for the last 3 days.
Spending more time with just one focal length you may also be able to better focus (no pun intended) on compositions and motives, compared to constantly changing between various focal lengths.

What do you actually want to take pictures of?

This is the most important one actually. Think less about where you are going and more about what you want to see there. If I go to Australia I would be mainly interested in the landscape and also astrophotography. So a fast wide angle lens like the Laowa 15mm 2.0 would be pretty high on my priority list.
But you might be interested in all the endemic animals or flowers, so my 15mm lens would not do you any good, you need a tele lens or a macro instead.

laowa 15mm 2.0 fe venus optics review coma astro astrophotography milkyway milky way
Sony A7s | Laowa 15mm 2.0 Zero-D | f/2.0

This is why in my opinion it is pretty pointless to ask other people what lenses to bring when going somewhere you haven’t been before. Unless those are very specific questions of course, like: “How close can I get o the animals in Kruger national park?”

Stick with what you have and know

I constantly see people looking to buy new gear when a special trip is coming up. Maybe getting the MK II of the 24-70mm 2.8 GM? Replacing the cheap f/1.8 lens with a fancier f/1.4? Adding a wider/longer lens to the existing line up?
From a business point of view I shouldn’t say this – as you buying stuff via affiliate links is what keeps this blog running – but you don’t always need a new lens or camera.

ms-optics ms-optical ism sonnetar f/1.0 f/0.95 fast noctilux angenieux leica m10 24mp 42mp review sharpness bokeh vignetting
Leica M10 | MS-Optics 50mm 1.0 ISM | f/1.4

When actually using your equipment you also get to know it better. With my Zeiss Loxia 21mm 2.8 I know exactly how to set the focus ring for infinity to be in optimal focus without checking the focus peaking or using the magnify option. With the Laowa 35mm 0.95 I know how to shade the lens with my hand to get rid of ghosts from stray light. With the MS-Optics 50mm 1.0 ISM I know I like the rendering at f/1.4 the most.

If you are constantly changing your gear it is more likely that something will get in the way as you never grow familiar with it.

Try new things

Now this one totally contradicts the previous point, but this is because we are all different and different people may benefit from different advice.

Don’t be afraid to try new things. If you are used to carrying a set of big and heavy zoom lenses maybe go for just one or two small primes instead. If you are used to carrying a bag full of primes maybe the Sony FE 20-70mm 4.0 GM or the Tamron 35-150mm 2.0-2.8 with their unique focal length ranges are actually what you have been waiting for all those years.

Leica M6 | 500T | Voigtländer VM 28mm 2.0 | f/2.0

You want to shoot analogue for a change? Do it! This is something that definitely broadened my horizon. Leaving the big guns at home and just using an RX100 or a GRIII? Why not!
Don’t be afraid to make a mistake from that you may learn a lot.

Last words

These days we often just focus (pun again not intended) on what we might miss. We try everything to avoid the possibility of something going wrong. In order to do that we spend hours on finding the best lens, trying to assemble the best kit, finding the best locations.

I am definitely like that, but I am still trying to be less like that. Make your own mistakes, gather your own experiences, find out what works best for you.

hologon leica m contax-g 16mm 8.0 8/16 center filter review sharpness leica m10 m11 sony e-mount adapter conversion sharpness distortion carl zeiss germany
Leica M6 | Hologon 16mm 8.0 | Kodak Color Plus 200 | B&W converted

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My name is Bastian and I am your expert here when it comes to ultra wide angle lenses, super fast portrait lenses (ranging from a 50mm f/0.95 to a 200mm f/1.8) and I also have reviewed way too many 35mm lenses. Don't ask me anything about macro or wildlife shooting though.

36 thoughts on “The complexity of deciding which lenses to pack”

  1. I guess this post will resonate for quite a few folks. I always had the struggle of “you need the fast aperture and Full Frame”.
    As a hobbyist photographer this is not true.
    My strategy is to stay away from primes (never need the F1.4 anyway) and decided to go with APSC + compact zooms and my beloved RX100 M7, sometimes alongside with my Insta 360 panorama camera. Trips and vacations are so much more enjoyable without needing to carry around so much stuff that you likely won’t use anyway ….

    1. Ohh I should hop on Discord for this discussion… My main issue is that while I can easily whittle down my prime selection, eg 20/1.8 G + 35/1.4 GM + SY75/1.8 (optional 11/4.5 or 135/3.5, both of those bought largely thanks to reviews here!); invariably I then end up adding to that. At least the 17-28 is a like-to-like replacement for the 20G if I want more versatility.

      Sometimes I bring stuff like the TT 50/2, the SY45/1.8, or the 24/2.8 G thinking I’ll wanna size down the kit further for some outings but then I don’t, and I carried them for naught… What if I want a tele zoom for some stuff too? Slippery slope heh. Should this sentence have read f2.8 zooms btw?

      ” there was always a guy showing up with a full set of f/2.8 primes in his backpack plus a bunch of primes and sometimes even flashes. ”

      Getting out of that “missed shot” mindset is definitely big when shooting primes or choosing a minimal kit in general, it’s a bad trap. If you’ve got too much gear odds are you’ll spend more time swapping lenses or less time walking so it’s not even necessarily logical.

      I’d rather get a few great shots with what I had than a hundred meh shots because I was trying to work every angle and not miss a thing.

  2. Whenever I question myself what lens to bring and had no idea what I would go, I would bring the Tamron 28-200mm f/2.8-5.6, get on the Friday night train, fall asleep, and get off when I wake up.
    Whenever I question myself what lens to bring and I am going to a hike in the wilderness, I would bring the Tamron 50-400mm f/4.5-6.3 which also doubles as a macro lens.
    Whenever I question myself what lens to bring and I am going to attend an event, I would bring the Tamron 35-150mm f/2-2.8 which covers all my portrait shots and group photos.
    Other than the Tamron, I would bring a vintage lens or even a film camera for getting creative shots.

  3. It’s nice to read that even very experienced photographers still struggle with this, haha.
    My significant other usually lets me bring 3 lenses at most, so I tend to pick and choose from my selection bases on that and where we are going on a trip.
    Weather, destination and time allowing for manual focus are some importang considerations for me.

      1. Same thing has been happening with the 17-40L I have. My better half really likes that and it’s been hard explaining to her how F4 isn’t always good enough.

  4. Dear Bastian,
    I am traveling tomorrow to Venice and your post is spot on.
    I used to carry roughly what you mention, 9mm Laowa, underrated lens if ever there was one, CV 21 f1,4 close to your Loxia, and CV 35 APO whose rendering is also underrated in my humble opinion.
    I sometimes added the Sony 14mm f1,8 for its wide opening.

    Things have changed and people around me have less patience, and have kept one or two wide angles, replaced by the Sony 28-70. Not as gratifying but faster to take shots which is important to keep one’s family in a good mood.

    This being said, when, as I hope for you, there might be (many) little Kratzkes around, things might change for you too and you will grin reading this comment.

    Thank you again for a most interesting post.

    1. You can mitigate the time lost when changing lenses by carrying more than one body 🙂
      That being said: if need arises I will be the first to get one of the fancy zoom lenses.

  5. personally, when landscape is the main subject zooms are significantly more useful than fast primes since anyhow the preference is shooting closed. This is especially relevant in bad weather or desert. Something like 17-28, 45/50 f2 and 70-180 is an excellent combo around 2Kg including the camera, especially with the light tamron or sigma zooms but even the Tamron trinity adds up with a camera to less than 2.5kg. With high mega pixel like A7R2/3 cameras, cropping is not an issue and with AI denoising 3200 or 6400 are also very relevant.

  6. Ooooo I love that last shot sooo much. And I usually don’t love B&W.

    Anyways, I usually find myself considering 1) weight, 2) versatility 3) quality of contrast 4) quality of bokeh 5) low light potential and 6) risk of environment / price of lens. The latter is especially important for when I go mountain biking.

    I find myself using my Nikon 20mm 1.8 and Voigtlander 40mm 1.2 the most. Auxiliary lenses I tend to bring with are:

    7artisans 28mm f1.4 (when weight doesn’t matter, contrastiness + amazing bokeh for its focal length

    Minolta 45mm f2 (if I need lightweight and amazing contrast + don’t want to damage my voigt)

    Voigtlander 58mm 1.4 (for best contrast and colors of all lenses + 3D pop + zero distortion)

    Tokina 90mm at-x f2.5 (for more reach, best microcontrast / 3Dness of all lenses, + good bokeh)

    Canon FD 300mm f4 L (for wildlife + if maximum reach needed)

    Otherwise I have a handful of other lenses that I just use for fun but do not typically tend to bring.

    1. That last picture apparently triggers all the actual B&W film shooters, as they love to tell me how much better it would be had it been taken with an actual B&W film.
      For some reason it seems to be some kind of a sacrilege to convert a picture from a color negative film to B&W…

      1. That’s actually really funny. I wonder if there is anything noticeable between Color neg>B&W vs B&W>B&W with careful observation… it’s hard to imagine there would be, but I’m open to the idea. Not really a film shooter myself so I wouldn’t know.

  7. Oh wow this article rings so true. I have been through all the stages of needing ‘the best’ or the ‘most versatility’. Often these lead to a ton of photos, none of which I really liked, and all of which did a terrible job of illustrating the actual story I wanted to tell, emotion I wanted to convey, or insight I wanted to try and give. It took a long time (and a lot of buying and selling) to realise that having a ‘better’ bit of kit won’t actually make your photos any better.

    Aside from wildlife, which has its own specific needs, I now have a really simple set up. I take my best pictures with a 70-200mm lens. I have a 20mm prime for Astro. And I use a Fujifilm x100v for all the casual life and walk around stuff.

  8. Well i think the fast wide prime is ridiculous when you show us an image that was taken at night at f/8 on a 2.8 lens! Just why?? Why carry all that extra weight especially for travel when you’re not going to use the speed? I think for wide landscapes a 14-35 will cover everything from ultra wide to some portraits. And then just have a fast 50. Thats it!

  9. People change and their surroundings change, so do I. I got a new job and now I’m not doing reportage anymore, so I don’t need 24-70 or 70-200 zoom, needed for where I can’t move around easily. Instead I need fast(bright) AF prime lens for family photos. I’ve considered a LOT for choosing my main lens, and finally I’ve changed most used focal length from 50mm to 35mm. Sigma 35 f/1.2 made me do so. It is truly the best normal lens for me. A bit hefty for carry around, but its resoultion and bokeh makes me to carry it. Though AF speed is not that impressive. Sony 50mm f/1.2 would be better in that regard, but I’d rather have another lens(es) with Sigma.

  10. A wonderful article that shares my experience.

    A friend of mine always goes out shooting with 15 – KG cameras and lenses….

    In the meantime I limit myself to my small Peak bag, where my 21 Loxia, VM 1.7/35 + 90 – Bokina or M-Rokkor 90 fit and that’s it.
    Everything else waits patiently in the cupboard…There is a lot of satisfaction in limitation.

    I don’t miss anything with it – on the contrary. Thanks for the great articles Bastian!

    Greetings Klaus

  11. “That guy” with a full set of zooms maybe won’t miss a shot (he will focus heavily on a limited number of spots, thus miss opportunities anyway), but he will miss a vacation.
    I’m sure he won’t be missing his doctor’s appointment when he hits certain age though.
    Another thing… When I carry only a very few select lenses (small/ish primes and/or zooms), I don’t have to leave any at my room. I feel safer when they are with me, visiting most of Europe, not to mention some other places. Sure, anything could happen, but still…

    1. That guy could easy also be someone who brings his 5 or 6 GM primes and has a bag that is just as heavy if not far heavier than one with three F2.8 zooms in it

  12. “Think less about where you are going and more about what you want to see there”

    Oh my god thank you for that simple statement. It seems obious to me, but it doesn’t seem to be the case for everyone. It always baffles me when I read things like “I will spend the next 2 weeks in France (or USA / China / Japan), what do I need to take with me ?”. Replace the destination by “my home town” in the sentence and you can see the absurdity of the question…

  13. Great post. And that first photograph is gorgeous!
    If I’m travelling for a personal photography project, I rarely regret taking just my 35mm and a body. Maybe a backup just in case.

  14. Thanks Bastian for the writeup. This is all very true, and it’s important not to forget what we’re packing for. For our experiences, not hauling every piece of gear possible.

    I’ll be interested to hear about what you _actually_ brought to Japan then but I’m sure you’ll write about your trip on one or the other medium. And, who knows, maybe see you there – I’ll spot you in the streets of Tokyo! 🙂

  15. Hi Bastian,
    I had to grin when I read your article. I often stand in front of my photo gadges and think about what to take with me. The older and wiser I get, the less I take with me. The trend towards “one cam one lens” is clear. Last year I went around the houses only with my Leica Q for three weeks…. It turned out great pictures!

  16. I too am faced with this dilemma…which lenses to take on a trip/holiday or even just for a simple day-out nearer home

    For a weekend away / or holiday I take a max of 4-5 lenses, but only a small peak design bag. This limits what I can physically take out with me each day and makes me focus on that day on photographing what I want and I find I can enjoy the trip more. I have the option if it’s a city-break to bring another lens on a different day if I want to photograph something with a different focal length in the same city.

    I increasingly find that “less is definitely more”.

    I have too much kit and should really sell a few lenses. The problem is I find it’s getting really really difficult to sell stuff for a decent price nowadays on eBay without a load of stress and hassle i.e. dealing with unserious bidders, paying excessive fees to “advertise” your auction, and other hidden costs.

    If anyone knows of better options for selling gear in Germany then please let me know. A lot of German retailers now offer second hand goods which is good for consumers, but less good for the sellers as the prices they offer to buy even excellent condition equipment are pretty low.

    1. MPB doesn’t operate there? I had a good experience with them when selling off a couple of my pricier/larger M4/3 lenses after I also started shooting FF, the prices were competitive or better than KEH’s or Adorama’s and the process was smooth. I’d probably sell less popular gear there again even if I get me a little less money than selling on ebay or forums, tho advertising 1st on the latter is free and painless (Fred Miranda & DPR in my case but I’m US based).

      1. Their site says they’ve got HQ in the UK, US, and in Berlin btw… I dunno if selling in late 2021 (or was it early 2022? I forget) gave me more favorable pricing but yeah…

  17. Typically I find the lighter I pack, the more fun I have, the better photos I take. I often travel with just a 35 and I only feel about 5% of potential shots are missed by not having additional lenses. this does sometimes lead to me having to sprint for a shot I know won’t last.

    and absolutely true that you should not use new gear for the first time on a trip! I went to Italy right around the same time I bought a Canon R5, I figured it wouldn’t be that different but I actually ended up with almost no good photos because I was used to the logical way Sony does things and not the iPhone approach Canon takes where it thinks it knows best no matter what you try and tell it. I ended up selling that about a year later and I haven’t missed it a single day.

  18. What a great timing for me to stumble upon this article! I’m just finding my way back into photograpy and on a limited budget so now I need to plan which lens to buy. I just purchased a new A7 II with 28-70 kit lens (it was just 50 euros more than just the body alone), my first mirrorless and the only lens I was left with from the old times is my A-mount Minolta 24-50 f4, which I really loved back then. Most of my photography is nature and landscapes, lots of it by the seaside as I live in Croatia and I was always having just zooms so now I’m trying to figure out a lineup of a couple of primes to set myself up with for the forseeable future. I need something wide for my shore and mountains hikes, where Laowa 15 looks pretty apealing to me while Loxia 21 is a bit too much on the pricier side. Then probably a 35 for general purpose where I have no clue what to look for now for the A7 II and in the end, I’m thinking something in the 75 to 105 range with macro that I could use for portraits too. I’m going through so many reviews lately, especially here on this site, but I’d really appreciate a practical advice here too.

    1. The practical advise is always, get the lens you will put in your bag. Especially on hiking trips you want a light bag. Here would be a zoom like Sony 16-35 or Sigma 16-28 very handy.

  19. If you don’t know which lens you have to pack you have too many or you have FOMO.

    I have two prime lenses, a wide angle and a normal lens.

    Many shots I simply can’t get, but I don’t care. I can concentrate on getting the shots I can, and without stress. And I am forced to be creative.

    Of course I can’t photograph a bird on a long distance, but it’s not my interest. My interest are landscapes and people.

    Enjoy the moment, record with your eyes and get the shots you can with the equipment you have or can afford.

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