Making the most of lightweight lenses when traveling

"Making the most of lightweight lenses when traveling" by Robert G Allen (websites: and

The alarm clock went off at 3:30AM. As soon as I awoke, I thought about the conversation my wife and I had with an airline pilot the prior evening while we were riding in the elevator together. He overheard our idea about taking some photos of the monuments and other major attractions in the Washington D.C. area. Our original plans entailed going to the attractions late in the evening to get the monuments during the golden light and hopefully avoid the crowds that are there during the day.  The airline pilot (who sounded like he travels to Washington D.C. often) suggested the opposite. He said to really see the sites around Washington D.C. without the crowds and in good light, you must rise way before dawn. We heeded his advice. The next morning, my wife and I dragged each other out of bed and were in the taxi by 4:00 AM heading down to the Lincoln and Washington Memorials in complete darkness. After getting up this early, we were hoping the pilot was right!

I was in Washington D.C. for a 4-day conference related to my day job (accountant in Boise, Idaho). I tacked on a few more personal days making our visit around a week in length.  Because I was there mainly on business, photography was not my primary objective. However, since I don’t visit D.C very often, I didn’t want to pass up an opportunity to photograph around the District area, at least the major tourist attractions.

As for gear, you may have guessed that since you are reading this on, that I use at least some Nikon equipment. Although I occasionally shoot with the Sigma 300mm 2.8 (which I love by the way) and the Tamron 16-300 DX, all my other gear is strictly Nikon. I admit that I’m a Nikon fan boy. I own an assortment of current Nikon FX and DX bodies and FX and DX lenses. When I travel, I normally don’t bring the same expensive and heavy equipment I would use at a typical wedding. Instead, I prefer to keep it small, light and inexpensive. Keeping it small, light and inexpensive usually means bringing my favorite crop sensor body, the D7200. Regarding lenses, staying consistent to traveling light and small, I bring the Nikon 18-55 VR II collapsible, Nikon 55-300 VR and the little Nikon 35 1.8 DX, all fitting nicely into a compact camera bag. This makes for a great versatile lightweight kit that’s able to tackle many situations and fits nicely under the seat in front of me on the plane. What I would like to illustrate in this article is that you don’t have to necessarily travel with large, heavy and expensive gear to get reasonable results that go beyond the typical cell phone photos.

My overall goal with most of the photos was to compose them in such a way as to eliminate as many of the people around the subject as possible. As you can imagine, Washington D.C. during the summer is packed with tourists and locals. On the weekend, it’s even more crowded! Finding trees and other obstacles that shielded the tourists from the composition was the usual go to approach. There were some photos that I could not eliminate all the people from. Those few photos with tourists in them actually helped provide a sense of scale to the image.

Although the focus of this article is on the lenses that I used, I wanted to mention how the D7200 performed. The D7200 is a powerful, small and lightweight body. I think that this is the first Nikon DX body that comes close to the performance of a full frame camera. The only notable difference is the increase in the amount of noise in the images at higher ISO values compared to what a full frame would exhibit. Other than that, I didn’t experience any issues and it was a real trooper (especially in the grueling heat and humidity we experienced during most days).

Below is a brief summary of how each lens performed:

Nikon 18-55 VR II collapsible: This is my go to lens for most situations. It’s a great general purpose lens that is surprisingly sharp with good contrast, especially considering its weight and size. The one thing that surprised me is its macro abilities. The shots from the US Botanic Garden were taken with this lens and I was surprised just how close I could get to the plants.

Nikon 55-300 VR: I have to admit that I’m partial to shooting telephoto. It’s clearly something that mobile phones have not been able to replicate, but may through software manipulation in the future. This lens does a pretty good job at background compression and subject separation at 300mm (where I mostly shoot this lens). In certain situations, the bokeh produced at its longest telephoto zoom is very acceptable. The 2 shots of the street performers were taken with this lens at 300mm and show just how good the bokeh can be.

Nikon 35 1.8 DX: I don’t use this lens as often as the other 2 above but it does have its place in the travel lens lineup. If I’m shooting in a dark museum and I don’t need to shoot very wide, this lens is a great solution, letting in a lot of light at f1.8. Also, if I want to separate the background from my subject and there is little space to backup and zoom in (as I would with the 55-300), then this lens suffices in most situations.

Overall, I think the pilot was correct. Getting up early provided great light, little to no people, and a much cooler environment to shoot in. Is there a performance hit when deciding to travel light with inexpensive lenses? When comparing contrast and sharpness to the more expensive glass, I clearly see a difference. However, I hope with these photos accompanying this article that I have successfully illustrated that with good light, proper technique and a little preparation, you can come away with some great travel photos using your basic lightweight DX kit lenses.

Architectural ceiling detail in Union Station. Nikon D7200, 55-300VR @ 55mm, ISO 100.

Top of Washington Monument. Nikon D7200, 55-300VR @ 300mm, ISO 200.

Lincoln Memorial. Nikon D7200, 55-300VR @ 135mm, ISO 200.

Young street performer. Nikon D7200, 55-300VR @ 200mm, ISO 200.

Dupont Circle Metro Station escalator. Nikon D7200, 18-55 VRII @ 38mm, ISO 500.

Flame in the Hall of Remembrance, US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Nikon D7200, 18-55 VRII @ 34mm, ISO 1600.

Smithsonian Castle main entrance. Nikon D7200, 18-55 VRII @ 25mm, ISO 500.

Artwork in front of Smithsonian Museum of American History. Nikon D7200, 18-55 VRII @ 18mm, ISO 320.

Flag over the Dept. of the Treasury. Nikon D7200, 55-300VR @55mm, ISO 100.

Architectural detail at the Dept. of the Treasury. Nikon D7200, 55-300VR @ 92mm, ISO 100.

Lincoln Memorial very early in the morning. Nikon D7200, 55-300VR @ 120mm, ISO 1600.

Early morning at the Washington Monument. Nikon D7200, 55-300VR @ 65mm, ISO 800.

Lincoln Memorial in the morning. Nikon D7200, 35 f/1.8 DX @ 35mm, ISO 800.

A wider view of the Washington Monument. Nikon D7200, 35 f1.8 DX @ 35mm, ISO 800.

Morning engagement session with the Washington Monument reflecting in the pool. Nikon D7200, 55-300VR @ 260mm, ISO 500.

Architectural detail at the Smithsonian Castle entrance. Nikon D7200, 55-300VR @ 165mm, ISO 500.

Plant at the US Botanic Gardens. Nikon D7200, 18-55 VRII @ 55, ISO 400.

Cactus at the US Botanic Gardens. Nikon D7200, 18-55 VRII @ 30mm, ISO 400.

Flowering cactus at the US Botanic Gardens. Nikon D7200, 18-55 VRII @ 55mm, ISO 400.

Plant at the US Botanic Gardens. Nikon D7200, 18-55 VRII @ 55mm, ISO 500.

Statue of Freedom, a top of the US Capital Dome. Nikon D7200, 55-300VR @ 300mm, ISO 100.

Library of Congress interior architectural detail. Nikon D7200, 18-55 VRII @ 55, ISO 640.

Light at the Library of Congress. Nikon D7200, 55-300VR @ 55mm, ISO 1,000.

Architectural detail, Library of Congress stairway. Nikon D7200, 18-55 VRII @ 55mm, ISO 1,000.

US Capital dome. Nikon D7200, 55-300VR @ 86mm, ISO 320.

Top of the Supreme Court. Nikon D7200, 55-300VR @ 185mm, ISO 200.

Architectural detail, US Supreme Court. Nikon D7200, 55-300VR @ 125mm, ISO 200.

Early morning at the Jefferson Memorial. Nikon D7200, 55-300VR @ 120mm, ISO 800.

Architectural detail, Jefferson Memorial. Nikon D7200, 55-300VR @ 68mm, ISO 400.

Street performer. Nikon D7200, 55-300VR @ 300mm, ISO 1250.

You can see more of Robert’s work at and

If you have an interesting idea for a guest post, you can contact me here.

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  • doge

    very nice shots. I love that first shot of the washington monument.

    • IDPhotos

      Thanks doge.

  • Max

    For me the most interesting compositions here are the ones than contain people, even though the photographer was trying to avoid it.

    • IDPhotog

      Hi Max. I agree with you. I should have clarified that I was only trying to avoid the big tourist crowds, not necessarily the individuals who may be jogging or walking by.

    • IDPhotos

      I agree Max. I should have clarified that I was only trying to avoid the masses of tourists around the sites, not the occasional jogger or local who was out and about. Actually, my favorite shot was the engagement photo session at the reflecting pool.

      • Max

        That’s my favourite too. Although they’re all good.

  • Eric Calabros

    Kit is crap… They said

    • Adnan

      Glass is very good but build quality is fragile … no not crap at all 🙂

  • Adnan

    Interesting bokeh of the leaf photo with 18-55, very nice!

    • IDPhotog

      I was surprised also. That lens can be hit and miss for bokeh. Just as the 55-300 can be hit or miss with its bokeh.

    • IDPhotos

      Agree. I was surprised how good it was during post processing. I think some lenses have an optimum distance between the subject and the background where good bokeh can be produced. Outside of that constraint and were back to not so good bokeh. I just was lucky with this one 🙂

  • Henry

    Some very nice photos. A worthwhile consideration on travelling light as well. Kudos for getting up early to “get the job done” so to speak. Thanks for sharing!

    • IDPhotog

      Thanks Henry!

    • IDPhotos

      Thanks Henry!

  • Spy Black

    Nice work Robert. The 18-55s are all good, albeit a bit soft at the edges. Doesn’t take away from the images you can get with them. I’ve never been a fan of the 55-300, although I do think the 55-200 is a very decent lens. I got both of those when I picked up my D5100 years back.

    • Eledeuh

      When stopped down a bit the 55-300 is a very decent performer, it’s often overlooked by most people for some reason, but this lens (and its shorter 55-200 sibling) are extremely versatile and open up a whole world of photographic possibilities, in my opinion much more so than the usually recommended 35mm f/1.8 lens.

  • Well done Robert. Since DC is close to my home you’ve now inspired me to lug around my heavy FX glass and grab some shots. However, when I hit the road on vacations I want to be a leaker and buy a light weight Sony travel kit.

  • Joey Bagadonuts2

    How safe did you feel being near the monuments in the dark at 4:30 – 5:30 am in DC?

    • IDPhotog

      Hi Joey,
      Good question. Yes, that was a consideration. Washington D.C. was just named one of the healthiest cities. That means that there were plenty of joggers around, even at that hour in the morning. At first we were a little scarred but once we saw the joggers, our nerves calmed. We did see a few homeless people but they just kept sleeping nearby while we were taking photos.

    • IDPhotos

      Excellent question. At first we were concerned but Washington DC was just named one of the fittest cities and as such there were plenty of joggers around, even as early as it was. Also, there were a few homeless people around the monuments but they kept sleeping while we were shooting so again, no problem. But we have to say we were also glad to see it starting to get light out just to be sure.

    • Daniel Delgado

      Plenty of joggers all morning. You’ll be fine.

  • MonkeySpanner

    I have all 3 of these lenses. They are all really great. You can get some incredible shots with the 55-300 in a light package. But I think I might leave home the 35/1.8 and bring a 12-28 Tokina – just to get the WA.

  • Some beautiful compositions here, showing that you don’t need the best cameras to do the best work. That’s a great thing for everyone to see, because otherwise photography just becomes a rich man’s hobby.

    • IDPhotos

      Thanks David.

  • codensnap

    Great shots, thanks for sharing.

    Can I ask why use 18-55 + 55-200 when you already had Tamron 16-300 DX? I’m asking this because I’m thinking of getting a 28-300 as a travel lens for use with my D750.


    • IDPhotos

      Thanks Codensnap. See my response to dbltax below. I also have the 28-300. Overall, it’s a great lens but again not as good as dividing up the focal length into several lenses (24-70, 70-200). I know that the 24-70 and 70-200 are in a different league but when a single lens spans such a focal length, trade offs are made but again the 28-300 is still very good. For convenience, I would recommend the 28-300.

      • codensnap

        Thank you for the response. I was curious why you chose not use the super zooms you had – 16-300 DX or 28-300 FX? Same reasons as Astro Landscapes pointed out above?

    • The 28-300 is, as its price and heft imply, quite a decently sharp lens for travel photography. If you want the utomst in convenience, go with that.

      However, personally I’d still go for a 2-lens kit, not even necessarily just because it was a tad sharper, but mainly for two other reasons.

      First, because it makes the camera in your hand much lighter, by relegating some of the overall lens weight to always be in your bag instead of around your neck or shoulders.

      Secondly, (this is going to sound dumb and be a weak argument overall because of the differences in sensor size and image quality) …because the ability to change lenses is actually part of the reason I bought an SLR camera in the first place, instead of a fixed lens camera such as a Sony RX. (or a Nikon DL, if they’d ever arrive.) Aside from the nostalgia that goes with changing lenses in order to get your shot, I also have the options to leave certain lenses at home some of the time, and bring others. Ultra-lightweight (and super-cheap) zooms and primes exist in the whole range, from the likes of the Tokina 17-35mm f/4 or the Rokinon 14mm, if that’s your style, to the cheaper, older 70-300 or my personal favorite for backpacking, the 11 oz (!!) Nikon 80-200mm 4.5-5.6 D.

      But, in all seriousness, if you’re looking for convenience, a full-frame sensor is your biggest problem. A D750 with a 28-300 is still laughably inconvenient, compared to something like a Sony RX10 mk2 or mk3, or again, a similar Nikon DL.

      If you’re really interested in keeping things super lightweight, just consider how important image quality really is to you. If you’re never really going to do much with these images other than share them online and maybe make a few small 8×10’s or 11×14’s for friends and family, …you might be perfectly happy with a compact camera that uses a 1″ type sensor… I used a Sony RX10 mk2 for travel landscape photography for quite a while, and it was fantastic.

      • codensnap

        Thanks for the response, I agree with both your points.

        I had two usecases for the 28-300 –
        1. For birding and safaris where I would have the 200-500 on a DX body and the 28-300 on a FX body to avoid having to change lenses.
        2. Hiking trips and travel where I can just pull out the camera and take the shot.

        • You’re very correct; in some shooting conditions having to change a lens can be the difference between getting the shot you want, and missing it. A safari is probably one of the best examples of those conditions, second only to maybe professional sports.

          For hiking though, above all else I still prefer to save weight. Partly because, as a nightscape photographer, I wind up wanting to bring 3+ cameras into the wilderness, LOL, for various timelapses and long exposures. Also, there’s the annoying aspect of filming / shooting BTS footage, so that I can create educational content. So yeah, that’s a lot of cameras, and every ounce counts. If I need ~3 cameras, that usually means that none of them need to have a super-zoom on them, in fact a prime that is best suited for the angle I need is optimal.

          I’ve never been hiking or backpacking with the 28-300, however I did take the 24-120 f/4 VR on a couple backpacking trips and really loved it. I think that’s about as much “super-zoom” as I care to lug around.

          • codensnap

            Thanks, your points helped me in my decision. I think I will stick to my 16-35 f/4, 70-200 f/4 and 24-120 f/4. For local birding I will swap lenses and for those rare safaris I will rent a 3rd body like D750. Only downside is lugging a 3rd body, but I safaris are not frequent anyway. Plus the IQ will be better than what I could get from 28-300. Now I just need to wait for the Tamron 150-600 G2 to decide between it and Nikon 200-500.

            • codensnap

              And the 24-120 f/4 should cover me for the small hikes and day trips, like you said.

            • Yup, that’s a pretty perfect setup, especially if you combine FX and DX options. Throw in the 200-500 or 150-600, and you’ve got 16-800mm covered with amazing image quality.

  • CaMeRa QuEsT

    Have owned 5 copies of the 18-55 VRII, the first 3 were decent, 4th one was soft on the left 1/3 and the last one is uncannily sharp from corner to corner, definitely a keeper. Also had one 55-300 but the 55-200 VRII beats it in sharpness and portability, needless to say I kept 55-200 and had 2 more copies, all performing equally well. With a D5500, it makes you forget about mirrorless options.

    • I was going to mention that, the D7200 is hardly a “lightweight option” compared to what most others are “jumping ship” to these days, even limited to the sphere of APS-C systems.

      A D5300 / D5500, on the other hand, combined with the two newest collapsible kit zooms, is so incredibly compact and lightweight that only a real sissy would complain about such a kit being too heavy.

      • KnightPhoto

        Thanks, I was wondering just that. I haven’t held a D5x00 series in years, I should check it out. A D5500 and that new collapsible 18-55 and the 55-200 sound decent.

        OP – very nice work and good storyline! Thought provoking on the use of compact gear and very nice images and light.

        • As a travel photographer, honestly I’d rather have the D5300. It has built-in GPS, and yet the D5500’s touch screen and other bells and whistles will probably still consume your batteries faster. Plus, the D5300 is probably cheaper now that the D5500 is out. And the sensors are almost the same, that is to say both of them rival the D7200 in image quality, instead of having the shadow banding issues that the D7100 and D5200 had, I believe.

        • IDPhotos

          Thanks KnightPhoto.

        • Even after owning multiple full-frame bodies for many years, I bought a D5200 and then a D5300 for “B-camera” timelapse filming, and it was fantastic. It’s a rather limited interface though, with only one command dial and very few of the bells and whistles and customizations that come on a D7200 or D750. However, as someone who cares most about saving weight, for at least 50% of the shots I take, I found it a delightful camera to hike with. In fact half the time I would just leave it screwed to the top of my monopod / hiking stick, and I barely noticed it with a small lightweight lens like the Tokina 11-16 attached.

          Again, the D5500 is nice, but personally I’d be partial to a D5300 for the reasons I stated. Both would be fantastic travel cameras, either way.

  • Rooster

    When people say to me oh but you have state of the art gear anyone can do that i hand them my camera and say ok, away you go and whilst your at it give me your phone and lets compare the results. Its never about how good your gear is, never has been and never will be. This is a classic example of that right here. Great work and thanks for sharing.

  • IainGFoulds

    … Quite the portfolio of incredibly boring pictures.

    • David

      Always that one A-hole in the bunch.

      • Kevert


    • TheFantasticG

      To be fair the writer of the article did say he wanted to hit the major tourist attractions… so he wasn’t going out to be as artistic as possible when shooting. He did, however, make a good case for this kit when traveling.

    • purenupe1

      No comment would have been a better choice…commenting negatively only makes you a douche bage

    • ZoetMB

      Quite the usual incredibly boring and useless comment.

    • What do you know, telephoto images of landscape and architecture are now seen as “incredibly boring”.

      I blame today’s obsession with absurdly and pointlessly ultra-wide lenses, and the gravitation towards “in-your-face” being the only remaining compositional ploy used by most photographers today.

      You know what, you’re right. These images are indeed a bit boring. Especially if you’re used to mind-bending perspectives and overpoweringly obvious and contrived leading lines.

      At the end of the day, some folks just prefer quieter images, simple compositions that employ a more traditional variety of artistic visual tools. If I’m being honest, these images often look better (and much more timeless) hanging on a wall than the over-HDR’d (and often downright fake) landscapes that litter the front page of 500PX or your favorite Instagram hashtag.

      Not that you aren’t entitled to mention that you find these pictures boring. I just thought I’d mention that you finding these pictures boring tells us more about you than it tells you about this publication…

      • IDPhotos

        Wow Astro, I couldn’t have said it better. Thanks!

    • Kevert

      Point us to your website and we’ll learn.

    • preston

      If you have criticism at least make it constructive. These are boring because. . .

  • dbltax

    Great shots, but looking at the distribution of lens / focal length used I can’t help but feel you’d have been better off just taking the Tamron 16-300mm and leaving the other three lenses at home?

    • IDPhotos

      Agree but when you use several lenses along a certain focal length, my experience has been that the quality increases over using a single lens covering the same focal length. At the same time, the Tamron is very good at what it does so it’s very close. Good point.

  • I’m glad that other folks out there are doing more than talking when it comes to the whole “it’s not the camera, it’s the photographer” philosophy. It seems like everywhere you turn folks are screaming this, …and then they’re turning around and spending the rest of their time pixel-peeping the latest sensor or lens, highly critical of its minor flaws.

    I’ve been buying “junk” lenses on eBay and at other used stores (from KEH to garage sales) for many years now, and almost every lens I’ve ever bought has treated me very well.

    Ironically, I just went on a road trip from Southern California to Colorado with this exact concept in mind- creating beautiful images of landscapes and travel, with minimal gear.

    Aside from my back-from-the-dead D750 which is past its expiration date at this point, my investment was less than $200 in lenses. I had an old Tokina 19-35mm that I bought from the bargain bin at my local camera store for $129, and an 80-200mm f/4.5-5.6 D that I bought on eBay for $30 or so. Plus, a 50mm f/1.8 Series E that I inherited from a grandfather. Neither of these lenses is anything to write home about, in fact both of them are slightly below my usual threshold of acceptability for corner sharpness. But I used them anyway. And you know what? Lo and behold, the images turned out beautiful. I even timelapsed the milky way a couple times, and that turned out alright too.

    I’ll post my own images on my website sooner or later…

    • IDPhotos

      I would love to see them. Judging from your response to IainGFoulds above, you are sensitive to over processed images. Same here, I think it’s sad where its all going at this point. And, talk about fake images, it’s happening in all areas of photography. From fake wedding photos (i.e. stylized shoots) to fake landscapes (i.e. boring sky? Then just copy and past a new one in). Hardly anyone is patient anymore. It us to be you would wait for the good light. Now, you just create good light in post.

  • thanks for let us discover washighton dc..nice pictures!

    • IDPhotos

      Thanks Albi!

  • mhz

    why last photo using ISO 1000 in day time?

    • IDPhotos

      Good catch Mhz. What I would like to say is that shooting the 55-300 at 300 closes down the aperture a lot and I wanted to make sure I froze him because he was moving so fast so I choose a high ISO value to increase the shutter speed. However, the reality is that I forgot to lower it after we came out of the White House visitors center. But the D7200 is so good that I didn’t worry too much about forgetting to lower the ISO down.

      • mhz

        got it =)

  • Boris Cheung

    This teached me to buy outdated, light-weight, beginner’s model, with used, cheap third party primes.

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