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

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