Quality Compact Lenses for the Backpacker

Discussion in 'Nikon' started by hugh_sakols, May 13, 2009.

  1. Every summer I look forward to backpacking trips in the Yosemite high country. Last summer I mostly used a Nikon D300, a compact yet sturdy metal Gitzo tripod, a 17-55 2.8, and a 105 micro. One frustration I have with nikon is that their quality lenses are mostly large heavy 2.8 designs made for photojournalists or photographers that need speed. Yes I understand this is the market - most nature photographers don't make the money that a well established wedding photographer would make. I suggest that stimulus money goes to Nikon to develop great compact lenses with the landscape photographer in mind ( remember the 70-180 macro?). If I find the right DX wide angle lens (maybe the 10-24 nikon???), I might try using my 70-210 AFD 4-5.6 and my 24-50 AFD - Yes Bjorn gives this lens a crummy review but I find stopped down it is plenty sharp. Keep in mind all of my images are shot between f8 and f16. I'm curious what other backpackers have found that works for them.
     
  2. One lens I have in my backpack that I think is pretty compact is the Sigma EX 24-60 2.8. The image quality is quite good as well. In fact I would say it is a very sharp zoom lens. For a 2.8 it is very small, nothing like the 24-70 2.8 I used to have that was a bohemath.
    BTW I used to live close to Yosemite and love going there. My favorite hike was to the top of half dome. The view from on top never gets old.
     
  3. ShunCheung

    ShunCheung Administrator

    a compact yet sturdy metal Gitzo tripod,​
    If you want to reduce your load, start with a carbon fiber tripod.
     
  4. That is a good point by Shun, the carbon fiber helps too. Also another lens you may want to consider would be the 18-200. I know it doesn't have the sharpness of your current lenses but stop down it is pretty good. This would reduce your gear to one lens.
     
  5. ShunCheung

    ShunCheung Administrator

    There are other lens options too. You certainly don't need f2.8 for hiking, and the 17-55mm/f2.8 is optimized for 10 to 20 feet anyway. Bjorn Rorslett's experience is the same as mine: it is not as sharp at infinity.
    There are plenty of other lens options from the 18-70, 18-105, 16-85, to the 18-200 all AF-S DX. The 70-300 AF-S VR is also a pretty good tele, good enough for John Shaw and Thom Hogan.
     
  6. I've used a Nikon D60 with a Nikon 16-85 where size and weight are major factors. The D60 is quite a bit lighter and smaller than the D300 and the same holds true for the 16-85 vs. a 17-55 (BTW, I own the 17-55 and a D300 so I've done this comparison myself). The D60 produces images similar to the D200. The new Nikon D5000 would probably produce an image similar to your D300 and be closer to the D60 in size and weight. FWIW, the 16-85 is well rated. For a one-camera, one-lens solution I think this might be a good combo.
    If macro work is important and minimal weight/size is an issue then Kenko extension tubes would allow most lenses (the 16-85???) to do macro work.
    If you want a DX wide-angle zoom then I recommend the Sigma 10-20 (haven't tried the Nikon 10-24 yet but I did sell my Nikon 12-24 when I bought the Sigma).
    If you need telephoto then consider the Nikon 70-300 (but not the inexpensive G version). The recently discontinued ED but non-G and non VR version is a good value and well rated. The current VR version is also well rated but slightly heavier than the non-VR version.
     
  7. When I go to national parks I take my D200, 12-24, 18-70, 70-300 VR, and a few filters. Most shots are at f8 to f11 and I find these lenses sharp enough for me. I've printed many 20x30 posters and I'm happy with the results.
    The large tripod stays in the car and is only used from overlooks. When I'm going on a longer hike I take the D40X instead and leave the 70-300 in the car. Sometimes I take a very cheap very light all plastic tripod on a hike. It can support the D40X and lens, as long as there is no wind and I use the self timer it works great.
    Some people will tell you to always take a tripod. For me the extra distance I can cover without it more than makes up for the slightly sharper images that I would get with it.
     
  8. I've used a Nikon D60 with a Nikon 16-85 where size and weight are major factors. The D60 is quite a bit lighter and smaller than the D300 and the same holds true for the 16-85 vs. a 17-55 (BTW, I own the 17-55 and a D300 so I've done this comparison myself). The D60 produces images similar to the D200. The new Nikon D5000 would probably produce an image similar to your D300 and be closer to the D60 in size and weight. FWIW, the 16-85 is well rated. For a one-camera, one-lens solution I think this might be a good combo.
    If macro work is important and minimal weight/size is an issue then Kenko extension tubes would allow most lenses (the 16-85???) to do macro work.
    If you want a DX wide-angle zoom then I recommend the Sigma 10-20 (haven't tried the Nikon 10-24 yet but I did sell my Nikon 12-24 when I bought the Sigma).
    If you need telephoto then consider the Nikon 70-300 (but not the inexpensive G version). The recently discontinued ED but non-G and non VR version is a good value and well rated. The current VR version is also well rated but slightly heavier than the non-VR version.
     
  9. One more suggestion; replace your metal Gitzo with a carbon fiber Gitzo.
     
  10. I think the 17-55 DX is an inevitable choice for the DX user if you need a zoom, I don't think there is anything significantly smaller which works as nicely. for the tele end you can get a 180/2.8 which is a great lens, to complement your 105 macro. This is a reasonably complete 3-lens kit.
    If you want to further reduce weight, I would suggest replacing the 17-55 in your bag (don't sell it!) with the 50/1.8, the 35/1.8 DX, and the 20mm f/3.5 Voigtländer. These should all produce excellent image quality on DX and some are appliable on FX as well should you consider that in the future. The 20mm is manual focus but this should not be a big concern for landscape - if you use a tripod you can use the distance scale and DOF marks which in manual focus lenses like the Voigtländer are more accurate than in Nikon ED lenses. These three lenses weigh noticeably less than the 17-55 zoom, but the difference isn't all that great. You might not even need all three.
    Personally I would just keep the 17-55 which I always liked very much when I was using DX and add a 180 for long shots. The 16-85 gets good reviews and is certainly lighter but it won't replace the 105 macro for close-ups. You could check this newer zoom out.
     
  11. The op writes "Keep in mind all of my images are shot between f8 and f16." I would conjecture that any lens will look great in any print under 8 x 10 or 11 x 14 shot like that on a good solid tripod or at a quick enough shutter speed.
    If it were me, I'd take the 16-85 along with the micro... and that's probably it (except a longer tele... maybe...)
     
  12. The first lens that sprang to my mind as I read the subject line is the 45mm P. So light, lovely colour and no visible distortion make it to my eyes, a wonderful asset to the photographer travelling light. I use it whenever I can and there is no weight penalty.
    It is great to use in areas with high brightness as it does not flare willingly. Here is a shot I took on a very bright day.
    00TLOP-134243584.jpg
     
  13. If you want to reduce your load, start with a carbon fiber tripod.
    When I'm not backpacking, I use a Gitzo 1325 that is steady as a rock. However, I find that one needs to be careful using compact carbon tripods - too light is not always a good thing. Your lens is only as sharp as your tripod.
    I am certainly not selling my 17-55 - I find it sharp as nails. But I find all my lenses are sharp stopped down. In fact for a while I used my 105 micro as my one telephoto but found it was no better than my 70-210 4-5.6 at f 11. I'd really like to see Nikon make a 70-200 fixed f4 compact lens with tripod collar - the 70-210 is a bit shaky at 210.
    BTW. Shun I grew up in Palo Alto very close to Keeble and Shucutt (sp?) When I visit family, I usually visit the store and druel on their counters. Now I live in tiny shack in the mountains.​
     
  14. I second Ian`s suggestion, I didn`t dare to mention it because is a MF prime. I have been using it for mountaneering with film cameras with great satisfaction since I discovered it. The hood is minimal and it`s chipped. The aperture of f2.8 is faster than any consumer zoom, size and weight on a D300 is almost negligible. Sharpness is good wide open and very high at middle apertures. Cannot think on anything better for backpacking (well, attached to a FM2n is even better... !).
    For distant subjects I used to use (I`m currently out of backpaking business) a 105/2.5AiS which I liked for that task; there are very good MF lenses but just two of them are heavier than any consumer zoom.
     
  15. Oooops, I didn`t get it. You`re on DX, a 45mm lens could not be so useful.
     
  16. I have used a D200 with a small metal Gitzo with a 18-70mm for hiking. It seems that a D40 with a kit lens and small Gitzo like a 1530 is a much lighter setup. I now have a heavier D700 with some primes and a 1530 carbon Gitzo. I also have a 28-105 Nikkor and the 75-150 series E which are light. I would be interested in the 16-85mm if I where using DX for light travel single lens.
     
  17. ShunCheung

    ShunCheung Administrator

    Hugh, there are a lot of tricks you can play with a small and light carbon fiber tripod. For example, there is a reverse hook at the end of the center column on many of them. Some people hang a small pack on the center column to increase weight. I have seen one guy who ties a small rope off that hook and he steps on the other end of the rope to put downward pressure on the tripod to increase stability.
    In other words, there are alternatives to increase stability other than just having more weight on the tripod itself, which you need to carry around.
     
  18. "I think the 17-55 DX is an inevitable choice for the DX user if you need a zoom, I don't think there is anything significantly smaller which works as nicely"
    what about the tamron 17-50?
     
  19. I was surprised by the rigidity of the little 1530 tripod. Not as good as my 1327 but much nicer to carry around if I am using small primes.
     
  20. One can always use a prime lens for significant size,weight, and cost savings. People took pics for decades without zoom lenses. Learn to stand in the right place.
    If I did not alread own multiple 35 mm lenses, I would get the new 35 1.8. Low distortion, fast, small, not large, cheap. No 35 mm Nikkors are bad in my experience. My favorite is a 35 2.0 original Nikkor Ai`ed to work on later cameras. 35 2.8 can be had for $50. You can buy a 50 2.0 for $75.
    12/24 zoom or a 24mm lens.
    Then a 55/200 VR zoom or 60 2.8. The 55/200 is quite nice optically, mechanically only fair. But small, cheap, and does good photos, not like the 70/200 2.8 but there are sacrafices for small and cheap.
     
  21. Yes I have and use a 35mm f2 AIS. Small and light. I might take just four primes to the Grand Canyon this year, 20mm to 105mm.
     
  22. The 16-85mm VR is a hard-to-beat one lens solution for DX. Weighs in at around 400g.
    If weight is at a premium, good MF choices are the afore-mentioned 45mm f2,8 P , the old 20mm F4,0 AI lens and the 100mm f2,8 E lens. These lenses all weigh around 200g or less while in the very good to outstanding range optically. The 85mm f2,0 lens is another pretty lightweight option, my sample is pretty mediocre though. The 70-150mm f3,5 E zoom is an excellent, more flexible but heavier choice.
    Another nice lightweight which is great optically is the 28-50mm f3,5 AIS zoom.
    A truly lightweight ultrawide for DX is more difficult. The old 14mm f3,5 Sigma is not too heavy and has acceptable though by no means outstanding optical quality. If you stumble across one you might give it a try. There are some new options from Zeiss that I am not familiar with (contrary to the lenses mentioned above).
    My 5 cents
     
  23. I agree that one can do plenty with a few primes. Before I used a digital camera, I used a Bronica 6x6 camera with three primes. I still use the Bronica, infact my D300 is in for repairs after the sensor failed me. However, when using my D300, I really like the flexibility of using zooms just as when using my view camera, I find I make good compositions when viewing on ground glass upside down.
     
  24. I agree with Eric. I have the Tamron 17-50/2.8 and have used it in Custer State park to take landscape shots and I was very pleased with the results. It is one of the best buys I have made for an all around short zoom. It also works as a backup macro. I can auto focus with in 6" of the subject. This would be great for those wild flowers and small critters you will see on your hike. Match this with the 70-300VR and you have all you need.
    00TLX8-134305584.jpg
     
  25. Before I read the entire thread the first lens that came to my mind is the same one Ian suggested. The 45 mm P all the way. It is light, it has astonishingly good image quality. Post processing software is so wonderful nowadays that I don't even worry about wide angle zooms.
     
  26. 18-70 Nikkor. Inexpensive, sharp and if you bend it, throw it away and get another.
     
  27. fyi, wayne, i had the 18-70 as my kit lens. once i upgraded to the much sharper tamron 28-75, it went back into the aluminum case and almost never comes out now. i keep the 18-70 because it has a good range, and is sharp if you stop it down to f/8 (and stay away from 18mm), just in case i ever add a new body (or decide to sell my d80), but i've since found the 17-50--which weighs about the same as the 18-70--even better than the 28-75 wide open as well as a more useful range on DX. and according to thom hogan, the 18-105 VR is optically the best of the nikon 18-xx kit lenses, if you're gonna go that route. but if you're shooting available-light, a 2.8 zoom is nice to have in a lightweight package.
     
  28. Take your 17-55 because you have it already. Or you can get an excellent used 18-70. Then carry a 70-300 VR and leave the tripod in the car. That should be light enough and give you wonderful reach.
     
  29. Maybe I'm making this too simple, but it seems quite obvious. Primes don't weigh less, because you need more of them unless you are going to give up huge swaths of focal length. Also, the OP does not need a fast lens, so no point accepting the design compromises that come with them.
    The 16-85 VR is tailor-made for exactly this combination of requirements. Pair it with an even-lighter 55-200mm VR and you have image quality across the range that is second only to a very heavy and expensive combination of multiple pro-quality lenses - and in the case of the 16-85, probably not second even then.
    I could see adding a wide zoom if required, or swapping the 55-200 for a 70-300, also if required, but at a significant weight penalty.
    A swap to a carbon tripod and to a lighter body (D5000, even) could seemingly help as well.
     
  30. I too like to backpack, and was out in Yosemite last summer. I only had my heavy Nikon f2.8 zooms, and they were a pain. I also have a Gitzo carbon fiber tripod, and it was a delight as always. Here's what I decided to do. There are clearly times that I simply don't need the heavy and bulky f2.8 lenses, and a lighter set up is much desired. After thinking about it and researching, I decided to buy the Nikon kit lenses 18-55mm VR and 55-200mm VR. These are very light & compact, have VR, share 52mm filter size (I have to have a polarizer!), and deliver very good optical quality. I would be quite content to carry these on an "important" trip where lightweight + performance is required. Since I won't be using these lenses as my "primary" set, I went with the cheaper kit lenses. However, I think the very best set of lenses for lightweight, compact, high image quality would be the Tamron 17-50mm f2.8 plus Nikon 70-300mm VR. Image quality is very high. They share the 67mm filter. They are moderately priced. Finally, they are very flexible and versatile. I prefer zooms because of that flexibility. I don't lose anything at all when it comes to image quality, either. I kept my D80 to use as a back up when I bought my D300, but really there are times this lighter/compact body is a better choice. Next week I'm going on a family vacation to Disney World, and will only take D80, 18-55mm VR, 55-200mm VR, and the Tokina 11-16mm 2.8. I'll only carry two lenses on a given day, plus SB-800. That's all I need. There are times that the best choice is the most compact one. So, as an adventure photographer myself, I am going to recommend you get a carbon fiber tripod with decent ballhead, Tamron 17-50mm f2.8, Nikon 70-300mm VR, and a polarizer. You will have a fast zoom for low light, a lens just long enough for wildlife, and it will all be in a fairly light package. Going to a Nikon D5000 body will save you even more weight. Doesn't the D5000 have the same sensor as the D300 anyway? If so, it sounds perfect for what you are doing. Light, compact, fast to use, versatile, affordable. (You'll only cry half as much if you drop a Tamron 17-50mm in the river as you would a Nikon 17-55mm f2.8, LOL!)
    I too have the Gitzo 1325. It's usually more than what I need. Don't underestimate a lighter CF model though. As for so-called primes, every time you change lenses, dust can get in. Also, it takes time to change lenses, and there's always a chance you will drop one and watch it go rolling over the edge. Done that!

    Kent in SD
     
  31. I do a bit of travel, international and national. I tend to stay 1 or 2 nighter or internationals a week with no more than a 3 nighter per city before I move on ... and I travel light all in one daypack incl my cam gear and a tripod.
    How I pack is no laptop, one body, 18-70mm and a Sigma 10-20mm, plenty enof for me. I also take no flash. I may take a torch in the future thou if I get into painting with light. I don't take a camera bag with me, I empty my daypack and reuse it when I go out, I can also zip the sides in to make it smaller. On home trips my fav is my belt bag.
    I have the 18-200 but seldom need the longer FL and VR isn't too useful for me, I either handhold or use tripod. I am planning a lighter Gitzo traveler tripod - the 5 section one which folds down to 35cm. Right now the best portable I have is a Feisol 3402, folds to 40cm without ballhead.
    R.
     
  32. Primes don't weigh less, because you need more of them unless you are going to give up huge swaths of focal length.
    Of course you give up some focal length choice, but you get better clarity and less weight. Usually lacking the zoom option causes problems only for beginners. Because the macro lens is a prime in any case, the weight saving on the tele end is considerable.
    Also, the OP does not need a fast lens, so no point accepting the design compromises that come with them.
    While there are theoretical reasons why a slow lens is easier to design to be good, in practice the fast lenses are overengineered so that they match or exceed (usually significantly exceed) the quality of the slower lenses in most cases, unless you go for the f/0.7-1.2 type glass which might be problematic for use at f/8.
    Of course, if you pay $5000 for a 60mm f/4 then you can get a high quality slow lens.
     
  33. Ilkka--
    Not sure if you're familiar with Yosemite. It's very rugged mountainous terrain. If you are using a single focal lens, you often can't simply back up because you might be walking off a cliff! The places you can stand to take a photo might be quite limited. A quality zoom really comes into its own. Instead of packing a separate macro lens, I now just pack a lightweight Canon 500D (77mm) and screw it onto my choice of Nikon lenses. The 500D works great!
    Kent in SD
     
  34. ShunCheung

    ShunCheung Administrator

    One thing I do know is that Ilkka has been to Yosemite, back in 2003. He stopped by my house before going there. :)
     
  35. if you went with the CF explorer/mountaineer legs, the acratech head and the 18-200mm lens, you'd be good to go!
     
  36. Ilkka, valid points and I agree in principle, but in this case the logical choice is between the 17-55 and 16-85. You recommend the 17-55 and no doubt it's a good lens, but most accounts seem to indicate that the 16-85 is its equal - at least - in image quality. I haven't used the 17-55 myself.
    The filter size point is also valid. In that case, I see three good lightweight options to cover the usual focal lengths:
    Lightest:
    18-55 (VR or non, some think the non-VR is better in this case), 52mm filter
    55-200 VR (the VR is definitely better), 52mm filter
    or
    Next lightest, better IQ, better wide angle:
    16-85 VR, 67mm filter
    55-200 VR, 52-67mm step-up-ring, 67mm filter
    (I am not actually certain 52-67mm step rings are available, but don't see why they wouldn't be.)
    or
    Heaviest, best telephoto range but no IQ improvement:
    16-85mm VR, 67mm filter
    70-300mm VR, 67mm filter
    I'd honestly be happy with any of these combinations, except that I'm not a huge fan of the 70-300, having found it much less easy to use than my 55-200s, and much bigger and heavier, without giving better quality.
    Merely my humble opinion, of course.
    I find this thread very interesting because it basically mirrors my own requirements. I don't do multi-day backpacking trips but I do a lot of hiking and casual walking-around shooting and want to carry as little as possible. Usually one lens on the camera and one in a pocket, at the most.
    By the way, I do enjoy using primes, but find that usually the place to stand is actually determined by the terrain, and much more often than not having the ability to walk a few paces to frame the shot would have me backing up into the mountain or stepping out into thin air - or being in the middle of a road, or having to back through a wall, or otherwise having to get to some impossible spot. So in practice, primes require a framing compromise whereas zooms require only a theoretical (often nonexistent) tiny compromise in sharpness that I will probably never notice.
     
  37. Personally,
    I'd go with:
    1. 12-24mm (400-500g)
    2. 50mm (200g)
    3. 75-150mm (520g)
    All exceptional when stopped down. One step-up ring 52-77mm and your set of favorite filters (incl. macro attachemnt lens). You could shed even more weight if you used these with a D40.
     
  38. It all depends on which focal lengths you want to cover and which ones are important. A high quality, versatile light weight combo that I would take: Voigtländer 20/3.5, Nikkor 28/3.5, Nikkor 55/3.5 (or 2.8...) micro, Nikon 75-150/3.5. Swap the last one for a prime or two or a 70-200/2.8 if this range is important to you. There's one macro lens in there in case you need macro, however you could of course take a 105 mm macro if you prefer that. The 28/3.5 could be swapped, e.g. for a Zeiss 35/2. These are all manual, but who would use AF on a tripod with non-moving subjects anyway.
    For wide angle zooms the choice is not obvious right now, depends on what you consider the most important criteria. For the "normal" range a 16-85 would be good, although for me zooms are more for events and city shooting. If you an handle the weight and price, a tilt/shift lens might come in handy.
     
  39. I have no idea what you are all talking about. A 2 day trip in Yosemite or a 12 day trip in Yosemite, it's always the same for me 17-35, 28-70, 80-200, D200 or F100, Gitzo 1348, RRS BH-40 and ready to go. Total weight about 23 pounds. I wouldn't do it any other way. Who sez a photographer can't suffer for their art.
     
  40. My dream light combo would be a manual focus film body, 24/2.8, 50/1.8 and a 105/2.8 - all 52mm filter threads. Digital cannot do this yet, well affordable that is and anyway if you do go for FX the body are too large to fit in the jacket pocket.
    For me, if I had to take 10kg or more stuff, that is 20 pounds or more, I rather shoot large format. Cos with medium format, for landscapes / travel I rather use a medium format rangefinder with 3 prime lenses.
    Some go on travel and shoots 1,000 or more each day, they drag a portable HDD and sometimes as well as a laptop so they have a 3 layer system - memory card, HDD and laptop, seriously when you get home, how many do they really use? Walking around the Statue of Liberty on a holiday with 20 pounds of gear shooting a Nikon of holiday snaps?
     
  41. Hi Walter,
    We haven't met, but I have seen some of your work at the Gallery and on your site - nice work. For years, I have contemplated getting the 80-200 2.8, yet I rarely need that type of speed and my eyes are good enough that I don't need the extra brightness. However, it sure is a beautiful lens. I'll be in Tuolumne this summer.
    Hugh
     
  42. I would vote for the 18-70 Nikkor kit zoom. Small, lightweight and nice sharpness. Bjørn Rørslett (www.naturfotograf.com) also thinks highly of this lense: "Looks like Nikon has come forward with a real winner this time"
     
  43. I'm using the 18-55 VR and 55-200 VR lenses on a D200. I carry a 50 1.8 AF mostly for portraits but it's very soft wide open and wouldn't be particularly useful backpacking except for the occassional blurred-out background. The zoom lenses replaced an 18-200 that went home for repairs. The 18-55/55-200 combo is very lightweight and not bad optically. The 16-85 that many are recommending is 465g and ~$630 vs. the 18-55 at 265g and ~$190. I also use a Slik Pro 614CF tripod (790g without center column, $220) with the F1 lightweight ballhead from Adorama ($50). This is not the sturdiest tripod, but being carbon fiber it is rigid and the small ballhead is sufficient with these lenses. Unfortunately, these consumer lenses seem not to be the most reliable (at least for my samples): the 18-200 lost AF and VR and got very dirty inside, the 18-55 is gradually losing AF, and the 55-200 lost VR; both the 18-55 and 55-200 became sick not long after I started using them. The 18-200 went home for warranty repair but I'm hanging on to the other two until I get back home. For short trips they should be ok.
     

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