Best Camera and Lens for Travel and Food Photography

Best camera and lens for travel and food photography? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked what’s my favourite camera and lens combination for shooting travel and food. Impossible to say before now, I’m relieved to let you know that I’ve finally found a camera and lens combination that I can thoroughly recommend.

It’s been a tough question to answer until now, because when you’re a professional you might be commissioned to do a story that covers everything from wide vistas of a volcano and close-up sports action, such as surfing, to portraits of people and the overhead food spreads that are so fashionable at the moment. And all of this might just be for one story.

I’ve been shooting professionally since I studied photography on film cameras at uni in the 1990s, but it’s only now that I’ve finally found the perfect set-up that I can confidently recommend. It’s a Nikon D500 camera body and Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 17-55mm f/2.8G ED DX lens.

And here’s why I think it’s the best camera and lens for travel and food photography.

Best Camera and Lens for Travel and Food Photography

For a professional photographer, carrying lenses that cover a range from 12mm to 600mm is just part of the deal that comes with accepting feature length magazine commissions. To carry at least five or six lenses as I did on a recent trip to Georgetown, Penang, is what allows me to get the coverage that the editors are looking for to tell a story.

Just before this recent trip, however, as I was testing and cleaning my gear, I noticed that my current main camera, a Nikon D600 stopped auto-focussing. When trying to get focus the lens would endlessly ‘hunt’, going through the full focus range of the lens but never locking focus. With no time to get the camera repaired, I knew I had to quickly purchase another camera.

Choosing the Right Camera Body

I’ve been keeping up with the latest camera releases and have tried many of the new mirrorless cameras such as the offerings from Sony and Fuji. They might be great for hobbyists, those without tight deadlines, and those getting paid to use these camera systems, however, they weren’t great for me.

The focus speed, low battery life, and getting them to work with my current flash system in a hurry ruled those cameras out. Not to mention that I have a pretty serious investment in Nikon lenses. Without this, perhaps compromising with one of the above systems might have been acceptable.

There were really only two viable options available to me — ordering the Nikon D750 or the Nikon D500.

The D750 is a full-frame camera — like my D600 and my sole remaining D700, but the D500 is a crop sensor camera, like my old workhorse, the Nikon D2x. Nikon calls the full-frame cameras ‘FX’ while the crop sensor cameras are designated ‘DX’.

The fact that the D500 had much of the same innards as the recently released flagship Nikon D5, as well as some ongoing reported issues with the D750, put the D500 at the top of the wish-list.

That I also had some video commissions, and that the video specifications of the D500 were pretty decent — and significantly better than the D750 — made my choice even easier.

My local camera store here in Siem Reap managed to get me the camera with a few hours to spare, leaving just enough time to get the camera set up and batteries charged.

Road-Testing My New Camera and Lens Combination

During the next 10 days in Georgetown on assignment, I used the D500 exclusively with just one lens most of the time, the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 17-55mm f/2.8G ED DX. In fact, my statistics in Adobe Lightroom tell me that I used it for over 90% of my photos.

With that single camera and lens combination I was able to cover everything from Georgetown Festival events and formal portraits of local characters to hotel shoots and close-ups of street food and restaurant dishes.

Back home in Siem Reap, it was the only lens I took to local eat street, Road 60, on Sunday. If you click through to the images in the gallery above, you’ll get a good idea of the capabilities of this lens.

It was while editing those images yesterday that it struck me that this just could be the best camera and lens for travel and food photography.

And that got me thinking: with the D500 getting rave reviews (the highest score ever on well-respected Digital Photography Review) and the 17-55 mm f/2.8 being the best lens Nikon has produced for its ‘DX’ crop sensor cameras, could this be the best travel and food camera and lens combination for a serious photographer? I think it is.

Best Travel and Food Camera and Lens Combination for Serious Photographers

I think this could be the best travel and food camera and lens combination for a serious photographer and here’s why…

Firstly, the D500 camera is built like a tank. It has the fastest focus of any camera I’ve ever used, it can shoot 10 frames a second, and it takes great video. The rear screen is touch sensitive so you can use it like an iPhone to scroll and pinch and zoom on images, as well as focus. And the screen also tilts, which is great for those overhead food photos.

The camera also has wi-fi and Bluetooth connectivity, which should translate to being able to control the camera from a smartphone, as well as send images to it and ‘stamp’ the images with the GPS co-ordinates taken from the phone.

However, I can’t test that yet because Nikon have not yet released the app for Apple’s iOS operating system for iPhones. It should be great if it works — making sending images directly from the camera to the phone and posting on social media a breeze. Admittedly, the fact it’s been delayed for so long doesn’t bode well.

The 17-55 mm lens, introduced in 2003, is made in Japan and also built like a tank, weighing in at 26.505 oz. (751.45g). The camera weighs virtually the same so that’s only 1.5 kilos to carry around. That’s not too bad considering the quality of the images that this combination is capable of.

While Nikon have a ‘kit’ lens (sold with the camera if you so desire), the Nikon 16-80mm ED VR, I think that a second-hand 17-55 mm lens is the way to go if your priority is fast-focus and sharp images. While the 16-80mm ED VR retails at around a ridiculous US$1,000, a good condition used 17-55 mm goes for around US$650 — and that’s a bargain for pro glass.

What Makes The Lens Perfect for Travel and Food?

So what makes this 17-55 mm lens so great for travel and food?

Firstly, for travel, it’s wide enough for most photos you’ll take of monuments as tall as cathedrals or as wide as Angkor Wat.

At the wide end of the lens it’s great for full body portraits. At the 55mm end of the lens, it’s the perfect focal length for a headshot portrait and using the lens at 2.8 aperture gives that nice creamy out of focus background. For general street shooting, the lens has the perfect sweet spot at around 35mm.

For food, the wide end is perfect for those oh-so-popular overhead shots, wide enough to cover a whole table or zooming in a little, a single plate. When zooming to 55mm, the lens can focus very close for those shots where you want to only focus on the key ingredient of a dish. The 2.8 aperture is perfect for food shots. Many cheaper lenses have a minimum f-stop of f4.

The best bit, though, is that matched with the D500, this lens is so freaking fast to focus! It’s just a joy to walk around with.

The fact that the lens was first introduced in 2003 and still can’t be beaten by any other zoom that Nikon has made is why I always tell people to buy quality glass first, camera body second. I bought my version of this lens in 2004 and its been mounted on a Nikon D70, D80, D2x, and now back in service on the D500 some 12 years later.

Best Camera and Lens for Travel and Food Photography

I suspect this lens will still work well on the Nikon D500s or whatever the replacement for the D500 will be called. However, for right now and for the next couple of years, I think this is the best camera and lens for travel and food photography.

And it’s by far the best combination for serious travel and food photos, if you set to limit yourself to one camera and one lens. I’ll never leave home without it.

Do you shoot travel and/or food? What do you think is the best camera and lens for travel and food photography and why in your experience? 



There are 2 comments

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  1. Abby

    Hi Terrence great article any recommendations for a good quality starter camera for food photography and good video. Please forgive photos on my website im on it when i have my new camera. Thanks Abby

  2. Terence Carter

    Thanks for your comment Abby. I would suggest that you save up for good gear second-hand rather than gear that will give you unsatisfactory results and you’ll quickly outgrow the gear. Seeing that you want to do video, go with Canon.

    Most people would recommend these lenses for food photography:
    Canon 100mm f/2.8 IS USM Macro
    Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM

    But if you want to do video, these are not versatile enough, so I’d suggest a second-hand Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM.
    For the camera, I’d suggest a second-hand Canon 5D Mk II.

    Best of luck!


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