These are the best travel and food lenses for Nikon DX cameras. If you’re serious about shooting travel and food, you’d be wise to spend a good proportion of your investment on lenses and these are a solid investment in a future in travel and food photography.

In my recent post on the best camera and lens for professional travel and food photography, I raved about my new favourite camera and lens combination — the Nikon D500 camera body and Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 17-55mm f/2.8G ED DX lens. Having recently returned to Siem Reap from a 10-day trip to Indonesia where I used these every day, I firmly believe that this is still the best camera-lens combination and these are the best lenses for Nikon DX cameras.

In that post, I mentioned that for work I usually have to carry lenses that cover a range from 12mm to 600mm, so I thought I’d run through the kit that I used in Indonesia, covering everything from massive temples to surfing in Bali.

Best Travel and Food Lenses for Nikon DX Cameras

Having just purchased the Nikon D500 camera, I wanted to use it as my main camera for the Indonesia trip, relegating my Nikon D600 to backup status, just in case something untoward happened to my Nikon D500.

Firstly, I want to point out that this is the kind of kit that an enthusiast and professional uses, this is not the kind of gear a hobbyist would probably purchase. I also recommend buying lenses for Nikon DX cameras that are pre-loved, as all these are a relative bargain on the second-hand market.

About the Nikon DX Format and the Future

My first professional digital camera was the Nikon D2x with a sensor size that Nikon calls ‘DX’ and the Nikon D500 has the same size sensor. The sensor size is 24x16mm, while the larger ‘FX’ format sensor found in my D600 is 36x24mm, approximately the same size as 35mm film which I used to shoot before going digital.

When Nikon moved on from the smaller sensor for the Nikon D3 and D700 (still my favourite digital camera), many photographers sold off any lenses specifically made for ‘DX’ cameras as they preferred FX (commonly known as ‘full-frame’) cameras that took them back to their familiar 35mm film size. You can find out more about the DX and FX Formats on the Nikon website.

I had always thought that in the future the cameras with DX sensors would be targeted toward enthusiasts rather than professionals. The new D500 challenges this thinking, particularly as you can use lenses made for FX camera bodies on the D500.

The kit listed below is a mix of lenses for Nikon DX cameras that have been specifically made for DX. The 12-24mm f/4G and the 17-55mm f/2.8G and the other lenses made for FX, which also work fine on a DX camera body.

So with the DX format alive and well, these are my recommendations for lenses for Nikon DX cameras if you’re seriously interested in travel and food photography. The great thing about these lenses is that most of them are true professional quality lenses, but they can still be found at bargain prices.

While none of these lenses have ‘VR’, Nikon’s vibration reduction that makes shooting at low shutter speeds less prone to image blur, for me that’s just one extra technical complication that doubles the prices of most lenses.

Best Value Professional Travel Lenses for Nikon DX Cameras

Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 12-24mm f/4G IF-ED

This is Nikon’s professional wide angle zoom for DX cameras and a lens I’ve owned for many years. I have to admit that it’s not my favourite lens, but it’s a very competent performer, particularly at 24mm. While it’s made in Japan, its build is a little more ‘plasticy’ than the other lenses in my kit, but it has survived many years of abuse on the road.

The main problem with this lens is at the wide end (12mm) there is a little distortion, but much of this can be corrected in Lightroom. On the positive side, by the time you zoom to 17mm, it’s near perfect. It’s also very fast at focussing and is sharp as a tack. For a wide angle lens, it can also focus very close to the subject, giving you great creative flexibility.

While it retails for around US$1,200, a decent second-hand copy can be found for as little as US$500 and for photographers wanting a decent lens that can take in a temple, a hotel swimming pool, or a wide landscape, this lens is a great one to have in your kit.

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 17-55mm f/2.8G ED DX Lens

I wrote extensively about this lens in my post on the best camera and single lens for travel and food photography. As an example of just how much I rely on this lens when I travel on assignment, 78% of photos I took in Indonesia were taken with this lens.

For general shooting, using this lens means that I’ll probably leave my 55mm macro lens and my 85mm portrait lens back in the hotel room safe.

Nikon AF FX NIKKOR 80-200mm f/2.8D ED

This is a quality, old school zoom lens, built like a tank, and it takes tack-sharp images throughout the zoom range. Even when the more complex and feature-filled Nikon AF-S Zoom-Nikkor ED 70-200mm f/2.8G VR lens came out, I still preferred the old lens, both for its build quality and lack of complexity. It also helps that it’s roughly half the price of the 70-200mm lens.

How tough is it? Mine has taken a real beating, having bounced down a set of stone stairs after a camera bag strap broke and it still kept working. If you did that to the 70-200mm lens, you’d be giving it its last rites as you picked up the pieces. Despite this, the 80-200mm is actually lighter than the 70-200mm, but it’s still not a lens you’ll leave on your camera all day at 1.3 kilos.

While it retails for around US$1,200, just like the 12-24mm, a decent second-hand copy can be found for as little as US$400. This is a bargain for a lens that is a true professional zoom — one that will last you years.

Specialist Travel and Food Lenses for Nikon DX Cameras

Depending on the nature of the assignment, I will take some other lenses for Nikon DX cameras with me to cover a story. This can make my carry-on luggage decidedly heavy and take it over 15kg (split between myself and Lara), but they are well worth the extra weight.

Food Photography

Nikon 55mm f/2.8 Micro Nikkor Lens

This old manual focus lens is one that is small and light enough to always pack in a camera bag. However, I won’t take this lens out with me unless I’m doing a food shoot at a restaurant as it’s best used on a tripod.

If you want a macro lens that’s great for shooting food without the need for a tripod, the Nikon AF-S FX Micro-NIKKOR 60mm f/2.8G ED is your best bet.

While I’ve always used this lens on FX cameras, the effective focal length on DX cameras is 90mm, which to me is the perfect focal length for food. What it lacks in versatility, it makes up for in bang for buck. It’s a solid, mostly metal construction, it’s tack-sharp even from f2.8 and you can pick one up for US$100 second-hand.

Portrait Photography

Nikon 85mm f/1.4D AF Nikkor Lens

My go-to portrait lens for FX cameras is perhaps a little too long for DX camera bodies, but if I know I need to make shallow focus portraits, this is the lens I’ll use. I do, however, rarely use the lens at f/1.4 because even with the subject’s head slightly tilted, one eye will be in focus and the other out of focus — and you’d better have the eye closest to camera the one in focus!

So why not just buy a less expensive f1.8 or f2.0 lens? Because at f2.0 this lens produces images that are a thing of beauty. Lovely bokeh or out of focus areas that really isolate the subject, along with incredible sharpness, colour and contrast, make the images that this produces just a joy to behold when you start editing.

This lens is now discontinued and replaced by a faster-focussing, but rather more ‘plasticy’ modern Nikon model, but I love the old-school, tough, metal look of the old lens. While the faster focus of the new model is welcome, this is for portraits, not sports, and the old model is now a bargain for a flagship Nikon lens on E-Bay from around US$700.

Action Sports and Birding Photography

Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR F/4D IF-ED 300mm

One of the conundrums of being a travel photographer is that we have to cover the wide range of activities that people undertake when they travel. From African safaris to surfing safaris, the travel photographer is expected to come back with images that capture these pursuits. That means long lenses, but they’re expensive, heavy, and quite often only get used for 5% of your images if you’re photographing a general travel feature.

For instance, if your assignment is a travel article on the Gold Coast in Australia, the editor is going to want several surfing shots in your submission. You’re probably not going to get that coverage with your 200mm lens, but bigger and longer lenses are generally prohibitively expensive.

This Nikon 300mm lens is the best compromise for me. It’s relatively light, fast-focussing and produces crisp images. Mounted on the D500, its focal length is actually 450mm but adding a Nikon TC-14E teleconverter adds 40% extra reach, making it an effective 630mm lens. Nikon TC-14E teleconverters go for around US$200 on Ebay, making it a bargain to get that extra reach.

Nikon does have a new 300mm f4 lens with VR that’s amazingly half the weight of this old design, but costs more than twice as much as this lens goes for on Ebay. I picked mine up in mint condition with the original packaging for US$800.

Just like in my last post on the best camera and single lens for professional travel and food photography, I believe that when you are investing in a camera system (Nikon, Canon or Fuji — I can’t recommend Sony), you would be wise to spend a good proportion of your investment on lenses. For around US$1,500 combined, second-hand, these lenses for Nikon DX cameras are a solid investment in travel and food photography.

If you’d like to learn more about shooting travel and food photography on the road, come join Lara and I in Cambodia on one of our Travel and Food Writing and Photography Retreats. We host scheduled small group trips in the low season and private trips on request throughout the year. More details on the previous link, as well as on our Siem Reap Retreats and Tours site.
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