At the heart of every camera is its sensor. This little rectangular gadget takes wavelengths of light and turns it into the zeros and ones that make up the digital data of our photographs. Nikon produces two different sized sensors: the large FX sensor at 36x24mm, and the smaller DX ‘crop’ sensor at 24x16mm.
DX bodies and lenses are typically smaller, lightweight, and more affordable than their full frame counterparts. While FX lenses typically produce higher quality images, the difference is negligible for most amateur photographers and many pros as well.
I’ll be honest…most of my photos go on Instagram, not billboards, so sensor size doesn’t really matter much.
So, you’ve done your research and bought a crop sensor Nikon body, because it was lightweight and compact – perfect for your backpacking trip across Patagonia.
And now, it’s time to find the best DX travel lens for your trips!
To help you out, I’ve put together a breakdown of some great crop lenses for your Nikon DX-format sensor camera body.
Nikon AF-S DX 16-80mm f/2.8-4 E ED VR | Top Pick
Zoom lenses are versatile. And we humans – photographer or not – love versatility. Heck, I don’t own a single tool, just a toolbox full of different multi-tools! So naturally we gravitate towards zoom lenses. Why take a handful of lenses when I can take one?! That’s just more to carry…
The Nikon 16-80mm f/2.8 VR lens kind of does it all, and the price reflects that. The built in vibration reduction (VR) is really handy. It makes handheld shooting, especially in low light, much more successful. The 16-80mm range and wide aperture is impressive, and paired with the vibration reduction, you’re basically unstoppable. Snap that mountain vista, then zoom on the swooping falcon and “snap!” grab that too.
If you’re after the “do-it-all-and-still-be-stunned” lens, then this is it. You’re hardly going to regret lugging around this one pound powerhouse.
At such a compact size, light weight, and affordable price, there’s no reason not to sling this little gem into your travel pack.
Nikon AF-S DX 35mm f/1.8G | Budget Option
Every good photographer should have a prime lens in the arsenal of lenses. They are simple, easy to use and oh so satisfying for reasons that science can’t explain. They’re just fun.
This Nikon 35mm with an f/1.8 aperture is a great lens. A crop sensor introduces a 1.5x crop – so this 35mm will appear tighter, more like a 50mm lens. 50mm is the sweet spot for producing beautiful undistorted.
Its real selling point is the wide aperture. Shallow depth of field and beautiful bokeh has become a hallmark for high quality (or ‘artistic’) images. And with an aperture that wide you can feel confident shooting images in low light conditions. So spin that dial back and open it right up, shoot all day and shoot all night… just because you can.
Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 EX DC OS HSM | Pro-Level Zoom
No, it’s focal range isn’t as impressive as the aforementioned Nikon, and no, it’s not smaller or lighter… but it is more affordable.
This one’s for the shooter on a shoestring budget. You’ve probably already spent your camera budget on flights around the world, and just need something that will take great photos and not blow a hole in your pocket.
By no means is the Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 a bad lens. Far from it, in fact. Sigma has installed its own brand of vibration reduction – Optical Stabilization (OS), again increasing the performance of the lens when being used handheld and/or in low light.
Certainly a selling point of this lens (if not the price) is the wide aperture. Wide aperture photos with blurry backgrounds and sharp, shallow focal points are just, well… cool. And to have that capability in an affordably priced, good quality zoom lens, WITH stabilization, is also pretty cool if you ask me.
Nikon 18-300mm f/3.5-6.3G VR | Best Zoom Range
Maybe you don’t care about bokeh-filled, shallow depth-of-field photographs of mountain flowers at dusk, you just want ZOOM. You want to see what the mountain lion is eating for lunch half way down the valley; you want to see the expression on the face of the gargoyle grazing the sky at the top of the cathedral. 18-300mm, how’s that for versatility! Need I say more?
The selling feature of the Nikon 18-300mm f/3.5 VR is the outrageous focal range that it sports (equivalent to up to 450mm with the 1.5x crop factor on the DX sensor – that’s a lot of zoom!). I also really like the incorporation of VR stabilization. With VR on, it is much easier to take sharp handheld images at full zoom. For a travel setup with no extra lenses, the sharp images it can produce at any focal range may be a determining feature.
Unfortunately you can’t have it all. This lens is understandably the heaviest of those I have touched on, but not by much. Plus, the aperture leaves some to be desired. Shooting in low light is going to be difficult without a tripod. This is alleviated to some point by the VR stabilization.
If you love lens versatility and don’t mind the extra weight, then jump on one of these. Pick up a tripod while you’re at it, and you’ll be shooting through the night!
Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 ATX Pro DX II | For Landscape Shooters
On the flip side, maybe you don’t care about how close you can get to the subject. You want to have it ALL in the shot. You’re probably a sucker for a seascape, a landscape lover, you have “wide-or-die” tattooed across your chest.
None of the other lenses I have covered compare to the wide angle capabilities of the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8. With a crop sensor it is more difficult to get really wide. But this lens does a good job pushing the focal limit, making this barely an issue.
Another solid feature is the wide aperture. Again, you’re going to find easy shooting in low light, nice bokeh and shallow depth of field possible. However, this lens is one of the heavier lenses, and it does not have any kind of stabilization. For its intended purpose, this probably wouldn’t present any real challenges
This is the obvious choice if you primarily shoot night scenes, landscapes, seascapes, cityscapes, or you just like the wide angle look. And, it is certainly modestly priced for a good quality wide angle lens.
What To Look For In A Nikon DX Travel Lens
DX lenses are typically far cheaper than full frame lenses. If you are shooting with a full frame body, don’t disregard DX lenses, most will work on your FX camera body. Just toggle the crop frame function and keep shooting like normal.
What to look for always comes down to your personal preference and the kind of travel you are embarking on. If you are solo backpacking the PCT then the weight is number one. Take the 35mm prime lens, it weighs nothing. If you’re heading to Rome for a three-week vacation, then versatility is key. Take the zoom lens that won’t break the bank, so you got more in the tank for gelato and pizza.
Size and Weight
Usually, when you are traveling you want to be light and fast. That’s where Nikon’s DX range excels. Fast, light, and effective. For this purpose, I highly regard versatility and portability when making a travel lens selection.
What defines your portability requirements is the way you like to travel. For the solo backpacker space is at a premium. You might only take a simple zoom, or prime lens. The city hopper on the other hand may have space for a bulkier lens, or even multiple lenses.
On the other side of the coin is versatility. Will this lens be able to capture all the pictures I want to take? If wide angle street photography is your thing, then you’re not going to a 300mm zoom lens be particularly versatile. First, think about what kind of images you would like to create, then define what lens (or focal range) will help you achieve this most effectively.
It should go without saying that image quality is always a big factor when buying a lens. Even though the DX crop sensor lenses are the top of the range, there’s no need to shirk on image quality. These lenses are good! I believe if you’re adding to your photography kit you should always aim for something with better glass than what you currently have.
Consider it future proofing… remember you can still use DX lenses on a FX body for when you want to upgrade your camera body.
Finally, try and stay in your budget! There are many different price points and options when purchasing a new lens. Aftermarket lenses are often cheaper than native lenses, usually with very little change in image quality (sometimes aftermarket lenses can be better!) Consider the second hand market.
Try snag a good deal if you’re really set on a particular product but beware of potentially faulty items. Certainly, the simpler lenses are cheaper. The prime Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8G is the cheapest lens I reviewed, but by no means is it weak!
Pick The One That Suits Your Needs
I usually travel light. Sometimes to cities, other times the wilderness, but always with my gear on my back. My bag is always pretty loaded, so I have to be tight on my camera-gear-allowance.
I find myself more often just taking one lens with me, attached to my camera around my neck or in my backpack. I flip between being infatuated with high zoom, then wide-angle photography. When I’m heading out the door I just grab the one I’m in love with that day and just roll with it.
Common Questions About Nikon DX Lenses
How do I know if my Nikon lens is DX or FX?
Crop sensor Nikon lenses are marked with “DX” on the lens barrel. Other brands will likely be marked with “DX” or something similar, such as “DC” (Sigma), or “Di” (Tamron).
Can you use FX lenses on DX cameras?
Yes. FX lenses project a circle of light large enough to cover the 36x24mm FX sensor. The DX sensor is smaller, at 24x16mm, so the image will be cropped smaller. Functionally, your focal length will appear 1.5x larger when using an FX lens on a DX body. 35mm will feel like 50mm if you are used to shooting full frame.
You can also use DX lenses on FX bodies. Your camera should detect that you are using a DX lens, or you can manually toggle the crop function on your camera body.