Sony alpha lenses for backpackers & hikers
As hiking & backpacking photographers, our criteria for lenses are different than other types of photographers. And if you switched over to Sony alpha mirrorless cameras from DSLRs, you probably did so to cut size & weight. Therefor, the same criteria apply to our lenses.
Factors to take into consideration when choosing Sony alpha lenses for backpacking & hiking
When a painter goes into the backcountry to paint, he’ll bring a few colors, a small tripod, small boards, and a minimal selection of brushes. He doesn’t have all of the tools he’d normally have in his studio, but he’s proficient enough to be able to use what’s at hand to get the job done. The same goes for photographers.
Desirable lens characteristics for wilderness travel
- Small, to easily fit in your limited pack space
- Lightweight, to ease the strain on your body as you pound out mile after mile
- Zoom capability, to give you a wide focal range with the least amount of equipment
- Durable (water & dust resistant)
Features you’ll have to trade off
- If you want small & light, you’ll have to settle for an aperture of f/4 at the widest. The good thing about this is that you won’t be taking ridiculously expensive gear into the wilderness.
- If you’re hoping for extremely shallow depth of field, these lenses won’t give it to you at f/4 compared to what a heavier lens could give you at f/1.8. But you’re shooting landscapes, so you’ll probably want a deeper DOF most of the time.
- You’ll want to shoot at various focal lengths without constantly changing gear. So, you’ll need a zoom lens instead of multiple prime lenses. You’ll sacrifice some sharpness with these lenses, especially around the edges, but with a good zoom lens this is mostly imperceptible.
What about using an APS-C lens on a full frame body?
That’s not a bad idea! I’ve done that with great results.
Using a lens designed for the APS-C crop sensors (“E” lenses) will cut down your weight and size even further. It’ll also save you some money as these lenses are usually cheaper.
- A full frame Sony alpha camera will enter “APS-C” mode when an E lens is mounted. The area recorded on the sensor is reduced to the APS-C size and the effective focal length increases by a factor of 1.5 (a 10mm lens becomes 15mm).
- You can also do the opposite – mount a full frame FE lens on an APS-C body but that kind of defeats the purpose of having a tiny a6000 or a6300. You may still want to do that to have versatility with your kit.
If you want to read further about the differences between the current Sony alpha mirrorless cameras, I break it down in this post.
In my backcountry toolkit
Here’s a summary of what I bring depending on what I anticipate shooting. I mostly carry my full-frame equipment when backpacking but when I’m really limited to what I can take, I might bring just my a6300. Continue reading for further information on the following lenses, and alternative (more economical) selections.
You may also find my “Sony alpha lenses secret decoder ring” post useful when trying to figure out what all the letters mean.
|Wide Zoom - Vario-Tessar 16-35mm f/4||3" x 4"||18.3 ounces|
|Std Zoom - Vario-Tessar 24-70mm f/4||2.9" x 3.7"||15 ounces|
|Tele Zoom - FE 70-200mm f/4||3.15" x 6.9"||29.6 ounces|
Wide Zoom Lenses
The optically-stabilized 16-35mm f/4 lens has always been my go-to wide zoom for Sony alpha cameras. I love this lens for dramatic shots of the sky. This is the most compact FE wide zoom and has excellent image quality. Like other lenses I carry into the wilderness, this too is weather resistant. The optical stabilization assists with handheld shots in low light. This lens is 3″ in diameter and almost 4″ deep, weighing 18.3 ounces (the f/2.8 lens is almost a half pound more and significantly larger). I’ve found it to be sharp all-around from 18mm to 30mm.
I bought this lens for my a6000 and also put it on my a7 before I had the FE 16-35mm f/4. It worked great on the a7 in the middle focal ranges and gave me the same coverage in a much smaller, lighter lens. It’s the best wide-angle zoom for Sony APS-C cameras and will take some great landscapes. The 35mm equivalent focal range is 15-27mm. This lens is 2.7″ across and 2.5″ deep, weighing only 8 ounces (compare to the 18 ounces in the 16-35mm f/4).
Standard Zoom Lenses
My favorite lens – and the one that’s usually always mounted while I’m hiking – is the Sony 24-70mm f/4 lens. This lens is the standard zoom counterpart to the 16-35mm wide zoom. But it offers you some wide capability with the option to immediately zoom in for a tighter shot. This too is weather resistant & optically stabilized, with a constant f/4 aperture throughout the entire focal range. This lens is 2.9″ in diameter and 3.7″ deep and weighs 15 ounces. You’re not going to find a better standard zoom lens smaller & lighter than this.
Looking for something a little cheaper? The Sony FE 28-70mm OSS lens covers just about the same focal range but for only $498. This lens has a variable aperture from f/3.5-5.6 depending on the zoom. It’s slightly smaller and lighter – 2.9″ x 3.3″ & 10.4 ounces. It’s also weather resistant and features optical stabilization – but it doesn’t have the same quality glass as the Vario-Tessar 24-70mm f/4. You may find some more flaring, ghosting, and aberrations in addition to not being as sharp through the focal range.
This standard zoom lens has a focal range of 16-70mm, which will end up being an equivalent of 24-105mm on an APS-C body. The quality of this lens is indicated by its constant aperture of f/4 throughout the zoom range, anti-flare lens coating, multiple aspherical lens elements, and optical image stabilization. You’ll be able to shoot a great range from landscapes to tight shots with sharpness throughout. This lens is 2.6″ across by 3″ deep and weighs only 10.9 ounces. And at less than $1,000?
A cheaper, but longer and heavier option is the Sony E PZ 18-105mm f/4 G OSS lens. The “PZ” stands for Power Zoom, with an electric motor giving you a 35mm focal range of 27-157.5mm and a constant aperture of f/4. This lens also features optical image stabilization. I’ve never used this lens and it doesn’t have reviews as great as the others, but it may be a good value option.
Telephoto Zoom Lenses
I don’t really carry telephoto zooms while I’m backpacking & hiking. I’m more of a wide landscape shooter. Shooting with the Sony a7ii gives me enough resolution to crop photos tighter if I need to. These lenses just add too much weight & space requirements given my shooting style. This is something you should ask yourself before purchasing – will you use it enough to justify the purchase?
If the answer is yes, consider the following. You may also want to bypass the 24-70mm f/4 lens and look at the 24-240mm. As I said earlier, a large focal range will usually sacrifice some clarity around the edges, so keep that in mind.
My top choice here for quality is the fixed-aperture FE 70-200mm f/4 G OSS lens. Because it starts at 70mm, you’ll definitely need to carry at least one more lens to give you wider shots. This moisture & dust resistant optically-stabilized lens is the largest lens in the lineup here. But when I’m carrying only camera gear and not overnight gear as well, this is the telephoto zoom I carry. This lens features specialized glass elements and coatings to keep your images sharper throughout the focal range and without introducing any aberrations. It does weigh a hefty 29.6 ounces (heavier than the equivalent Canon DSLR lens), is 6.9″ long, and 3.15″ in diameter. But it’s the best telephoto zoom for hiking & backpacking with Sony Alpha cameras given the attributes we’re looking for.
The FE 24-240mm 3.5-6.3 is your lens if you just want one lens to cover the range from 24mm to above 200mm. This variable-aperture & optically-stabilized lens is really compact & light given its focal range. It does have a variable aperture, so you’ll only be able to open up to f/6.3 at the longer focal lengths. This lens is also lacking the lens coatings & extra low dispersion elements that the more expensive lenses offer. But it’s smaller and cheaper, so depending on your use it may be a great option. This lens is 3.2″ x 4.7″ and weighs 27.5 ounces.
You’ll get a 27-300mm focal range out of this optically-stabilized lens. With this great range, the only other lens you’ll need is the 10-18mm wide zoom. Now you’ve got it all covered! This lens has multiple quality glass elements to reduce aberrations and maximize sharpness. One feature I like – a zoom lock button, so that the barrel won’t creep as you’re carrying this over your shoulder. It also features the same small size & weight of other E lenses – 2.7″ x 3.8″ and just a squeak over a pound at 16.2 ounces.
I thought you just said to carry zoom lenses instead of primes to give you a larger focal range?
Yes, I did! However, every now and then I like to give myself a “prime challenge”. Go out with minimal gear – just the Sony a7ii and a 35mm or 55mm lens. This forces me to think creatively and compose “outside the box”. These challenges really make me light and save space. Prime lenses are usually smaller & lighter than zooms and offer a faster speed.
This is the smallest quality lens you’ll find for Sony alpha mirrorless full-frame cameras. It’s less than 2.5″ in diameter and 1.5″ deep, with a 49mm filter thread. This lens from legendary Zeiss is also dust & moisture resistant. The relatively fast speed of f/2.8 will give you shallow DOF and smooth bokeh when you want it. The best part – it weighs a mere 4.2 ounces. You won’t even feel it on the camera.
If you want something a little wider, you can check out the Sony FE 28mm f/2 lens. This lens is also dust & moisture resistant. The glass quality isn’t what you’ll find on the 35mm Sonnar, and as such is cheaper. It’s also slightly larger & heavier than the 35mm Sonnar.
Sony doesn’t offer much in the way of rugged prime lenses suitable for backcountry travel. This 52.5mm equivalent optically-stabilized lens is super fast at f/1.8 and sharp for the price. It’s not necessarily wide (it actually makes a good lens for street photography) but for its size and price, it’s a great choice if you want to take a fast prime lens into the wild. The dimensions are 1.5″ x 2.8″ and it weighs only 5.4 ounces.
A cheaper, smaller, and wider option is the Sony E 20mm f/2.8 pancake lens. This 2.4-ounce lens is probably the least-sharp lens on this page, but it’ll work just fine for you if all you’re doing is hiking around with your APS-C and taking snaps. Remember that it’ll give you a 35mm equivalent focal length.
Wrapping it up
Sony has been coming out with some great lenses to compliment the small lineup that they started with when they introduced the alpha mirrorless cameras. I wanted to include some of the other lenses here because they’re great for portrait & general travel photography. But we had to keep our focus here (no pun intended). If you’re looking for Sony alpha lenses for backpacking & hiking, these are the best ones that fit the bill and will give you great shots as you venture into the wilderness.
If you have any other thoughts on which lenses you should take into the wilderness, or questions about what I’ve written here, I’d love to hear them below.