What’s the Best Lens for Landscape Photography?
Choosing the best lens for landscape photography is, in my view, just as important as any other factor that makes up your photo. It will be the main thing dictating how you convey your scene to the viewer. The most important part of your lens is its focal length. This will not only decide how you frame your scene, but also affect the feel of the shot too, by allowing you to include or exclude different aspects to get the final image looking how you wish. It’s the resulting field of view that your camera will capture. All lens focal lengths are measured in millimetres (mm). Wide angle lenses will have a low number with a wide field of view, whilst longer lenses (telephotos etc.) will have a higher number and a narrower field of view.
Wide Angle Lenses
Lenses with focal lengths less than 40mm are generally known as wide angle lenses. These are the most used focal lengths in landscape photography; I’d go as far as saying they’re essential to have in your bag when shooting landscapes. By using a lens like this, you’ll be able to include a lot of scenery in your compositions. They might not suit every scene, but lots of landscape photos are taken with these short focal lengths due to the benefit of the wider field of view, allowing you to capture large views of the countryside or coast.
Photographers tend to choose wide angle lenses due to their characteristics of stretching and distorting near and distant elements of your scene. This allows you to place more emphasis on a very near subject, such as coastal flowers, making them more prominent and allowing you to create some really dynamic compositions. Most wide angle lengths are around the 24mm figure, but go below that and you can have some real fun with your landscape images. This is when scenes become even more exaggerated, especially when shooting in portrait orientation, allowing you to include everything from a few inches in front of the tripod, right off into the far distance.
Recommended Wide-angle Lens for Landscape Photography
Being a Canon man, my choice would be the stunning Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM. Why not the f/2.8 you ask? Well, this newer lens is a lot sharper right across the frame (than the f/2.8), even when stopped down; we landscape photographers love sharp detail in the corners. It’s lightweight and unless you’re shooting low light or night shots that require the f/2.8 to capture more light, having f/4 as the widest is good enough, especially as you’ll be using it for landscapes. You’ll be into the mid teen f-stop numbers anyway for best front to back sharpness. Also, I’d choose a zoom over a prime as it’s really versatile and saves carrying around more than one lens for a larger range. Though I’d always use a tripod for landscape work, it’s got a great Image Stabiliser to help with those handheld shots.
Standard lenses are most comparable to what the human eye can see in its field of view. This is roughly meant to match the diagonal length of your sensor, so a full frame sensor (36mm x 24mm) with some maths would result in 43mm; though 50mm is considered to be the number everybody agrees on. At this focal length, objects in the scene most resemble how we see, and that’s without any extreme distortion and with a natural looking perspective and parallax. These focal lengths are perfect when you want to convey your scene in an instantly recognisable way, keep aspects looking ‘true to life’ and also if you wish to exclude any foreground elements, solely focusing and drawing the viewer’s eye towards the background. For me, standard lenses make good walkabout lenses, keeping things simple; it pushes you to think about composition more, trying to tie up elements at a slighter further away viewpoint than you would have used with a wide angle.
Recommended “Standard” Lens for Landscape Photography
A good standard ‘walkabout’ lens from Canon is the EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM. As above, it is lightweight and very flexible in focal length choices. My own personal choice in this focal length though is the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM II. Super sharp right across the frame – slightly heavier than the 24-105mm, but has the added bonus of stopping down to f/2.8 when needed and produces lovely bokeh.
You’ve probably heard the term ‘telephoto’ a lot; it basically means a longer than standard focal length. Anything over about 50mm and above is regarded as a telephoto lens. You may think these are too long for landscapes as they’ll produce a narrower field of view, and therefore less of the landscape is captured on camera. You’d be partly right, but it’s easy to overlook the benefits of a telephoto lens for landscape photography. They will allow you to really cherry pick the best parts of the landscape in front of you, emphasising smaller areas that would be missed if using a wide angle and going for a wider field of view. By magnifying an element it will bring it to the forefront of your composition, meaning you can be creative with a subject that is distant.
One of the main aspects of telephoto lenses is that they compress perspective. They’ll make objects in the landscape appear closer to each other, and you can use this to your benefit when lining up elements down the barrel of your lens. Usually candidates for this are lenses like the 70-200mm zoom lens, allowing you to isolate important elements in your landscape, such as a lone tree on a hill or looking down onto a misty valley floor, picking out mini scenes that work. It’s not just limited to 200mm though, lenses upwards of this length will work just as good. The longer the lens you use, the narrower your field of view and the bigger a distant object will appear in the frame. It’s always worth trying out different lengths and seeing what works best with the scene you’re trying to convey.
Recommended Telephoto Lenses for Landscape Photography
As mentioned above, you can’t go wrong with a 70-200mm lens for this kind of work. If you shoot landscape only, then go for the f/4 version. I photograph a range of other things though so require the f/2.8 IS. Downside is it is a lot heavier than the non IS f/4, but plus side is it’s a real workhorse and marginally sharper across the image, and has image stabilisation for handheld shooting. Either would produce fantastic results and don’t forget there’s also a whole other range of lenses in this category such as the 100-400mm zoom and also prime lenses.
Prime vs Zoom
I’ve just covered zoom lenses in this article, but there are two types of lenses out there; the others are called prime lenses. Prime basically means fixed length, so a 50mm prime lens is just that – a 50mm lens. It can’t be zoomed in or changed. Both types of lenses have pros and cons in landscape photography. Prime lenses are always usually regarded as having sharper optics than zoom. They’ll be lighter as there’s less glass in them, and also you’ll find them ‘faster’ with better wide open aperture range (f/1.8 for example).
The downsides are that they’re fixed focal length, so you’ll need to zoom with your feet plus you’ll have to have a range of them covering all sorts of separate focal lengths (18mm, 20mm, 25mm etc.). Because of this, many photographers opt for the best zoom lenses to try to cover all bases as it were. You’ll change lenses far less using a zoom and also have less weight in your camera bag to lug around due to only needing two or three lenses to cover a range from 16mm right up to 200 or 300mm.
Further Reading: Should You Use a Zoom or Prime Telephoto Lens?
Lens / Sensor Relationship
It’s also worth pointing out that all of the focal lengths given in my examples are using a camera with a full frame sensor. If you’re using a crop sensor camera (with a smaller sensor than full frame) then you will need to multiply your focal length by your ‘crop factor’. That’s 1.6x for Canon crop cameras (1.3x for older 1D’s) or 1.5x for Nikon. There are plenty of other crop factors for different camera makes, so a quick online search will find out your specific camera’s crop factor. Adding these to your lens’ focal length will give you a figure which is comparative to what to expect when looking through the viewfinder. So as such, you may need to get an even wider lens on a crop body to translate into a ‘standard’ lens. For example a 10-22 lens on a Canon crop body will interpret into a 16 – 35mm lens.