When I started taking photography more seriously I’ve asked this question to myself again and again. What’s the best lens for landscape photography? I read a lot online, asked questions in forums and talked to friends that were on my same situation.
It’s so true when you hear saying that lenses matter most that your camera. If you’re a landscape photographer you care about getting the right ones. They are probably the most important tool in your equipment. In my experience two are the lenses needed for almost all your needs, less is more right? And with two focal ranges you can cover all the aspects of outdoors photography while keeping your bag pretty light. Let’s see what are the most common rules to find the right lenses for you.
I think you might know the difference between wide-angle and telephoto lens, but it’s worth exploring the topic a bit because it’s so important. Lenses are the eye of your camera. They determine how much your camera is able to see. The focal length is the distance between the middle of the lens to the focal plane. The focal plane is basically your sensor.
With a long focal length you have a narrow angle of view and high magnification. On the opposite, with short focal length you have a wider angle of view and low magnification.
One could be prone to think that all you need for landscapes is a good wide lens and that’s what I did in the beginning. With a wide lens you can include quite a lot of the background and this is what you would actually expect and aim for when thinking of a nice landscape picture. An open view with maybe mountains on the background and a lake that reflects those mountains on the foreground. So in this case definitely, a wide field-of-view is much needed. But soon after buying my first lens I realized that there was more to landscape photography than always the same wide composition. To further my experience and explore different styles and try different angles I decided to buy a zoom telephoto lens to cover a larger focal range.
By using very different focal lengths I was able to understand better a lot of aspects of depth of field and composition. I feel that shooting from different angles and having to include different subjects even if shooting from the same point of view, helped me training my eye to find new composition and to really think at what I want to shoot first.
Wide angle lens
I think it’s only fair to start with wide angle lenses. As I said, with a wide angle lens you are able to include more in your composition and it’s probably the first lens a landscape photographer needs to buy. These lenses are built in such a way that objects on the foreground will look bigger and objects on the background will look smaller. The perspective gets stretched resulting in a dramatic scene and making the land look limitless. Very attractive for the viewer’s eye. For their “inclusive” nature, wide angle lenses help playing with aspects of composition such as leading lines, foreground and reflections.
In the full frame sensor world, a popular and very useful focal range lens to start with is a 16-35mm. It falls in the spectrum of ultra-wide lens, very good also for astrophotography, cityscapes, seascapes and any other landscape shooting really. On the market you can find this lens with f/4 and f/2.8 aperture values. Depending on the brand and quality of the lens, the f/2.8 is almost always more expensive. It’s a brighter, sharper and faster lens. Due to its wide aperture of f/2.8 you can also do astrophotography more easily with it. This could be achieved with an f/4 too, but in this case you’ll need to increase your ISO. Most photographers prefer to go as low as f/1.4 for astrophotography, the brighter the better. But in this case you’ll need to add another lens to your kit. I shoot on a Micro Four Thirds system and my primary lens is the workhorse M.Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO. Being m43 that f/2.8 means an f/5.6 equivalent on a full frame, but nonetheless it’s possible to shoot astro with this lens and all the other traditional landscape scenes.
The most common focal length in the telephoto spectrum is 70-200mm. With this focal you can do also sport, action photography and portrait. It’s not your first lens of choice if you are starting right now in landscape photography, so you don’t need to buy it immediately, but if you want to do something a bit unique, like isolating a tree from the wider scene or compress the perspective making distant objects look closer to the foreground this is what you need. The field-of-view of a telephoto lens is around 30 degrees (40 on a Micro Four Thirds). So with this narrow field-of-view you won’t be able to capture as much of the background as with a wide angle lens. They are considered lenses of “exclusion” and can also help isolating your main subject by taking advantage of a shallow depth of field to create a blurry background. Making the picture look more 3 dimensional. Even for telephoto lenses you have choice of different apertures. Obviously the brighter and faster the lens the more expensive it will be, but also usually the heaviest and more difficult to manoeuvre. The weight increase is directly proportional with the focal length and max aperture. A 70-200mm f/2.8 will be heavier than a f/4. And more expensive. My telephoto lens is a 40-150mm f/2.8 which would be the full frame equivalent of a 80-300mm. Don’t forget that to spend less money you can decide for a variable aperture instead of a fixed one. For example a f/3.5 to f/5.6 aperture refers to the maximum aperture the lens can achieve for each end of the zoom range. These type of lenses are much lighter and less expensive but obviously the quality won’t be the same as the ones with a fixed aperture.
Sharpness and lens quality
A great landscape photo should be sharp from center to corners. And this is what you would expect a good lens should deliver. If you do some researches and read lens reviews you will see that people talk a lot about it and about other aspects, like vignetting, which is the darkening of image corners when compared to the center. Depending on the quality of the lens you will see that they produce very different results. So some of them may produce softer result off center, some may produce more or less vignetting and then there’s chromatic aberration and so forth. You can obsess yourself and read online charts, tests, reviews and still not be sure that what you’re buying is the best possible product on the market. In fact what I suggest is that you need to have first of all clear in mind what is your budget. You need to know that, yes by spending more money usually you will get a better sharpness and overall quality, but seriously, think of the use you would do of it. Do you need to spend thousands of dollars if you’re starting now in landscape photography? Also remember, if you are new to landscape photography, most probably you’ll shoot at apertures from f/8 – f/13 90% of the time. So you won’t probably need to sharpest possible lens.
A lot more could be written and this is by no mean an exhaustive analysis on the best lenses on the market. But now that you know a bit more what to take in consideration when choosing a lens for landscape photography, I want to conclude this article with a quick list of aspects to consider and that you can bring with you when deciding what lens to buy.
List of focal lengths ranges:
Ultra-wide up to 24mm (also good for astrophotography and real estate)
Wide 24-35mm (or better 16-35mm, it will probably be your workhorse)
Telephoto 70mm +
Up to f/2.8 very bright (also excellent for astrophotography on an ultra-wide lens)
Wide f/4 bright (in general used more for traditional landscapes)
Variable f/3.5 – f/5.6 (less expensive and less heavy, but prone to lower quality results)
Lenses are essential tools in your photography arsenal. I haven’t tried all of the lenses out there, but what I can recommend is that if you are starting now and want to save some money, consider saving on the camera body rather than the lens. Lenses don’t get updated as often as camera bodies so don’t depreciate as much. A good optic is an investment for you. It will last for very long time. Lenses for full frame sensor systems are unbelievably good, but don’t underestimate the power of the Micro Four Thirds system and how much weight and money you can save with brands such as Olympus or Panasonic.
Ultimately, take this article as a starting point for your research and read a lot. Ask questions online, ask me questions and before buying anything make sure you try the gear first unless you know the product already.
I hope that this was helpful, consider sharing this article and comment below to let me know what you think. I will reply!