How to Choose a Lens for Landscape Photography

7Share
A Guide to Lenses for Landscape Photography

Like a painter choosing a paintbrush, a photographer’s lens choice will dramatically affect the resulting picture. This is especially true when it comes to landscape photography. Lens choice can make a big difference when you don’t have the benefit of directing your subject. A mountain will not turn its face toward the sun, no matter how hard you beg. As a result, your creativity is limited to a couple of key factors, such as time of day, weather, and―you guessed it, lens choice.

Similar to the range of unique considerations to keep in mind when looking for a camera for landscape photography, distinct choices should be made when selecting a lens for landscape shooting. Below, we’ve outlined some of the criteria to focus on when choosing a lens for landscape shooting.

Focal length

When looking for a lens for landscape photography, most common advice will suggest you begin with a wide-angle lens. Wide-angle lenses, such as a 24-70mm or 14-24mm are particularly suitable for landscape photography, due to their broad field of view and deep depth of field—both desirable attributes for general landscape purposes. Wides let you fit the entire mountain in the background into your frame, they can be used to show a great deal of land and sky, and they can be used to distort or skew perspective to produce more drama. The amount of depth of field they provide also helps to ensure consistent sharp focus from foreground to background, which is often useful when photographing great expanses of land.

Even though wide-angle lenses are the so-called standard for landscape applications, this shouldn’t dissuade you from looking at normal and telephoto focal lengths when photographing scenery. Sometimes that bit of extra reach or visual compression that a telephoto affords you can be useful in creating interest in your imagery. Telephoto lenses, like the classic 70-200mm, can also help you isolate subjects from the background, whether it’s a rock formation or unique piece of vegetation. They also open a whole new realm of creativity. Just taking wide-angle shots of landscapes can become tedious after a while. Telephoto lenses allow you to zoom in on your subjects and experiment with compositional elements. They compress your subject matter, giving you space to play around with framing, shape, color, and form.

Aperture

For many types of photography, a bright maximum aperture is desirable. When taking a portrait, for example, shallow depth of field can help you emphasize a person’s eyes, while focus falls off in the foreground and background. Luckily, with landscape photography, having shallow depth of field is less important.

This will save you a lot of money and weight. Lenses with apertures such as f/1.8 or f/1.4 usually cost an arm and a leg. They also tend to pack more ample glass and are a little heavier, which is not ideal for anyone with plans to hike long distances during a photo outing. For example, let’s look at two 50mm Sony lenses, the FE 50mm F2.5 G Full-frame Standard Prime G Lens and FE 50mm F1.2 GM Full-frame Standard Prime G Master Lens. The f/2.5 is 77% lighter than the f/1.2 version, and costs $1,400 less―a significant difference.

It is common for landscape photographers to work mainly within the middle of the aperture range—think f/5.6 to f/16—so the need for an f/1.4 lens isn’t as great. Additionally, working from a tripod further helps to reinforce the desire to work at smaller apertures, and subsequently longer shutter speeds.

Zoom or prime?

The debate between zooms and primes will never cease to exist, and the debate is especially rich in the realm of landscape photography. The merits of a zoom? You can obviously zoom into a landscape when you’re confined to a very specific location (think shooting from an observation deck at a national park). On the other hand, zooms can make you complacent with how to photograph an area, whereas working with a prime will force you to maybe hike a bit more and seek out a more rewarding viewpoint to photograph the landscape. You “zoom” with your feet.

At this point in time, the image-quality differences between zooms and primes are relatively moot—there are very high-quality zooms, and there are very high-quality primes. Some of the wider focal length lenses are often best available in zoom format, such as Canon’s awe-inspiring EF 11-24mm f/4L USM or Nikon’s impressive NIKKOR Z 14-30mm f/4 S, whereas some slightly narrower focal lengths really shine as primes, such as the no-holds-barred Zeiss Otus 28mm f/1.4 or the delightfully compact Sony Sonnar T* FE 35mm f/2.8 ZA. Making a decision between zooms or primes really depends on your own needs, such as the amount of access you’ll have to walk around a subject, how much weight/how many lenses you can carry and, of course, your preference for focal length.

Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM Lens
Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM Lens

Auto or manual focus?

The benefits of an autofocus lens are a given: they focus automatically, quickly and, generally, accurately, and they can also be focused manually. So why would someone want to get a purely manual focus lens? Feel and control.

Canon RF 50mm f/1.8 STM Lens
Canon RF 50mm f/1.8 STM Lens

Most autofocus lenses employ electronics to permit manual fine-tuning of focus, with no real mechanical operation being performed during focusing (this is called focus by wire). The key drawback to this is, without mechanical linkage, there is no relationship between how quickly, smoothly, or relatively how far you can turn a focus ring and how the focus movement reacts. With a mechanical manual focus lens, you gain more tactile control when shifting from focusing points, and smoother, more tempered focusing action, too. Since landscapes are usually static subjects, the need to be quick with focusing usually takes second place to accuracy, and with good eyesight or a well-tuned diopter, manual focus will often lead to the best results. One other benefit to manual focus lenses is the hard infinity stops and depth-of-field scales typically found on the lens barrels. These aids will help in working with hyperfocal focusing techniques to gain the longest depth of field possible.

Other lens considerations for landscape photography

• Weather resistance If you’re going to be working outdoors, potentially in inclement conditions, a weather-sealed design should be one of your top priorities. While no lens is fully waterproof, weather-sealed lenses will protect against moderate rain, light sea spray, snow, and sand.

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200mm f/2G ED VR II Lens
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200mm f/2G ED VR II Lens

• Tilt-shift lenses For those looking to take a page from view-camera shooters without the size and weight of a full large format kit, tilt-shift lenses let you adjust perspective, minimize (or maximize) distortion, and affect the plane of focus in imagery. For landscape photographers, these lenses can be used to gain truly great range of depth of field and can also be used to correct convergence if photographing tall, vertical objects, such as trees.

Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II Tilt-Shift Lens
Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II Tilt-Shift Lens

• Image Stabilization While you will ideally always have a tripod with you, sometimes that’s just not the case. In such cases, you’ll want to make sure your lens offers image stabilization to help you capture sharp photos, even when at a small aperture or in low light. This is especially important if you’re using a camera bereft of in-body stabilization.

• Crop Factor When choosing your lens, make sure you consider the format of the camera you will be using. Whether you’re shooting on a full-frame, APS-C, or Micro Four Thirds camera will determine your effective focal range. You may find that shooting on a crop sensor camera will work to your advantage, especially if you’re looking for a tighter zoom lens on a budget, or if you need to reduce the weight of your backpack.

• Weight If you’re planning to hike for miles into the back country, think about the total weight of your gear, especially if you’re going on a multi-day adventure. Even the most dedicated full-frame photographers may want to consider investing in ASP-C or Micro Four Thirds setups if they’re planning to do back-country photography mainly.

• Price Finally, consider how much you want to invest in this endeavor. If you’re just getting into landscape photography and aren’t sure if you’re ready to invest fully, it might be worth renting gear from your local camera shop first. Or borrow gear from a friend (if you’re blessed with photographer buddies). This gives you the opportunity to try different lenses and experiment before considering a home equity loan.

What do you look for in a lens for landscape photography? What are some of your favorite lenses for the genre? Post any questions or comments in the dedicated section, just below.

7 Comments

How about a decent lens for landscaping that's around $500 or under. Most people can't afford thousand dollars $2,000 $3,000 for lenses. Thank you for your time and your input. Camera is a Nikon D5100

My sentiments exactly. I also have a Nikon D5100 and keep checking to see if there is anything affordable for those of us on a budget. So far doesn't look too promising.

Thanks for the comments, Jim and Gladys. Very fair about looking for some more affordable options. The lenses mentioned in this article are just suggestions or examples of types of lenses to illustrate a point about how zooms and primes, at the peak of performance, can be pretty similar in quality. Some suggestions for more budget-friendly lenses, specifically for the D5100, might be something like the AF-S NIKKOR DX 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5G ED (https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/619515-REG/Nikon_2181_10_24mm_f_3_5_4_5G_ED_AF_S.html), the AF-S DX NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8G (https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/606792-USA/Nikon_2183_AF_S_Nikkor_35mm_f_1_8G.html), or even the AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G (https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/838798-REG/Nikon_2201_AF_S_NIKKOR_85mm_f_1_8G.html); just depends on what kind of focal length you're looking for. The 35mm and 85mm lenses are faster and single focal lengths while the zoom has a wider field of view but is a bit slower. All three would be great for landscape shooting, and would make a really versatile 3-lens kit.

"the need for an f/1.4 lens isn’t as great." Then a bit further "some slightly narrower focal lengths really shine as primes, such as the no-holds-barred Zeiss Otus 28mm f/1.4"... Really? Besides the focal length and aperture sections, which are good basics, the rest is just as baffling as the companion article on landscape cameras. Prime lenses and "manual focus only" lenses are really not mainstream for landscape (although manual focus itself is useful). Very disappointing content.

 

 

Hi Max,

The reason for bringing up the Otus 28mm f/1.4 isn't simply due to it's f/1.4 maximum aperture; that lens is much more than only a fast lens, it has an impressive lens construction to eliminate virtually all types of aberrations for high color fidelity, sharpness, and clarity. The fact that it is an f/1.4 is certainly a plus, but definitely not the main reason most would be looking at that lens.

I'd disagree that primes and manual focus designs are not very "mainstream" for landscape shooting, however the article does cite the pros for working with autofocus and zooms. There are pros and cons to almost any lens type you use--auto or manual focus, prime or zoom--regardless of the subject matter you're working with.

I agree. In wide angle lanscape photography the sharpness is very important, because the reproduction ratio is very low, and the tine detail will be render even smaller. It´s linked with depth of field in some compositions. The scape will not run, like wildlife. The lanscape will note move, like pets or children. you can set focus manually and wait for the right light, and fast, in the right moment, press the shutter butom. For point and shooters , i agree that auto focus is the mainstream for landscape, and for any other type of photography.

Truly, wide-angle lenses are particularly suitable for landscape photography. Thank you so much Bjorn for sharing this information about lenses that can help take better landspace photos.

Thanks again ^__^