Landscapes and Ultra-Wide-Angle Lenses: A Marriage Made in Heaven

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A friend of mine once described his favorite wide-angle lens as his “gateway to landscape photography,” and that’s a pretty good metaphor for wide-angle lenses if I ever heard one. Wide-angle lenses and ultra-wide-angle lenses naturally lend themselves to capturing landscapes with a sense of depth. They also tend to capture a sense of drama that you seldom get when photographing landscapes with longer focal length lenses.

Photographs © Allan Weitz 2021

Wide-angle lenses feature angles of view (AoVs) ranging from about 63° to about 74°, which on a full-frame camera includes lenses ranging from about 35mm to 28mm. For APS-C format cameras, wide-angles range from about 36mm to 18mm, and about 18mm to 14mm on an MFT camera system.

Ultra-wide-angle lenses are defined as wide-angle lenses with focal lengths wider than the above-mentioned focal ranges.

Wide-angle and ultra-wide-angle lenses inherently add a sense of depth to landscape photographs you seldom get when using normal or telephoto lenses.

When It Comes to Landscape Photography, Fast Apertures Aren’t a Priority

You do not need the same type of fast-aperture lenses sports photographers require to shoot landscapes. Slower wide-angle and ultra-wide-angle lenses with maximum apertures of f/3.5, f/4.5, and f/5.6 are perfectly capable of capturing extremely satisfying results, and most of these lenses are available for well under $1,000. Regardless of how wide a lens opens up, with few exceptions, most landscape photographs are captured at smaller apertures for maximum depth of field.

Wide-angle and ultra-wide-angle lenses are ideal for capturing all of the visual elements that make up a good landscape photograph. In this hillside view of Haifa, the sea, sky, and land come together to create a dramatic view of this beautiful coastal city.

What’s The “Best” Aperture to Use for Landscape Photography?

“Best” is a word that begs to be defined. When you ask about a lens’s “best aperture,” do you mean “sharpest aperture”? If that’s the case, most lenses display the highest degree of resolving power when stopped down about 3 to 3.5 stops down from maximum aperture, which may or may not be the best aperture for this particular photograph.

Most landscape photographs are taken with the lens set to smaller apertures to maximize the depth of field in the image. If stopping your lens down 3 to 3.5 stops for maximum resolving power only gets you a wee bit past f/8, this might not give you enough depth of field. In cases such as these, it’s far preferable to stop the lens down to a smaller aperture (f/11, f/16, or f/22) to maximize the depth of focus of the image. Any loss of image quality is a small, if at all noticeable, price to pay for what will undoubtedly be a “better” picture.

Most landscape photographs are taken at smaller apertures to achieve maximum depth of field. In the case of ultra-wide-angle lenses, it’s not unusual to be able to maintain continuous focus from infinity to within inches from the lens.

Cityscapes Are Landscapes, Too!

The concept of landscape photography is not limited to the grandeur of mountains, lakes, and mighty stands of ancient oak trees. There are no shortages of impressive vistas in and around any city you can name. Some are chock-full of tall gleaming mirrored towers; other towns and cities are filled with buildings and aesthetic sensibilities of days past.

These photographs are typical of the type of large- and small-scale cityscapes you can capture with ultra-wide-angle lenses in urban environments.

Visual Anchors—Without Them, the Eye Wanders Aimlessly

Good image composition is imperative regardless of your subject matter, landscape or otherwise. In the case of photographs captured with wide-angle lenses, a dominant visual feature should be present in the foreground or background to serve as a visual anchor. In the opening photograph at the beginning of this article, the mass of multi-colored Columbine flowers serves collectively as a visual anchor.

Visual anchors need not be as blatant as a bright yellow sign with a black arrow running through it . A snow-capped log at the edge of a wooded ravine serves as a dominant feature the eye can return to as it scans the image area.

Positive/Negative Space and Basic Composition

Positive and negative spaces—i.e., highlights and shadows—are the building blocks of compositional design. They are the essence of painting, sculpture, architecture, and yes—photography. When composing photographs, always be aware of the interplay between shadow and highlights and how to best fill the frame with their positive/negative dynamics.

Branches, leaves, and the shadows they cast serve as (negative) framing devices to the brighter (positive) façade of the grand estate in the background in the photograph on the left. Similarly, the darker footbridge, trees, and stream meandering through the image field counterbalance the brighter (positive) snow-covered areas in the scene on the right.

Reflections

Mirror-like reflections in lakes and streams add strong visual dynamics to landscape photographs. When the air is still, bodies of water should be incorporated into your landscapes whenever possible. In the case of urban cityscapes, puddles can be used equally effectively to create either mirror-like reflections or other visual twists of “reality.”

The reflective qualities of lakes, streams, and rivers can be used very effectively when photographing landscapes.

The rules of landscape photography are the same whether you are taking pictures out in the countryside or the inner city. Lakes and streams might be rare in your neighborhood, but puddles and flooded streets are common sights—use them!

The rules for capturing strong landscapes and cityscapes are one and the same.

Points of View Other than Eye Level

Most of the actions we perform daily are routines we perform by rote, and this includes picture taking. With the exception of the default “feet-apart-half-step-lean-in” posture most shooters assume before pressing the shutter button, we all lift the camera to our eye (regardless of how tall we are), move the camera a tad to the left or right, press the shutter button, and move on.

A better approach is to look for an alternate point of view for your camera. It could be a ground view position or perhaps from behind branches of a tree that can be used to frame your subject while adding an additional sense of depth to the final image. In the photograph below, a full-frame camera with a 10mm rectilinear ultra-wide-angle lens is held below a spout of water shooting over a 10-pointed sun star along the side of a park fountain in midtown Manhattan. By shooting from below the arc of water, I turn it into a visual anchor that guides the eye across the image field with the sun centrally positioned as a bonus visual anchor point.

When composing landscapes and cityscapes, always keep an open eye for unusual points of view other than eye level. This makes it possible to capture photographs that look different from the photographs of the same locale taken by everybody else jockeying to take what is ultimately the same picture as the photographer next to him or her.

Horizon Lines—Keep them Straight!

There’s nothing more jarring to the eye than a crooked horizon line in an otherwise lovely landscape photograph, and in the case of ultra-wide-angle lenses, which are naturally prone to distortion, angled horizons can be difficult to pick up on even to a trained eye. Fortunately, many of the current cameras on the market feature electronic leveling modes that enable you to level your camera using electronic guides that are visible on your camera screen.

If your camera does not have a built-in electronic horizon level, inexpensive slip-on levels enable you to keep your horizon lines straight and level, which is important when photographing landscapes and cityscapes.

If your camera isn’t equipped with an in-camera leveling feature, slip-on bubble levels are available that slip onto your cameras accessory shoe and enable you to level your camera manually. Many tripod heads and quick release systems also have built-in bubble levels.

Image Stabilization or Tripod?

Unlike street photography, which often requires the ability to reframe your photograph a hairbreadth before pressing the shutter button, landscapes are static—they’re not going anywhere. With the exception of flowing water, a possible passerby, and leaves blowing in the wind, landscapes don’t move, which makes landscapes an ideal time to use a tripod.

When your camera is tripod mounted, you have the option of locking it in position, which makes it possible for you to wander and explore for other possible camera positions while leaving your camera in its current location ready to perform when needed.

Tripods are by far the best means of guaranteeing sharp photographs. Do modern image-stabilization systems guarantee sharper photographs? Yes, Image stabilization is extremely effective at eliminating the blurring effects of camera movement, but a sturdy tripod is by far more effective at damping vibrations, especially at longer exposure times.

If, however, you are in a situation in which using a tripod isn’t an option, image stabilization, which with today’s camera and lens systems makes it possible to handhold your camera and lens at shutter speeds 5-or-more stops slower than normal, should be your plan B. Either way you should walk away with sharp image files.

Expand Your Knowledge

If you’d like to learn more about landscape photography and ultra-wide-angle lenses, I suggest checking out the following previously published B&H Explora articles:

Do you have any experience shooting landscapes using wide-angle and ultra-wide-angle lenses? If so, let us know about it in the Comments section, below.

Items discussed in article

2 Comments

I disagree w/ several of the premises of this article. Apologies to the author and David Muench, I do not like to use wide-angle lenses for landscape photography for the simple reason that that is not what is in front of me.  I rarely use anything over 35mm and often use a zoom up to 300mm (as that is all I have).  I shoot w/ an Impressionist's eye, though I was not influenced by them, as I only learned about them years after I started photography.  About tripods, I use one a lot, especially when i want to concentrate on the design of the photograph.  I find using the tripod for this forces me to focus on the "artistry" (sorry) of what I am photographing.  When I lack the time, or can't get into position with a tripod (like laying right on the ground) I shoot freehand and really appreciate the new technology of digital.  Also, very thankful for the electronic levels found on many cameras.  I have found this feature much more useful than even an architectural screen. The comments on cityscapes are spot on, they are landscapes.  I like the fact you recommend using f16 or smaller.  I see a lot of articles waxing about using f8 or go so the lens can  be that much sharper.  I use f16 as my basic f stop, a holdover from film.  Thanks for listening.

And thanks for taking the time to state your views on the topic. And for the record I have captured numerous landscapes using 300mm and 500mm lenses? Keep shooting and enjoy!

-AW

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