The Advantages of High-End Ultra-Wide-Angle Lenses for Landscape Photography

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When it comes to capturing the world’s scenic vistas, there is nothing quite like photographing natural or urban beauty with a premium high-end landscape lens. The traditional “landscape lens” for generations of photographers has been the wide-angle prime lens. While the modern prime lens cannot be beat for its optical quality and performance, there are a good number of amazing wide-angle zoom lenses that capture sparkling landscape images when attached to the front of the cameras of the world’s landscape photographers. Whether you have a premium prime or zoom wide-angle or ultra-wide-angle lens on your camera, you have gained some true technical and creative advantages over other lenses of similar focal lengths.

Photographs © Todd Vorenkamp

Ultra-wide-angle lenses allow you to capture lots of foreground and sky in the same image while rendering a unique-to-your-eye perspective of a scene.
Ultra-wide-angle lenses allow you to capture lots of foreground and sky in the same image while rendering a unique-to-your-eye perspective of a scene.

The Wide-Angle View of Our World

Most beginning photographers sense the need to get “closer” to their subjects and, therefore, gravitate to telephoto lenses out of the gate. This is why kit lenses often range from moderate wide-angle to telephoto and super-telephoto focal lengths—to satisfy that telephoto hunger. On the other hand, many, but not all, experienced photographers, especially landscape photographers, find themselves in pursuit of ultra-wide-angle lenses for the unique perspective they give of the world around us.

The wide-angle perspective allowed me to add a lot more sky (in reality, fog) to this image.
The wide-angle perspective allowed me to add a lot more sky (in reality, fog) to this image.

As children, we become accustomed to our “normal” view of the world through our eyes. We also regularly experience magnified views with our first views through binoculars, telescopes, and magnifying glasses. We rarely find ourselves looking through an optic that gives a field of view wider than that of our eyes and, because of this, the first time you handle a camera with a wide-angle lens the experience is often revolutionary to both the eye and our brains.

Employing a wide-angle lens lets the photographer see and explore the world with a dramatic perspective and this is the reason why experienced landscape photographers pull these lenses out of their quivers for the capture of incredible images.

Rolling a super-wide-angle lens vertically allows for even more expansive foreground and skyscapes.
Rolling a super-wide-angle lens vertically allows for even more expansive foreground and skyscapes.

Wide, Wider, Widest

Circling back to the kit lenses mentioned above, at their widest, an 18-55mm lens gives a full-frame equivalent of 27mm. While this is considered a wide-angle focal length and provides a wider-than-normal field of view, it is the ultra-wide-angle lenses that provide the truly stunning perspective of the scene before the lens.

In the telephoto realm, the difference in the field of view between a 180mm and 200mm lens is not very noticeable. In the wide-angle lens world, millimeters matter. There is a noticeable difference in the field of view between a 20mm lens and a 24mm lens. The wider you go, the more striking the difference. A 10mm lens displays a field of view much wider than a 14mm lens with a focal length difference of only 4mm.

If you are going to include a lot of sky in your image, make sure it’s a great sky.
If you are going to include a lot of sky in your image, make sure it’s a great sky.

The Modern Landscape Lens

Today’s top landscape photographers have their choice of sublime ultra-wide-angle zoom lenses or some ultra-wide prime lenses with, contrary to the “pro lens” trend, maximum apertures that are relatively slow. The ultra-wide-angle zooms are usually found in the 11-24mm range for full-frame cameras and the 8-16mm range for APS-C cameras. On the prime side, full-frame lenses as wide as 10mm are giving photographers insanely wide fields of view and APS-C lenses in the single-digit millimeter focal lengths are doing the same for cropped sensor shooters.

The beach loves ultra-wide-angle lenses.
The beach loves ultra-wide-angle lenses.

These lenses command premium pricing to go with their premium performance. In their flagship positions, prime or zoom, these ultra-wide-angle lenses provide edge-to-edge—even corner-to-corner—sharpness that few other lenses can match. Also, most of these modern designs are fully weather sealed because manufacturers know that top landscape shooters are out in the elements regularly. This protection from the elements is not optional for those shooting outdoors in nature and urban environments.

This was one of my first true wide-angle shots with a new lens many years ago, and I still love the image.
This was one of my first true wide-angle shots with a new lens many years ago, and I still love the image.

The Evolution of the Landscape Lens

When it comes to 35mm landscape photography, few landscape photographers were as loved and respected as the late, great, Galen Rowell. His images stand to this day as a remarkable tribute not only to his eye, but his ability to go where few other photographers would go to get remarkable images.

While Mr. Rowell had many lenses at his disposal, his favorite wide-angle lenses were a 20mm f/4 and 24mm f/2.8. In his era, there were only a few rectilinear lenses that were wider, and the f/4 and f/2.8 maximum apertures were the norm then, as well.

Twenty years on, landscape photographers now can go substantially wider, and they can carry zooms that rival primes for clarity and sharpness.

Morning light
Morning light

Maximum Apertures

When many see an ultra-wide-angle prime lens like a 10mm f/5.6 or a 12-24mm f/4 zoom, one would be tempted to think that the performance of said lens is nothing special. After all, isn’t part of the formula for a “pro” lens a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or wider? Not necessarily. In fact, in the case of these rare ultra-wide lenses, the smaller maximum apertures help maintain sharpness while controlling some of the optical issues that come with very wide apertures like longitudinal chromatic aberrations.

Going wide and going for the stars
Going wide and going for the stars

Additionally, a great deal of landscape photography is done off of the tripod, negating the need for a wider aperture to let more light in and keep shutter speeds fast. While these f/4 and f/5.6 lenses might not be ideal for handheld low-light shooting or super-shallow depth of field work, they are more than adequate for precision landscape photography off of a stable support.

Urban landscapes are rendered uniquely with ultra-wide-angle lenses.
Urban landscapes are rendered uniquely with ultra-wide-angle lenses.

Another Advantage

The final counter to the “non-pro” maximum aperture argument is the physical ability to cut down on the size and weight of the lens by not using gigantic glass elements to create the widest maximum apertures. While a broken f/2.8 zoom lens is large enough and heavy enough to double as an anchor for a sizable yacht, an f/4 or f/5.6 lens can be relatively compact and portable. For a nature landscape photographer heading off of the beaten path, this size and weight savings can pay huge dividends.

Even if wider-aperture lenses were available for Mr. Rowell, it is very likely he would have stuck with his f/4 and f/2.8 primes because he was often shooting while scaling vertical rock faces.

With an ultra-wide-angle lens tilted skyward, you can get physically close to subjects while still capturing some background sky.
With an ultra-wide-angle lens tilted skyward, you can get physically close to subjects while still capturing some background sky.

Employing Landscape Lenses

Now armed with an amazing premium landscape lens, feel free to dive deeper into some B&H Explora content for tips and solutions on best ways to employ your lens. B&H Podcast host and writer Allan Weitz is all about ultra-wide-angle lenses (he is lost with any optic that isn’t ultra-wide!). He goes over some tips on employing an ultra-wide-angle lens, as well as some pointers for close-up photos while using them. This B&H Event Space video talks about key filters for landscape photography, including neutral density filters and polarizers. I talk about some tips for approaching a landscape scene while scouting for the best photo. Gearing up for landscape photography sometimes requires more than a camera and high-end lens; there are some great accessories to help you get the shot. I drill down with some tips for framing and depth in landscape images.

Do you have questions or tips to share about high-end landscape lenses? Let us know in the Comments section, below!

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2 Comments

Hi Todd:

I'm curious where the images were shot--particularly the first and third ones?  I'm thinking Maine-ish, due to the apparent tidal height (1st one).

Hi Henry,

Not Maine-ish...but good guess!

  • Top Shot: Westerly, RI
  • Beach Shot: Misquamicut, RI
  • Lighthouse: Block Island, RI
  • Sunset: Oak Harbor, WA
  • Statue: Eureka, CA
  • Beach: Misquamicut, RI
  • Helos: San Diego, CA
  • Marina: Friday Harbor, WA
  • Observatory: Charlestown, RI
  • Bridge: San Diego, CA
  • Memorial: Brooklyn, NY
  • Bridge: Brooklyn, NY

More info than you asked for, but now you know!

Thanks for reading Explora!

Best,

Todd

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