Before you buy a landscape photography lens, there are a few considerations you should make first. In the two images below I have explained the meaning of the numbers printed on the lenses.
The first numbers after the brand name is the focal length of the lens. The lens in the left image is a zoom with a focal length of 28-300mm. The next numbers are the aperture of the lens. It is a lens with a variable aperture of f3.6-5.6
The lens in the image to the right is also a zoom, but with a focal length of 70-200mm. This lens has a fixed aperture of f2.8 over the entire focal range.
The most important features of a landscape photography lens
When you have decided which focal length you need you will start to look into the other features of a lens. You can read about all focal length option for landscape photography lenses in this article.
1. Weight and size
Obviously the weight and size of a landscape photography lens is important. If you hike a lot, you want to carry as little weight as possible.
The more light sensitive and quality built a lens is, the bigger and heavier it gets. A light sensitive lens has a bigger front element to allow more light to enter the lens. The more glass the more weight.
So most of the time if you want low weight, you have to compromise on quality.
2. Minimum and maximum aperture
Aperture is an important feature of a landscape photography lens. Aperture tells you something about how light sensitive the lens is. The lower the f-number is the less light is needed to make a proper exposure.
For zoom lenses apertures in the range of f2.8 to f4.0 is considered being good. You might also have heard the term “fast” or “slow” lens. The lower f-number the “faster” the lens is. Because a small f-number allows for faster shutter speeds, these lenses are called “fast”.
All lenses have a sweet spot where they are at their sharpest. The sweet spot is often somewhere in the middle of the max and min aperture of a certain lens. Often this is around f8 - f11.
If you stop down the lens to its highest f-number like f22 the image starts to soften because of lens diffraction. Therefore the most picky landscape photographers stop down the lens to around f8, if the light conditions allows it.
Furthermore with a landscape photography lens it is important to get the whole scene in focus. Do do that you need to assure a certain depth of field (DOF). The more you stop down the lens (the bigger f-stop number) the more DOF you get.
The increased depth of field is another reason to set the aperture at f8 and not lower. Therefore f8 or f11 is the ideal aperture setting for landscape photography.
If the light conditions does not allow for this apertures, well, then you need to use another aperture. You know, no rules without exceptions.
Now as I have told you to set the aperture to f8-11, you will probably ask why you should buy an expensive f2.8 lens. The reason is simply if you take a lot of photos when the light is low, you will need the extra f-stops.
I like to shoot at night so to me the f2.8 lens is very useful. In dark conditions you need all the light you can get into your camera for a good exposure.
3. Variable vs. constant aperture
A prime landscape photography lens with fixed focal length also have a fixed aperture.
For some zoom lenses, it is different. Even some zoom lenses (the most expensive ones) have a fixed aperture throughout the entire focal range. Fixed aperture is and advantage as you don’t need to consider the aperture change as you zoom in or out.
Most zoom lenses in the consumer and prosumer market have a variable aperture depending on which focal length your lens is set to.
With my Nikon 28-300mm f3,5-5.6 travel lens, the widest aperture I can set at 300 mm is f5,6. If I zoom the lens all the way out to its widest, the aperture is f3,5. I need more light for a proper exposure if the lens is zoomed all the way in (max focal length) compared to what I need at its widest focal length.
For a landscape photography lens, this is not a big issue as long as you use your tripod.
4. Minimum focus distance
How close you can focus your lens is worth checking before you buy. In landscape photography, you rarely need to focus extreme close up.
With a landscape photography lens, you will in some situations want to use a filter in front of the lens. The filter thread size is important if you plan to buy many lenses.
If two lenses have different filter thread size, it means you have to buy a double set of filters. Good quality filters are expensive. You can certainly use a filter ring adapters is some cases.
If you are to decide between two lenses with otherwise similar features, I will pick the one with the same filter thread as my existing filters.
Now you probably ask, do I need filters? The answer is yes and no.
The discussion about filters is twofold. Some photographers aim at doing the exposure right in camera, by with filters. Other photographers prefer to fix this in Photoshop. In the end, the results with both methods often look more or less the same.
The only two filters I use are a polarizing and a Neutral density filter. The effect of these two filters cannot be fixed in Photoshop.
The filter size of this lens is printed as Ø77. Any filter with a diameter of 77mm will fit on this lens.
6. Image stabilization
The best lenses have built-in image stabilization. With image stabilization, you can handheld the camera with longer shutter speeds and still get sharp photos. Image stabilization is very effective, and if you can afford it you should buy lenses with this feature.
In some systems, image stabilization is built into the camera body. If this is the case, you don't need to bother whether or not the lens has image stabilization.
When using a tripod image stabilization is not important. In fact you should turn off the image stabilization when using your tripod. On a camera totally still on a tripod, the image stabilization can start hunting its own vibrations as it tries to fix the none existing "camera movement". The result in the worst case is blurry images, the opposite effect of what you want.
Because you should use your tripod, image stabilization is not a feature you absolute need to have on a landscape photography lens.
7. Rotating front element
On some lenses the front element rotates when you focus the lens. Filters are attached to the front element of a lens, so it can be frustrating if the front element moves after you have adjusted the filter.
The rotating front element is especially important when using a polarizing filter. With a polarizing filter, you rotate the filter till you get the effect you want. If you refocus the lens, the front element will rotate, and you lose the effect of the polarizing filter. You will need to rotate the filter again to compensate.
In landscape photography, you usually have the time to make adjustments so if the lens have a rotating front element it is not a big issue.
8. Lens hood
A lens hood is often a part of the lens kit. The lens hood has two purposes. A lens hood helps protecting the lens. If you bump the lens into something, the hood will take the hit, and you save your lens from damage.
However, the primary intention with a lens hood is to avoid lens flare in your images. If you photograph with the sun in front of you, lens flare is quite common. The lens hood can make a big difference.
A lens hood is one of the more important features of landscape photography lens. As you are working and moving around outside as a landscape photographer the risk of bumping your lens against something is obvious. You will likely shoot against the sun in some situations. In both these scenarios, the lens hood will save you frustrations.
9. Optical quality
The optical quality of different lenses is a popular topic on photography forums. Most lenses are good, but of course there are some lenses that have excellent quality, at a price.
In most situations, you will not be able to tell one lens from each other with regards image quality. Only if you zoom in and look at details in a photo, you will be able to see if a photo is soft because of the lens.
- If your images are mostly viewed on a screen, this is less important.
- If you plan to make big prints, this is very important. When you print big, you want to use the sharpest possible lens.
By reading reviews of lenses, you will get an idea of which lenses are best. Other factors as your shooting technique, focus, tripod etc., will have a bigger impact on the image quality in the end.
10. Build quality
One reason some high-end cameras are expensive is because they are built very solid and are intended for daily and rough use. These cameras are weather sealed so they can stand rain and humid conditions. The same is for high-quality lenses. You pay for this extra robustness.
Lenses are no different from other camera gear, they come in many different variations. You need to make a list of features that are important for you and then buy the best lens you can afford within your budget limits.
But as I mentioned above maybe you would create better photos spending some of your money on a tripod or a sturdier tripod instead of an expensive new lens. If you are in doubt, you can rent a lens and test it out before you buy.
If you are living in the US, there are several good services for renting camera equipment. One of them is Borrowlenses
A similar service in the UK is: Lenspimp