Which lens for landscape photography – what to consider?
The best lens for landscape photography lens is dependent on which landscapes you shoot. If you have just started out in landscape photography, you probably have the kit lens that came with your camera.
These lenses tend not to have the best image quality, and they are not fast lenses. The widest aperture is in the range of f3,5-4 at the widest focal length and around f5,6 or slower when zoomed into the longest focal length of the lens. There is nothing wrong with the kits lenses, and you can do well with this lens as you learn more about photography. You will experience by yourself when you need a better lens.
The most common lens used in landscape photography is wide angle lenses. If you spend time on photo site on the Internet, you will find the majority of images have the typical wide angle look. A typical wide angle lens composition has a foreground appearing big in the frame - a middle ground and a background.
This does not mean you cannot use a telephoto lens for landscape photography. If you shoot a lot in mountains, a long focal lens can be a very good option. Let us look at some of the consideration you must do before you decide on which lens to use for your landscape photography.
Should you buy a prime or zoom lens for landscape photography?
Basically, you have to decide if you want a prime or a zoom lens. If you only consider image quality prime lenses tend to give you more value for money over zoom lenses.
- Primes are generally sharper compared to similar focal length zoom lenses
- A prime lens has a fixed focal length meaning you have to move yourself if you want your subject to fill more of the frame
- Prime lenses are built with fewer lens elements inside making them smaller in both size and weight compared to the zooms
In landscape photography, the subject is often complex, and you need to do small adjustments in you composition to get it right. If you stand on the edge of a cliff you cannot move any further. In these situations, the only way to adjust the composition is by using a zoom lens.
Because of the flexibility most landscape photographers today use zoom lenses.
Which focal length is best for landscape photography?
We can divide lenses into three main focal lengths: Wide angle, normal and telephoto lenses
Wide angle lens
Wide angle lenses are divided into wide angle and super wide angle. The effective focal length is dependent on the camera sensor. The focal lengths of super wide angle lenses for the most common sensors are in the range of:
- 14-35mm with a Full frame sensor
- 10-20mm with an APS-C sensor
- 7-14mm with a Micro Four Third sensor
A good super wide angle lens is quite expensive so you might want to choose a regular wide angle with a smaller angle of view instead. But if you know you will shoot a lot of wide angle landscapes you should try to get on of the super wide angle ones.
It does not seem to be a lot, but the extra 2 mm from a 16mm to a 14 mm focal length makes a big difference and is much more than you will expect. A similar difference in focal length in the telephoto range does not have the same impact on the angle of view.
The main advantage of using a wide angle lens for landscape photography is you get much more in the frame.
A second advantage is you get a large depth of field. In landscape photography, it is important to get everything in focus from the nearest foreground and all the way to the background. A wide depth of field is much easier to do with a wide angle lens compared to a telephoto lens.
Using a wide angle lens for landscape photography distorts and changes the reality of the scene. You can read more about lens choice and perspective in this article.
3 issues to be aware of with wide angle lenses
- If you use a polarizer filter on a wide angle lens for landscape photography, you might get into problems. First, the polarizing effect is little with a wide angle lens. Another issue is you can experience strange dark areas in your image when using a polarizer on a super wide angle lens.
- Wide angle lenses distort the image and lines supposed to be straight, will be curved. Most of this, unless it is very extreme, can be corrected when post processing your images
- Another possible problem with wide angle lenses is the images tend to be darker around the edges. The darker edges are vignetting and due to the construction of the lens. As a general rule, the more expensive lenses have less vignetting.
When landscape photography lenses are reviewed, many reviewers make a big issue of the vignetting and how bad this is for the lens.
A funny thing is when post processing images it has become more and more common to add a vignette around the frame of the image.
The vignette leads the eyes away from the edges of the frame and into the photo. If you want to remove all vignetting, it can be done when you post process by using lens correction profiles in your software.
A normal focal length lens for landscape photography is not used very often. You will not want to buy a normal lens for landscape photography only. Most kit lenses are zooms, and they will also cover the normal range most of the time.
Using a telephoto lens for landscape photography is much less common compared to wide angle lenses. I must admit I have hardly used my telephoto lens for my landscape photography.
When visiting Tuscany in Italy, this changed. The landscape in Tuscany has a lot of hills which is very suitable shooting with a telephoto lens. I was surprised I was photographing landscape a whole week with my 70-200mm f2.8 lens.
This lens allowed for intimate landscape photography where I shot patterns of light and shadows in the landscape. I took advantage of the telephoto lens capability of compressing the scene and to isolate parts of a bigger scene.
Shooting with the telephoto lens was great fun, and you should definitely not leave the telephoto lens back home if you are going to shot in the mountains or landscapes with hills.
Typical focal lengths of telephoto lenses for landscape photography are in the range off:
- 70-200mm with a Full frame sensor
- 50-140mm with an APS-C sensor
- 40-150mm with a Micro Fur Third sensor
Lenses for different brands and image sensors
Full frame cameras
Full frame sensor cameras have become more affordable recently. One reason for this might be the competition from the mirrorless camera systems. Images from full-frame sensors are the best you can get in the DSLR range of cameras.
You need lenses built for full frame sensors to get the most out of these sensors. Most professional photographers use full frame cameras and high-quality lenses for landscape photography. These lenses are expensive and tend to be quite heavy.
Crop sensor cameras
A crop sensor camera can use almost all lenses, even those made for full frame. DSLR cameras and some Mirrorless brands use the APS-C sensor. The specter of lenses for crop sensor is huge.
In addition to lenses from the camera manufacturers, there are different third party lens manufacturers making very competitive lenses with very good quality. Don’t forget to check them out before you decide.
Mirrorless Micro 4/3 camera
In these cameras the sensor is smaller than the APS-C sensor. The selection of lenses for this system is getting better and better. They cannot offer the same range yet as the full frame and crop sensor systems which have been on the market for many years.
With some mirrorless brands, you can even use your old Nikon and Canon lenses with an adapter. To me this does not make sense as the reason to buy a mirrorless camera is the size. If the camera has a little less weight but you still drag your old “heavy” lenses along, what is the point?
If you shoot you landscapes with you iPhone you only have one fixed lens on the camera. Depending on phone version the lens is equivalent to a 33-35 mm lens on a full frame DSLR.
As smartphone photography has become more and more popular, different accessories have become available for the phones as well. You can buy lenses that can be clip on your phone to make it a macro or wide angle camera.
Check out Olloclip. They have a kit with four lenses in one. It includes a wide-angle lens and a fisheye lens, and you can remove those to create two macros of varying strength for close-ups. This is a fun lens kit to play around with.
So which lens should you buy for landscape photography? It depends on who you ask. Some tech people only recommend the “best” lenses which often mean the most expensive ones. Unless you are well trained and make very big prints, you will not even notice the difference.
Professional photographers tend to use lenses from the same manufacturer as their camera. In some cases there are third party options that are very close or even better when it comes to image quality. The latest Tamron 15-30mm f2,8 is a good example of this. This lens is said to perform as good as the acclaimed Nikon 14-24mm f2,8 lens.
I am pragmatic in my view on camera gear. Good enough (for me) is fine. I simply don’t buy the most expensive lens because it is from the camera manufacturer. If you have to dig deep into RAW files to look for differences between lenses, well in my opinion this does not make sense.
If you can buy only one lens, make it a wide angle. If you can, save up some extra money and get a super wide angle lens. As you get more experienced you will realize a super wide angle is the lens for landscape photography.