There’s something special about capturing a great landscape photograph. The experience is exciting yet relaxing, It inspires a sense of wonder and simply makes one feel alive and connected with the world. In order to do mother nature justice however it’s important to select the best lens for landscape photography.
As with all genres of photography the lens plays a defining role in the quality of your images. Of course, owning a fantastic lens will not make you a great landscape photographer, it will however elevate your images to the next level assuming you get the fundamentals such as exposure, focus, camera settings, camera support and light correct.
So, What’s The Best Lens For Landscape Photography?
Look, this is probably not the answer you’re going to want to hear, but it depends. If you shoot distant mountain landscapes then your choice of lens will be different to a photographer who shoots seascapes. What I can give you however is a rundown of what factors you need to take into account during your lease selection and advice on what I personally use and consider the best lens for landscape photography.
The focal length you select will vary depending on what subjects you’re shooting. The approximate angle of view of crisp human vision is 53° according to Wikipedia. Note that this is ‘crisp’ vision, the angle of view of a human eye is in excess of 140° however for the purpose of comparing focal lengths we consider a ‘standard’ or ‘normal’ lens to have a focal length which replicates our crisp field of vision.
As such, for a 35mm film or full frame digital SLR camera the 50mm lens became know as a ‘normal’ lens, because it closely replicated the way we see the world. The questions is however, do we want our landscape photos to look similar to how human vision sees the world? There’s a few points to consider.
Lenses exhibit a visual phenomenon know as perspective distortion which can take on two forms, extension distortion, know as ‘wide angle distortion’ and compression distortion, known as ‘telephoto distortion’. There’s plenty of great explanations and in-depth articles covering lens compression so I won’t go into detail. All you need to know for now is that your choice of landscape photography lens and it’s inherent perspective distortion characteristics will create a certain look and feel to your landscape photos.
Here’s an example of wide angle distortion. Notice how objects close to the camera appear larger in relation to objects in the background. Wide angle distortion can be used to dramatic effect and is great for creating a sense of depth in your landscape photographs.
This landscape photo was captured on a normal lens. Objects appear fairly natural and are not distorted so as to appear excessively large in relation to the background nor overly compressed.
Here’s an example of compression distortion. The mountains are far away from both where I was standing at the time, and from each other. Yet due to the nature of compression distortion the mountains appear close together and there is a lack of perspective in that no foreground is shown.
Zoom Vs Prime
Every photographer will have a differing opinion when it comes to zoom Vs prime landscape photography lenses. The fact is there is always a trade off. Prime lenses are built to be great at one focal length. As such a quality prime lens will usually be a tad sharper (or lots sharper) than the equivalent zoom lens. They are also cheaper, so for the price of a great zoom lens you can purchase a couple of quality prime lenses.
Zoom lenses on the other hand offer convenience. There is no need to carry extra lenses nor to change lenses as a zoom will generally cover most landscape photography situations.
Which do I prefer? Prime lenses all the way. Think about it, a lot of work goes into capturing a great landscape photograph. Location scouting, early mornings, chasing the light. It all takes time and effort and when all the elements finally come together I want to capture the sharpest most detailed images possible. Period. For other landscape photographers they may decide the convenience of a zoom lens is worth the trade off in image quality. If your aim is to take some great photos and make small prints or view them on your computer you’re probably not going to notice a lot of difference between a prime and zoom lens. On the other hand if you’re meticulous about image quality and wish to make large prints I highly recommend making the investment into prime lenses.
Further on that argument, I actually feel that prime lenses teach you to become a more thoughtful, calculated photographer. As opposed to simply standing in one position zooming in and out the fixed nature of prime lenses will encourage you to walk around your environment analysing different angles in search of the right place to stand for your specific focal length and the scene you wish to photograph.
The speed of a lens refers to it’s maximum aperture. A lens with a maximum aperture of f1.4 for example would be described as a ‘fast’ lens, its wide aperture allows a lot of light in and thus one can achieve the same exposure with a faster shutter speed. A slow lens might have a maximum aperture of f5.6 which allows less light in and thus requires a slower shutter speed to achieve an equivalent exposure.
Does this matter in landscape photography? Most often no. Typically when shooting landscapes it is the aim of the photographer to render the entire scene in focus so that the viewer can look at detail in all areas of the photograph. This means you will, under most lighting conditions be opting to shoot with an aperture of f8-f11. This provides the optimal balance of depth of field (the amount of the photo that is in focus in front of and behind the focal point) and sharpness. Most lenses are sharpest at around f8. Don’t be tempted to ‘stop down’ too far and shoot everything at f22 for maximum depth of field as you will actually be losing sharpness due to diffraction.
The great thing is that generally slower lenses are a lot more cost effective than fast lenses. For most genres of landscape photography there will be no need to have a fast lens. If you’re shooting night skies such as in astrophotography this is a different story and you will most likely want to purchase the fastest lens you can afford.
Without question the quality of your lens will have a major impact on the quality of you landscape photographs. Have you heard the saying ‘buy once cry once”? This is certainly applicable to camera lenses. A great lens will last far longer than your camera will and deliver years of sharp images. If you skimp and purchase a low quality lens it won’t be long before you feel the need to buy something better. Seriously, save up and buy a great lens, you won’t regret that decision.
I mentioned above that most landscape photographers don’t need a fast lens. This is true, however the fact is that in most brands the highest quality lenses also happen to be quite fast so if you opt for the best glass around you will inherently be paying more because it’s a fast lens. That’s ok though, if you ever decide to shoot portraiture or some detail shots fast lenses are brilliant in their ability to isolate subjects from the background with their shallow depth of field.
It is important to keep in mind that when I refer to a 35mm lens for example I am referring to using it on a full frame camera, thus if I recommend a 35m lens it has an effective focal length of 35mm. Many consumer Dslr cameras have a smaller sensor than their full frame counterparts. If you were to use a lens with a focal length of 35mm on a camera with a crop factor of 1.5x the lens would have an effective focal length of 52.5mm. The lens compression and perspective will be rendered the same however it will appear as though the image is ‘zoomed in’ or cropped. To calculate the effective focal length of a lens on your camera multiply the focal length by your cameras crop factor.
To confuse the situation further some manufacturers produce lenses designed for smaller sensors, so if they call it an 18mm lens, it is effectively an 18mm lens. Be aware of this when you’re shopping so you know how a lens translates to your specific camera body.
Ok here’s what you’ve been waiting for. What would I consider to be the best lenses for landscape photography? For most general landscape photography I consider a focal length of around 35mm (on a full frame Dslr) to have a pleasing balance of width whilst not exhibiting too much wide angle distortion. I find myself turning to my 35mm lens most often, it’s versatile and in most situations is neither too wide nor too tight.
The Best Lens For Landscape Photography Is!
The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens.
People simply love this lens, It has fast developed a reputation for being sharp as sharp can get, with low chromatic aberration and beautiful bokeh if you ever wish to shoot it wide open for close up shots or portraiture. It is available in a variety of lens mounts such as Canon, Nikon, Sony and Pentax. Not only does it perform as well or better than camera manufacturers own brands it also offers better bang for your buck.
The 35mm focal length is just a great all-round length, it is supremely versatile, you can pretty much live with a 35mm lens on your camera and find a way to capture a great shot in most circumstances.
A Note On Zoom Lenses
I seriously caution people against purchasing cheap zoom lenses. Whilst cheap primes can often perform very well low priced zoom lenses leave a lot to be desire. My advice if you’re on a tight budget. Stick with prime lenses or keep saving!
The Best Budget Landscape Photography Lens
If you want a good all round lens but are on a budget the Canon EF 50mm 1.4 is a great choice. The standard focal length of 50mm gives a pleasing perspective and it’s versatile focal length. At f8-f11 this lens is really sharp. Overall it’s a nice little lens to keep on you camera and will have you covered din most situations. Other manufacturers have cheap prime lenses equivalent to the Canon EF 50mm 1.4 which will get you off to a great start.