There’s something special about capturing a great landscape photograph. The experience is exciting yet relaxing, It inspires a sense of aww and simply makes one feel alive and connected to 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 and light right.
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 lens selection along with advice on what I personally use and consider the best lenses for landscape photography. So, without further ado let’s get started.
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?
Lenses exhibit a visual phenomenon know as perspective distortion which takes 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 perspective distortion 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.
Below is an example of wide angle distortion. The sand is only around 2 ft from the camera and the patterns are actually quite small. I’ve used wide angle distortion however to emphasise the foreground, creating a sense of depth and drama. Wide angle lenses are often used in landscape photography for this reason and if you’re serious about shooting landscapes I would recommend carrying a wide angle lens in your kit.
The following landscape photo was captured on a normal lens. You can see that the tricycle looks natural, it’s not distorted and does not appear really far away from the background nor does it appear compressed and close to the background. Whilst many photographers may consider a normal lens to lack the width required for landscape photography they can certainly have their place and can great lenses for every day photography. Personally though, if shooting landscapes is your thing I would likely opt for something wider.
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.
Obviously your choice of focal length and subsequent ‘look’ due to image compression will depend largely upon what you will be shooting. There are times however where your subject may suit a variety of focal lengths, in which case you may decide to use a specific lens for its given compression characteristics. Often I may choose to shoot with an ultra wide angle lens because I want the dramatic look only a wide angle can give. Similarly, there’s plenty of times I will reach for a ‘normal’ lens to achieve a balanced composition which is neither too flat and compressed nor too wide and dramatic.
Zoom Vs Prime Lenses
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 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. Not having to change lenses in harsh, dusty environments can be a definite positive and will certainly help you keep you sensor clean for longer!
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 small 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 investing in a couple of quality 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 (than if one had used a smaller aperture). A slow lens might have a maximum aperture of f5.6 which allows less light in and thus required 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. Such apertures provide 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.
Buy Once, Cry Once
Without question the quality of your lens will have a major impact on the quality of your 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, it’s a decision you won’t regret!
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. Fast lenses also open up more possibilities when it comes to shooting in low light, they’re pretty much an essential tool for astro photography.
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 24m lens it has an effective focal length of 24mm. 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 24mm on a camera with a crop factor of 1.5x the lens would have an effective focal length of 36mm. 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.
The Best Lens For Landscape Photography Is… Drumroll!
Ok ok, hold the music. I’m not going to proclaim one ‘best’ lens for landscape photography as your ultimate choice will depend upon the camera you are shooting and what focal length you’re after. What I will do is throw a few great options at you to give you some options to dwell upon and research.
For most general landscape and travel 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 often, it’s versatile and in most situations is neither too wide nor too tight. I’ve shot a lot of images in my ‘Hypersilence’ and “Amnesia’ series on a 35mm equivalent lens.
My choice of 35mm lens 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 incase 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.
The 35mm focal length is just a great all-round length, it is supremely versatile and you can pretty much live with a 35mm lens on your camera and find a way to capture a great shot in most circumstances. Having said that, if you’re shooting nothing but landscapes you will likely want something wider.
The Budget 50mm
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 in a lot of situations.
Other manufacturers have cheap prime lenses equivalent to the Canon EF 50mm 1.4 which will get you off to a great start. Whilst 50mm can be a great all round lens if you’re looking to capture wide vistas or near/far perspectives you will find 50mm isn’t wide enough.
The caveat is that I’m not going to recommend a budget wide angle lens as I’ve personally not found one that I’m happy with. Manufacturing a wide angle lens with great optics is more difficult than producing a standard lens, so in order to obtain image quality I’m happy with I find it worth investing in higher end wide angle lenses.
The Nikon Wide Angle Zoom
There are some really great wide angle zoom lenses on the market, one which has garnered a bit of a cult following amongst landscape photographers is the Nikon 14mm-24mm F2.8. I’ve heard this lens described numerous times as one of the best lenses in the world for landscape photography, certainly, if you’re shooting Nikon and are looking for a brilliant lens to cover wide angles you should take a look at this beast. At almost $2000 USD it’s not cheap and it’s dome shaped front element is a tad scary but it’s renowned for its low distortion and sharp images. If you shoot Nikon and are serious about your landscape photography this may well be your go-to lens.
Whilst the Nikon 14-24mm f2.8 is undoubtably brilliant, it may also be worth looking at the Nikon 16-35mm F4. The slower maximum aperture means this lens is not only substantially cheaper than the 14-24mm F2.8, it’s also a lot lighter, which can be a real consideration if you’re hiking into your locations. One other advantage of this lens over the 14-24mm is that it accepts 77mm filters incase you wish to use filters in your landscape photography.
Canon offer an equivalent in the 16-35mm f4 coming in for a similar price. These zooms represent an ideal focal length for most forms of landscape photography and if you’re looking to carry one lens the 16-35 deserves serious consideration.
I know I said I prefer prime lenses, but if I was just starting to get serious about landscape photography and was after one lens to do it all without having to take out a second mortgage these lenses would be my pick. If you’re on a budget consider saving for a little longer and picking one up second hand as opposed to purchasing a cheaper zoom lens which you will grow out of quickly.
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. Purchase a low priced prime lens or keep saving!
Fast, Wide & Expensive
For Astro photography I use a Zeiss Batis 18mm f2.8. Again, it’s not a cheap lens and it’s actually on the slow side for astro photography. Where it really shines however is in it’s low coma, a form of distortion which makes stars near the edge of the frame appear elongated and ‘moustache’ like. It’s hard to find a fast wide angle lens with low coma but the Batis 18mm is a winner. This lens is also superb for dramatic seascapes making use of near/far elements such as in the image pictured below. Although it could be considered quite a speciality lens if you decide to go for prime lenses and have the cash to spare this is an amazing lens.
But Wait... What Lenses Do You Use?
When it comes to my landscape photography I have one aim, to offer the sharpest, most highly detailed prints possible. Given landscape photography is my profession I have invested heavily in equipment so a lot of the gear I choose to use is simply not cost effective, nor a wise investment for most photographers. Nevertheless, for the ultimate in detail I shoot the following equipment:
- Camera: Hasselblad H2
- Digital Back: Phase One IQ 180
- Lenses: Hasselblad HC 35mm f 3.5
- Hasselblad HC 50mm f3.5There you have it, some food for thought when chasing the best lens for landscape photography. Hopefully these tips will get you thinking about what it is you would like to be shooting and help steer you in the direction of a great lens!