Is there a single "best" lens for photographing landscapes?

October 01, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Q&A -- Is there a single "best" lens for photographing landscapes?

A few weeks back, I issued a call for questions to give you the opportunity to learn more about photography.

My friend Bob sent in the first question.

Bob writes:

Hi Adam. I'm new to this field so my question is "Is there a single 'best' lens for photographing landscapes or does one need multiple lenses depending on the subject matter.

 
Hi Bob!  Good to hear from you!
 
I have a few ways that I can respond your question, but they all get back to the same basic answer.

No-- there is no "best" lens for landscape photography.

There are "best" lenses for portraits, sports, weddings, architecture, any many other fields of photography, but any number of lenses will work for landscapes and thankfully, those don't need to be expensive.

For purposes of this discussion, two things impact our choice of lenses: focal length and aperture (or "f-stop").

Understanding focal length

Focal length affects how much of the scene we capture, and can enhance or exaggerate the spatial relationships between objects that are near to or far away from the camera.  What you see with your eyes and what the lens allows into the camera can be very different depending on the lens you choose.

A short focal length (say, less than 50mm) allows the camera to capture a wider field of view, or "wide-angle."  The tradeoff is that objects closer to the camera will appear a bit larger than normal, while objects further away from the camera will appear quite a bit smaller than normal.  Don't believe me?  The simplest way to illustrate this is to show you close-ups of animals with a wide angle lens.  These pets do not have abnormally large noses- the wide angle exaggerates the proportions.  The same holds true with wide angles in landscape photography, and is one of the reasons you should include a good foreground-- without it, the lens "adds" distance between you and the subject, making the whole scene feel further away.

Purple Mountain MajestyPurple Mountain MajestySunrise at the Teton Range in Wyoming

The fence in the foreground quickly disappears as it meanders toward the Teton Range, the effect of using a wide angle lens to capture the scene.

Longer focal lengths (greater than 50mm) work the other way.  These telephoto lenses not only allow you to capture things that are further away, they can let you really isolate a portion of a scene and get some nice details.  You also don't need to be far away from your subject to use a telephoto lens.  The tradeoff is that longer angles tend to compress a scene and give more equal weight to objects that are (relatively) near and far.

Trees in Zion National Park - DetailTrees in Zion National Park - DetailTrees in Zion National Park - Detail

This image of trees growing along the canyon wall in Zion National Park shows one way I use a longer telephoto lens to pick up details while photographing landscape

Neither of these is inherently better or worse, but knowing and understanding the differences will help you make better pictures.

Angle of view illustrationAngle of view illustrationAngle of view illustration

When I changed camera systems a year ago (moved to Nikon gear) I went from about six more specialized lenses in my kit that covered everything from landscapes to portraits to special events down to just two.  I have an "all in one" zoom lens (28-300mm) that stays on my camera the majority of the time, and a very wide angle zoom lens (16-35mm).  Between those two, I can shoot just about any landscape.

Understanding aperture (f-stop)

The aperture is the opening through which light travels to get to your sensor.  A larger opening allows the sensor to collect more light at once, but reduces the depth of the of focus field resulting in more out-of-focus foreground and background.  A smaller opening restricts the light coming into the camera, but provides greater depth of focus with more of the foreground and background in focus.

We use the f-stop to refer to the size of the aperture, and seemingly counter-intuitively, the lower the f-stop number, the larger the aperture.  For example, an f-stop of f/4 allows in twice as much light as f/5.6.

(The relationships are purely mathematical, so if you're really curious, Wikipedia has some pretty good articles about aperture and f-stop.)

Do I need an expensive lens?

More expensive lenses typically carry the cost of the design and optical glass required to make a larger aperture.  These are also referred to as "faster" lenses, because the large apertures allow the photographer to maintain a faster shutter speed.  Certain situations such as low-light environments (weddings, indoors without a flash), portraits (where you want to have out-of-focus, pleasantly blurred backgrounds), and sports photography (where you need to capture action quickly) require the photographer to shoot with large aperture settings like f/2.8, f/2, or even lower.

Thankfully, landscape photography usually doesn't require any of that.  Shooting outdoors provides plenty of light, and you'll usually want nearly everything to be in focus.  I often find myself shooting at f/8, f/11, or f/16, which is perfect for bright light and keeping sharp focus.  Virtually all lenses will perform well at those settings, so more expensive lenses won't necessarily give you better landscape photos.

Lens selection - putting it all together

With a bit more understanding of these factors, you can start to think through the lens(es) you will want for different scenes.  Standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon or tiptoeing to the edge overlooking Horseshoe Bend, you have a view that only the widest lenses can take in.  Using telephoto lengths to get detail shots adds a bit of character to your portfolio.  Your locations, your proximity to the scene, and your own preferences will determine which lens(es) stay on your camera most of the time.  The more you shoot, the more you'll get a feel for this.

Provided you already have a camera and at least one lens you're happy with, my advice would be to simply start there.  If you're limited by focal length, I would encourage you to make sure you have 18-200mm covered, which may require one or two inexpensive lenses.  Standard "kit" lenses-- the ones included with a camera body-- will typically cover this with two lenses: 18-55mm and 55-200mm.  If you find yourself constantly switching between these two, you might consider a more extended zoom on the lower side (e.g. 18-135mm) so you don't need to go back and forth as often.

I hope that helps!

 

Thanks for looking,

Adam@LiC

 

PS- I spent many words in this post describing why you don't need to buy an expensive lens to succeed in photographing landscapes.  I would be remiss if I did not also encourage you to spend your money wisely on lenses-- a good, well-maintained lens can serve you well for decades, and will outlast the quickly changing technology of camera bodies.  If there is any place you want to invest well in your gear, your lenses should be near the top of that list.


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