If you’re willing to hike up a mountain or get up at 4 am just to get a picture then you’re probably also willing to invest in the right equipment for the job. Although there are many parts at play, knowing what’s the best lens for landscape photography will really help you to level up your images.
I’ll admit, I used to completely overlook how important lens choice is. Whether it’s wide-angled or telephoto, lenses really do matter. In this article, I’m going to look at some of the top landscape photography lenses and how your choice of lens will affect your final image.
Aside from you, the photographer, your lens is arguably the most important piece of the puzzle when it comes to taking great photos. Of course, your choice of camera will influence image quality but your lens will play a greater role in how your image looks overall in terms of style and composition.
When choosing a lens for landscape photography, you’ll typically have a choice of three main categories:
In very simple terms, the focal length of a lens (written in millimeters) determines how ‘zoomed in’ an image looks. You can get prime lenses, which have fixed focal lengths, or zoom lenses which have variable focal lengths.
It’s worth noting that your camera’s sensor plays a role in determining how the focal length appears in your final image. For example, a wide-angle lens on a cropped sensor might be more like a standard lens on a full-frame sensor.
Image by James McCullough on Unsplash (taken at 10mm)
Wide-angle lenses are often the go-to for landscape photographers and many consider them essential. I never like to say one lens is better than the other simply because your style will ultimately dictate what equipment you should choose. However, if there was ever a safe bet on what to pick, a wide-angle lens is just that.
When you use a wide-angle lens, you have a lot more flexibility over your composition and can include far more foreground in your image. The image above was taken with an ultrawide-angle lens at 10mm and shows just how much you can get into your scene.
As a stylistic choice, many landscape photographers like the fact the wide-angle lenses stretch the foreground, creating a rather dynamic composition. Like in the image above, they allow you to create interesting points of focus like plants and flowers in the foreground and lead the viewer’s eye to the background. Obviously, the wider the lens, the more exaggerated the stretching effect will be.
If you’re looking for all-round versatility, you might want to opt for the f2.8mm version. However, usually with landscape photography, you want a greater depth of field and will be shooting with a high f-number so that you can get both the foreground and background in focus.
Additionally, it’s thought that Canon’s f/4 beats the f/2.8 when it comes to edge-to-edge sharpness and sharpness is key in landscape photography. The f/4 is also lighter and that can matter when you’re hiking up a hill.
Image by Yonatan Anugerah on Unsplash (taken at 50mm)
Standard, or mid-range, lenses best reflect what the human eye sees and I must admit, they were my focal length of choice for years when I first got into landscape photography. I tend to have a matter-of-fact way of looking at life, and my landscape photography seems to largely reflect that outlook, which is probably why many of my images are shot with my Canon 24-70mm lens.
In case you don’t know, it’s generally thought that the human eye sees the world in roughly 50mm. So, if you’re looking to produce landscape images that look like they do in real life, a mid-range lens is a good choice.
Mid-range landscape lenses are also great if you’re slightly further away from your subject and don’t want to include the foreground. Stylistically, this is useful if you want to push the viewer’s eye more directly towards the back of the image or create a point of focus in the mid to rear.
Like I said, my go-to lens for landscapes is the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8. For the most part, I’ll take images as part of a road trip around the highlands of Scotland so the versatility that the 24-70mm provides is hard to beat.
Additionally, since I use it when I’m on the move a lot, f/2.8 beats f/4 for me because it saves me setting up the tripod for a long exposure image. Again, if you’re not shooting Canon, then both Nikon and Sony have equivalents.
Alternatively, you could opt for the 24-105mm which provides you with a greater range and actually slightly lighter than its 24-70mm counterpart. For Nikon, Sigma produces an affordable 24-105mm f/4 at under $800 and Sony also has its own version, coming in at over $1000.
If you’re happy going sacrificing the ability to zoom, go for a prime lens like the Canon 50mm. The major upside to choosing a prime lens is the superior optics and sharpness that can be achieved compared to zooms.
They’re also generally a lot lighter than zoom lenses because there’s less glass. Naturally, the major downside is the lack of ability to adjust your focal length and may end up carrying more lenses to compensate for that.
Image by Benjamin Grant on Unsplash (taken at 200mm)
When I think of telephoto lenses for landscape photography, I think of crisp mountain ranges in the distance. The image above was taken at 200mm and is the perfect example of why you’d want to use a telephoto lens out in the wild.
Unless you’re taking photos like this a lot, you’ll probably find you have less use for a telephoto lens than wide-angle lenses or standard lenses. You get a much narrower field of view which really limits what you can fit into the frame. As a result, it’s not much good if you’re planning on including any foreground or leading lines.
One of the biggest upsides to using a telephoto lens for landscape photography is its ability to compress a scene. As you saw with the ultra-wide example before, everything was stretched through the image.
Essentially, a telephoto lens has the opposite effect. Objects in the distance will appear much closer than they actually are in real life and the distance between objects in your frame will appear shorter.
Canon’s 70-200mm f/4 is one of the best lenses for landscape photography. If you’re likely to use a telephoto for other areas where you need to shoot closer up and really blur the background (wildlife, for example) then you should opt for the f/2.8 version. Granted, it’s more expensive and heavier but will provide you greater flexibility in terms of style and in low light situations.
For Nikon users, there’s their 70-200mm f/4, and for Sony users, there’s their 70-200mm f/4. If you’re looking for something longer, try the 100-400mm range but keep in mind that this range can see you handing over $2000.
My instinct says “avoid” but actually, they’re not a bad choice for beginners, or if you’re on a tight budget and still want a longer focal length.
Something like the 18-200mm is often a good bit cheaper than the cost of wide, standard, or telephoto lenses individually. If you’ve not had much experience, using an all-in-one lens will allow you to try various focal lengths without having to invest in 3 different lenses. They’re also fairly lightweight so it makes it a good option if you’re going to be carrying it around all day.
The major drawback to all-in-one lenses is that they perform badly at their extremes. That’s to say, you’ll notice a reduction in image quality the closer you get to 18mm and to 200mm in the 18-200mm lens. Distortion will be the primary issue but in most cases, that can be fixed in post relatively easily.
The focal length of your lens plays a big role in the sharpness of your image, especially for handheld shots.
The longer your focal length, the faster your shutter speed needs to be to reduce motion blur. To put it simply, imagine yourself looking through a telescope: any slight movement of the telescope will be greatly exaggerated in your view because of the long focal length. Although not as dramatic, the same is true for camera lenses.
As a general rule, on a full-frame camera, your shutter speed should be one over your focal length. That’s to say that if you’re shooting with a 200mm lens, your shutter speed should be 1/200s in order to best reduce the risk of camera shake. Anything under 1/200s and you might begin to notice reductions in the sharpness of your image.
Consider that in landscape photography, if you’re shooting in low light conditions or if you want to blur the movement of water, you’ll have to reduce your shutter speed. As with the rule above, you run the risk of decreased sharpness if not done correctly.
A zoom lens, what I’ve mostly discussed in this article, gives you the ability to change the focal length whereas a prime lens is fixed.
You might be wondering, why would anyone choose a prime lens if you’re stuck with only one focal length? Well, the short answer is better image quality for a lower price. Fortunately, zoom lenses have come a long way and often you don’t have to sacrifice too much image quality for the ability to vary your focal length.
However, prime lenses still boast at least as good, if not better image quality than zoom at a cheaper cost due to their build. Additionally, they’ll usually have a higher maximum aperture, meaning you can shoot at something like f/1.2 if you wanted. Great for low-light landscape photography or astrophotography.
The aperture rating is how much your lens opens up to let light in or, conversely, how much it narrows to stop light getting in. A wide aperture is represented by a smaller f-number. For instance, f/1.8 will let in far more light than f/18.
As well as the aperture playing a part in your image exposure, it also determines the depth of field i.e. what’s in focus in your shot.
Like anything you buy in photography, there’s a cost to benefit comparison that needs to be looked at. Greater maximum aperture ratings give you greater stylistic flexibility in terms of depth of field and the ability to shoot in low light conditions. Most landscape photographers, however, will find that they’ll be shooting at least f/8 and therefore can afford to sacrifice big aperture ratings.
Personally, I’ll go for something that allows me to let in more light or have a narrower depth of field for the added flexibility of using it for different purposes like commercial photography.
Just like anything else, the best piece of equipment is the one that can do the job you want it to. For most landscape photographers, that will be a lens that allows them to shoot wide and possibly a mid-range lens too.
Choosing the right lens for you becomes easier when you understand how lens build affects the output. You should aim to get to the point where you have a vision for an image and you choose the right equipment that allows you to create that image.
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