This article will give you some clues about choosing the best lenses for landscape photography.
It is a well-known rule that you should buy a good lens first and then get a camera body using the leftover money. The lens is the most critical element in your photography (except the photographer, of course). There is no reason to get an expensive pro camera and use some muddy flimsy kit lens.
In this article, for the most part, I won’t be focusing on the particular lenses and brand names. Instead, I will try to cover the basics and let you know the general rules of selecting lenses for the landscape photography.
The focal length is the first parameter you need to decide. People tend to think right away that for the landscape they need a wide-angle lens and that’s it. I must burst this bubble – you also need a mid-range zoom and a telephoto lens.
Some of my best landscapes were made with a telephoto, and there is no way around it. For starters, you could get an all-in-one lens, but you’ll want to buy better lenses later anyway. Try to get as much of the range as your budget allows.
Here is an explanation of the different terms you will encounter in this article:
Wide Angle Lens
The wide-angle exaggerates the foreground. That’s nice and dramatic but isn’t exhaustive; there’s so much more about landscape photography. A reasonable photographer should have something to cover all focal lengths up to at least 200 mm.
It’s OK to have gaps if you have multiple lenses but try to cover as much as possible.
Wide-angle or even ultra-wide is often the first lens a photographer gets. It’s not about trying to squeeze in as much as you can, that’s a wrong approach. To make use of it, you must get close to the subject.
These lenses are built in such a way that objects close to the camera become bigger, and distant objects become smaller. The lens stretches the perspective, making the land look broader and vaster.
Telephoto lenses are longer, and they show distant objects close up. Another great feature they have is squeezing the perspective as opposed to stretching it in wide-angle. The distance between objects visually decreases forming a tighter image and perspective.
There is no right or wrong here. You need to visualise your shot before taking out your camera. Also, some landscapes only work when shot from a distance. I reckon a telephoto lens is a must-have for any landscape photographer.
The typical focal range is 70-200 or 70-300 or up to 400 for the most popular lenses. You may only need an even longer lens if you plan to photograph wildlife.
Please note, the weight increases with the focal length and max aperture. 70-200/4 will be much lighter than 70-200/2.8.
For landscape photography, you should not pay a lot of attention to the aperture because you’ll be shooting at f/8 – f/16 anyway. The image quality is comparable, so I recommend to have a cheaper and lighter lens with max aperture of 4 in the example above.
The mid-range lens is anywhere between wide-angle and telephoto. Typically, it could be 24-70, 24-105, 16-80 or any other value in that range. Some landscape photographers have this lens as their main one and don’t even bother to get a wider one.
I cannot blame them as it offers a whole world of possibilities. Other photographers, like me, don’t own a mid-range. Instead, I use a fixed 50mm lens when I need it. I must confess, I’d rather own a good zoom lens as I sometimes miss a shot with such a setup.
There are some lenses around which offer a super zoom range. Like, 18-200 or even 18-300. It’s a good option for the newbie to try different things out. To see what they like, and what range they tend to use more.
Once you’ve shot a few thousands of photos, it’s easy to browse through them and figure out what you have used and what you haven’t to decide on the new lens.
Typically, these lenses are good enough away from the edge values, i.e., they work fine in the mid-range, but are not that good on both wide and telephoto lengths.
Of course, you can keep the lens. It’s a good idea to have it to carry all day because a backpack full of glasses isn’t such an attractive idea. Also, you may want to use it on your vacation to avoid extra luggage.
But once you decide to get more serious about photography, you’ll need to get a range of better lenses.
How To Choose Focal Length
If you are still unsure which value you need, there are a few options:
- rent some lenses and give them a go;
- get an all-in-one lens and spend a few months with it;
- look at your photos and examine which focal length you use the most. Do you stick with the middle range around 30-50, or you prefer longer shots of 70+? Only you have an answer as the style of photography is individual;
- look at other people’s photos and do the same, asking about the focal length.
The image should be razor sharp in the middle of the frame. You should be able to cut your finger just by looking at the grass blade zoomed in.
But that’s not it – you also need to examine the edges because for many lenses they make a difference. Some lenses tend to become blurry off center. Also, focal length affects sharpness too.
Lenses tend to be less sharp near the edge values (min and max of the zoom range). The good rule of thumb is to try f/8 – f/11 for the objects that a both close and distant and examining centre and off-centre. Then try f/2.8 and do the same. The centre should still be razor-sharp.
It can rain, there can be a breeze, sandy wind, etc. Your lens must survive. The protection may also includea protective round filter attached to the front of the glass. In most cases, it is less important than other properties of the lens.
You can also protect your camera and lens with hoods or just use a plastic bag.
Are you going to use any filters? I bet you are. So, have a look at the filter radius and see if you can buy the required filters. For instance, some lenses are so wide that you need some special holder and a particular filter and it can easily exceed $500.
It applies to the full frame ultra-wide lenses like Tamron 15-30 or Nikon 14-24. So, think and calculate ahead if you are going to need the filters at all and if you do, how much you can afford.
DX or FX Lens
Not all lenses are created equal. Some of them are only good for the crop cameras. Typically, their name includes “DX” letters. If you use a DX lens on a full frame, you’ll see a portion of the photo in the viewfinder and the final shot. The remaining part of the frame will be just black.
An FX lens will work on both DX and FX cameras.
This feature is more important for the longer lenses. Back focus means that the lens focuses on the subject and the front focus is opposite, in front of it. Both issues are wrong, and it should focus tack sharp on the subject.
The techie and others can fix some of these issues through camera settings. But sometimes the glass is just wrong.
The Widest Aperture
You’ll be shooting landscapes on at least f/8, that’s true. But in case you want to photograph the Milky Way, you’ll need an open aperture of 2.8 or even more open. Also, such lenses tend to focus better because they “see” better.
The downside of the excellent aperture value is the price. Such lenses are expensive.
You’ll need to see some tests to figure out if the lenses have an acceptable amount of aberrations. Chromatic aberrations are the coloured fringe lines across the borders in high contrast areas. They are relatively easy to remove in you shoot in raw, but an extreme level of these coloured borders say that the lens isn’t good overall.
And also, an excessive amount of aberrations decreases sharpness and details level in those areas.
All other features are less important for landscape photography. You don’t need super-fast focusing, vibration reduction is much less substantial (you will be shooting on a tripod anyway), etc.
Brand or Third Party
There is a controversy about using same brand lenses only. I’ve been there too but luckily changed my mind. This controversy says that if you use Nikon cameras, use Nikon lenses, Canon cameras, Canon lenses, and so on.
This statement is not true, and some other brands have done a fantastic job creating same or better quality lenses at half price. But as with every other thing you buy, it is essential to read the reviews. Some Tamron lenses are fantastic; some are not as good. The same applies to Sigma and other companies.
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Admittedly, I haven’t tried all the lenses in the world, but I’ve tried a few and can vouch for them. I use Nikon systems, and therefore all my recommendations will be either Nikon or third-party.
First things first, use DX lenses for crop cameras. The full-frame lenses are heavier and more expensive. Of course, if you are going to upgrade to full-frame soon, it does make sense to get a decent lens in advance.
Wide-Angle Lens for Full Frame
I use Tamron 15-30/2.8. I must admit, it’s a fantastic lens and I’ve never had a single regret with it. It’s super sharp in the middle and decently sharp on the edges. This lens works well for lens flares and also has decent weather protection.
The only downside is the lens size – regular filters won’t fit. If you are planning to use filters, you’ll need to get a special Nisi filter holder, which is quite expensive, especially combined with a bunch of filters.
However, the same applies to its closest rival – Nikon 14-24/2.8. The only way to avoid this problem is to get another lens, like Nikon 16-35/2.8, which is not as big.
Wide-Angle Lenses for Crop Cameras
Previously I owned two crop cameras – Nikon D80 and Nikon D7000 and had a bunch of lenses for them. I used Nikon 12-24/4 and Nikon 10-24/3.5-4.5. The 12-24 is sharper and has a better image quality, while obviously, 10-24 is wider.
You’ll need to decide what’s more important to you. It doesn’t mean that 10-24 is bad, it just means that 12-24 is superior.
Another alternative is Tokina 11-16. Rumors say that it’s the best lens on the block when it comes to sharpness and image quality. However, it has much smaller range. I haven’t tried this lens but heard only good reviews from many different sources.
To be honest, I don’t own a mid-range lens. Instead, I use Nikon 50/1.8D. It’s a great little lens that I often find useful. I can’t recommend the standard zoom, but I can recommend this 50mm lens. It’s a tad soft on 1.8 but is perfectly sharp starting from aperture 2.2. And it’s easy to carry around.
You don’t need the expensive 50/1.4 for landscapes because you’ll be using it with at least f/8 anyway. It works for both DX and FX cameras.
For longer shots, I use Nikon 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 VR II. I reckon vibration reduction is quite important for longer lenses. Regarding the image quality, for this lens, it isn’t fantastic but it’s good enough to keep using it for the focal length of up to 270 mm. Too soft on the long end.
This lens also works for both DX and FX cameras.
The lens is an essential part of your photography equipment. The most important qualities of the glass for the landscape photography are focus range and sharpness, and those are the first things you should be looking at.
Do not disregard third-party lenses. They can offer equal or better quality at the half the price. For instance, I use Tamron 15-30/2.8 lens, and I’ve never had a single regret (apart from the inability to attach regular filters).
Read reviews, watch videos and most importantly, look for sample images before buying the lens.
We have another great article about why you need a lens hood you can check here.