Which is the best lens for landscape photography? This is the question I’ve been asked more than any other since I’ve been a landscape photographer. And it’s a question that’s hugely important because choosing the right lens will determine what you want to capture and will eventually define your style.
In landscape photography, there’s a commonly held belief that you must use a wide angle lens, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Whilst there’s no doubt that a wide angle lens is superb for capturing a sweeping vista, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the wide view is the best view, and used incorrectly, they can actually ruin a perfectly good photograph. You see, what you view with your eyes is not what we see through a lens and it’s commonplace for photographers to be disappointed when they get home and see them for the first time in large view. That once in a lifetime sunset that you thought you’d captured looks nowhere near as dramatic as how it felt when you pressed the shutter. And this can be due to incorrect lens choice, so let me explain.
You have spent a great deal of time and effort getting to a location and the conditions are shaping up to be just right. The sun is slowly setting on the horizon, the clouds are punctuating the sky and the shafts of light are illuminating the land like the brush strokes of an impressionist painter. You set your camera on the tripod, compose with your wide angle and you trip the shutter – confident that you’ve captured a unique moment. But what you didn’t figure was that your senses were heightened and you got too caught up in the moment that you forgot to capture the scene effectively through the lens. The clouds were not as large as you remember them, the foreground is uninteresting and ruined by lens flare, and the trees that are silhouetted in the distance look like they are leaning backwards.
So how could you have prevented this from happening? Well, in the example above the problem was caused by incorrectly using a wide angle lens and it could have been prevented by changing position or choosing say a different lens such as a standard lens or a telephoto. In the example above, you may have prepared your composition in advance but the sun is constantly moving, and it only takes 30 seconds for the light to change causing flare or casting a shadow where you hadn’t noticed.
Wide angle lenses are prone to distortion, to flare and are less forgiving of poor composition so you have to pay more attention to what’s in front of you. You also need to be creative in fitting how the lens sees the scene to that of your own vision. If your wide angle is your only lens then you can overcome this my moving position, but it can often be better to switch to a lens such as a standard 35mm or 50mm as these less prone to distortion and approximate what the human eye sees. Alternatively, you could switch to a telephoto zoom such as a 70-200 and this will give you the flexibility to capture a compressed view of the landscape.
Here’s the lenses I recommend and a few brief tips on why they are the best choice for landscapes;
Wide angle lenses
A wide angle will obviously allow you to capture the sweeping vistas but it can be used for “near-far” type images. In other words, images that have looming foregrounds that lead off into the distance. I would also recommend you get the very best quality lens you can afford. By their very nature, wide angles are prone to distortion and flare – especially in landscape scenarios when the sun is low in the sky and shining directly into your lens. You may not notice this on your camera’s LCD at the time but it is obvious on the computer screen. I personally shoot with a Zeiss 21mm lens which is the cream of wide angles. It is bitingly sharp, has superb micro contrast which is important for the appearance of sharpness and is superb at close distances with wider apertures. It is a touch on the expensive side at around £1400, but it has outlasted all of my camera bodies and is a manual focus only lens. This means no electronic parts to fuail if it gets wet, and if you’re serious about shooting landscapes, you should turn off any form of autofocus, for moving objects can cause the camera to refocus and ruin your shot.
A standard lens such as a 35mm or 50mm are closest to what the human eye sees. This is an advantage if you want to maintain the best and correct perspective in your images. Standard lenses are also “fast” meaning you can shoot in low light. There are many very expensive standard lenses but I personally believe many are overpriced for landscape work. I shoot with the ‘standard” standard lens that ships with most cameras. It is exceptional quality and fairly inexpensive.
Standard lenses typically have wide apertures at around f/1.4-1.8 and are classed as “fast lenses. This means you can have extremely shallow depth of field and shoot in low light. The extra stops of light coming through the lens make it easier to focus in low light via live view.
Tele zoom lens
My preferred tele zoom lens is my 70-200mm f/2.8. It is the business end of zoom lenses costing around £1700 but it is robust and weather proof. Sharpness is critical with telephoto lenses as you are zooming in closer to parts of the landscape, so with cheaper lenses, your images may suffer – especially if you are taking shots of a mountain range or trees on a horizon for example. Flare is almost never a problem due to the superb coatings and the large lens hood. The 70mm end is not that far off from a standard 50mm lens and you can use your feet to zoom out. The converse is also true at the 200mm end and you can zoom in by using your feet there too!
Super Tele Lenses
Whilst I don’t use one myself, there are super telephoto lenses that cover the wide to telephoto lengths in a single lens. These lenses are not the very best quality at all focal lenses but they do have the advantage of being a compact travel lens. Especially good if you are hill walking or back-packing.
So there you have it, my recommendations for the best lenses for landscape photography.