If you’re a landscape photographer, you care about lenses. That is true even if you don’t know it’s true – a good lens is arguably the most important piece of equipment you can own. It is a common saying, and almost entirely accurate, that lenses matter more than your camera. So, what lenses are best for landscape photography, and how do you pick the right ones for your needs? This article covers some of the most important considerations.
Why Your Lens Matters for Landscape Photography
If you want to see what makes lenses so important in landscape photography, take a look at the photos below:
It takes a moment to recognize that this is the exact same landscape. Aside from differences in the light, I only changed two things here: my camera position and my lens. Those changes were enough to lead to two photos with wildly different compositions and appearances.
With a wide-angle lens (the first photo), I had to be very close to the tree in order to capture an interesting composition. The mountains, though, are tiny by comparison, and that was impossible to avoid with this landscape and lens focal length.
In the second photo, though, the mountains take up almost the entire height of the image. It is a clear difference. I captured the second perspective by walking away and zooming in with my telephoto lens. The two pictures are night and day.
Lenses matter because they change the way you compose your photographs. Every lens has its own way of “seeing” the world, just as the examples above demonstrate. Wide angles let you emphasize different elements compared to telephotos, and other aspects of a lens – things like weight, flare performance, maximum aperture, and sharpness – also can matter significantly for the type of landscape photos you take.
When you decide to photograph a landscape, the first step is to picture the final image in your mind’s eye (visualization). Which elements of the frame do you want to emphasize the most, and how do you plan to do so? Visualize exactly how the final photo will look. Do everything in your power to make that vision a reality.
Lenses are within your power. They have a vast, foundational impact on your photos, and the proper use of lenses is one of the best tools you have to tell your story.
Searching for the Best Landscape Photography Lens
No two photographers will have the same lens preferences, which means that the concept of a “best lens” for landscape photography varies from person to person. It’s not as if the sharpest wide lens on the market is the perfect landscape lens for every single photographer. Maybe it’s too heavy, or it doesn’t take filters. Perhaps you are more interested in a telephoto in the first place.
This is why lens manufacturers have hundreds of different options on the market right now. They announce new ones every year, and more choices are always welcome.
When you’re picking a lens, ask yourself why that lens exists in the first place. What does it do that others on the market can’t? Sometimes, two lenses may seem very similar, but they actually have very different intended audiences.
For example, a 70-200mm f/4 zoom and a 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom are far from interchangeable. Even if both have the same optical quality, there will be inherent differences simply because of the maximum aperture. The f/2.8 version will do better in low light, while the f/4 option will almost always weigh and cost significantly less. For landscape photography specifically, you need to think about which of those factors is most important to you. (The standard answer would be light weight, but some landscape photographers find the wider aperture useful for nighttime landscapes or closeups with less depth of field.)
The same is true for all the 50mm prime lenses on the market. They’re meant for different audiences. You might prefer the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art, and someone else might prefer the Canon 50mm f/1.8. As similar as these two lenses may seem at first, they’re really nothing alike. One is geared toward light weight and low price; the other is intended for maximum sharpness wide open, but it’s heavy and expensive. If one is on your radar for landscape photography, there’s a good chance that the other shouldn’t be.
I’m not saying that two different lenses cannot ever be competitors. I also am not saying that it’s wrong to compare lenses side by side if you’re interested in both.
Instead, my simple suggestion is that there is no reason to worry yourself about lens comparisons when one is not even suited for the subject you are trying to photograph. Although I know the Nikon 85mm f/1.4 is wonderful for portrait photography, I shouldn’t care that it’s better than my 70-200mm f/4 in bokeh quality, because that’s just not relevant to the landscapes I take. The only purpose of seeking out such comparisons is to get lost in a fog of mine-is-better syndrome (or, to fall into a masochistic, mine-is-worse depression). They have no bearing on photography itself.
A better way to pick a lens is to think about your goals in photography. Look around at the available lens options, and see which ones are the most relevant to your own work. Take every variable into consideration – not just sharpness, especially as a landscape photographer, since you’ll be at sharp apertures most of the time anyway. Things like build quality, flare performance, weight, focal length, and filter capability will likely matter more.
So, how do you figure out which lens is best for your requirements? There are a few different methods.
What Lenses Do Landscape Photographers Need?
If you’re looking to photograph almost anything in the wide world of landscapes, there are about four different lenses that are especially useful:
- 14mm f/2.8: A wide-angle, wide-aperture lens for astrophotography
- 16-35mm f/4: Intended for the most important range of wide angle shots
- 24-70mm f/4: Meant as a walk-around lens for normal focal lengths
- 70-200mm f/4: Ideal for capturing distant landscapes and isolating subjects
The exact numbers here are not important at all. You can cover functionally the same landscapes with a 16-35mm f/2.8, a 50mm f/1.8, and a 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6. You can cover it all with prime lenses (14mm f/2.8, 24mm f/1.8, 35mm f/1.8, 50mm f/1.8, 85mm f/1.8, 135mm f/2, 200mm f/2.8, or a smaller sample of those). You can cover it all with a superzoom and an astrophotography prime.
This is also not to say you need all of these lenses, or even most. Many landscape photographers don’t need or want anything more than a couple prime lenses, or a single normal zoom. For more than a year, my only lens for landscape photography was a 105mm f/2.8 prime, and, after that, I added a 24mm prime and shot with just those two lenses for another year. Some people never shoot astrophotography and have no desire to do so, while others wouldn’t ever use a normal focal length for this type of work.
Nevertheless, that is the basic kit if you want to photograph any sort of landscape you may encounter: something for nighttime landscapes, and a set from wide to telephoto. I gave the zoom lenses in the sample kit above a maximum aperture of f/4, since it saves some weight and price over an f/2.8 version, but that is a minor detail. The direction you take your kit from here depends upon your needs, including whether or not you will use your lenses in other genres of photography as well.
So, how do you narrow things down to find the best possible lenses for landscape photography? Is there a good way to know if you’ll need less than this kit, or something beyond it (say, a tilt-shift or a supertelephoto)? Indeed there is. It all comes down to a bit of self-analysis.
Evaluate Your Old Pictures
One of the best ways to pick a good lens is to look at photos you’ve taken in the past. What trends do you see?
Personally, I like telephoto lenses for landscape photography. I’ve known that for a while. But it wasn’t until looking at my old photos that I realized just how many of my landscapes have a telephoto perspective.
Specifically, looking at my best 40 landscape photos, I took 15 with a telephoto lens, 21 with a wide-angle, and 4 with a medium lens. I clearly like wide angles, as most landscape photographers do, but more telephotos made it into the mix than I had expected. That realization was a major stepping stone in my decision to get one that was as good as possible.
It is easy to figure out these numbers for yourself by opening a set of landscape photos in your image organization software. Just sort your best 40-60 landscape photos by focal length or lens (which nearly all software can do). Then, take a look at the data you find, and compare it to your expectations.
Don’t follow the results blindly, especially if you have yet to purchase a particular type of lens so far (which would skew your data). But if you have lenses that cover a wide range of focal lengths, this process should give you a good basis for understanding your most common landscape photography needs.
Try Renting a Lens (or Borrowing from a Friend)
Any time that you have the opportunity to test out a lens – even if it’s not one you expect to be useful – go for it. Chances are good that you’ll learn something valuable.
“Try it out” doesn’t mean that you should just take the new lens, shoot for a few minutes, and capture a handful of test photos before returning it. You won’t learn much from that.
Instead, bring it on a landscape photography outing. Rely on it. Use it as if it is your only tool for the job.
When you do that, you’ll always learn something new. Years ago, I decided to test a 50mm lens on a week-long photography trip, even though I had not been interested in that focal length in the past. What did I learn? That, indeed, a 50mm wouldn’t fit my style of landscape photography, at least for now.
That’s all personal preference. Certainly, many people love 50mm lenses for landscape photography. However, because I personally tried out this focal length, I learned something valuable about the equipment that gave me a good basis for planning trips – and gear purchases – in the future.
So, try to do something like this for yourself. You might be pleasantly surprised by a new lens, or you could realize that your old kit works perfectly for your needs. Either way, you’ll learn more about the equipment that makes the most sense for you, and that translates directly to improving your overall landscape photography.
What Feels Right?
Sometimes, you should just go with your gut. If you can’t figure out which lens to pick, the simplest answer is to choose the one that feels right, instinctively. At the end of the day, the best lens for you is simply the one you like using the most, even if it seems like a strange choice on paper.
I will point out that this is not good advice in every situation. Often, your “gut feeling” is something that has been influenced by outside forces – marketing, reviews, forum discussions, and so on – to the point that the lens in question could be wildly wrong for your purposes without you realizing it. The goal is to see through all that, but it is not always easy.
Still, in most cases, instinct plays a helpful role in the lens decisions you make. When you choose a lens, it’s impossible to separate that decision from what you, internally, believe to be the right choice. If there are several competing options, it is natural to base your final decision upon what feels right, at least at some level.
I could give you numerous examples from my own photography where I did a good job or a bad job following my gut. Most of the good cases come down to times when I was thinking from a more grounded perspective – basing my decisions on things like focal length rather than wide-open sharpness, or other factors that are less important for landscape photography.
Photography has a great deal to do with gut feelings. When you compose a photo, you’re doing your best to create a solid message out of a chaotic world. That’s something that takes significant creativity and instinct. Why should it be any different with lenses? If a lens seems like it ticks all the boxes, but you just don’t like the thought of using it, you’re not going to pull it out in the field, and you won’t feel inspired to use it creatively.
Some photographers enjoy using beat-up old lenses because they just feel right, or manual focus lenses simply because they enjoy the process. What’s more, they will take better pictures with “low quality” equipment than with a fancier option on the market. If your equipment inspires or interests you, you’ll pull out your camera more often and take better pictures.
So, when you are deciding on the ideal lens to buy for landscape photography, don’t be afraid to pick the one that just feels right.
A lot of people find it difficult to choose the best possible lenses for landscape photography. Of course, it’s an important decision to make. Lenses are at the heart of every photo you take. They influence the creative side of photography arguably more than any other piece of equipment.
Still, you shouldn’t agonize over your decision. If you think about your style of photography, the right choice will become much clearer. Do you prefer prime lenses? Is there a set of focal lengths that matter most to you? How important is lens weight for the situations you’ll encounter?
Questions like these are generally easy to answer, and they should help you eliminate a lot of options. If all else fails, though, go with your gut. Photography is a very personal art, and your feel for a lens can make a big difference in inspiring you to take better pictures.
Finally, be consoled by one fact: If everything goes wrong, lenses have a very good resell value!