One of our readers recently asked me an interesting question, which is whether or not it helps to have a large maximum aperture in landscape photography. Of course, the answer will be different for every photographer, but I wanted to go through some of the important considerations today.
Shallow Depth of Field
Most landscape photography is done at narrow aperture values in order to get more depth of field. The “classic landscape” look today is usually accomplished in the range from about f/8 to f/16. For that reason, even if your lens has a wide maximum aperture (say, f/1.4 or f/1.8), you may not find yourself using it very often.
Landscape photography wasn’t always synonymous with maximizing sharpness from foreground to background. In fact, when landscape photography was first finding its footing over 150 years ago, the more common goal was the opposite: soft focus, “dreamy” landscapes, often with a shallow depth of field.
I think that there’s room today to embrace landscape photos with a shallow depth of field, to say the least. It’s an under-explored side of landscape photography with a lot of promise.
Given that, landscape photographers may want to get a large-aperture lens for the same reasons as a portrait photographer: to give you more control over depth of field, and to allow for substantially out-of-focus backgrounds.
Another reason to consider a large-aperture lens as a landscape photographer is that it makes it easier to focus in low-light environments.
An aperture of f/4 lets in twice as much light as f/5.6. Opening to f/2.8 doubles it again; likewise with f/2, and once more with f/1.4. Ultimately, someone with an f/1.4 or f/1.8 lens can autofocus in conditions with just a small fraction of the light you would need at f/4 or f/5.6. (The benefit of shooting with a 24mm f/1.4 versus a 16-35mm f/4 is that you can autofocus when there is merely 12.5% as much ambient light.)
If you’ve ever struggled to lock onto your landscape in low light, this can be a big reason to choose a large-aperture lens, even if you stop down to f/8 or f/11 when actually taking the photo.
Milky Way Photography
Probably the most obvious time to use a wide-aperture lens for landscape photography is when photographing the Milky Way. The stars at night are so dim that every last bit of light-gathering capabilities will help. An f/2.8 lens is often considered the baseline, with an f/1.8 or f/1.4 optic considered ideal.
This relates the previous section, too – it’s much easier to focus on the stars when you have a wide maximum aperture. But the real benefit for Milky Way photography is that a large aperture captures much more light, allowing you to keep your noise levels as low as possible. Using an f/2 lens rather than an f/4 lens would allow you to shoot at ISO 3200 instead of ISO 12,800, for example.
That said, you may be surprised to hear that Milky Way photography is one case where you don’t necessarily need a wide aperture lens. Unlike the previous examples (getting a shallower depth of field and autofocusing in ultra-low light), I consider a large maximum aperture to be just “very helpful” rather than “necessary” for photographing the Milky Way.
I’ve previously written about the technique of image averaging that allows you to take sharp, clean photos of the night sky at any aperture. My primary Milky Way lens these days is Nikon’s 14-30mm f/4, which is hardly a wide-aperture lens. But by stacking together several minutes of exposure, even an f/4 lens lets you get essentially noise-free Milky Way photos. The downside is that the image averaging process takes some extra time in the field, and it’s another step in your post-processing workflow to worry about.
I would still prefer a wide-aperture lens for Milky Way photography, but I don’t want our readers to think it’s the only way to get clean photos of the night sky. If you’re on a budget or you carried a lightweight lens into the backcountry, you can still get good Milky Way photos.
Better Image Quality… Maybe
Generally speaking, lenses with a large maximum aperture are going to be more expensive than lenses with a narrow maximum aperture. But does this mean that they’re sharper or better optically?
We’ve been conditioned to believe that “more expensive = higher quality,” and sometimes this does hold true with lenses. Most f/2.8 zooms that I’ve tested, for example, are sharper than their f/4 or variable-aperture counterparts at a given aperture.
However, it’s not a perfect correlation. Sometimes, when you pay more for a large-aperture lens, you really are just paying for the wider maximum aperture (or other benefits like build quality). The image quality in the shared aperture range may not be any better at all. For example, Nikon’s F-mount 35mm f/1.8G is actually sharper than the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G, while being less expensive.
Also, keep in mind that image quality differences between two lenses will be most visible at maximum aperture. As you stop down to something like f/8, f/11, or f/16, most modern lenses are going to look pretty similar to one another. Since a lot of landscape photographers stick to those apertures, springing for a wide-aperture lens may not be necessary
So, you can’t assume that a large maximum aperture means a lens will have better image quality. This might be true on average, but it’s always down to the specific lenses that you’re considering.
Drawbacks of a Large Maximum Aperture
Lens manufacturers typically have to sacrifice a lot in order to design a lens with a large maximum aperture. Such lenses tend to be larger, heavier, and more expensive than their narrow-aperture counterparts. If you’re considering a zoom lens, you may also find that the f/2.8 options have a more limited range of focal lengths, such as 24-70mm rather than 24-120mm. Finally, specialty glass like tilt-shift lenses (which can be very helpful for landscape photography) usually have narrower maximum apertures, too.
Some of these drawbacks may matter to you as a landscape photographer, while others may not. If you’re the type of photographer who does a lot of backcountry hiking, it’s probably much smarter to carry a lightweight set of f/4 zooms rather than pro-tier f/2.8 zooms or f/1.4 primes. I would say exactly the same thing to photographers on a budget, or to anyone who just wants a more portable kit.
Conclusion and Recommendations
Weighing the pros and cons, I think it makes sense for landscape photographers to have at least one large-aperture lens in their bag. Even a compact lens like a 50mm f/1.8 or 40mm f/2 allows you to experiment with depth of field and low-light landscape photography in a way that a slow zoom cannot.
I’ve seen some landscape photographers dismiss f/2.8 zooms or f/1.2 primes as unnecessarily large and expensive, but I think the benefits of such lenses can be significant even for landscape work. It just depends if you’re willing to pay the price (monetary and weight) for what you get.
My general recommendation hasn’t changed, which is that a lighter set of lenses makes more sense to most landscape photographers. But it shouldn’t be considered controversial to embrace the “maximalist” approach instead, where you deal with more weight and higher prices in exchange for the flexibility of a wider maximum aperture, even for landscape photography.
One of my goals this year as a landscape photographer is to experiment more with shallow depth of field, and not just in close-ups or intimate landscapes. This will involve shooting at some unorthodox apertures like f/1.2 through f/2.8, but I’m interested to see if I can capture any landscape photos that make it worthwhile.
What about you – are you the type to carry large-aperture lenses as a landscape photographer, or have you built a more minimalist kit? I’m interested to hear your experiences in the comment section below!