Lenses tend to be an afterthought for new photographers.
Most of us, whether we shoot nature, landscape, or any other subject, simply do our best with the equipment that we have, which usually means using whatever came bundled with our camera when we bought it.
More than likely, the lens that was included will be a standard short zoom lens, but if you’ve ever laid eyes on a camera store’s display case, you may know that the choices available border on mind-boggling – there are 155 lenses in Canon’s lineup, about the same in Nikon’s, and going on 200 in Sigma’s, not to mention the other third-party brands.
Because of the immensity of the selection available, a lot of people are hesitant to start asking questions about which are the best lenses for landscape photography.
The truth is, though, that your photograph is influenced much more by your lens than by your camera. Sharpness, contrast, depth of focus, clarity, and detail are all determined almost exclusively by the glass; it forms the image, while the camera simply captures it.
While it may seem absurd to spend more on a lens than on the camera itself, most photographers agree that they would always prefer a cheap camera with a quality lens, rather than the other way around. And because they don’t depreciate in price as quickly, the investment is far more worthwhile.
So how to make sense of all the different types of lenses and – more importantly – how do you know which one you need? In this blog I focus mostly on nature photography, and landscapes in particular, so let me give you an idea of what to look for in a good landscape lens.
Focal Length and Angle of View
The first designation of a lens is its focal length, which determines the lens’ angle of view. This can be thought of as its level of zoom, and is expressed in millimeters.
A longer focal length will be denoted by a higher number and will have a narrower angle of view, making the frame appear more zoomed in. Conversely, a short focal length will have a small number and a large angle of view, allowing wide, panoramic shots.
Lenses are divided into five categories based on focal length:
- Ultra Wide-Angle
Ranging from 4mm to 20mm, these lenses have extremely large fields of view. Fisheye lenses fall into this category. Such a stretched perspective can often cause bending and distortion towards the edges of the frame.
Anything between 21mm and 35mm is a standard wide angle lens, and are the most common focal lengths. They are versatile and allow pictures to be taken close up to a subject while minimizing distortion and still including the background.
50mm is known as a “normal” focal length because it sees with roughly the same perspective as the human eye. However, this category can include lenses ranging between 35mm and 60mm, which give a very realistic look.
At around 75mm we start to get into “long” lenses – ones that zoom quite far, enabling you to shoot your subject from a distance. They are better for isolating details of a scene, rather than fitting a lot into the frame. Anything up to 150mm is considered a standard telephoto lens.
- Super Telephoto
Any lens over 150mm is a super telephoto – including extreme telephotos which exceed 400mm and are hard to come by. These are used for isolating small details at a great distance; they are usually used for photographing wildlife, but can also be utilized to make very unique landscape images.
Prime vs. Zoom
Regardless of focal length, all lenses can be divided into two basic camps: zooms and primes.
Zoom lenses have a variable focal length, zooming in and out to be longer or wider. They are marked with a focal length range, for example 18-55mm or 70-200mm. Many photographers like these lenses for their convenience and versatility.
Prime lenses, though, don’t zoom at all – they have a fixed focal length, and you must move closer to or further from your subject in order to get more or less in the frame. However, because they are simpler designs, they are often cheaper and produce sharper images, making them preferred by many professionals.
The second mark to look for on a lens is its maximum aperture, or the widest f-stop it can achieve.
For prime lenses and some higher-end zooms it will be a single aperture, such as a 50mm f/1.8 or 70-200mm f/4. On many zoom lenses, though, the maximum aperture will vary with the focal length, such as on an 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6: when the lens is zoomed out at 18mm, f/3.5 is the maximum, but it shrinks to f/5.6 when zoomed in to 200mm.
Because landscape photos are usually made using smaller apertures anyway, the maximum size is less important than in portrait, macro, and wildlife photography where large apertures are needed.
Weight and Size
Long focal lengths are called that for a reason – they are longer, larger and heavier than their wide-angle counterparts. This is an important factor to consider if you’re going to be hiking, biking, camping, or in any way carrying your camera gear around for great lengths of time.
Because of the weight and magnification of large lenses, they can be hard to hold steady, and may need to be balanced on a tripod to get a still shot, adding yet more weight to your pack. Of course, the focal length isn’t the only thing that will increase the girth of a lens; zooms, large apertures, and image stabilization, among other things, all add some bulk.
To confuse your further, not all cameras see the same.
Focal lengths are calculated based on the 35mm film standard-size frame, but the image sensors on basic consumer-level cameras are slightly smaller than that (“cropped sensor”, they’re called, or “APS-C”). Therefore, while the lens’ perspective and compression will be rendered the same, the frame will appear slightly more zoomed in because the small sensor crops off the edges of the image. This makes getting an extreme wide angle difficult on these types of cameras, and is why many standard lenses are made wider (starting around 18mm) to compensate.
If you have a cropped sensor camera, multiply your lens’ focal length by 1.5 to get it’s “effective” (apparent) focal length. This means that an 18mm lens on a crop sensor will end up looking like it’s 27mm.
Of course, if you have a higher-end “full frame” camera with a 35mm-size sensor you don’t have to worry about that. However, some cheaper lenses are made exclusively for cropped sensors and won’t work on full frames, so you’ll have to learn which ones to avoid for your brand.
What does it all mean?
There are other specifics that distinguish lenses from each other, but the things we discussed here are the essentials: focal length, maximum aperture, and prime vs. zoom. Modern lenses will also have a string of initials behind them which stand for different types of glass, auto focus motors, image stabilization, and other technologies, but let’s not worry about those for now.
Traditionally, landscape photographers have always loved wide angle lenses. They fit huge scenes into the frame with a panoramic point of view, emphasizing the sky and the distance with great sharpness.
However, many photographers are starting to learn that landscapes can be made using longer focal lengths, too. To choose the perfect landscape lens for your style of shooting, ask yourself a few questions:
- What size is my sensor?
If you have a crop-sensor camera, you’ll want a lens that is a little bit wider than you think you need. If you have a full-frame, find out which lenses won’t work with your camera (Nikon’s DX Canon’s EF-S lines) and avoid them. Likewise, small Nikon bodies (without the top LCD) have no auto focus motor, and need a lens with the AF motor built in.
- What perspective do I want?
Are you looking to pack the whole world into a single image with a wide-angle lens, or do you prefer to seek out smaller details with a telephoto? Perhaps you want to show things exactly as they are, with the realism of a normal focal length lens. If you want the best of both worlds, you might need two lenses – or you might need to look into a zoom lens that can do both wide and long shots.
- How far do I need to carry this?
If you take your camera on long treks through the wilderness, a big heavy telephoto zoom lens might not be for you. Consider something lighter, like a smaller zoom or prime lens.
- What is my budget?
Lenses can get very expensive, so set yourself a baseline of how much you want to spend. There are great options available for almost every price range, but there’s no sense wasting too much time looking at lenses you can’t afford (we all know that pain!).
- What brand do I need?
The lens you buy has to match the mount for your camera – if you own a Canon DSLR, you must also buy a Canon-mount DSLR lens. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to buy a Canon brand. There are several third-party companies such as Sigma, Tokina, and Tamron that make lenses for every make of camera, and they tend to offer different choices at a cheaper price.
I’ve used quite a few different types of lenses over the years, and have seen the results from others that I haven’t had the good fortune to try yet. When you’re shopping, keep an eye out for these highly-regarded lenses.
For Cropped Sensor Cameras
If you have a cropped sensor camera, you can use the smaller, more affordable consumer-level lenses that are available. Of these, I suggest:
- Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6
This is in my personal kit, and is my go-to lens for ultra wide angles. It is a high quality, low cost option with sharp image quality and very little distortion. It is also available with a constant f/3.5 aperture for a little more money, but since I shoot landscapes with a smaller aperture anyway, I find it unnecessary. It’s made by Sigma, and so is available for all DSLR camera mounts, including Sony, Pentax, and Olympus.
- Canon 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5
Canon’s version of the above lens. It is extremely clear, with great contrast and low distortion, but is little higher priced than the Sigma and will only work on Canon bodies.
- Nikon 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5G
And Nikon’s version as well – an excellent lens, and very comparable to Canon’s, but even more expensive. And, of course, is made for Nikons only.
- Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8
Another third-party lens available for all mounts, and probably the most highly recommended ultra wide angle lens for cropped sensor cameras. Not only is it super sharp with virtually no distortion, but it has a constant f/2.8 aperture, making it versatile and useful indoors as well.
- Nikon 35mm f/1.8G
A great standard wide angle for Nikon users on a budget. Has a wide aperture, making it great for all kinds of uses in all kinds of lighting situations.
For Cropped Sensor or Full Frame Cameras
Full-frame lenses can also be used on cropped sensor bodies, and tend to be a little pricier, but a lot higher quality. A few of my favourites:
- Sigma 12-24mm f/4.5-5.6
The widest option available for a full frame camera, this third party lens has excellent image quality and is available for all mounts.
- Canon 14mm f/2.8L
This falls under the “professional lens” category, and its price reflects it. Its image quality is impeccable, with an amazing field of view and no distortion whatsoever.
- Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G
This is the holy grail of wide angles for Nikon users. Another professional lens that offers gorgeous clarity and contrast, for a pretty penny.
- Canon 20mm f/2.8
Falling right on the border between ultra-wide and regular-wide, the 20mm is a standard, inexpensive lens with great coverage.
- Canon 24-105mm f/4L
My personal favourite lens, and the one I use most often. The incredible range and versatility make it useful for almost any situation. It is the standard lens packaged with the 5D, and thus can often be purchased relatively inexpensively.
- Nikon 24-70 f/2.8G
The second lens in Nikon’s professional “dream team” lineup, offering a moderate wide angle to telephoto with the best image quality of almost any lens, ever.
- Canon 50mm f/1.8
A must-have for every Canon user. This lens is the cheapest available and very sharp, with a wide aperture for low light. Great to have for almost every kind of photography, including more detail-oriented landscapes.
- Nikon 50mm f/1.8G
Not quite as inexpensive as its Canon counterpart, but still very affordable and just as crucial for a complete kit. It produces extremely sharp images, comparable even to the more expensive 50mm f/1.4G.
- Canon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6
Most people recommend any of Canon’s more professional 70-200mm lenses, but I prefer the extended range of the cheaper 70-300, which makes it useful for landscapes as well as wildlife shots. Since I usually shoot in daylight or on a tripod, the small aperture doesn’t bother me, and I’ve been very impressed with the overall image quality for the price.
- Nikon 70-300mm f/4-5.6G
Again, the Nikon version of the previous lens. Great quality for a low price, and covers the rest of the range you’re likely to use.
The best way to choose a lens is to take your camera into your local photography store. Any decent shop will allow you to try lenses out on your own camera. Or you can rent a lens and spend a weekend with it before you decide to buy. By doing this, you not only solidify your understanding of different equipment through first-hand experience, but also to ensure that the lens you choose is fully compatible with your camera body.
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