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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
If you have a cropped sensor camera, you can use the smaller, more affordable consumer-level lenses that are available. Of these, I suggest:
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:
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.