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What Kind of Lens for Landscape Photography

by Alex Coleman on Oct 2, 2019

Do you have an interchangeable lens camera but don’t know what kind of lens to use for landscape photography? It can be challenging to determine what lens to buy.

The answer can change based on whether you have an APS-C sensor or full frame, the mount your camera lens needs, what resolution your camera is capable of, and more!

To make an informed decision and get the best image quality possible, you’ll want to understand:

  • The characteristics of a camera lens
  • The different “types” of lenses available
  • Which factors are important for landscape photography

A good lens can help a photographer produce even better photos. Also, many of the attributes that make a lens good for landscape photographers also make for a good travel lens. Travel photography involves many of the same types of shots, so buying a good landscape lens can be a great deal.

Landscape image with stone buildings in the foreground and mountain in the background
Photo by Liam Macleod via Unsplash

The Basic Characteristics of a Lens

When looking for a camera lens, there are a few basic characteristics to keep in mind. Focal length, aperture, zoom capabilities, and image circle are all important attributes.

The focal length, typically given in millimeters indicates the field of view of a lens. A wide lens, like 16mm, will have a wider field of view. That means, this lens fits more into the frame.

Meanwhile, a telephoto lens, like 105mm will have a narrower field of view and make distant objects appear larger in the frame.

While there are a number of stylistic decisions involved in choosing a focal length to use, focal length most critically determines how much you can fit into your frame. Good landscape images can be shot with any focal length, but most photographers will use a wide lens for landscapes.

While wide lenses fit more into frame, like a large mountain range, they can cause individual elements to appear small and uninteresting. To avoid this issue, you’ll need to take special care when you compose your shots.

The aperture of a lens is given as a f-stop, like f/2.8 or f/3.5-5.6 on some zoom lenses. This aperture value refers to how much light the lens lets in, which impacts your exposure in combination with your shutter speed and ISO.

All other things equal, a lens with a lower f-stop number, like f/1.8, allows you to shoot using a lower ISO or faster shutter speed. A slower lens with an f-stop of f/5.6, for example, requires a higher ISO or slower shutter speed.

This can be helpful in low light, when dealing with fast action, or a moving subject, since there is less chance for blur. Using a fast f-stop, like f/1.8 can also help create shallow depth of field. This results in artistic blurring in front of and behind the subject.

Because different focal lengths allow for different looks, many photographers opt to carry a range of lens options. A zoom lens, typically indicated by its range of focal lengths, like 18-55mm or 55-200mm, can cover an entire range of focal lengths in one lens.

A prime lens like a 50mm, on the other hand, only covers one focal length. 

Prime and zoom lenses have different tradeoffs. Prime lenses typically capture higher quality images for a given focal length. These lenses are optimized for a specific focal length instead of a range, so they do very well at that specific length. They can also be smaller and lighter for a given aperture. 

Zoom lenses, on the other hand, are bigger and heavier. This is especially true of lenses with good image quality. Zoom lenses’ heavy weight is less of a problem when you consider you’d need to carry multiple prime lenses to cover the same range available in one zoom lens.

The image circle of a lens is also important. APS-C cameras have a smaller sensor than full frame cameras, and some manufacturers have created lenses just for that type of camera.

These lenses are typically designated with a specific naming convention like DX for Nikon or EF-S for Canon. While these lenses can be smaller or cheaper than their full frame counterparts, you typically can’t or shouldn’t use them on full frame cameras.

This can limit your upgrade options down the road, since upgrading to a full frame camera will also require getting new lenses. Despite that, they can be a good value for APS-C camera users, since they often cover focal lengths that full frame lenses can’t at the wide angle. As a landscape photographer, you’ll want to consider this tradeoff carefully.

Night sky with lightning bolt over water
Photo by Sweet Ice Cream Photography via Unsplash

Does your lens feature image stabilization? For a landscape photographer, image stabilization is essential.

Depending on the manufacturer, image stabilization may appear as IS, VR, or VC. But, all of these names refer to the same technology. Image stabilization uses tiny movements of the elements of the lens to counteract the movement inherent to shooting handheld.

This feature can reduce blur caused by your hands, but it won’t help stop subject movement in the frame. If you don’t want to shoot on a tripod, this can be a great choice, as it helps you get more consistently sharp images.

Types of Lenses Used in Landscape Photography

For landscape photography, it can be helpful to divide your lenses into a few main categories grouped by focal length and aperture.

Wide lenses include zooms like 14-24mm, 16-35mm, or 11-16mm. These lenses cover some of the most important focal lengths for landscape photography because they allow you to fit an entire scenic visit into one frame.

If you have an APS-C camera, look for something starting at 11 or 12mm. Full frame users should consider something at 16mm or wider.

Midrange lenses, like an 18-55mm or 24-70mm, can be a great “walking around” lens, which is why they are typically the types of lenses included with camera kits. Covering a slightly wide to slightly telephoto angle makes them very versatile. The typical 18-55 kit lens doesn’t have great image quality, so if you like the focal length, consider upgrading to a better version.

If you’re trying to travel light, this midrange lens may be all you need. Also, a midrange lens is a great choice for other types of photography. For example, our guide to shooting a wedding on just one lens uses the 35mm focal length, which this lens would cover.

Mountain range at sunrise
Photo by Paxson Woelber via Unsplash

Telephoto lenses, typically those over about 70mm all the way to 400mm+ will be more limited in landscape photography. While these lenses are great for sports, action, or wildlife, they are less useful to a landscape photographer.

While some may want to carry a lightweight 70-300mm for a unique perspective, they are also useful for the variety of non-landscape subjects you may see in the field, like birds or mammals.

Each of these lenses types of lenses are available with image stabilization. But, whether the additional cost is worth it depends on your style of photography. The same applies to the aperture of the lens. Faster lenses typically cost more, but they offer a higher level of image quality.

How to Choose a Landscape Photography Lens

Choosing an individual lens for landscape photography starts with picking a focal length and setting a budget. If you already have an 18-55mm or similar kit lens, consider getting a lens to complement that.

A wide-angle lens is one of the most used for landscape photographers and is available at a variety of price points. Read our tips on epic travel photos to see everything you can do with a wide angle lens.

Price is the next key factor. A lens with great image quality doesn’t have to be expensive, but a cheaper lens may not include some features like image stabilization. Depending on the camera you have, a wide angle lens can cost anywhere from $199 to $2,000+. Obviously, there are huge differences between these lenses, but for landscape photographers, many of these differences don’t matter.

Make sure any lens you’re looking at is compatible with your camera, since most mounts aren’t interchangeable. Beyond that, don’t overbuy on the lens. While the latest thousand dollar lens has great image quality, it may be wasted on an older 12 megapixel body.

Once you have a wide angle lens, consider buying a telephoto lens next. This 3 lens kit, consisting of a wide, mid, and telephoto lenses makes up the core of many pro photographer’s equipment bags.

Telephoto lenses for landscape use don’t have to have fast apertures, so consider a versatile 55-200mm or 70-300mm style lens. While these have slower apertures and focus motors than sports oriented lenses, they work great for field use because of their lighter weight.

Also, consider lenses for your smartphone. If you want to travel very light, you can still get great images with just your phone. Our guide on smartphone lenses breaks down some of the key tools to make great smartphone images.

Necessary Equipment

Once you have the lenses, there are some additional pieces of equipment and accessories you’ll need in order to make the most of them. While much of a good landscape image comes the right choice of settings, as shown in our guide to camera settings for landscapes, some extra photography gear can make your images even better.

A tripod is almost essential for some types of landscape photography. Since a tripod holds the camera steady, you can shoot with a slower shutter speed. This slower shutter speed makes it possible to get lower-noise shots of the night’s sky or after dusk images.

Also, having a tripod makes using filters easier. Filters, like a polarizing filter or neutral density filter, change the light coming into your lens.

A polarizing filter works to block stray light that is reflected off the scene. In practice, this means less reflections off water, a bluer sky, or more vibrant foliage. Be careful using a polarizing filter on a very wide lens, however, since this can cause unnatural looking skies. 

Bridge over water
Photo by Chris Briggs via Unsplash

Neutral density uniformly reduce all the light coming into the lens. This lets you get a slower shutter speed or wider aperture for a given scene.

You can use this filter in your landscape images to smooth out water. Silky waterfalls or serene images of a seashore are best created with a neutral density filter.

Best Landscape Photography Lenses

Landscape photos can be created with any lens, but the best lenses for landscape photography cover a wide range of focal lengths. Whether you choose a zoom lens or a few prime lenses, creating strong landscape images comes down to your vision.

To help build your vision, check out these 5 tips on shooting landscapes with greater impact.

A wide angle lens is one of the best additions you can make to your kit, if you want to shoot landscape images. The following are a couple of great options for different camera manufacturers.

  • Canon’s EF-S 10-18mm
  • Nikon’s AF-P DX Nikkor 10-20mm
  • Sony’s Rokinon 12mm
  • Fujifilm’s Rokinon 12mm

Consider following us on Twitter and Facebook for more landscape photography tutorials if you enjoyed this guide!

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