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Choosing the Best Lens for Landscape Photography

Choosing The Best Lens For Landscape Photography

One of the most common questions I get is, “What’s the best lens for landscape photography?” From my perspective and experience, that may not be the right question to ask. It assumes that the “landscape” is a distinct thing that requires a certain focal length or perspective.

I understand that assumption, and I respect the question and the photographer asking it. I used to think the same thing myself when I first got started. My goal here is not to belittle, but rather to share my thoughts on the matter and hopefully help you break free of limiting ideas and formulas.

Let’s begin with a useful definition of “landscape” because I think that’s where the problem starts. My dictionary defines landscape as “all the visible features of an area of countryside or land, often considered in terms of their aesthetic appeal.”

The phrase that jumps out at me and deserves a closer look as a photographer is: aesthetic appeal. Once you think of the landscape as whatever it is that appeals to you, regardless of its actual scale, then any or all parts of a particular landscape can become the focus of your composition. And that means that any focal length is usable, from wide to long.

The common assumption that landscapes are best photographed with a super wide-angle lens, for example, becomes neither true nor necessary, especially if you want to simplify your images for greater impact and strength. Painters have the luxury of starting with a blank canvas and adding what’s necessary, whereas we start with chaos and have to eliminate the unnecessary. The wider you go, the harder it gets to eliminate the unnecessary, or even to notice it when looking through your viewfinder.

I am not advocating against the use of wide-angle lenses, far from it. I love wider focal lengths for many reasons, especially their ability to distort the scene and emphasize the foreground. What I am advocating for is less reliance on formulas and prescriptions and an open minded approach to any photographic opportunity.

“There is only you and your camera. The limitations in your photography are in yourself.” – Ernst Haas

The best lens or focal length is the one that lets you capture the essence of what interests you. If you know what that is beforehand, then, of course, you will already have an idea of the best lens. For example, a wide angle lens is probably not the best choice for a portrait, but it might be in the hands of a creative photographer.

What of the curious beginner who approaches a situation without any preconceptions and simply tries to make the most visually appealing image? I see this all the time with kids and their iPhones. Because lens or focal length is not an option, they devote more time and creative energy to finding an interesting image instead of becoming mired in endless possibilities.

It’s one of the main reasons I recently started using prime lenses as often as possible. I discovered that the limitation of a single focal length was liberating. Instead of having to consider endless possibilities, I focus on the much smaller subset of images I can make. And that means I can concentrate on fewer variables, which is always a good strategy when trying to solve complex problems, like composition.

So what does this look like in the field?

When I approach a location, I try to get a sense of what interests me. That usually starts with light and how it’s interacting with the landscape. I am drawn to light and its energy because that is what resonates with me emotionally. I can’t remember a situation in nature when that wasn’t the case. So that’s where I begin.

From there, I start to look for and apply the principles of visual design and determine what the strongest composition might be. Then, and only then do consider focal length. And if I’m using prime lenses, that constrains me even further, which can lead to a simpler, clearer idea of what’s possible.

A vast and wide landscape. but I chose 128mm to isolate the shapes, patterns, color harmony, and light in this area of the landscape.

 

90mm helps me fill the entire frame with interesting shapes, tones, and ephemeral light. Wider, and the impact is lost.

 

A 12mm prime lens (24mm in 35mm format) helps me simplify and strengthen the composition, eliminating the distraction of numerous possibilities. A wide focal length helps connect the foreground to the background, distorting scale and enhancing depth.

 

A 20mm prime lens (40mm in 35mm format) lets me distill what caught my undivided attention-the light. Wider, and the composition becomes too cluttered, narrower and I lose the repetition of the trees.

Suggested Focal Lengths

A good range of focal lengths is the best place to start. If you’re using zoom lenses, I find that a range from 20mm to 200mm will provide more than ample possibilities in almost any landscape. Sure you can go wider and longer, but once again it’s the development of your vision we’re after here, not simply technical capability.

I have three lenses for my Canon kit: 17-40mm, 24-105mm, and a 70-200mm, but I often swap out the 17-40 for the 24-105mm. Why, because I find the 24-105 so versatile, that I change lenses less often when I have it on my camera. So two lenses are usually what I bring on most outings with my Canon system(s).

For my Olympus kit (which has a 2x crop sensor), I use mostly prime lenses. An ideal range would be: 12m, 17mm, 25mm, 45mm, 90mm. I don’t have all of these at the moment, so I’ve paired it down to a 12mm, 20mm, 45mm, and a 40-150mm zoom—three lenses total.

As you can see I have a minimalist mindset when it comes to my camera gear, and that’s because I have found that it makes me a better photographer. Less is more as they say, and that works for me. It also allows me to “know” my lenses inside and out, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and how to get the best quality out of each. I can not overstate how important this is.

Your ability to make great images relies on your mastery of the tools you use. And the more gear you carry and use, the harder this becomes. Knowing what a tool can and can’t do lets you choose the right tool for the right job, or adapt a tool for any situation.

It also puts you in control, and that builds confidence.

You may prefer a different approach, and that’s ok. What I most want to convey here is that your visionhow you see the world—and good composition should dictate the focal length and lens you choose. That means you operate from an internal sense of what feels and looks right, and not from convention, tradition, or external bias.

Use your gear to your advantage, don’t let it use you because it’s a comfort zone you rely on.

“Technical skill is mastery of complexity, while creativity is mastery of simplicity” – Erik Christopher Zeeman

This Post Has 7 Comments
  1. Robert,

    This was an excellent article. I appreciate your openness to inviting people to learn from doing and experimenting rather than the “it’s my way or the highway.”
    I was trained as a painter and my paintings were based on photographs I took. After over forty years of being an artist, my approach to composition is intuitive, but there are always new things to consider. Now I am focusing more on photography for itself, not as a tool. Your blogs and workshops (I’ve attended a couple at B&H) have been very helpful to begin to learn about printing and Lightroom.

  2. I used an Olympus D3 for several years with a 30mm macro, 14-54mm and 50-200mm as my go to camera. It worked great for most scenarios, but the lack of CCD pixel density became the greatest challenge when printing anything landscape above A4.
    Purchased a Nikon D800 with a 16-35mm and an 85mm prime and allow my cropping lens in LR to do my simplifying shots – It works great, so far.
    Not being a “naturally” artistic photographer, I have found many inspiring techniques from your articles, that have resonated with my emotions, which have improved my ascetic perceptions tremendously (IMHO) – the greatest of these is learning to sit, watch and wait (for the light). ( :
    Still have my D3 as it, with the 14-54, is the best camera I have ever had for taking closeups of flowers. The detail is tremendous and tack sharp.
    Must take a look at the technique of stacking – hmmm.

    1. Hi Wayne, I’d argue that knowing you’re “naturally” talented is a hindrance to creative growth since it often if not always inhibits the motivation to work as hard as possible, and complacency sets in. Most if not all great artists put in the work and show up every day, regardless of successes or failures. They don’t rely on natural talent, but rather on pushing themselves more than others.

      This gives us all the possibility of exceeding our own expectations and subjective limitations. Show up consistently, and you’re already in the top 10% of the population. Watch the light long enough, and you’re in rare company indeed.

  3. Hello, Robert. It is my observation that the artistry of a craft seems to influence or even help us evolve and grow with a belief system. Often, it leads us towards a philosophical view of many things around us and onto the creation of the work itself. I like your approach about why it is important to look beyond the technicalities of the art, when passion and belief are at the core. It is at once, contagious and inspiring. Thank you.

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