Perfect for grand landscapes and intimate nature portraits, see what the pros say about these indispensable lenses
This Article Features Photo Zoom The wide-angle zoom is an incredibly useful and multifaceted tool for a nature shooter. It’s as well-suited for sprawling landscapes as it is for close-ups, where you want to provide context for the subject by capturing more of the surrounding environment. And the added zoom capability is great compared to a fixed-focal-length lens, because you have more framing options without having to physically move to change a composition.
Focal lengths shorter than 24mm or 28mm are generally considered ultra or super-wide angle, unless the lens is designed for smaller-format sensors. A focal length of 18mm, though considered ultra-wide for 35mm film or full-frame digital sensors, won’t be ultra-wide with an APS-C-sized sensor, which is roughly two-thirds the size, or a Four Thirds System sensor, which is even smaller.
Once you apply the magnification factor of 1.5x, 1.6x or 2x for Four Thirds System cameras, that 18mm will actually give you a perspective of 27mm, 28.8mm or 36mm respectively, which brings you back to the realm of the standard wide-angle. That’s fine, except when you really do want an ultra-wide perspective. Then you’ll have to get a lens starting in the 7-14mm range, which effectively gives you frame coverage starting at 10.5-21mm.
We talked to several professional nature photographers to find out what their “must-have” wide-angle zooms are and why. These pros make their living from these tools.
Gary Mercer Fine-art photographer Gary Mercer, who does a fair amount of nature photography, attributes part of his success to his use of Sigma EX pro lenses in his photography. The 15-30mm ƒ/3.5-4.5 EX DG was the perfect choice for Mercer’s trip to Hawaii, where he shot the islands from the cockpit of a helicopter and from the top of volcano craters for a top-down perspective of Hawaii. “Sigma has some outstanding consumer walk-around lenses like the 18-200mm DC lens or 18-125mm,” says Mercer, “but for my large 22x32-inch or larger prints, only the best pro glass can provide the detail and resolution necessary. So the 15-30mm super-wide-angle gives me prime-lens-quality results without having to carry three lenses to cover the same focal length, and that’s at nearly one-third the cost of big-name brand manufacturers’ glass.”
AF-S Nikkor 12-24mm
David Middleton Whether he’s leading a workshop or taking photographs for another book, David Middleton says that lately he has been using his Nikkor AF-S 12-24mm ƒ/4 in very tight, confined areas, “in just the opposite situation from the wide-open spaces in which most photographers think about pulling out their wide-angle zoom lens.” Middleton says the rules of thumb for wide lenses are still the same: wide-angle lenses for wide-open spaces, and the wider the lens, the closer you have to be to your foreground.
“When I’m in a tiny space,” says Middleton, “in a calf pen or hay wagon, for example, I get as close as I can to my subject. And by the way, close means really close—just a couple of feet away. Ten feet is sort of close and not close enough. Getting really close emphasizes what I want my viewers to see, but also provides context for the story I am trying to tell. You will have to close down a bit to get all the depth of field you need, but you will be very happy with the results. Just remember... take a step closer, and then take another step. You can thank me later.”
AF-S Nikkor 17-35mm
Rod Planck Early in his 25-plus-year career, Rod Planck wasn’t enamored with wide-angle zoom lenses. “That all changed, though, when Nikon introduced a 20-35mm ƒ/2.8 ED Nikkor lens,” says Planck. “This lens’ sharpness rivaled that of fixed-focal-length lenses throughout most of its zoom range. The only issue that I had with the lens was that it didn’t focus very closely, nor was it as sharp as I would have liked at 35mm. “Nikon fixed those problems in the AF-S 17-35mm ƒ/2.8D ED-IF Nikkor,” adds Planck, “and this lens has become a workhorse lens for me. It’s not too big and heavy for travel or hiking. It focuses close (one foot) and is tack-sharp throughout its focal-length range. It’s also flat as a pancake at 17mm. The sharpness of the lens rivals that of any wide-angle fixed-focal-length lens.”
Planck says he finds that it’s also versatile enough to use with both Nikon’s DX and FX digital formats. In the field, he routinely switches between the two formats according to his compositional needs.
Olympus Zuiko 12-60mm
Jay Dickman As an Olympus Visionary and accomplished nature photographer, Jay Dickman travels the world and never goes anywhere without a wide-angle zoom. “At heart, I’m a wide-angle guy and have been for years,” says Dickman. “I love the process of working close and arranging the composition from that perspective.” Dickman says he’d almost have to split his allegiance between the Zuiko 7-14mm ƒ/4 and the Zuiko 12-60mm ƒ/2.8-4.0. “The 7-14 is amazing,” he says. “It’s rectilinear and extremely sharp, as is the 12-60, and having that ultra-wide perspective allows me to work in close to my subject. If I had to carry only one lens, it would be the 12-60. Its range of 24mm to 120mm (in 35mm parlance) is great, and the 12mm setting on that lens provides just enough of a really wide look.”
Without a wide lens like the Zuiko 12-60mm, Dickman says he would not have gotten his photo of penguin feet on the rock—a close-up environmental portrait on the Antarctic Peninsula, with a background that gives the viewer a nice “supporting cast” of information.