Wide-angle lenses—those with focal lengths of about 35mm or wider—are the most popular choice for landscape photography because their perspective allows you to capture the grandeur of a scene, incorporating foreground, mid-ground and background elements in a broad, encompassing view.
That doesn’t mean that standard and telephoto focal-length lenses can’t be used effectively for landscape photography. For compositions where the most interesting light and subjects are distant, telephoto lenses can help you get closer, and can also be used to isolate landscape elements like a lone tree for simple, graphic images.
If you’re building your first lens kit for landscape photography, however, we recommend starting with a wide prime or zoom, or for a budget alternative, a superzoom that covers the whole range of focal lengths from wide to tele.
Key Specs to Consider
Sensor Type and Magnification. The size of your camera’s sensor affects the focal length of your lens. Full-frame sensors are the same size as a 35mm film frame, having no effect on the lens’ focal length. Smaller sensors, APS-C and Four Thirds being the most common, will magnify the perspective of the lens. For example, a 24mm lens used on an APS-C-sensor camera will perform like a 36mm lens on a full-frame model.
When selecting lenses for your system, take the magnification, or crop factor, into account:
Prime or Zoom? Zoom lenses are versatile and convenient, allowing you to work with a range of focal lengths without switching lenses. Unlike primes, zooms must be engineered to correct for the entire range, and optical designs that improve image quality at one end of the range may compromise image quality at the other end. Zoom lenses also require more optical elements, making them heavier and larger than primes. For these reasons, a prime lens typically will perform better than a zoom that includes its focal length because the optical design can be optimized specifically for that length.
If your first landscape lens is a zoom, you may find that, over time, you tend to prefer a particular focal length and decide to invest in a premium prime lens.
Maximum Aperture. Lenses typically deliver their best overall image quality when set to their middle apertures. For most landscape photography, apertures of ƒ/4 or larger aren’t critical, as you’ll usually be shooting at apertures of ƒ/11 to ƒ/16, not only to maximize image quality, but also to increase depth of field so that both foreground and background elements are sharp.
However, for compositions that don’t require deep depth of field, a faster maximum aperture can be an advantage for shooting in low-light conditions at the ends of the day and for achieving pleasantly soft-focused backgrounds.
Zoom lenses can be constant aperture or variable aperture. With a variable-aperture lens, the maximum aperture decreases at longer focal lengths. For example, an 18-55mm ƒ/3.5-5.6 zoom will provide a maximum aperture of ƒ/3.5 at 18mm and a maximum aperture of ƒ/5.6 at 55mm. Variable-aperture lens design helps keep the cost and weight of the lens down. Constant-aperture lenses are usually of better quality and more expensive.
Minimum Focusing Distance. Depending on your style of landscape composition, minimum focusing distance may be a spec you want to consider. Minimum focusing distance dictates how close you can get to an object while keeping it in sharp focus. Critical for macro work, it also becomes important for landscape photography if you like to get close to foreground elements to anchor the image.
Aspherical Elements. Aspherical elements, those with a surface that’s curved rather than spherical, are used in lens design to reduce or eliminate spherical aberrations and distortion, especially helpful in wide-angle lenses. Aspherical elements also allow lens makers to design lighter, more compact wide-angle zooms that incorporate fewer lens elements.
Vignetting. Vignetting is a darkening of the image at the edges and corners. The image circle created by your lens is brightest in the center and dims nearer the edges. All wide-angle lenses exhibit some vignetting, though newer lens designs minimize the effect.
If you shoot with optical filters—and a polarizer is recommended for landscape work—keep in mind that your filter can exacerbate the vignetting issue, as your wide-angle lens’ perspective can be blocked around the edges by the filter’s frame. When selecting filters for wide-angle photography, look for those with thin, low-profile frames designed to mitigate this problem.
Chromatic Aberration. Chromatic aberration results from the inability of a lens to focus all colors of light precisely together, and is most evident in extreme telephoto lenses, but can also affect shorter lenses—especially zooms. Low-dispersion elements, with designations like ED, UD, LD and SD, minimize chromatic aberrations. You’ll find these elements in higher-end lens designs. Fluorite and FLD elements found in premium lenses offer the most effective reduction in chromatic aberrations and exceptional light transmission, but also increase lens cost.
Image Stabilization. While a tripod is recommended for most landscape photography in order to achieve ultimate sharpness, modern image-stabilization systems are remarkably effective at countering camera shake, allowing you to shoot handheld when exploring the visual effect of different compositions with minimal or no effect on sharpness.
New Wide-Angle Options
Following is a selection of the latest wide-angle lenses for the most popular camera systems.
Canon EF 16-35mm F4L IS USM; AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm F2.8E ED VR; Fujinon XF16-55mm F2.8 R LM WR
For full-frame Canon cameras, their newest wide-angle prime, the EF 35mm ƒ/1.4L II USM, is a premium model and the first to feature Canon’s Blue Spectrum Refractive Optics, a technology developed to significantly reduce chromatic aberration. Estimated Street Price: $1,799.
A great choice both for full-frame and APS-C Canon cameras, the EF 16-35mm ƒ/4L IS USM is a versatile zoom for landscape work and great for handheld shooting, with up to four stops of image stabilization and a minimum focusing distance of 0.92 feet across the entire zoom range. Estimated Street Price: $1,049.
A premium weather-resistant zoom for Fujifilm X-Series cameras, the Fujinon XF16-55mm F2.8 R LM WR provides an equivalent focal range of 24-84mm, with a constant maximum aperture of ƒ/2.8 throughout the zoom range, and incorporates three aspherical elements and three ED elements. Estimated Street Price: $999.
The updated version of one of Nikon’s most popular zooms, the AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm ƒ/2.8E ED VR is an ideal landscape choice for FX full-frame Nikon DSLRs, featuring two ED and three aspherical elements, plus Vibration Reduction technology for up to four stops of stabilization when shooting handheld. Estimated Street Price: $2,399.
Designed for use with Nikon DX-format (APS-C-sensor) cameras, the AF-S DX NIKKOR 16-80mm ƒ/2.8-4E ED VR provides an equivalent focal range of 24-120mm, making it a versatile choice for landscape photography. It’s relatively light and compact, and features up to four stops of Vibration Reduction. Estimated Street Price: $1,069.
Sigma 20mm F1.4 DG HSM | A; Sony FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM; Tamron SP 15-30mm F2.8 Di VC USD
The M.Zuiko ED 7-14mm ƒ/2.8 PRO is one of Olympus’ premium lens designs, with weatherproof sealing, an ideal range for wide-angle landscape photography equivalent to 14-28mm and an impressive minimum focusing distance of just 2.9 inches. The optical design includes multiple aspherical, ED and Super ED elements. Estimated Street Price: $1,199.
The Panasonic LUMIX 12-60mm F3.5-5.6 covers an equivalent focal range of 24-120mm for wide to moderate telephoto perspectives. It incorporates one ED and three aspherical lens elements, and is sealed to protect against moisture and dust when paired with all-weather LUMIX cameras. It includes Optical Image Stabilization for shooting handheld. Estimated Street Price: $499.
A new lens developed for use with their first full-frame DSLR, the Pentax K-1, the HD Pentax-D FA 15-30mm F2.8ED SDM WR is an ultra-wide to wide zoom with weather-resistant construction for which Pentax is known. It features Pentax HD coatings for optimum light transmission, along with three ED and three aspherical elements. Estimated Street Price: $1,449.
For Pentax APS-C-sensor DSLRs, the DA 12-24mm F4 ED AL [IF] delivers a perfect range of focal lengths for landscape work, equivalent to 18-36mm, and a minimum focusing distance of one foot for compositions that include prominent foreground elements. Pentax SP coating on the front lens element helps to repel dust and water. Estimated Street Price: $699.
Panasonic LUMIX 12-60mm F3.5-5.6; Olympus M.Zuiko ED 7-14mm F2.8 PRO; HD Pentax-D FA 15-30mm F2.8ED SDM WR
In addition to several zoom lenses perfect for landscapes, Sigma’s two new primes in their Art line—the 20mm F1.4 DG HSM | A and the 24mm F1.4 DG HSM | A—are premium choices for landscape work with Canon, Nikon and Sigma DSLRs. Both incorporate aspherical, FLD and SLD elements for superior correction of distortion and chromatic aberration. Estimated Street Price: $899 (20mm); $849 (24mm).
An excellent match for their a7-series full-frame cameras, Sony’s all-new G Master lenses represent the pinnacle in Sony optical technology. Of the three new lenses, for landscape work, choose the FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM, which includes one extreme aspherical (XA) and two aspherical elements, plus one Super ED and one ED element. Estimated Street Price: $2,200.
For full-frame Canon, Nikon and Sony cameras, the Tamron SP 15-30mm F/2.8 Di VC USD provides an ultra-wide to wide range with a fast, constant maximum aperture and a minimum focusing distance of just 11 inches. The lens employs both LD elements and a large-diameter XGM (Expanded Glass Molded Aspherical) element to correct for chromatic aberration and distortion. It also offers Vibration Compensation for handheld shooting. Estimated Street Price: $1,199.
Tokina’s new AT-X 14-20mm F/2.0 PRO DX for Canon and Nikon APS-C cameras is the fastest zoom yet from Tokina, with a constant ƒ/2 maximum aperture throughout the zoom range. In addition to three aspherical elements and four SD elements, for photographers who like to manually focus their landscapes, Tokina’s One-Touch Focus Clutch lets you quickly and intuitively switch between manual and AF. Estimated Street Price: $899.
|Tokina AT-X 14-20mm F2.0 PRO DX
Zeiss Otus 1.4/28
The ZEISS Otus 1.4/28 is an extremely fast, premium prime available for Canon and Nikon full-frame cameras. The lens is highly corrected for wide-angle distortion, and includes multiple aspherical and low-dispersion elements, and is designed to maintain consistent contrast and sharpness throughout the frame. This level of optical precision doesn’t come cheap, however, with its estimated street price of $4,990.
Maybe you’ve recently switched systems or you have your eye on a lens developed for another mount. A lens adapter like those available from Fotodiox allows you to use your lens and camera combination of choice. The Vizelex ND Throttle Auto Adapter for Canon EOS EF to Sony E-mount not only translates electronic signals between the lens and the camera for full control over the lens, it also features an integrated 10-stop variable ND filter—simply rotate the geared dial on the adapter to increase or decrease the ND effect. Estimated Street Price: $199. fotodioxpro.com
Pentax (Ricoh) us.ricoh-imaging.com
Updated May 15, 2016
Published April 7, 2009