There is nothing more satisfying for a landscape photographer than capturing an image that displays the grandeur and beauty of nature. Whether it be sunset washing a mountain of fall foliage with a blaze of color, a river snaking majestically through eroded canyon walls, or a lone tree against the whispering grass and blue sky of a savannah, it’s the scale of nature that helps tell the story about the beauty of the outdoors.
That’s why behind every good landscape photographer is a good wide-angle lens. No other photographic tool is so important in capturing and conveying the grandeur of a scene, and today there’s an array of excellent wide-angle lenses that weren’t even possible a generation ago. Computer-based design, advanced manufacturing techniques, refined focusing motors and miniaturized computer processors have all led to the development of today’s high-quality wide-angle lenses.
Along with the advances in lens technology has been an overall broadening of the photographic platforms available to the shooter. From Micro Four Thirds to APS-C to Full Frame, there’s an astounding array of cameras on the market today, and while each have their own wide-perspective solutions, the different technologies have different tradeoffs in terms of image reproduction and image quality.
Angle Of View
Generally speaking, wide-angle lenses are those that have a full-frame focal length of wider than around 35mm — though that’s not a hard-and-fast rule, as perspective has some bearing on what is wide enough for your subject. Shoot a forest from a few yards away, and you might want a 14mm lens to cover everything. Shoot that same forest from a few miles away, and a 50mm might do the trick. That said, most wide-angle lenses provide an angle-of-view around 114 to 122 degrees, at which point you start to venture into fisheye territory. Narrower than around 110 degrees, and you get into “standard” perspective lenses.
That said, the type of sensor inside your camera will determine what is “wide angle” on your system. In the general photographic market, there are four major categories of interchangeable lens camera sensors: full frame, APS, Micro Four Thirds and 1-inch, in descending order of sensor size. The APS category breaks down into APS-H for some Canon lenses, APS-C and then a slightly different APS-C format used by Canon.
Sensor Format Magnification
|Sensor Type||Magnification (Crop Factor)|
|Micro Four Thirds||2x|
If you take a lens designed for a full-frame camera and put it on an APS-C camera, for example, you’ll end up cropping part of the light coming from the lens. This, in turn, creates a focal length magnification. A lens that’s designed for 35mm will have a 1.3x to 1.6x crop depending on the type of APS-C sensor. Put a 24mm full-frame lens on an APS-C sensor, and it’s equivalent to using a 36mm lens. That focal length crop can turn wide-angle lenses into standard lenses. While that crop is something that’s advantageous to wildlife shooters at the telephoto end (your 300mm crops to 450mm), it’s not great if you’re trying to go wide.
Luckily, there are a wide array of lenses available for APS-C cameras, and plenty of wide-angle lenses to choose from. Because the sensor is smaller on APS-C cameras, focal length measurements are not the same as on full-frame cameras, so manufacturers often list their full-frame equivalents in the specifications. The super-wide Sigma 8-16mm f/4.5-5.6 DC HSM lens for APS-C cameras, for example, provides a full-frame equivalent focal range of 12-24mm.
As you get to smaller sensors, like Micro Four Thirds (MFT), the crop factor increases. The Micro Four Thirds sensor is half the size of the full-frame format, resulting in a 2x crop, so an 8mm lens for MFT will be equivalent to 16mm, 12mm will be equivalent to a 24mm, and so on.
The 1-inch sensor found on cameras like the Nikon 1 produces a 2.7x crop factor, so an 8mm lens is a 21.6mm equivalent in full-frame format. Just like with APS-C lenses, manufacturers of MFT lenses and those for 1-inch cameras list the full-frame equivalent on the marketing materials to avoid confusion.
Anyone who has looked at the prices of lenses knows that there’s a huge disparity between the cheapest lenses and the most expensive ones. What makes a $2,000 lens better than a $200 lens, and does the difference matter?
It’s a simplification to say that the price of a lens is directly correlated to the quality and value of the lens. Generally speaking, this is true, but there are some outlier bargain-priced gems and some high-priced dogs.
Many elements (both literally and figuratively) internally and externally affect the image quality and performance of any lens. The construction of zoom lenses and prime lenses are different, with a zoom lens having vastly more components to it.
In the body of a lens are several glass elements (essentially lenses, the way you’d think of them in eyewear) that change the way light passes to the sensor. Some parts of a lens are designed to focus the light, some parts are designed to reduce unwanted effects like halos or chromatic aberration (more on this in a moment).
Sophisticated processors and motors, as well as internal stabilization systems, contribute to the final price of a lens, with faster processors and stabilized lenses costing more. Weather sealing also affects performance and price, since it takes more work to design a lens that keeps the elements out.
When reading the specifications of lenses, manufacturers will tout the image-improving optics in the elements, which are arranged internally into groups. You might read a lens description such as, “comprising 14 elements in 12 groups, the lens has three aspherical lenses, four LD lenses and two ELD lenses.”
There are an array of terms that indicate these special optical features, and they’re all designed to improve light transmission and correct common optical issues. The most common terms are LD (low dispersion), ED or ELD (extra-low dispersion), SLD (special low dispersion) and UL (ultra-low dispersion), HRI (high refractive index) and ASP (aspherical). Most manufactures have their own lens designations that may be added to the list to signify unique design processes or elements.
While each of these lens types get progressively better, you’ll often see them together in the same lens. With groups of ED and groups of UL glass, for example, manufacturers can correct a variety of imaging issues.
The construction, quality and price of lenses also depends on a variety of design choices. The “faster” a lens (the wider its maximum aperture) the better … usually. While you’d expect an ƒ/2.8 lens to be better than a less-expensive ƒ/4 lens, the internal design of the elements is sometimes more important. There have been numerous examples of a company’s ƒ/4 lens being sharper than their equivalent (and more expensive) focal length lens with an ƒ/2.8 maximum aperture, so design is paramount. There are two different types of zoom lenses, fixed aperture and variable aperture. In a fixed aperture zoom, the maximum aperture remains constant across the whole zoom range. With a variable aperture lens, maximum aperture decreases as you get to the longer end of the range. It’s much more difficult and expensive to create a fixed aperture lens.
Years ago, before computer modeling, design and precision robotic manufacturing, the quality gap between zooms and primes was much wider, and zoom lenses were typically relegated to situations where travelling light was the highest priority. Even the lowest-end zoom today is head-and-shoulders above its counterparts from a few decades ago. Today’s lenses, with their built-in microprocessors and precise focusing motors, are often the unsung heroes of modern photography.
If you end up shooting a zoom lens at the widest setting all the time, then there’s not a lot of value to the zoom capabilities, and the cost savings can be great. The AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm F2.8G ED retails for about $1,800, while the AF-S NIKKOR 24mm f/1.8G ED is about $750, for example.
The choice of which wide-angle lens (or lenses) to purchase comes down to budget, expected uses and image quality. Luckily, there’s a huge array of wide-angle lenses to choose from.
Wide-Angle Landscape Photography Lenses
Following is a selection of the latest wide-angle lenses for the most popular camera systems.
The Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM ($2,200) and Canon EF-24-105mm f/4 IS II USM ($1,100) are great updates to classic Canon full-frame glass. The 16-35mm has 16 elements, including one aspherical lens, fluorine coating and a minimum focus distance of under a foot, with a fixed f/2.8 aperture and dust- and weather-resistant housing. The 24mm-105mm lens also features a fixed aperture but at f/4, keeping the price down on this wide-ranging focal length zoom.
Fujifilm’s XF 16mm F1.4R WR lens is a favorite for Fujifilm cameras, with a 24mm equivalent focal length. The lens has two aspherical and two ED elements, and a nano coating to correct refraction and reduce flare and ghosting. The lens has a minimum focus distance of under six inches and a fast-focusing motor. List price: $1,000.
Leica updated a legendary lens, the Summaron-M 28mm f/5.6, for its M-series digital cameras. First available in 1955, the lens came with the then-current screw mount; the new version has been updated with today’s Leica M mount and can focus as close as 3 feet. The “symmetric” optics have six elements in four groups and a classic vignetting, which made the original lens so desirable for certain looks. List price: $2,500.
For Leica SL shooters, the native SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4 ASPH is constructed with 18 elements in six individual moving groups, including four aspherical lens elements. Eleven of the elements are made with glass that Leica refers to as anomalous partial dispersion, which reduces chromatic aberrations. List price: $5,000.
Nikon’s AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR lens is an update to the company’s venerable zoom with its latest technologies, including four stops of image stabilization, an electromagnetic aperture (for consistent aperture during bursts), newly designed ASP/ED elements and a lens coating to further reduce flare and ghosting. List price: $2,400. The AF-S NIKKOR 24mm f/1.8G ED is another lens found often in landscape photographers’ bags thanks to the wide-open f/1.8 aperture and the ED and aspherical elements. List price: $750.
For DX (APS-C) Nikon cameras, the AF-P DX NIKKOR 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR offers a 27-83mm equivalent range and has built-in image stabilization. A new stepping motor means smoother, quieter autofocus. A version of this lens is available without VR but only saves about $50, so we recommend the VR model. List price: $250.
The Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-100mm f/4.0 IS Pro lens has a full-frame equivalent range of 24-200mm and a fixed aperture throughout. It is constructed of 17 elements in 11 groups, and features the company’s Z Coating Nano optical coating and in-lens stabilization and it is weatherproof, making it a great companion for OM-D series cameras. List price: $1,300.
The Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmarit 12-60mm F2.8-4.0 ASPH Power OIS lens isn’t for Leica systems, as the name suggests, but a result of the cooperation between Panasonic and the legendary lens company, and fits any Micro Four Thirds camera. The full-frame equivalent range of 24-120mm gives the ability to adapt to different situations, enhanced by weather proofing and the ability to work down to 14 degrees Fahrenheit. List price: $999.
Another Panasonic collaboration, the Lumix G Leica DG Summilux 12mm f/1.4 ASPH for Micro Four Thirds has a 24mm equivalent focal length, and the wide-open f/1.4 allows for shooting in very low-light situations. The body is splash and dust proof. It features two aspheric elements, one ED element, two “UED” elements, and has a nine-blade aperture for smooth background defocus. List price: $1,300.
Shooters of the Pentax K-1 system can turn to the HD PENTAX-D FA 15-30mm f/2.8 ED SDM WR lens for wide coverage and a fixed f/2.8 aperture. Constructed with ED glass elements and a coating designed to limit flare and ghosting, the fast-focusing lens works with the built-in stabilization in the K-1 for up to five stops of correction. List price. $1,500.
The Samyang 20mm f/1.8 ED AS UMC lens is available in just about every camera mount, with a version for Sony E and A mounts, Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Micro Four Thirds and Fuji X-Mount. All models are manual focus, and all have 13 elements in 12 groups, with a minimum focusing distance of under a foot. The lens is often sold under the company’s Rokinon brand. Price: $600.
Sigma’s 12-24mm f/4 DG HSM Art lens joins the company’s high-end lineup, with a version available for Canon, Nikon and Sigma’s own camera system. This lens features the largest aspherical glass mold in the industry, according to Sigma, which gives bright coverage edge-to-edge. The elements use FLD dispersion glass for better image quality and can focus as close as 9.4 inches at the 24mm setting. List price: $2,000.
For Sony E-mount and the Sigma mount, the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 DC DN lens has aspherical and “double-sided aspherical” elements, nine aperture blades for soft backgrounds, and a minimum focus distance just under 12 inches. List price: $339.
Sony’s new G-Master line boasts the best resolution yet in 35mm-format lenses, and the Sony FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM has a nano coating for flare and ghosting reduction, an XA (extreme aspherical) element, a nine-blade aperture for smooth bokeh and a silent motor. List price: $2,200.
Available in the Tamron lineup since 2015, the Tamron 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC is an all-in-one zoom with a budget price. Available for Canon, Nikon and Sony Alpha mounts, the lenses employs a redesigned motor for quieter autofocus, and it’s one of the lightest zooms with this wide of a zoom range. List price: $200.
Tokina’s 14-20mm f/2 PRO DX lens is available for either Nikon or Canon mounts. Both versions feature a wide f/2 maximum aperture across the zoom range and a plastic aspherical lens, which the company says creates highly detailed images. Price: $600.
For Sony shooters, the FE mount Tokina FíRIN 20mm f/2 EF MF is a manual focus lens with manual controls, though electric contacts allow the Sony body to meter with the lens. The lens is “de-clickable” (you can either click to apertures or slide smoothly between them), which makes it great for cinema use, too. List price: $799.
Relatively unknown Venus has the LAOWA 12mm f/2.8 Zero-D lens, which it claims has almost no distortion. The lens has a seven-blade aperture design for smooth, defocused backgrounds. The lens is also available for several systems, including both Sony E-mount and A-mount, Nikon, Canon and Pentax. Price: $980.
Zeiss offers a number of wide-angle lenses in the Milvus line for Nikon and Canon shooters, from 15mm through 35mm. With options ranging in price from $1,200 to $1,900, the company offers different models for Nikon and Canon, with similar specifications and the company’s legendary optics, including their Partial Dispersion elements, Distagon optical design and Zeiss T* Anti-Reflective Coating.
The Sony E-mount compatible Zeiss Batis 18mm is part of the company’s line of autofocus lenses to complement its partner, Sony. The lens is constructed with 12 elements, including four aspherical elements, and the body is sealed against dust and moisture. The Batis line uses an OLED display to show focus distance and aperture, advantageous when working in low light. List price: $1,500.
This article was originally published in 2014 and updated in 2017.