The Must-Have Wide-Angle Zoom Lenses

Perfect for grand landscapes and intimate nature portraits, see what the pros say about these indispensable lenses
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Click Images To EnlargeThis 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
Sigma 15-30mm

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 22×32-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.”


David Middleton
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.”


Rod Planck
Nikon Nikkor
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.


Jay Dickman
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.

Click Images To EnlargeThis Article Features Photo Zoom

Kerrick James
Pentax DA 12-24mm

Kerrick James
As a much-published travel photographer, Kerrick James owns and often carries a full bag of lenses, giving him from 10mm to 600mm of coverage, not including teleconverters. “I have a plethora of wide-angle zooms,” says James, “but one of my favorites is Pentax’s 12-24mm ƒ/4 DA lens. This is their widest rectilinear zoom, equivalent to 18mm for us old-style film shooters.”
James says it’s the lens he reaches for when he needs a very wide field of view, minimal spatial distortion, lots of depth of field or all of the above at once. “With an ED (IF) design, it is superb for accentuating the near-to-far relationship in landscapes, for straight architectural images; and its wide zoom range means you have a lot of visual versatility in a very portable lens,” says James. “An ƒ/2.8 would be nice, but Pentax’s in-body Shake Reduction on the K20D and the K10D makes this lens usable in low light as well.”


Lewis Kemper
Canon EF 16-35mm

Lewis Kemper
As a professional photographer for more than 21 years now, Lewis Kemper uses wide-angle zooms for two primary purposes: to exaggerate and emphasize a strong foreground element, or to capture the immense scale of a scene.
“If I see an interesting pattern, reflection or graphic subject,” says Kemper, “I like to get right up close, just inches away and down low to really make the foreground element the subject of the photo. Even when using the wide-angle zoom to capture the immensity of a scene, I find it beneficial to get close to some foreground element to give your eye a place to enter the image. Sweeping scenes of distant objects can get boring, but if you give the viewer something to focus on when they enter the image, you will have a more successful picture.”

Kemper says the best part of a zoom is that it allows you to bracket your compositions without having to move your camera position too much. With just a slight shift of the zoom, you can have a totally different feel to your picture. “I personally don’t like to carry too much gear,” adds Kemper, “and Canon’s EF 16-35mm ƒ/2.8, along with a nice midrange zoom, is all I need to carry in most locations.”


Don Gale
Tamron 11-18mm

Don Gale
Award-winning nature photographer, Don Gale says that for his wide-angle shooting, he primarily uses the Tamron 11-18mm on his Fujifilm S5 Pro. A lens factor of 1.5x gives him a focal range of 16.5-27mm, “which is still nice and wide,” says Gale. “Plus it’s tack-sharp andg rectilinear without any barrel distortion around the edges of the frame.
“And when I have it set at 11mm (16.5mm-equivalent), the foreground becomes so dominant, which is what I want sometimes. From there, if I want to radically change a composition, all I have to do is move the camera a little bit one way or the other. Or I can simply adjust the zoom.”

Gale also likes the fact that Tamron’s lenses tend to be physically smaller and easier to carry around. He used to think if a lens was small—and there’s a lot of stuff moving around in there—it wouldn’t be as good as a bigger lens. “But recently,” says Gale, “whatever Tamron is doing with its designs is allowing it to make lenses with focal lengths equivalent to those from other companies, and yet Tamron lenses are smaller. And I haven’t seen that the sharpness or optical quality has been compromised in any way.”


TokinaTokina AT-X 12-24mm ƒ/4 PRO DX
This is Tokina’s first lens designed for use exclusively on Canon and Nikon digital SLR cameras having an APS-C-sized sensor. With an equivalent focal range of 18-36mm (35mm or full-frame format), it provides a wide perspective with moderate zoom capability for variable framing options. Super-low-dispersion glass elements ensure optimum color reproduction and sharpness, while two aspherical elements correct for aspherical aberration, a problem associated with ultra-wide-angle lenses in the past.
TamronSony DT 11-18mm ƒ/4.5-5.6
For Sony or Minolta shooters, the DT 11-18mm is an excellent lens for wide-angle work. Its DT design makes it ideally suited for all their APS-sized sensors, giving you a super-wide 16.5mm angle of view up to your standard 27mm wide-angle view. Aspherical elements correct frame distortion at the short end, while ED glass elements minimize flare and greatly reduce chromatic aberration for sharper images with more accurate color separation.

>> To see more work from Lewis Kemper, visit

>> To see more work from David Middleton, visit

>> To see more work from Rod Planck, visit

>> To see more work from Jay Dickman, visit

>> To see more work from Gary Mercer, visit

>> To see more work from Kerrick James, visit

>> To see more work from Don Gale, visit