If you’re a landscape photographer, you care about lenses. Even if you don’t know that you care about lenses, you do — a good lens is arguably the most important piece of equipment you can own. In fact, lenses matter even more than the camera you use. While cameras make it easier to set the settings you want, lenses change the inherent composition of your photos. So, how do you pick the best lens for your own landscape photography needs?
Lenses matter for landscape photography
If you want to see why lenses are so important in landscape photography, take a look at the photos below:
At first, some people don’t realize that this is the exact same landscape. Aside from differences in the light, I only changed two things here: my camera position and my lens. These two differences are very important.
With a wide-angle lens (the first photo), I had to be incredibly close to the tree. That was the only way to get it to fill a significant part of the frame. Take a look at the distant mountains, though — they’re tiny.
In the second photo, though, the mountains take up the entire height of the image. It’s a clear difference. I captured the second perspective by walking away, then zooming in with my telephoto lens. The two images are night and day.
Lenses matter because they change the way you compose your photographs. Every lens has its own way of “seeing” the world, just as the example above demonstrates. Each one lets you emphasize different elements in a scene. In turn, that directly affects your composition.
When you decide to photograph a landscape, the first step is to picture the final image in your mind’s eye. This is called visualization. Which elements of the frame do you want to emphasize the most, and how do you plan to do so? Visualize exactly how the final photo will look. Do everything in your power to make that vision a reality.
Lenses are within your power. They have a vast, foundational impact on the way your photos appear, and the proper use of lenses is one of the best tools you have to tell your story. If you want to emphasize the size and scale of your landscape, stand back and use a telephoto. If you’d rather showcase a beautiful foreground element, use a wide-angle lens and get close. Either way, these decisions change the fundamental character of your work.
How to buy the best lens
No two photographers will have the same lens preferences. Once you know that, you’ll be able to see that most head-to-head lens comparisons are less helpful than they look. Lenses aren’t meant to be tested against each other — they’re meant to meet your photographic needs.
This is why lens manufacturers have hundreds of different options on the market right now. They announce new ones every year, which is great; more lenses are always welcome.
When you’re picking a lens, ask yourself why that lens exists in the first place. What does it do that others on the market can’t? Sometimes, two lenses may seem very similar, but they actually have very different intended audiences.
For example, a 70-200mm f/4 zoom and a 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom fulfill different purposes. The f/2.8 version might be heavier, but it also performs better in low light. The f/4 will be lighter, less expensive, and — in most cases — equally good in terms of optics.
The same is true for all the 50mm prime lenses on the market. They’re meant for different audiences. You might prefer the Sigma 50mm f/1.4, and someone else might prefer the Canon 50mm f/1.8. As similar as these two lenses may seem at first, they’re really nothing alike. One is geared toward light weight and low price; the other is intended for maximum sharpness wide open, but it’s heavy and expensive.
If you’re interested in one of these lenses, it’s natural to want to compare it against the other. But, since they’re made for such different uses, that will only be an exercise in frustration. Instead, the other probably shouldn’t be on your radar in the first place.
I’m not saying that two different lenses cannot ever be competitors. I also am not saying that it’s wrong to compare lenses head-to-head if you’re interested in both.
Instead, what doesn’t make sense to me are comparisons that force vastly different types of lenses against each other. The only purpose of these tests is to get lost in a fog of mine-is-better syndrome. They have no bearing on photography itself.
A better way to pick a lens is to think about your goals in photography. Look around at the available options, and see which ones are the most relevant to your own work. Take every variable into consideration — not just sharpness, especially as a landscape photographer, since you’ll be at sharp apertures most of the time anyway.
So, how do you figure out which lens is best for your style? There are a few different methods.
1. Look at your old photos
One of the best ways to pick a good lens is to look at your old photos. What trends do you see?
Personally, I like telephoto lenses for landscape photography. I’ve known that for a while. But it wasn’t until looking at my old photos that I realized just how many of my landscapes have a telephoto perspective.
Specifically, looking at my best 40 landscape photos, I took 15 with a telephoto lens, 21 with a wide-angle, and 4 with a medium lens.
Not surprisingly, this exercise revealed some crazy facts. Sure, I like wide angles a lot — most landscape photographers do — but telephotos are nearly as important to my work. That was a major stepping stone in my decision to get one that was as good and flexible as possible.
This isn’t difficult to try for yourself, either. Take a look at your best photos. Sort them by lens, or by focal length (something that nearly all photography software can do). Then, look at the data you find, and compare it to your expectations. What surprises you the most? Although you shouldn’t follow the results blindly, it’s true that they are among the most valuable tools at your disposal when searching for the right landscape photography lens.
2. Try out a new lens
Any time that you have the opportunity to test out a lens — even if it’s not one that you expect to be useful — go for it. Chances are very good that you’ll learn something valuable.
“Try it out” doesn’t mean that you should just take the new lens, shoot for a few minutes, and take a handful of test photos. You won’t learn anything from that.
Instead, bring it on a landscape photography outing. Rely on it. Use it as if it is your only tool for the job.
When you do that, you’ll always learn something new. Years ago, I decided to test a 50mm lens on a week-long photography trip, even though I had not been interested in that focal length in the past. What did I learn? That, indeed, a 50mm wouldn’t fit my style of photography.
Maybe it’s just me. Certainly, other people love 50mm lenses for landscape photography. But, because I tried out this focal length, I learned something valuable about the equipment that supported my goals.
So, try it out for yourself. You might be pleasantly surprised by a new lens, or you could realize that your old kit works perfectly for your needs. Either way, you’ll learn more about the equipment that makes the most sense for you, and that translates directly to better landscape photos.
3. What feels right?
Sometimes, you should just go with your gut. If you can’t figure out which lens to pick, the simplest answer is to choose the one that feels right, instinctively. At the end of the day, the best lens for you is simply the one that you like using the most, even if it seems like a strange choice on paper.
I don’t want to give this advice in every situation. It’s true that your “gut feeling” is influenced by outside forces — marketing, reviews, forum discussions, and so on — even if they’re not relevant to what you do. Your goal is to see through all that, but it’s not always easy.
Still, in most cases, instinct plays a helpful role in the lens decisions you make. When you choose a lens, you still have to pick the right one. And, if there are several competing options, you need to base your final decision upon what feels right, at least at some level.
I could give you numerous examples from my own photography where I did a good job or a bad job following my gut. Most of the good cases come down to times when I was thinking long-term — basing my decisions on weight and focal length rather than wide-open sharpness, or other factors that are irrelevant for landscape photography.
If you aren’t sure how to follow your gut, my advice is simple: Picture yourself using the equipment. Every piece of gear has pros and cons. Focus on the cons. What will you dislike about your new lens?
Photography is all about gut feelings. When you compose a photo, you’re doing your best to create a solid message out of a chaotic world. That’s something that takes a lot of creativity, and not very much hard science.
In many cases, this is also true for camera equipment. If you’re agonizing over the right lens to buy, your gut will be right more often than not.
Sometimes, people enjoy using beat-up old lenses because they have more character. What’s more, those photographers will take better pictures with “bad” equipment simply because it feels right. When you use equipment that inspires or interests you, you’ll pull out your camera more often.
So, if you’re choosing a lens for landscape photography, don’t be afraid to pick the one that just feels right.
A lot of people find it difficult to pick the best possible lenses for their landscape photography. Of course, it’s an important decision to make. Lenses are at the heart of every photo that you take. They influence the creative side of photography more than almost any other piece of equipment.
Still, you shouldn’t agonize over your decision. If you think about your style of photography, the right choice will be clear. Do you like taking pictures at night? Will you take the lens on long hikes? Do you prefer lenses that don’t zoom?
Questions like these are easy to answer, and they help you eliminate a lot of options. If all else fails, though, go with your gut. Photography is a very personal art, and your feel for a lens actually matters a lot.
Finally, be consoled by one fact: If everything goes wrong, lenses have a very good resell value!
- Going lightweight for photography expeditions (Is weight one of your main concerns when you buy a lens? It certainly is for me.)
- Tripods and heads: A landscape photographer’s guide (Other than lenses, tripods are perhaps the most important piece of camera equipment you can buy for landscape photography.)