Buying a landscape lens is a big investment and if you get one that isn’t just right for your need, wants, and the type of landscape photos you want to capture you could find yourself wasting a whole lot of money.
Before getting out the credit card and parting with your hard earned cash on a camera lens for landscape photography there are a few things you need to think about and consider, including:-
Prime or zoom?
Whether to use a fixed focal length prime lens or a zoom lens is an important consideration when choosing a lens for landscape photography, and the worst thing is each type of lens has its advantages and disadvantages.
Prime lenses are generally smaller and lighter than zoom lenses, which makes them the best choice when you have to carry your gear a long distance to find those stunning locations. Prime lens have better image quality than zoom lenses, however when you pitch a prime lens against a top end zoom lens the difference in image quality is negligible and you have to go pixel peeping on the computer or create huge prints to tell the difference. The difference in image quality between prime lenses and lower end/budget zoom lenses is a lot more obvious. The disadvantages with prime lenses is the fixed focal length can make framing and composition more challenging and the limit options often means your photos will look pretty similar.
Zoom lenses, with its range of focal lengths, gives a lot more options with regards to framing and composition which allows for a greater variety of shots. The image quality of top end zoom lenses is superb and I guarantee you won’t have any complaints in that department. Zoom lenses are typically heavier and bigger than prime lenses, but in the big scheme of things the typical landscape photography zoom lenses aren’t that big at all.
The big question is a prime lens or a zoom lens best for landscape photography? The answer to this will depend on many factors, including your shooting style. If you are on a limited budget and can only afford a budget zoom lens I would recommend a prime lens since these are affordable and have superior image quality. If you can stretch the budget a bit and have the funds available to buy a top end zoom lens then I’m afraid only you can decide whether a zoom lens or a prime lens is best to capture the sort of landscape photos you want.
Focal length range
Another consideration when choosing a landscape lens is the focal length/s you want to shoot. Some photographers have a “the wider the better” opinion, i.e. they want the shortest focal length with the widest field of view to get as much in the frame as possible. On the other end there are some photographers who don’t want to shoot so wide and use longer focal lengths. It is worth noting that focal lengths of 28mm – 35mm are considered wide, focal lengths of 20mm – 28mm are considered very wide and focal lengths shorter than 20mm are considered very wide.
There is no optimum focal length for landscape photography and the focal length you should use depends entirely on the look you’re after and trying to achieve. Because of this only you can decide on the ideal focal length of a landscape photography lens.
The most versatile landscape photography lens will cover all focal lengths from 16mm (15mm is where distortion starts to creep in and rear its ugly head) right through to 35mm. There are lenses (zoom lenses of course) that cover this range of focal lengths and they are popular among many photographers. Alternatively, you can buy prime lenses to cover the main focal lengths however the widest prime lens currently available is 20mm, so if you want to use prime lenses you will need the 20mm, 24mm, 28mm and 35mm.
If you are a photographer in “the wider the better” camp the best landscape lens for you is a 16mm – 35mm zoom lens. If you don’t have the need or desire to shoot this wide and are satisfied with 20mm (at the widest) you may find a prime lens is better for you.
We have already established that zoom lenses are bigger and heavier than wide angle primes, so if you want the smallest and lightest lens for your landscape photography a prime lens is going to be the best choice.
In the big scheme of things the zoom lenses suitable for landscape photography, i.e. the wide angle ones, aren’t really that big and heavy when compared to lenses like the 100mm – 400mm zoom lenses and the like.
The size/dimensions of a lens may be totally irrelevant and something that will have no impact on your decision, and if that’s the case then so be it. If however, the size/weight of a lens is something you potentially need to consider (because you are intending on hiking long distances for example) then you need to think about this before choosing your landscape lens.
The brand of lens is something else you may need to think about when choosing a landscape photography lens. There are some photographers out there who simply refuse to buy/use anything other than their camera branded lenses, even though there are decent third party alternatives out there. If you are one of these (and it is perfectly fine if you are) choosing a landscape lens is going to be a whole lot easier because the choice is restricted by default.
If you are happy to buy and use a third party landscape lens, i.e. a Sigma, Tokina, Tamron etc. for your Canon or Nikon camera the choice of landscape lenses suddenly increases. For every Canon/Nikon landscape lens there is at least a Tamron, Sigma and Tokina equivalent, and in many instances there are other lens brands too. With this in mind it is easy to see the number of landscape lenses increases threefold or more.
The Canon/Nikon branded lenses are damn expensive and the third party equivalents are usually cheaper alternatives. Do third party lenses perform as well as the Canon/Nikon branded lenses? In some instances they do, and in other instances they don’t. Before investing in a third party lens it is always worth going to your local camera shop and taking a few test shots to satisfy yourself you are happy with the image and build quality.
It’s a sad fact of life that but money makes the world go around, and unless you are in the fortunate position where money isn’t an issue the cost always plays a large part in choosing a landscape lens. The top end professional grade lenses are exceptionally good (they have excellent image quality and build quality) but they are damn expensive. If you have the funds and can justify the cost the top end landscape lenses are worth every penny, but if your budget won’t stretch that far these lenses are out of reach.
When deciding which landscape lens to buy you need to identify how much money you have to spend and set a budget accordingly. As tempting as it may be to splash out more than you can afford on the top end lens putting yourself in financial difficulties for that top end lens is not worth it, and you will find there are cheaper and more affordable landscape lenses that will capture stunning photos with image quality that isn’t a million miles off the top end lenses.
Maximum Widest Aperture/speed
Landscape photography typically involves maximizing the depth of field and getting photos with front to back sharpness, which obviously requires narrow apertures. With this in mind it may seem weird why you may want to consider the maximum widest aperture/speed of the lens.
If you only want the landscape lens, i.e. wide angle lens, to capture landscape shots the maximum widest aperture really doesn’t matter. If, however you want to use the lens for taking photos of other subjects the maximum aperture may be something you want to think about. For example, if you intend to use the lens for interior photography in places where tripods are not allowed, such as in a church or chapel, you are going to need the fastest possible lens.
Keen photographer addicted to cameras, lenses and everything photography related. Feel free to follow me in my photography ramblings, and if you have any thoughts, comments, queries or anything else to add I would love to hear from you.