Choosing the best camera lens for your style.
There are so many lenses available today, it’s really easy to say that you need the newest, fastest, or heaviest one. For landscape photography, it’s somewhat more simple than other types of photography to decide what lenses to bring along. While everyone asks “what camera should I buy?” this is the real game-changer that will take a person’s photography to the next level. This blog post is targeted at the amateur landscape photographer. If you already have a camera bag full of lenses hopefully this post resonates with you!
Better glass will create a magical, sharp, and unique image. These more expensive lenses retain their value for many years after they are made, no matter what brand you choose. One of the most popular Canon lenses (24-70mm F2.8 ii) was first released in 2012 and it still has retained its original value, and is the go-to lens for almost all photographers shooting with Canon. Every landscape photographer should have a combination of 2 out of the 3 lenses here:
There are so many different varieties of standard lens out there and they come with a variable aperture (F3.5-5.6), or a fixed aperture (F2.8, F4). The lenses that have the variable aperture are usually somewhat cheaper made, inexpensive, and unfortunately more prone to getting damaged. The fixed aperture lenses are usually heavier, weather-resistant, and cost a lot more.
Some things to consider are if you actually use the lower apertures or not. If you are stopping down almost all of your images to F5.6 and above, you may not need that F2.8 lens. If you use Adobe Lightroom, you can sort your images by aperture and find out what your preferred aperture is on all of your photos.
Full Frame: 24-70mm, 24-105mm, 24-200mm
APS-C: 18-55mm, 16-55mm, 18-105, 18-200mm
M4/3: 12-35mm, 12-32mm, 14-42mm
These lenses are the bread and butter of the landscape scene. While sometimes overdone, it will give you a perspective that is unmatched by any other lens (without stitching together multiple shots taken at 24mm). If you want to step up your landscape game, this is truly the first step. However, it is very important to know when to use this type of lens to unlock its full potential.
Small spaces / canyons, interesting foregrounds, and tall mountains are only a few examples of when you should consider using an ultra-wide angle. Typically the subject in the center of the scene will be pushed back in the frame to create a much larger scene. The sides of the frame will be stretched accordingly as well so you will have the power to manipulate how “tall” a mountain might appear, or how much space there is between your subject and the foreground in front of you. If you are out by the ocean or on a lake, you’ll want to find good foreground interest to fill the scene. These lenses will get *everything* in the frame, so unless you are planning on having a large amount of sky, you’ll want something interesting on the ground to fill up your frame!
Full Frame: 16-35mm, 12-24mm, 15-30mm, 14mm, 12mm
APS-C: 10-18mm, 10-22mm
M4/3: 7-14mm, 9-18mm
This is a powerful tool that can let you zoom in and get the detail shots on the mountains in the distance, see wildlife from afar, and compress the scene into a perfectly balanced composition. These are usually the “white” or longer lenses you see people have on their full frame gear. When your subject is farther away, this is the obvious choice for a lens. It may not be 100% necessary for your kit while out, but there is always one opportunity on every landscape photoshoot that requires a closer view.
Full Frame: 70-200, 70-300
APS-C: 55-200, 55-300
M4/3: 40-150, 75-300
F2.8 vs F4 Lenses and IS vs non-IS
If you are primarily a landscape shooter, there are two schools of thought. The F2.8 lenses are the sharpest lenses next to prime lenses. Exceptional build quality, clarity of glass, and weatherproofing are standard in these lenses. For my particular shooting style, the F4 lenses are perfect as I do not fully utilize the F2.8 in the type of shots that I take. I like to stop down the aperture so that more of the image is in focus. If I’m always shooting at F5.6-F7.1, I don’t want that extra weight in my backpack of the F2.8 lens. Yes it may be sharper, but I am not printing my images poster size. I’m usually just looking at them on a 15” laptop screen or on a mobile screen. The F2.8 may give you a more creative tool to separate your subject, but you can easily buy a cheap(er) prime lens for this depth effect.
Secondly, there are lenses that come in both image stabilization (IS) and non-IS. A good example of this is the 70-200mm F4 lens by Canon. The IS version is almost double the price and heavier than the non-IS version. Personally if I had to chose, I would prefer an F4 lens with IS over an F2.8 lens without IS. I tend to shoot images handheld in low light. In my experience, I have better luck getting sharper images with my IS lenses than non-IS lenses. (Alternatively, cameras are now coming out with built in IS such as the Sony A7iii, so lens IS may be irrelevant!)
Sometimes even landscape photographers like to isolate their subject. Taking a prime lens along on your trip is best option if you have limitations on space and weight. 50mm 1.8 lenses are the “standard focal length” and sometimes the cheapest lens you can buy across the board.
Hiking and/or Backpacking with camera gear:
This topic deserves an entire blog post on its own, but the hardest decision any hiker has to make is deciding which lenses to take along on a multi-mile adventure.
There are a few options:
Bring all of your gear
This is easy choice. You won’t have to sacrifice anything and you will have the opportunity to get any shot because you have prepared for it! The downside is that you will be lugging around extra weight on the trail and potentially less room for other essentials.
Bring only one lens
This is the hardest choice. Limiting your gear will limit your versatility but may actually improve your creativity. If you only bring a 24-70mm on the trail you will always find a reason for wanting a 16-35mm or a 70-200mm when you are 5 miles away from your car (or at least this is my experience).
Bring non-overlapping focal lengths only
This is the most practical choice. Let’s say you have a 16-35mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm, 50mm, 85mm, and a 14mm. To save space in your camera bag, you more than likely could get away with just bringing a 16-35mm and a 70-200mm. Your back will thank you and your newly acquired space in your backpack will also be liberating!
Ultimately there is no perfect lens for everything. There is compromise in every decision you make. Picking your next lens will come down to this chart below. Typically if you want something that is smaller and cheaper, you will be sacrificing the best image quality. If you want something that has better image quality, it will typically be heavier and more expensive.
Whatever lens brings you the most inspiration, this is the one that you should always bring along with you and make no sacrifices. Look through your images, if there is a lens that you rarely ever use, consider selling it or donating it to someone who might benefit from it more than you can!