Reflections in Ashburton Lakes
Advocate
Meghan Maloney
13 Aug 2020

Best Lenses for Landscape Photography

Advocate
Meghan Maloney
Image: Meghan Maloney, Reflections in Ashburton Lakes

Wanting to know the best lenses to use for landscape photography, but don't know where to start? I'm here to help!

Landscape photography is a very broad genre which covers everything from wide, open scenes taking in even more than the field of view our eyes see (think 12-16mm wide angle shots) right through to heavily compressed scenes using a zoom lens which bring far away scenes much closer (think 100-300mm on a zoom lens). Images taken with both wide-angle and zoom lenses qualify equally as landscape photography, and if you are serious about getting into this style of photography, you'll want to think about having the ability to shoot at different focal lengths to change the composition to suit the scene. So let's get into the nitty gritty of how each type of lens will help you create amazing landscape images.

Best lenses for landscape photography

Wide Angle Lenses

Examples: 10-18mm (crop sensor), 12-24mm (full-frame), 16-35mm full-frame)

Wide angle lenses are great for incorporating a vast amount of the landscape into a scene. Our eyes see approximately between 35-50mm field of view in real life so shooting wider than this gives a sense of how huge a landscape is, since if we were standing looking at the scene we would physically have to turn our head from side to side to take the same view in.

I'm a big fan of shooting with a wide angle lens and until recently I would have said I used my 16-35mm lens 80% of the time. That's changed over the past few months as I've been challenging myself to see different compositions available at other focal lengths, but it's still a favourite to use. There are two types of shots that really suit a wide angle lens - when you're looking at a grand landscape with many features and you want to be able to capture it all in one shot, and this is particularly true for astrophotography where you want to incorporate both a foreground as well as a lot of sky OR when you're standing close to a scene and you need that extra width to be able to fit everything in. Here are some examples shot at 16mm:

Shot at 16mm I was able to capture this wide scene including both the Nugget Rocks and the sun on the horizon - Nugget Point Lighthouse
Shot at 16mm standing on the edge of the lake allowed me to capture as much of the mountains framing the lake as possible - Lake Marian, Fiordland

You might ask why I don't shoot with a 12-24mm lens to get an even wider range of view. Most commonly 12-24mm lenses come with a fixed lens hood that can't be removed as the bulb effect is even more prominent, and this means I wouldn't be able to use my Kase Filters K9 kit which is an essential part of my kit to enhance water scenes using a polariser and even out exposures during sunrise and sunset with a graduated filter.

But what Aperture should I buy? F2.8 vs F4

  • Low light
  • Sharpness
  • Sunstars
  • Shallower depth of field
  • Cost
  • Weight

Wide angle lenses come with different apertures (i.e. how wide the hole is to let light through into the camera's sensor). The lower the aperture number, the greater the amount of light that can be let in in low light conditions. F2.8 lenses are much more expensive than F4 because they contain more glass and are bigger, heavier and pitched towards more professional photographers. I started out with a 16-35mm F4 lens and was very happy with its performance , it was only when I started capturing astrophotography scenes that I felt I needed more light in these very low light situations without having to push my ISO so high that I got greater noise in the images.

You should be able to expect a sharper performance from an F2.8 lens vs an F4 regardless of brand, but you should definitely read some reviews on the specific lenses you are comparing to see what real-world tests have proven at different focal lengths. A lower F2.8 aperture will also give you the ability to capture a shallower depth of field and better bokeh too which looks great for other types of photography like portraits but may not be so important in landscapes where you usually want everything sharp in the image. I also know with the Sony lenses in particular that the F2.8 version produces much nicer looking sunstars with more spikes (like in the image above) due to the higher number of aperture blades (11 vs 7).

Ultimately you have to weigh up both the cost and weight vs the extra benefits you will get from having a lower aperture, e.g. the Sony FE 16-35mm F2.8 GM lens is twice the price of the Sony FE 16-35mm F4 lens, and is slightly heavier, wider and longer. I certainly haven't regretted the upgrade.

Everyday Mid-Range Zoom Lenses

Examples: 18-55mm (crop sensor), 24-70mm (full frame)

If as a photographer you had to choose just one lens, this should be your lens of choice. More often than not, the lens that comes with a cropped sensor DSLR package fits this focal range. When I first started out in landscape photography, I didn't own a mid-range zoom lens just using either a wide angle or zoom lens, but the more I use the Sony 24-70 f/2.8 GM lens, the more I've found just how versatile it is.

Not only do you have a wide angle of view (and you can create multiple stitched shots if you need to go wider than 24mm) but you can also crop significantly into a scene to change the composition. Here is an example of shots taken at either end of the focal range:

New Brighton Pier, Christchurch at 24mm
Shot at 24mm to take in the sweeping scene include the sky and beach reflections - New Brighton Pier, Christchurch
New Brighton Pier, Christchurch at 70mm
Shot at 70mm to make the pier more of a focus of the scene - New Brighton Pier, Christchurch

Another time that a 24-70mm lens is really useful is when taking a scenic flight such as this scenic flight with Glenorchy Air between Queenstown and Milford Sound. Often you are flying very close to the mountain peaks so you need the ability to shoot very wide to fit these peaks in, whilst at other times you want to bring lakes and scenes far below or far away closer into view which is when the 70mm comes into its own.

Glenorchy Air Milford Sound Flight at 24mm
Shot at 24mm while flying past Mount Earnslaw - Glenorchy Air Milford Sound Scenic Flyover
Glenorchy Air Milford Sound Flight at 70mm
Shot at 70mm to bring more of Lake Te Anau into view - Glenorchy Air Milford Sound Scenic Flyover

Telephoto Zoom Lenses

Examples: 55-200mm (crop sensor), 70-200mm, 70-300mm, 100-400mm (full-frame)

The beauty of a telephoto lens is that you can bring far away scenes seemingly closer to you, it works great when you are shooting majestic mountain peaks that in reality are a long way away. Up until recently my Sony 70-300mm lens was only used 10% of the time if that, but I've been forcing myself to use it much more often and have really grown to love the results, especially combined with the a7RIV 61MP camera body. The ability to zoom in almost to the very end of the focal range and still capture a sharp image has been impressive when I've used a tripod to ensure no camera shake occurs.

Here are some images taken with longer focal lengths which bring the mountains into close display at different focal lengths:

Lake Camp Ashburton Lakes 70mm
Shot at 70mm looking all the way across the lake towards the mountains - Lake Camp, Ashburton Lakes
Lake Camp Ashburton Lakes 168mm
Shot at 168mm to bring the peaks of the mountains more into frame as the subject - Lake Camp, Ashburton Lakes
Lake Camp, Ashburton Lakes 210mm
Shot at 210mm to really accentuate the peak of Mt D'Archaic as the subject of the scene - Lake Camp, Ashburton Lakes.

Another thing that zoom lenses are useful for is to really accentuate the subject you are shooting and to blur the background behind allowing you to shoot quite discreetly while still quite far away. While this is not so important for landscapes it can come in very handy for portraits, weddings and nature images like these below.

Wedding zoom lens at 170mm
Shot at 170mm at f/5.6 allowing the subjects to be sharp but the background to be blurred - Lake Karapiro Wedding
Bee on lavender, Alphra Lavender Waikato NZ 300mm lens
Shot at 300mm a bee on lavender with bokeh and blurred background, Alphra Lavender Farm in the Waikato

When to use different focal lengths

There's no right or wrong when it comes to which lens you should use in different situations. Ultimately you need to train your eye to know what you want to include in your scene and that might mean changing your lens several times during a shoot at the same location. To illustrate this, check out the different compositions that can all be found in one location at Lake Matheson using a wide-angle lens right through to fairly deep crop using a telephoto zoom.

Lake Matheson focal lengths

Each shot has its own appeal for different reasons - personally I prefer the shots taken at 70mm and 239mm in this instance. The 70mm length allows for reflections in the water which Lake Matheson is well-known for - while the 239mm length allows the mountain peaks to be the star of the show. The main thing is try different focal lengths rather than just shooting using the same lens all the time.

What about prime lenses?

The lenses I've recommended are all zoom lenses with the ability to change but what about prime (i.e. fixed focus) lenses for landscape photography? There's a certainly a case to be made for a wide angle prime lens like the new Sony 20mm f1.8 or Sony 24mm f1.4 lenses particularly for astrophotography where you want to incorporate as much of the field of view in as possible AND you want the benefit of a low aperture like F/1.4 or F/1.8 for even better low light performance. However, the downside of a prime lens is that you can't change your focal length without physically moving closer or further away from your subject and sometimes that just isn't possible if you're standing on the edge of a lake!
 

So what should you buy?

I hope that you've found this useful to help you decide what lenses you want for your landscape photography. If I had to pick just one, my lens of choice would be the 24-70mm lens because it covers a good range of situations, especially for travelling. That being said, you might be like me and love shooting wide open spaces most of the time and not feel the need for that extra reach. The more you shoot, the more you'll know what focal lengths suit your style and images best.

Happy lens hunting!

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