Although just about any lens can be used for photographing landscapes, most photographers prefer using wide-angle lenses because they better encompass scenic panoramas. But that doesn’t mean they’re the only option.
Your choice of focal length will depend on how you want to interpret a particular scene ““ and this can vary with the type of scene, how much of it you wish to record and the presence (or absence) of objects in the foreground. There’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ approach.
You may prefer using an ultra-wide angle lens and moving in closer, or fit a more conservative focal length and step back. And it can pay to change your shooting position to see how the scene in the frame changes, regardless of the lens you use.
Popular focal lengths range from 10mm to 24mm for cameras with APS-C sized sensors and 16mm to 35mm for ‘full frame’ cameras with 36 x 24 mm sensors if you want to retain a reasonably normal-looking perspective. If your existing lenses can’t encompass the scene, try shooting a panorama sequence.
Panoramas can be stitched together either in the camera or during post-production. Don’t move your feet while capturing the shots; rotate at the waist as you span the scene and maintain the same exposure parameters. Overlap adjacent shots by at least 30% if the camera doesn’t do this automatically.
Wide-angle lenses like the 28mm (equivalent) lens used for this photograph have long been seen as ideal for landscape photography.
This panorama was created by combining seven shots, taken with the camera held vertically.
Zoom or Prime?
Zoom lenses provide the most affordable way to encompass multiple focal lengths. Most camera manufacturers ““ and many specialist lens manufacturers ““ produce wide-angle zooms that are a stop or two faster than kit lenses and usually more sturdily constructed. Many will retain the same maximum aperture throughout the zoom range (which can be advantageous when using the longer focal lengths).
Prime (single focal length) lenses often have maximum apertures up to three f-stops wider than a zoom lens of the same focal length. This provides a much brighter viewfinder image, more flexibility for hand-held shooting in dim lighting and much greater control over the plane of sharpness in the picture.
If your camera uses an electronic viewfinder, brightness will be unimportant because the screen’s gain will be automatically adjusted. But the other factors will remain relevant and should be taken into account when making purchasing decisions.
Focal Length Analysis
This section covers popular focal lengths for landscape photography and where they can be effective.
Our suggestions should be taken as hints; not rules that must be adhered to. Many creative images have been produced by stepping outside the bounds of normal practices. Note: for convenience, we have used the 35mm equivalent focal length as reference.
50mm is often seen as the focal length that best replicates the central field of view of normal human eyes (where the sharpest areas seen by both eyes overlap). Lenses with this focal length are very versatile and can be used for subjects other than landscape photography, such as portraiture and cityscapes.
The 50mm equivalent focal length covers the angle of view most people will focus on and provides a ‘comfortable’ perspective for general photography.
35mm is usually the longest focal length that can be seen as a regular ‘wide angle’ lens. Typically covering a diagonal angle of view of around 63 degrees, it encompasses more of the scene than a 50mm lens without introducing noticeable distortion.
28mm is one of the most popular focal lengths for landscape photography because it can encompass a relatively wide angle of view (75 degrees) without introducing obvious distortions. It’s a good focal length for maintaining a balanced perspective between close subjects and the background. Almost as versatile as a 35mm lens, the 28mm is often used for architectural photography and group portraiture.
24mm encompasses an angle of view of 84 degrees, which is relatively wide. A 24mm lens can invoke a strong sense of separation between close-up elements in a scene and the background to produce dramatic compositions. This focal length can help to retain a sense of space when photographing expansive landscapes.
The 24mm equivalent focal length introduces some visible distortion, although it may not matter if you want to instil a sense of space in the landscape.
Perspective distortion can be noticeable so subjects must be carefully framed. Tilting the camera should generally be avoided ““ unless you want to emphasise inherent distortions. Rectilinear distortion is common, causing the ends of horizons to turn up or down, depending on the position of the horizon within the frame and how much the camera is tilted with respect to the subject.
20mm covers an angle of view of 94 degrees, which is classed as ‘ultra-wide’. This focal length encompasses more of the scene than you can take in with normal vision, giving a sense of exaggerated perspective. Subjects close to the camera may appear very large, with the relative sizes of more distant subjects reducing quickly with distance. This focal length can produce a ‘pan-focus’ effect in which everything in the frame appears sharp, even when captured with wide apertures.
14mm covers a dramatic 114-degree angle of view, which goes well beyond the limits of human vision and creates a dramatically exaggerated perspective. It can create a strong sense of separation between close subjects and the background and produce landscape photographs that emphasise the sense of isolation. The camera angle has a strong impact upon distortion; even slight tilting can cause vertical lines to converge or taper dramatically. Keeping the camera vertical can minimise perspective distortion and produce a more natural-looking photograph.
Beyond this point we enter the world of ‘fish-eye’ lenses, which can extend their coverage to 180 degrees. This means that almost everything in front of the camera is included in the image ““ including the photographer’s feet!
Fish-eye lenses are used specifically for the distortion they produce: straight lines around the centre of the frame are curved outwards and objects close to the edges of the frame become warped. Used skilfully, these lenses can deliver some interesting pictures and develop a photographer’s creative potential. But you must ensure the lens doesn’t make the picture, instead of the other way around.
Lenses with wider angles of view than 20mm will introduce rectilinear distortions that can be seen as curved horizons. They can be used to emphasise the separation between close subjects and the background.
This picture, taken with a Lensbaby Circular Fisheye lens (an affordable way to obtain 180-degree coverage), shows the characteristic distortion of this special type of ultra-wide lens.
( © Keri Friedman.)
Telephoto Lenses for Landscape Photography
Longer lenses have a narrow field of view that gives the impression of bringing distant objects closer together, which reduces the apparent depth in the subject. This ‘flattening’ of perspective can suggest different parts of a scene ‘belong’ together.
Landscapes that work best for longer lenses generally contain interesting compositional elements that can draw the viewer’s eyes into the picture. The longer the focal length, the greater the perceived perspective compression. Telephoto zooms allow you to select the focal length that gives the most striking end results.
Longer lenses make perspective compression more noticeable so it becomes an aspect of the shot’s composition. Really long lenses provide minimal depth of field, even when stopping down beyond about f/8 (f/13 for high-quality). Good stabilisation will be vital if the lens is hand-held.
A moderate telephoto lens with a focal length equivalent to 120mm in 35mm format integrates the various parts of this scene without introducing distortions or compressing perspective.
The compression of perspective provided by this extreme telephoto lens (600mm in 35mm format) brings all the elements in the scene together in a way that emphasises the composition of the shot.
Excerpt from Lenses Guide.