How to select the best focal length; Why wide-angle lenses?; Zoom or Prime?; Telephoto lenses; Focal length analysis; All the information you need to select the right lens for landscapes.


A focal length equivalent to 28mm on a 35mm camera is often considered ideal for landscape photography because it covers a relatively wide angle of view without introducing obvious distortions.  

Although just about any lens can be used for photographing landscapes, most photographers concentrate on wide-angle lenses because they better encompass scenic panoramas. 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 simply have to interpret the scene in the way you find most appealing. One photographer may use an ultra-wide angle lens and move in closer, while another could 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.

Selecting the Best Focal Length

If you wish to reproduce a scene as you see it, the ‘natural’ choice is between 35mm and 50mm (35mm equivalent) because that represents the typical focal length of the human eye. Wider angles of view will encompass more of the subject and add a perspective distortion that becomes increasingly exaggerated as the angle of view expands. Narrower angles of view can be distortion-free but reduce the amount of the scene you can encompass.

Popular focal lengths range from 10mm to 24mm for DX cameras (with APS-C sized sensors) and 16mm to 35mm for FX cameras (with 36 x 24mm sensors) if you want to retain a reasonably normal-looking perspective. If your existing lenses are unable to encompass the scene, try shooting a panoramic sequence.

General Characteristics of Wide-angle Lenses

As well as allowing more of the scene to be included in the photograph, wide angle lenses have a number of noteworthy characteristics. For starters, they tend to magnify the distance between objects while allowing greater depth of field.

Depth of field increases with the angle of view, to the point where lenses that are wider than about 20mm produce pictures in which almost everything in the scene appears sharp, even with relatively wide aperture settings. This is one reason why stabilisation is relatively uncommon in wide angle zoom lenses and rare in the widest prime lenses.

Zoom or Prime?

Zoom lenses represent the most affordable way to achieve a range of focal lengths and, consequently, most kit lenses are zooms. Typical lenses in single-lens kits are 18-55mm for DX cameras or 24-85mm for FX bodies. Kit lenses are usually built to a price and slower than prime (single focal length) lenses or fast, premium-quality zooms.

Most camera manufacturers ““ and many specialist lens manufacturers ““ also produce more up-market wide-angle zooms, which 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 for portraiture).

Prime lenses have maximum apertures that may be 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 the first factor will be unimportant because the gain will be automatically adjusted for optimal brightness. But the other factors will remain relevant and should be taken into account when making purchasing decisions. (The box on the next page provides a useful comparison.)

Focal Length Analysis

In this section we will look at popular focal lengths for landscape photography and analyse their characteristics in order to suggest the situations in which they will be most 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 practice. (Note: for convenience, we have used the FX focal length as reference and added the approximate DX focal length in brackets.)

50mm (33mm) is the focal length that best replicates the normal human field of view. Lenses with this focal length are versatile and can be used for subjects other than landscape photography, such as portraiture and cityscapes. Prime lenses are available with maximum apertures as wide as f/1.4, which is very fast and bright.

35mm (24mm) is usually the longest focal length that can be seen as a ‘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. Prime lenses are available with maximum apertures as wide as f/1.4.

28mm (18mm) 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. Prime lenses are available with maximum apertures as wide as f/1.8.


This image was created by stitching together five frames captured with a focal length equivalent to 28mm on a 35mm camera.

24mm (16mm) encompasses an angle of view of 84 degrees, which is relatively wide. This focal length can help to retain a sense of space when photographing expansive landscapes. Perspective distortion can be noticeable so subjects must be carefully framed, and 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. A 24mm lens can invoke a strong sense of separation between close-up elements in a scene and the background to produce dramatic compositions. Prime lenses are available with maximum apertures as wide as f/1.4.

20mm (13mm) 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 appear very large, with the relative size 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 shooting at wide apertures. This focal length is ideal for documentary photographs where you can take advantage of the perspective distortions. The maximum aperture for most prime lenses is around f/2.8.

14mm (9mm) 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. Few lenses have wider maximum apertures than f/2.8.

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 unlock the photographer’s creative potential. But you must be careful that the lens doesn’t make the picture, instead of the other way around.

Prime vs Zoom

The table below lists the relative advantages and disadvantages of prime and zoom lenses.


Zoom Lenses

Prime Lenses

Image quality

Can be very good but probably won’t match the best prime lens at equivalent focal length

Usually higher due to simpler optical designs, better glass

Build quality

Can be very good but probably won’t match the best prime lens at equivalent focal length

Usually high


Usually slower with a 1-2 stop difference between the shortest and longest focal lengths

Generally faster (larger maximum aperture for focal length)


Ranges between affordable and expensive, depending on speed and build quality

Usually higher, particularly with faster lenses


Light for the focal lengths covered

Often quite heavy


Fewer lenses can be more portable, provided they aren’t too large

You need several lenses to encompass a range of focal lengths, which can


One lens covers many focal lengths

Limited to a single focal length



Low; frequent lens changes may be required, with the risk of dust entering the camera

Low light use

Limited by maximum aperture

Usually excellent due to large maximum aperture

Background blurring

Limited by maximum aperture

Usually excellent due to large maximum aperture

Rectilinear distortion and vignetting are not included in this table because most cameras can correct them automatically. Both are also easily corrected with good image editing software. In general, zoom lenses are more likely to be affected by both aberrations than prime lenses, although some very fast primes can show slight vignetting at the widest apertures.

Telephoto Lenses for Landscape Photography

There’s no reason to ignore telephoto lenses when shooting landscapes as they can provide useful characteristics that can improve the rendition of some subjects. Longer lenses have a narrow field of view that gives the impression of bringing distant objects closer together, reducing 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.

A 70mm lens will provide a relatively modest degree of perspective compression; enough to pull subjects together visually without creating an unnatural look. Longer lenses make perspective compression more noticeable so it becomes as aspect of the shot’s composition.

Really long lenses provide minimal depth of field, even when stopped down ““ and when stopped down beyond about f/8 (f/13 for higher-quality lenses) good stabilisation is vital if the lens is hand-held.


A longer 200mm (equivalent) focal length makes the road appear shorter and brings the distant hills into closer relationship with the road. The effect of aerial perspective (when the background contrast is reduced with distance) adds depth to the scene.


Use of a 70mm focal length on a full frame DSLR provided the right degree of perspective compression to draw the various elements of this scene together into a unified composition.


A shallow depth of field isn’t a problem for this shot, taken with a 600mm (equivalent) focal length because the main subject is essentially on the horizon.


24mm lenses are also popular for the wide angle of view they encompass.


The horizon in this shot shows the typical distortion produced by a 24mm lens.


The 47mm focal length used for this shot gives a ‘normal’ perspective that is essentially distortion free.


The exaggerated perspective of a 10mm lens on an APS-C DSLR camera introduces distortions that make this picture more interesting than a shot from the same position would be if taken with a 35mm lens.


This is an excerpt from Photo Review Issue 59.

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Lenses Guide by Margaret Brown
Lenses Guide  provides all the information you need for selecting the right lenses to improve your photography.