Editor’s Note: Heading out for a landscape photography shoot and wondering which lenses to put in your bag? Ryan Hill from Lensrentals has chosen his favorite lenses for landscape photography in a variety of focal lengths below. Click on the lens links to try out his recommendations from Lensrentals.
A Wide-Angle Prime
The first lens any budding landscape photographer should throw in their backpack is a wide angle prime. I know this sounds pretentious, but a wide-angle prime will get you in the right headspace for landscape photography. That’s awful to read, I know. It felt even worse to write. But it’s important to honestly consider your objective, if only for a second, before you pack the rest of your gear.
What is the point of landscape photography? Is it to show a nice view to people who can’t get where you’re going? That’s admirable, sure, but a drone could do that better than you could. You can’t fly. The question, then, is what are you adding to the view? Your personal perspective and artistic intent are the only difference between a snapshot and a photograph, and a wide-angle prime is the best place to start.
First, let’s consider the wide angle. Scientists and photographers will probably forever disagree with and among each other about which focal length best approximates the angle of view of the human eye, but most guesses I’ve seen have been somewhere between 24mm and 50mm. A 14mm (or so) lens, then, will produce an image that can’t be replicated by just walking to wherever you took a photo and standing in the same spot where you stood when you clicked the shutter. You’re offering something to the viewer beyond what they could just go and see themselves.
And the advantage of a prime lens over a zoom is that it will force you to change your surroundings in order to change your image. More-so than nearly any other type of photography, landscape is about taking a walk and finding your unique angle on the world. Don’t like the angle? Keep walking.
Ok, I promise that’s as introspective as I’m going to get. Now that we’ve carefully meditated upon the artistic intent behind landscape photography, we can get to the gear recommendations. Great 14mm prime options include the Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II, the Nikon 14mm f/2.8D ED AF, the Sony FE 14mm f/1.8 GM, and the Sigma 14mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art, available in multiple mounts.
A Wide to Mid-Angle Zoom
Now that you’ve got the artistically pure prime lens packed, it’s time to move on to the lens you’ll need when a canyon or large snake prevents you from getting any closer to your subject: a wide to mid-angle zoom. Many first-party lenses in this focal length range are just as sharp as their prime counterparts and, given that you’ll likely be stopping down for depth of field anyway, you probably won’t miss the stop or two of speed that a zoom generally costs you.
Solid options in this category include the Canon EF 16-35 f/2.8L III (or the f/4 IS version if you prefer image stabilization over a fast aperture), the Nikon 16-35mm f/4 G ED AF-S VR, or the Fuji XF 10-24mm f/4 R OIS WR. That’s right! No one is forgetting about Fuji photographers. Smaller crop-sensor cameras these days are more than capable of capturing great landscapes, and their smaller form factors are a huge advantage when it comes to packing light.
A Mid to Long-Range Zoom
Just about any list of the “best” lenses for any particular mount will usually include the workhorse 24-70s. For landscape, though, I think it’s safe to recommend something with a little more reach. Landscape photographers (astrophotography is a different genre entirely), are often shooting during the day, and often at relatively high apertures in order to capture as much detail as possible. In those conditions, it’s probably worth it to trade a few stops of speed for more focal length range. Many of these slightly slower lenses also include image stabilization, a feature not always found on faster lenses.
I’d recommend, then, that landscape photographers skip the 24-70 f/2.8s of the world and look instead for a 24-105 f/4. Canon makes the EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II and the RF 24-105mm f/4L IS. Nikon shooters can use the F-mount Sigma 24-105 f/4 DG OS HSM Art or the Z-mount 24-120mm f/4S. And, again not forgetting about smaller sensors, the Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 ED PRO is also a great option. In addition to packing light, it’s also easier to design longer range lenses with fast apertures on smaller sensor formats.
A Telephoto Zoom
Just as landscape photography is not astrophotography, it’s also not wildlife photography, a genre in which you’d more often see telephoto lenses. Still, though, there are instances where a long telephoto lens will deliver an image that just isn’t possible with any of the other lenses on this list, especially when it comes to compressing foreground and background elements. Think of the moon cresting behind a distant cliff or a range of hills stretching into the horizon.
Just about any 70-200 in any lens mount will be a good option here. Canon’s got the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III or the RF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS. Nikon offers the 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED AF-S VR or the Z-mount 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S. Sony has the FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS II, and there are multiple great third party lenses in just about every mount available from Sigma, Tokina, and more.
A Tilt Shift
You’ll likely encounter some vertical lines in your landscape photography journey: fenceposts, trees, cliffs, maybe even a building or two. After all, architecture photography is basically just landscape photography with better coffee access. Since you’ll be shooting with a perspective-distorting wide-angle lens much of the time, you’ll need a way to make sure that those straight lines stay straight when you’re ready to actually capture an image. That’s where a tilt shift lens will come in handy.
Tilt shift lenses work by literally tilting and shifting the focal plane of the lens relative to the image sensor plane. You’ll find two knobs on the lens, one for tilt and one for shift. Shift control will allow you to decrease lens distortion when shooting from a low or high angle. Tilt control will allow you to control the focus plane, allowing for interesting depth of field effects. If you’re interested in trying one out, I’d recommend the Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L or the Nikon 19mm f/4E ED PC-E.
Unfortunately, there aren’t a ton of new options in this field because demand for tilt shift lenses has decreased as use of processing software like Photoshop has increased. You can, in large part, approximate many of the effects of tilt shift lenses by adjusting perspective or adding blur in Photoshop. You still can’t do everything you could do with an actual tilt shift, and there’s something to be said for equipment brewing inspiration in the field, but I’ll admit that it’s hard to justify the cost outside of niche use cases. Still, though, I’d recommend any landscape photographer at least try out a tilt shift lens, just to get a feel for the process. Hey, maybe rent one.