Best three lenses for landscape photography

The Best 3 Lenses for Landscape Photography

The “holy trinity” or the best 3 lenses for landscape photography are reasonably well documented but how many people understand the differences between these lenses and can point to the differences in the image they produce?

In this post, we’ll talk about the focal lengths every landscape photographer should have covered and discuss the key characteristics of each lens.

Visualising the Image

As always, I can’t stress enough the difference between roaming around firing off shots and deliberately and precisely framing a shot that is pre-visualised.

To an extent landscape photography is a compromise between these two positions. Opportunities present themselves, light changes and you have to take advantage of these things but the experienced landscape photographer knows that the perfect composition rarely coincides with the perfect conditions. This is why we revisit locations.

The reason I’m talking about the vision here is that selecting the right lens to deliver the shot you have in mind is a key decision that gets you a good part of the way to realising your goal. Key in landscape photography is simplifying the image.

Many people start off by thinking that the goal is to capture the entire vista and place the viewer there so that they can share the awe and amazement you felt when you saw the landscape for the first time. The problem is that the eye roams around a landscape without us really realising that is what is happening. In photography we need to be clear about what we want the viewer to be looking at, grab their attention and keep it.

Therefore we need to limit distractions and lead the eye into the picture. This is why woodland photography is so difficult, nature is chaotic and without very careful framing, woodland shots capture only the chaos!

So let’s talk about the range you need to cover and then break it down into the best three lenses for landscape photography.

The Focal Range

In broad terms we need to cover wide angle, mid and telephoto focal lengths covering a range of 16mm to 200mm. And for the sake of your budget, the lenses you choose should be able to cope with non specialist use as well as landscape photography.

This combination of stability for the job and reuse in other contexts gives us a range between 16mm and 200mm. There are many combinations of lenses that will cover this range adequately but they all have different characteristics and wee need to understand those in order to make the right choice. For example, I have a 14mm Rokinon lens that is a fantastic lens for certain types of shot, but it is not flexible enough to do very much else because of the extreme wide angle. So we’re excluding that lens until we can afford it!

Classification of Lenses

Focal Length

Lenses are classified according to the broad characteristics that typify certain focal lengths. This next image shows a scene shot from the exact same viewpoint with three different lenses. A Wide Angle set at 21mm, a Mid Range lens set at 61mm and a telephoto lens set at 100mm.

Focal Lengths
Focal Lengths

You can clearly see in these three pictures that the choice of lens has a huge impact on the type of shot you end up with and that decision is informed by the possibilities of the scene in front of you.

The wide angle lens exaggerates the foreground and the background is lost. The mid range lens looks the most natural, but look at the way the telephoto lens compresses the distance between house and background.

In terms of choosing the ‘right’ lens, for this scene the wide angle is a non starter. Too much in the frame and no real sense of what we are supposed to be looking at. The mid range shot is probably the best composition, we’re looking at the house but we can wander off into the distance to look at the windmills. The telephoto lens is nearly as ill suited as the wide angle. Although I could have altered the shot to zoom into the windmills at around 200mm.

So in making a decision about which lens to use, examine the scene in front of you and visualise the shot. What do you want in the frame? What do want to exclude from the frame?

What Lenses Should I buy?

The lenses I use are all pretty much all Canon L class lenses. I always think that the quality of the lens is more important than the quality of the camera. For two reasons, one economic and the other practical.

  • Economic – You will spend more on lenses than you will on camera bodies. Its cheaper to upgrade camera bodies than lenses.
  • Practical – A good lens on a bad body will deliver better pictures than a bad lens on a good body.

The lenses I use and talk about are particular to the Canon ecosystem. Nikon have the equivalent focal lengths. Fuji and Sony have different selections. The important thing is that you can cover the range between 16mm and 200mm, one way or the other. Use DxOMark or Ken Rockwell’s Camera and Lens Reviews to research a particular lens.

Wide Angle 16-40mm

Wide Angle 16-40mm
Wide Angle 17-40mm

Wide Angle lenses in this range are very good for exaggerating objects in the foreground. Particularly useful for striking portrait oriented images, but there are plenty of examples of landscape orientation with wide angle lenses.

The downside of the wide angel lens is that things in the mid ground can seem far away and objects in the background appear tiny.

Mid Range 24-70mm

mid range 24-70mm
Mid Range 24-70mm

Lenses in this range are excellent for images where you need to simplify the picture. For example woodland.

Telephoto 70-200mm

Terraces & Mining, Sierra Nevada
Telephoto 70-200mm

Use lenses in this range to pick out a part of the landscape with interesting features. The main characteristic of these lenses is that they compress the depth of field seeming to bring things much closer together. The distance between the terraces in the mid ground and the mountains in the background is around three miles. There is a motorway and a mid sized town in that valley!

Learn by Doing

I remarked earlier that it’s quite difficult to get a good composition to coincide with good conditions. It’s the conditions that bring atmosphere and often the story to an image, so landscape photographers are hostage to the elements which can be very unreliable.

Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.

Ansel Adams

I’m pretty sure that even Ansel Adams fell foul of this rule!

The moral of the story is learn by doing. Practise your composition skills and if you don’t get the perfect image at once, file the location away for the future. When the conditions are right, grab the camera and go!

On the topic of learning by doing, you will find that gradually the choices become instinctive. You’ll be able to identify what lens has been used to shoot an image and often, what aperture too. This makes the decision making easier over time.

Too Much Choice

I sometimes go out with a single lens, to force my hand and stretch my composition skills. This is a good use of your time, the more choice you have, the less likely it is that you will learn anything at all!

The Goal

Where you need to get to is a place where you have built up a number of locations in a “to Do” list. For each location you’ll have a few good compositions in mind and for each composition you will know the focal length you need to make that image.

Best 3 Lenses for Landscape Photography

  • Canon ES 16-40mm L
  • Canon ES 24-70mm L
  • Canon ES 70-200mm L f/4

These are the lenses I favour. The Canon 17-40mm is a very good lens at a much cheaper price point than the 16-40mm and for the 70-200mm lens, you rarely shoot at extremely wide apertures in landscape photography so the f/4 version is cheaper, smaller and lighter than the hulking f/2.4 lens much loved (with good reason) for its low light capability by wedding photographers.

There is a fourth lens that I’ve found useful. The Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II is absolutely brilliant for picking detail out of a big or cluttered landscape. I’d recommend looking at 400mm especially if you’re interested in wildlife photography.

Caveat: If you’re tempted, before you splash out, check out my post Beating Gear Acquisition Syndrome!


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