One of the most common questions I get is, “What’s the best lens for landscape photography?” From my perspective and experience, that may not be the right question to ask. It assumes that the “landscape” is a distinct thing that requires a certain focal length or perspective.
I understand that assumption, and I respect the question and the photographer asking it. I used to think the same thing myself when I first got started. My goal here is not to belittle, but rather to share my thoughts on the matter and hopefully help you break free of limiting ideas and formulas.
Let’s begin with a useful definition of “landscape” because I think that’s where the problem starts. My dictionary defines landscape as “all the visible features of an area of countryside or land, often considered in terms of their aesthetic appeal.”
The phrase that jumps out at me and deserves a closer look as a photographer is: aesthetic appeal. Once you think of the landscape as whatever it is that appeals to you, regardless of its actual scale, then any or all parts of a particular landscape can become the focus of your composition. And that means that any focal length is usable, from wide to long.
The common assumption that landscapes are best photographed with a super wide-angle lens, for example, becomes neither true nor necessary, especially if you want to simplify your images for greater impact and strength. Painters have the luxury of starting with a blank canvas and adding what’s necessary, whereas we start with chaos and have to eliminate the unnecessary. The wider you go, the harder it gets to eliminate the unnecessary, or even to notice it when looking through your viewfinder.
I am not advocating against the use of wide-angle lenses, far from it. I love wider focal lengths for many reasons, especially their ability to distort the scene and emphasize the foreground. What I am advocating for is less reliance on formulas and prescriptions and an open minded approach to any photographic opportunity.
“There is only you and your camera. The limitations in your photography are in yourself.” – Ernst Haas
The best lens or focal length is the one that lets you capture the essence of what interests you. If you know what that is beforehand, then, of course, you will already have an idea of the best lens. For example, a wide angle lens is probably not the best choice for a portrait, but it might be in the hands of a creative photographer.
What of the curious beginner who approaches a situation without any preconceptions and simply tries to make the most visually appealing image? I see this all the time with kids and their iPhones. Because lens or focal length is not an option, they devote more time and creative energy to finding an interesting image instead of becoming mired in endless possibilities.
It’s one of the main reasons I recently started using prime lenses as often as possible. I discovered that the limitation of a single focal length was liberating. Instead of having to consider endless possibilities, I focus on the much smaller subset of images I can make. And that means I can concentrate on fewer variables, which is always a good strategy when trying to solve complex problems, like composition.
So what does this look like in the field?
When I approach a location, I try to get a sense of what interests me. That usually starts with light and how it’s interacting with the landscape. I am drawn to light and its energy because that is what resonates with me emotionally. I can’t remember a situation in nature when that wasn’t the case. So that’s where I begin.
From there, I start to look for and apply the principles of visual design and determine what the strongest composition might be. Then, and only then do consider focal length. And if I’m using prime lenses, that constrains me even further, which can lead to a simpler, clearer idea of what’s possible.
Suggested Focal Lengths
A good range of focal lengths is the best place to start. If you’re using zoom lenses, I find that a range from 20mm to 200mm will provide more than ample possibilities in almost any landscape. Sure you can go wider and longer, but once again it’s the development of your vision we’re after here, not simply technical capability.
I have three lenses for my Canon kit: 17-40mm, 24-105mm, and a 70-200mm, but I often swap out the 17-40 for the 24-105mm. Why, because I find the 24-105 so versatile, that I change lenses less often when I have it on my camera. So two lenses are usually what I bring on most outings with my Canon system(s).
For my Olympus kit (which has a 2x crop sensor), I use mostly prime lenses. An ideal range would be: 12m, 17mm, 25mm, 45mm, 90mm. I don’t have all of these at the moment, so I’ve paired it down to a 12mm, 20mm, 45mm, and a 40-1500mm zoom—three lenses total.
As you can see I have a minimalist mindset when it comes to my camera gear, and that’s because I have found that it makes me a better photographer. Less is more as they say, and that works for me. It also allows me to “know” my lenses inside and out, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and how to get the best quality out of each. I can not overstate how important this is.
Your ability to make great images relies on your mastery of the tools you use. And the more gear you carry and use, the harder this becomes. Knowing what a tool can and can’t do lets you choose the right tool for the right job, or adapt a tool for any situation.
It also puts you in control, and that builds confidence.
You may prefer a different approach, and that’s ok. What I most want to convey here is that your vision—how you see the world—and good composition should dictate the focal length and lens you choose. That means you operate from an internal sense of what feels and looks right, and not from convention, tradition, or external bias.
Use your gear to your advantage, don’t let it use you because it’s a comfort zone you rely on.
“Technical skill is mastery of complexity, while creativity is mastery of simplicity” – Erik Christopher Zeeman