Photographic Myths and Platitudes – ‘Landscape Photography Lenses’ (Part I)
Posted on 24 October 2010
(Slightly updated on February 12, 2013)
A recent discussion got me thinking once again about another “myth” of landscape photography, namely that there are certain lenses that are appropriate for landscape photography and other lenses that are not. There are several categories of myths in this area, including but not limited to the following aspects: focal lengths, zooms versus primes, maximum apertures, expense, etc. While I could have a lot of fun (!) starting with the zoom/prime question, I think I’ll save that for another time. (Short preview: I think that “zooms or primes?” is the wrong question, the image quality implications are not as simple as you might think, and I use both.) Instead, I’ll start with…
The specific trigger for my recent thoughts was a comment someone made during a discussion of the suitability of a certain type of lens for landscape photography. I had made a point concerning a 85mm prime that I sometimes use, and the other party wasn’t real thrilled with my point of view. Several rebuttals to my thinking were offered, but the one that was offered as a sort of trump card was, essentially, that using a 85mm lens for landscape seems like a very inappropriate choice, and it would be better to use a wide zoom like a 16-35mm lens.
While many landscape photographers, especially those who have done this for a while, know better, it is surprising how many people assume it to be accepted wisdom that proper landscape photography is done with ultra-wide to perhaps normal focal length lenses, and that the first and perhaps only lens that a landscape photographer would want would be such a lens. (Again, I’m not getting into the prime v. zoom question here – I’ll save that fun topic for a later post. :-)
In my view, the best answer to the “what focal length is best for landscape?” question is the focal length that works best for the photograph I am making right now. My current kit, based on full frame DSLR bodies, covers focal lengths from 17mm to 400mm. While I frequently work with less than the full kit (when backpacking, for example), when I’m not constrained by weight or other limitations I carry lenses to cover this full range and typically use most or all of them. What follows is an overview of some of the lenses I use, accompanied by some photographic examples and a bit of explanation.
(Although I happen to use Canon gear, you can easily translate this to similar equipment on other brands. I also shoot full frame, so if you shoot a cropped sensor camera my lenses would give you “longer” telephoto angle coverage but lack the ultra wide coverage. You would generally convert the focal lengths I mention here by dividing by the “crop factor” for your camera. For example, if I mention 50mm and you use a 1.6x crop factor camera, you can divide 50 by 1.6 to calculate that a 31.25mm focal length would give you the same angle of view.)
Ultra Wide Angle Zoom
I use the Canon EF 17-40mm f/4 lens. Lenses like this one are the type that many assume to be the “typical landscape lens.” Indeed, they can be very useful for landscape photography. One iconic type of landscape image juxtaposes some very close and “intimate” subject (perhaps foreground flowers or rocks) with a more distant “grand” landscape subject (such as a mountain peak, sky, clouds). Ultra-wide angle lenses allow you to include, obviously, wide swaths of subject matter in the frame, and their larger DOF can help when both close and far subjects are included.
This photograph of Sierra Nevada lupine flowers in a meadow with (aptly named) Picture Peak in the distance is an example of this sort of shot – the lupine flowers were mere inches from the camera position.
A photograph of an aspen grove, made with the same lens, exemplifies a somewhat different use of the ultra wide angle lens. Here I had a couple of issues to deal with. First, I wanted a lot of aspen trunks in the frame, yet I wanted to be inside the grove – I couldn’t shoot from a distance away, so the wide angle let me be very close to the foreground trees yet include a big chunk of this grove. In addition, I wanted the trees to appear to recede into a lighter distance.
Why not use such a lens all the time? The answers are many and probably fairly obvious. The ultra wide lenses have what might be termed a “distorting” effect on the scene, increasing the apparent size of close objects relative to the greatly diminished apparent size of those further away – in a sense these lenses can tend toward being all about foreground, or else about just putting a ton of stuff into the frame. Odd distortions can become very distracting if the horizon is not in the center of the frame – though correction is possible in post in some cases. These lenses are perhaps not so effective for isolating a subject from its surroundings (though it can be done), they generally don’t create soft background blur if you need it, and – to be honest – as effective as the “very close foreground object with smaller background subject” approach can be, it can also quickly become a landscape cliche when overused.
Wide to Short Telephoto Zoom
My lens in this category has been the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS since almost the time that it was introduced. (More recently I have augmented this excellent lens with the different but also excellent Canon EF 24-70mm L zoom.) 24mm is actually quite wide, and unless you are really going for the extreme ultra wide effect, it may be wide enough for you on a full frame camera. 105mm is not a very long telephoto, but it is often quite useful for landscape shooting. In general, if I am going to work with only a single lens – as I sometimes do when backpacking – this seems like the most useful zoom to take.
On a week-long southern Sierra Nevada backpacking trip a few years ago I shot with only this lens. By cranking the zoom down to 24mm I was able to produce some of the wide “near and far subject” images like those often made with the ultra wide lenses, as in the following example photographed in the far reaches of the Upper Kern River basin.
The next day I was able to make use of the longer focal lengths from this same lens to quickly photograph some fellow backpackers as they crossed a sub-alpine meadow. Here the image stabilization (IS) feature frequently found on such lenses was also very useful, as I had to shoot hand-held since I did not have time to take out and set up my tripod. While I almost always do use a tripod, there have been several occasions when the ability to shoot hand-held in low light has made the difference between getting and not getting a shot.
My lens in this category is the image-stabilized version of the Canon EF 70-200mm f/4 L. Some people are surprised to find that a telephoto zoom is tremendously useful for landscape photography – and not just for photographing wildlife or for avoiding taking steps to get closer to the subject. I think that they might be surprised at the high percentage of my photographs made with this lens. I know a number of well-regarded landscape photographers who also count a 70-200mm zoom as their favorite or among their favorite “landscape” lenses. I use it much more often than I use the 17-40mm ultra wide.
The longer focal lengths have several advantages for certain types of shots. Obviously, the longer lenses can do a good job of isolating subjects from their surroundings in several ways. First, the narrower angle of view let’s you “crop in the field” and eliminate distracting elements from the frame. Second, a telephoto can provide narrower depth of field, putting the main subject in sharp focus but turning the background into an attractive, soft blur. The narrower angle of view also excludes a lot of the background from the frame, sometimes letting you simplify the composition behind your main subject. In addition, the longer focal lengths are not as subject to the types of distortion that are common with the ultra wide focal lengths. Longer focal lengths can also compress distance and juxtapose subjects more closely. And, despite the oft-quoted advice to “zoom with your feet,” there are times when this simply isn’t an option – when your feet would have to move you a mile or two before the light changes or when your feet would have to take you to a hundred feet beyond the edge of a cliff!
I often use this lens for close photographs of subjects like trees and branches and leaves and flowers, as I did with this photograph of fall aspen leaves in the eastern Sierra Nevada.
In the following example I photographed this grove from a greater distance using a longer focal length which let me fill the frame with the tree trunks and create a very flat geometry from their arrangement – producing a very different effect from that seen in my ultra-wide photograph of another aspen grove earlier in this post.
Since I use this lens so much, I’ll offer a third example. (Trust me, I could offer many more… ) In this case the lens was simply the right focal length to bring the elements into the composition. Moving closer to the main mountain would have left the important foreground hills out of the scene (and taken miles of driving!) and a wider lens would have included a lot of “stuff” that would have been superfluous to this image.
Long Telephoto Lens
For this purpose I use the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS. While many people understand how this lens can be useful for shooting subjects like wildlife, they are frequently surprised to hear that I regard it as a very useful landscape lens. I have made some of my favorite photographs with this unlikely lens.
It has a tremendous ability to isolate subjects, both by drastically narrowing the angle of view to exclude extraneous objects and by generating very narrow depth of field. Its ability to compress distance also can create very dramatic juxtapositions of near and far subjects and bring together elements that might seem too separated if photographed with a shorter focal length. Incidentally, its wide end at 100mm is not all that much different than the wide end of the 70-200mm lens, so in some cases it can almost replace that lens, especially when paired with the 24-105mm lens.
The first example is a personal favorite of mine. I made the photograph the first time I used the 100-400, and immediately understood how it could let me produce certain images that I simply couldn’t create without it. Not only did the longer lens allow me to include the human figure in the lower corner, but the foreshortening of distance it produces let me fill the frame with the receding layers of huge surf and rocks.
I have also used it, perhaps surprisingly, for intimate photographs of trees and plants. While I could easily have used a shorter focal length and gotten closer to the grasses in the following shot, the long lens was key to making the photograph work. First, the very narrow depth of field from the long focal length let me limit the sharp focus to a narrow band containing the main subject, while the background grasses and water (you couldn’t tell that is is water, could you?) ended up with a very nice “bokeh,” or blurred effect. Even better, the background behind these grasses was actually very busy and complex, and the long lens let me restrict what was included in the distance to the very narrow angle of view of this lens and create a much simpler and less distracting background.
What about primes?
For this discussion of the issue of focal length alone, I restricted myself to mentioning zooms – but I also use primes for landscape shooting on occasion. At some point I plan to continue this series with a post comparing the advantages and disadvantages of primes and zooms for landscape shooting – but I’ve written more than enough words for this article!
G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
Blog | About | Flickr | Twitter | Facebook | Google+ | 500px.com | LinkedIn | Email
Text, photographs, and other media are © Copyright G Dan Mitchell (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.