4 essential lenses for landscape photographers

4 essential lenses for landscape photographers

All images by James Abbott

As a landscape and outdoor photographer, you can cover almost every eventuality with these must-have lenses

Sunrise at Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland. Find out more below about the 4 must-have lenses for landscape photographers

Who doesn’t enjoy buying new gear? That new lens can be just as exciting as it is useful, but in reality, you have to ask yourself, do I really need that new lens, accessory or brand spanking new all singing all dancing camera body? It can be difficult to overcome GAS (gear acquisition syndrome), but once you do, you can focus objectively on what you really need in terms of lenses and how these will realistically enhance your photography.

"It can be difficult to overcome GAS (gear acquisition syndrome), but once you do, you can focus objectively on what you really need..."

Lenses are much more important than the camera itself. Of course, owning the best camera you can afford will bring with it the best features and functions within your budget. But when thinking about upgrades, spending more on the best lenses you can afford and knowing which ones might be most useful to you, is ultimately the best route to take; the best lenses produce the best image quality – you could have the best camera in the world, but if your lenses are mediocre, image quality will follow suit.

So, to give you an idea of some of the most useful lenses available to landscape and outdoor photographers, below are four must-have lenses. And while there are other lenses that individual photographers may require for specific purposes, these are the lenses that will allow you to cover almost every eventuality without filling your kit bag with lenses you’ll rarely use.

Author tip:

When converting APS-C and Micro Four Thirds focal lengths to their 35mm/full-frame equivalents, which is generally the way focal lengths are described, multiply the APS-C focal length by 1.5 and Micro Four Thirds by 2.

Four lenses to rule them all…

Wide-angle zooms help you to capture more dramatic compositions with an emphasis on foreground interest - f/11 | 0.6s | ISO 50 | 16mm

- 16-35mm wide-angle zoom

The 16-35mm zoom is a landscape photographer’s workhorse; this is the lens that many of us shoot with 90% of the time thanks to its versatile focal range that covers ultra-wide-angle to standard wide-angle. Shooting at 16mm is often the most popular focal length to shoot at because the wide field of view it provides helps to capture more dramatic compositions, but the ability to zoom in when necessary while maintaining a wide-angle field of view is invaluable.

These lenses also have standard front lens elements rather than the bulbous element required by ultra-wide-angle zooms, which means you can use standard 100mm drop-in filters (ND grads etc.) with them. This may not sound like much, but 150mm drop-in filters are huge and ultimately weigh much more than their 100mm counterparts.

- Equivalents for APS-C and MFT

For APS-C camera users look for focal ranges around 10-24mm, which will provide a similar focal range as 16-35mm for full-frame. For Micro Four Thirds camera owners, you’ll need a wide-angle zoom with a focal range in the region of 8-25mm.

This nightscape was captured under moonlight so the land was illuminated while stars are visible in the blue sky - f/1.8 | 10s | ISO 1600 | 20mm

- 20mm f/1.8 wide-angle prime

As you read this you may be wondering why on Earth would you need a 20mm prime lens if you have a 16-35mm zoom. And the simple reasons are that these fast primes are fantastic for astrophotography thanks to their fast maximum aperture. But that’s not all, because they’re smaller, lighter and provide much better edge sharpness than 16-35mm zooms, they’re ideal when you need to carry a minimalist camera set up or require the best image quality possible in a wide-angle lens.

One of the advantages of shooting with prime lenses is that they change the way you approach subjects and locations because you have to physically change position, rather than simply rotating the zoom ring to change the field of view and composition. This in turn makes you familiar with the lens’ field of view and what it can achieve in different situations, which can be useful when pre-visualising shots.

- Equivalents for APS-C and MFT

For APS-C users you’ll need a fast wide-angle prime lens in the region of 14-16mm to enjoy a similar focal length. For Micro Four Thirds, a prime with a focal length of around 10-12mm will provide a comparable lens for your camera system.

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This cityscape was shot with a 70-200mm to be able to isolate the most interesting part of the wider scene - f/13 | 15s | ISO 100 | 94mm

- 70-200mm telephoto zoom

The humble 70-200mm is a lens that transcends genres of photography and will often be found in the kit bag of portrait, wedding, sports, wildlife, press and landscape photographers. Quite simply, it’s one of the most versatile focal ranges available because it combines magnification and a comfortable working distance from the subject this provides. For landscape photography, a 70-200mm lens is most useful in woodland, mountainous locations, and any situation where you need to isolate part of a large vista for a more considered composition.

These lenses often come in two flavours from individual manufacturers to offer photographers a choice: one has a maximum aperture of f/2.8, while the other has a maximum of f/4. For landscape photographers, the f/4 version makes more sense because these are smaller and lighter than their f/2.8 counterparts and you may rarely if ever, shoot wide open. Not to mention, they’re less expensive, too.

- Equivalents for APS-C and MFT

APS-C camera owners can use full-frame lenses if the lens mount is the same, and a 70-200mm will provide a 105-300mm equivalent. Alternatively, an APS-C telephoto around 50-140mm is close to 70-200mm, while for Micro Four Thirds 40-150mm is a standard option.

Using a 90mm macro lens on an APS-C camera provided an equivalent focal length of 135mm to capture this lone bluebell - f/4 | 1/25s | ISO 160 | 90mm

- 90mm or 105mm macro lens

You may be surprised at how many different subjects macro lenses are perfectly suited to shooting, but for landscape and outdoor photographers, it’s their effectiveness at capturing tiny subjects up to a 1:1 ratio that’s of most interest. When out on location, it’s common to come across interesting details in the landscape, so it often pays to carry a macro lens for when these situations arise. Macro lenses are optimised to resolve tiny details incredibly sharply, so their overall image quality often far exceeds that of medium and telephoto zoom lenses.

For full frame camera owners, macro lenses with a focal length of 90mm or 105mm provide the perfect balance of size, weight, cost and most importantly, a comfortable working distance from the subject. You can find macro lenses with shorter focal lengths, but these require a shorter lens to subject distance, and the longer focal length macro lenses are much larger and heavier.

- Equivalents for APS-C and MFT

Using a 90mm or 105mm macro with APS-C cameras works well, but the closest dedicated APS-C macro focal length you’ll find is around 80mm. For Micro Four Thirds cameras, the closest focal length you’ll find is 60mm and offers a 120mm equivalent focal length.

Author tip:

Setting out the best lenses can be tricky because many photographers will have slightly different requirements. However, the four lenses listed here cover most focal lengths and situations with a gap of only 36-69mm. This focal range is one of the lesser used in landscape photography and can easily be worked around, but if you’re shooting mountain photography, particularly in winter where kit needs to be minimised as much as possible, 24-70mm f/2.8 and 24-105mm zooms are great single lens options.