Here’s a fun fact: Ask as many photographers as you like what his or her favorite lens for shooting landscapes is and you’re likely to get at least half as many different answers. Take a look at each photographer’s style and you’ll start to understand why. There are a lot of subjects, treatments and preferences in this genre.
If that’s not enough to confuse you, take a look at the number of lenses touted as “perfect for landscapes”, the differences in their specifications and features, and especially the prices you’ll pay for many. There are enough choices to make your head spin.
Fortunately, there are some parameters that you can consider to narrow your search for the perfect lens for your own landscape shots. I’m going to list several of them, along with some points of preference from various pros. Like everything else, most of these are debatable, but the end result will hopefully be a more informed decision on choosing the right lens for you.
In almost all cases, prime lens optics will be superior.
Zoom vs. Prime
Let’s just jump right into one of the big debates: variable (zoom) or fixed (prime) focal length. The basic difference is obvious, but the pros and cons of each have to be weighed carefully.
Optical quality: In almost all cases, prime lens optics will be superior. The reason is simple; it’s easier to design elements that will do their jobs consistently when the elements don’t move in relation to one another. Zoom lenses have more moving parts.
Bulk: Those extra moving parts in a zoom lens also add more size and weight.
Maximum Aperture: Prime lenses often have a wider maximum aperture setting than comparable zooms. In low-light conditions, this can be an important factor. It also allows for shallower depth of field, although this isn’t desirable in most landscape photos.
Convenience: Zoom lenses win in this category, hands down. It requires less moving around or changing lenses to get the framing you want.
Conclusion: Although less convenient, prime lenses will produce better quality landscape images. In my opinion, the need to move to adjust your framing is actually an advantage. I believe it keeps you more engaged with the creative process.
Whether you opt for a zoom or prime lens, the focal range or focal length will obviously be a factor. For most landscape shots, you’ll want to include as much of the scene as possible. That means going wide. Many photographers shy away from the extreme wide-angle lenses, due to the “warping” of straight lines like horizons and tall trees. This would appear to limit the choices to lenses in the 24mm and longer range.
Choosing a lens with rectilinear projection breaks that barrier. These lenses are internally corrected to counteract the barrel distortion that causes straight lines to appear curved. The Irix 15mm f2.4 lens, for instance, produces almost zero visible distortion and makes an excellent landscape lens for that reason. Compare it to a typical 18 – 35mm wide angle zoom and the results will astound you.
…speed isn’t often a consideration in landscape photography.
AF vs. Manual Focus
Autofocus systems offer both speed and convenience. The question is, how important are those features when you’re shooting landscapes? Let’s compare those and a few other points:
Speed: Although there are always exceptions, speed isn’t often a consideration in landscape photography. More often than not, framing and composition are a careful and deliberate process. The extra time taken for precise, manual focusing usually won’t be a factor.
Convenience: An automatic feature is only convenient if it consistently does what it needs to. Focal points in landscape photos aren’t always where your AF system thinks they should be.
Repetitive shooting: Let’s say you’ve framed up your sunset shot and want to take several exposures as the light changes. Your autofocus system may select a different point of focus, due to that changing light. Once you’ve set your focus with a manual lens, it won’t change, especially if it has a focus lock.
Low light: Many AF lenses will fail to resolve focus when the light input drops below a certain level. Focusing manually, especially with the LCD helps alleviate this problem.
Alternative focusing: Many AF lenses lack some or all focusing scales. It’s often important to focus at the hyperfocal distance in a landscape image and your AF system won’t determine where that is. If you estimate it and use an AF point to focus there, you’ll probably have to use your focus lock and re-frame the shot.
An alternative to visual focusing is invaluable in these situations. High-end lenses with DoF scales will let you set the focus properly without looking at the scene, if you know how. Irix manual focus lenses include a hyperfocal scale that makes this simple.
…a manual-focus landscape lens may actually be a better choice.
Conclusion: Given that there are many situations that call for manual focusing and few that require auto-focus, a manual-focus landscape lens may actually be a better choice. For a closer look at these comparisons, see this article.
Landscape photography isn’t always one of the cleanest, most comfortable hobbies or professions. You and your gear are going to undergo some abuse, from weather, hiking, rough riding, and other conditions. A lens needs to be ready to face everything you’re prepared to.
If you’re working with an unlimited budget, this may not be a consideration. In the real world, however, most of us need to do a lot of justifying to buy a lens with a price tag in the 4-digit range. Unfortunately, this factor means many photographers sacrifice some quality to stay within their means.
Now that Irix lenses are available in the US, photographers worldwide have a better alternative, with Swiss-designed, rectilinear optics, electronic aperture control and premium performance at a budget price.
There’s one lens in my bag that does all of that and it has become my go-to for landscapes…
The question of the best lens for landscape work has many answers. Most are based on personal preferences, but there are some variables that are important enough to have an impact on the decision. I’ve touched on some of the more significant, albeit arguable, of those in this article.
As you may have guessed before reading this piece, the real question is what landscape lens works best for you. There are too many choices and too many factors to rate one lens above all. That doesn’t mean, however, that I’m going to “cop out” and not answer the question.
For my money, my favorite landscape lens is one that:
- covers a wide angle with minimal distortion
- renders sharp images
- produces minimal CA and flare
- allows manual focusing
- allows me to lock the focus setting
- gives me the option of focusing by scale
- lets me set my aperture with my camera
- handles rough weather and moisture
- holds up to some jostling and bumping
- keeps me locked in creatively
- doesn’t set me back a month’s wages
There’s one lens in my bag that does all of that and it has become my go-to for landscapes for these and several other reasons. That’s my Irix 15mm f/2.4 Blackstone. There’s a less expensive, lighter weight version with the same awesome optics, too: the Firefly.
If you haven’t yet seen what Irix has to offer, I encourage you to visit their website. Compare the features, specs and performance and check out the reviews. This brand will soon be a household word in the US, as it already is in other parts of the world. Best of all, it’s actually affordable!