Tip #91: Tools (Part 3: The Landscape Lens)

Water in the Slot - Banff National Park, Canada
Canon 5D mark II + Canon 24mm f3.5L TSE
In tip #83 I describe the five key features I need in a camera, while tip #84 considers the essential characteristics of a wildlife lens. In this, my final gear post, I share my thoughts about selecting a lens for landscape photography.

In many ways choosing your lens for wildlife photography will be simpler than finding the “ideal” landscape optic. Animals adapt to environmental pressures with elusive behaviors, cryptic patterns and a healthy dose of fear. To produce wildlife images, we use telephoto lenses that will compress distant landscapes and isolate wary quarry from a cluttered environment. Ultimately the selection of a wildlife lens depends more on ones budget than the target you seek to photograph (see tip #84). Sadly, this calculus is not as easy when looking for the “perfect” landscape lens.

First, consider the vast array of subjects that reside within the landscape umbrella. Many landscape photographers seek to convey the essence of a place by capturing it all. These images imply the enormity of our world and can extend from toe to infinity. Here depth of field is king, as it is used to focus attention on strong foreground elements and the most distant details. 

Alternatively, some landscapes are defined by the minute patterns in an ecosystem or city. These can be images of fall leaves swirling in an ephemeral pool, waterfalls framed by mossy rocks, or surreal “lichenscapes” that might easily be confused with the Martian surface (go Curiosity!). Whatever the subject, landscape photographers are pattern seekers who claim a continuum from the microscopic to the macroscopic as their own. As such, it can be quite a challenge to select only one lens to meet this diverse need

Given the broad nature of the landscape genre, nearly any lens can be a suitable landscape optic. What follows are three strategies to consider prior to making another expensive purchase.

Ask Yourself... What is your primary Subject?
One Lens to Capture it All
When flexibility is your priority, consider investing in a wide-angle to normal or wide-angle to telephoto zoom. These lenses rely on clever optical designs that allow a shooter to capture both the expansive landscape and details of a micro-scape. I suggest that you look for a zoom lens with a fixed aperture and LD, ED, or APO glass elements. As with telephoto lenses, these specialized glass elements reduce blur by focusing the varying wavelengths of light (ie: ROYGBiV) at one point. In addition, consider finding a wide-angle zoom that employs aspherical optical elements. Aspherical lenses are engineered and ground to have a non-spherical (thus “aspherical”) lens to air surface. By including this specialized type of glass in a wide-angle, disturbing distortion is reduced and even eliminated. The addition of these specialized elements really improve the optical quality of zooms, which represent an engineering compromise in order to meet their zooming function. My favorite all purpose Canon zoom is the 24-105 f4.0L IS. This would make a great one lens kit for the generalist who wants to travel and shoot it all. For those using a camera with a full-frame sensor (Canon 5D-series, Canon 1Ds-series, Nikon D700-D800, D3x or D4) and hoping to specialize in traditional landscape subjects, consider purchasing a 17-40 f4L (Canon) or 16-35 f4-ED (Nikon). Those using cameras with APS-sized sensors (most other digital SLR’s) should look at lenses in the 10-24mm range. Nearly every lens manufacturer has a quality lens in this focal length. In fact, I’ve recently added the Tokina 12-24mm f4 ATX II to support our cropped 7D bodies, and have found this to be as good as any Canon super wide-angle zoom I’ve used or owned. 
Regardless of your choice, if you are seeking flexibility, include a wide-angle zoom in your bag.

Self Imposed Constraints for Creativity
While Tamy likes the flexibility of a zoom lens, I prefer to work with prime optics. In fact, in addition to my two camera bodies, I only carry three lenses with me in the field. In general, I attach a 300 f2.8L IS to a Canon 7D with its cropped APS-style sensor, and alternate my other two lenses on my Canon 5D mark II. The latter lenses are a 100mm f2.8L IS macro and a 24mm f3.5L TSE manual focus lens. I thrive on the constraints and minimalism of this simple system. While all of my the optics include apochromatic glass or aspherical elements that increase detail while reducing distortion, they do not zoom. Instead, I zoom with my feet, spend time studying my composition and work very slowly. The absence of the zoom is a self imposed constraint that forces me to process the entire shooting experience.

There is no one best landscape lens nor one best landscape shooting technique. We live with a cornucopia of options that facilitate infinite possibilities. Find a style, select a lens and make some images.

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