What is the best focal length for landscape photos? The simple answer is that most landscape photographers prefer a 24 mm lens because it is wide enough but not excessively so, it forces you to think about your composition, it is versatile, and it works great in low light. Like most things in this world, however, the simple answer isn’t always the complete answer.
Do you grab a wide-angle lens immediately when you want to capture a landscape? Most photographers do, but the more important question is which focal length should you choose? Every lens sees the scene differently and you need to understand what you want to capture in order to pick the perfect lens.
A Few Basics
The focal length you choose has a lot to do with how you want to interpret a scene. Focal length determines how much of the scene you will capture. It also is determined by how much of the foreground you want to capture or how much you want to leave out of your picture. For example, you might want to capture a mountain and a field of flowers that draws the viewer into the photo. On the other hand, maybe there is a highway between you and the mountain that you want to exclude.
You want a wide-angle lens, but you need to keep in mind that the wider the lens, the more distortion you will incur. The scene may tilt, objects may appear smaller or larger than you want, and distract from the object you feel is most important. Wide angles allow you to have a greater depth of field because the distance between objects is magnified.
Human eyes typically see at a focal length of 35-50 mm. A focal length of 20mm or more will produce finished pictures where almost the entire scene appears sharp, even with a wide aperture, which is needed for darker scenes.
Prime or Telephoto?
Prime lenses differ in a couple of ways from telephoto lenses. The prime lenses are often preferred because they allow you more flexibility when it comes to shooting by hand in lower lighting conditions. The long telephoto lens can cause more blur due to hand shaking. That is why the reciprocal rule is used.
Try this. Hold your camera with the kit lens or another prime lens. See how still you can keep the camera? Now, try putting a longer lens onto the same camera body. After only a few seconds, do you notice how difficult it is to keep the camera steady? When using a telephoto, it is almost a given that you will need to use a tripod to avoid blurry photos, especially in conditions with lower light.
There is one time when you may prefer to use a telephoto. Capturing mountains is often difficult without a longer lens, especially if you want them to be the main feature of the photo. You will want to use a tripod and a polarizer. Polarizers help reduce the “haze” that often appears in photos of distant objects.
A final thing to remember about telephoto lenses is that they frequently don’t perform at their top ability at either end of the lens. You will want to find a sweet spot somewhere between the two ends in order to get the greatest result.
What Each Focal Length Captures Best
There are six different focal lengths that are used regularly for landscapes. Let’s take a look at these and see what situations they perform best in.
50mm – This is closest to normal human eyesight and will capture what you see, as you see it. This is also the choice for cityscapes and portraits.
35mm – This covers a view of 63 degrees. This lens will capture more than the 50mm without noticeable distortion. This focal length is the choice for wilderness pictures as it will create photos that are realistic.
28mm – This is a very popular landscape focal length. The 75 degrees it covers is more than the eye normally sees and there is very little distortion. There is a good perspective between the sizes of near and distant objects. This lens can also work well with architectural photography and group photos.
24mm – Perspective distortion can be noticeable, especially on the horizon. You need to be careful not to tilt the camera with this lens or it will make the distortion worse. This lens can create a sense of distance between near and far objects.
20mm – This is classed as an ultra-wide lens and is often used in documentary-style photography. Near objects appear huge in comparison with distant ones, which brings the viewer’s attention to the foreground and allows the background to fade away. Picture a picket fence that seems to get shorter as you follow the fence line backward.
14mm – If you are trying to convey a sense of isolation this is the lens you want. When using this lens, you will need to have a foreground that is interesting enough to pull the viewer in. Yet, you need to avoid it being so busy that the subject of your photo is lost. This lens creates a huge sense of separation between the foreground and the background. It is one that is used very rarely and only by photographers who have practiced a long time to get the correct balance.
Special Note: A 70mm lens can be used very effectively for a more natural look. It has a more narrow focus than the average human eye but can single out an object that may be missed with a wider viewpoint, such as a lone tree in a field with a forest in the background.
Even lenses that cause distortion can be used for interesting creative interpretations. Take time to play with your lenses and see what each can do with a single scene. This will help you prepare for when you need to choose only one length to carry with you.
Questions to Ask Yourself
You are the best judge of what type of photography you like doing most. If you aren’t sure any one type of landscape photography stands out for you, try going through the photos you have and putting them in categories. You can do this by type of landscape, distant or closer views, or even subject matter. This should give you a general idea of where you do most of your shooting, and what time of day.
Ask yourself how much you can afford to spend on lenses, how you will be carrying them because weight can be a factor, whether you will have a tripod handy or not, and what your instincts are telling you. Other things you can consider when you narrow down your choices are how the lens feels when attached to your camera body and what are the filter capabilities of the lens.
The Basic Three
Not everyone can afford prime lenses in many different sizes. In addition, carrying a lot of different lenses can be cumbersome if you are hiking. For those just starting out, or those who aren’t sure yet if they want to focus on only one type of landscape, a basic set of three lenses will prepare you for every situation you will encounter.
1. 16mm-35mm for expansive scenes that have interesting foregrounds, such as that field of flowers we encountered earlier. This is also an excellent lens for night shooting.
2. 24mm-70mm for your basic walk-around lens. If you take only one lens with you, this is it.
3. 70mm-200mm is the best telephoto for mountains, landscapes, and wildlife.
These will also give you the advantage of having the proper focal length for other situations, such as portraits. With this set and a tripod, you will be ready to capture whatever you encounter.
Consider Trying Before Buying
Before making a commitment to a particular lens, it may help to try a variety. If you have friends who will lend you a particular lens, ask to borrow it. Make that your primary lens for at least a week and try it out in different scenarios. Get a good feel for it and determine whether or not you like what you capture. If not, then try another lens. If you don’t have any friends who are into photography, you can rent a lens. Taking the time to do this will save you from spending money on a lens you may never feel comfortable using.
Nobody can tell you what one focal length is best for landscape photography, because each photographer has their own idea of what they want to capture. Shooting mainly seascapes is going to require something different than capturing mountain landscapes. Cityscapes will see you reaching for yet a different lens.
Ideally, purchasing a set of lenses that covers most circumstances would be perfect, but if you don’t ever plan on visiting a certain type of area, don’t worry about that. After reviewing the above information, and answering the questions, you will better understand what you need. By understanding what each focal length does, you can better understand what lens will suit your needs the best. What is the best focal length for landscape photography? The one that allows you to love your finished photos.