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Favorite Lenses and Lens Focal Lengths for Landscape

I began with a simple search in my Lightroom Catalog using the term “landscape”. I wanted to know which lenses I have used the most to photograph landscapes. This was an attempt to rationalize the results as “my favorite lenses for photography”. Would the numbers stack up to what I personally feel are my favorite lenses? The short answer is yes.

The bulk of my landscape photos were taken with two zooms: the 16-35mm and the 100-400mm. I have thousands upon thousands of photos in just these two focal lengths. To be up front with you, the 100-400mm shots are actually different variations of a 70-200mm with and without 1.4x and 2.0x teleconverters attached. I haven’t owned a native 100-400mm lens until recently. You can find these focal lengths in just about any brand or mount type.

Favorite Lenses for Landscape Photography: My #1 Pick

The lens with the absolute most landscape photos associated with it in my Lr Catalog is the 16-35mm zoom. This makes complete sense as I grab this lens almost immediately in any landscape situation. What I personally love about this focal length is the ability to include overwhelming foreground subjects, like flowers or water edges. When using this technique, the background of the photo can include mountains, forests, and skies, amazingly lit skies.

Landscape image by Jay Goodrich

The sun breaks through clouds in late afternoon over the sagebrush of Eagle Colorado. Using a wide angle lens, like a 16-35mm or a 17-35mm, allows you to include a strong foreground subject like this sagebrush, which then flows out into the rolling hills and clouds in the sky. © Jay Goodrich

The key scenario for using the 16-35mm focal length (or the extremely-similar 17-35mm or 17-40mm lenses) is when you need to get close to your main subject (like front-end-lens-element-touching close). You then keep the backdrop clean and mess-free for compelling results. This lens length is also great for cityscapes and interiors.

The Runner Up in Favorite Lenses: 70-200mm

My second-favorite lens is the 70-200mm in many different configurations. At its max, I am shooting it as a 400mm f/5.6 with the help of a teleconverter. I love being able to isolate landscape subjects with this focal length. Instead of creating a composition that is your normal foreground, middle ground, and background, this lens gives you the ability to take your viewer right into the background of what you are seeing.

Mountain landscape by Jay Goodrich

Warm light covers the peaks of the Teton range at sunrise as fog clears in the valley to highlight freshly fallen autumn snow. The 70-200mm with a 1.4x teleconverter brings the viewer right into this sunrise mountain scene. © Jay Goodrich

It also produces beautiful bokeh when you need it and is stellar for keeping your background from looking too far away from your foreground. This is because longer focal lengths will affect your perceptual background size in relation to its foreground in a way that will make mountains, the moon, and other such subjects appear very large.

The Usual Suspect: 24-105mm

Next up is the 24-105mm. A lens in this focal length has the most versatility of any lens. I would say that this lens, because of its overlap with my two other landscape choices, gets used most often for shots in the 50mm range.

Aspen trees landscape by Jay Goodrich

Aspen trunks and forest during autumn near Jackson, Wyoming. A 24-105mm at 50mm gives you the kind of landscape shot that you feel you can just walk into. © Jay Goodrich

The number of times a year that I shoot this lens for landscape is a fifth less than both the 16-35mm and 70-200mm lenses. None the less, it gets me the shots I need in every other genre of photography.

Closeup of the ground by Jay Goodrich

Terminus of Viedma Glacier, El Chalten, Argentina highlighting glacially-polished and striated bedrock. A 24-105mm f/4 was used as a macro to isolate the textures of this receding glacier. © Jay Goodrich

One key advantage to many of the zooms in this focal range is their ability to focus macro-close to subjects. This eliminates the need for a true macro lens in your bag unless you are solely focused on shooting the microscopic world. If you’re new to photography and you’re not sure what genre will be most interesting to you, this lens type is your ideal starting point. It’s among many people’s favorite lenses, surpassed possibly only by the 24-70mm (which benefits from a wider f/2.8 maximum aperture compared to the 24-105mm’s f/4).

The Unusual Suspect: Any Super Telephoto

This is the mother of all lenses: the 600mm. It is the least-expected lens to use for landscape but it has a very special skill set. This takes the benefits of the 70-200mm and really amplifies them. When the sun or moon or eclipse appear larger-than-life in a photo, it is more often than not because it was shot with something like a 600mm with a teleconverter attached. No Photoshop trickery needed! Lenses like this take full advantage of optical subject-to-distance effects.

Eclipse action shot by Jay Goodrich

Andrew Whiteford mountain bikes with his light on underneath the 2017 eclipse during totality for this in-camera double exposure taken on August 21, 2017. By adding a 2.0x teleconverter to a 600mm f/4 prime lens, the eclipse in this photo becomes the massive subject. The mountain biker was 2 miles away from me and the sun is, what, a billion? © Jay Goodrich

This is sometimes referred to as “compression distortion” or simply “long lens distortion”. There is also a “wide lens distortion” that behaves oppositely. With “wide lens distortion”, foreground objects appear abnormally large and with “long lens distortion” they appear abnormally small. This makes perceiving actual distances between foreground and background more difficult. You can test this out yourself by lining objects up and taking shots of them at a constant physical distance (in other words, you don’t move) using different focal lengths. Compare the perceived “distance” between your foreground and background subjects among the different lengths used.

Swap Out That Wide Angle Lens for Your Landscape Photography

There you have it, four favorite lenses for landscape photography. For the most part these lenses, sans the 600mm, are found in most photographers’ bags regardless of the genre of photography they shoot. The 16-35mm, the 24-105mm, and the 70-200mm zooms are tremendous lenses for events, fine art work, portraits, and more. So head out there and experiment! As always if you don’t already own one of the above options, you can rent one right here at BorrowLenses.

Jay Goodrich is a professional photographer and author living in Jackson, Wyoming. His goal is to help people capture unique photos from any location around the globe. He leads immersive photography workshops and adventures in amazing locations. Find out more on his website.

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