by Alex Wrigley
Following on from our Best Cameras for Landscape Photography article, we’ve delved into a selection of the finest landscape photography lenses on offer.
Right behind “What camera do you use” in the frequently asked questions category is the question – “What lenses are best for landscape photography?”
As with everything, the answer to that question isn’t simple. There are a huge range of lenses on offer, covering different focal lengths, aperture ranges, and lens mounts. Not only that, but some of them have specific features that can add to the decision making process.
It’s a very deep rabbit hole to head down, but we’ve been down there for you.
Once again we’ll be covering a range of budgets to ensure that everyone is catered for, and unlike most articles we won’t just be focusing on the ultra wide angle lenses. Instead, we’ll cover almost every focal length that a landscape photographer is likely to need!
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Many people tend to think only of wide angle vistas when the term ‘landscape photography’ is mentioned, but limiting yourself to only the wide end of the focal range spectrum is a huge mistake.
In fact, my wide-angle lens probably isn’t even the most used lens in my bag. I use both a standard prime and my telephoto lens just as much, if not more.
This opens up a wealth of options for landscape photographers, so here are the questions you should consider:
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It’s only in the past decade or so that zoom lenses have become the norm in photography. For the vast part of photographic history it’s been all about prime lenses, and they should still be carefully considered today.
Indeed, zoom lenses have come a long way and the best of them can now compare to the best of primes. However, with that extra versatility of being able to zoom comes added complications and increased raw materials and manufacturing costs. The result? They’re damn expensive!
We’ve covered some reasons to use prime lenses here, but the summarise – They’re generally cheaper and have better image quality. They’re also smaller and lighter, but of course that comes at the cost of versatility.
It’s a very personal decision. Would you prefer to get more for your money in terms of image quality, or is the ease of being able to optically zoom a bigger draw? I personally use a mixture of zoom and prime lenses.
When DSLRs first came to market we weren’t treated to the same array of camera bodies as we are now. Basically, the sensor was always a cropped sensor (as explained here), so all the lenses released at that time were made specifically for this sensor.
The problem? DX lenses don’t really work on full-frame cameras. The projected image ends up smaller than the sensor, which means that instead of a full image you end up with your image in a circle inside a black rectangle. Of course, you can crop it so it becomes usable, but that’s not making the most of your expensive full-frame sensor is it?
For this reason, I always recommend paying a bit of a premium for FX compatible lenses. This is true for those with cropped sensor camera bodies too – All of them work on cropped sensor cameras, and it severely reduces the pain of any future upgrade to full frame. You can just replace the camera body, rather than having to upgrade your entire lens selection too.
There are a couple of exceptions though, which we’ll get into later.
Don’t make that decision – Go for both! Landscape photography isn’t confined to any specific focal length, so make sure you’ve got a fairly wide array of zoom levels covered.
Personally, I don’t feel the need to go any longer than a 200mm lens. The added weight and cost of the longer lenses aren’t justified by the small amount of times when I’ve wished for a longer lens. For this reason, on a full-frame camera, I try to have lenses in between 15mm and 200mm in focal length.
Note – That doesn’t mean I have every millimetre covered, I find that rather unnecessary.
New lenses obviously come with their advantages. Generally speaking they’re manufactured better and deliver higher quality results, although there are many exceptions. They also come with all the bells and whistles such as image stabilization (IS) and autofocus. And a large price tag.
Older lenses rarely have IS and in some cases forego autofocus as well. However, some of them are exceptionally good quality and much cheaper. For example, the Nikon AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D was released over 20 years ago and is under $400, but it has an excellent DxOMark score of 36, placing it above the much newer and more expensive Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G. It’s over $1,000 cheaper and rated more highly than the 2010 Nikkor 35mm f/1.4G.
Not only that, but the build quality is often much more robust than the plastic-based modern lenses. They have a certain character about them too which is appealing, and I know more than a few landscape photographers who only shoot with old manual focus prime lenses.
Again, it’s a personal decision. Do you want the convenience of AF and IS or the rustic charm of old film era lenses? Again, I have a mixture of both.
If you’re shooting with a cropped sensor camera, there are two situations where I would recommend buying a lens designed specifically with the DX mount in mind – Wide-angle lenses and cheap lenses.
Wide-angle lenses because of the crop factor. A super wide angle lens such as the Tamron 15-30mm isn’t a super wide-angle on DX camera bodies. That 15mm becomes a 22.5mm effective on Nikon, which isn’t all that wider than the kit lens that may have come with your camera. Instead, you can opt for a DX format lens, which will be cheaper and go down to significantly lower focal lengths.
The other situation is where a DX format lens is so much cheaper than it’s FX equivalent that it’s worth holding off on buying the full frame lens.
Expanding on their excellent 11-16mm DX model, Tokina released the AT-X 11-20mm f/2.8 PRO DX in 2014 and it remains one of the very best wide-angle lenses on the market for cropped sensor cameras.
The image quality is superb, and the 11mm minimum focal length provide an equivalent of 16.5mm in full-frame terms. To say the least, it’s plenty wide enough. Not only that, but the constant f/2.8 aperture makes it an absolute dream for the astrophotographers among us.
Tokina are usually excellent in the build quality department too, and this lens is no exception. Add that to the respectable price tag and you have an absolutely fantastic wide-angle zoom for your cropped sensor camera.
Perfect for… Cropped sensor shooters looking for the very best in image quality. Also, astrophotographers.
For those on a slightly more modest budget, the Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6 EX DC HSM lens is a good alternative to the excellent Tokina above.
It offers an extra millimetre on the short end of the focal range, and while that may look negligible in wide-angle terms that is actually quite significant. It also brings an excellent HSM autofocus system to the mix, which is nice to have even if it’s not a landscape photographer’s most primary concern.
The reduction in cost does have it’s drawbacks though. Most obvious is the smaller and variable maximum aperture of f/4-5.6. For most landscape photographers this won’t be an issue at all, as we’re commonly using apertures in the f/8 to f/16 range. However, for those interested in astrophotography it is a huge drawback.
The image quality isn’t up there with the Tokina 11-20mm f/2.8 above, but it’s more than passable and unless you’re pixel peeping it’s barely noticeable.
Perfect for… Budget conscious landscape photographers shooting on cropped sensor
This is a must-have lens. Not just for landscape photographers, but for any photographer shooting on a cropped sensor Nikon.
The 35mm focal length is roughly equivalent to the ‘standard’ focal length of 50mm on full frame, and it makes it perfect for those landscapes where a wide angle isn’t the best option. Sure, you could buy the full-frame 35mm lenses on offer, but they would set you back a lot more money, and would probably become redundant if you did upgrade to full-frame (because many of the wide-angle zooms for full-frame encompass the 35mm focal length).
The cost is just staggeringly low considering the quality. It is by far the highest rated DX lens on DxOMark in this price category, and you have to go as high as $500 before you find anything that beats it.
In fact, in terms of image quality it comes third in DX format lenses on DxOMark. That’s overall – Canon, Nikon, Sigma, Tokina, Tamron, zooms, primes, expensive, budget. Third overall, ahead of many lenses that cost a grand!
Hands down, this is my favourite ever lens. I was sad when I had to sell it after upgrading to full-frame, and still haven’t found anything that I enjoy using as much as the Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G.
Perfect for… Everybody with a cropped sensor Nikon camera.
For the most part, I advocate planning for the future and buying lenses that were designed with a full-frame sensor in mind. These are called FX lenses, but they all work seamlessly on their cropped sensor counterparts as well.
That means that you can buy an FX lens, use it on your cropped sensor camera, and then not have to replace it if you eventually decide to upgrade to a full-frame camera. Apart from in the situations I listed above, this is the path I’d recommend taking (if your budget allows it).
A wide-angle lens is a pretty crucial part of the vast majority of landscape photographer’s kit bags. It allows you to capture those sweeping vistas that are synonymous with landscape photography, and the wide field of view offers a change in perspective that will catch the eye.
This is, hands down, the best wide-angle zoom lens available for full frame cameras. It beats the significantly more expensive Nikon 14-24mm and Canon 11-24mm in the image quality department, although it does sacrifice a bit on the shorter end of the focal range.
Still, it’s almost half the price of the Nikon 14-24mm and nearly three times less expensive than the ultra wide Canon 11-24mm, and it still comes out on top for image quality!
The one downside to this lens is the front element. It’s hugely bulbous, which means it can’t accept regular screw-in filters or ‘off-the-shelf’ filter kits. However, many filter manufacturers are providing adaptors now, so it is still possible to use filters with the lens. That being said, both the Nikon 14-24mm and the Canon 11-24mm suffer from this same problem.
Basically, if you want the very best image quality for a great price then this is the lens to beat. The only other lens in this range to come out sharper than this is the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM, but the difference is negligible, it’s double the price, and it sacrifices another millimetre on the wide end of the focal length spectrum.
Perfect for… Landscape photographers wanting a zoom lens with the very best image quality
It’s back to the trusty old Tokina range for our budget friendly option in the realm of the full-frame wide angle lenses.
The Tokina 17-35mm f/4 AT-X PRO FX lens comes out at around half the price of the Tamron, and while it’s significantly less well endowed in the image quality department it’s by far the best budget option available to full-frame users.
In testing, it comes out marginally better than the more expensive Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L and the Nikon AF-S 16-35mm f/4G ED VR, but is much less expensive than both of them.
Admittedly it’s rather slow autofocus does let it down slightly, but as landscape photographers we’re rarely in need of the ultra-fast autofocus system that’s a necessity in genres such as sport or wildlife.
Overall, it’s a good quality lens at a bargain price, although you do have to accept some sacrifices.
Perfect for… The budget conscious full-frame landscape photographer.
Okay, I may have just said how this doesn’t stack up to the much cheaper Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 in terms of image quality, but it’s still an exceptional lens.
Image quality is beaten by just four other wide-angle zoom lenses, and none of them even come close to how wide this thing is. Honestly, you can’t really image an 11mm focal length on a full-frame camera until you see it – It’s ridiculously wide.
The Sigma 12-24mm f/4.5-5.6 DG II HSM lens does come close and costs much less, but it’s significantly worse in the image quality department as well.
If you’ve got money to burn and want the widest of the wide, then it’s hard to beat the Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L.
Perfect for… Big budget landscape photographers who want to capture the whole view and more.
If having optical zoom isn’t top of your priority list then you open the door for some incredible options at reasonable prices, and this is the best of the best.
Sigma’s Art range has been revered for it’s quality for years, and this is no exception. The Sigma 20mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art is top of the pile for image quality, and not even by a small amount. It has a huge 41 rating on DxOMark, with the second place Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM scoring a modest 34 on that scale. A huge difference!
The f/1.4 aperture on a 20mm lens is staggering really, and makes this a sensational choice for astrophotographers. That 20mm focal length is very usable for general landscape photography, and it’s not often I have felt limited by it to be honest.
Autofocus isn’t quite as high end as the image quality, but considering the very reasonable price point and the out of this world image quality I’m willing to let that slide.
Perfect for… Zoom sceptics and those looking for the very best in image quality. Also, astrophotographers.
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Maybe the Sigma 20mm f/1.4 Art is out of your price range, or maybe 20mm just isn’t wide enough for your landscape photography. No matter, Samyang are on hand to offer an ultra-wide budget option that doesn’t skimp on image quality.
The Samyang 14mm f/2.8 IF ED UMC has long been touted as the lens of choice for astrophotographers, and the reason is simple – It’s excellent quality, cheap, and wide as hell!
It scores a touch lower than the legendary Nikon 14-24mm on the DxOMark charts for image quality, but somehow comes in at under $500. I say somehow, but it’s pretty obvious – All the focus went into making the highest quality optics possible. There is no autofocus, IS, or any of those luxuries.
However, no other wide angle lenses come close to this in terms of image quality for anywhere close to this price. The Tokina AT-X 17-35mm f/4 PRO FX is a full 5 points lower than the Samyang 14mm on the scoring charts, and it’s more expensive too.
Perfect for… Astrophotographers and landscape photographers on a budget who don’t mind a prime lens.
Along with a wide-angle lens, you’ll want something in what’s called the ‘normal’, or ‘standard’ focal range. This tends to refer to any lenses between 35mm and 70mm, and delivers a perspective and field of view that is comparable to the human eye.
Traditionally, all SLR cameras were shipped with a 50mm standard lens, and having one of these in the bag has continued to be a good move.
As a word of warning, don’t get tricked into thinking you need every millimetre of the focal range covered. By all means, go for it if you like, but it’s certainly not a necessity. Personally, I tend to head out with just my 50mm prime lens in the ‘standard’ range.
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Unless you want to shell out four grand on a Carl Zeiss lens, this is the best you can buy in the standard focal range, and a nifty-fifty is something that every photographer should have in their arsenal!
Sigma corrected a lot of previous mistakes with this release of the 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art, and the result is a standard prime that is simply incomparable unless you have an extortionate amount of money to spend on the Carl Zeiss Distagon T Otus 55mm.
It beats out both Nikon and Canon equivalents and delivers near perfect images in terms of sharpness, chromatic aberrations, and distortion.
Sigma really have outdone themselves with their Art range of lenses, and this is another that is simply top of the line at a reasonable price.
Perfect for… Prime enthusiasts wanting top of the line in image quality
If you want a more budget friendly standard prime, then both the Canon and Nikon 50mm f/1.8 lenses offer the perfect solution. They’re so similarly matched that it wasn’t worth creating two sections for them, so we’ll discuss them together.
They both cost an extremely budget friendly amount of your hard earned cash, and both offer exceptional image quality even when you don’t consider the bargain basement price. I mean, both of them actually slightly outperform the $1300 Carl Zeiss Makro-Planar 50mm, which is absolutely incredible.
In case you were wondering, the reason for these 50mm lenses being so cheap and optically great is because lens manufacturers have had decades to perfect this relatively straightforward focal length. So now you know!
Perfect for… Budget conscious photographers wanting a standard prime in their arsenal
If you’re determined to get that entire focal range covered, or maybe you just don’t like using prime lenses, then you can opt for a zoom lens covering this standard focal range.
Once again, the third party lenses come out of this smelling like roses, with the excellent Tamron SP 24-70mm f/2.8 Di VC USD scoring an excellent 32 on the DxOMark tests. This is slightly below the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM admittedly, so if you’re a Canon shooter and have the extra money to burn then that is a great option.
For the rest of us, this is exceptional. It beats the Nikon equivalent hands-down despite costing a good chunk of change less. It also has image stabilization and controls things such as ghosting, distortion, and chromatic aberration very well indeed.
Overall, it’s a top quality lens for those who have adverse feelings towards primes.
Perfect for… Landscape photographers favouring zooms and wanting to cover the entire focal length.
Telephoto lenses are so often undervalued in landscape photography. Everyone thinks of the wide sweeping vista, and so they either ignore the telephoto lens entirely or settle for a bargain basement option which does nothing but harm their photography.
Poor image quality is even more noticeable in telephoto lenses due to their high magnification, so settling for second or third rate here really tells. However, the top quality telephoto lenses do cost a lot of money, so as always it’s a balancing act between what you can afford and what quality you want.
For the purposes of this guide, we’re considering everything from 70mm to 300mm as a telephoto lenses. Anything longer than that is, in my experience, rarely used and more effort than it’s worth to carry it around all day!
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It used to be the case that if you bought third party lenses you were taking a huge gamble. Quality control was often poor, and they rarely stacked up against their Nikon and Canon counterparts.
As you may have guessed from this list, that is no longer the case. The Tamron SP 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC G2 is quite simply the best lens in it’s class. It’s sharp throughout it’s zoom range and performs very well with the aperture wide open, as well as bringing along the very helpful image stabilization and silent autofocus.
It’s marginally better than the Canon L series equivalent but costs almost half as much, beating it in every category apart from chromatic aberration. It blows the Nikon competitor out of the water too, again costing almost half as much.
If you’re looking for a top of the range 70-200mm lens, then the Tamron obliterates all other opposition in terms of value for money. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Perfect for… Landscape photographers looking for the best telephoto lens out there.
One thing that is a real problem for landscape photographers is the sheer size and weight of the high end telephoto lens. Having such high levels of image quality while keeping the maximum aperture at that fabled f/2.8 level requires a lot of glass.
But as landscape photographers, how often are we really shooting at f/2.8, especially with a telephoto lens? The answer is not a lot, so we can make some compromises there.
That’s where the Nikon 70-200mm f/4G ED VR comes in. It rivals the image quality of the Nikon f/2.8 counterpart, but drastically reduces the burden on your shoulders. In fact, it weighs almost half as much as the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 (850g compared to 1,540g) and measures in a full 30mm shorter.
If you think this difference is negligible, then you’ve never dragged one of these monsters up a mountain along with all your camping gear. Saving almost 800g is a huge bonus.
As I mentioned, image quality stacks up against it’s doubly expensive f/2.8 Nikon counterpart, and while not up to the same lofty heights of the Tamron above it is still excellent.
Canon also have a similar offering in their Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM, but it’s not quite as good as the Nikon version.
Perfect for… The weight saving landscape photographer
Okay we get it, shelling out almost or over a grand for a telephoto lens you’re not sure you’ll use is a big ask (Hint: You definitely will use it).
For those of you looking to keep the costs lower, and significantly so, then there’s the range more affordable telephoto lenses that also work on full frame cameras. The best of the bunch here is the Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 APO Macro DG, which also offers a close focusing mode. It’s not true macro, but it’s still a useful and fun feature to have.
Image quality doesn’t compare to the Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD, but it scores a respectable 22 on the DxOMark charts and costs a fraction of the professional grade glass above.
What’s more, it weights even less than the Nikon 70-200mm f/4, and also adds an extra 100mm of reach into the mix! At 550g and 122mm it’s about a kilogram lighter than the Tamron 70-200mm and almost 100mm shorter. A real weight and spacespaver for your bag.
Perfect for… The budget and weight conscious landscape photographer who wants that little extra reach.
If prime lenses are more your thing, then this is the one you want. The 135mm focal length is the perfect compromise between the wideness of the short telephoto range and the reach of the longer focal lengths.
Not only that, but this demolishes anything over 100mm in the image quality department. Honestly, this thing is sharp as a tack, which is rather unsurprising given how legendary Carl Zeiss are at producing exceptional quality glass.
Considering it’s sheer class, it’s actually rather reasonably priced and will only set you back about as much as a third part 70-200mm f/2.8, so if you prefer to use prime lenses this should certainly be on your radar.
Perfect for… Prime lens lovers who still want some telephoto capability
There you have it – Along with our guide on the best cameras for landscape photography we should have all bases covered for your landscape photography needs.
The important thing is to use what you’re comfortable with, and spend what you’re comfortable with spending. I have used these lenses, but there’s no way that I’d ever want to take all of them out with me. In fact, I wouldn’t even want to take the highest rated in each section out with me at the same time – The weight alone might break my shoulders!
Just for reference, here is what I usually take out with me on an average landscape shoot:
About Alex Wrigley
Alex is the owner and lead writer for Click and Learn Photography. An avid landscape, equine, and pet photographer living and working in the beautiful Lake District, UK, Alex has had his work featured in a number of high profile publications, including the Take a View Landscape Photographer of the Year, Outdoor Photographer of the Year, and Amateur Photographer Magazine.