How to go about finding the perfect lens

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Figuring out which lens to get sometimes feels like pulling teeth. Sometimes you just want them all. Here are a few things to help you with that next lens you are eyeballing.

Wide Angle Lens

The most obvious choice for landscape photographers is a wide-angle lens and something comparable to the 16-35 range. There are surely wider options, but for general purposes we use the more popular ranges.

There are many factors to consider when trying to pick the perfect wide lens. Obviously, the overall image quality of the lens is quite important. Are the images sharp from corner to corner throughout various apertures? Are colors being portrayed accurately? What about chromatic aberration, auto focus, lens coma? These are all more technical things to consider, but what about general aspects of the lens itself?

Lens Speed

If you shoot any astrophotography landscape images, you likely want a fast, wide-angle lens. There are many great options available from different brands, but you likely want to start by looking at a lens with a maximum aperture of f2.8 or faster. This allows you to gather more light in an image rather than having to double up on ISO speeds which keeps your image cleaner. There are faster lenses, mostly prime lenses, that have maximum apertures of f1.8 or even f1.4. These types of lenses usually have a specific purpose and focal length; if a super-fast lens is what you want, be sure to figure out what focal length you want and how fast you really need. Many third-party brands now make excellent prime lenses, so look at brands other than what is on your camera (confirm that it is compatible with your camera brand first!).

Something to consider with these faster lenses is that they are much heavier than lenses with smaller apertures (such as f4). If there is no night photography in your plans, you may only need something that has a maximum aperture of f4. Oftentimes these lenses are cheaper than those with a fast aperture, but it is very dependent on focal length. Canon’s 11-24mm f4L is listed around 3k; Sigma has a 12-24mm f4 that is half the price and the quality is quite good. Canon also has a 16-35mm f4L that priced around 1k.

One of My Favorites

One of the lenses currently in my bag is the Tokina 16-28mm f2.8. This lens is of tremendous value to me (it’s only around $600 and comes in various mounts), but it is by no means the perfect wide-angle lens. It will eventually be replaced (still figuring that out myself). I do a good amount of research on various websites to read reviews on any gear I purchase; but one of the best things you can do if you are undecided is to rent a lens. Both lensrentals.com and borrowlenses.com give the option to try before you buy.

A nine-image stitch of the milky way over Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park. The fast 2.8 aperture of my lens allowed enough light to show textures in the mountains as well as the reflection of the flooded salt flats in almost complete dark.

Zoom Lenses

If you’re not shooting super wide, then you are probably zoomed in on something, trying to better isolate your subject. The next two lenses in most camera kits are the 24-70mm and 70-200mm ranges. Surprisingly, I currently don’t own a mid-range like a 24-70mm, but it is on my list of lenses to acquire (maybe I’ll have one by the time this article is available). The 24-70mm is a great general-purpose zoom range that can be used wide or zoomed-in. The most popular variations of these lenses come with a fast 2.8 aperture or a modest f4 aperture. If you don’t shoot much in low light, then the f4 option is typically the better choice. They are lighter and typically cheaper.

With the 70-200mm range, things can get a little more interesting. Like the 24-70mm, this medium telephoto zoom is usually offered with a fast 2.8 aperture or smaller f4. For landscape purposes, I prefer the f4 version as my camera is typically mounted to a tripod. I can forego longer exposures and keep my pack weight down. However, if you photograph wildlife, a faster and heavier f2.8 version may serve you well. Keep in mind that there are also many variations of these types of lenses. Some may include image stabilization which kicks the price around quite a bit for this range. Again, many of the third-party brands produce excellent versions of these two popular focal lengths; but be sure to figure out what features are most important to you.

A zoomed in scene of the Grand Canyon taken with my 70-200mm lens taking advantage of the play of light within the canyon.

Longer Focal Lengths

Most landscape photographers seem to stop at the 200mm mark, although longer focal lengths can create stunning landscape images. While it is certainly more popular for wildlife photographers to include this range, 200-600mm can now be thought of as a landscape lens. Both Sigma and Tamron offer 150-600mm lenses as well as 100-400mm lenses at a pretty good price.

The good thing about these lenses is that, if you really want to include wildlife in addition to your landscape images, you now have the range to photograph those wild animals at a relatively safe distance. As it pertains to wildlife photography, it’s not the best lens to use as it is quite slow in terms of aperture (ranging from 5.6-6.3 beyond 400mm), though it still does the trick in good light. They are also quite bulky and heavy lenses that often require their own case. This makes them difficult to hike with unless you are training to be a Sherpa (mostly pertaining to the 150-600mm).

Having said that, it does open a new perspective for landscapes. You can get tighter crops of a scene and take grand scenics and essentially turn them into intimate abstracts. I’ve found myself going for the longer lens more recently for my landscape images as it gives you the chance to be a little more creative and see things a bit differently. These larger lenses usually have image stabilization and zoom locks to prevent the lens from “creeping” out when not in use.

As with any gear, be sure to do as much research as possible before making your final decision. You don’t want to be stuck with a lens you never use.

A mosaic of autumn colors photographed in Colorado using a focal length of 600mm.

About Author Peter Coskun

I am a professional photographer based out of the Sonoran desert of Arizona. I've been fortunate to explore and wander the southwest for the majority of my life. Having grown up in the suburbs of Philadelphia as a child, I wasn't quite familiar with the outdoors or nature for that matter. Aside from flipping through Nat Geo magazines during class, I wasn't sure if any of this stuff actually existed. After moving across the country to the desert I soon found myself exploring the desert landscape. I became fascinated by the flora and fauna as well as seeing the rugged mountains for the first time. Soon enough, I picked up a camera and began to document my explorations. I began to look at the scenery in a different way, studying how the light and weather worked with the landscape. It became more and more enjoyable for me, and one day someone asked to purchase a print. As they say, the rest is history right? I've been fortunate to have my work printed in such publications as Arizona Highways Magazine and Digital Photo Mag UK as well as many online publications.