Nature Photography: What camera lens should I use?
Choosing the right camera lens nature photography is a balancing act that carefully considers several competing objectives to reach a decision. The final goal is producing the photo we are proud of.
I want to lay down the most important principle before we begin discussing the options: To take a great travel photo, you must be at the right location at the right time.
It’s a very important principle to keep in mind because it dictates two key considerations:
- Preparation is king: learn your destination and its potential photo opportunities
- Bring only the gear (and the lenses) you will likely need to exploit the opportunities that will be in front of you
It’s very tempting to bring all possible lens primes to cover as much of the focal length as possible. If you have a huge backpack with you, it’s unlikely you will be able to satisfy the first principle, since traveling to locations becomes extremely difficult. Prepare, think of the kind of images you want to take, and then choose your lenses carefully.
I love primes but when I travel, I pack very few high quality zooms for nature photography. A high quality zoom lens is same as “bag of primes” that lets me travel light without compromising too much image quality. I mostly shoot either wide nature photos or intimate views. These three zooms are all I need to implement my photographic vision:
- 16-35mm f/2.8
- 24-70mm f/2.8
- 70-300mm f/4.5-f/5.6
Here are few nature photography examples that will explain what camera lenses I used and why I used them.
White Wave, White Sands National Monument
I want to start with an exception to my usual lens set-up. White Wave was shot with a 24-70mm f/2.8 at 24mm. It was the only lens I brought with me when I was recently hiking in the White Sands Desert. Packing light was important because I planned to move fast to find the exact image I pre-visualized. The focal lens of choice for this photo was 24mm. The photo could have been also achieved with the 16-35mm. I was looking for a long sweeping line across the frame, a lot of depth, and, most importantly, no reference of size. A wide field of view rendered this vision perfectly because it enchanted the depth in my nature photo.
If there is one takeaway I want you to bring home from this article is the following: compose with your feet, not with your lens. I always select my focal length of the lens based on my choice of photography composition I’m about to make and the final look of the image. Then I move around to fine tune my photography composition.
Keeping to this “rule” fortifies your discipline and ultimately, greatly improves your photos.
Seguret, Northern Italy
I shot Seguret in Northern Italy. As soon as I spotted the clouds on top of this iconic mount in Oulx, I immediately reached for my 70-300mm, set it at 300mm, and mounted it on my tripod. I was looking for no sense of depth, just a very graphical image, almost geometrical. The choice of composition and focal length also dictated black and white to reinforce the emphasis on geometry and structure. Long focal lengths compress depth.
Here are few images on Visual Wilderness that were taken with a long lens
I shot Timeless Sands again in the White Sands desert. It is an interesting variation, because it achieves a wide landscapes (so wide that it’s a panorama!) by using a 70-300mm lens that I usually reserve for my intimate landscapes. Image quality is the reason for this seemingly odd choice. I could have probably shot the same image with a 16-35mm at around 20mm and then cropped only a portion of the frame. By using a 70-300mm at 200mm, I could stitch together three frames and achieve a 70mp image that can be printed extremely large with lots of details! The field of view is the same, the image quality is much improved. You can use this technique often, but it’s limited to very static scenes.
Here is another 64MB panorama taken using same technique to create an extremely large image.
The choice which camera lens to use in nature photography depends on your composition. Use it to reinforce your message as one of the tools at your disposal in the grammar of composition, the language of photography.
Which camera lenses do you prefer to use for nature photography? Please feel free to share your choices in the comments below.
Check out the following tutorials on Visual Wilderness: