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How to Use Wide-angle Lenses for Landscape Photography

Wide-angle lenses and the landscape

If there was ever a subject and a lens made for each other, then it is the wide-angle lens and the landscape.

Wide-angle lenses are ideal for landscape photography:

  • They have more depth of field at any given aperture setting and camera to subject distance than telephotos. It is simple to stop down and obtain front to back sharpness.
  • The perspective of the wide-angle lens draws the viewer into the image and adds a sense of depth by making the horizon seem further away than it really is. You can see the effect in this landscape taken with a zoom lens set to a focal length of 26mm:

Wide-angle lenses and the landscape

Telephoto lenses, by contrast, increase the sense of distance between the viewer and the photo. They are lenses of isolation that you use to pick out an element of the landscape, as in this photo taken with an 85mm lens:

Wide-angle lenses and the landscape

Wide-angles are lenses of inclusion that you use to capture a larger slice of the scene.

Bruce Percy’s article A Gift takes an interesting perspective on this topic.

What is a wide-angle lens?

There is no precise definition of a wide-angle lens, but it includes focal lengths of up to around 40mm on a full-frame camera, 25mm on an APS-C camera and 20mm on a micro-four thirds camera. The definition is hazy because some zoom lenses cover a focal length range from wide-angle at one end to telephoto at the other. It is difficult to pinpoint where one ends and the other begins.

Prime or zoom?

There are pros and cons of both, so let’s look at each in turn.

Canon EF 24mm f1.4 wide-angle lens

The biggest advantages of prime lenses are that you get excellent value for money in terms of image quality. They are great for photographers on a budget. An inexpensive prime gives you great image quality, and you would have to spend much more on a zoom lens to get one that gives the same image quality throughout the focal length range.

Another benefit of prime lenses is that they have wider maximum apertures than zooms. While this may not be much of a benefit in landscape photography, when you often need to stop down to f11 or f16, it may come in useful if you are shooting images hand-held in dim light.

Prime lenses are often lighter than zoom lenses. This is a generalisation only; for example, a wide-angle prime lens with a maximum aperture of f1.4 may be larger and heavier than a zoom that covers the equivalent focal length.

Canon EF 16-35mm f2.8L wide-angle lens

The biggest benefit of zoom lenses is the rather obvious one of having several focal lengths available. This comes in useful in landscape photography because there are times when you are unable to move closer to (or even further away) from your subject. If you are standing on the edge of a cliff, for example, then it is not physically possible to move forwards. The advantage of a zoom lens in this situation is that it enables you to frame the landscape precisely. That’s what happened in this photo. I used a 17-40mm lens set to 28mm to frame this image:

Wide-angle lenses and the landscape

Getting the most out of a wide-angle lens

Here are some tips for getting the most out of your wide-angle lens:

Wide-angle lenses and the landscape

1. Include some foreground interest.

Look for something interesting to place in the first third of your photo. This gives the viewer something to look at.

Wide-angle lenses and the landscape

2. Move in close to the subject.

It depends on exactly what you are photographing, but see what happens when you move closer to your subject with a wide-angle lens. Remember that wide-angle lenses make distant objects appear smaller, and if you are not careful you may end up with everything in the frame too distant to be of interest.

Perhaps what I’m really saying is that you should decide what is your main subject in the photo. In a landscape that may be something like a tree, a rock or even a person in the landscape. Once you have decided on the subject, see if moving closer makes the image stronger.

But: don’t move too close, don’t be afraid of including negative space to improve the image. It’s a subjective thing, and your eye for how close to the subject to get will improve with practice.

Wide-angle lenses and the landscape

3. Use leading lines and patterns to create a sense of movement. The viewer’s eyes will follow the lines through the image. This creates a sense of movement and depth. Do you see how the rocks in the foreground in the above image create lines that point towards the distant volcano?

Understanding Lenses: Part I – A guide to Canon wide-angle and kit lenses

Understanding Lenses ebook

If you liked this article then take a look at my ebook, Understanding Lenses: Part I – A guide to Canon wide-angle and kit lenses. It is a complete guide to wide-angle and kit lenses for the Canon EOS camera system, showing you how to use them and how to decide which lens to buy.

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Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!