How to Use Wide-angle Lenses for Landscape Photography

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.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

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!

  • Great read, thanks Andrew!

    Can you clarify a point for me? Regardless of having a firm focal length to differentiate between wide and telephoto, are wide angle lenses and telephoto lenses made the same?

    For example, when I look at a site such as Canon’s it classifies lenses between wide (or ultra-wide) and telephoto lenses. Would a lens characterized as a ‘telephoto’ at 28mm behave the same as a lens characterized as ‘wide’ at 28mm? Even though they are the same focal length, would they behave differently based on construction?

    Thanks for your thoughts! It wasn’t terribly clear in your definition of wide angle lens.

  • Josh, where have you seen a 28mm lens marked as a telephoto? If you use a 28mm lens on a full-frame or APS-C camera it’s a wide-angle. On a micro four-thirds camera it’s more like a normal lens. Perhaps you have seen a ‘telephoto zoom’, in which case the word telephoto refers to the high end of the focal length range.

    The focal length of a lens is fixed (or the focal length range of a zoom) – a 28mm lens is 28mm lens no matter what camera you use it with. But the field of view changes according to the size of the sensor. The smaller the sensor, the narrow the field of view. So it’s probably more accurate to talk about field of view when it comes to determining whether a lens is a wide-angle, but also probably over-complicating things.

    Bottom line: If you use a 28mm lens on a full-frame or APS-C camera it’s a wide-angle lens.

  • marius2die4

    A good article to reed with nice explications.

    Some of my picture, more with wide angle lens:

  • Raden Payas

    Most of the above photos are infrared, right?

  • Thanks, Andrew! I guess the focal length truly determines if it is “wide angle” or “telephoto” by your description. What I did not know is if wide angle lenses and telephoto lenses are built differently to achieve the effects you mentioned above or if it was purely a function of the focal length. Thanks again!

  • I just bought a Tokina 11-17 lens and I am loving it as landscape is what I like to click most! I did realize that I need to move close to the foreground and I love the results.

  • Penelope McCaul

    Great read thanks, I often shoot with a 16-105 lens on my Sony A77. I find that when using the lens for really wide angle work I often end up with the lens vignettign in the corners of the picture, even with out a lens hood. Is this a drawback of my aim for a super versatile lens that I should learn to live with, or can I do something to stop it happening so often?

  • Mick

    I’m just a bit confused(Normal)Can you please clarify what constitutes a “Prime Lens”as opposed, for instance, to my 18/250 lens,that I’m very happy with?

  • Marius

    Mick, Prime Lens have only one focal length (e.g.: Nikon 50mm/ f1.8). What you have is called a zoom lens or telephoto lens. So, one way to categorize lenses is primes or zooms. Another way is to put them in different categories: standard, wide-angle, ultra wide-angle, telephoto and super telephoto. What you have is an all-around lens because you can have from an ultra wide-angle focal length (18mm) to a telephoto focal length (250mm), covering ultra wide-angle, standard and telephoto type of focal length.

  • No – none of them are.

  • Penelope, 16mm is very wide, but while I haven’t used your lens it should be designed to take a photo without vignetting at all focal lengths. Do you have a filter attached to the lens? That may be causing it. If so, you can remove the filter when you use the shortest focal lengths. Another option is to buy a thin filter. These are specially designed to be used with wide-angle lenses, but may not eliminate the vignetting completely.

  • Penelope McCaul

    yep – it was the filters thanks, can’t imagine why I didn’t think of that!!

  • Warren Smith

    I read that the standard focal length for a camera was approximately the diagonal dimension of the film. For 35 mm it is 44 mm if my memory is correct. For the Canon APS sensor it is 28 mm. A focal length less than standard is “wide angle” and a focal length longer is “telephoto”. If you observe the 18-55 mm as you zoom in and out, the minimum length indicated on the focus ring is approximately 28 mm for an APS lens.

  • Judith Matthews

    I want to get a wide angle lens as interested in landsape photography but unsure of which to get, a prime or a zoom, I have a 18-55mm lens and a 70-300mm lens at the moment but feel I am lacking something any advice?

  • SecondCityGuitars

    If you have a Nikon then the Nikkor AF-S IF 24-85mm F/3.5-4.5 VR ED G

  • Ankur Sharma

    I agree
    I just wrote my views on using UWA for landscape photography here

  • Keith

    I’m going to Rome soon, and have just got a Sony a5100 for Christmas will my kit lens be ok or do I need to buy a new lens?what lens would you recommend to get he best photos of the Vatican or colosseum and also the rest of Rome?

  • Leslie Hoerwinkle

    The kit lens.

  • mkkhatri32

    can you share picture with that wide angle lens and let me know the price of the lens as well? I am new at buying a dslr and I like wide angle photos, they appear good. So my preference is to get a dslr with wide angle @mriduladwivedi:disqus

  • Clive

    I have an Olympus EP 5 and has a 2x crop factor to take in to account. Olympus do a 9 – 18 mm zoom, which is 18 – 36mm in 35mm terms, is that good for landscapes?

  • Ronald Mitchell

    I have a few questions. I have a nikon d5000 with the kit lens (18-55mm), a 35 mm wide angle prime lens, and a 70-200mm lens.
    1. Do i need to get another wide angle lens to take pics of my surrounding area ( city, national parks, etc.)?
    2. I was thinking of getting a 50mm wide angle or an 17-50mm wide angle lens. What do you recommend?
    3.which is better 24mm, my 35mm prime, the 50mm , or 17-50mm?
    4. What is the best aperture for landscapes and nighttime photography(such as astrophotography)?
    5.lastly, are my current lenses good for group photos such as taking a pic of all my family at our family reunion?
    Thanks for your time and help!

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