No, a Wide Angle Lens Is Not the Best for Landscape Photography

“A wide angle lens is the best for landscape photography.” Does that sound familiar? I am continuously surprised by how little I use the wide angle lens.

In the above video, I went to a beautiful lighthouse along the western coast of Jutland in Denmark. I have wanted to visit this lighthouse for a very long time, and when I got the opportunity to combine a visit with the back end of a storm, the potential for great photographs was there.

When I visit a new location, I usually approach it with my 24-105mm attached to the camera, and it was no different on this day. The 24-105mm is an incredibly versatile lens, covering the field of view from the wide to short telephoto range. As it turned out, I did not need to take off the lens the entire day.

Shot at 44mm with a slight crop.

Dimensions of the Photograph

The first thing I had to consider at this location was the dimensions of the lighthouse. This lighthouse was very tall compared to its width (it is a tower after all), and that meant it took up very little of the photo. Because of its height, most of my photos ended up in portrait format, as I wanted to include a near foreground. You can go through the photos in the article and compare the portrait-oriented photos with the landscape-oriented photos below. The lighthouse very quickly becomes very small in the landscape-oriented photos with a near foreground.

Shot at 66mm without a near foreground.

Shot at 29mm with a near foreground.

Shot at 29mm with a near foreground.

The second thing I had to consider was the distance to the lighthouse. In my experience photographing these types of lighthouses, I know distance is key. The problem with getting too close is you will need to use a wide angle lens, and it creates a perspective I do not like. The lighthouse looks distorted because of the close distance. This might work in nature, but for buildings, it can be problematic. Adding distance, you look at the lighthouse instead of up it.

What About Depth?

The third thing to consider was how to incorporate the landscape into the frame to create a perception of depth. Since I had freed myself from the wide angle perspective, I had opened up a much larger area for potential foregrounds. The larger the area, the more opportunity to find the best possible foreground, which in turn optimizes your chance for the “best” possible photo. This place is a dune area and a well-visited beach during summer, which means there was a lot of grass and many trails I could use as elements in the foreground to create the perception of depth. With the larger distance to the lighthouse, I would have to zoom in beyond the typical 35mm, where the wide angle zoom lenses end, but that risked removing the sense of depth. When you use a wide angle and you want to include a foreground, you often want to get low and close to the foreground element, but to include foreground and get a perception of depth, when I used a longer focal length, I actually had to move a bit back and zoom in instead. Check out the before/after photo below, where I use two different focal lengths (46mm and 63mm), yet get approximately the same foreground effect at the expense of the middle ground.

What About Drama?

If I had been in a more dramatic landscape with a mountain in the background, it would be obvious to use a wide angle lens to achieve a wider field of view so as to include everything in the scene in my photograph, just as I did when I was at Stokksnes in Iceland. However, as this landscape did not include mountains and was not particularly dramatic, I had to create the drama using another lens. My scene of interest was relatively narrow and therefore did not require a wide angle lens. Had I used the wide angle lens, let us say at 16mm, I would have included way too much of the landscape and left the lighthouse as a tiny line in the distance. By zooming in, I exclude all the clutter and make the photo much more to the point and arguably more dramatic.

Shot at 59mm.

Which One Is the Best?

As I photograph the not-so-dramatic landscapes of Denmark more and more, I am really starting to feel it is a myth that the wide angle lens is the best for landscape photography. It is not just a myth; it is actually just wrong. The “best” lens for landscape photography at this location I would argue is the 24-105mm. Some photographers say the 16-35mm is the best, others the 70-200mm (or longer), but let me add a bit of gasoline to the conversation and say the 24-105mm is the best. In fact, it is highly subjective, and stating which one is the “best” lens always comes with an “it depends.” What lens works the best is always relative to the specific landscape, location, and vision of the photographer. That is why I usually preach you need to cover as wide a range of focal lengths as possible.

Check out the video above to see some stormy landscape photography. Which one is your most used lens?

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55 Comments

Deleted Account's picture

Acknowledging that you are a great landscape photographer; the fact you personally do not favour a wide angle lens in no way suggests particular lenses have intrinsic value. Your opinion can only ever be subjective.

My grandfather used to say 'if you want to become a great golfer, you should play exclusively with a single club until you excel with that club, and then move on to the next'; I think there is wisdom there.

For my money, I tend to spend entire days shooting on a 50mm or 20mm prime.

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

That is very true, I btw don't really favour any specific lens, the point is the choice of the focal length is relative to the scene and photographer, thereby it is subjective ;)

Timothy Gasper's picture

Not only the scene and photographer, but what mood or emotion is trying to be captured. I would go on to bring before everyone that, if each focal length lens has its own characteristics, then why not say and even try to discover that each focal length has its own mood or emotion which it is trying to convey. After all, we choose a particular focal length for a specific purpose. For what reason(s) do we do so? Ie, perhaps a long tele might be a dramatic lens...etc etc.

Deleted Account's picture

Great Article!

My 24-70mm is my favorite for landscape use. Its range is nearly perfect IMO. I often find that if I'm wishing for more FOV than 24mm, I haven't really found a subject to make the photo about.

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

That's an interesting observation because I certainly benefit from something wider when I am in Iceland :)

Deleted Account's picture

I'm not saying that's the case 100% of the time.

Jan Holler's picture

Agreed, but then a 50mm prime would serve very well (and better) in this situation. You would use your feet to zoom. Cheers!

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

I kinda argued against this in the article, because if you want the lighthouse at a certain size within the frame you only have the foreground available to you which are at a certain radius from the lighthouse. With the zoom lens you widen that circle extensively :)

Jan Holler's picture

Thanks, corrected.

Jan Holler's picture

I'd use a zoom as well, just in this occasion a 50mm primes would have done the job.

Mark Doiron's picture

Zooming with your feet does give a different picture then shooting with a zoom, or shooting and cropping.

Tom Reichner's picture

"Using your feet to zoom" is a much-overused and misunderstood axiom that rarely has merit. It shows a lack of understanding about perspective control as it relates to having multiple objects in one's photograph that one wants to render at sizes that are very specific, relative to one another. We're not just photographing one thing - we are photographing one thing, and everything that is around it. If you move closer to get it larger in the frame, then the relative size of the other things in the scene is gong to change. Hence, using one's feet to zoom usually screws everything up.

Jan Holler's picture

My intention was not to write against zooms. I read the article, looked at its interesting findings and the result. Had to smile a little bit. The looking for the right proportions, well explained. And then, I like the first and the last of the photos the best. They are taken around 50mm. The one prime lens which is not much used. Just a thought. I liked the article.
But of course, you are correct and Mark above as well.

Alexander Lobozzo's picture

I agree with this article 1000% i loveeee my 24-105. I actually ended up buying it because, at the time, the tamron 28-75 was back ordered, so i went with the Sony 24-105, and it was a happy accident!

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

Oh yes, I would most certainly go with the sony 24-105 over the tamron 28-75 :)

Dylan Bishop's picture

My favorite lens for landscapes is my Canon 70-200mm. But I am working on my wide angle comps. Just ordered the Sigma 20MM f1.4 for astrophotography and hoping to get some use out of it for landscapes too eventually. But I prefer long lenses for landscapes.

barry cash's picture

I would favor a more pleasing composition with the lighthouse to the side and the leading line drive towards.
The white from the lighthouse against the darker clouds and the top or darker art f the lighthouse against whiter sky. Either way the distance and height this was shot from isn’t my favorite.

Back father with a longer lens up closer with a shorter lens, maybe a ladder to help with the height.

Jake Lindsay's picture

24-105 is not my favorite, but it's definitely my most used.

Tor-Ivar Næss's picture

Great article. I should definetely shoot more with my 24-70mm :)

Gregory Scott's picture

The best camera is the one in your hand right now, The best lens is the one you are using. (These presume that you are smart enough to change lenses if you have one on hand that is better for your photo.)
I don't own a prime wide angle lens. Instead, I own a two axis indexing panoramic tripod head. I like to take large stitched panoramas. Sometimes I use my zoom 28-70 lens,mm sometimes my 100mm macro lens, which happens to be extremely sharp across its entire focus range. And sometimes I use my 300mm prime telephoto lens.
Personally, I prefer very detailed high resolution photos that can be made into large prints.
Maybe I should have a good wide angle lens, I'm sure that if I did, that I would learn the right times to use it. But I haven't felt the need, actually.
A wide angle lens sacrifices detail to obtain a wider field of view. (It has other advantages, like more DOF.)
As with everything else in the technical aspects of photography, it is all about compromises. You give up something to obtain something else. There is no "perfect" lens.

JT Blenker's picture

This is also how I prefer to create my landscape imagery primarily with a Nodal Ninja panoramic head and a 24-105 for foreground and mid ground imaging. A little more resolution with less noise and perspective control.

Bob Thompson's picture

Brilliant piece. Your last photo at 59mm is the finest example of landscape photography in your article - not just because of the lens choice perspective, but your post processing creating beautiful light and shadows.

Hans Gunnar Aslaksen's picture

One of your best videos Mads :)

Krzysztof Kurzaj's picture

Nice write up. I'm not a fan of the title which feels a bit like a clickbait. Something like "Going beyond wide angle for landscape photography" would be probably a bit more honest :) Nevertheless, I like your analysis and general approach.

24-105mm is indeed a versatile focal length but I want to point out that some photographers don't feel as comfortable working with zoom lenses as they do with primes. It probably sounds odd but when I use a zoom lens and try to compose (zooming in and out) I find myself somehow stuck on several versions of the scene that I like. So technically I could do what you did and shot few versions of the scene but it just never feels right. With single focal length I just know what to expect and it either works or I know I need a different one. Again, that's just my mental process and honestly I wish I was more comfortable with zoom lenses.

Finally, I wanted to ask about the effect you achieved with the grass on the wind. It's crisp but one can almost see the movement. I'm guessing this has to do with precise shutter speed. Is that so?

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

I'm not entirely sure what effect you're referring too. In the examples in the article, it is just a fast shutter speed. It's the wind in combination with the light and sharpness in post that gives the effect. In the video, I show some inages with a shorter shutter speed, which are with a slower shutter speed to create some blur in the grass.

Oliver Neumann's picture

I have the impression that near foregrounds are overused in landscape photography. All too often they only add a distracting element to the photo - as in your portrait-orientated examples.

Zack Schindler's picture

I have shot landscapes these Fujifilm XF lenses; 14mm, 23mm, 18-55, 55-200 and a X100F camera with a fixed 23mm lens. It just depends on what I am trying to do.
On the other hand I think that if someone is serious about landscape photography that they should invest in a good tripod which is really a lifetime investment. But that is a whole other subject....

Shot this with an X100 and the fixed 23mm lens.

Krzysztof Kurzaj's picture

Well, nothing wrong with the shot itself but this is probably not the best example for above discussion. This particular scene you can shot with many different focal lengths (or crop in many different ways) and it will not make much of a difference in terms of composition.
Also, just to be fully clear, X100 has a crop sensor so the 23mm lens is an effective FF 35mm.

Stuart Carver's picture

But the ‘effective focal length’ is completely irrelevant to his camera setup.. I wish people would stop boring us with this crap every time someone shoots with an APS-C camera, it’s nonsense.

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