Best Lenses for Landscape Photography

Luffenholtz Beach WI11-75

What are the best lenses for landscape photography? Well, you can’t go wrong with just about any professional lens. Canon, Nikon, and Sony each produce a superb 24-70 f2.8 lens which covers the focal ranges most often used in landscape photography. For APS-C cameras, Nikon and Canon each have a 17-55 f2.8 lens and Pentax has a 16-50 f2.8. As fine as these lenses undoubtedly are, there are several problems with them: they are expensive, they tend to be heavy (particularly the 24-70mm lenses), and the fast 2.8 aperture (fast, that is, for a zoom lens) is utterly unnecessary in landscape photography, where the photographer is usually shooting somewhere around f8. While these lenses all produce excellent images, they aren’t always the best fit for the landscape shooter. Landscape photography often requires a bit of hoofing. How many of us want to be dragging around lenses that weight over two pounds when slogging up some narrow mountain canyon or working our way along among immense seaside boulders? Slower glass weighs less and takes up less space in the bag or pocket.

The only problem with slower glass is that it tends not to be as good as the faster glass. While there are exceptions, Nikon and Canon tend to discriminate against their slower glass. They want photographers to buy the expensive f2.8 lenses, because they make more money selling the expensive stuff. That’s why neither company makes a 24-70 f4 or 17-55 f4 lens of comparable quality to the f2.8 versions. So those of us who can’t afford the expensive fast lenses and/or prefer smaller, less heavy lenses may have to put up with less quality. Fortunately, at f8 there is not a huge difference between most lenses, at least in terms of resolution. Almost all primes and many of the mid-range zooms will perform nearly as well stopped down as the more expensive, faster, professional glass. Still, even among the slower glass, some lenses are better for landscape photography than others. What, precisely, should landscape photographers be looking for in a lens? I look for three things:

  1. Sufficient Resolution
  2. Micro-contrast
  3. Color Rendition

Let’s examine these three factors one by one.

Sufficient Resolution. I say “sufficient” resolution because enthusiast photographers tend to over-emphasize the importance of sharpness in a lens. What’s most important in any lens is the final image, and most people aren’t going to notice the difference between landscape images produced by a sharp lens and landscape images made by a very sharp lens. Most landscape photos are shot between wide angle and short tele range (15mm to 75mm on APS-C cameras). Nowadays, all but the most cheapest zoom lenses in those focal ranges have sufficient resolution. Many older zoom lenses may fall short, and there a few older wide angle primes that may have some issues as well, particularly toward the corners. But if you pay more than $300 for a lens between say 16mm and 100mm, it will likely be sharp enough for landscape photography. The only problem with zoom lenses is that such glass involves compromises that may result in some weaknesses at certain focal ranges. A cheaper zoom lens may be a bit soft on one end or the other of the zoom; it may exhibit poor border to border sharpness at its shortest or longest focal lengths; and it may also exhibit some weaknesses when resolving objects far away. These issues tend to increase with zoom lenses that cover more focal length, such as the so-called superzooms. In landscape photography, ideally, one should stick to zoom lenses that have less than a 4x zoom factor, as these will exhibit fewer optical compromises.

Micro-contrast. This is a quality difficult to explain and appreciate. Micro-contrast is not to be confused with what might be called “global” contrast. In all image editors, there is a control which allows one to increase contrast. Since it is so easy to increase contrast in post, some people assume that the contrast in the lens is not important. The sort of contrast provided by an excellent lens is more subtle than what you can attain through post-processing, so that contrast attained through the lens tends to lead to better-looking images than contrast achieved through manipulating sliders in image-editing software. Consider the following two images:

Pentax A 35-105/3.5
Northcoast Misc WI10-363

Pentax K 28/3.5
Northcoast Misc-126

These are images straight out of the camera. The second image, taken with the Pentax K 28/3.5 (one of the most contrasty lenses I’ve ever used), is clearly crisper and more contrasty than the first image, taken by the well-regarded by contrast-deficient Pentax A 35-105/3.5 zoom lens. In post, we can add contrast to the first photo, but it still doesn’t come out as well as the second image. It looks over-done, and increasing the contrast has washed-out the sky:

Pentax A 35-105/3.5
Northcoast Misc WI10-363-3

We can add more modest tweaks to the second image and improve the image without getting an image that looks over-processed:

Pentax K 28/3.5
Northcoast Misc-126

In other words, improved micro-contrast leaves us with better starting off point in post. Pushing anything to an extreme in post, whether in terms of resolution, contrast, or color saturation, leads to sub-optimal results. The better that you can make an image in the camera, the more you will have to work with in post.

Color Rendition. I’ve spoken of this factor before. Some photographers are under the illusion that, merely because image editing software allows one to play with color saturation in post, color rendition isn’t important. That has not been my own experience. Some lenses just produce brighter, richer, more vivid colors than others. The most you can do in post is alter the luminance or saturation of color groups. This is helpful up to a point, but only up to a point. Over-saturated images don’t make a good impression. The colors tend to bleed all over the place and they don’t produce as fine looking images as what one gets from a lens with stunning color rendition. When I see an over-saturated image on the web I suspect that it is taken with a lens suffering from mediocre color rendition. Since color is so critical in color landscape photography, landscape photographers need to be more cognizant of this factor in lens performance.

Pentax DA 18-55 I
Stone Lagoon-WT07-114-2

Pentax A 35-105/3.5
Lady Bird Johnson Grove WI10-88-2

Pentax FA 28-105/3.2-4.5
Northcoast Misc WI11-232

These are images taken straight out of the camera, sans PP. They are all a bit underexposed and need some PP TLC. But even straight out of the camera it’s easy to spot which lens has the best color rendition: the 3rd image, taken with the Pentax FA 28-105/3.2-4.5. Notice the slight color cast in the second image, taken with the Pentax A 35-105/3.5. This is an old 15 element lens from the mid-eighties. Older lenses don’t have as good coatings as newer glass, and this can lead to problems in zoom lenses with lots of individual lens elements in which light can bounce around, leading to lower contrast in the final image. Now let’s see what we get when we subject the images to post-processing in LIghtroom:

Pentax DA 18-55 I
Stone Lagoon-WT07-114

Pentax A 35-105/3.5
Lady Bird Johnson Grove WI10-88

Pentax FA 28-105/3.2-4.5
Northcoast Misc WI11-232

Having started off from a better position, the FA 28-105 makes it easier to produce beautiful colors without running into problems associated with over-processing.The A 35-105, on the other hand, really struggled with this type of image, while the DA 18-55 did well but hardly spectacular. While it is true that all three images were taken at different times of the year, they were all taken around the same time of day with similar lighting conditions, with a mixture of clouds and sun. Lighting conditions may have slightly favored the FA 28-105, but that is all. I have extensive experience with the A 35-105 and the DA 18-55 and I can attest that the color rendition lenses does not equal what I’ve seen from the FA 28-105. The intro image was also taken with this lens.

To sum up: when looking for a landscape lens, don’t focus exclusively on resolution. Once a lens has sufficient resolution, contrast and especially color rendition become the most important factors in a lens’s performance. They will provide more to work with in post. Color rendition, in particular, will help you produce landscape photographs that make a real impression. Distinctive colors are likely to be more appreciated than resolution or even contrast.

One more note. While the Canon and Nikon professional lenses all exhibit very good color rendition, they labor under one major disadvantage: so many landscape photographers use them that it can be difficult to draw a distinctive look out of them without resorting to heavy post-processing. Lenses from other brands, such as Leica, Zeiss, or Pentax may provide a more individual look which will help one stand apart from the landscape photographer herd.