Choosing lenses and focal lengths for landscape photography has a lot of layers, and it’s a topic I wish I researched more before jumping in. Accordingly, below is detailed information on ideal focal lengths for landscapes with example photographs and our take on each. We’ve also picked and described the top wide-angle lenses for both crop sensor and full-frame cameras from Canon, Nikon and Sony. The truth is that there isn’t one correct focal length for landscapes, but it’s well worth investigating before making a big purchase.
“Wide Angle” Defined
The majority of landscape photos are of the wide-angle variety, which dictates the lenses and focal lengths that we discuss below. There isn’t however, a universal definition of wide angle (Wikipedia, for example, offers the not-so-helpful, “a lens whose focal length is substantially smaller than the focal length of a normal lens”). It’s generally accepted that the human eye sees at a 50mm equivalent, so anything less than that technically is wide angle.
For landscape purposes, we think of the wide-angle focal length range as 14mm to 35mm on a 35mm camera. Anything less is getting into fisheye territory, and anything more is pretty normal and doesn’t have a wide-angle feel. The heart of the wide-angle zone for landscape professionals is more like 14mm to 24mm, but we will address 27mm focal lengths and narrower because that’s where many popular APS-C lenses start.
Crop Factor and 35mm Equivalent
This is critical: the listed focal length of a lens when used on a non-full-frame camera needs to be multiplied by the camera’s crop factor to find the 35mm equivalent. The history behind crop factor is long, but what you need to know is that focal length is described using 35mm film as the reference point. Because the image sensors on non-full-frame cameras are smaller than that, you have to multiply the listed focal length to find the equivalent. Below are common crop factors on both DSLRs and mirrorless cameras:
Nikon DX (DSLRs): 1.5
Canon APS-C (DSLRs): 1.6
Sony E Mount (Mirrorless): 1.5
Micro Four Thirds (Mirrorless): 2.0
This means that a Nikon 18-200mm lens is equivalent to 27-350mm on a 35mm camera, which has much less landscape usefulness than if it were 18mm at the wide end. The same goes for Canon: the popular 10-18mm wide-angle lens for APS-C cameras is equivalent to 16-28.8mm. The good news is that that focal length range is terrific for landscape photography and actually much better than 10-18mm on a 35mm camera.
We would love to survey crop sensor camera users about focal length equivalent, and would bet that a significant percentage do not understand the concept. Years ago, the first real lens I purchased was the Nikon 18-200mm—I had read about landscape photography and thought that I was getting a true 18mm at the wide end. Nobody in the camera store told me about crop factor and it wasn’t until I started shooting that it all came together and I learned my lesson.
This means that the 18-55mm kit lenses that come standard with Nikon and Canon DSLRs are 27mm and 28.8mm at the wide end and not as useful for landscapes as many people assume. In addition, these lenses often aren’t at their best optically at 27mm or 28.8mm (more on this below), so serious landscape photographers will want to add a specific wide-angle zoom or prime lens. Those buying point-and-shoots for landscape photography also should keep an eye on focal length equivalent to make sure their camera can go wide enough.
Ideal Focal Lengths for Landscapes
Focal length(s) is perhaps the most important factor in choosing a landscape lens. As we mentioned above, the heart of the landscape focal length range is 14mm to 35mm. To illustrate what each focal length means in practice, below are sample photos with descriptions of the scene and composition:
14mm (Ultra Wide but Fun)
This photo was taken with a Nikon 14mm f/2.8 prime lens and the Nikon D800E. 14mm is at the ultra wide end of the landscape spectrum and you need a number of things in your favor to pull it off. First, this is a massive scene: Glacier National Park in Montana and one of the most magnificent and wide-open places in the Lower 48. This photo has tons of sky and covers a huge area side to side. Second, the photographer made excellent use of foreground, which is essential when shooting ultra wide. Finally, it’s a high-end prime lens and camera (together the camera and lens combo cost close to $5,000), which helps in making the image look excellent overall. Poor optics in an ultra-wide lens can be a frightening thing.
All of the concerns above don’t mean that you shouldn’t buy a lens that shoots at 14mm, but just know it will have a high degree of difficulty. If you don’t use foreground, the viewer will have nothing to visually grab on to and the image loses its feel. If the landscape isn’t large and dramatic enough, the photo can look too wide and unappealing. And if your gear isn’t good enough, you’ll have softness, falloff, distortion, and all of the other things that can make an image look bad. You’ll be hard-pressed to find APS-C cameras at the 14mm focal length in the first place, which probably is a good thing.
18mm (Our Second Favorite Focal Length)
This shot was taken with the Nikon 16-35mm f/4 VR at 18mm, and also in Glacier National Park. 18mm is where things start to open up and you won’t feel as much pressure to frame everything perfectly. You can see this image still has excellent use of foreground and strong composition overall, but it doesn’t feel quite as big as the 14mm above. Shooting at 18mm gives you more versatility in terms of the scenes that you can capture.
As we discuss below, zoom lenses often don’t perform best at their widest with more distortion and softness. Even bumping the zoom in a couple of millimeters from 16mm to 18mm can make a notable difference in image quality. All in all, 18mm is one of the most useful focal lengths for landscapes—right there with 21mm below.
21mm (The Sweet Spot)
We’ve arrived at our personal favorite focal length for landscapes: 21mm. Yes, there are great uses for going wider or narrower, but if we had one prime lens to choose for landscapes, it would be 21mm. With this focal length you still get the wide-open feel that starts to evade the narrower focal lengths below, but it’s not too wide for many situations. There are a number of fun 21mm lens options and it’s often at the heart of the range of many wide-angle zooms.
I captured the photo above in Norway with the Zeiss 21mm f/2.8. It’s an incredible lens that is manual focus and quite heavy, but you can’t beat the optics. It has almost no distortion, very little falloff, and is sharp corner to corner.
24mm (Still Good But Getting Narrower)
The lenses above are considered to be “ultra wide”—again a rather arbitrary definition—and 24mm is where things start to normalize. You may notice when scrolling through photos in magazines or on flickr that 24mm is where many of the images start to shift from landscapes to urban and people shots. Again, this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule and you can take spectacular landscape photographs at 24mm, but you’re no longer ultra wide and may have trouble capturing the biggest scenes.
The volume of landscape shots taken at 24mm goes up in part because of the popular 24-70mm f/2.8 lenses for both Canon and Nikon full-frame cameras. These pro zooms are some of the most versatile lenses on the market and great for everything from the outdoors to people. Some primes are available at 24mm but the selection is more scarce than 18mm or 21mm.
27mm (The In-Between Focal Length)
27mm isn’t a heavily discussed focal length and you won’t find any primes at this 35mm equivalent. However, it is the widest focal length for the most commonly used lenses on the planet: the 18-55mm kit lenses that come with consumer crop sensor DSLRs (technically it’s 27mm for Nikon DSLRs and 28.8mm for Canon). It’s also found on all-in-one lenses like the 18-200mm and 18-300mm, and a number of mid-range zooms like the 18-105mm. The bottom line is that for a lot of people, a 27mm/28.8mm equivalent is the widest they can go without buying a specialty wide-angle lens.
We took an entire six-week trip through New Zealand with the Nikon 18-200mm and definitely saw shortcomings when shooting landscapes. The photo above is shot at a 27mm equivalent, and you can see the complex distortion at the top of the photo and lack of foreground. It’s just tough to get everything in at this focal length when shooting big scenes, not to mention you’re battling distortion and softness from the lens itself. 27mm is okay for landscapes if that’s your only option, but we heartily recommend going wider.
35mm to 50mm (Great For Landscape Detail Shots)
35mm to 50mm can be used for landscapes, and particularly if the scene is further away and you don’t incorporate foreground. For example, let’s say you are standing on a ridge and shooting a mountain range in the distance: shooting at this narrower focal length is better than at 21mm where you are trying to get everything into the scene.
Another example would be a detail shot like a forest or rock formation where you are trying to highlight certain objects. For these types of photos, it’s not as much the grand landscape you are trying to capture but a certain object or series of objects as part of a great landscape.
If you’re asking whether you can shoot landscapes with a telephoto lens, the answer is yes. In fact, just about every type of photographer should carry a 70-200mm or similar lens in their bag. One type of landscape scene in particular beckons a telephoto lens: mountains. The shot above is of Machapuchare in Nepal at a whopping 169mm. Yes, the Himilaya are the tallest mountains in the world and I was far away when I shot this early morning photo, but you can’t capture the detail of mountains without extended reach.
Recommended Landscape Lenses
Canon Landscape Lenses
For APS-C shooters who have a Rebel series or enthusiast DSLR, we love the Canon 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 STM (equivalent to 16-28.8mm). Canon introduced this lens a couple of years ago as a cheaper alternative to the 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 (equivalent to 16-35.2mm), which is more than double the cost. We love the low price of the 10-18mm, and the lens is sharp for stills and good for video with an STM focusing motor. If you’re serious about landscape photography with your APS-C camera and don’t mind the high price, the 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 is superior optically. But for most photographers including those just honing their landscape skills, we recommend the 10-18mm f/4.
Full-frame Canon shooters have far more landscape lens options, and we love the versatility and value of the Canon 16-35mm f/4 L. This lens covers a great range of wide-angle focal lengths, has image stabilization for low light, and boasts the “L Series” build quality that photographers love. A more expensive lens at the same focal length range is the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L II, which is a true pro-level wide-angle zoom and a full stop faster.
A fun prime lens for purists is the Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 Milvus. This manual focus lens is heavy and expensive but can’t be topped at its focal length for image quality. Perhaps I have a personal bias—the old Distagon version is my favorite lens that I’ve ever owned—and not everyone will appreciate the manual focus. But it’s a high quality option for landscape photographers who shoot at 21mm.
Nikon Landscape Lenses
Nikon is somewhat disappointing in terms of DX landscape lens offerings. There is no inexpensive and mostly plastic wide-angle zoom like the Canon 10-18mm above, leaving the Nikon 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5 (equivalent to 15-36mm) as the best option. The good news is that the lens has great optics, a sturdy build, and is reasonably light at around 1 pound. The bad news is the price at nearly $900, which makes it more expensive than most DX camera bodies.
An interesting alternative to the Nikon 10-24mm is the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 DX II (16.5-24mm). With this third-party lens you get less range and inferior build quality but superior low light performance. This lens also has notable distortion at the wide end, making Nikon’s built-in distortion correction mode almost mandatory.
Things get fun for full-frame, and our favorite FX landscape lens is the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8. It’s an extremely sharp wide-angle zoom that can even outperform many primes at their respective focal lengths. It’s also super heavy and expensive, which leads us to our value pick: the Nikon 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5. A few years ago Nikon replaced the clunky 17-35mm f/3.5-4.5 with this lens and hit a home run. For a relatively inexpensive $750 you get a solid spread of wide-angle focal lengths to play with and great optical performance for the price. This lens does not, however, have vibration reduction, so hand held photos in low light can be challenging.
Sony (Mirrorless) Landscape Lenses
Sony mirrorless cameras are all over the outdoors, from casual photographers to industry professionals. For APS-C mirrorless cameras like the popular Alpha a6300, lens options are pretty limited and the runaway leader is the pricey Sony 10-18mm f/4 OSS (15-27mm equivalent). $750 is a lot to spend for an f/4 crop sensor lens, but the optics are strong including excellent sharpness. A considerably cheaper option is the Sony 16mm f/2.8 (equivalent to 24mm), which is compact and inexpensive but not as versatile or as good optically as the Sony 10-18mm.
For Sony full-frame mirrorless cameras like the Alpha A7R II, a landscape professional’s favorite, the lineup is limited but we like Sony's 16-35mm f/4 OSS. Hopefully Sony will come out with an f/2.8 version at some point to give serious landscape photographers a faster option, but the OSS does help quite a bit and we like the Zeiss optics. It’s also light for a full-frame wide-angle zoom at just over 18 ounces. Professionals who aren’t satisfied with the choices from Sony usually use convertors for their Canon, Nikon, and Leica full-frame lenses.
Zooms vs. Primes
Just about every photographer seems to favor one or the other. Zoom lenses are more versatile and cover a range of focal lengths, while primes have a fixed focal length but better optics including less distortion and better low light performance.
In the landscape category we prefer zoom lenses of the 16-35mm variety. As discussed in the focal length breakdown above, different landscape scenarios require different focal lengths, and a zoom gives you that versatility. If you’re a professional without budget constraints, you can get a handful of wide-angle primes, but few can afford to go that route. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that wide-angle primes from companies like Canon and Nikon are spectacular performers.
The Sweet Spot of a Zoom Lens
The reality of wide-angle zoom lenses is that they don’t perform best at the ends of their focal length range. It isn’t necessarily a massive drop-off, but you may notice more distortion and softness than you will more toward the middle of the zoom range. In fact, these lenses will perform quite a bit better if you bump them up even a couple of millimeters. For example, a 16-35mm lens likely will be sharper and have less distortion at 18mm, so take this into account when choosing focal lengths.
This calculus also impacts the dreaded 27mm focal length (the common 18mm lens on crop sensor cameras). With these lenses not only are you cutting it close in terms of wide-angle capability, but they won’t perform at their best at the widest focal length. This is even more reason why it’s worth looking for a specific landscape lens at your desired focal lengths.
What About a Camera for Landscapes?
For landscape photography you have the full spectrum of digital cameras to choose from, from compact point-and-shoots to mirrorless cameras and digital SLRs. To help in the process, we’ve created a handy guide to choosing a camera for landscapes, and you can see our full landing page of digital camera reviews here. Whichever route you decide to go, make sure to keep an eye on the focal lengths and lens scenarios discussed above.