Landscape Photography Basics: Part One – wide angle lenses

I’m asked about photography topics fairly often. The questions are usually pretty similar so I thought it was time to start writing. This was going to be one short post. Of course that became a very long post which I thought nobody was going to seriously read, so breaking it up into smaller chunks seemed like a better idea.

A fairly typical landscape photograph. Soft light, wide angles, drama and adventure. Taft Point, Yosemite, November 2018.

Photography can be a complicated subject. Something I’d like to get across early is there is no universal “right” or “wrong”; you either achieved what you set out to do or you didn’t. When people ask me “did I do this right?” I can only ask “what were you trying to do?” Then we can work backwards from there. Having said that, here are some aspects of landscape photography that are common. Let’s start by talking about wide angle lenses.

Many landscape photos share these characteristics:

  • Wide angle lenses
  • Greater depth of field
  • Longer exposure times
  • Lower ISO
  • Softer light
  • Level horizon
  • Composition
  • A sense of drama

Let’s start Part One with Wide Angles lenses

I see most landscape photos shot using wide angle lenses.

  • 18-24mm is a typical “wide angle”
  • 14-17mm is a very wide angle
  • 10mm is a ludicrously wide (OK it’s usually called “ultra-wide”) angle

I have used a handful of wide angle lenses of varying quality. My favorites have been the Sigma 17-50 and the Canon 17-40

18-55 Canon EF-S kit lens
Sigma 17-50 f/2.8
Samyang 14mm f/2.8
17-40mm Canon L Series

There are of course plenty of perfectly good reasons to use a telephoto for landscapes. Let’s talk about that another time.

Wide angles will behave differently depending on the type of camera involved.

A full frame camera (Nikon 7xx/8xx-series, Canon 6d/5d series for a couple of examples) using a 17mm lens will result in a lot of distortion on the image. This probably isn’t something you’d want to use for a portrait.

Canon 7d Mark II with a Sigma 17-50 wide angle lens

A crop frame camera (most consumer and enthusiast cameras like the Nikon 3xxx/5xxx/7xxx, Canon Rebels, 20d-80d, etc) have a sensor that’s quite a bit smaller than their full frame counterparts (side note: the Canon 7d series is an interesting beast: a crop frame, pro camera). 18mm-20mm is still pretty wide and nice for landscapes. A wide angle lens on a crop frame camera will result in a little less distortion, but it will still be there.

Canon Rebel XT with a kit 18-55mm lens
Valley View, Yosemite shot with a 14mm lens on a crop frame DSLR. There’s some distortion noticeable in the trees. Look closely at the trees towards the right edge of the frame.

Take a closer look at this detail of the trees at the right side of the frame. There’s some distortion but it’s not awful A fair amount of editing went into this photograph.

Detail of some distortion with the 14mm lens on a crop frame camera. It’s not bad but it’s there.

Is wider better? That’s up to you.

There’s some misunderstanding that wider angles necessarily let you capture more. Yes and no. When you edit the photo to compensate for the distortion then some of that width gets cropped out.

A photo in progress. Climbers on El Capitan as a bus passes. 17mm with a full frame Canon 5d Mk III

Take a closer look at the bottom edge of the photo. You can get a better idea of the image distortion

Detail of the two cars at the bottom edge of the photo. This is where the distortion is most apparent

To me landscape photography is more about art than necessarily a journalistic/accurate representation of a scene. Everything is up to the vision of the artist using the camera in my opinion. You either got what you meant to achieve or you didn’t. There is no “wrong”. I say this a lot.

Check back for Part Two where we discuss depth of field and aperture.
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