Myths of Photography: Use a Wide Angle Lens for Landscapes   11 comments

Book Cliffs, Colorado.  A landscape image at 310 mm.

Book Cliffs, Colorado. A landscape image shot just this morning at an unconventional focal length of 310 mm.

I’m starting an occasional series on common photography myths and misconceptions.  This one is pretty widespread.  It goes something like this:  “If you want to shoot landscapes, you need to do it with a wide angle lens.”  That’s often extended to “and the wider the better”.  It’s mostly assumed and not stated outright.  But it’s yet another case where good advice is stretched well beyond the original scope and meaning.

When I posted the series Learning Photography, in the part about lenses I recommended that if you’re serious about landscape photography, you really need to get a wide-angle lens.  Does that mean all good landscape photos are done with a wide-angle?  Certainly not!

I know (very good) photographers who shoot almost nothing but wide-angle landscapes, some loving the ultra-wide.  This is what they like, so I’m not knocking them at all!  But even though many of these pictures are amazing, there’s a risk of getting stuck in a rut, with images that begin to all look the same.  Little or no variety means eventual boredom, on the part of the photographer if not their viewers and fans.

Columbia River Basalt, Washington scablands.  Wide but not too wide at  28 mm.

Columbia River Basalt, Washington scablands. Wide but not too wide at 28 mm.

The fact is that landscape photos are simply images of the land (I’m including seascapes).  That’s it.  The only other limitations are what you put there.  And if you accept limits as an artist you’re shortchanging yourself.  I shoot landscapes at every focal length I have.  I’ve even done landscapes with my 600 mm. wildlife lens.

Don’t get me wrong.  I wouldn’t feel good going out to shoot landscapes without a wide-angle lens, one shorter than 35 mm. in focal length.  A sharp zoom lens that covers about 16 mm. to at least 24 mm. is just about perfect for many landscapes.  I love that close, detailed foreground and the sense of depth you can achieve.

Panther Creek Falls, Washington.  Going wide because I was so close to the falls.

Panther Creek Falls, Washington. Going wide at 16 mm. because I was so close to the falls.

Note I am talking about 35 mm. equivalent focal lengths.  If you have a full-frame DSLR, 24 mm. is 24 mm.  If you have a crop-frame with a 1.6 factor, multiply your focal length by 1.6 to get the full-frame equivalent.  In that case a wide-angle zoom of about 11 mm. to 16 mm. would be good for wide landscape shooting.

But if you capture pretty much every landscape with a wide-angle lens, too many photos will include a lot of uninteresting stuff around the periphery of the most interesting part of the composition.  It’s a case of seeing that good photo within the larger average photo.

Many times I’ll start out with a wide-angle but then, bored with the foreground, I’ll switch to a longer lens in order to focus in on an interesting part of the scene.  Tip:  If you’re shooting wide, keep an eye on the light and be ready to quickly switch lenses or zoom in to catch smaller areas when the light falls just right.

For so-called intimate landscapes like the last two images in this post, everything is fairly close to you and elements tend to be evenly weighted in the frame.  Because of this you have to be even more careful about going too wide.  Depending on how close you are, a medium focal length (35-50 mm.) is often best in these cases.

Fall colors in rural Oregon, captured at 200 mm.

Fall colors in rural Oregon, captured at 200 mm.

The fall colors above were captured at a long focal length (200 mm.) mostly because I didn’t want to trespass.  But if I’d bothered to get permission, I would have gotten close and gone wide, to add some depth.  But I like how it turned out.  The river image below was shot at 24 mm.  But I cropped it on the computer, just a little.  I would have used 35 mm. if I had that available at the time.

So there you go!  I hope the accompanying images have convinced you how misguided it is to go out shooting landscapes with the mindset that there’s a ‘proper’ lens and focal length to use.  Happy weekend and happy shooting!

A mossy spring on the Hood River, Oregon.  24 mm., 0.8 sec. @ f/11, ISO 50.

A mossy spring on the Hood River, Oregon. 24 mm., 0.8 sec. @ f/11, ISO 50.

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11 responses to “Myths of Photography: Use a Wide Angle Lens for Landscapes

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  1. Your first landscape photo is great!

  2. Thank you very much for all this tips !
    And wonderful pics as always !
    Ciao ciao
    Max

  3. These are all all beautiful as ever Michael, but that Oregon-autumn photo is brilliant! The colours and textures, wow! I agree with your sentiments, and will make more of a point to try different, closer, perspectives on our landscapes here in South Africa’s wild places in future.

  4. I completely agree with you! I shoot landscape with anything between 16mm and 250mm depending on the scene itself. I absolutely adore the last image of the flowing water 😀

  5. Thank you for the information. Very helpful.

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