Reader Question: What’s the best lens for landscape or cityscape photography?

My Answer: When I’m trying to make an interesting landscape or cityscape picture, but nothing seems to be coming together, I find it useful to work at opposite extremes with regard to lens choice (20mm and 300mm on a full-frame 35mm format camera).

I have more luck with ultra-wide-angle and strong telephoto lenses than with the more traditional spectrum of choices in between.

However it’s good to remember that the real secret to great landscape photography is not about deciding which focal length to use, but about taking your photos in the most dramatic light possible (see the photo above for an example of this).

Wide-Angle Lenses

Many beginning photographers think they need to show more of a scene when using a wide-angle lens. The unintended effect of this way of thinking is that the lens makes everything look small and far away — like looking through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars.

Most experienced photographers have more specific reasons for using wide-angle lenses — in order to get closer to a part of the scene, while still being able to include a great deal of information about the place where the photo was taken.

A very wide-angle lens can add drama to a cityscape or landscape by exaggerating linear perspective (like I did with this cityscape of Chicago).

It can be a bit disconcerting at first to make effective pictures with a really wide lens because it requires you to get very close to your subject.

With a wide-angle, it’s all about the relationship between foreground and background.

A good approach for using a wide-angle lens to make pictures of a landscape or cityscape is to put some subject matter very close in the front (maybe a clump of wildflowers or a fencepost). This allows you to give the photo a strong visual grounding that serves as the main subject of the photograph while leaving the grand vista to carry the background.

Telephoto Lenses

On the other hand, wide-angle lenses are not always best for landscapes. If you’re just trying to take a picture that shows a scene in its most straightforward, beautiful form I find a telephoto lens very useful.

Usually, in really grand landscapes you can’t get close enough to make a nice composition of complementary secondary subjects. This is where a telephoto lens can really bring the picture together.

For example, you might find a scene with a photogenic barn on the high plains backed up by snow-covered peaks. Usually, to make a successful photo you’ll need a telephoto lens to make the mountains and barn appear closer to each other for a pleasing composition.

Dan Westergren is director of photography for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow him on Twitter @dwestergren and on Instagram @danwestergren.

Do you have something you want to ask Dan about travel photography? He’ll be answering reader questions periodically on the blog, so be sure to leave a comment.

Comments

  1. Sarah K.
    June 30, 2013, 7:50 pm

    Hi. By changing the lenses that creates different effects, so the photographs are not pictures then right. They are art photographs and not an exact representation? What would you say?

  2. Harry Kikstra, ExposedPlanet
    Patagonia
    June 30, 2013, 8:39 pm

    Agree with the above, do I also use the 135mm lens a lot for landscape photography. Maybe it’s just the optical quality or the excellent bokeh, but I also enjoy the limits and possibilities of this focal length.

  3. Uttam Pegu
    India
    July 3, 2013, 1:11 pm

    Thanks! I agree. I think telephoto lenses make the subject more prominent while giving nice neighbors.

  4. Karina P
    Bulgaria
    July 4, 2013, 6:02 am

    Digital cameras never seem to capture things in the same way and light as my eyes do. Advice?

  5. Scott
    July 6, 2013, 10:54 am

    Karina: Google “HDR Photography”. Although it’s commonly used to make VERY exaggerated or artistic style photos, in it’s true form, you can use HDR techniques to make photos that are very close to what your eye can see. Even the best camera gear cannot (yet) do this.

  6. Jose Smith
    http://www.lensgiant.com/
    July 13, 2013, 7:38 am

    I see. So wide-angle lenses are commonly used for landscapes. Now I see the difference in perspective of professionals from usual photographers. They both know what lens to use but they have different perceptions as to how it is being used.

  7. John
    Atlanta
    July 16, 2013, 4:35 pm

    Karina P.
    If you are not getting same light as you think your eyes see, try watching what time of day you photograph landscapes. Approaching noon and until mid afternoon light is flat , colors wash out.
    Also if you are not using a circular polarizing filter…learn

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    July 29, 2013, 3:45 pm

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  9. niagara falls
    USA
    October 18, 2013, 4:16 am

    Beauty of any places can be best captured by the best images.