What is the best lens for scenics?

With all its colours spring has blossomed in the interior of British Columbia and photographers are grabbing their cameras and tripods and heading out to record that beauty.

Visitors to my Kamloops shop ask what is the best lens to take along on their excursion to photograph those inspiring landscapes? That’s a good question, especially from those new to photography that are spending hard earned money on pricy modern lenses. There are great zoom lenses available giving us excellent versatility. I prefer lenses like 16-85mm, 18-70mm, or 18-200mm, and there are many more in that range that are light weight and easy to carry that give lots of focal length choices. But, instead of just recommending a particular lens for scenic photography, I want to begin by thinking about perspective.

A wide-angle lens has a curved front surface allowing for a wider view. The distance between the foreground and background subjects will seem extended; objects closer to the lens will look much bigger in relation to all other objects.

For example, using a 18mm focal length lens photographing along a fence will make the first post big and the succeeding posts smaller and smaller. Whereas, a 200mm focal length will give a tightly compressed view, and distances between the first fence post in the foreground and those further back will not look as distant as with the wider 18mm focal length.

In a more practical example, I’m photographing a lake with mountains in the background and a boat on the shore in the foreground. If I use a long focal length like the 200mm all the elements will be compressed in the final image with no subject gaining significance over another. However, if I fitted my camera with a 18mm lens the boat will be large, and those features in the background small and distant. Both are good photographs of that scene, just different interpretations.

The most appropriate lens depends on the perspective the photographer wants to interpret in the final image, and because the focal length adjusts the visual relationships of the objects within the picture, one must think about the image front to back and how much of the scenic is important as a wide, or narrow, aspect. It comes down to the personal vision of the photographer and what he or she wants to say about the landscape being captured. Famous photographer, Ansel Adams said, “problem solve for the final photograph”.

Like Adams states, photographers should be thinking about how the final photograph will be used and how to accomplish that. If one thinks of a photograph as a series of problems to be solved there will be a smooth transition from initial idea to final print. For example one could begin by thinking about the subject and its environment. What is the background and how will that affect the subject? What is in the foreground that will interfere with that subject? If one considers depth of field a decision must be made as to how much is to be “in focus”. In a landscape photograph, photographers might want everything from the foreground to the far off distance to be crystal clear.

There is no one lens that can be termed a “scenic or landscape” lens. Any lens might be used as long as it meets the photographer’s vision. That might be to include a wide vista with a wide-angle lens, or on the other hand, a tighter cropped image created with a telephoto lens might be visually more powerful. The choice of lens for scenics comes down to what the photographer wants the viewer to feel and see.

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