A question I often see asked in web-forums is ‘what lens do I need for landscape photography?’ and the advice that is usually offered is to use the widest lens you can so that you can ‘get it all in’. I find this advice somewhat strange. To truly ‘get it all in’ would require a camera, lens and tripod setup capable of recording one of those ‘virtual reality’ panoramas which allow nearly unlimited panning via specialised software. These produce images that are fun to play with and can be genuinely useful but as interesting standalone photographs they are somewhat lacking. This is taking things to extremes, of course, but is it so much different from using a lens that offers a near 180° viewing angle? When you do ‘get it all in’ what happens is that you lose any sense of the photographer’s personal viewpoint. The image becomes generic; a scene that could have been taken by almost anybody who happened to show up at that place and time with a wide enough lens.
When giving any sort of advice, it usually helps to try to understand the problem. And here another question reveals itself: ‘what is landscape photography, exactly?’. With portrait work, the subject is clear – and so is the lens choice. A short telephoto gives a flattering perspective as well as a comfortable camera-to-subject distance. Similarly, for wildlife work or sport a long tele is absolutely essential since it’s seldom possible to get as close as you would like to your subject. In fact, most genres dictate the lens choice simply because of considerations of subject matter. But when your subject is the landscape things are not quite so clear-cut. The subject matter quite literally surrounds us. It starts at our feet and continues, unbroken, to the far horizon.
The only lens that can easily cover this vast range is, of course, a superwide so this must obviously be the lens to use. But is it really? Superwides are actually quite difficult to work with and tend to limit compositional options. They take in such a large field of view that filling the frame in an interesting way is quite a challenge, which is why near/far – the oft-derided ‘rock-in-the-corner’ – compositions are so often employed. But if this is the only lens you use then all your pictures will end up looking very similar. Having a ‘one size fits all’ approach to composition is a very quick way to lose the interest of your audience.
So what focal length should you use for landscape photography? Actually, it doesn’t really matter. The important thing is to consider what compositional options a given lens offers, since compositional variety is the key to interesting images. So, my advice is to avoid extremes at either end of the scale and go for a range of options from medium wide to medium tele. For example, when I shoot with my full-frame DSLR my most used lens is a 24-70 zoom and for large format work (where movements allow greater compositional flexibility) I tend to select 120mm, 150mm or 210mm (approximate 35mm equivalents: 35mm, 50mm and 70mm) more often than other focal lengths.
In conclusion, think ‘happy medium’ and leave superwides for those rare occasions when you actually need that extra field of view. This way you will give yourself the greatest flexibility when it comes to framing up interesting parts of the greater landscape.