Lenses for landscape and wildlife photography

I’m often asked, “What is your favourite lens for landscape photography?” and “If you could only take out one lens at a time, which one would it be?” In this article I provide some brief thoughts about each of the lenses I use. This article will be kept up-to-date as my lens collection changes.

Zoom Lenses
I have always preferred the flexibility of zoom lenses for landscape photography, as they allow me to get my composition just right in-camera. This is more important to me than any slight increase in image quality that I might obtain using prime lenses. There is no doubt that the very best prime lenses outperform the best zoom lenses in some areas, but as long as my lenses provide all the quality that I need for the sizes that my images are normally reproduced then that’s all that matters to me. I did use an extremely sharp set of Zeiss prime wide-angle lenses for a time, but eventually switched back to zooms.

Zoom lenses allow precise composition when your shooting position is limited

EF16-35mm f4L IS
This new lens replaced my EF16-35mm f2.8L II in early June 2014. To say that I am pleased with this lens would be an understatement, as it trounces the older lens in all respects. This is my lens of choice for wide-angle landscape photography. Image quality is a huge step forward from the older lens (and the EF17-40mm f4 L) with even sharpness across the frame at all focal lengths. It even produces a nice clear 18-pointed starburst when shooting into the sun. Filter use is no problem with a standard 77mm filter thread. I highly recommend this lens!

EF24-105mm f4L IS
My most used lens for landscape photography! I have seen some poor reviews of this lens, so I think I must have been lucky enough to secure a great example of it. It does vignette a little at 24mm, so I tend to think of it as a 28-105mm. Apart from that it’s a great performer and provides me with images that are sharp across the whole frame, with great contrast and colour. The focal range is very useful and it also makes a great walk-about lens for handheld travel shots, especially as it has image stabilization. My lens spends most of it’s time mounted to a tripod with the IS turned off.

Update: Although I remain very happy with this lens, it is obvious that it’s unable to resolve as much fine detail as the new EF16-35mm f4L IS. I intend to replace it soon with the highly regarded EF24-70mm f2.8L II.

EF70-300mm f4-5.6L IS
This is one of my favourite lenses. It is exceptionally sharp for a zoom lens and provides consistently good results throughout its range. The focal range is extremely useful for landscape photography. This is one of Canon’s newer lenses and incorporates new optical designs and new coatings. I have a more in-depth review of this lens HERE.

Telephoto Lenses
I have always enjoyed using telephoto lenses and employ them as much as possible in all aspects of my photography. After all, if I’ve spent several thousand pounds on a lens I want to get as much use out of it as possible! 

Wild mammals can be some of the most difficult subjects to get close to, especially if you’re not using a hide. On a wildlife safari you may be restricted to a vehicle and not permitted to drive off road. In circumstances like this a long telephoto lens is essential, and often the longer the better! When photographing small birds, even from a hide, a telephoto lens is also essential. I don’t think you can ever have too much focal length for small birds! This is the main reason that I use a 600mm lens.

I use telephoto lenses a lot for my landscape photography as they help to provide a fresh perspective, especially in well-photographed locations. They can be used to pick out interesting details within the landscape, such as layers of mountain ridges, patterns of dry-stone walls and isolated trees. Such distant scenes often go unnoticed by the naked eye. I would even use a 2X extender on my 600mm lens to photograph a landscape scene if the conditions allowed – unfortunately atmospheric conditions often don’t allow!

Telephoto lenses are perfect for capturing aerial perspective

When photographing insects it’s easy to reach straight for a macro lens. However, a close focusing telephoto not only provides a greater working distance from the subject but also creates a beautifully smooth out-of-focus background when used at a wide aperture. When you’re shooting from further away it’s often possible to get the whole insect in sharp focus with the lens aperture wide open, which also permits the use of faster shutter speeds.

Wildflowers might seem to be another subject best suited to a macro lens. However, a telephoto lens will allow you to isolate the flower from the surrounding clutter of vegetation. This not only makes for a more attractive image but also minimizes the amount of “gardening” you might be tempted to do around the plant. Some species rely upon the vegetation that surrounds them for support and protection from the elements, so the least amount of disturbance they get the better. The added benefit of being able to shoot at a wide aperture (and still get enough of the flower sharp) is that you’ll be able to make use of a faster shutter speed to freeze any wind-induced movement in the subject.

Extenders (or tele-converters) increase the versatility of most telephoto lenses. I regularly use both 1.4X and 2X Canon extenders. The 1.4X doesn’t affect image quality very much at all and only slows the autofocus performance a little. The 2X does reduce the autofocus performance considerably, but when used with care it can still produce extremely sharp images in combination with a high quality prime telephoto. With some older lens/extender combinations it is worth stopping down one stop from wide open when using the 2X as this helps to maintain a little more sharpness and contrast across the frame. Extenders do not affect the minimum focusing distance of the lens, so they can be used to great effect if you want a higher magnification ratio, when photographing insects, flowers or small birds.

A 2X extender will double the magnification of your lens, useful when photographing smaller birds, and for head shots.

EF300mm f4L IS
This is my main lens for both insect and wildflower photography. It focuses close and works well with both extenders and extension tubes. Being relatively light and compact it stays in my camera bag most of the time. Unfortunately the tripod collar is hopeless. It has far too much flex and therefore transmits vibration in windy conditions. I use it with a Really Right Stuff Long Lens Support (CB-YS-QR-Pkg) to help overcome this problem. I find the autofocus too slow for capturing action shots – I only use it in manual focus.

EF400mm f5.6L
This lens is reserved exclusively for photographing birds in flight. It excels with this particular subject due to its fast focusing. It is lightweight and compact and therefore easy to handhold. Its minimum focusing distance is poor, so it’s not much use for close-up photography. Its tripod collar is just as bad as the 300mm f4L, but this is not a problem for me as I only shoot it handheld.
EF600mm f4L IS II
When this lens was first released I bought one to replace the three big telephoto lenses that I had at the time (EF400mm f2.8L IS, EF500mm f4L IS and 600mm f4L IS). There were several reasons that I took this decision. The new lens is much lighter – almost the same weight as my old 500mm, so I can easily handhold it for short periods. The new lens focuses much closer than my old 600mm, so I can use it to photograph wildflowers. The new AF system is quicker than all three older lenses. It also uses the new IS system and has the new optical coatings. Basically this one lens allows me to achieve everything that I previously needed three lenses to achieve! It works brilliantly with the Canon 1.4X and 2X extenders. I can easily shoot at f8 at 1200mm and obtain consistently sharp images. It is a fantastic lens and I use it for most of my wildlife photography, as well as many landscapes.

Specialised lenses 

EF180mm f3.5L macro
I use this lens mainly for insect photography; particularly smaller insects for which a longer telephoto doesn’t focus close enough. It has a distinct advantage over a 100mm macro, in that it provides a greater working distance from the subject. This means I’m less likely to disturb the insect, or any vegetation that it might be resting upon. The AF operation is also very slow, so I tend to use it in manual focus 90% of the time. Optically the lens works best from around f5.6 to f11, and this is quite noticeable. Diffraction is quite severe at smaller apertures, and when shot wide open vignetting, colour-fringing and softness around the edges of the frame can be a problem. Nevertheless, this is a lens that I tend to shoot wide open quite a lot in order to blur backgrounds and isolate subjects. Thankfully many of its optical shortcomings can be easily corrected in Lightroom. It is quite an old lens design that could do with updating. On the plus side it works well with either 1.4X or 2X extenders (as long as middle apertures are used). I think image stabilization would be a huge bonus on this particular optic, as it’s one of the few lenses that I tend to use handheld quite often. When photographing insects it’s often necessary to react quickly when they land briefly upon a flower.  

EF100mm f2.8L IS macro
This is another of Canon’s excellent newer lenses. I really cannot fault this optic in any way. I tend to use this focal length mainly for extreme close-ups – lichen, fungi, leaf patterns, smaller flowers, ice patterns etc. When used with the aperture wide open it provides beautifully blurred backgrounds. The latest incarnation of image stabilization works extremely well and it is easy to handhold this lens when shooting active subjects – subject movement becomes an issue long before camera shake! It’s noticeably sharper than the 180mm macro at all apertures and exhibits far fewer optical deficiencies. It is a shame that this lens can’t be used directly with Canon’s extenders, as this limits its versatility. It is possible to use extenders if an extension tube is placed on the lens first, but this isn’t a practical solution for me.

Macro lenses are useful for subjects that require magnification of fine detail, like this wasp's nest

EF24mm TS-E f3.5L II
I owned the previous version of this tilt shift lens for many years. The latest version, however, is in a different league optically. This was the first of Canon’s newer lenses that I was truly impressed by. It is razor sharp from edge to edge (mainly due to the fact that the actual edges of the glass are not used unless lens movements are applied). Colour fringing and vignetting are barely visible (again when movements are not applied). This is a very versatile lens. I regularly make use of the shift function of the lens for panoramas, architecture and woodland scenes. I use the tilt function less frequently but it is of course useful when I need extra depth of field. It also allows me to extract the best quality from the lens by using a middle aperture of around f8, even when I need extensive depth of field. One major benefit of this updated lens is that both tilt and shift movements can be applied together with no need to modify the lens. It can be quite a daunting lens to learn how to use, as it’s covered in knobs and buttons. However, it’s not as complicated as it seems. It is easy to correct converging verticals. I simply level my camera in all directions and then shift the lens as far as is needed to include the top of a building or tree in the frame. The tilt function requires a little more trial and error, as I simply judge the effect by eye using Live View in combination with the depth of field preview button. It is normally only necessary to apply a very small amount of tilt in order to gain the necessary depth of field. Large amounts of tilt usually result in a more abstract effect! The EF17mm TS-E is a desirable lens and also optically excellent. Unfortunately though, the bulbous front element makes it impractical to use filters (I don’t want to have to carry a massive slow to use filter holder!), so it’s a non-starter for me.

Sigma 15mm f2.8 EX Fisheye
This is a great little lens that is extremely sharp, albeit with rather a lot of colour fringing (easily corrected in Lightroom). I use this lens for more abstract images of the landscape, travel images and occasionally wildlife. My own tests have shown it to be a little sharper than Canon’s own 15mm fisheye lens. The AF is slow and noisy, so I tend to focus it manually. This lens can be picked up for just a few hundred pounds secondhand, but it can easily turn a rather ordinary scene into something much more interesting and eye-catching. Just don’t over-use it!

A fisheye lens can add dramatic perspective to architectural scenes

Sigma 24mm f1.8 EX DG
This is not a lens that I use very often, but it’s useful in certain situations because it focuses so close – down to about 15cm! Sometimes it’s the only lens that will allow me to achieve a certain effect. It’s sharp but again colour fringing needs to be corrected in Lightroom. It vignettes heavily when used wide open, but this can be a desirable effect at times.

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