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How The Best Lenses for Landscape Photography Create a Sense of Scale

by Justin Katz
featured, photo & video, Uncategorized

There is something that beginner landscape photographers often struggle with. I know, because I spent years struggling with it too. It is creating a sense of scale in your photographs, so that they are visually appealing and really draw a viewer into a landscape.

This is often a very difficult concept, especially because when you are physically on-location, the scale and perception of depth in the view appears obvious. But something happens when you try and capture that in an image; it loses that magical sense of awe that you felt standing there. This is where understanding how to use the best lenses for landscape photography, can really help to bring that sense of scale, depth, and intrigue back into your image.

Visual storytelling is a unique challenge. Figuring out how to capture an image that conveys both meaning and sense of scale, without distracting from the landscape itself, isn’t easy.

best lens for landscape photography

In order to improve as a landscape photographer, you really have to actively search for ways to set yourself apart. Especially when it comes to some of the highly-photographed scenes (the ones that are too accessible), in order to make your image unique, you have to figure out how to approach creating a new dimension to the scene.

In this video from his landscape photography course, pro photographer Marc Muench explains this concept in more detail.

Scale

Scale is a visual aid to understanding size. In allows us to create depth, and in doing so introduce an element of drama to the scene. Marc’s course does a great job at communicating how to use scale to your advantage when framing your shot.


Learn how to create incredible landscape shots for your portfolio with Peter Eastway & Tony Hewitt in Fine Art Landscape and Travel Photography – Live right now!


Scale is about proportion, and relation of the size of one thing to another. Deliberately featuring items in your shot that the eye can recognize and relate to instantly, is one way to establish that relationship. People, trees, animals, cars, etc. are all objects that give scale and proportion to a scene.

Landscape photography without scale; using the best lens for landscape photography

In this image, it can be difficult to determine how large or small any of the elements are without any point of reference.

Landscape photography with scale; using the best lens for landscape photography

By adding a subject that the viewer can immediately identify with, we are able to give a sense of scale to the entire scene.

There is another element to scale that can be utilized creatively, which is that you can use it to trick the eye, and create an intentional false sense of scale. Thinking along these lines can help to mix up the way we normally look at a scene.

best lens for landscape photography

Creating Depth with Distance

This is the part where selecting the best lens for landscape photography becomes so important. If used correctly, your lens can be a powerful tool for conveying distance and depth in your scene.

There are two ways in which distance can be utilized to your advantage in this regard:

  1. The distance from the lens to the subject
  2. The distance from the subject to the background

By understanding how these elements work, and by experimenting with how you compose your pictures so that the subject is the right size in comparison to the landscape, is how you will be able to achieve that sense of scale and distance.

using the best lenses for landscape photos to create depth

Challenges of Using A Wide Angle Lens

Forget the mid-range kit lens that may have come with your camera. A quality wide angle lens is the first lens that any beginner/intermediate landscape photographer should acquire. The reasoning seems straightforward: if you want to capture more of the landscape, and more of what is in your field of view, then zoom out as wide as you can.

A good wide angle lens for capturing large landscapes is anything from a 14mm to 24mm aperture. Some lenses do get wider than that, but once you get below 14mm, you are potentially dealing with such warping of the scene, that you are basically shooting a fisheye-style lens at that point.

However, this is where many beginner landscape photographers go wrong. There is often a tendency to think that simply because you are able to capture a larger part of the scene, that the image is automatically going to be interesting. But simply going wide isn’t enough: you need to use elements in the scene to guide the eye through the image, and to give the viewer a sense of depth that brings out a connection with the image. To understand this better, you can check out the best online photography courses from CreativeLive.

wide angle lenses require something of interest to draw the eye in

While this wide image has a beautiful sky, it lacks a significant sense of depth, making the landscape feel a bit flat.

To counter this, one technique often used by experienced landscape photographers is to use their wide angle lens to frame the scene in such a way that brings foreground elements into larger perspective in the photograph. As in the image below, placing something of interest in the foreground allows you to bring the viewer into the scene, giving them a sense of place and connection with the landscape.

best lens for landscape photography

Trees are a great foreground tool for communicating relative distance and scale

Compression

Compression is the idea of taking two different focal points of a scene, and compressing them together by zooming in with a telephoto lens. It creates a stark contrast between foreground and background, which can enable you to establish a much clearer sense of scale and depth in your image.

By separating the distance of your foreground subject so dramatically from the background, you are actually able to communicate a sense of how truly large the background is.


Learn how to create incredible landscape shots for your portfolio with Peter Eastway & Tony Hewitt in Fine Art Landscape and Travel Photography – Live right now!


The Advantages of Using Telephoto/Zoom Lenses

This is only really achievable using a telephoto lens. By compressing the foreground and the background, you are able to convey a larger sense of drama – a key component in visual storytelling.

Take these two images captured by Marc Muench as an example:

wide angle landscape photo at 24mm

This image is about the size and scale of the waterfall, and having the photographer in this image allows us to understand his relationship to the entire landscape.

Using a zoom lens for compression at 150mm

Once you zoom in to a tighter focal length however, the picture has an entirely different dynamic and feeling. The image is now about the photographer’s relationship with just that waterfall. More compression, more drama, more storytelling, more depth.

The key component here is the focal length of your lens. Your focal length determines the amount of compression between the lens, the subject, and the background. The longer the focal length, the greater the compression. Probably the most commonly used lens for this, and the one that I use is the 70-200mm. However, you will get the most dramatic compression by using a focal length between 200-600mm.

creating compression with the best lens for landscape photography

By zooming in to 200mm, you can emphasize the distinction between the foreground hill and the mountain in the background.

Recommended Best Telephoto Lenses for Landscape Photography

There are many incredible lenses out there, by a variety of manufacturers, that will all help you to create stunning landscape and outdoor images. Unfortunately we will not be able to cover them all here. Choosing which one is right for you is not a decision that should be taken lightly, and we highly recommend renting a lens first before you purchase. It is a great way to test out for a few days if the lens is right for you.

With that in mind, here are some of our top picks for the best lenses for landscape photography that help create a sense of scale.

The Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 // Canon 70-200mm f/2.8

The hefty price-tag, and serious weight of this famous lens may put a lot of people off, but it has become a mainstay in many professionals’ bags for good reason. Personally, I absolutely love my Nikon 70-200mm f/4 as an alternative. It is less expensive, less weight, has better Vibration Reduction, and is arguably just as sharp (if not sharper). However, you miss out on that f/2.8 aperture.

Similarly, the Sony 70-200mm f/4 has some incredible reviews, and should be seen as a great option if you’re in that camp.

The Nikon 200-400mm f/4 // Canon 200-400mm f/4

 

While arguably with these lenses, you make a few sacrifices in terms of optical quality, aperture size, weight, and price. However, the point of highlighting these particular lenses is to call out your ability to gain serious capabilities in terms of compression.

Being able to extend out to 400mm, enables so many more opportunities to capture images that exist only out on the horizon. A perfect example of this is highlighted in Marc Muench’s landscape photography class, where he explains how shooting in Death Valley, California can be incredibly frustrating for a landscape photographer, because everything is so flat and far away. Therefore being able to reach out in the distance and compress the landscape, like in the image below, can make all the difference.

Best lenses for landscape photography

Share this article if you found it to be helpful, and please leave a comment if you have any questions or additional pointers!


Learn how to create incredible landscape shots for your portfolio with Peter Eastway & Tony Hewitt in Fine Art Landscape and Travel Photography – Live right now!


 

 

 

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Justin Katz

Content Marketer at CreativeLive, and outdoor and landscape photographer. I work with great people to create awesome photography content and education.