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I used a 24mm wide-angle lens to exaggerate the linear perspective for this cityscape. But the real drama comes from the late afternoon light bouncing off the glass tower that cast yellow highlights on the Wrigley building at right. (Photograph by Dan Westergren)
TravelTraveler Magazine

The Best Lenses for Landscapes

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.