In last week’s article, I went over what qualities and questions you should be answering when choosing a camera. In part two I’ll be going over the most important aspects of choosing a lens and tripod when diving into landscape photography.
If you haven’t had a chance to read part one of this guide you can check it out here. Just like part one, this won’t be a buying guide on exactly what you need. My goal is to answer the most important questions you might have when trying to decide what’s best for starting out in photography. Truthfully I don’t have experience with every brand, lens, or tripod thus I’d rather try and guide you in figuring out what might be best for you.
I will make a few gear recommendations throughout this article but I highly recommend doing more research into a specific piece of equipment before making a large purchase.
Part one of this series went over camera bodies and ultimately any camera body is capable of taking good landscape images. Thus if you read that article you’ll realize I didn’t focus much on landscape photography specifically. Lenses are much more important when deciding how or what you want to shoot out in the field. Many of the questions below will have answers that are specific to landscape photography so keep that in mind if you might be interested in shooting more than just landscapes as you start your journey.
Are Kit Lenses Any Good?
Considering I recommended systems with kit lenses in part one I think it’s best to start here. In my opinion kit lenses are absolutely the best budget option for anyone starting out. They are heavily discounted when you buy a camera body, 99% of the time they are zoom lenses giving you more options when experimenting, and their biggest drawback of restricted apertures such as f/3.5 to f/5.6 like on the Fujifilm X-T200 I suggested isn’t a problem for landscape photography as you’re very rarely ever shooting below f/8. Are they going to give you the best image quality while also being very inexpensive? Of course not but they provide a great learning platform and starting point for your first system.
Prime Versus Zoom?
Assuming you might already have a camera and you’re looking for a new lens this will be your first question. My opinion is heavily weighted towards zoom lenses, especially if you’re still new to photography. Landscape photography can be shot at all types of focal lengths but how are you supposed to know what you enjoy shooting without actually having options? Using a zoom lens you’ll discover what focal length you enjoy shooting with the most. Let’s say you already know what focal length you prefer and that’s a wide-angle, even having 18-35mm of range to reframe your shots out in the field is invaluable. The main strength of prime lenses is their ability to provide higher apertures, think f/1.4, within a more economical body. This isn’t a priority for landscape photography as I said before you’ll likely be shooting at f/8 or higher the majority of the time. Primes can also provide better image quality for your dollar but it depends on the lenses and realistically you may never notice a difference. Both lenses I carry with me are zoom lenses and I don’t think I would ever make the switch to primes, the versatility is invaluable.
Wide, Standard, or Telephoto Focal Length?
Most people start with a wide-angle lens thinking you need to capture everything in their field of view. This isn’t necessarily wrong but if you’re just picking up landscape photography you might not know what focal length you enjoy shooting the most. If you don’t know the answer there are two things you can do. Find photographers you admire, find photos you admire, look for inspiration, or reflect back on things you might have seen that inspired you to shoot landscape photography. Find out what focal lengths those photos were taken at and use what inspires you to decide what you want to shoot. If that doesn’t help then just get a decent middle of the ground focal length such as 24-105mm or 28-70mm which will give you options at both ends of the spectrum.
Autofocus Versus Manual?
I wanted to include this section even though it’s not a common question. There are quite a few manual focus lens options out there that are great budget options. Yes, most are prime lenses which goes against much of what I said above but if you’re adventurous enough to shoot fully manual then you also likely know what focal length you prefer to shoot at. Overall I’d recommend a lens with autofocus which all major manufacturers will have but don’t sleep on the option of something like this Samyang 16mm f/2 for less than $300. You’ll achieve fantastic image quality for fractions of the cost and manual focus in landscape photography is not an issue. Also depending on the camera, you purchase you can get multiple manual prime lenses for the price of one autofocusing zoom lens. Again, not something I’d recommend for someone starting out, but for those of you with experience, that might be looking for a fun new lens to try, this is an excellent option.
Last but not least you’ll need a tripod. This section is a bit less involved but there are a few questions you might encounter when looking for a good tripod.
Twist Lock or Lever Lock Legs?
Realistically, this will be up to what you prefer in everyday use. The benefit of twist lock legs is slightly less maintenance because they won’t loosen over time. The benefit of lever locks is there are only two positions: unlocked or locked, thus you know for certain if a leg is locked, unlike twist locks. Personally, I shoot with twist locks because it’s what I prefer but you really can’t go wrong here.
Ball Head, Grip Head, or 3-Way Head?
Again this will come down to personal preference but if it’s something you cannot go test out at a store before you buy, here’s a quick comparison. Ball heads are the most common but sometimes suffer from dip once you lock in your camera, that said if you’re buying into a mirrorless system with a smaller lens this won’t be an issue. It doesn’t become an issue until you reach a few pounds of equipment — depending on the ball head of course. 3-way heads don’t have this issue as much but they are a bit more cumbersome to use adding a handle to your head which also increases weight. You might prefer the precision a 3-way head can provide but they will be slightly slower in use. There are a few budget tripods that come with grip heads, specifically from Manfrotto. I’d stay away from these heads. They might work fine when you start out with a light setup but if you ever add weight they will lose their reliability.
My ultimate recommendation for whatever you choose as a tripod is this: do not cut costs here. I don’t mean you need something that is several hundred dollars but you should actively avoid anything under $75. If you spend a little extra here you’ll get something that might last several generations of camera upgrades and also provide more peace of mind when your camera might be in some precarious situations. I’ve shot with a MeFoto GlobeTrotter for almost 10 years and it’s a fantastic balance of quality, weight, and cost. Its little brother, the RoadTrip, is a perfect entry point and sometimes you can even find deals on them. There are quite a few options out there and I would recommend something between $100-200. Don’t blindly listen to my suggestion though, it’s simply the tripod I have the most experience with!
Conclusion and Bonus
If you have any budget leftover or you’re already thinking about the next thing you need to buy it absolutely should be a circular polarizer. I won’t go into a bunch of detail on why as the article I linked covers everything you could possibly want to know. Long story short is that it’s one of the only pieces of equipment that can change your photos in-camera that you simply cannot do after you get home. Its versatility is unmatched and sometimes can make or break a shot. I just did a review on a magnetic system that offers a circular polarizer but if you only plan on having one lens for a long time then there’s nothing wrong with a screw-in filter. Just make sure you get something high quality, a low-quality circular polarizer will ruin your images.
Overall, I hope this guide and video were helpful to those of you thinking about jumping into landscape photography or photography in general. Hopefully, this coming year will allow us a bit more freedom and exploration of our surroundings. I cannot recommend landscape photography enough as an escape or form of mental therapy and truly think it’s one of the best hobbies you can get into to get out into the world.
If you have any suggestions for tripods, lenses, or anything in between, feel free to let me know down below. As always thanks for watching and reading.