Lens Choices for Outdoor Photography
Written by Daven Mathies
This post is also published at Outdoor Project. Outdoor Project is a local company committed to helping you find, plan, and enjoy your next adventure!
From the snow capped peaks of the Cascade Range to the windswept waters of the Columbia River Gorge, the Pacific Northwest is a big draw for outdoor -enthusiasts. With adventure waiting around every corner, there is also ample photographic opportunity. So when you next hear the call of the wild, here are the best lenses for capturing wildlife, portraits, and landscapes on your journey. As with all creative endeavors, rules are meant to be broken, so we have included a notable exception within each category. In addition, and of most interest to experienced shooters, you will find a pro tip at the end of each category to enhance the learning objective!
Oh wait, before we begin, a note about crop factor. Many cameras user smaller sensors, and thus have crop factor compared to full-frame (35mm) cameras. Non full-frame models from Canon, Nikon, Sony, and Fuji have a crop factor of 1.5X (Canon's is technically 1.6X). Micro Four Thirds cameras (Panasonic, Olympus) have a crop factor of 2X. This means a 100mm lens on a MFT camera looks like a 200mm on a full-frame camera.
Okay, now on with the show!
Beginner photographers often believe that long telephoto lenses—like those hulking 600mm lenses you see on the sidelines of football games—allow you to shoot great photos of birds, bears, and other beasts (like football players) from a comfortable, safe distance. While this is partly true, the reality is that the best wildlife photographers still need to get uncomfortably close to their subjects to capture the type of photos you may have seen in National Geographic. The moral is that you can’t rely on your gear to get the shot, but you can improve your luck by working with the longest lens you can find. As a general rule, you’ll want to use something beyond 200mm, and probably much more. These “big glass” lenses get pretty expensive, so consider renting for a weekend if this isn’t a lens you’re going to need more than a few times a year. Also, keep in mind that, at least for DSLR shooters, these lenses are going to add quite a bit of weight to your kit—even more once you realize you’re going to need a tripod. (Hint: you’re going to need a tripod.)
Suggested Lenses: Canon 100-400mm, Nikon 80-400mm, Fuji 50-230mm, Sony 55-210mm, Panasonic 100-300mm
When shooting small animals, especially insects, you may run into the “minimum focusing distance” error on long telephoto lenses, which typically require several feet of distance between you and your subject to be able to focus properly. In this case, a macro lens is your best friend. If you can sneak up close enough on your subject, a macro lens will let you bring out astonishing detail that you didn’t even notice with your naked eye. (Just be careful not to get bit or stung!)
Long telephoto lenses (400mm+) have narrow fields of view, which make it tricky to track moving subjects in the viewfinder. Gimbal tripod heads, such as those by Wimberley, help by balancing the weight of the camera and lens and allowing very smooth pans and tilts. You can rent these heads and attach them to any standard tripod—just make sure your tripod is rated for the combined weight of the head, lens, and camera.
People tend to not be quite as skittish as animals, but telephoto lenses are also useful for portraits as they will allow you to keep a comfortable distance from your human subjects. Many portrait photographers prefer a lens in the 50mm to 200mm range, with the classic 85mm prime lens occupying a sweet spot. In addition to giving your subject breathing room, short telephoto lenses have a very flattering “compression” effect, opposite to wide-angle lenses which have distortion, stretching and accentuating facial features in unappealing ways. Telephoto lenses also produce a shallower depth-of-field than wide-angle lenses at the same aperture value, thereby rendering softer (more out-of-focus) backgrounds, which makes your subject stand out. Use a fast telephoto lens, such as an 85mm f/1.8, to increase the effect.
Suggested lenses: Canon 85mm f/1.8, Nikon 85mm f/1.8, Fuji 56mm f/1.2, Sony 50mm f/1.8, Olympus 45mm f/1.8
When the environment matters, a close-up, shallow-depth-of-field portrait won’t cut it. This is where a wide-angle lens may be preferable. Maintain distance from your subject to take in the surrounding area and keep your subject somewhat near the center of the frame to minimize distortion; then select a smaller aperture (f/8, f/11, etc.) to increase depth of field. This will treat both the person and the place as subjects in your photo, and will tell an inherently different story than the standard portrait.
Always take time to experiment. Step closer, step farther away, change your framing, change your focal length (switch lenses or zoom in/out), and generally shoot more than you think you need to. As a general rule, take at least one close-up and one environmental portrait for each subject/location.
Wide-angle lenses are the common suggestion here, as they allow you to take in a large swath of area and their distortion characteristics aren’t so noticeable on things like trees and rocks as they are on human faces. Depending on the scene, anything from 14mm to 35mm may be appropriate; the shorter the focal length, the wider the angle of the view and the greater area you will be able to capture.
Suggested Lenses: Canon 10-18mm, Nikon 10-22mm, Fuji 10-24mm, Sony 10-18mm, Panasonic 7-14mm
When shooting distant landscapes, such as a sunset behind a mountain, a telephoto lens may actually be better as it will hone in on the most important area of the landscape and minimize distractions.
Telephoto lenses are also good for multi-exposure panoramic shots, as the distortion of wide-angle lenses makes them more difficult to stitch together. Due to the reduced angle of view, you will need to shoot and stitch more pictures, but that will also greatly increase the final resolution of your panoramic.
Are you an experienced outdoor photographer? What are your go-to lenses? Sound off in the comments!