Do You Really Need Three Lenses for Landscape Photography?

Choosing the optimal focal length is usually not that big of a problem for landscape photographers. Choosing what lenses to bring when you do not know what you need can be a problem.

Landscape photography can come with a whole set of problems; camera settings, weather conditions, practical issues such as hiking to remote places, and so on. Many landscape photographers enjoy solving these issues and it is very widely acknowledged that if you want a good and unique photo you will have to work for it. However, working hard is not the same as working smart. Sometimes you do not know what to expect from a landscape photography outing, and the best choice during preparation is to cover all the options that might occur. That is how I usually work. When I go to a specific location because I want to photograph it I do not always know what focal length I find to be the most optimal. It actually often happens that something unforeseeable happens and I need to change the lens to photograph whatever unfolds in front of my eyes.

Photographed at 16 mm with my 12-24 mm ultra wide-angle lens. At this focal length I can really emphasize the foreground and create a lot of depth. The drawback can be you include more sky than what is needed. In this case the dark clouds adds a lot of drama.

The Holy Trinity of Lenses

The standard choice of lenses for most landscape photographers are the so-called holy trinity of lenses. A wide-angle zoom, a standard zoom, and a telephoto zoom lens. These days I use a 12-24mm, 24-105mm, and 100-400mm – all Sony FE lenses. The reason why these three are often the go-to lenses are they collectively can cover a focal range from 12mm to 400mm, which is equal to a field of view from 122 degrees to 6.2 degrees in full frame terms. This gives you enormous flexibility to use the entire sensor without having to crop the photo or stitch multiple photos to create a wider field of view.

The downside is of course you will have to carry more gear into the field and more gear equals more weight, which can be a huge issue on longer hikes.

The sky started to light up but only along the horizon. I had to move back, change to the 100-400 mm lens and shoot at 166 mm to get an optimal perspective compression and only include the sky along the horizon.

What to Prioritize?

In the above video, I get to use all my three lenses during a single sunrise and I would have kicked myself if I had not brought all three lenses as all three photos are very different and have each their own characteristic. The wide-angle, the standard, and the telephoto zoom were all in use to cover the different lighting that happened during the sunrise and it goes to show three lenses are not overkill for landscape photography. However, what would I have done if I were to go on a big hike? What would I sacrifice first?

Tripod

Since I consider my focal length range essential, I would likely ditch my big heavy tripod first and only use my much lighter travel tripod. I have used a travel tripod for years and it is usually sufficient, even in high winds.

Lenses

Sadly, there is in my experience, not any formula for deciding what lens to leave behind as I have used everything from 12mm to 400mm in almost all kinds of terrain. Since you probably have a decent idea of where you are going and what to expect, I’d choose the one lens I know I’ll need to get the photo and make an estimated guess to what secondary lens I’ll bring.

If you have a 16-35mm as your wide-angle and a 70-200mm as your telephoto, you can often do with these two, but personally, I prefer my 100-400mm to the 70-200, so I often end up having to prioritize my 24-105mm and then choose either the wide-angle or the telephoto.

There is also the option to slack on the image quality of the lens. Increased quality of lenses and increased weight usually go hand in hand. Superzoom lenses usually lack a lot in quality but they are very practical as they can cover a focal range of something like 28-300mm. The latest 28-200mm lens from Tamron seems to set a new standard for image quality in a superzoom. It may be worth looking into!

Suddenly the clouds started to break up and the most magnificent sun beams erupted. I had to use my 24-105 mm for that intermediate focal length. At 63 mm and a low angle I could include the beautiful foreground of heather and more of the sky.

System Change

A rather controversial suggestion is to not use a full frame system. With smaller sensors, you also get the benefit of smaller lenses and thereby less weight. I stick to full frame because I do a good amount of night and high ISO photography and that is where full frame has the advantage.

However, with a micro 4/3 sensor, you can really bring down the weight of your camera setup. If you want to go all the way, why not try a Sony RX100VII point-and-shoot camera. After all, it covers a focal range of 24-200mm and the photos come out really sharp everything considered.

Conclusion

In conclusion, are three lenses overkill for landscape photography? It depends. It depends on how much you want or can carry; it depends on your expectations, shooting style, preferred types of photos, whether you want to cover all options, or has to cover all options, etc. There is no one correct answer that fits all photographers. That is what makes us different and that is a good thing.

Check out the video above and let me hear how much gear you carry out into the field and what you have done to reduce weight.

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4 Comments

Rayann Elzein's picture

Interesting article! Ideally, I would take my 16-35 + 24-70 + 100-400. Very often I would however leave the 24-70 lens at home to optimize weight. So I end up with a gap between 35 and 100mm but that never really hindered me. In winter days when the sun doesn't rise (in Lapland for example), I would replace the 100-400 by the 70-200/2.8.

Mark Forman's picture

My setup exactly with the focal lengths. However many times I do need f/2.8 So I also go with my 12-24 GM, 16-35 GM and 24-70 GM for lower light situations. I have yet to go with the 70-200mm f/2.8 as the 100-400 even though slower can be more versatile on the long end.

Jacques Cornell's picture

A 10x zoom is usually all I need. If I want to go wider, I shoot to stitch. I can carry my Panasonic GX9 & 14-140 in a small TLZ pouch on my chest while hiking.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Well...if it comes right down to it, one lens is all you really need if there are no other choices. Which one? That's your choice.