For this article I will clarify some misunderstandings about landscape photography lenses while giving general advice. Art advice applied to photography is not very common except for the basics of rule of thirds, leading lines and so on. I’ll finish this article with an aesthetic proposition regarding lens choice and mountains. I’ll start with history.
A few decades ago, when I was first interested in photography, prime lenses were superior. The optics, physics and engineering of the zoom couldn’t match a prime. There may have been exceptions, there usually are with absolute rules, but this was generally the case. As I read the Amateur Photographer every week in the library I formed related ideas. Cartier-Bresson advocated the 50mm so that must be good. But, I realised as I explored photography, it was limiting. There were plenty of good shots taken on a wider or longer focal length so my plan was for a 28 or 35mm, 50 or 85, and a 135mm. I couldn’t decide on the possible variations for a perfect system.
It wasn’t a purchasing decision because I was a teenager with no money. It was my early love of photography, stimulated with what I was reading, and zooms were not as good as primes. I was a novice too, taking street shots around London, snow shots of Kent agricultural fields, rooftop shots of my local library juxtaposed with clouds. I still have that black and white print.
After I graduated with my first degree for a short time I took a BTEC photography course at a London college. I’d had no training apart from basic school studies, but knew enough to find the course boring. For one exercise we went to a large visitor attraction house near Richmond, for shots illustrating depth of field. I knew what it was and didn’t need to prove it. I looked at the syllabus and it was more of the same: technical not artistic training.
There was a purism to Cartier-Bresson I found attractive, alongside his pictures which I loved. It suited my inclination and budget to think of minimalist equipment. Not much has changed. I get a thrill when I buy a new camera, which is not very often, but it never lasts. I loved my Sony RX100 for the engineering, style, silk feel as it slipped over my hand. A beautiful device with power, easily carried and ready to go. When I broke it and got a replacement Mark 2 it was no big deal (except it has a hot shoe for an external microphone for video which is what I use it for). It’s the same with hill walking. I’m not, as such, very interested in jackets or tents or boots. I buy rarely then forget about it.
I wasn’t pursuing landscape photography when I was young. Years later when I was, I discovered the most used lens is wide angle. I bought a Canon L 17-40 and 70-210. I rarely used the telephoto and stopped carrying it.
Almost all my catalogue is taken with the wide Canon and more recently, a Sony Zeiss 16-35, and most of my shots are taken at the wider end. I’d estimate about 90% of my work is with 16, 17, 18, 19 or 20mm. It makes sense conceptually and on location. Big mountain views are best with a big field of vision. That’s the experience you have in the mountains. There are occasions when I miss a longer lens for a more abstract shot but it’s rare.
Lens technology has advanced and it is not necessarily true a zoom is inferior to a prime. Top range zooms like the Canon L series and Sony Zeiss will beat many primes. I wanted to optimise my gear and reasoned a good (expensive) lens would not only replace two primes but allow for in between flexibility. It made economic and functional sense, especially for hill walking when you want minimal weight and maximum efficiency.
A zoom lens is by far the best for hill walking. It gives you dramatically different possibilities in terms of framing, composition, and artistry. It’s not true that you can compensate by walking around with a fixed lens. There may be occasions when you can do that – an exception to the absolute rule – but I’m referring to years of experience in the Lake District, Wales, Peak District, Alps, Scotland, Pyrenees, and Corsica. There are rocks in the way, rivers where you can’t stand, constant wide viewpoints you can’t capture at 50mm however much you walk backwards.
Conceptually and optically, a wide angle view matches the hill walking experience. A long lens, say 100mm, picks out detail unnaturally. That doesn’t mean I don’t like such shots (I often do) but your eyes don’t work like that, as such, when you’re walking.
The photographs I'm showing here are from a Pyrenees trip 2014. They are wide angle, and I couldn't have taken them with a 100 or even 50mm lens. Click on the pictures and you will see more.