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Choosing a Wide Angle Lens

Wide angle lenses are great. They give a view of the world that just seems to be more interesting than how we see it. They are great for a lot of different subjects, but especially as a landscape photographer, my wide angle lens puts in a ton of hours.

16mm View on a Full-FrameThis is 16mm on a full-frame camera (equiv. to 10mm on a small-frame)

In this post, I will lay out my recommendations for a super wide angle zoom. But before we get into it, let me explain that term "super wide angle zoom." First of all, the term "zoom" does not mean "zoomed in" or "magnified." A zoom lens is simply a lens that isn't stuck at a single magnification. By rotating the zoom ring, you can change how magnified your subject is.

I personally prefer zoom lenses over prime lenses (lenses that don't zoom). They are much more convenient and there is no major difference in image quality these days.

Secondly, "super wide angle" is a pretty loose term. There isn't a set cut off as to what makes something "super wide angle." But I'm going to go ahead and say anything wider than 24mm on a full-frame camera or 16mm on a small-frame camera could be considered "super wide angle." Plain old "wide angle" would be about 24-35mm on a full-frame and 16-24mm on a small-frame.

So that being said, let's look at the lenses I recommend.

Canon 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5

For A Canon Small-Frame Camera
Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 (buy)

This lens is the widest-angle lens Canon makes for their small-frame line of cameras (excluding fisheye). At 10mm, you'll get an angle of view around 107 degrees. That's plenty wide for those sweeping vistas. It also has a USM (Ultra Sonic Motor) Auto Focus drive. That means ultra fast and ultra quiet focusing. At about $750-$800, it's not super cheap, but it gives you a lot of bang for your buck. Every serious landscape photographer using one of the Rebel series cameras, the 60D, 50D, 40D or 7D should seriously consider adding this lens to their collection.

Canon 17-40mm f/4LFor a Canon Full-Frame Camera
Canon 17-40mm f/4L (buy)

Canon offers 2 super wide angle zooms for full-frame cameras: the 17-40mm f/4L and the 16-35mm f/2.8L. Both are professional-grade lenses, delivering the finest quality optics Canon has to offer. I personally use the 16-35mm, but I'm going to recommend the 17-40mm. First of all, the 17-40mm runs about $700-$800, whereas the 16-35mm runs about $1500. That's a big difference in price. The 16-35mm obviously has a slightly wider view, but really, that loss of 1mm with the 17-40mm is no issue at all. Plus, with the 17-40, you get an additional 5mm in the long end. Yes, the max aperture is a bit smaller at f/4 vs f/2.8, but that's no big deal either because you won't often be using the widest aperture - especially not for landscapes. And lastly, the 17-40mm has a 77mm filter thread. The 16-35mm has an 82mm filter thread. 77mm filters are a little easier to come by and the Cokin P filter system (of which I'm a strong supporter) tops out at 77mm.

Nikon 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5For a Nikon Small-Frame Camera
Nikon 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5G (buy)

For you Nikon small-frame shooters, I'd say go with the Nikon 10-24mm lens. 10mm on a Nikon small-frame will give you an obscenely wide angle of view (equivalent to 15mm on a full-frame camera). The Silent Wave Motor means fast, quiet focusing, and a filter thread diameter of 77mm means this lens is compatible with the Cokin P filter system. Runs about $875. Another option is the Nikon 12-24mm f/4G. The optics are a little better than the 10-24, but it's pricier at $1200 and you lose 2mm on the wide end of the lens. 2mm doesn't sound like much, but a 2mm increase on a 10mm lens is a 20% loss of focal length. I'd say stick with the 10-24mm.

Nikon 16-35mm f/4GFor a Nikon Full-Frame Camera
Nikon 16-35mm f/4G (buy)

A lot of people in the Nikon world make a big deal out of the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G. They rave about its image quality and the fact that it can zoom out ultra wide to 14mm, which gives the widest angle of view I'm aware of from a non-fisheye lens. I'm sure the image quality is great and, yes, the super wide view of 14mm is pretty cool, but this lens has one colossal flaw that few people ever address: it doesn't have front filter threads. That means you can't use any of those vital-for-landscape-photography filters like a polarizer or neutral density. Split NDs are definitely out of the question with this lens. So as far as I'm concerned, this lens is practically useless for landscape photography. Oh, and it costs $2000. Instead, I'd recommend the Nikon 16-35mm f/4G. 16mm is as wide as you'll ever need, it has excellent optics and, best of all, it has a front filter thread for 77mm filters. Plus, you'll save almost $900 over the 14-24mm.

DSLR Camera Recommendations

With the holidays upon us, you may be in the market for a DSLR camera to give as a gift (or keep for yourself), so I thought I'd write up a blog post summarizing my thoughts on what to buy according to your budget.

Let me tell you up front that although there is a mix of Canon and Nikon here, I almost always urge people to go with Canon cameras. I've taught well over 200 students on just about every single DSLR Canon and Nikon have to offer. Both manufacturers make excellent cameras and you'd surely be happy with either, but I just find Canon's controls to be quite a bit more user friendly. Also, Nikon cameras have a few quirks that I'm not too crazy about. But really, it's the photographer, not the camera, and truth be told, I find the whole Nikon vs. Canon debate about as useless as arguing over who's dad would win in a fist fight. So please, no letters, Nikon guys.

Let's start first with camera and lens kits:

Canon Rebel T3Under $600
Canon EOS Rebel T3 with EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens (buy)

Canon's Rebel line of DSLR cameras is their "entry level" series aimed at novices, but that certainly doesn't mean these cameras are incapable of even the most advanced photography. They contain all the features an aspiring or intermediate photographer would need, and the Rebel T3 is a great choice at about $500 including the lens. Its 12.2 megapixel sensor gives a lot of bang for your buck and will allow for big prints. A high max ISO of 6400 and a built-in flash will make shooting in low light a breeze. The 18-55mm image stabilized lens isn't a super long range, but it's a good all-around starter lens, nonetheless.

Canon Rebel T3i$600-$1,000
Canon EOS Rebel T3i with EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens (buy)

The T3i is a decent upgrade to the T3 mentioned above with a more robust 18 megapixels and a nice articulating LCD screen to help with those shots where you just can't get your eye to the viewfinder. It also has a slightly faster frame rate of 3.7 frames per second (compared to 3 fps on the T3). Add to that an image stabilized lens with a longer zoom range and you've got yourself a winning combination. Priced around $1000.

Canon EOS 60D$1,000-$1,500
Canon EOS 60D with EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens (buy) --OR-- Nikon D7000 with 18-105mm DX VR Lens (buy)

The EOS 60D is the first upgrade out of the Rebel series cameras from Canon. Its controls are far more convenient to use than the Rebels and it has a much higher max ISO of 12800. You get the same 18 megapixels that the T3i has to offer, but a much faster frame rate of 5.3 fps, which makes the 60D way more capable when it comes to photographing action. You still get that sweet articulating LCD screen, too. The kit 18-200mm lens is a super long range, good for everything from landscapes to portraits to sports. Price is around $1300-$1400. In my opinion, the extra $300-$400 over the T3i is worth every penny.

Nikon D7000Although the Nikon D7000 has a few less megapixels at 16.2, its 39-point auto focus system blows the 60D's 9-point AF out of the water. The 3D Tracking Auto Focus feature is unbelievable, too. It's a major boon when shooting action. The D7000 also has a much more professional build and feel to it that the 60D can't match. The 18-105mm lens doesn't reach quite as far as Canon's, but the auto focus system alone on this Nikon makes the extra $100 or so over the 60D totally worth it. Priced around $1400-$1500.

Canon EOS &D$1,500-$2,500
Canon EOS 7D with EF-S 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM Lens (buy)

In my opinion, the EOS 7D is the best camera in Canon's lineup right now. A built-in electronic level, electronic viewfinder, an insanely advanced 19-point auto focus system, a blazing fast 8 fps frame rate, a high max ISO of 12800 and a gorgeous 18 megapixels - it's all top-tier on this camera. This thing is designed for wildlife, sports and other action, but it's just as comfortable in the hands of a landscape or portrait shooter. And don't worry about that digital crop sensor. You don't need a full-frame camera. Priced around $1600-$1700 with a versatile 28-135mm lens. Worth every penny.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II$2,500+
Canon EOS 5D Mark II with 24-105mm f/4L IS USM (buy)

The 5D Mark II is Canon's update to the industry-changing 5D. I currently use a 5D (the older one, not the Mark II) and I love it. The Mark II has a huge 21.1 megapixel full-frame sensor with an obnoxiously high max ISO of 25600. Works great in low-light and it's an excellent landscape camera. The auto focus system on the 5D, though, is out-dated and may have a hard time keeping up with action. Also, the 5D Mark II is due for an update. It's been around for awhile now and will most likely see a refresh early next year. The kit 24-105mm f/4L lens is top-notch. It's actually a lens I wish I had. Priced around $3100-$3200.

 

If you're looking at getting just a camera body, check out these recommendations:

Canon EOS 60D$600-$1,000
Canon EOS 60D (buy)

If you already have some lenses or maybe you're thinking of upgrading your Canon Rebel, the 60D is a perfect choice. See the notes above for details on what makes this camera great. Priced around $875-$975.

 

$1,000-$1,500
Nikon D7000 (buy)

An awesome camera with a superb auto focus system. The D7000 would be an excellent upgrade for you Nikon shooters. Runs about $1100-$1200.

Nikon D300s

$1,500-$2,000
Canon EOS 7D (buy) --OR-- Nikon D300s (buy)

Either of these cameras would be a great upgrade to someone who already has a budding collection of Canon or Nikon lenses. The 7D runs about $1500-$1600 and the D300s is around $1700. The D300s has a mind-blowing 51-point auto focus system and an impressive 7 fps frame rate. Much like the Canon 7D, this thing is designed for shooting action. Great build quality, too, but a max ISO of only 6400 isn't too impressive for a camera at this price range. Also, its 12.3 megapixel sensor leaves a little bit to be desired these days.

$2,000+
Canon EOS 5D Mark II (buy)

See the notes and disclaimers above regarding this camera. The body by itself runs about $2300-$2400.


Photography Tips: Do I Need a Full Frame Camera?

(Updated April 2013)

I've had many students approach me and say something along these lines: "I'm trying to decide whether or not to upgrade to a full-frame camera" or "once I upgrade to a full-frame camera..." or anything like this that seems to hint at a full-frame camera somehow being better than a standard digital format (APS-C) sensor. So the real question you should ask yourself is "Do I need a full frame camera?"

The answer is simple: No. No you don't.

"But what if I want to-"

No. Still no.

Regardless of what kind of photography you are doing, you don't need to upgrade to a full-frame camera. In fact, even using the word "upgrade" when you talk about full-frame is not quite accurate. "Upgrade" implies that a full-frame camera would naturally be better than an APS-C camera. Well they are more expensive after all...

Do I Need a Full Frame Camera? ^ A full-frame sensor has the same
dimensions as a piece of 35mm film:
24mm tall by 36mm wide.

APS-C Sensor Size ^ An APS-C or "digital crop" sensor has the same
dimensions as a piece of the short-lived APS-C:
size film: 16.7mm tall by 25.1mm wide.

Do I Need a Full Frame Camera? ^ Overlay the APS-C on top of the full-frame sensor
and you can see how much a digital crop sensor
will crop the image. But does that mean
it's inferior to a full-frame?

The thing is, though, that a full-frame camera is not necessarily any better than a digital format camera. Take the Canon EOS 7D and EOS 5D Mark II cameras for example - two cameras that were on the market at the same time. The 5D is a full-frame camera and cost about $2500 when it was new. The 7D, on the other hand, has a digital crop sensor and cost about $1700 new. In my opinion, the 7D is a far better camera than the 5D Mark II for several reasons.

First, the 5D's auto focus system pales in comparison to the 7D's. The 7D also has an electronic viewfinder that can pull up a grid on demand. The 7D has an electronic level, a much faster frame rate and a more advanced metering system. The list goes on. And that's not even addressing the $5000 Canon EOS 1D Mark IV. That camera isn't full frame, but it has many advantages over the 5D including one of the fastest frame rates of any camera, a longer-lasting shutter, weather sealing, a better AF system and dual memory card slots. Again, the list goes on.

So a full frame camera is not an "upgrade" necessarily.

But then what's all this talk about getting a full-frame camera? Well, first things first: look at who makes a big deal about getting a full-frame camera. That mentality usually comes from beginner photographers, gear reviewers, and internet forums. (Which, by the way, you might want to stay out of internet photography forums. They are absolutely saturated with false information. In fact, read this blog post titled "5 Quick Bits of Advice for Beginning Photographers.")

So don't listen to what beginners have to say about camera recommendations. That's the blind leading the blind. Any professional worth his salt will tell you that it really doesn't matter that much what camera you have. And not coincidentally, the first question out of a real pro's mouth will never be "what camera do you use?" Why? Because pros don't care and pros know it ain't the camera. It'd be like asking a painter what brushes he uses.

As a professional with tons of experience, let me tell you why I use a full-frame camera and why they get a reputation of being better.

I use a full frame camera for 2 reasons that actually really boil down to just one: I used to shoot film. I shot film for about 5-6 years before switching completely to digital. In that 5 or 6 years, I got used to certain focal lengths looking a certain way. In other words, 16mm looked a certain way to me because I was used to the "full-frame" film view of it. Had I put that 16mm on a digital crop sensor (which I could have), suddenly 16mm on my lens wouldn't match up with 16mm in my mind. It would have been more "zoomed in" than I'm used to.

So if you shot extensively with film before getting your DSLR, then you might want to look at a full-frame camera. But if you started your photography adventure on a digital crop DSLR, then all is fine in your world. 16mm looks a certain way to you and that's all that matters. Your 16mm won't match my 16mm, but who cares? We're not going to compare mental image pictures to see who's is more zoomed in. But for me, I didn't want to have to "re-learn" my focal lengths. That would be a lot of habits to break and I didn't want to throw that kind of wrench in my gears, so I went with a full-frame.

Then there's the argument that full-frame cameras are better for wide-angle shots (like landscapes) because the sensor doesn't crop the image and, therefore, you get a wider view. Well, that is technically true that you get a wider angle image on a full-frame camera with the same lens. For instance, if you put a 16mm lens on a full-frame camera, you get a field of view measuring about 108 degrees wide. Put that same 16mm on a digital crop camera and that angle shrinks to somewhere around 84 degrees. That's a pretty big difference.

Advantages of a Full Frame Camera^ The blue border indicates the image as it would appear on
a full-frame sensor with a 16mm lens. The green border indicates
the image on a digital crop sensor with the same 16mm focal length.

Digital Crop vs. Full Frame Sensors^ This is the image at 16mm on a full-frame.

Digital Crop vs. Full Frame Sensors^ This is the image at 16mm on a digital crop sensor.

This used to be a problem in the early, early days of DSLR cameras because the widest lens available was about 16mm (before getting in to fisheye). So if you wanted that full 108-degree angle of view, you couldn't get it on a digital crop sensor. But the thing is, that doesn't matter anymore. It doesn't matter because Canon and Nikon were smart enough to come out with wide angle lenses compatible only with digital crop sensors that now go all the way to 10mm. And, wouldn't you know it, 10mm on a digital crop sensor gives you a field of view measuring (drumroll please) 108 degrees wide.

That's right. A 10mm lens on your digital crop DSLR will give you the exact same view as 16mm on my full-frame camera. So the "wide angle argument" is null and void.

Digital Crop vs. Full Frame Sensors ^ 16mm on a full-frame will give you the same angle of view as a
10mm on an APS-C sensor (or 11mm on a Nikon digital format).

Digital Crop vs. Full Frame Sensors ^ 16mm on a full-frame or 10mm on a digital crop sensor
- either would give you this same image.

Another argument for full-frame is that full-frame cameras perform better at higher ISO's. That is true with all things being equal. If you try to cram 21 megapixels into a digital crop sensor, noise will be a bigger problem than on a full-frame camera where the pixels have more room to "breathe." But I still call folly on this argument because camera companies are getting so good at noise reduction that high ISO noise really isn't that big of an issue on the latest cameras. And every time they release a new camera, the noise reduction gets better. So the noise on your new 18 megapixel digital crop sensor may very well be better than my 7-year-old 12 megapixel full-frame camera (I use an "ancient" first-generation Canon 5D). Besides, I could write an entire post about digital noise and how people make way too big of a deal about it. Unless you're printing gallery-quality billboards, stop worrying about noise. Most people's pictures end up about 2 inches wide by 3 inches tall on Facebook. And if you want to feel real good about your camera's noise performance at ISO 3200, try shooting ISO 3200 film for a week.

The last argument for full-frame that has any validity to it is that full-frame cameras give you a smaller depth of field. This isn't because a bigger sensor creates a smaller DOF. In fact, the size of the sensor has no bearing whatsoever on DOF. But the reason full-frame cameras create a smaller DOF is that with a full-frame camera, you have to use a longer lens to get the same shot. In other words, if you and I are both going to take the same picture and you're going to use a 50mm lens, well then I'll have to use an 80mm lens. Since your sensor is cropping the image, I have to use a lens with more magnification in order to match you. And since longer lenses have smaller depths of field, my lens will blur the background more than yours at the same aperture. So for portrait photographers who want real blurry backgrounds, that's a good thing. But for landscape photographers, that's not so great.

Also, look at the other side of the coin here. With a full-frame camera, you'll need a longer lens to get the same shot as with a digital crop sensor. For instance, if you need 300mm to get a shot of a bird on your small-frame camera, I'll need 480mm on my full-frame. A 300mm f/4 lens costs about $1400. A 500mm f/4 costs about $7000. I'll have to spend an extra $5600 to get the same magnification as you! This is why sports and wildlife shooters tend to prefer small-sensor cameras.

So don't feel like you need to get a full-frame camera. Your current DSLR is great. You can do amazing things with it. Instead of buying that new camera, spend some time learning the camera you have. Become a better photographer. Take classes, read books, practice like crazy and always remember that it's the photographer, not the camera.

 Parts of this article including the example images and graphics are from the "Composition for Dramatic Landscapes" online course.