The Perfect Sunrise

by NULLZ

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This spring, I want to do a few trips to mountains to take some shots of mountain landscapes, including in sunrise/sunset environments.

I already have a Nikon 18-200mm VR (3.5-5.6). I imagine that it would be better to buy one fixed-length lens with a larger aperture.

Is it true?

If so, what are the most used fixed-length lenses for mountain landscape photography on a cropped sensor DSLR? 35mm? 50mm? Something else? I thought about 50mm f/1.4G, but I'm not sure if this length is appropriated for this type of photography.

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Do you have any problems with the 18-200 being too heavy? That's the only strong reason I can see to get a prime lens for this. Otherwise spend the cash on a tripod, or some good walking shoes, a comfortable camera bag/backpack, etc... –  drfrogsplat Dec 13 '10 at 6:46
    
In general, for me, a fast 50mm was a great travel companion to the 18-200 VR. It's well suited for use, when the 18-200mm falls short (low-light, Bokeh, etc) –  mkraken Dec 15 '10 at 15:58
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4 Answers

up vote 11 down vote accepted

The lens you have should be perfectly fine. For mountain landscapes, you'll want a wide angle lens so the wide end of your 18-200 should do nicely. You'll want a lot of depth of field for these types of shots, so you'll actually want to stop the lens down quite a bit. So using a large aperture lens would probably be a waste. Instead of getting a new lens, think about getting a tripod (if you don't already have one) - it'll allow you to stop down to get lot of depth even in low light (sunrise/sunset).

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Agreed - use a tripod! But, Remember to turn off VR (when doing so) If your camera body has a "Mirror Up" mode, you can also use this to further reduce camera shake (in combo with a good shutter release or remote) –  mkraken Dec 14 '10 at 15:41
    
It should be noted that the wide angle is not the only useful angle for landscapes. Telephoto focal lengths can also be used to great effect in landscape photography. See my answer for a link to an article by Andy Mumford on the use of telephoto in landscape photography. –  jrista Dec 14 '10 at 23:20
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If you have a tripod, it doesn't really matter. As others have said, you can just use f/11 and any wide angle lens, no matter what its maximum speed speed (or indeed quality when wide open) will be fine. If you need a wider view, shoot several overlapping shots and stitch them later. So far so good.

But I suspect the reason you're asking is that you're worried about shooting hand held in marginal light (e.g. at sunset) and don't think f/3.5 - even with VR - will be sufficient. In fact, the VR will be helping you nearly as much as a wide aperture, since you're talking about camera shake rather than subject movement. Honestly, shooting without a a tripod in poor light is always going to involve compromises like cranking up the ISO. Consider a beanbag or mini-tripod/Gorillapod if you don't want to carry the real thing, because nothing - not even a faster lens - will make the problems go away.

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50mm on a cropped sensor won't be wide enough.

the 18mm should be good; the advice to stop down aperture is very good.

If you want to experiment with even wider lenses, consider renting something like the sigma 10-20 to go with your existing zoom. don't buy it until you use one and see if you think it makes sense adn you like the results. (generic recommendation; don't buy any lens until you rent it and try one out...)

Another option I'm using more these days -- multi-image stitched panoramas. Put the camera on a tripod, flip it vertical, and take a series of images and then stitch them together (I use photoshop for that). A lot of the best landscape pieces of george lepp are done that way, and I was having a terrible time figuring out how to emulate them until I had a chance to see him talk on the subject. That is in many cases a great alternative the "must go wider" school of buying ever more expensive lenses...

For landscape, IMHO you'll rarely be happy with the results handheld. You really want a high aperture to maximize depth of field. I ALWAYS put the camera on a tripod now when doing any kind of landscape, and I ALWAYS put a cable remote on it to eliminate camera shake from pushing the shutter button. I learned that one the hard way while shooting ice falls on yosemite falls in winter one time, only to find most of the images unusable.

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+1 for the advice about multi-image stitched panoramas. This is a truly powerful method of taking photos of landscapes. I find myself working with a focal length of 50 to 70 mm when creating panoramas and I use Hugin to stitch the images together, which it does with an effectiveness that seems nothing short of magical. –  labnut Dec 13 '10 at 17:01
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Isn't it true, that creating stitched panoramas requires not so wide lenses because you need less distorted perspective. Because the wider you go the more distort you get... With 50mm (×1.6 for DSLR) it should be fine. But not with 18mm or so. –  Robert Koritnik Dec 14 '10 at 8:50
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Also saying '50mm isn't wide enough for landscapes' is misinformation. Its not wide enough for a single wide angle photograph or a 'vista' but I regularly use my 135mm f2 for landscape photography, either as a single image or a few stitched. In fact, my "going out landscapin'" bag is a 5DmkII, 24mm TSE and 70-200 f2.8 IS. –  Shizam Dec 14 '10 at 21:17
    
@Robert Koritnik: Yes, with stitched panoramas it helps to use a low distortion lens. I have had excellent results with a Sigma F2 50mm macro lens which produces a low distortion image. –  labnut Dec 15 '10 at 10:08
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First, let me start off by saying this: Don't underestimate the value of telephoto for landscapes. While wide angle has generally been the primary choice for people who wish to photograph landscapes, the telephoto range (70-80mm and up) has a LOT to offer in the way of intriguing landscape compositions. That said...

Primes usually offer better quality, and can (sometimes) be lighter than their zoom counterparts. If you want the utmost in quality, a prime will probably serve you well. Keep in mind that a prime will limit your compositional freedom, and you will have to physically move your camera to reframe. You can also use copious amounts of post-process cropping, but you lose resolution that way, so its not particularly ideal unless you have megapixels to spare.

These days, zoom lenses are very well built, and utilize a variety of special lens elements to correct various optical aberrations like chromatic aberration and whatnot. I find it useful to have a variety of lenses on hand for my landscape photography. I am a Canon user, however there are similar lenses for Nikon users. My two primary lenses are my EF 16-35mm f/2.8 L II wide angle zoom, and my EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS USM telephoto zoom. These cover most (but not all) of my needs on most days. The telephoto triples as a landscape lens, a wildlife lens, and a birding lens. Excellent lens. Nikon has similar lenses, such as their 14-24mm ultrawide zoom and their 80-400mm telephoto zoom.

Between these two extremes, I also highly recommend some "normal" lenses. The standard 50mm is pretty much a given, as it is a great focal length that can be had for extremely cheap these days. If you really want to take prime lenses to the extreme, and really make your landscape photography stand out, I also recommend looking into tilt/shift lenses. Normal lenses provide one, maybe two controls: focus and zoom. A tilt/shift lens adds three more controls: tilt, shift, and rotation (-90 to +90 degrees, allowing you to control the plane of shift and tilt within a 180 degree rotation.) With these additional lens movements, you have creative control over your focal plane, which allows you much greater freedom over what parts of your scene are in-focus, and what parts are out of focus. For landscapes, you can either use this to easily bring your whole entire scene into focus without having to use an extremely small aperture, or use it to create non-planar focus in your scene (i.e. have one half of your scene out of focus from top to bottom, while the other half is in focus.)

Canon offers tilt/shift lenses, or TS-E lenses, in several varieties: 17mm, 24mm, 45mm, and 90mm. I believe that Nikon offers a couple tilt/shift lenses, however I am not sure what level of quality they offer. There are also a couple third party lens manufacturers who make tilt shift lenses for Nikon, including Hartbeli, Hartbeli & Zeiss, and a creative tilt/shift lens by LensBaby.

Regarding a cropped sensor, I think the best way to deal with that is simply apply the crop factor to the focal length. There are some general guidelines that can help you determine which focal length will be useful for particular types of photography. For Nikon, the crop factor is 1.5, so:

                            | FF Focal Length |  Crop Factor Required 
                            |                 |      Focal Length
-------------------------------------------------------------------------
"Big" Landscape             |  14mm - 24mm    |       8mm - 16mm
"Close" Landscape           |  24mm - 50mm    |      16mm - 35mm
"Inside" or "Far" Landscape |  85mm - *       |      55mm - *
-------------------------------------------------------------------------
Wildlife in Landscapes      |  24mm - 50mm    |      16mm - 35mm
Wildlife Portraits/Closeup  | 200mm - 600mm   |     135mm - 400mm
-------------------------------------------------------------------------
Birds Perching              | 300mm - 800mm   |     200mm - 550mm
Birds in Flight             | 70mm  - 500mm   |      45mm - 350mm

Now, the above chart is based on my own experience with focal lengths, my own 450D, and a borrowed 5D with a few lenses. Namely, the 16-35mm zoom, a 50mm prime, an 85mm prime, a 100mm macro prime, a 100-400mm telephoto zoom, and a 50-550mm superzoom. Note that for birds in flight or any kind of wildlife in motion, the lenses I have used barely cut it. The Canon EF 100-400mm is capable of capturing birds in flight when there is good lighting, like daytime sunlight or early sunset light on a good summer day. The Sigma Bigma (50-500mm) did not fare well for birds in flight, however it does a pretty decent job for perching birds and rather still wildlife. I know you only mentioned landscapes, however I thought I would throw the rest in there, as telephoto lenses can be useful for both landscape and wildlife...and the two fields of photography are natural extensions of each other (no pun intended.)

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