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The Best Lenses For Outdoor Photography

Our friends at Outdoor Project and Pro Photo Supply put together a piece on choosing the right lens for your next outdoor adventure. Given the incredible weather we've been having here in Portland, we decided to share it here. So grab your camera, head outside, and Plywerk your pictures!

From the snowcapped 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 along 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!

Wildlife

Wildlife-(1) Photo credit: Daven Mathies

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

Portraits

Abby-12 Photo credit: Daven Mathies

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, as well. Many portrait photographers prefer a lens in the 50mm to 200mm range, with the classic 85mm prime lens occupying somewhat of a sweet spot. In addition to giving your subject breathing room, short telephoto lenses have a pleasing “compression” effect, opposite to the stretching effect of wide-angle lenses, than lends a more flattering look to portrait subjects. Telephoto lenses also produce a shallower depth-of-field than wide-angle lenses, rendering softer (more out-of-focus) backgrounds, which makes your subject stand out. Prime lenses (i.e., lenses that don't zoom) are also great for portraiture as they usually have wider apertures, with further reduces depth-of-field and helps separate your subject from the background.

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

Landscapes

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 as noticeable on things like trees and rocks compared to human faces. For this reason, wide-angle lenses typically aren't advised for portraiture (unless you want your friends to look like they all gained a few pounds). Depending on the scene, anything from ultra-wide to just moderately wide may be appropriate.

landscape-lens This photo would look particularly good mounted on a bamboo panel, no? Photo credit: Daven Mathies

Suggested Lenses: Canon 16-35mm (full-frame) or 10-18mm (APS-C), Nikon 16-35mm (full frame) or 10-22mm (APS-C), Fuji 10-24mm, Sony 10-18mm, Panasonic 7-14mm

Are you an experienced outdoor photographer? What are your go-to lenses? Sound off in the comments!

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