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Lovely view of Kirkjufell mountain captured with an ultra wide angle lens at 15mm and F8 on a full frame camera.

Ultra-Wide Angle Landscapes: Debunking Aperture Myths

or Ultra-Wide Angle Lens Aperture Myths

Opening Perspectives

In the landscape photography community, there’s a continuous discussion that lenses with wide apertures, such as f/2.8 or beyond, are essential for capturing the best images. This belief has led many, including myself, to invest in expensive and heavy ultra-wide angle lenses, under the same assumption that they offer superior performance across all scenarios. However, my experiences switching from APS-C to full-frame, back to APS-C and recently back to full-frame cameras and opting mainly for f/4 lenses have caused me to question this opinion. Let’s delve into why the pursuit of wide apertures in ultra-wide-angle lenses might be overrated for most landscape photographers’ needs.

The Myth of Wide Apertures

The temptation of f/2.8 lenses primarily lies in their ability to perform in low light and provide a shallow depth of field. While these features are beneficial in certain contexts, they are not always necessary or even desirable in landscape photography, especially using ultra-wide angle lenses. The reality is that the majority of landscape shots are taken with the aperture set between f/5.6 and f/11, regardless of the lens’s maximum aperture capability. This range is often referred to as the lens’s “sweet spot,” where it achieves optimal sharpness and depth of field across the entire image. 

In photography, the impact of a wider aperture is less pronounced when using a wider lens. This is because an ultra-wide angle lens already provides a broader depth of field, so even with a wider aperture, a significant portion of the scene remains in focus. Understanding this relationship is important to make creative decisions when composing images and before purchasing a new lens.

Practical Implications and Depth of Field Calculations

To illustrate the practical effects of using different apertures, let’s look at a 16mm ultra-wide-angle lens on a full-frame Sony camera. When focusing on a subject 1-meter away, the depth of field varies significantly with the aperture:

  • At f/2.8, the depth of field is relatively shallow, which can be useful for isolating the subject but is rarely the goal in landscape photography. 
  • At f/4, the depth of field increases, providing more detail in both the foreground and background.
  • At f/8, the depth of field is extensive, ensuring that almost the entire foreground of the scene is in sharp focus.

This changes dramatically, the moment you are focussing on a subject a little further away. Here is an example calculation for a full-frame camera.

1-meter focus distance:

  • f/2.8: DoF is 0.69m (27.17 inches)
  • f/4: DoF is 1.09m (42.91 inches)
  • f/8: DoF is 7.43m (292.52 inches)

2-meters focus distance:

  • f/2.8: DoF is 4.16m (163.78 inches)
  • f/4: DoF is 16.76m (659.84 inches)
  • f/8: DoF is effectively infinite

5-meters focus distance and beyond:

  • f/2.8: DoF is effectively infinite
  • f/4: DoF is effectively infinite
  • f/8: DoF is effectively infinite

When using a 16mm lens to focus on a subject 5 meters away, the choice of aperture has less impact on the depth of field. Instead of taking the depth of field into account, the impact shifts to factors such as lens sharpness and vignetting when selecting the aperture. The best aperture for landscape photography is not a one-size-fits-all solution, as it depends on various factors such as the lens’s sweet spot, distance to foreground and background, and creative vision. The sharpness sweet spot of a lens is usually between f/8 and f/11, where the greatest sharpness is achieved from the centre to the corners. 

While narrow apertures like f/22 result in a greater depth of field, they are not as sharp as apertures in the sweet spot range, due to diffraction effects. On the other hand, wide apertures like f/2.8 can be used to create a soft background or emphasize a specific subject. At the same time, the widest aperture of a lens often does not deliver the sharpest results from corner to corner. Often the center has very good sharpness, with less sharp edges and loss of contrast. This is just a rule of thumb, as more and more very good but expensive lenses with large apertures have been launched on the market recently. 

The choice between wide and small apertures depends on the specific photographic goals and the characteristics of the lens being used.

The above calculations for full-frame cameras with a 16mm ultra-wide-angle lens show that the depth of field at a distance typical for landscape photography at f/4 and f/8 is so deep that the difference in background blur is negligible. This effect changes drastically when using a normal zoom or a telephoto zoom, where the artistic effect of large apertures plays a greater role in photography. 

Manual focus or auto focus on Ultra-Wide Angle Lenses

When using for example my Walimex Pro 12mm F2.0 Sony E-Mount lens (identical to the Samyang 12mm F2.0), it’s important to note that this lens is a manual focus lens designed for APS-C crop sensor mirrorless cameras. The 12mm focal length and F2.0 aperture, combined with the large depth of field of ultra-wide angle lenses, make it well-suited for capturing cityscapes and architecture with manual focus. This means that you can set the focus once in the morning to a set distance of 10 to 15 meters at F2. Now switch to F8 to maintain a consistent focus throughout the day, especially when you don’t need to make frequent adjustments to very close objects. While autofocus is not available with this lens, its manual focus on an ultra-wide angle lens is never an issue, due to the huge depth of field. 

If you are interested in ultra-wide angle lenses for APS-C, I have a detailed blog post on this topic.

Cost and Weight Considerations

The pursuit of wide apertures also comes with higher costs and increased weight. For example, the Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 GM lens is significantly more expensive and heavier than the Sony 16-35mm f/4. For those who prioritize landscape photography, the f/4 version offers a compelling balance of performance, weight, and cost. The image quality of the GM series is for sure better, but how often will you notice a difference in everyday use at F8?

Interesting upcoming lens: Laowa 10mm f/2.8 FF Zero-D

The upcoming Laowa 10mm f/2.8 FF Zero-D lens introduces an interesting option for those seeking extreme ultra-wide angles. While its wide-angle view of 10mm might seem appealing, it’s essential to consider how often such an extreme ultra-wide angle view be utilized in cityscape or landscape photography. The lens’s unique focal length and design may offer creative opportunities, but its aperture advantage is likely to be less significant in typical landscape settings. I am an eager ultra-wide-angle fan and am looking forward to the first test results of this unique lens. 

A Practical Approach to Lens Selection

For those drawn to landscape photography, considering lenses like the Sony 16-35mm f/4 and the Viltrox 16mm f/1.8 as alternatives to the pricier Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 GM can be a wise decision. These lenses offer the versatility and image quality necessary for most landscape work without the added expense and weight of their f/2.8 counterparts. 

If the ability to work in low light is needed, the F1.8 Viltrox 16mm could be an interesting choice, for significantly less money. But note that it’s not a very lightweight lens. For this reason, I don’t take it with me as often as I would like.

In addition, I recommend using APS-C lenses on high-resolution camera bodies to have a small travelling kit. For those who are interested in this topic, I wrote a detailed blog post.

Closing Reflections

In my opinion, the fascination for wide apertures in ultra-wide-angle lenses is largely overestimated in landscape photography. For sure, if you have a specific type of photography, it might be very helpful, or if you are aiming for astrophotography, you have to get as much light as possible onto your sensor, but for most users, a good F4 lens might be the better, lighter and cheaper choice. The majority of landscape images benefit from narrower apertures, where lenses like the Sony 16-35mm f/4 excel in terms of sharpness and depth of field. By opting for such lenses, photographers can save money and reduce their gear’s weight without compromising on image quality. Ultimately, understanding the specific needs of your photography style and the practical benefits of different lenses can lead to more informed and satisfying equipment choices.

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Frederic Konkel

My name is Frederic B. Konkel and to capture landscapes and cityscapes is a big passion of mine. I'm currently back in Berlin, Germany. I love to explore new places and I'm using my cameras to document these moments. On F.B.K. Photography I showcase a few impressions of my captured moments from around the world.