My Lens & Gear Choices for Hiking & Nature Photography

Sometimes I get asked “so what lenses do you bring?” and the answer of course is… it depends! :) I created this page as a starting point to answer that question. I’m a Nikon user (by chance, as explained in “Ten Years, Ten Photos – 2007“) but I’m mostly talking about lens types here so none of this should be all too specific to the Nikon brand (yeah, I’d be a terrible brand ambassador, haha!).

I’ve been using “full frame” (Nikon term “FX”) sensor cameras since 2010, so if you’re using a crop sensor camera you’ll have to adjust the focal lengths but the general idea of why I bring what type of lens doesn’t change; you can find crop sensor equivalents easily.

In general, I don’t believe in “fast” lenses for landscape and nature photography. I do mention some prime lenses below and naturally, they are usually “faster”, but I wouldn’t haul a 24-70/2.8 or a 70-200/2.8 around – these lenses, while optically superb, are just way too bulky and heavy to carry them on a hike, and for landscape and nature photography, the f/2.8 is hardly, if ever, really needed.

For your convenience, the linked example photos below will all open in a new browser tab.

And with that, here we go…

#0 Diffuser

This is the accessory that I bring almost all the time. A diffuser allows me to shade a small(er) subject like a flower, or parts of a shrub, to get nice and even light on it – at any time of the day. I wrote more about it here, with comparison photos: The Single Best Tool for Better Nature Close-Up Photos.

#1 Versatile Standard Zoom (AF-S 24-120/4 VR)

This is THE hiking lens for me. It’s not as sharp as a 24-70/2.8 and not as ergonomic, but it’s not as heavy either, and has more reach. The 5x zoom range is really versatile and I wouldn’t want to miss either the 24mm wide end, or the 120mm tele end. Stabilization (VR in the Nikon world) is a huge plus. When I want to limit the amount of bulk and the weight of camera gear on longer and/or more strenuous hikes, this is the only lens that I bring.

Example Photos: “Low & Wide” Landscape (24mm, f/22)Intimate Landscape (46mm, f/5.6)Close-Up (120mm, f/4)

#2 Lightweight Telezoom (AF-P 70-300/3.5-5.6 VR)

I had the old AF-S 70-300mm for a really long time and was always unhappy with its sharpness at the long end — Nikon’s new AF-P version of the classic lightweight 70-300mm telezoom fixes that. It is surprisingly sharp, and I love it, even though it does have two drawbacks:

  1. it doesn’t have a distance scale at all anymore; therefore it is not possible to pre-focus it for close-up work (one has to “activate” the AF with the half-pressed shutter button, and then use the focus ring to manually set it to the closest distance) and
  2. it has quite severe vignetting, especially at the long end, and even stopping down to f/11 doesn’t take care of it enough. When I like to push the files with a heavier edit, this becomes a problem.

Example Photos: Landscape (70mm, f/16)Panorama (70mm, f/11)Intimate Landcape (100mm, f/16)Close-Up (250mm, f/5.6)

#3 Standard Macro (AF-S 105/2.8 VR)

When I know that I’m only going to look for flower/plant photos, this is the only lens that I’ll bring. It’s sharp and versatile, even though for some macro work it’s not long enough for my taste (a 150mm or 200mm macro would be great, but those are both heavier and bulkier, which would defeat the purpose of having a macro lens for a casual morning walk with the camera).

Needless to say – a landscape photo might “accidentally” happen when I only bring this lens, or when its focal length just so happens to work out. :)

Example Photos: Macro (f/11)Close-Up (f/5.6)Intimate Landscape (f/11)Landscape (f/11)

#4 Wide Prime (AF 35/2.0D)

Recently, I’ve begun to add a 35mm prime for flower and plant photos. The old AF-D model is lightweight, compact and sharp. It can focus as close as 25mm (less than a foot) from the sensor plane, so it’s really neat for close-up work with a wider angle.

When I have that lens with me, it is of course nice for “normal” landscape photography as well.

Example Photos: Close-Up (f/8)Intimate Landscape (f/11)Landscape (f/11)

These four lenses are my “core” setup. When I go for hikes I often want to photograph both landscapes and plants in close-up work, and then that’s the gear that I bring.

Following are additional lenses that I might bring depending on the mood I’m in and what goals I might have:

#5 Lightweight 50mm prime (AF 50/1.8D)

This is one of my “instead of” lenses and I bring it mostly when I don’t want to bring the 24-120mm (#1) for weight reasons, and/or want the better optical performance of the prime lenses. So I would have the 35mm, 50mm, 105mm, and the 70-300mm, for example. That way, I can stitch a pano from a few 35mm frames if I really would have to be wider, and the 50mm fills the gap between 35mm and 70mm nicely.

Example Photos: Close-Up (f/11)Intimate Landscape (f/11)Landscape (f/8)

#6 Tilt-Shift Wide Angle (24mm T/S)

This is another “instead of” lens, mostly – I actually really like it, but using it requires a tripod in almost all situations, so I don’t bring it as often as I’d like to, and decide to use the 24-120 instead – the size and weight are about the same, so the 5x zoom’s versatility often wins.

When I do have it with me (and the tripod), it is super easy to create panoramas with this. A shift along the long side of the sensor will result in a higher resolution image that fits nicely into the classic 5:4 aspect ratio; a shift along the short side of the sensor will create a wide pano that fits nicely into 16:7 or 2:1 crops (see examples).

Example Photos (the lens doesn’t report its aperture to the camera): Close-UpIntimate LandscapeLandscapePanorama 1Panorama 2

#7 Ultra Wide Angle Zoom (AF-S 16-35/4 VR)

Over the years, I found myself using ultra-wide lenses less and less, and their appeal has waned for me. I find the way they distort perspective and magnification really difficult to work with, and most of the time this lens remains in my “real estate” photography bag (where it is used all the time, of course). If I know exactly that I’ll be in a location where it will be beneficial (desert slot canyons, coastal scenery) I will bring it along of course.

Example photos: Ultra-Wide Landscape (16mm, f/11)Landscape (24mm, f/16)Intimate Landscape (16mm, f/16)Close-Up (35mm, f/11)

#8 Super-Telezoom (AF-S 200-500/5.6 VR)

Together with the ultra-wide zoom, this is one of my least used lenses nowadays. Originally I was quite excited about the extra reach and the way it allows me to isolate plants, but in reality, the bulk and weight of this lens is just too much to bring it along most of the time when I’m out for flower and plant photos. I’m not a big bird photographer and for the little birds in the chaparral that I’m most interested in, 500mm is hardly enough to get a good close-up photo.

Example Photos: Close-Up (500mm, f/5.6)Wildlife (500mm, f/5.6)Birds (500mm, f/5.6)Intimate Landscape (200mm, f/5.6)Landscape (360mm, f/11)

I hope you found this page interesting. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask. Leave a comment, below, or contact me.

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