On your APS-C sensor camera, would you like a view wider than the kit zoom lens, which is limited to 18mm or 16mm (27 or 24mm equivalent)? The following specialty zoom lenses shoot unusually wide angles of view, with great depth of field (such as for tight interior spaces, architecture, real estate, slot canyons, or sweeping landscapes):
- Sony 10-18mm f/4 OSS Alpha E-mount wide-angle zoom lens (8 oz, 2.75×2.5 inches, SEL1018, 2012) thankfully has OSS image stabilization for more hand-held photography free of a tripod. Its angle of view is that of a 15-27mm in terms of full-frame equivalent. SEL1018 is good for shooting architecture indoors and out, plus landscapes and slot canyons. (It is significantly sharper than Sony’s 18-200mm, SEL18200 lens.) SEL1018 is sharpest at f/5.6 to f/8 as you zoom, with least distortion from 14-18mm.
- Although SEL1018 wasn’t designed for the full-frame Sony Alpha A7 Mirrorless Digital Camera (2013, 17 oz body) or Sony Alpha A7 II camera, you can easily crop away the corner vignetting for surprisingly satisfying results.
For Nikon DX and Canon EF-S DSLR cameras with APS-C sensor, the wide-angle choices unfortunately lack image stabilization:
- Tokina 12-28mm f/4.0 AT-X Pro DX lens (19 oz, 2013) is sharper than the following older lenses:
- Sigma 10-20mm F4-5.6 EX DC HSM
- Tamron 10-24mm F3.5-4.5 Di-II
- Tokina 12-24mm f/4.0
- Tokina AT-X Pro 11-16mm f/2.8 DX II wide angle lens (19 oz, 2012) has sharper, faster, professional-level, pricier optics, best leveraged on a 24 megapixel camera such as Nikon D3300 (2014, 16 oz body).
- Caveats: The above wide-angle Tokina lenses are not image-stabilized, and thereby increase tripod use. Instead, consider the stabilized Sony 10-18mm OSS lens. Image stabilization (such as Nikon Vibration Reduction/VR or Canon IS or Sony OSS or Tamron VC) is most important for telephoto lenses to counteract hand held shake at slow shutter speeds. When built into some wide angle lenses, this feature helps you shoot more sharply at slower shutter speeds (such as in dimmer light), helping to blur flowing water or moving subjects while keeping non-moving subjects sharp in the same image.
Note: These wide angle lenses don’t work well for close-focus (macro) photography − instead use specialty macro lens.
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Stitch panoramas instead of buying a specialty wide-angle lens
Instead of buying a specialty wide-angle lens above, it’s cheaper to stitch a panorama from multiple shots:
- To easily capture landscape images wider than your 18mm kit lens, simply stitch a panorama from a series of adjacent images shot with your existing lens.
- Stitching multiplies megapixel count to compensate for compromised sharpness of megazoom and kit lenses. But if you want to enlarge prints bigger than 2 or 3 feet without the need for stitching, shoot with sharper lenses such as the above Tokinas on a tripod.
The above panorama was stitched from three overlapping images. Prayer flags express compassion at this monument to fallen climbers, at Annapurna South Base Camp (ABC) in the Annapurna Range of Nepal. Published in “Light Travel: Photography on the Go” book by Tom Dempsey 2009, 2010. Published in Wilderness Travel 2010 Catalog of Adventures.
How to build a panorama:
If you don’t have Adobe Lightroom or PhotoShop to build your panoramas, try one of these:
- Image Composite Editor (ICE) for Windows only, FREE from Microsoft Research Computational Photography Group. (I found that ICE was faster and sharper than using the old Photoshop version CS5.)
- Hugin: FREE for Mac & Windows. Hugin is harder to learn & use than Microsoft’s ICE.
Nowadays for most people, a smartphone camera is the easiest way to make sweeping panoramas with decent quality. Just select the Panorama option, hold the phone vertically, press (or speak the command for) the shutter release, and sweep steadily left to right, followed by a second press of shutter release to finish recording. Pinch zoom to check sharp details in the recorded image. Smartphones made after 2015 can capture good shadow detail in fairly sharp panoramas by default (using AUTO HDR).
Most digital cameras have an automatic Panorama mode on their mode dial, but I find that automatic panorama modes often blur detail as you sweep the camera, or they can fail with an error message unless you carefully practice the steady sweeping motion. Your results may vary. (Some compact cameras don’t allow holding vertically during the sweep, so just horizontal shots are stitched, thereby making a less-useful proportion: an overly squat and wide image.)
For the best quality, I prefer to shoot a panorama manually on a good camera (with large sensor) as a series of steady shots as follows:
- Hold the camera very still for each shot, swiveling as if the center of the lens were mounted on a fixed post. Shoot quickly (but steadily) if subjects are moving.
- Overlap each image by a third, one after another in a row, column, or array.
- The distance at which important subjects are focused can optionally vary shot to shot, near or far.
- If brightness varies drastically across the intended panorama, try to expose for a true midtone within each separate frame, but ensuring that exposure transitions aren’t extreme, shot to shot. If panorama has a consistent brightness, try shooting with a fixed Manual exposure. Shooting raw instead of JPEG gives you more leeway to simply use autoexposure.
A tripod is not needed if light is sufficiently bright for sharp hand-held photography. Look for a camera with a built-in level indicator such as in Panasonic ZS100 or Sony RX10 III or Sony Alpha A6300.
Adobe Lightroom notes:
Adobe Lightroom Version 6 (released April 2015) and later includes Photo Merge to Panorama (and to HDR): Photo > Photo Merge > Panorama
But as of 2017, the quickest and best Photo Merge is in Lightroom CC (Creative Cloud version), which adds the wonderful Boundary Warp with Auto Crop, which retains about 20% more image around the edges (without needing frequent time-consuming touch ups around the edges in Photoshop). Lightroom CC stitches raw files into a top quality Digital Negative panorama .DNG file which can be edited with large tonal leeway AFTER stitching, just like raw. This is a big time-saver compared to earlier versions of Lightroom or other programs, where you had to edit each image first, THEN stitch. Always edit from the original raw file format (or from the largest, highest quality JPEG directly from the camera; because each time you re-save a JPEG, it loses quality).
For travel, zoom flexibility beats interchanging specialty lenses
For travel portability and convenience, I prefer the all-in-one Sony RX10 IV camera (read my review) which sharply captures 24-600mm equivalent, with up to 4.5 stops of stabilization benefit (slower shutter speed handheld). Its 25x zoom is sharper across the frame at more zoom settings than the following 11x to 19x travel zooms shot on 24-megapixel APS-C cameras:
- Nikon VR, Canon IS, or Sony OSS 18-200mm 11x zoom travel lenses (at Amazon).
- 19x zoom Tamron 16-300mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD MACRO lens (Amazon).
- These travel zoom lenses equal the kit lens sharpness, without the need for constant swapping of two or more lenses in the field. Their image stabilization feature (VR, IS, OSS, or VC) supports 2 to 4 stops slower hand held shutter speed, which is critical for on-the-go photographers who want to minimize tripod usage.
- When compared to faster Pro lenses, the handy Nikon VR or Canon IS 18-200mm travel lenses gain in image stabilization and compositional zoom versatility what they lose in absolute optical sharpness. Stitch sets of 18mm images into wide or tall panoramas. Better yet, zoom to 22mm and set aperture to f/8 to optimize sharpness on the Nikon 18-200mm VR lens.
- Check lens reviews or test yourself to find the sharpest zoom and aperture settings for your specific lens. For example, the f/4 Sony SEL1670Z lens for A6500/A6300/A6000 is sharpest at f/5.6 across its 4x zoom range.
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