Kit zoom lenses for APS-C sensor cameras typically start with focal lengths no wider than 18mm or 16mm (27mm or 24mm equivalent). Want a broader perspective? The following specialty zoom lenses shoot ultra-wide angles of view, with great depth of field — such as for tight interior spaces, architecture, real estate, slot canyons, or sweeping landscapes.
- Sony PZ 10-20mm F4 G ultra-wide power zoom (2022, 6 oz, 15-30mm equivalent) is lightweight, sharp, great for both video and stills (lacks image stabilization)
- TOKINA ATX-m 11-18mm F/2.8 Lens for Sony E Mount (2022, 12 oz) is a brighter lens (lacks image stabilization)
- Sony 10-18mm f/4 OSS Alpha E-mount ultra-wide zoom lens (2012, 8 oz, SEL1018, 2.75×2.5 inches, 15-27mm equivalent) includes Sony’s OSS image stabilization. SEL1018 is sharpest at f/5.6 to f/8 as you zoom, with least distortion from 14-18mm. SEL1018 is significantly sharper at 18mm than Sony’s SEL18200 18-200mm lens.
Nikon AF-P DX NIKKOR 10-20mm f/4.5-5.6G VR Lens (2017, 8 oz) is a lightweight, affordable ultra-wide zoom with Nikon’s VR image stabilization, for Nikon DX mount (APS-C) DSLR cameras.
Canon EF-S 10-18mm F4.5–5.6 IS STM (2014, 8 oz) is a lightweight, affordable ultra-wide zoom with Canon’s IS image stabilization, for Canon EF-S mount (APS-C) DSLR cameras.
In addition to checking your camera brand’s website, consider third-party lenses Tamron, Tokina, and Sigma. Read opinions online for a variety of specialty lens recommendations. Many good lenses whose manufacture has been discontinued are still sold.
Image stabilization allows more hand-held photography, free from a tripod, for more flexible nature-travel photography on-the-go. Each brand has its own terminology: Nikon Vibration Reduction/VR, or Canon IS, or Sony OSS, or Tamron VC. Stabilization is most important for telephoto lenses to counteract hand held shake at slow shutter speeds. In stabilized wide-angle lenses, handheld shots are sharper 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.
These wide-angle lenses typically don’t work well for close-focus (macro) photography — instead use a specialty macro lens — or try a smartphone with 2x or 3x telephoto camera at close focus (good for making quick copies of color slides).
Smartphones can capture good ultra wide-angle shots (0.5x on iPhone, 0.6x on Galaxy), helping eliminate the need for multiple lenses on your main camera.
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 overlapping images shot in an array 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 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:
- Hugin: FREE for Mac & Windows. Hugin is harder to learn & use than Microsoft’s ICE.
Now 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. Apple iPhones were the first to make reliably good panoramas. Smartphones made after 2015 can capture good shadow detail in fairly sharp panoramas by default (using AUTO HDR). The latest phone models perform best, especially models made after 2020.
Most larger digital cameras have an automatic Panorama mode on their mode dial which isn’t as powerful as in smartphones. The automatic panorama modes of larger digital cameras 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 even allow holding vertically during the sweep, so just horizontal shots are stitched, thereby making a less-useful proportion: an overly squat, wide image.
For the best quality, I prefer to shoot a panorama manually in raw format 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 good cameras such as Panasonic ZS100, Sony RX100 VII, Sony RX10 IV, or Sony Alpha A6300.
Adobe Lightroom includes a powerful Photo Merge to Panorama, and also Merge to HDR (where images of bracketed exposures are 100% overlapped). As of 2023, I subscribe to Adobe’s “20GB Photography Plan” which includes Lightroom Classic (LRC). I use LRC to organize and edit 5TB (terabytes) of photos stored on my local PC — too large for the Cloud. About 2% of my edits require Photoshop, also included. My wife separately subscribes to the “1TB Photography Plan” in order to manage her 400-GB (gigabyte) collection entirely stored in the Adobe Cloud, using the simpler cloud version of the Lightroom (LR) program, plus occasionally Photoshop.
After 2017, Lightroom’s Photo Merge added Boundary Warp with Auto Crop, which retains about 20% more image around the edges (without needing frequent time-consuming touchups around the edges in Photoshop). Lightroom stitches raw files into a top quality Digital Negative panorama .DNG file which can be edited with generous tonal leeway AFTER stitching, just like raw files. This is a big time-saver compared to earlier 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 use 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 (for 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 11x to 19x travel zoom lenses equal the camera maker’s kit lens sharpness and eliminate the swapping of 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. 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 lens. For example, the f/4 Sony SEL1670Z lens for A6500/A6300/A6000 is sharpest at f/5.6 across its 4x zoom range.
Support my work — buy anything from Amazon.com links on this page.