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Ultra-wide-angle zoom lenses for APS-C, or stitch panorama

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.

For Sony Alpha A6600, A6400, A6300A6000 series mirrorless APS-C sensor cameras:

  • 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.

Prayer flags express compassion at this monument to fallen climbers, at Annapurna South Base Camp (ABC) in the Annapurna Range of Nepal.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Overlap each image by a third, one after another in a row, column, or array.
  3. The distance at which important subjects are focused can optionally vary shot to shot, near or far.
  4. 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:

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.

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6 thoughts on “Ultra-wide-angle zoom lenses for APS-C, or stitch panorama”

  1. Hi, I have a Nikon D5300, and thinking to upgrade to D7500, if it is worth it. I need to get a macro lens (cheap and good?). What would you suggest for the macro lens, mainly for use with flowers as I am starting to learn “Botanical Art”.
    Thank you and Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, Roy

    1. You might want to keep the D5300, which has lighter weight and fully articulated LCD — very useful for macro and flower photography. Both D7500 and D5300 cameras capture similar sharpness. If you don’t need faster action photography, the D7500 may be overkill.

      Nikon D7500 Advantages over D5300:
      focus & burst speeds and number of focus points improve action photography. Larger viewfinder magnification, 0.94 vs 0.82. MOV & MP4 video packages. 950 shots vs 600 battery life. Weather sealing.

      Disadvantages of D7500:
      LCD just tilts, doesn’t fully articulate like D5300. Is bulkier & 8.5 oz heavier (25.5 versus 17 oz body). The megapixel decrease (21mp instead of 24mp) is insignificant.

      The following article thoroughly analyzes macro lenses for Nikon:
      I recommend good image stabilization for practical hand-held use in the field, a feature found in the following three lenses in that article:

      1) Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro 1:1 VC USD (Model F017, released in 2016): is the sharpest and best pick of these three; 5.5-inch working distance; enlargement of subjects down to 1.4 inches or 3.5 cm wide; $300-600
      2) Nikon F 105mm f/2.8 VR; $600
      3) Sigma 105mm f/2.8

      Also important is adequate working distance, to avoid scaring insects away from the flowers. Insects can enhance the botanical story.

      Alternatives: For the price of a macro lens, consider using a compact camera (or even a modern smartphone isn’t bad). Then swapping lenses isn’t required. For a given f-stop, smaller-sensor cameras capture greater depth of field than APS-C sensors, and noise won’t be a problem so long as daylight is bright.

      A) Fitting handily into a shirt pocket, a Panasonic ZS100 camera ($400) enlarges best at 45mm equivalent. This optimum setting is very sharp and rectilinear from edge-to-edge, although the subject must be very close to the front of the lens, sometimes overshadowed. (At 25mm, f/5.9 is sharper than f/3.5, but edges are still much too soft.) For optimal close focus, zoom to 45mm equivalent and press the Flower Button (Macro, Left Arrow). The ZS100 has an excellent quality 1″-type sensor, raw file support, and a versatile 10x zoom for general travel photography, sharper than a smartphone.

      B) For the $1600 price of upgrading to D7500 ($1000 plus macro lens ~$600), you might instead consider my favorite “Swiss-Army-Knife” of cameras:
      Sony RX10 version IV, which has a 25x zoom, f/2.4-4, 24-600mm equivalent, fast-focusing good for action, capturing 20mp on 1″-type BSI sensor. The RX10M4 captures excellent macro at 400-600mm, with sharp (best at f/5.6) rectilinear results, zero distortion, and magnification of subjects down to 2.7 inches wide (but note this is half of the enlargement power of the above Tamron). At 600mm, RX10M4’s 28-inch closest working distance from the front of the lens avoids shadowing the focused subject and helpfully leaves undisturbed such flighty subjects as butterflies or lizards.

      Read my review, especially the macro discussion:

      Back in 2012, I replaced my Nikon D5000 DSLR camera with mirrorless Sony APS-C, with no regrets. Since 2016, Sony’s impressive 1″-type BSI sensor on the sharp RX10 III, and faster-focusing version IV, have eliminated my use of interchangeable-lens cameras for general nature travel photography.

  2. Hi Tom,
    I’m looking for camera less than 450$ for architecture
    1. wide angle for exterior façade shoots so the pics wouldn’t look 3dimentional
    2. able to capture good pics in low light interiors as most situations are no flash allowed
    I’ve come up with 2 cameras but I’m not sure if they suit my needs: Sony HX400V, Sony HX90V – thanks

    1. Architecture photography suggests 24mm equivalent or wider in terms of angle of view, with high quality lens optics; and low light performance suggests a large sensor, at least 1 inch type, but preferably APS-C size.

      Your interest in Sony HX400V at 23 oz and HX90V at 9 oz shows a flexibly wide range of body sizes that you may be considering, but their sensor size of 1/2.3 inch type is too small to avoid noise and focus problems in low light.

      For $450, you can get a good Nikon D3200 with kit lens which zooms as wide as 18mm, which is 27mm equivalent on its APS-C sensor, for good quality and value. Or upgrade to D3300 or 5500 if budget allows. If you can afford it, mount an excellent used Tokina 12-24mm f4 lens for Nikon (18-36mm equiv), super sharp with low distortion, great for architecture (for about $350 on my links to Amazon here on my web site

      Or for around $500 on Amazon, look for a used Sony RX100 version 3 which has 24mm equiv at widest angle in its sharp 3x zoom lens, in a pocket sized 10.5 ounce camera with 1 inch type sensor.

      1. Hi Tom,
        thanks for replying. your comment was most helpful, I didn’t want to spend more than 500$ on a camera that I probably would keep for 2 years tops but considering what you mentioned I guess I’ll buy A6000 + 16-50 (APS-C, good ISO, 179 f points) which I can keep for at least4 years and can shift the lens 55-210
        I have a question that I’d appreciate if you could clarify for me: there are a number of things that help capturing a good still, sensor size, Aperture, ISO, shutter speed, focus points and hybrid detection; although A6000 has APS-c sensor, very good ISO, would it make much difference in images without it having phase detection or somewhat not fast lens(small F number 3.5-5.6)?
        I apologize if I’m not clear cause I’ve just come into the world of photography
        Thanks again

        1. A6000 has 179 phase-detect AF points and 25 contrast-detect points for very fast overall autofocus, a technology breakthrough beating all mirrorless competitors in this price range. In 2014, Sony claimed that A6000 autofocus (as fast as 0.06 seconds) is the world’s fastest on a mirrorless camera with an APS-C image sensor. You probably wouldn’t notice any autofocus speed difference compared to a DSLR camera in this price range, such as Nikon D3300 or D5500.

          Note that the Sony 10-18mm f/4 OSS E-mount wide-angle zoom lens (8 oz, SEL1018, 2012) is significantly sharper than the Sony 16-50mm 3.5-5.6, especially in the corners of images. The SEL1018 is sharpest at f/5.6 to f/8 as you zoom, with least distortion from 14-18mm, good for shooting architecture indoors and out, plus landscapes such as slot canyons. However, the very compact Sony 16-50mm covers a more flexible range of angles of view.

          You hardly need a fast lens on the A6000 due to its several good OSS lenses (for up to 3 stops slower, stabilized handheld shutter speeds) and such low noise at high ISO.

          Portrait photographers often like fast lenses, such as Sony 50mm f/1.8 OSS E-mount prime lens, for pleasing bokeh at f/1.8 to f/2.8 — to throw the background more out-of-focus to emphasize the narrow area focused upon the subject. (But its 75mm-equivalent angle-of-view is too narrow to be an all-purpose “standard” lens.) Note that Sony 50mm resolves sharpest detail from about f/4 to f/8.

          If sharpness and architecture is your main goal, a Sony 10-18mm f/4 OSS is the best lens on the A6000. You can swap to a Sony 16-50mm 3.5-5.6 for general shooting to flexibly cover more common situations. Or if you don’t mind the bulk and weight, consider the Sony E-mount 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS silver lens (18.5 oz, SEL-18200, 27-300mm equivalent angle of view) as a do-everything lens which is significantly sharper than the compact 16-50mm. By the way, I solely use the 18-200mm in my general travel photography for the shots on; plus a pocketable Sony RX100 version III for macro, 24mm equiv wide angle, and carry-everywhere backup.

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