Telephoto lenses and landscape photography may seem an odd pairing. Telephotos are more at home in the hands of wildlife, sports, and portrait photographers. They’re used to get close to the subject, help to compress perspective (cue the comments on “lens compression is a myth”) and isolate distracting elements.
It just so happens that these features, when considered and applied in the field, make for compelling landscape photos too.
While it’s the trusty wide-angle lens that is the staple of any landscape photographer’s kit, a telephoto lens presents, not just a challenge, but an opportunity for capturing landscapes. They enable us to view and compose scenes from an entirely new frame of mind. Like wide-angles, you’ll soon see (I hope) why they’re just as essential to the landscaper’s kit.
Gain a New Perspective
Telephoto lenses are ideal for creating unique images in well-known locations. Tourist traps are over-shot for a reason—they often present awe-inspiring vistas and striking subjects. The first response for many, myself included, is to include as much of the scene in our photo as possible. The more we include, the more interesting the photo, right?
Yet when we try to capture everything, often we fail to focus on the core element/s. We fail to capture that something special. Something of our own making.
Enter long focal lengths, which allow us to isolate a key feature. A particular mountain peak in the range. A tree with form in a forest of chaos. One breaking wave in the ocean. Longer focal lengths isolate subjects from their surroundings, distilling a grand scene into its essential elements.
The specific focal length will vary on the location—50mm could be enough for a forest, while 200mm+ might be required for a distant peak. Yet opting for—or at least considering—a focal length beyond 35mm (given the excess of landscape images shot within the 16-35mm range) can offer you a fresh take on a commonly shot scene.
Learn to Love Layers
Landscapes have layers, just like ogres and onions.
When shooting open vistas or mountain ranges, haze in the atmosphere creates distinct zones in the image. A natural layer structure emerges, with clarity, warmth and contrast tending to drop off the more distant an element is from the camera. These all combine to emphasize depth in an otherwise two-dimensional image.
Be mindful when highlighting depth in post-processing. In my early days of editing, I tried to correct for haze in post by completely removing the blue color cast and adding contrast to distant elements. Look to employ some dehaze, but don’t overdo it. You may want to retain some haze in the distant layers to ensure closer subjects stand out from the background.
Also, pay attention to the surrounding weather conditions (such as temperature and moisture content) which may lower visibility. When you’re capturing a mountain range at 300mm, you could be looking through miles of air, and air is not empty, it’s full of particles that scatter light. Consider shooting on a clearer day or work with the haze to instead focus in on a closer subject set against the backdrop of less defined layers.
Set the Scene
Through telephotos, we gain greater control over what appears in the frame. The all-encompassing wide-angle often captures distracting elements such as scrubby bush, seaweed or man-made structures. While these elements can be worked into the composition or avoided altogether by altering the camera’s position, a telephoto lens eliminates them entirely.
Longer focal lengths enable you to control exactly what’s included in the frame. Zoom in or gain a higher vantage point to remove as many distractions as possible. The fewer distractions, the more focus there will be on your subject.
When setting the scene, consider favoring more zoom rather than less. The vast majority of landscapes we see are shot within the 16-35mm range—and of those, many are shot at around a 26mm equivalent thanks to smartphones. This focal length density presents an opportunity: the higher the zoom, the fewer landscape images there will have been made at that perspective.
Just don’t mistake novelty for quality; a well-composed image still reigns supreme over a unique one.
And don’t be averse to using the camera to help compose the scene. Early on, I was advised to compose and frame with my eyes. Yet at focal lengths of 200mm+ we might not be able to physically see distant elements. The EVF and live view will show compelling forms that the unaided eye may miss.
Lastly, Get Creative
Instead of spending an entire sunrise finessing the most compelling wide-angle composition possible, try setting aside a moment to fire off a telephoto image or two. Try to zoom in on a particular texture. Try a tight long exposure on a wave or waterfall.
A telephoto lens encourages you to think outside the box. Think beyond epic views and explosive skies. Look for patterns, light or motion that you can highlight with the long lens. Experiment, create something new, and move on.
By all means, still use a wide-angle as your primary lens—I still do. But after you’ve got a wide shot that works, give yourself permission to experiment. And, perhaps more importantly, permission to fail.