13 Tips for Shooting Sharp Landscape Photos with a Telephoto Lens
Landscape photography is often associated, or even equated, with the use of wide-angle lenses, however, this can lead to formulaic compositions. Telephoto lenses may seem like the province of wildlife photography, but alternating with them brings new creative opportunities for landscape photography.
For many years, I was heavily influenced by the near-far compositions of David Muench: a graphic and impactful foreground subject, with mountains in the background, all often below a dramatic sky. Photographers such as Galen Rowell would embrace that esthetic. His most used wide-angle lens was a 24mm, with the occasional 20mm, but since then the short end of the 16-35mm lens has become a standard, with focal lengths of 14mm, and more recently 12mm fairly common at a wide end of a zoom.
Wide-angle photography was one of the main reasons I turned to a large-format camera – which is severely limited for telephoto lenses. There is much to be said for this approach. It helps place the viewer into the scene, depicting everything that someone standing there may see, naturally creating a sense of depth. On the other hand, they shrink the backgrounds, for example diminishing the impact of huge mountains and placing the emphasis on foreground elements that are more common than those mountains. If, in addition, you process them the same way, images can end up all looking the same.
Telephoto lenses are heavier to carry and more challenging to use than wide-angle lenses. Compositions need to be more precise, as small changes have greater effects. You have to look harder for them, as they form only a small portion of your field of view.
That latter point is maybe what makes telephoto landscape photography so compelling: when you pick up a small portion of the scene, you direct the viewer to something that you found interesting but they may have missed. This makes those shots intrinsically personal.
A group of photographers standing at the same scene with a wide-angle lens is much more likely to produce similar images than if they were using a telephoto lens.
Even with close to 500 pages, packing 60+ national parks in my photobook Treasured Lands was such a challenge that almost each image had to represent a different location. Our National Monuments had more room, and I could use multiple images to represent single locations. In two cases, I repeated images taken at the same time from the same viewpoint, looking in the same direction and differing only by the choice of the focal length.
Example #1: Our National Monuments Cover
During the afternoon I spent at a petroglyph site in Ironwood Forest National Monument, besides close-ups of petroglyphs and flora, most of my compositions consisted of wide-angle photographs with etched rocks in the foreground. At sunset time, I made one more such photograph at the widest setting of my 16-35mm lens (page 247). The foreground includes the main mountains in the monument, Silver Bell and Ragged Top. However, being located more than 20 miles away and only about 4,000 feet high, they appear tiny on the horizon.
Because of my awareness of that mountain, I still noticed the distinctive profile of Ragged Top, the crown jewel of Ironwood Forest National Monument. Between two wide-angle shots, I zoomed into the peak with the 100-400mm lens for a single shot at 340mm. Although the resulting image is just a crop of the previous image, it is entirely different, conveying a sense of majesty rather than of space. The perspective looks natural enough that without comparison, I suspect you wouldn’t have known it was made with a super-telephoto lens. A bit of cropping enhanced the image’s symmetry, making it an excellent cover image for Our National Monuments.
Example #2: Our National Monuments Half-Title Page
In Our National Monuments, there is a second pair of images where one is a crop of the other. They were photographed from the summit of Snow Mountain in Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument. During my spring visit to the monument, the low-elevation hills were lush with an explosion of verdant grass and wildflowers. From the trailhead, it did not seem like Snow Mountain would live up to its name, but as I neared the summit, I found a landscape still emerging from the winter. Photographing towards the south let me include north-facing slopes with some snow.
The comparison between this image (page 83), and the following is even more striking because the two focal lengths are not that different. The wide image was photographed at 54mm, which by today’s landscape photography standards is quite long, and the telephoto image was photographed at 240mm. The graphic quality of the latter made it a good choice for the half-title page, the first image inside the book. One of the challenges with telephoto lenses is to create a sense of depth, as the perspective that helps create it with wide-angle images is now compressed. In this case, depth is created by atmospheric perspective, the drop off in warmth and contrast occurring naturally with distance, and it would have been ill-advised to apply a “dehaze” correction.
Here’s a technical detail that illustrates the depth of field issues with telephoto lenses. When I photographed the Ragged Peak image, I thought that the cactus in the foreground were far enough that they would be subjects at infinity, like the mountains. I therefore used an aperture of f/8. On the Sony a7R IV, diffraction begins to limit sharpness after f/6.7. On the LCD, the image looked sharp enough, but when reviewing the image at 100% on a computer screen, it turned out that the mountain was a bit soft because of insufficient depth of field.
Applying Topaz Sharpen AI worked but necessitated doing it selectively, as the software over-sharpened the mountain crest. You’d think that the difference would not be noticeable on a 10×12 inch print (the size of the book), and indeed the original image looks acceptable, but my daughter was able to tell the difference between two test prints viewed side-by-side.
Using this Depth of Field calculator with the circle of confusion 10 microns appropriate for the Sony a7R IV 61 MP full-frame sensor (2.5 times the pixel pitch 3.76 microns as explained here), we find a hyperfocal distance of 1,450 meters for 340mm and f/8. The hyperfocal distance is the closest distance you can focus on and still have perfect infinity focus.
Read also: What is Hyperfocal Distance and How Do You Find It?
All this means that in this case, to get perfect infinity focus, I would have had to focus close to a mile away! Would stopping down to a sharpness-degrading f/22 have helped? The hyperfocal distance would still be over 800 meters, or half a mile.
Telephoto lenses can help you make different landscape images, but they present many challenges. Not only do you have to pay more attention to compositions, but also they require a more careful technique. As we’ve just seen, depth of field is limited, particularly so with high-resolution sensors, so focusing has to be very precise, and even though the closest element may seem far at hundreds (or maybe thousands) of feet away, advanced techniques could be necessary. Since they amplify the effects of vibration, even in a small breeze getting a sharp image can take quite a bit of work.
Below are 13 practical tips in no particular order for overcoming this challenge. All images in the article were photographed with the Sony FE 100-400 lens for Our National Monuments, but not used in the book.
Tip #1. Check Sharpness
Shots can look great at a glance on the LCD, but turn out unusable in print because they were not sharp enough. Checking the camera LCD at 100% magnification to see if your shot was sharp before moving on to the next one is always a good idea to prevent disappointments. That practice is all the more important in telephoto photography because there are so many reasons why telephoto images may lack critical sharpness. If you notice that images are not sharp, then it is time for some of the adjustments described below.
Tip #2. Mind Focus and Depth of Field
One reason why it is more challenging to get sharp images with telephoto lenses is that the depth of field area is so much smaller than for normal and wide-angle lenses. Any imprecision in focusing shows up. Manual focusing at 100% magnification is the most reliable way to proceed, but if you use autofocus, but sure to check if it is perfect.
For an indication of how narrow the depth of field area can be, refer to the above example in which we saw that with a 340mm lens on the Sony a7R IV, even at f/22, the depth of field area including infinity starts half a mile away, meaning that you cannot have any object closer to half a mile and infinity in perfect focus at the same time.
Tip #3. Consider Focus Stacking
At a longer focal length, getting a foreground and background both in focus can be impossible. Stopping a lens down to f/22 is not optimal because it results in degraded image quality due to diffraction. In addition, the requirement to use a slow shutter speed makes the capture more vulnerable to vibration. A useful alternative is to merge exposures made with different focus points at f/11, a feature automated by Photoshop.
Tip #4. Time for Better Air Clarity
Air clarity is an overlooked issue with telephoto photography. Often with those compositions, even the closest subjects can be far enough that image degradation due to air quality is quite noticeable. On a hot afternoon in the desert, looking in the viewfinder of a telephoto lens, you can see distant elements vibrating due to air convection.
Even in windless conditions, if you take a picture in those conditions, nothing at a distance comes out sharp. In the cooler temperatures of the morning, the air is often more clear, and that is often the best time for telephoto work. In addition, at dawn and dusk, when the sun is not out, haze is much reduced.
Tip #5. Use a Polarizer
Haze consists of particles in the air that reflect light, reducing contrast and desaturating colors. A polarizer makes the haze disappear because it cuts reflections. The more distant the subject, such as the South Rim of the Grand Canyon from its Northwest rim, the more haze there is, which makes a polarizer particularly useful for telephoto shots.
Tip #6. Use a Sturdy Tripod
The main reason for unsharp telephoto images is unwanted camera motion. Handholding a telephoto lens with successful results is difficult. Those lenses are often large and heavy. Small camera movements affect the composition. You need faster shutter speeds for sharp images, with the general rule that you need an exposure time in seconds faster than 1/F, where F is the focal length in millimeters. This is difficult to attain in low light, particularly if you stop down and use a polarizing filter.
In the slightest of breezes, even a tripod that works fine for normal lenses is not enough to stabilize a telephoto lens. Typically, I use a series 2 tripod and a medium-size ball head. However, that combination is often insufficient for a telephoto. On road trips, I pack a series 3 tripod and a full-size ball head. While I don’t like to hike too much with that setup, it works fine for roadside photography and short hikes. I have found it makes a significant difference for telephoto lenses.
Tip #7. Use a Tripod Collar
Tripod collars are often used on telephoto lenses to reduce the strain on the lens mount caused by a heavy lens with a long lever arm. That is a good enough reason since the strain could result in long-term misalignment of the lens mount. The issue relevant to this article is that without a tripod collar, the offset of the center of gravity degrades the stability, and the lever arm of wind pushing the lens is larger.
Most high-end telephoto lenses come with a built-in tripod collar. Lesser telephoto lenses don’t, but you can buy a third-party collar for them. Once I added a tripod collar to the Sony 70-300, I noticed a higher success rate, whereas before I often struggled to get sharp images. However, in terms of weight and bulk, the difference with the better Sony 100-400 became minimal.
Tip #8. Stabilize the Tripod
Even though a light tripod is not optimal for telephoto photography, sometimes that’s all you got. You can somehow make it into a heavier tripod. Many tripods come with a hook at the bottom of the center column or the platform, from which you can hang weights, such as your camera bag or a shopping bag that you load with rocks.
Another related technique is to apply downward pressure to your tripod. The easiest is to press on the top of your camera with a hand, but you can also step with your feet into a strap attached to the center column or platform. Note that while those solutions address the lack of mass of the tripod, they don’t address its lack of rigidity, hence the “somehow”.
Tip #9. Use a Remote Release
Unless you use an extremely sturdy tripod, pressing the shutter will result in some camera vibration. For normal lenses, with a self-timer delay of 5 seconds (but not 2 seconds!) the vibration dies down enough, but in my experience, for telephotos, 10 seconds is more appropriate. The problem is that quite a bit can happen during those 10 seconds, including a gust of wind picking up. And there are those situations when the shot needs to be timed, for instance for a wave. A remote release alleviates those issues.
Tip #10. Time for the Wind
Telephoto lenses are particularly sensitive to the wind because of their physical size and magnification. If you pay attention to the wind pattern, you’ll notice that it is almost never uniform. There are gusts alternating with calmer periods. Try to release the shutter during a lull. It can take a lot of patience, but such lulls often happen.
Tip #11. Shelter from the Wind
Not only the wind is not uniformly distributed in time, but the same also applies in space. When I stepped up on the summit ridge of Dona Anna, the wind hit me with full force, but by descending a few meters the downwind side of the summit, I found enough shelter to photograph at sunset. Even a tree can offer enough shelter.
Getting lower to the ground usually results in lower wind speed, so just lowering your tripod can help, with the additional benefit that a lower extension means higher rigidity. Besides taking advantage of terrain configuration, you can shelter your camera with your body. Among many other useful applications, an umbrella makes an excellent wind shelter. For roadside shots, I have used my car as a shelter, either by pointing it towards the wind and standing behind the rear hatch or even by shooting from a seat.
Tip #12. Crank Up ISO
If you are not able to get out of a stiff breeze, unless you have the beefiest tripod, there are always going to be some vibrations. The shorter the shutter speed, the lesser their impact. Everything else being equal, you can get shorter shutter speeds by increasing ISO. Increasing the ISO from base 100 to 400 in the daytime doesn’t result in significant noise and loses only minimal detail, but it divides your exposure time by a factor of four.
Tip #13. Take Multiple Exposures
In some situations, you may not have the time to check at 100% magnification that the shots are sharp, maybe because there are quick changes not to be missed, such as the sun cresting above the horizon. That is a case where making redundant exposures can be useful to increase the chance that you got a usable shot.
About the author: QT Luong was the first to photograph all America’s 62 National Parks — in large format. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Luong was featured in the film The National Parks: Americaʼs Best Idea by Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan. His photographs are extensively published and have been the subject of large-format books including Treasured Lands (winner of 10 national and international book awards), many newspaper and magazine feature articles, solo gallery and museum exhibits across the U.S. and abroad. You can find more of his work on his website, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. This article was also published here and here.