Using Telephoto Lenses for Landscapes
Some contend that the term "telephoto" has a precise meaning. Others argue that it doesn't. I don't know, and I don't worry about it. When I use the term, I'm thinking of my 70-300mm lens.
The most obvious need for a telephoto lens arises when we simply can't get close enough to a subject to use anything else. That's why we usually photograph zoo lions with a telephoto lens. Getting close would be hazardous and would involve vaulting over bars, etc. The same need to photograph from a distance arises for different reasons with landscape shots. The following photograph is of a feature called Chimney Rock at Ghost Ranch, near Abiquiu, New Mexico. To get anything resembling this perspective from a closer range, I'd have needed to be able to levitate, so I took the photograph from far away, at 280mm.
It often happens that we can't get closer to what we want to photograph. Many parks in my area, for example, prohibit leaving the trails (for very good reasons). More than once, I've spotted an appealing scene on the other side of a deep canyon. In such situations, we usually won't have any trouble thinking of a telephoto lens.
A second reason for using telephoto lenses is that sometimes we want to compress the visual elements in a scene, i.e., to make nearer and more distant elements appear closer together. The next photograph is of Central Avenue in Phoenix. (Maybe you wouldn't call this a "landscape," but my definition is loose.) The idea for this shot occurred to me one afternoon when I was near this intersection. I knew I'd want the shot to include the traffic lights, the vehicle lights, the church and the receding buildings. As I walked around and studied the scene, I found myself backing farther and farther away. I was about a block from the intersection when the elements of the photograph I was visualizing lined up in a way I liked. I returned a few days later at dawn, when the sky seemed to promise a colorful sunrise, and took the photograph at 96mm.
We're looking at visual elements that cover more than a half mile of distance. Had I photographed the same scene with a wide-angle lens from closer to the intersection, the traffic-light apparatus would have appeared larger and distorted, while the distant buildings would have appeared tiny. Only by compressing the elements I wanted with a longer focal length could I take the shot I had in mind.
As an aside, I'd planned to capture this scene with a three-shot panorama, with the constituent shots in portrait orientation, so as to maximize the detail in the photograph. As soon as I started shooting, I realized the flaw in my plan. The moving vehicle lights would not be continuous from one shot to another. I tried a few three-shot series anyway. When I stitched them into a panorama, they were rich and highly detailed but, as I'd suspected, the vehicle lights started and stopped suddenly and implausibly at the edges of the stitch. Our plans for taking a particular shot don't always pan out.
Although I used a telephoto lens primarily to compress the elements of the following photograph, it demonstrates three other potential advantages of such lenses.
One is that telephoto lenses exaggerate the effects of anything visible in the atmosphere. The air was dusty that morning. The telephoto lens compressed the air as well as the visual elements, and exaggerated the way the dust diffused the light. The second is that telephoto lenses allowed me to shoot almost into the sun. The morning sun was only a little above and to the right of the scene I was photographing. With a wide-angle lens, the sun would have been blasting directly into the lens. With a telephoto lens and a long lens hood, the sun was no problem. The third advantage of using a telephoto lens for this shot is that I avoided the distortion that often occurs when photographing saguaro cacti at close range with a wide-angle lens.
There are trade-offs involved in using telephoto lenses for landscapes. The flip side of their tendency to compress subjects is that they tend to reduce the apparent depth of a scene. Diagonal lines tend to make compositions more dynamic, and telephoto lenses tend to produce fewer of them than do wide-angle lenses. The results can accordingly seem somewhat static. Many telephoto shots also have a somewhat cool and remote feel for me, perhaps because of the reduced depth. Last but not least, using a telephoto lens means you almost always need a tripod. I use one anyway, but some might find that a drawback.
What all this adds up to is that telephoto lenses can offer a composition that isn't available with any other lens at any distance. Such lenses see a scene differently. When we acquire a working knowledge of how such lenses see a scene, we have an additional tool in our photographic toolkit.
We can't acquire that working knowledge by reading an article. We need to practice. I didn't begin to recognize many of the situations that called for a telephoto lens until I'd practiced taking landscape photographs with one. That's the only way to learn how the lens will treat a scene. Only when we're able to visualize what a telephoto lens will see in a scene will we reach for one when we need it.