Using Telephoto Lenses for Landscapes


When we think of landscape photography, many of us tend to think of our wide-angle lenses. There are situations, though, in which a telephoto lens is a better choice—or the only choice.

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. 

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Thank you fot bringing up the topic of landscapes and telephoto lenses.
I am using 70-300mm Nikon lens most of the time, mostly @300mm, but it is not an easy lens. For landscapes, it is only usable if sharpness is not a goal (what?!?) like in fog and mist situatins, and sunrise-sunset situations. Other than that, it is only usable for  compressing  flowers in a field, like sunflowers, and only if there is lots and lots of light. In that case, when focusing on closest flowers and with f22, or even f32, that would get acceptable depth of field. For landsape, it could also be used in case of layered scenes like mountains ranges that are set one behind the others: one can always focus on the neares hill, and let everything else fall out of focus, and that sometimes work. Of course, one can always use this lens to isolate details, but for landscape, this lens is very hard, and of limited use.
Would you happen to know more situations where this lens might be of some help, please let me know. I would sicerely appreciate that. Thanks.

The 70-300mm type lenses are most commonly used for outdoor sports and some wildlife and other activities where distance is a factor in getting the shot.  It could also be used for portraiture as well.  Your points about how it performs for landscapes are spot on actually.  The lens is less useful for indoor sports unless you have a camera with a high ISO capability.   I would also recommend considering to borrow/rent/buy a similar ranged telephoto lens but of higher optical quality, the 70-300mm lens falls more into a consumer grade of design vs. ones which have better optics and optical coatings applied to it.  That may change your approach to using telephotos for landscape shots.

grunner30, thanks for the kind words.

Great gallery Don.  Like your style (styles).  Thanks for the tele insite.  I've recently found myself looking to telephoto primes for some shots and I feel much more in control of the scene with a telephoto. 

Ayana, I would help if I could but I don't know very much about different kinds of gear.  Others here know much more than I do.  I'm using the new Tamron 70-300mm and I like it very much, and it was affordable (as lenses go).  I hope those who know more about varieties of lenses will offer suggestions.


Hi.... Great Post! Lots of good information here.

I currently have the Canon T2i.

Would you be able to tell me which telephoto lens would be best for me to buy for it?

Good luck, Doug.  I'd be interested to hear what you think.


 thanks Don,

I'm trying it with my 80-200mm AF-D.