Landscape photography is often considered the realm of the wide-angle lens, but as my editor made clear in the pitch for this article—“It isn’t all about wide-angle.” And she is right: As photographers, we tend to grab the 35mm (or wider) lens when we are inspired by our vistas. Could it be the sheer scale—the vastness of the oceans and mountains—that enchants us? And is it human folly to try to encapsulate what cannot be confined? Do we want to replicate what our natural angle of view perceives, or, perhaps, is it the distortion created by wide angle lenses that we like, the bending of these grand gifts of nature to fit our humble frame?
Regardless as to why, these are decisions we make as photographers, often decisions made in haste, and I encourage you to reject them. Take a different approach, a more challenging approach—use a telephoto lens. Telephoto makes everything a little more demanding: photographically, your focus needs to be precise; stability and shake-free support are more crucial; composition becomes more decisive; and a sense of abstraction, more acute. Physically, the lenses and supports are larger and heavier, and the above-described technical musts are more arduous and time consuming. Setups and adjustments require more muscle, extra steps with tripods and stability, dealing with the elements, and even time looking through a viewfinder for exact composition and focus. It’s just physically and creatively more work.
But, with that in mind and if you are still interested, the creative benefits are worth it. I look at telephoto landscape photography as a distillation process, the encounter of an essence. You find your location, you hunker down and let the landscape become you, and then find, really select, that one framed glimpse that is the essence of the whole. This is the reward for the photographer and the gift to the viewer. Give it a try. Perhaps next time you’re out photographing birds or hiking with a telephoto zoom, turn toward your vista, soak it in, look through the viewfinder for a while, find details, combine complementary objects, crop your frame before you even push the shutter, and create that essence.
Thoughts on Technique
The first, most obvious aspects of telephoto landscape photography are that you can magnify distant objects to appear closer and that you can compress the perceived space between them, especially in middle ground and background. Letting the image of a distant mountain peak dominate the frame of your photo relays the sense of dominance it plays in its landscape. The impact can be stronger than a wide-angle shot of the same peak, which will emphasize the distance from the photographer.
In terms of “compression,” think of rolling hills—miles apart—which seem to exist on top of each other, or mountains that reign over and just behind a castle, almost enveloped by the massive rock. This not only illustrates the power of the mountain, but its relationship to the rest of the landscape. Think also of the palm tree in silhouette, seemingly on the same plane as the setting sun. This may be a cliché, but it demonstrates the effect a long focal length can have. And if you play with and recompose those minimal objects in your frame, you begin to enjoy the infinite possibilities within the telephoto space.
Think also of the details that long lens photography can bestow—shadowed crags on mountain peaks, the color blend of autumn leaves. Utilize the details to your advantage, perhaps use a wide aperture for selective focus on one detail and allow the rest of the image to be blurred for effect. Patterns and abstractions are another element of landscape photography that is benefited by telephoto lensing. Think of a corridor of trees, seemingly aligned next to one another, or reflections of distant mountains on pristine lakes. Also remember that you can use sunlight in telephoto imaging dramatically; concentrate on where light and shadow meet, particularly if shooting black-and-white, or on the rich colors produced in specific patches of the landscape with which you are working.
Tools and Tips
The idea of “telephoto,” in terms of focal length, arguably begins at 50mm and moves on up, but for the sake of landscape photography, in which most subjects are at a fair distance anyway, we should consider telephoto photography to begin at least at the equivalent of 100mm in the full-frame format. At that length, you will really feel the effects of the magnification and compression. Many common telephoto zoom lenses start at 70mm or 100mm and go to 200mm or 400mm, but there are others that reach 600mm or more. Of course, there are large and beautiful super telephoto prime lenses that are a joy to work with, but for the sake of this piece, let’s mention a few telephoto zoom lenses that provide a range of focal lengths and are often smaller and easier to use.
Sony and Canon market very good 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lenses for full-frame cameras. Tamron offers a 100-400mm f/4.5-6.3 lens, as does Sigma, and both have a 150-600mm f/5.6-6.3 lens. Nikon has two lenses in this general focal length and price range, the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 and Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6. Of course, most manufacturers have the trusted 70-200mm f/2.8 lens that might be a good telephoto zoom to start with because it is versatile and useful in other photo disciplines.
For crop sensor cameras, FUJIFILM has its XF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens, which provides a 152-609mm focal length equivalency for the X-mount APS-C cameras, and Olympus recently released its 150-400mm f/4.5 lens with a built-in 1.25x telephoto converter for an overall 35mm equivalent reach of 1000mm. Speaking of teleconverters, they are an affordable way to expand your focal length options and experiment with telephoto and ultra-telephoto landscape photography.
Supports and More Tips
Telephoto photography normally demands a slower approach and, depending on the available light and your chosen focal length and camera settings, a stabilized camera is necessary to avoid image blur. Of course, having a dependable tripod, capable of supporting the weight of your camera and lens, is crucial. Other elements of a support system such as ball heads and gimbal heads enable more efficient movement of your camera, and sturdy mounting plates and lens collars help to keep a long lens from shaking on its tripod.
Tripods and other support mechanisms can eliminate the slight movements we create when holding a camera, especially one with a longer lens, but even cameras on a tripod are subject to vibration from pushing the shutter button and from internal camera shake caused by the mirror’s movement in a DSLR. To reduce these subtle movements, consider using the camera’s self-timer to activate the shutter, use a remote shutter trigger, and/or utilize a camera’s mirror lock-up function to hold the mirror in the open position longer and reduce the vibration it causes.
Remember, of course, if you are shooting handheld, it’s important to use as fast a shutter speed as the conditions allow and use a lens’s image stabilization system to reduce blur. If you are on a stable tripod, it is recommended to turn off the image stabilization or use “tripod mode” if your lens’s system offers that.
As emphasized in this article, telephoto landscape photography is not really a point-and-shoot endeavor. It takes preparation, a slower workflow, and an understanding of lens craft, but the joys in creation are many. Utilize a telephoto lens to compress distant objects within the frame, to isolate dramatic aspects in a scene, and to emphasize details, scale, and natural patterns to illustrate the essence of your vista.
Tell us about your favorite telephoto lenses for landscape photography and why you like them, or ask us a question about using telephoto lenses for landscapes in the Comments section, below.