Wide Angle Versus Telephoto Lenses for Beautiful Landscape Photography

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WILLCK 1 SNEFFELS

An easy assumption to make, when shooting landscapes, is use a wide angle lens. After all, most landscape photographers favor wide angle lenses for a reason, they naturally give you the widest view and allow you to get the full landscape into the frame, from the foreground to the horizon. They have the widest depth of field, so you get the whole landscape in focus too. Their distortion enlarges objects in the foreground, letting you show off close-up details. The same distortion also emphasizes leading lines, enhancing your composition, and giving your image a more dynamic feel. But when you default to wide angle, you miss many hidden opportunities offered by telephoto lenses.

Field of View: The Whole and its Parts

This is the most basic difference between the two lens types: wide lenses give you a wide view, telephoto lenses give you a narrow view. And while landscapes look great in their entirety, it’s a good habit to take a moment and look for details. These are beautiful elements of the landscape that might get shrunken, or ignored in the expanse of a wide-angle image. This is where your telephoto lens comes in. Its narrow field of view is perfect for trimming off the extra elements, and focusing right on small, beautiful scenes like the curve of a mountain, a reflection in a far-off pond, or the silhouette of a tree.

WILLCK 2 YOSEMITE

In the two images above, you can see this in action. They were both taken from Olmstead point in Yosemite National Park, one with a wide angle lens and the other with a telephoto. In the first image, the wide angle shows off the total landscape. It includes both sides of the valley, the up-close textures of the rocks and the far off peak of Half Dome. In the second image, the telephoto lens brings the eye right up to the mountains, showing off their shapes and the details of the geology.

Another pair of images (below), shows this effect even more dramatically. The first image is not just wide-angle, but an aerial shot as well, taken from a small airplane over the Okavango Delta in Botswana. From this vantage point all of the individual elements of the landscape become incredibly small, and your eyes pay more attention to their arrangement than their individual shapes. In the second image, also from the Okavango area, but this time on the ground, a telephoto lens is used to draw attention to the beautiful curves of a single Acacia tree.

WILLCK 3 OKAVANGO wide

WILLCK 4 OKAVANGO tele

Depth of Field: Focusing the Eye

The second major difference between wide angle and telephoto lenses is the innate size of their depth of field. Put succinctly, the higher the focal length, the narrower the area of focus. In practice, this means that when shooting wide, it’s much easier for you to get everything in focus, from the grass at your feet to the ridge on the horizon. This is especially true when you’re trying to use your lens’s sharpest apertures (the so-called sweet spot). However, a narrower depth of field is much better for isolating your subject from the background, and this is where your telephoto lens comes into play. Try shooting a close-up detail at a low aperture, using the landscape as a nice creamy bokeh backdrop.

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WILLCK 6 DENVER

The two images above are perfect examples of this effect. In the first image, the wide angle lens brings the whole landscape into focus, from the close-up sunflowers to the far-off mountains. In the second image, shooting with a telephoto blurs out the flowers and mountains in the background, turning them into a nice soft background for main sunflower.

Depth Compression: Playing with Size

It’s no secret that wide angle lenses expand the sense of depth in an image, by enlarging elements in the foreground and shrinking those in the back. This is great for creating images that make you feel like you could step right into the frame. On the flip-side, you run the risk of making towering, awesome mountains in the distance look like puny hills. Telephoto lenses, on the other hand, compress depth, causing objects near and far to appear more similar in size. A compressed sense of depth is great for abstracting a scene, and bringing out its graphical qualities. Colorful forest canopies, layered mountain ridges, and curving sand dunes, are all great subjects for this kind of shooting.

WILLCK 7 MICA

In the first of this pair above, notice how the wide angle lens exaggerates the size of the flowers in the foreground at the expense of the mountains in the background. The mountains are so tall that they’re shrouded in clouds, but the lens keeps them from looking quite as grand. But pull out a telephoto lens and you can zoom straight in on the mountain, showing off the contrast between the rugged outline of the peak and the soft wispy form of the cloud.

WILLCK 8 BIGBEND wide

WILLCK 9 BIGBEND tele

Here are two more images, both taken at the same location in Big Bend National Park, that show off this effect. In the first image, you can see that the wide angle lens increases the size of the plants and rocks in the foreground, while shrinking the large desert mountains in the background. In the second image, a telephoto lens flattens out the depth of the many desert ridges, calling attention to their graphic patterns and outlines.

Summary: Space Versus Object

Have a hard time remembering all these details? Here’s an easy way to summarize it with a simple idea:

Wide angle lenses show off space, telephotos show off objects.

The wide angle lens’s big field of view, ease of uniform focus, and depth-distorting abilities, are great at showing off big, expansive landscapes. However, they take focus away from individual elements within the landscape in favor of showing the whole. Telephoto lenses are naturally the opposite: they’re great at showing off the size, shape, and intricacy, of detail of individual elements within the landscape. But their narrow field of view, small depth of field, and depth-compressing qualities make it hard to capture the landscape as a whole.

WILLCK 10 WILLOW wide

You can analyze this pair of images to see exactly how all of these techniques work together. Starting with the photo above, you can see how the wide angle lens fits the whole landscape into the frame, from close-up rocks, to far off peaks and sky. Because of the lens’s large depth of field, the whole landscape is in acceptable focus as well. The lens’s depth distortion is readily apparent as well: the foreground rocks look very large, creating a pleasing sense of depth, and emphasizing the leading lines that draw the eye from the edges of the frame to the center. Overall, you get a very good sense of the space and the expansiveness of the valley.

WILLCK 11 WILLOW tele

This image was taken in the same place, but the use of a telephoto lens captures it in a very different way. The photo brings out a single element of the landscape – look closely and you can see this peak in the previous image on the top right – and allows the viewer to appreciate its subtle details. Because of the telephoto lens’s narrow depth of field, the sky is slightly out of focus while leaving the details of the peak itself perfectly sharp. And most of all, the compressed sense of depth flattens the image, showing off the rocky mass of the mountain, and calling attention to the beautiful curve of the ridge line. Overall, you get a great sense of the mountain as a solid object, rather than a bounded space.

When to shoot what?

The best way to know which lens to use is to get out there, look, and think. What part of the landscape are you most drawn to? Does the landscape’s expansiveness give it its character? Are there stunning details surrounded by less photogenic elements? Are you shooting spaces or objects?

WILLCK 12 ZODIAC

That said, my personal strategy is to just shoot both, because almost any landscape has enough beauty that just one type of lens isn’t enough to get to all of it.

What is your approach to landscape photography? Do you use a wide or telephoto more often? Please share your thoughts and landscape images in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Will Crites-Krumm is a wilderness photographer and writer who specializes in remote back-country landscapes. Photography is a means for Will to connect with the present moment, and it's the best way he knows to celebrate our wild wabi-sabi planet and to inspire love and care for it.

  • Great article! I’ve always resorted to my wide angle lenses for landscape shots but now I’m going to try out my longer focal lengths and see what I can do!

    I’m looking into upgrading from the Nikon D7100 to a full frame camera. I’ve used the Nikon D3, D800 and the Canon 5D Mark III. Any recommendations for full frame cameras for a professional photographer? (I’m graduating soon and won’t have access to full frames through school so I need my own!) I’m not sure what area of photography I’ll be working in quite yet so I need a camera that can do it all! Was hoping you could link me a prior post of yours if you’ve touched on this topic already or make a comparative post? 🙂 Thanks so much!!

    http://katieedidd.blogspot.ca

  • Paul Weimer

    I also like to shoot with a lens or at a zoom level that approximates the human eye (a net 45 to 50 mm). What this gives me, I find, is the “human perspective”–this is about what your eye could take in, what you could really see if you were standing where I was. For my Canon 7d, the 28mm prime I have, with the crop factor, gives me 45mm.

  • Darryl Lora

    Hi Paul, I get almost the same effect with a 35mm on my 7D, but what I do find with most of my photography is, I don’t actually want the human, 6 foot off the ground perspective, and this is where getting low to the ground with a 10~20mm gives great foreground interest.

  • William Crites-Krumm

    Hey Paul! That’s another great type of lens range to use. The difference of shooting around “normal” range probably deserves its own article!

  • William Crites-Krumm

    Definitely! It’s really just a matter of the type of image you’re going for in a particular scene. Even though you generally don’t want all your photos to have the 6ft human perspective, there are some scenes where that’s the exact perfect place to get the right image.

  • William Crites-Krumm

    Hi Katelyn! I’m glad the article could help you!

    As for your upgrade wondrings, I’ve only ever shot with the 5D Mk.III (my current body) so I can’t really speak as to the two Nikon’s, but I can say that I do really like the 5D. I got it for the “full” frame, ISO performance, and general ruggedness that I need for wilderness photography. That said, switching brands means having to switch out all your Nikon lenses to Canon ones, which can be a big expense.

    One thing to consider when deciding to upgrade to full frame is what kind of photography you’d like to do long term, although it seems like you’re still keeping yourself open. While full frame is amazing for shooting low-light landscapes, I know some sports, wildlife, and wedding photographers actually prefer crop bodes, because of the extra “zoom” provided by the crop factor (which usually more than compensates for the decreased megapixels).

    To learn more, ID suggest searching this site for articles on full frame, and maybe just doing a general Google search for the comparison. A lot of times random forums will have great real-world discussions on these types of compariosns.

    Good luck, and thanks for reading!

  • Paul Weimer

    Very true.

  • M.h. O’Dell

    This is an excellent article. Space vs Objects!

  • mma173

    I thought human field of view is approximately 21mm?

  • BlackRipleyDog

    Hi Katelyn,
    My recommendation is to go for the most current model you can afford and still have funds for a stable of good glass. Cameras like computers are subject to Moore’s Law that posits that tech doubles it’s capabilities every 18 months. With Nikon currently offering models shooting 4K video and using the Expeed 5 processing engine, and with a 20mp DX sensor in the D500 for $2000 is tempting.
    I have owned Nikons starting with a D-70s, then a D-200, then making the FX jump with a D-600 and currently my daily work-horse is a D-800 (I bought refurbished for 1/2 it’s original retail). At the time I bought the D600 I bought my wife the D7100 with dedicated DX glass which is a great camera.
    I shoot landscapes and all along the way, I have produced stunning images in every camera.That being said, I also made the next jump because you start to see how your current model is limited in what you want to achieve.
    Be prepared to stick with whatever body you eventually buy and wring everything out of it you can because Nikon or Canon are going to come along and tempt you all over again.

  • William Crites-Krumm

    I appreciate it!

  • William Crites-Krumm

    This is a pretty interesting subject, but suffice to say while the actual ‘focal length’ for our total amount of vision is in the wide-angle range, the field of view we have that we can pay conscious attention to at a given time can be approximated by about 45mm.

  • mma173

    Agree, human eye’s focal length is ~45mm but the overall perceived focal length is ~21mm.

    Check out this article:
    http://www.cambridgeincolour.com/tutorials/cameras-vs-human-eye.htm

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