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Landscape photography is the realm of the wide-angle lens. Right? Isn’t it? I’m sure I read that somewhere. “When photographing the landscape, use a wide0angle lens.” I know I’ve heard that. We probably all have. But it’s just not true. So in this article, I’ll give you some tips for shooting landscapes with a telephoto or long lens.
Sure, wide-angle lenses are great for the landscape, I use them frequently. But they shouldn’t be the only tool in your box when you are photographing the landscape. In fact, as I was browsing through my image catalog looking for images for this article, I found that many of my favorite landscape shots were made with a lens other than a wide-angle. Many were in the 70-200mm range, and a few were even made with super telephotos at 500mm or 600mm.
If you spend much time photographing landscapes, then you’ll know that there are situations where a wide-angle falls short. Here are some thoughts, and examples of when to apply telephoto lenses of different lengths to your landscape photography.
Just a step above the “normal” lens lies the short telephoto. Many frequently used zooms, such as the popular 24-70mm and 24-105mm lengths fall into this category. Since images made in this range are not much above a standard lens, they share many of the same characteristics.
A substantial depth of field remains, even at fairly wide apertures, and the field of view is wide enough to include large features of the landscape, such as entire mountains, or broad bends of a river.
While holding on to some of the advantages of a wide-angle or standard lens, short telephotos also retain some of the challenges. This range is not for landscape details alone, rather, substantial elements of sky or foreground are often included, reminiscent of classic landscape composition.
As in a wide-angle landscape, you must consider the many different layers of an image (foreground, mid-ground, background, subject, etc.). Unlike a wide shot, however, depth of field is compressed, so when possible, use a high f-stop (like f/11 or f/16).
Think of this range (50-100mm) as a tool to simplify your composition, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to make an image work.
As I was paging through my Lightroom catalog looking for images, I was surprised to find that this range of focal lengths (100-200mm) is actually one of my most-used. I expected to find a lot of portraits and action shots but was surprised to see how many landscapes appeared.
A couple of years ago, I was hiking with a group of clients on a remote mountainside in far northwestern Alaska. It was late autumn, my last trip of the season. The tundra below was a mosaic of red, yellow, and orange. We’d summited a small peak and were on our way down when ominous clouds appeared on the far side of the valley. From the way the precipitation blew, I could tell that those clouds held not rain, but snow, and a lot of it.
My mind went two directions at once. The guide in me, safety oriented and risk-averse, told me I needed to get down the mountain with my clients, and fast. We still had a couple thousand feet of descending, plus three or four miles to walk to reach the safety of camp.
The photographer in me, however, wanted to drop my pack, pull out the camera and go to work. I compromised, pausing regularly to shoot as we made our way down carefully. I relied heavily on a mid-range telephoto, reaching out with my lens to find the patterns in the tundra, the rolling storm, and the sweep of the river.
As that focal length was too long to show a broad field of view, I isolated the components that told the story. I ignored the foreground, cropping it (in the camera) completely out of the composition. From my perch high above the river, everything in the frame was far away, maximizing depth of field and relieving any necessity to choose a focal point. A
That is where this range of telephotos thrive: distant landscape elements can be shown in context, sharp from front to back.
High in the Himalayas of Bhutan, I rose before daybreak and walked a quarter mile to a mid-valley hillock. At 15,000 feet even that small exertion winded me. I recovered, gasping, and watched a dense bank of fog roll past in the gray light.
As morning dawned, the fog began to break, alternately revealing and hiding narrow views of the surrounding peaks. The rocks and glaciers of the mountains high above the fog layer were lit by the bright morning sun, while I shivered in damp mist.
Through the 24mm lens on my camera, I saw little but gray. Frustrated, I pulled the lens off and replaced it with a long telephoto zoom. When a window opened in the fog, I followed it with my camera waiting for something to appear. Letting the clouds do my composition for me, I snapped images: a glacier, a jagged ridge, a spear-headed peak.
When the circumstances are right, a long telephoto can be a trip-salvaging tool for a landscape photographer. The morning described above was the one chance I had to make images from that camp high in the mountains. Without a long lens, that sweet light touching the mountains above would have appeared as a tiny speck in a sea of gray.
Rarely is there much depth in images made in this focal range. The depth of field is shallow at most apertures, and it can be difficult or impossible to retain focus in all of the image’s layers. So select your focal point carefully, and then compose your image to suit the story you want to tell. The focal length may cut the landscape down to smaller parts, but that doesn’t make your composition any less important.
There aren’t many photographers who spend thousands of dollars on a 500mm or 600mm f/4 lens to shoot the scenery. And yet super-telephotos are capable of capturing surprising and unique landscapes.
I’ll be honest. My big glass stays at home unless I expect to see wildlife. In the backcountry, where I shoot a lot, my 500mm f/4 is just too big to lug around. However, on a number of occasions, it’s proved useful for making some atypical images of the landscape.
Several years ago I was leading some bird photographers on a trip to the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We were camped near the coast, on a river delta just spitting distance from the Arctic Ocean. We had been happily exploring the tundra, photographing the abundant birds and rarely paying attention to the landscape.
But one evening (late-night really), the never-setting sun was at its lowest and shed golden light across the expanse of tundra between us and the mountains. It was crystal clear, every detail visible in the distant peaks. The tripod-mounted 500mm leaning atop my bruised shoulder was the perfect tool.
The great distance to the mountains allowed large swaths of the coastal plain and foothills to maintain focus. Everything was compressed, making elements that were miles apart appear close to one another. I played with the light on the mountains, exploring the Brooks Range with my camera from 50 miles away.
The next morning, it was still clear when a herd of caribou (above) some ten thousand strong, passed by a few hundred yards from our camp. The long glass combined with the animals were the perfect combination for showing what a dramatic and wild place is the Arctic Refuge. The compressed field made the distant mountains loom close providing more context for the caribou in the foreground.
Super telephotos are all about compression and isolation. The landscape through long glass looks nothing like it does to the human eye. Distant elements grow close, and unless your focal point is in the distance, depth of field is compressed to a few feet. These lenses are a tool for isolating patterns, compressing distances, and exaggerating sizes.
When it comes to landscape photography, telephoto lenses are often forgotten. They slip to the bottom of packs or are simply left at home.
Your bag or closet are bad places for telephoto lenses. They should be accessible, ready to help you see your landscape in a new, and creativity-inspiring way. So pull your long lens out, click it onto your camera, and explore the way the lens changes your perspective of the landscape.