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An easy assumption to make, when shooting landscapes, is to 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.
Wide-angle lenses also have the widest depth of field, so you get the whole landscape in focus. And their distortion enlarges objects in the foreground, letting you show off close-up details. The same distortion also emphasizes leading lines, enhancing your compositions and giving your image a more dynamic feel. But when you default to wide-angle glass, you miss many hidden opportunities offered by telephoto lenses.
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 details 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 the extra elements and for focusing on small, beautiful scenes like the curve of a mountain, a reflection in a far-off pond, or the silhouette of a tree.
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 lens 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 a wide-angle image, 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.
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 wide aperture, using the landscape as a nice, creamy bokeh backdrop.
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 the main sunflower.
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.
In the left image 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.
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 (right).
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.
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.
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.
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. It 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 ridgeline. Overall, you get a great sense of the mountain as a solid object, rather than a bounded space.
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?
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.