When you arrive at a beautiful scene, open your camera bag, and reach in to pick out a lens for landscape photography, which one do you usually choose and why?
A mid-range focal length lens, say between 35mm and 70mm, is usually the one that gets picked the most because it is closest to what we see with our eyes. When we choose that lens, we come home with photos that look like what we saw and they feel natural.
A wide-angle lens is often chosen when we simply want to take in a wider scene, and a telephoto lens is chosen when we want to get closer to something in the distance. While these uses are certainly valid, these lenses can also be used in the exact opposite way.
Let’s take a look at different ways that wide-angle and telephoto lenses can be used to emphasize different aspects of a scene for landscape photography.
Wide-angle of view versus distant details
This is the way most people use wide-angle and telephoto lenses, as follows.
When I arrived at the scene below, I wanted to capture as much of the lake as possible while eliminating a few distractions on the edges. I reached for my wide angle lens and made an image at 14mm.
Then I noticed some interesting details in the distance on the left side of the frame above. I really liked how the colors of the plants seemed to come down the hill at an angle and were reflected in the lake making a triangle shape. To emphasize this detail, I reached for my telephoto lens and made this image at 65mm.
Wide-angle of view versus close-up details
I made this photo of some cacti and the setting sun right in my campground in southern Arizona. To get the foreground rocks, the cacti, and the background in the frame, I used my wide-angle lens at 15mm and set the aperture to f/22 to make the starburst.
Then I became drawn to the lines in the organ pipe cactus. To emphasize the lines in an abstract way I moved around the cactus, so I would be working with side light, and used my telephoto lens at 210mm to capture the details.
Get close with a wide lens, go wide with a telephoto lens
As I mentioned in the introduction, lenses can be used in the exact opposite way from our usual mode of operation. Sometimes the best way to get close is to use a wide-angle lens. But you have to be really close!
To make this image of a chain fruit cholla, I was only a couple of feet away from it when I made this image at 33mm. Getting physically close to a subject in the foreground makes that subject look large in comparison to the background. The cholla would have looked even larger if I had gotten closer and used a wider angle like 10mm.
At the same location, I wanted to make an image that captured the huge expanse of cacti and the surrounding mountains. With a wide-angle lens, things in the distance look tiny and you don’t get the feeling I was looking for. So I used my telephoto lens to capture more distant subjects at 122mm.
Make the background or foreground look large
The two photos below are shots of the exact same plant. I chose this organ pipe cactus with a mountain in the background to demonstrate depth compression and how it applies to your lens choice.
When I was quite a distance away from the subject, approximately 100 feet, I made the photo below using my telephoto lens at 129mm. I would have gone farther away from it, but other cacti prevented me from getting a clear view of my subject from a farther distance. Notice how large the mountain appears in this image.
Then I went right up to the cactus, only inches away, and made the photo below with my wide angle lens at 18mm. Now you can tell that there are actually two organ pipes that looked like one in the previous image. Notice how small the mountain appears in the image below.
Note that this difference is not a result of the lenses themselves, but rather it is due to the distance between the camera and the subject.
When you want to make something that is the background look larger, get farther away from it and use a longer lens. If you want something in the background to disappear, or at least be minimized, get closer to your subject and use a wider lens.
Depth of Field
The depth of field in your image, which is the amount of the scene that is sharp, is determined by the aperture you use. So if you want the background to be blurry you use a wide aperture like f/2.8 or f/5.6. But the aperture you choose does not have the same result with every lens.
I made the photo below with a wide-angle lens at 20mm and an aperture of f/5.6. The result is that most of the flowers are sharp and the background is just slightly blurred.
If you want the background to be extremely soft, it’s better to get farther away from your subject and use a longer lens. In the example below, I wanted to make the flowers stand out and minimize the appearance of a house in the background, so I moved farther away, used my telephoto lens at 250mm and an aperture of f/5.6.
Here is a quick summary to help you remember what you just learned.
Use a wide-angle lens when you want to:
- Get close to subjects in the foreground and make them seem more important than the background.
- Make subjects in the background appear smaller.
- Get everything in focus.
- Photograph in tight areas like canyons.
Use a telephoto lens when you want to:
- Get closer to subjects in the distance.
- Make subjects in the background appear larger.
- Get a shallow depth of field by blurring the background.
- Make close-up images of details.