Why You Should use a Telephoto Lens for Landscape Photography
Most photographers like to praise the benefits of a wide-angle lens for their landscape photography. Some even go so far as to suggest that you have to use an ultra-wide lens, which is a lens with a focal length less than 24mm. Any type of wide-angle lens adds depth and drama to landscapes, but they also distance you from the intimate details of the subject.
Wide-angle lens photography is best applied in landscape photography where there is clear and definite foreground interest such as boulders, colorful flowers, or a calm lake.
If these are not present, consider using a telephoto lens to look past the foreground and to photograph more interesting elements of distant features.
The next time you are setting out for a landscape photography adventure, take along a telephoto lens in your camera bag. You can use it to highlight a significant area of the scene, turning it into the main feature of your shot. A telephoto lens can also be used to encourage the viewer to notice patterns and textures they would otherwise miss. For example, a closely cropped image of a wave as it crests has exquisite beauty and implied power within it. And the immense mass of a glacier is impressive, but zooming in to show the blue veins of the cracks and crevices reveals a surprising element of vulnerability to its structure.
A wide-angle shot of a landscape has visual appeal, whereas a telephoto lens encourages the viewer to explore their feelings towards the environment.
When you attach a telephoto lens to the camera and point it towards the landscape, you can discover surreal imagery that you’d normally not notice. Especially when you take advantage of the compression a telephoto lens has on a scene, bringing remote elements closer together. For example, a series of green hills photographed at dawn with a wide-angle lens is simply a range of mounds in the distance, but a telephoto lens can turn that image into layers of green separated by silver mist. It’s the type of abstract photo that only a telephoto lens can create!
If you are exploring your surroundings looking for the perfect landscape angle and the lighting isn’t right, rather than giving up on the scene, look more closely at some of the features of the location and use the telephoto lens to pick out various components. Appreciate those features as scenes within themselves and see if you can create something special from those individual areas.
A telephoto lens brings aspects of the scene closer to you and it fills the frame in a way that a wide-angle lens has no hope of achieving.
Another advantage of using a long lens is that it helps you exclude unwanted or distracting elements from the foreground by looking straight over them and cropping them out completely.
It’s not all good news though — using a telephoto lens has some drawbacks when photographing in the wilderness. One of the disadvantages of using a telephoto lens is that it’s not as easy to get clear shots if you are hand-holding the lens. With it’s extra weight and length (especially when fully extended) you are likely to get some camera movement from not being able to hold the lens still enough when shooting at slow shutter speeds. The obvious answer is to use a tripod to eliminate this problem, but remember to switch off image stabilization, or the inbuilt stabilizer will be fighting against the stillness of the tripod and you’ll still end up with a blurred image.
When your camera is set upon a tripod, it’s also wise to make use of a remote shutter release, because manually pressing the shutter is going to cause micro movements in the camera just as the shutter fires. Modern remote shutter releases use Bluetooth or Wi-Fi to wirelessly trigger the shutter without the need to touch the camera.
If you don’t have a remote shutter release, another option is to set the timer so that the camera stops wobbling during the time it counts down until the shutter is released. In these situations most photographers choose a two second delay, but when using a telephoto lens, use a ten second timer so that the long lens has completely settled on its tripod mount before the shutter is activated. And because a telephoto lens is longer and therefore has more surface area, it could be moved by gusts of wind even when it’s attached to a tripod, so by using an extended time frame you can set the shutter to fire and then reposition your body to act as a protective shield while the image is taken. If you are still getting soft shots through camera movement, switch the image stabilization back on to counteract the buffeting from the wind.
Also keep in mind the sweet spot on the telephoto lens you are using. Even though you may think it’s important to use a narrow aperture to capture all the details of your landscape, most lenses lose sharpness at the extremes of their apertures. Do some test shots with your camera to find the sweet spot where images are sharpest and use that aperture when doing landscape shots. You’ll probably find that f/8 gives you the best results. This setting also lets in more light than the small apertures you might normally choose for landscape photography, allowing you to use faster shutter speeds to overcome camera movement.
If your photos are still not sharp enough after all of these options have been taken into consideration, increase your ISO so that you can bump up the shutter speed. The processors in modern cameras create crisp images even at 400 to 800 ISO, so experiment with your camera and see how far you can push the extremes of your settings. After all, a sharp shot with a little grain (noise) is always better than a soft image. If necessary, you can always use noise control software in the editing process to fine-tune the image and reduce the impact of a high ISO.
I’m not suggesting that you leave your wide-angle lens at home when shooting landscapes, but definitely include a telephoto lens so you can broaden the scope of your photography and take lots of different images from the same location.
Landscape photos capture the majesty of the natural world, but choosing a longer focal length challenges you to perceive this environment in new and imaginative ways…and isn’t that what good photography is all about?
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About the Author – Jan Erik Waider
I'm a visual artist and fine art photographer based in Hamburg. My work focuses on atmospheric and abstract landscape photography, capturing the essence of the remote polar regions. – Learn more about me and discover my fine art photo series, prints and books or download my Lightroom Presets or Capture One Styles.
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