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Professional Landscape Photography Tips - Using Telephoto Lenses for Shooting Landscapes

When thinking about landscape photography gear, the first thing that comes to mind is the picture of an ultra wide angle lens, then comes the tripod, various filters, shutter release etc.

And when we think about the photographs we think of shots of wide vistas stretching from the immediate foreground to the distant background, strategically positioned foreground elements that add interest to the picture, large depth of field generated by narrow apertures rendering everything in the frame in sharp focus etc.

Tips for Shooting Landscapes with a Telephoto Lens
Photo by: Sathish J

Well there is nothing wrong in people thinking of landscapes the way it was photographed traditionally. There are endless photographers that prove time and again that the technique work well. However the approach has its limitations and people are also accustomed to seeing such shots all the time, so in this article let us explore the technique of photographing landscapes using telephoto lenses, their merits and demerits and how best to get the most out of them.

Why Use Telephoto Lenses Instead of Wide Angle Lenses

For many photographers, a telephoto lens is used to bring distant objects closer when it is impossible to physically get closer to the subject. But ideally the choice of focal lengths should be based on the distinct perspectives it generates. A 50mm lens when used on a full frame camera is called a normal lens because it renders the perspective between foreground and background similar to the way the human eye sees perspective.

Wide angle lenses make the foreground elements appear larger and the background elements appear smaller. This will give more emphasis to the foreground elements and make the background elements appear miniscule. This distortion of perspective causes the background elements to appear as if they are far away from the foreground elements, even though in reality they are only a few feet apart. Thus they create an illusion of depth in the scene.

using telephoto lens in landscape photography
Photo by: Martin Gommel

A telephoto lens does the opposite; it makes background appear larger in comparison to the foreground. Thus it compresses the perspective making objects that are in reality far apart from each other appearing as if closely stacked together.

The choice of focal length should thus be made depending on what message you intend to give the viewers about the scene in front of you.

Get the Most Out of Every Scene

The narrow angle of view of telephoto lenses lets you extract many interesting images from within a large seemingly uninteresting landscape. You can use the telephoto lens to isolate and compress distant portions of the scene or, to zero in on close portions for more image possibilities or even turn your landscape imagery into many graphic abstracts.

telephoto landscape
Photo by: Lutz Koch

Using a long lens for landscapes requires a totally different thinking strategy. Once you learn to see the way a telephoto lens sees, your brain will be able to simplify each scene into many different compositions, each consisting of pure line, shape or form giving you endless ways to work each and every scene you ever encounter.

Unwanted elements in a scene like power lines, poles etc are hard to deal with when shooting with wide angle lenses, but all these could easily be eliminated and only the interesting elements could be selectively framed by using a telephoto lens.

Choosing the right Telephoto Focal Length for Landscapes

There is no hard and fast rule for focal lengths to be used for shooting landscapes, but generally focal lengths from 100mm to 300mm (for full frame cameras) work well for most situations. Although it is possible to shoot landscapes using much longer focal lengths, the perspective distortion (compression in case of telephoto lenses) produces images so different than the actual that they fall into "abstract" realm rather than the "pictorial" realm.

landscape photography tricks
Photo by: Stewart Baird

Consider lenses of focal length from 100mm-300mm for full frame cameras, 70mm-200mm for cameras with APS sized sensors and 50mm-150mm for Four thirds sensor cameras. Choosing a telephoto zoom over a fixed focal length lens gives you the much needed flexibility when composing your shots. Modern professional zoom lenses produce very high image quality comparable with that produced by fixed focal length lenses; and saves you the hassle of carrying more than one lens to cover different focal lengths.

What to Look For in a Telephoto Lens mainly intended for Landscape Shooting

Landscape photography often requires the use of large depth of field and hence the lens will be mostly used stopped down. So a faster lens is not always a better choice for landscape photographers. Slower lenses are often much cheaper than their faster siblings, they are also much lighter making it easier to carry them long distances over tough terrains. Generally slower lenses take smaller filters, which cost far less than larger filters and also take up less space in the camera bag. Similar is the case with fast auto-focus and Image stabilization features, both of which add to the costs and also the physical weight of the lens. Since landscape photographers mostly shoot on tripods, image stabilization is not that important to them, same is the case with focusing; most professionals prefer manual focusing with stationary subjects. The features discussed above namely faster maximum aperture, image stabilization, fast auto focus performance etc. add the bulk of the cost and if you are planning to mainly use a lens to shoot landscapes you could cut down on costs considerably by choosing lenses wisely.

Tips for Photographing Landscapes Using Telephoto Lenses

Shooting landscapes with telephoto lenses is the same as when using wide angle lenses, except for some additional considerations that you need to make. Here are few tips to help you get stunning pictures.

1. Composing The Scene

When you come across an interesting scene, think of elements that you believe contributes to its interestingness and try to isolate them in your shots. Also think of elements that do not add significantly to the scene or is more of a distraction and think how best to eliminate them from your compositions. The power to eliminate unwanted elements from a scene is the greatest advantage of using telephoto lenses over wide angle lenses.

landscape photography using tele lens
Photo by: Sandeep Somasekharan

For ex. If you have a very uninteresting sky in your scene; why include it in your composition in the first place? Zoom in tight and crop out the sky.

2. Use a Sturdy Tripod

The large depth of field often required in landscapes means you will often be shooting with very narrow aperture that require slower shutter speeds to compensate for the light loss. The longer the focal length used the greater the chances of your shot getting spoiled by camera shake. Whenever possible shoot on a solid tripod to ensure maximum image sharpness.

3. Enable Mirror Lock Up

If your DSLR has a mirror lock up function enable it and use a remote trigger or the timer function to ensure maximum sharpness. The mirror which is located very close to the sensor could induce small vibrations when it flips up and down at the start and end of every exposure. Using mirror lock up introduces a small delay between the mirror flipping up and the opening of the shutter and thereby reducing the chances of the shake spoiling the image. Shooting in live view also has the same effect as the mirror stays up when the camera is in live view mode.

4. Image Stabilization / Vibration Reduction

Image stabilization is a very advanced feature found in relatively high quality lenses and could be a life saver when shooting handheld in low light conditions. However when shooting on a tripod, always remember to turn it off. Else the stabilization feature will look for vibrations that are not present and in the process introduce vibrations of its own resulting in a softer image.

5. Beware of Wind

telephoto landscape photography
Photo by: Sathish J

When shooting with long focal length lenses, the wind could cause serious issues; strong winds could even knock down the equipment if the tripod is not stable enough or is not weighed down. But what we need to be aware of is the fact that even relatively mild wind could easily spoil our shots. When shooting in windy conditions you could try the following tricks to reduce its impact.

  • Take off your lens hood; longer lenses have large hoods which could catch wind easily.
  • Use your own body as a shield; place yourselves in between the camera and the wind.
  • If your tripod allows you to hang weight for better stability do it.
  • Place a beanbag or something similar (consider reducing some weight) over your lens for increased stability.
  • Increase the ISO settings for faster shutter speeds.
  • Shoot from a protected location; place a solid structure like a wall or a building or even a vehicle in between the wind and you.
  • Wait for the wind to subside.

6. Shoot at Your Lens’s Sweet Spot

landscape photography tips
Photo by: Derek Fung

Every lens has a sweet spot. An aperture setting that produces the best image sharpness. A rule of thumb states that for most lenses the sweet spot is 2 stops narrower than its maximum aperture. So for a lens with a maximum aperture setting of f/4 the sweet spot will be 2 stops narrower that means f/8.

7. Specialized Filters for Creative Control

Unlike a wide angle lens, it is very easy to use polarizing filters on telephoto lenses as there is very little chance of getting uneven polarization. You can also use other filters like Graduated Neutral Density Filters to control the amount of contrast in your scene. One thing to remember is that filter sizes may differ for your wide angle lens and telephoto lens. So filters originally bought for wide angle lenses may not fit on your telephoto lenses. However if your telephoto lens has a smaller diameter filter than your filters you can use adapter rings to make the filters suit the lens. But if the filters you own has a smaller diameter than your telephoto lenses filter diameter you have no choice but to buy larger size filters or shoot multiple exposure and blend them together in software.

8. Shooting Panoramic Landscapes

panoramic landscape photography using telephoto lens
Photo by: Sathish J

Telephoto lenses have very little distortion when compared to wide angle lenses and hence are great choice for shooting panoramic landscapes. Zoom in tight on the most interesting area of your image and capture multiple shots with a 30% overlap to create stunning panoramas. With telephoto lenses you can make multiple panoramas from a single scene.
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