How to Take Landscapes with a Telephoto Lens
There is a temptation when shooting landscapes to reach for a wide-angle lens and try to include everything that the eye can see. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, but for a more intimate view of the landscape a telephoto lens will allow you to pick out key features within the bigger view. By emphasising the most visually striking parts of the landscape you’ll add real impact to your pictures and make them compositionally much stronger. With telephoto landscapes it’s a case of less is more. Keep it simple: cut out anything that doesn’t add to the picture and concentrate on what really matters.
Telephotos also compress the landscape, making things appear much closer together than they really are. This is the opposite to a wide angle of course, which makes the background in particular appear much further away. This can work sometimes, but it can also lessen the impact of more distant parts of the scenes (such as a mountain). A telephoto, however, can unify the picture by bringing mid and far distant subjects closer together and providing a stronger juxtaposition between them. This is great for contrasting elements within the picture by setting one off against the other.
There isn’t a set of rules for when to go long rather than wide, and I’ll often do both during a shoot at a particular location, perhaps starting off with the wider view and then picking out the more intimate parts of the landscape with a longer lens. Landscapes that work well for the telephoto approach are those that contain interesting compositional elements such as a line or stand of trees, a single isolated tree or building, dry stone walls, meandering rivers, peaked mountains, interesting field patterns, contrasting colour combinations, or simply the play of light and shade on the landscape. The thing to look for is a strong feature that will form the focal point or primary visual impact of the picture and use this to make an arresting composition.
So what kit do you need? A telephoto zoom somewhere in the range of 70-300mm is ideal (although much longer telephotos work well too), and because the subject matter is static the lens doesn’t need to be an expensive super fast f2.8! Quality optics will always give a better quality, sharper result with fewer artefacts but most lenses are very good these days. Just check the image quality of your lens at either end of the zoom range as this is where quality sometimes drops off. If this is the case make a note to avoid shooting at the extremes. You’ll also need a sturdy tripod for good support, as hand holding a telephoto may well lead to problems with camera shake. A remote release can be handy though not essential. But that’s it – you’re good to go!
One advantage of shooting telephoto landscapes is that the simplicity of the image makes it easier to find suitable subjects in almost any environment, both rural and urban. For example, an oak tree in a field of wheat shot with a 28mm may look awful with the clutter of farm buildings and a pasty looking sky behind it, but zoom in with a telephoto lens to isolate the tree and suddenly you’ve made a great picture from almost nothing. Keep this in mind when travelling around locally and make a note of anything that might work well. Then return when the weather and/or lighting conditions are at their best.
As with all landscapes, lighting is a key component for successful images. However, almost any lighting situation can be used to great effect provided you have the right subject. Whereas most wide views that work well tend to be taken in the golden hours of dawn and dusk, this isn’t necessarily the case for telephoto landscapes and even flat light can produce exceptional pictures, as it lowers contrast and is great for revealing finer detail. Also, by going in much tighter, the sky can be excluded from the shot, which is great if it’s pale and uninteresting. Conversely, strong directional sunlight is ideal for revealing texture and form and for creating dramatic shadows across the landscape.
Depth of field when shooting with a telephoto lens is much less than with a wide angle (for any given scene), therefore an aperture of f/16 or f/22 will help to bring as much of the scene into focus as possible. However, bear in mind that depth of field increases with the distance between the camera and the subject. Often you’ll be shooting distant parts of the landscape and so, although you’re using a telephoto lens, it’s still possible to record everything in sharp focus even with an aperture of f/8 or f/11.
This is relevant because many lenses perform optimally when using these mid range aperture settings, so if it’s not necessary to stop down to a very small aperture then use a setting of around f/8 instead. A good way to check if the aperture setting you’ve chosen is sufficient to capture everything in focus is to zoom in on the image on the LCD on the back of the camera and examine the near and far parts of the scene for sharpness. Similarly, you could take the same scene at different aperture settings and check for sharpness and optimum image quality back home on your monitor.
Further Reading: “How to Photograph Magical Morning Mist“
For landscapes where there are parts of the scene quite close to the camera and some much further away, it may not always be possible to increase depth of field sufficiently to record all parts in sharp focus. In these situations you may need to compromise and focus on the most important parts of the scene and accept that some other parts may not be pin sharp. Alternatively, you may want to alter your approach altogether and set the lens to its widest aperture in order to deliberately limit depth of field. This selective focusing technique works very well for isolating a key focal point within the picture making it stand out more clearly from the out of focus surroundings.
Composition is especially important for telephoto landscapes, so take your time to get it right. One of the so-called compositional rules is the ‘rule of thirds’, whereby the frame is divided into thirds horizontally and vertically and that the focal point of the picture is placed on one of these lines or intersections. Try placing the key focal point on each of the four intersecting thirds to see which produces the strongest composition. If there two elements to the picture then try placing them so that they are diagonally opposite e.g. one bottom right and the other top left or vice versa.
The zoom on your telephoto is great for fine-tuning the composition and deciding what to include and exclude from the frame. Zoom in and out in small increments and check the edges of the frame for distractions, such as a stray branch or slither of sky creeping into the picture. Also, try to leave a complimentary ‘border’ around the main subject to give it room to breathe and avoid chopping off key parts of the main subject abruptly. If in doubt, it’s always best to leave extra space around the edges of the frame and then crop later during processing.
Quick Tips for Great Telephoto Landscapes
1. To find a good composition start by hand holding the camera and experiment with different focal lengths. Then set up your tripod and if the lens has its own collar, mount it directly onto the tripod head. Once the camera is set-up, fine tune the composition and then tighten all the controls on the tripod head so that the camera and composition are locked in position.
2. To record everything in sharp focus, set a small aperture (typically between f11 and f22) to maximise depth of field. Alternatively, chose a wide aperture of f4 or f5.6 so that just a narrow band is in focus and everything else is blurred.
3. Camera shake and mirror vibrations are exaggerated when shooting with longer lenses – even on a tripod – so it’s best to use mirror lock-up (often enabled via a custom function) in combination with either a remote release or the 2 second delay self-timer.
4. Keep the composition simple. Concentrate on emphasising the most interesting elements in the landscape and exclude anything that competes for attention or adds nothing to the picture.
5. Use the light to your advantage. Low angled sunlight is great for accentuating light and shade, and will add depth and drama to your pictures. Soft light is perfect for rendering finer details and for low key, low contrast images that have a more subtle quality.