Wideangle lenses may normally be your first choice for landscapes, but telephotos can be just as effective and allow you to produce images full of drama and impact. Lee Frost gibes his top tips
Tele-photo. The title says it all, really – photos taken at a distance. That’s what telephoto lenses do. They pull things in, magnify them, let you get up close and personal. For sport and nature photography, where your subject is usually some distance from the camera, telephoto lenses are invaluable because they allow you to fill the frame when getting physically closer isn’t an option. But the fact that they allow you to be selective, and decide exactly what you want in a shot and what you don’t, makes telephoto lenses handy for other subjects, too – subjects that you wouldn’t naturally associate them with – like landscapes. They also have other characteristics over and above the power to magnify that you can use to creative effect.
Any lens with an effective focal length longer than 50mm is considered a telephoto with digital SLRs and the longer that focal length is, the more the telephoto characteristics are emphasised. Moderate tele lenses from 70-300mm are ideal for landscape photography because they’re not too powerful or big or heavy, but still give you the benefits of a telephoto – which is why there are zoom lenses covering this range. Beyond 300mm you’ll probably find them a little too powerful, as you can’t actually get much of a scene in the shot, though in some locations ‘long toms’ – as more powerful telephoto lenses are often called – can be invaluable and produce stunning results.
This month’s Top Tips will give you an idea of what can be achieved when you take a telephoto lens into the landscape. We hope you’ll be inspired.
Tip 1. Light fantastic
Landscape photography is all about light, no matter what type of lens you use. The great thing about telephoto lenses, though, is that their magnification power takes you to the light. You can close in on the area of the landscape in the best light instead of chasing it with a wideangle.
Tip 2. Shoot the sundown (or up)!
There are few experiences more memorable than watching the sun sink gently towards the horizon at the end of the day, or appear above at the beginning. But how often are you disappointed by your photos? In wideangle shots the beauty of the sun’s orb appears tiny. With a telephoto lens, however, you can magnify it and make a feature of it. Use your longest lens. A 500mm or 600mm lens – or equivalent with a crop-sensor camera – is ideal, though you can always crop the image during postprocessing to make the sun appear even bigger in the image. Watch the exposure – it’s easy to overexpose the sun as it’s so bright.
Tip 3. Make the most of aerial perspective
Aerial perspective is based on the fact that colour and tone diminishes with distance due to atmospheric haze, mist and fog. If you gaze across a mountainous scene at sunrise, for example, the mountains closest to the camera will appear darker than those further away. Your telephoto lens will emphasise the effects of aerial perspective due to the way it compresses perspective, so the elements in a scene appear closer together.
Tip 4. Fill the frame for impact
Wideangle landscapes can easily look ‘windy’ and boring because they have such a broad angle of view. They also stretch perspective so everything appears spread out. However, it’s the exact opposite with telephotos. They allow you to be more selective. You can crop out the unwanted details and fill the frame with what matters for maximum impact.
Tip 5. Sense of scale
Adding a sense of scale to landscapes not only creates drama but also helps the viewer to quantify what they’re looking at. We know mountains are big, but it’s only when you include something identifiable and much smaller in the composition that it becomes obvious just how big. Telephoto lenses make it much easier to exploit scale than wideangles because of the way they compress perspective and make the elements in the scene appear closer together.
Tip 6. Signs of man
We tend to avoid manmade features in our landscape images, but man has been living on the land for hundreds of thousands of years, so his presence isn’t as artificial as we might at first assume! Ancient villages and abandoned buildings can look very natural when you capture them in their environment. Also, modern structures such as bridges and pylons can contrast starkly with the softer contours of the landscape.
Tip 7. Minimise depth of field
Landscapes are normally shot at small apertures with wideangle lenses to maximise depth of field and record everything in sharp focus. But what if you were to use a telephoto lens at a wide aperture to minimise depth of field, so only a key part of the scene was in sharp focus and everything else nicely blurred? Try it – you might be pleasantly surprised. Known as ‘differential focus’, this technique can work really well. Use it to capture a single tree in sharp focus, a horse in a field, a bright red poppy in sea of golden corn, a boat on a lake at sunset…
Tip 8. Repeat after me
Telephoto lenses are ideal for capturing natural and manmade patterns in the landscape. These patterns may not be so obvious to the human eye, but because telephoto lenses compress perspective and magnify your subject, they are very effective at making the most of patterns. Ripples in sand, flowers in a field, avenues of trees, rows of crops, shadows cast across the land, the colours of autumnal foliage – if you look at the landscape through a telephoto lens you’ll see patterns everywhere, on both a large and small scale.
Tip 9. Exploit colour
In certain locations and at certain times of year, the landscape can be incredibly colourful – vivid orange sand dunes in the desert; vibrant autumnal foliage; bulb fields in spring; banks for bluebells; fields of poppies, sunflowers, oilseed rape and lavender in the summer. Use your telephoto lens to fill the frame with this colour and exclude periphery details that will dilute the impact of the composition. Contrasting warm colours with deep, blue polarised sky can also look amazing.
Tip 10. Capture small details
You don’t have to shoot sweeping views to create successful landscape photographs – details in the landscape reveal a more intimate side to a location and can be just as revealing but in a less obvious way. Telephoto and telezoom lenses are ideal for capturing details because of the way they magnify everything and limit what you can see. This allows you to home in on small areas and shoot scenes within a scene. Telezoom lenses are more versatile than prime telephotos as you can adjust the focal length to fine-tune the composition.
Tip 11. Compress perspective
One of the main characteristics of telephoto lenses is their ability to compress apparent perspective, so the elements in a scene appear closer together than they are in reality. Often referred to as ‘stacking’ or ‘foreshortening’, this phenomenon can be used to emphasise the repeated layers or shapes in a scene, such as ranges of hills and mountains receding into the distance. It can also be used to add a sense of drama to a composition by making distant features loom large in the background and dwarf smaller features closer to the camera – a cottage at the foot of towering cliffs, for example. Compression increases with focal length, so a 500mm lens will give a much bolder effect than a 200mm. Remember, also, that if you want to record everything in the scene in sharp focus you’ll need to stop the lens down to a small aperture – f/22 or f/32.
Tip 12. Keep it simple
Because telephoto lenses magnify and isolate, they make it much easier to create simple compositions. You can home in on specific parts of a scene and exclude unwanted details so the image delivers a clear and succinct message. It’s surprising how little you actually need to create a striking landscape image – just think ‘less is more’!
Tip 13. Which telephoto?
The effects of a telephoto increase with focal length. On a crop-sensor DSLR, a 50-200mm, 50-250mm, 70-300mm or similar will be more than powerful enough while on a full-frame DSLR a 70-200mm, 70-300mm or 100-400mm will serve you well. You can also crop full-frame images during postprocessing to emphasise the telephoto effect – since you’re starting with a bigger image file, it doesn’t matter if you crop some of it out.
Tip 14. Home in on bad weather
The weather can change dramatically from one minute to the next and create amazing lighting conditions. Annoyingly, though, the best weather often occurs in the distance – you can see shafts of light bursting through stormy skies, patches of the landscape lit up against a dark sky or a colourful rainbow arching over mountains. With a wideangle lens, the results are boring because the interesting stuff pales into insignificance. Lock a telephoto lens onto your camera, however, and you can fill the frame with bad weather action. The way that lens compresses perspective also adds to the drama by crowding the features in the scene together and making everything feel closer.