Using a Telephoto for Landscape Photography

Using a Telephoto for Outdoor Photography

You stagger out of the bush, emerging onto the tops before a panorama of impressive mountains. Sun glints off the scattered tarns amongst the tussock, and the distant peaks sport a smattering of fresh snow. A few lazy, insignificant clouds drift in an otherwise azure sky. Out comes your camera.
The immediate temptation is always to try and fit everything in. Set the lens at its widest, and blast away.
Outdoor photography has a long tradition of using wide-angle lens, and for good reason. With a 24mm or 28 mm lens you can compose a scene with both the mountain vistas and a foreground of bold alpine flowers or tarns.
But too frequently outdoor and travel photographers frame their thinking solely with the wide angle. It takes a change in your approach to frame scenes which suit a telephoto, but the transition is well worth it. The telephoto range of your lens – 70mm and longer - opens opportunities for creating images which often can't be captured on a wider frame. Here’s some of them.

1. Making the most of dramatic light

Frequently the most dramatic lighting conditions occur only on isolated patches of the landscape, perhaps brought about by the sun splintering through a narrow gap in clouds, or the low angles of dawn light reaching only the highest peaks. A classic example is the alpen-glow occurring during dawn and dusk on high snow-capped mountains. Only the highest part of the mountains are lit, while the valleys and lower flanks of the mountain have slipped into shadow. If you use your wide-angle lens, chances are that the contrast between light and shadow will be too much for an acceptable exposure. But is you use your telephoto, you can zoom in - to where the light is.

2. Concentrating attention on form and detail

Unless carefully composed, wide angles can include simply too much detail in the frame. The results can be overwhelming or simply cluttered. Zooming-in concentrates attention on the detail rather than the breadth of the landscape. The telephoto frames patterns or forms in a landscape which interest you most, and the result can be a simpler, stronger composition.

3. Avoiding patchy, contrasting light

Too often, light is patchy on the landscape, and even though our eyes can handle the contrast, the limited latitude of film does not allow a good exposure. Wide-angle lens require lighting to be fairly ideal over most of the scene, and this is even more important when using high contrast slide films. Using a telephoto enables you to avoid patchy light, and instead concentrate on those scenes with less contrasting conditions. Excluding the horizon is one way you can take advantage of more even lighting conditions. I have found this particularly useful for photographing forested mountain spurs on overcast days when the brighter sky, if not excluded, would cause exposure problems.

4. Emphasising height and grandeur

One disadvantage of wide-angle lenses is that they distort the dimensions of subjects. Trampers often get back wide-angle pictures and are disappointed with the flatness of the mountains. This effect is not always noticeable through the viewfinder. When we are actually in a landscape, all our senses allow us to appreciate the scale and height of mountains, and it’s tempting to fit as much of the scene in the picture as possible. However back home, the resulting photograph relies solely on it’s visual impact, and by trying to incorporate too much, any sense of steepness and scale is lost. Telephotos have the opposite effect; zooming in on an isolated peak can emphasise its height and grandeur in a way which does justice to your experience. Those using digital cameras have a distinct advantage here. Digital enables you to experiment on the spot, using both telephoto and wide angle to compare the results on your camera screen.

5. The Foreshortening Effect

Using a long lens to shoot rows of mountain ridges fading into the distance creates a powerful effect called foreshortening. The telephoto reduces the apparent distance between adjacent objects, whether they be pillars of rock, or rows of mountains. This principle can be applied to capture patterns and form of objects which would be rendered too far apart on a wider lens. The same applies to people. Back off from your fellow tramper or climber, zoom in, and you can create dramatic shots where they appear much closer to distant mountains than is possible with a wide-angle lens.

6. Aerial Photography

Not surprisingly, telephoto lens lend themselves to aerial photography. Zooming in on landscapes from above create some of the most dramatic and unusual images because they give a perspective not seen in everyday life. From the tight confines of an airplane window the telephoto comes into its own. It's important to shoot at shutter speeds fast enough to counteract the movement of the plane - usually 1/250th second is fast enough, but it does depend on how close to the ground you are flying. The closer the plane, the faster your relative speed to the ground, and consequently a faster shutter speed is required.

7. Leave some mystery

Perhaps the best reason for using a telephoto lens in favour of a wide angle is to leave the image with a sense of mystery. By deliberately excluding the horizon, or the tops of the mountain, the viewer is left with a sense of unknown elements beyond and above the frame. Leaving the imagination to fill these gaps can create a subtle element of mystery to the landscape which is lost when all is revealed.


Use your wide angle, but don’t ignore the telephoto.
All photographs by Shaun Barnett

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