This is with good reason — they’re fantastic options. However, it’s worth having a longer lens in your landscape photography kit, too.
Why use a long lens for landscape photography?
Many of the best landscape photos you see online or when browsing Instagram are impressive, sweeping vistas. When your subject is so massive, it makes sense to use a wide lens to capture as much of the scene as possible.
However, there are times when you may capture too much of a good thing. A wide lens can often deliver a cluttered composition that is far too busy. Simply put, a wide field of view can make it difficult to focus on key aspects of a scene.
Sometimes, capturing a huge area is precisely the ideal course of action. However, I think that it’s all too easy to capture too much with a “traditional” landscape lens.
Take a 14-24mm f/2.8 lens, for example. If you are photographing a scene at 14mm on a full frame camera, that’s a 114-degree field of view. The result is a lot of elements within the scene and many more considerations when composing a photograph.
Different compositions and perspectives
The primary reason I always have a long lens with me when doing landscape photography is to capture different compositions. Compared to a wide-angle lens, a telephoto lens offers a very different perspective and thus creates dramatically different images. A telephoto lens allows you to focus on smaller elements within a larger scene.
I often use a telephoto lens to find the photo within a photo, so to speak. It can be challenging to find patterns and structure within a scene when using a wide lens. A long lens can make this much easier, especially when trying to bring a potential composition closer to you.
The strongest elements in a scene cannot always be captured with a wide-angle lens. A longer lens allows the photographer to place emphasis on different objects within a scene. In the next section, I’ll discuss using a long lens to bypass natural obstacles. However, you can also use a long lens to shoot past a boring foreground. An interesting foreground is a critical component of many great landscape photos, but sometimes there simply isn’t an interesting foreground element nearby. By using a telephoto lens, you can turn a more distant object into a foreground element in your composition.
A wide-angle lens makes the distance between foreground elements and your background appear greater in your image. A telephoto lens, on the other hand, sort of compresses the perspective in your image, so to speak. It can make distant objects appear closer together. Using a telephoto lens also results in elements having a more natural perspective, rather than making foreground elements appear very large in your frame.
Bypassing natural obstacles
There are frequently obstacles to overcome when photographing landscapes. Sometimes these obstacles are physical and cannot be overcome. When photographing along the rocky Maine coast, for example, I cannot simply walk into the Atlantic to get closer to a subject. If I want a tighter frame, I need a long lens.
This is a common reason to use a longer lens when photographing landscapes. There are times when it’s either too dangerous or impossible to navigate all the terrain around you to get closer to a subject. This is a time when a long lens can be a huge help.
Tips and tricks for using a telephoto lens for landscape photography
There are certain situations when I’m much more likely to want a telephoto lens for landscape photography. I’ve already discussed using a long lens to bypass natural obstacles or to create a more interesting composition. I also use a telephoto lens when the sky is boring or doesn’t fit the mood of the image I want to make. It’s very difficult to compose an image with minimal sky when using a wide-angle lens.
Another common use case for a telephoto lens in landscape photography is when trying to isolate an object within a scene. For example, suppose you want to photograph a single tree against a background. If you are using a lens with a short focal length, such as a 24mm lens, you will need to get very close to the tree and it will appear disproportionately large in your frame compared to its surroundings.
While many of my landscape images have been captured with focal lengths ranging from 14mm to 35mm, there are plenty of my favorites that have been shot at 50mm, 70mm, 200mm and sometimes even 400mm. Without a telephoto lens in my bag, I would have missed out on many different landscape photography opportunities.
The next time you’re out photographing, and a scene isn’t jumping out at you with a wide-angle lens, consider using a telephoto lens. Sometimes there’s a great photo right there waiting for you, you just need to bring it closer.