Pick up most any coffee table book featuring landscape photography and you’ll likely be confronted with image after image of sweeping vistas and vast panoramas. Most of the images are probably photographed using a wide angle to moderate focal length lens. What you won’t see are a bunch of photos created with a telephoto lens.
Long lens landscape photography isn’t as easy nor is it as natural as using a wide angle lens to compose a landscape photograph. Our eyes don’t see at 200, 300 or even 400mm. Normal human vision is similar to the field of view of a 50mm lens. The most challenging aspect of using a telephoto lens to photograph landscapes is learning to see like a telephoto lens. Your goal is to extract small, interesting sections from a much larger landscape. As if that isn’t difficult enough to do with the naked eye, a telephoto lens will also dramatically compress the distance between foreground and background elements. Factor in the technical challenges of working with a long lens and you might be tempted to just throw in the towel. Don’t do it! Here’s why.
My most rewarding images are those I’ve made with my venerable 100-400mm lens. It isn’t the sharpest lens in the stable but it’s certainly one of my favorites, especially in autumn when intimate landscapes abound. Colorful aspens, cottonwoods and oaks…oh my! It’s worth noting that some of my most popular fine art prints are images I created using a long lens.
Another benefit of photographing the landscape through a telephoto lens is that the probability of creating a truly unique image skyrockets. Imagine this: you’re standing along the shore of Maroon Lake on an autumn weekend at sunrise along with 50 other photographers. What are the odds that all 50 of you are going to hone in on the exact same section of aspen covered hillside with your 300mm lens? I say, not at all likely.
So, now that you know why long lens landscape photography is so enticing let’s discuss a few things to help you tackle this fun and rewarding style of photography. Let’s begin with an obvious one – the lens. As mentioned, I use the Canon 100-400mm zoom lens often and with great zeal. It’s a truly amazing focal length range that allows you to reach way out there and bring home a killer image. Perhaps a more popular option is the 70-200mm lens offered by most camera manufacturers. Canon’s new 70-300mm lens has received high marks for image quality and will soon replace my aging 100-400mm lens. Bottom line: whatever you’ve got that extends beyond 100mm will work. (Update: I’ve since sold the 100-400mm lens and replaced it with the new 70-300mm. Results thus far are impressive. Watch for a full review of this lens in a few months after I’ve had plenty of time to get to know it’s good and bad sides.)
Composing a dynamic image through a telephoto lens isn’t about adding more and more elements to the photo. To the contrary, it’s about eliminating everything extraneous until you’ve distilled the composition to its simplest form. When you use a telephoto lens to compose an image you’re essentially creating an intimate landscape, albeit from a greater distance than you may be accustomed to working. The key point here – simplify!
Most of my long lens landscapes have one of two common themes: patterns and/or colors. I seek out contrasts, such as the image you see here of a lone evergreen tree nestled amongst colorful gambel oaks and aspens. The evergreen not only contrasts with the surrounding foliage, it anchors the entire scene.
In the next photo, rows of young autumnal gambel oaks reclaiming an area charred by wildfire create a semi-abstract image through the use of bold color and natural patterns. Patterns abound in nature. Some are easy to find, like those formed by the stark white trunks of arrow straight aspen trunks. Yet other patterns aren’t as easily identified but are equally thrilling to discover and photograph. And, the more you work at finding patterns in nature the easier it becomes.
The image below, of strange cloud formations over the Cottonwood Mountains in Death Valley NP, could not have been created without a long lens. I was working roadside using my Canon 70-300mm lens to photograph the Mesquite Dunes from a distance. The light wasn’t cooperating as it was everywhere else but on the dunes so I began to look for other opportunities. I watched this cloud form and then stretch for miles over the mountains and decided to train my lens in that direction. When a section of the mountains lit up with storm light I knew I’d hit the jackpot. The lesson: long lenses allow you to simplify in ways a wide angle or moderate focal length simply can’t and they open up opportunities that wouldn’t exist with any other lens.
Often it helps to identify an area of interest with the naked eye, then mount your camera and long lens on a tripod so you can slowly and methodically scan for a composition. There may be interesting elements that are only visible when magnified through your telephoto lens. Using a tripod while doing this allows you to slowly pan through the scene and, upon finding something that catches your eye, it is easier to fine tune a composition than when hand-holding your rig.
Use of a tripod is an absolute must, even with an image stabilized lens. Longer focal lengths require smaller apertures for maximum depth of field, which means your shutter speeds will likely be too long for acceptably sharp, hand-held images. And, it is much easier to fine tune a composition when operating from a tripod as you’ve minimized movement introduced by hand-holding a long lens.
Unless you make a creative decision to use a large aperture and shallow depth of field, you’ll find that it isn’t uncommon to use apertures in the f/22 to f/32 range. As this will vary greatly based upon your composition, the best way to learn is to experiment while in the field. Start at a large aperture, say f/8, and work your way through to a small aperture in one stop increments. View the images on your computer at home to understand how each chosen aperture affected the depth of field within the image.
When photographing foliage with a long lens I always use a polarizing filter to remove unwanted glare from leaves and saturate the colors. When you use a polarizing filter on a wide angle lens it is easy to see the effect – just look for the blue sky that gets bluer as you twist the filter! On a long lens, the effect is much more subtle. I find that it helps to hone in on one leaf or a small cluster of leaves that exhibit glare and slowly turn the polarizer until the glare begins to disappear.
Overcast light or open shade are ideal lighting conditions for long lens photography. You can make successful images in any light and with any lens, but the soft, diffuse light of an overcast day makes it much easier to identify workable scenes. This soft light also eliminates harsh shadows that can ruin an otherwise fantastic image.
I’ve given you a lot to ponder and I hope I’ve inspired you to put away the wide angle lens on your next photo outing. Reach into your camera bag, pull out the big guns and have some fun with long lens landscape photography!
Learn more about Bret, view his images, scout his workshops and read his blog here.