Landscape photography is somewhat synonymous with shooting large scenes with a wide angle lens, but what about more intimate landscapes? On a recent trip through Colorado, I found myself using a telephoto lens almost exclusively and came up with five tips that might help your try one out for yourself.
It might not be obvious how important a telephoto lens is for landscape photography when you’re just starting out. It’s very reasonable that the first lens you'll gravitate towards when diving into landscape photography is a wide angle lens because it captures the entire landscape in front of you. I've actually had my 70-200mm telephoto lens for longer than my wide lens but never really considered it my main lens when shooting until recently.
Within this article, I'll briefly go over a few tips I have found along my journey that might help nudge you into trying a telephoto lens for yourself.
1. Sturdy Tripod
The first tip is to have a sturdy tripod. If you’ve been shooting wide angle and getting away with a somewhat budget or low-quality tripod, it just won’t cut it with a telephoto lens. Not only is the lens going to be significantly heavier, but the farther your focal distance, the more every little movement from wind or vibration will show up when using a lighter tripod.
An example is when you’re shooting at slower shutter speeds during golden hour while trying to keep your camera at ISO 100 and an aperture below f/8 even if you have some type of image stabilization. By using a sturdy tripod, you’ll simply come away with more successful shots. I've personally botched many images for this reason, and you'll genuinely see a difference moving from a light tripod to one with more stability.
2. Timer or Shutter Release
The next tip seems to show up in almost every series of tips I make, but using a shutter timer or shutter release cable is mandatory. If your shutter speed is really long, meaning anything longer than 1/4 s while also being zoomed in, you’ll likely need a 5 or 10-second timer if you don’t have a shutter release. This helps reduce the vibrations caused by your hands being on the camera as you take the photo. Sometimes, it's good practice to take the same photo twice just to make sure you don't have any vibrations in your shot. If you're taking a panorama, be patient in between shots, something I talk about quite a bit in my article on taking a panorama.
A bonus tip is to also make sure you have nothing hanging or dangling from your camera as well. I never have a camera strap attached to my camera, which I realize is not the norm. If you have a camera strap you can't remove, be sure to secure it somewhere on the camera or look into getting a strap that is easily removable. If you're using a shutter release, the same applies: don't just leave it hanging from the camera. Any wind with something hanging off your camera will cause micro-movements and will absolutely be noticeable in your final shots.
Polarizers are wonderful for all types of landscape photography, no matter what lens you’re using. In regards to using them on telephoto compositions, many times, you’ll find yourself far away from your compositions, meaning you’ll encounter haze in your shots, and a polarizer is one of the best ways to remove some of that haze from your image.
I wrote an in-depth article about using a polarizer here. Keep in mind it focuses mostly on wider shots but still applies when using a telephoto lens. If you want a recommendation for a polarizing filter, I highly recommend this magnetic one so you can easily switch between lenses if you're in a hurry. I did a full article on magnetic filters here as well if you're interested in even more information on them.
4. Check Critical Focus
The next thing you’ll want to do is check your critical focus. You should do this for every shot you take, but it’s especially important for telephoto shots because the focal plane is much smaller than what you might be used to on a wide angle lens. To do this, all you need to do is zoom in on your camera's live view with the magnification button after using autofocus, set your lens or camera to manual focus, and then slightly adjust your focal ring back and forth until the scene looks the sharpest on live view.
Many times, autofocus will do a good job with this, but it's somewhat dependent on your camera and the quality of your lens. I should admit that I don't do this as often as I should and rely heavily on autofocus, but in practice and when I have the time, I try to follow this rule as much as possible.
5. Just Shoot
The last tip I have for you is to not worry about any of the tips I just told you. Have fun shooting with a telephoto lens, take the camera off a tripod if you have plenty of light, and don’t worry too much about everything I mentioned above. Many times, the lens I leave on my camera when I’m just driving down the road is a longer focal length, and it’s fantastic to just jump out of the car and snap a few shots.
Keep in mind you won’t have this luxury when you’re trying to capture those beautiful moments right before sunset or right after sunrise, but you can get away with hand-holding for most of the day. Remember, have fun and don’t let yourself get too tied down to a setup every time you want to take a photo.
As I find myself shooting more and more intimate landscapes using a telephoto lens, I have realized just how versatile longer focal lengths can be. The ability to shoot landscapes from a distance mixed with almost macro-like shots of things you might find along the road can completely change your perspective and the way you capture what's around you. The ability to camp on a ridge surrounded by changing light and snap many different compositions aren't as possible using a wider lens.
If you're on the fence or even considering your first landscape lens, don't go to a wide angle simply because it captures everything in front of you. Figure out what you enjoy shooting and the type of photos you want to create, which should help guide you in deciding what you need. This certainly isn't a conclusive list, but I hope these tips were helpful in your journey. As always, thanks for reading and hope to see more great tips in the comments below!