Master Your Telephoto Lens to Simplify Composition

A telephoto lens is not often the go-to lens for landscape photography. That accolade is usually given to your wide angle lens. However, over the years, I have been using my telephoto more and more to create powerful landscape images.

Struggling with composition? Maybe try just a telephoto lens for a week. One of the main reason behind the power of a telephoto lens is its ability to simplify the composition.

I recently came back from running an fall workshop in the Lake District National Park, UK, and more than half the images that we worked on during the four days ended up being shot with a 70-200mm (full frame) or 50-140mm (APS-C) lens. 

We got really lucky one morning and had a fantastic cloud inversion.  The immediate reaction was to grab a wide lens and shoot the entire scene as per the image below.

Wide angle view of cloud inversion over Elterwater, Lake District UK

However, when we took our time and started to look more closely at the emerging landscape, it was obvious that the more powerful compositions were actually "mini-scenes" below us.  Ironically, these are often the ones that are easier to shoot than the wide angle ones with foreground, midground, and background. So, if you struggle with composition, then using a telephoto lens may just help you. I find that if I lose my creative flow, then moving back to using a longer lens helps inspire me.

Here are two telephoto images from the same stunning scene:

Taken with a 70-200mm lens on Nikon Z7 at 135mm

Taken with 70-200mm on Nikon Z7 at 113mm

Here is another example of how a telephoto lens can be used to easily simplify the scene. By using a long lens, you often have fewer elements in a composition. In this case, the cloud formation and mountain create a strong juxtaposition and hence a powerful yet simple photograph.

Glen Coe, Scotland, taken with Nikon D810 and 70-200mm lens at 180mm

Simplification of the composition is just one advantage of using a telephoto lens for landscape, though. In this video, I talk about four others, including creating a impression of compressed perspective, cutting out the sky and foreground for more flexibility, using telephoto DOF to your advantage, and using small pockets of light to create composition.

A telephoto lens needs to be treated carefully, and I recommend using these three fundamental principles when shooting with anything longer than 100mm:

1. Mount the telephoto on the tripod, not the camera.
2. Allow a longer timer for shake if using one to release the shutter.
3. Ensure you understand the impact of longer focal length on DOF. I suggest using an app like PhotoPills to calculate what will be in focus and what aperture to use.

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Tim Keagy's picture

Hi Nigel. Lately, I feel like I have been losing my creative edge. I'm a seascape photographer. I have a telephoto lens, and I think I will take up this advice. I don't use it much, and maybe I should. Thanks man. I needed this article.

Nigel Danson's picture

Great to hear Tim! Good luck!

Matthijs Bettman's picture

The reason my Nikon 105/2.8 is my 2nd most used lens (after the Nikon 24-70/2.8)! This shot is taken with the Nikon 105! I truly love that lens!
It's quality is unheard of and so light!

Pedro Pulido's picture

when shooting with a long lens, a fixed lens can be limiting as walking in any direction can be limiting and not make that much of a difference in the composition. a 70-200 is much more indicated as you can zoom instead of cropping in post. i would not recommend a 105 for landscape to be honest. although this image is beautiful!
Walking a step to the side can make a huge difference when using a wide angle and this is why a fixed wide such as a 16 or 24 can be very useful for landscape and still get the best quality out of a fixed prime. But for a tele, imho, nothing beats the versatility of a 70-200.

Matthijs Bettman's picture

I know! Saving for a 70-200 ;-)
I have used a 200-500 in the past, but that's even more limiting than the 105mm

Nigel Danson's picture

beautiful image!

Nick B's picture

I think that most amateur landscape photographers know now that you need both a wide lens and telephoto to get a nice variety of landscape images. A wide vista is nice, but you can get more impact with a telephoto. Every landscape photographer's Youtube vlog shows them using either wide lens or telephoto, so it's not a secret and in fact I challenge you to find a landscape photographer who only shoots wide. Speaking of my own limited experience, I'm most often in the mountains. A telephoto allows me to shoot woodlands in the valleys, a bit of wildlife (if lucky), and striking details in the mountains. It can be ice, rocks, menacing peaks, etc... Once I tried to photograph a frozen waterfall and wide wouldn't cut it it was too busy, and the best shot ended up to be a very tight zoom of a few details in the ice. It's often the same with glaciers. Close ups or seracs or fallen blocks are more impressive than the smoothed view of the glacier from far away.

Jordan McChesney's picture

I've been using my telephoto lens more and more over the past few months, but I'm overdue for an upgrade. My lens is super cheap, so when I go to the full 300mm, it's not super sharp. I'm try to muster up the courage to drop the cash required for a Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8. I'm buying it used, so It will be about half price, but it's still super pricey for anyone not making cash doing photography.

Anyway, good advice! "Pull out a longer lens" is a phrase anyone who's seen me in the Landscape and Nature group will be familiar with me using.