Small Scenes: The Natural Progression of a Landscape Photographer?

Small Scenes: The Natural Progression of a Landscape Photographer?

Small scenes landscape photography: the practice of photographing the little details within the grander scene. Is it simply a genre that some landscape photographers gravitate towards? Or is it the natural evolution of a seasoned landscape photographer? 

The Start: Wide Angle Scenes

When I first started landscape photography, I followed the path of many others. Wide shots from expansive overlooks. Photographs of waterfalls, often from a distance, with something in the foreground or the leading line of the flowing stream working its way through the frame. Or a range of mountains, hills, or valleys off in the distance. 

The commonality was that most of my images were composed of wide scenes. I still applied compositional techniques to them: watching the edges of the image for distracting elements, positioning the central subject of the scene strategically, and working with foreground elements to create pleasing images.

In my early days, I suspect if I looked at my most common focal lengths, they would have been from a wide 16mm to 25mm range, maybe approaching 70mm on some images. As my early work shows, I photographed that way for a long time!

Telephotos for Landscape Photography?

I remember the first time a more experienced landscape photographer mentioned their favorite lens was a 70-300mm or 100-400mm. I was in disbelief. What!? Why would you want to use those focal lengths for landscape photography?

In my early days, I thought telephoto lenses were for sports and wildlife, not landscapes. I was always wanting wider lenses, not longer lenses. It took me some time to open my mind and consider such a lens. I was skeptical.

But the seed was planted. While I didn’t rush out to buy a new lens when I was exploring and photographing, I started to think: what could I do with a longer lens here?

What Eventually Changes?

When you begin to practice landscape photography, everything is new. Just being outdoors and seeing some of these fantastic locations can be sensory overload, and you want to capture it all! The grander scenes shot with wide angle lenses feel right.

The whole waterfall is the subject. The entire mountain vista is the subject. Those are the scenes your eye sees, which you capture with the camera.

As time passes, I believe as a landscape photographer spending more time outdoors, your senses change. In some ways, you become “desensitized” to the grander scenes. They are still impressive, but your eyes have more capacity now to see the details within those scenes.

Your eye starts to pick out the smaller nuances of what you see. Maybe how one section of a waterfall cascades over one particular rock. Or possibly how the light accents a distant ridge among the mountains. Or even the swirling water at the edge of a pond. When this sense of being more in tune with nature and becoming more observant starts to take hold with more time outdoors and experience, that’s when I believe the small aspect of landscape photography becomes more prominent.

Small Scenes Landscape Photography

Now, a telephoto lens is nearly always in my camera bag: either a 70-300mm or 100-400mm. Just the other week, I was at a particular overlook I frequently visit and never once attached my wide-angle lens, but instead watched the light and worked with the 100-400mm the whole evening, looking for subtle details.

Now, when I visit a waterfall, I am more apt to capture some wider angle shots, but I often attach the 100-400mm and start looking for patterns or details to highlight from the location. I have found these small scenes and details make places I’ve visited dozens of times more interesting again. They are fresh as I look at them with a new perspective and approach. They are more apt to look different because I look at more intimate, subtle details.

Evolution of the Landscape Photographer

This shift has been an evolution of my work and practice. I did not start landscape photography with an eye for small scenes within the landscape. Even to this day, it is an area I am still practicing and working to improve. 

It took getting out into nature more often with a camera to help heighten my senses and creative eye to see these scenes. And it has opened a whole new world of landscape photography to me. Old, familiar places are new to me again!

None of this means I am going to stop photographing grand scenes. If I see a waterfall, I am photographing the whole scene, but I am more likely to study the area for those small details and capture those as well!

How About You?

Are you a landscape photographer photographing small scenes? Do you think it was a path of evolution to see them and photograph them? Or did they come naturally to you? Or do you think small scene landscape photography is just a trend and entirely unrelated to past experience?

Jeffrey Tadlock's picture

Jeffrey Tadlock is an Ohio-based landscape photographer with frequent travels regionally and within the US to explore various landscapes. Jeffrey enjoys the process and experience of capturing images as much as the final image itself.

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Thanks for your reflections! I experienced the similar . Making wide angle shots even w/o having any clue about the hints on composition. And being disappointed by the results. Asking the why did it impress in reality and is just ugly and chaotic on the photo. Overloading was just one of my starter issues.

The idea of minimalism first impressed me and inspired me to kick out everything what is not supporting the content and messing up the photograph. Here the longer lens simply help to pick out a subject and clean up the frame.

Yes, picking out a detail can calm down a frame, simplifying it. Especially on a waterfall. A detail is a cut out of ONE thing to focus on. Keep the content ordered and simple. Sticking to the example of the waterfall. Which are often messed up with stuff like dead trees, logs. Roots, branches etc. These things swant to be composed to result in a harmonious image. If not, it may become a mess and not always possible. Picking out a detail helps a lot. No matter the tools used to achieve
the result.

If this is just a trend or fashionable we will see. On the other hand, what is there will remain. Just the number may reduce, if is a trend only. Let's see.

I know I started with thinking I need the widest lens I can afford to go out photographing landscapes! And while I own a good wide-angle lens now, some of my favorites are from the long end of the 24-70mm or my 100-400mm!

Agreed that picking out the details help "calm" down a frame. I also think it helps keep things interesting on repeated visits. With changing light and environmental conditions, the same spot revisited multiple times can always be different!

Spot on with your observations. I agree that experiencing a landscape is enhanced by combining the grand scene with intimate details.

Learning to see and observe both can lend itself well to mini-projects or even make for interesting prints to hang on the wall. A well-composed wider shot to show the scene with detail shots accenting the larger print.

Either way - I definitely experience landscape differently when out in the field keeping an eye out for the small, interesting things within the larger scenes.

Good point. I hadn't thought of a particular landscape as a potential project in this way. Thanks

Sometimes self-assigning labels is limiting (well, probably more than sometimes!). I bet I miss many interesting shots every day because I self-labeled as a landscape photographer!

And I hear you on the photography gear! Between lenses, camera bags, tripods... It all adds up!

Yep, these days despite having a wide angle, I prefer the zoom lens and photograph something intimate in the landscape.

I am headed that way myself. It would be interesting to go back through my Lightroom catalog and compare focal lengths I used, say 2 years ago or more to focal lengths I've used in the past year.

Yep, I noticed that I am mostly a zoom guy. 30-85 range is the most used in the past decade. However, I used the 100-200mm extensively in 2023.

I definitely use either my 24-70 or 100-400 more often than my 14-30!

I've primarily used a standard zoom for landscapes...or a telephoto. I think what landscapes you have access to impacts choices, and not just the amount of experience being out with a camera. There's probably also an element of personal history/experience that comes into play as well.

I bought a wide angle lens fairly early into my photographic journey. I still use it very sparingly. I'm pushing myself to be more comfortable reaching for it; however, most of the readily accesible landscapes for me are very busy, often dense woodland. Or I'm composing to avoid a random building or tower. If I had easier access to the grand vistas, would I use the wider lens more? I'm not sure. But I'm hoping to find out soon...

I suspect the local environment does have a lot to do with it. I know I should have started using a zoom lens and working with small scenes much sooner in my landscape photography journey. Instead, I tried to force a wide-angle lens into my surroundings when I would have been better off embracing the small scenes and isolating smaller subjects of interest.

Good luck on tracking down those grand vistas and getting some great images!

Couldn't agree more with evolving from wide to close. I find I'm doing this with portraits as well.

It has been an evolution for me - and still learning how to “see” that way as well!

Some of the most powerful, dynamic and beautiful landscape shots can be had via using a telephoto, shooting an image within an image and isolating a portion of a grand view. I started out as i would guess most all landscape photographers did, trying to get as much of an image into the frame as I could. Man that was many years ago. If it weren't for people like this author and my instructors, it probably would have taken me a much longer time to learn how to see with clearer eyes. Thank you sir.

I definitely feel like the smaller scenes open up a whole new world of landscape photography! I know it has led me to be more intune with nature when out photographing and noticing the smaller things, instead of just seeing the grand scenes!

They definitely do. Also, from a personal experience, when I see a view in whole, it might take me to another time or place that I didn't expect. Then, when isolating a scene within that grand scene, it too might take me to a different time and place. I'm sure this experience is not exclusive to me, but I love those experiences. Photography has a unique way of touching all of us in ways we could never dream of. Or, am I insane?

Not insane at all! I think photography opens up a different level of experience as we do it longer. Making us more aware, and taking more time to break down overwhelming or grand scenes into smaller parts and details.