Telephoto lenses are very useful in landscape photography, but the fact that they are commonly heavier and/or bulkier can sometimes be concerning. How do you know which one is worth carrying around?
While ultra-wide angle lenses are perhaps the most popular among beginning landscape photographers, it is without a doubt that telephoto lenses bring so much to the table in terms of range and the possibility of showing a unique perspective of the location. Telephoto lenses don’t just allow you to take a closer look at the intimate details of a place but also help you isolate certain patterns and formations that would otherwise be too small or distant to be seen.
For the most comfortable roadside landscape locations where you just drive, pullover, and setup a tripod, gear weight is almost never a problem. But if you’re someone who would go deep into the wilderness, atop great heights, or the kind who would explore for days and days, you probably know very well that being strategic about your choice of gear is extremely crucial and that every gram matters. Lugging heavy gear around can exhaust you, and that can very well affect your creativity and even your safety. That is why gear efficiency and not merely weight, image quality, or range should be considered.
It is automatic to consider image quality for any kind of lens choice. Who wouldn’t want to keep their photos as sharp and detailed as possible, right? Of course, this automatically also applies to landscape photographers; however, it is quite common and acceptable that we would consider a bit of compromise, especially when the sharpest lens available is considerably heavy and bulky. Another consideration is other applications of your lens if you don’t particularly have the luxury of having multiple choices. For example, choosing a 70-200mm f/4 variant is definitely reasonable if you have no need for better low-light capability that comes with an f/2.8 variant.
Focusing, particularly the speed of focusing, is probably the factor that we all barely consider since focusing in landscape photography relies entirely on accuracy than speed. However, it would still be wise to consider this in lenses if you use your gear for another genre, especially if it involves fast people in events or sports or animals in wildlife photography. But if you are only exclusively shooting landscapes, then this shouldn’t be much of a factor as long as your lens is properly calibrated.
Weight and bulk are perhaps the only two important factors that do not necessarily affect the quality of the image, but still have huge implications on the success of the creative process. In reality, all kinds of lenses and the combined weight of all of them should be considered. However, it is most common that telephoto lenses contribute the most to the entire weight of your camera bag.
In landscape photography, it is commonly wiser to use zoom lenses if you don’t have the luxury of bringing too many lenses with you. Wide angle primes are common; however, when it comes to telephoto lenses, more versatile zoom lenses are probably more practical. For photographers who shoot a lot of genres, perhaps the most common options are 70-200mm f/2.8 telephoto zoom lenses, especially those who have a lot of use for a slightly larger f/2.8 aperture. However, for photographers who don’t particularly shoot in low light or those who don’t require large apertures, other options might be more practical.
The goal of using telephoto zoom lenses in landscape photography is commonly to have a closer perspective of distant views and to be able to isolate various patches of the vista. This allows you not only to look closer at the view, but somehow dissect the scene into smaller portions that create their own unique patterns. This is applicable to shooting grand mountainous vistas, isolating details in the forest, shooting seascapes, and even in distant urban landscapes. If weight is not an issue, then more range is always better, but of course, weight and optical quality should be considered.
Range and Weight Efficiency
The consideration in this topic is mainly whether the telephoto lens will only be used for purposes similar to landscape photography, which does not require a larger aperture. The aim is not to sacrifice image quality for a much lighter lens to use, but instead find the beneficial middle-ground between the two.
For this to be achieved, it is important to consider all available options for your own camera system and, more importantly, be able to test out and compare them for image quality. The outcome of your own comparison experience as well as the feel of handling the lens with your camera can never be matched as criteria for choosing lenses. The list below shows the telephoto zoom options for the three common full frame camera brands and their corresponding lens weight. Third-party options are also viable, however not included in the table.
Personally, I have always found that the Sony FE 70-200mm f/4 is a good choice since it performs considerably well optically while having almost half the weight of the Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM version I. With the development of the second version, (disregarding the cost momentarily), the added features, enhanced optics, and the much lighter weight of the second version made it a compelling choice. However, if I were to pick one telephoto lens to have, even with the additional 350 grams, the 100-400mm f/4.5-6.3 would be on top of my list. This means that with the additional 350 grams in weight (or technically 100 grams lighter if you’re coming from the first G Master version), I get double the zoom range with similar image quality but less low light capabilities that I never really need anyway.
These findings are mainly based on personal preference and application, which is why instead of recommending the same setup, it is best to try the lenses out for yourself if possible (through store demos, rentals, or from peers). There is a factor often neglected when it comes to making choices in gear because it’s the one that can not be demonstrated through articles or videos online, and that is the overall fit of the gear in your own hands and in your use of it. An experienced and skilled photographer would be able to shoot their best photographs regardless of which options are available, but having the lenses tailored to your use and personal capacity will definitely help you be more creatively consistent.