A Case for Telephoto Lenses in Landscape Photography

A Case for Telephoto Lenses in Landscape Photography

For those interested in landscape photography, you may be selling yourself short by exclusively using wider angle lenses. Telephoto lenses deserve just as much use, if not more. 

Wide Lens Versus Telephoto Lens: The Drawbacks

I think we can all agree that wide angle lenses are more commonly used for landscape photography compared with telephoto lenses. The question, though, is whether they should be. To start, why are they more common? I would argue that one of the primary reasons is that they have been standard in most cell phones. While more modern phones are equipped with lenses intended for portraits, these developments are still relatively recent, and decent telephoto lenses are still lacking. As such, with the ubiquity of cell phone photos, wider viewing angles have become what we are used to, what we expect, and as a result, they have become what we want.

Speaking strictly of a wide angle lens compared with a telephoto lens on the same camera, there are admittedly many reasons to choose a wide angle lens over a telephoto lens. For one (and it’s a “big” one), the size difference generally favors the wide-angle lenses: they are typically lighter, smaller, and can save your back if you’re taking a significant hike. While wide angles can also be expensive, telephoto lenses tend to get more expensive faster. Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, if you want a lot in your frame, telephoto lenses will not get you there. 

The Benefit of Telephoto Lenses

Is there even a debate going on for which lenses are best suited for landscape photography? No. There are just voices like mine and a few others on Fstoppers that argue for the use of telephoto lenses in landscape photography. In a previous Fstoppers article, Nigel provides an excellent example of this exact case. He provides multiple images from the same scene with multiple focal lengths to provide a great illustration of the cost-benefit of using a telephoto over a wide angle in the same scene. In another article by Tim, he took a similar approach with a wide angle versus telephoto comparison.

The common thread between those articles and perhaps my favorite thing about using telephoto lenses in landscape photography is the challenge to change the way you view compositions. Instead of just pointing the camera in the direction of a beautiful scene, more work is required to find more intimate scenes that would otherwise have only been part of the original composition. Being able to do this can sometimes feel like you’re freeing your subject from its surroundings and giving it attention that it deserves. 

Conclusion 

While there is no universal truth in photography as far as the “best camera” or “best lens,” I believe everyone should have new pursuits to better understand who they are as photographers. And to be a more experienced photographer requires new experiences and challenges. If you like to shoot landscapes and have not attempted to incorporate a telephoto lens into your work, perhaps now is the time to give it a go. 

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41 Comments

Jerome Brill's picture

I think the case for a telephoto lens gets much better when you get to try a quality one. Some photographers starting might have a cheaper 70-300 in their kit. They may get some decent shots composition wise but sharpness will be lacking on the long end. You'll spend 5x as much on your next tele but I think they are worth it. At Least try some of Sigmas lenses if you're not going to go OEM and don't want to sell a kidney.

James Madison's picture

That's true. Personally, I shoot old primes and getting a pretty solid, older glass isn't terribly expensive. While the coatings may not always be up to a modern standard, I've yet to have an issue with their performance.

Agree but Nikon does make a wonderful 70-300mm VR lens that I highly recommend it's the version with the red VR lettering. I personally use the amazing new 70-200mm f2.8 FL and also am blessed to have a 400mm f2.8 VR lens, but I'm a working photojournalist and need both. I started out doing weddings, but my strongest suit is breaking news and sports. I like however to dabble in wildlife photography and also landscapes, but I'm no master of landscapes, wildlife yes its a strong suit of mine for sure been doing it for 22 years on my days off, but landscapes are unique. I have taken a few landscapes I think are really pretty decent, but when I see the actual masters or landscapes I am always humbled lol. Nobody can master all genres of photography, but I find those who do master one or two genres can usually hold their own in the other genres too. Some of my all time favorite landscapes were taken with my 400mm and same goes for portraits, it's an amazing lens that is not just for sports or wildlife. I use 400mm f2.8 VR almost every time I go out on a shoot, regardless of what I am taking images of. Photojournalism is unique in that you shoot everything from fires, portraits, to concerts and sporting events with a little bit of everything in between too. Many people take great landscape photos, because in my opinion God made the world such a beautiful place and were just here to document that beauty. I know not everyone believes in a higher power, but I think everyone can agree that we live in a pretty unique and beautiful world. Some places are just beyond belief in their beauty and it's hard to take a bad picture of these places. However these special places are often some of the most photographed and this is where we see a few people have the unique skill of being masters of landscape photography.

Matt Williams's picture

The Nikkor 70-200 f/4 is one of my favorite lenses for landscapes

James Madison's picture

I've not tried out that lens before. Is it one you typically carry with you when you're out shooting?

Matt Williams's picture

Depends on what I'm shooting, but yes, quite often it is either with me or what I'm using. Sharp throughout the frame wide open, excellent VR, and is pretty lightweight. It's long, because it doesn't extend when zooming, so it takes up some room, but it's not heavy at all. Easily one of my favorite Nikkor lenses, probably my favorite zoom lens period.

James Madison's picture

Nice! I will have to look into trying one out for my F100. It's the only autofocus Nikon I own but I've been looking into possible options telephoto options for it.

Matt Williams's picture

It's a wonderful lens - if I could keep only one telephoto lens, it would absolutely be that one. I would also look at the Tamron 70-210 f/4 VC. Very very strong optically as well and pretty much the same size/weight (but cheaper), however I have no idea about compatibility with an F100. I'm pretty sure I put my Tamron 85 on an F5 once, but I cannot remember that with 100% certainty. I went with the Nikon because of NPS and stability with the FTZ adapter, however I have a number of other Tamron lenses that are utterly wonderful (85/1.8, 100-400, 10-24 for DX). Note: I can only vouch for the newer Tamrons with VC and the white ring, not the older gold ring versions.

But you definitely can't go wrong with the Nikkor 70-200/4.

Matt yes it's an amazing lens, I have one only because a friend was selling his for only $500 used in mint condition. However I need f2.8 so I also have the new 70-200mm FL, which is wickedly sharp and almost as sharp as my 400mm f2.8 VR. However the 70-200mm F4 VR is amazing like you said and it's also much lighter and arguably has a better VR system than the 70-200mm f2.8 VR II lens. Sure its an F4, but it does not sacrifice on image quality. I use it for a remote camera when shooting sports like NFL, MLB or NBA and I am so glad I bought it. Couldn't say more good things about it and the only 70-200mm I ever used that was better, meaning sharper and faster to focus, etc...is the new FL lens I mentioned. Finally Nikon was able to beat out Canon, because I admit Canon was winning the 70-200mm war until the new FL was released a few years ago. Thank God Nikon finally lowered the price to a still eye watering $2195 for the FL.

Matt Williams's picture

Wow, that's an amazing deal. I bought mine used from Robert's Camera in mint condition and paid like $850 or so. Came with a 1 year warranty though too.

I've only used the 2.8 FL lens rather briefly (a week or so), but it seemed like a definite improvement over the VR II - sharper across the frame and the awful focus breathing of the VR II seemed to be gone. I think the VR in the f/4 is slightly more effective, but that only stands to reason given that it has fewer elements and less glass in general to move around.

I'd love to own both of them, but alas, the FL is a hell of an investment and I simply don't need 2.8 very often. If I shot weddings regularly, I'd probably invest in it. I envy your ability to use choose either one when you need it.

Well yes it's nice having both for sure, but like I said I couldn't pass up on that deal and I also got the 70-200mm f2.8 FL for only $1800. Someone I knew bought one and opened it up and played around with it for a few days and then switched to Sony lol. So it was brand new and had the warranty card and I have NPS, so I just added it to my account and my points. See if I can find great deals I will upgrade or buy because sometimes I need extras for remotes and as long as I can always get back what I've paid when reselling its a no brainer lol. Honestly though I don't think the amount of glass matters in the VR system, because I get a good 3-4 stops even in my 400mm f2.8 VR. The VR elements are probably not any bigger in the 400mm than they are in the 70-200mm, because they are in the rear. What it is more likely is that the 70-200mm f4 came out quite a few years after the VRII 2.8 version did. Both are supposed to be VR II systems, but for some reasons not all VR II systems are equal. This is proven over and over again in different telephoto lenses from the 200-500mm, 300mm f4 PF, and the new 500mm f5.6 PF. No one seems to be able to explain whats going on and or why some VR II systems do better than other VR II systems.

You aren't going to shoot telephoto unless you look for shots with a telephoto eye. Once you do, you'll realize how much you've been overlooking with that wideangle.

James Madison's picture

I hear that 100%. After starting to shoot telephoto lenses more frequently, I couldn't help but wonder how much I had overlooked them previously.

Gil Aegerter's picture

I think I've taken as many landscapes with telephotos as with wide angles. One of my favorites is the Nikkor 300mm f4.5 ED-IF. Light enough to carry on trips into the mountains, and rugged.

James Madison's picture

That's been a dream lens of mine for years but have yet to see/try one in person... Gorgeous shot! The lines and light are on point.

Definitely agree with this. Looking back over the last 2 years, more than 70% of my landscape shots were above 50mm, usually with a 80-200 2.8 or 300 2.8

James Madison's picture

Nice! I don't have a lens that would be a 300mm equivalent but with multiple comments suggesting it now, it seems I should get one on my radar... The longest lens I have now is about a 180mm.

Matt Williams's picture

The Contax Zeiss 100-300 is a superb lens - better than some of the primes in that range. It's difficult to use because of its weight and push/pull design (and manual focus) along with no VR. You're really best with it on a tripod or very high shutter speeds.

For primes, the Contax Zeiss 135 is great. The Voigtlander APO 180 is stellar and tiny but very expensive. Leica R 180 APO is great too but quite large and expensive.

James Madison's picture

That Minolta lens was one of my first telephoto lenses and the only manual focus zoom lens I've ever owned. I gave it away a few years ago to someone who was just getting into photography so it's been a while since I've used it.

Canon 28 - 300mm f3.5 - 5.6 a bit heavy though. but nice lens

James Madison's picture

They typically are. However, with that range of focal lengths you've got your wide angle AND telephoto work covered.

I do most of my landscape photography work with a Nikon 18-200mm VRII and haven't taken it off the camera since I bought it. I'm always pleased with the images created with it.

James Madison's picture

Nice! This also sounds like a great all in one lens.

I understand the Nikon 18-200mm VRII has now been superceded by the 18-300mm which might be preferable if buying new. But I bought my 18-200mm slightly used with everything including the box at an excellent price. It is consistently well rated everywhere, I don't know why it isn't mentioned more often.

I've never seen a landscape photographer without a telephoto lens, never seen one making all their money based on wide photos or stitched panos alone. Telephoto shots are just part of the craft, and when you go out there, you want to shoot those intimate details anyway. I've just switched to an XT3, from a bridge that had an equivalent 600 mm, and since I don't have the cash yet to buy the 100-400 mm, yeah I was frustrated at times. Especially in the mountains. I was in the Ubaye valley, and there was one pocket of larch trees that were amongst the only ones that had turned orange at the time (2 weeks ago), just lit by the sun in a circular pattern, while all the rest of the image was deep in shadows. It would have made for a terrific shot. Unfortunately I had to resort to do a wide shot, and so far I can't figure out how to make it work. So yeah, despite the added weight (and price), a good telephoto is a must.

James Madison's picture

That's a great camera. Sounds like quite a scene! I find that in moments like that where I wish I had a different tool for the job I grow more as a photographer. Hope the same goes for you!

Yeah it looked like this. I wished I could have zoomed in more on that particular tree.

James Madison's picture

No kidding... I see what you mean. Well... You could always go back (with a telephoto lens) and try again!

I love my 100-400mm for landscape, but it's a bit heavy. Great if you are doing landscape and want to be ready for wildlife too.

James Madison's picture

I hear that! Great to see so many people appreciate the longer focal lengths

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