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

Previous comments
David Pavlich's picture

There is a terrific place here in Winnipeg, Ft. Whyte Alive, that has several lakes that during the Fall migration, the water birds make a stopover at the lakes. There are thousands of birds that arrive at Sunset. This year, I managed to get there the day we had a gorgeous Sunset. Had I been using a 'landscape lens', the birds would have looked like specs in the shot. As it is, I had a 100-400 and the birds backlit by the Sunset made for some pretty neat shots.

James Madison's picture

Wow, that sounds like quite an experience... Glad to hear the telephoto lens came through!

David Pavlich's picture

I went last year, but it was gray, dreary day. We really got lucky with the Sunset.

Scott Mason's picture

I find that even my turdy Manfrotto tripod head can dip under the weight of my telephoto lens. Any tips for avoiding that?

James Madison's picture

Do you have tripod collar for the lens or any bracket for helping balance the camera/lens setup?

Scott Mason's picture

Nope. That's my problem! Thanks for the reminder to put one on my wish list. :)

Matt Williams's picture

What head? Are you mounting with the camera or a lens collar? The Manfrotto Hydrostatic heads are incredible. I've never been able to make one droop. I can't say that about a lot of ball heads (Arca Swiss p0 and quite a few of the Gitzos are excellent too).

I've used the Hydrostatic head with a Pentax 645z and FA 80-160 lens, which is like 9 lbs total, no droop at all. If you're experiencing droop, I'd recommend either a better head or using a collar to move the center of gravity nearer to the head.

Scott Mason's picture

I believe my used zoom lens came sans collar. Gotta find the right one!

That depends; if you want to capture the grandeur, then wide angle (or ultra wide - depending on the scene) with a compelling composition is the way to go.

If you want minimalism and more of a certain story, focused on a certain area within the wider composition, then Telephoto will do (additionally if the location is not accessible or you are lazy).

I'd say, shoot with both. If the location can be visited multiple times or carrying additional telephoto/wide angle is not an issue, then alternate. Otherwise, judge the purpose, constraints and carry the right one.

James Madison's picture

There's a proper tool for every job. Personally, I've rarely found a use for my ultra wide outside of astrophotography. There's something about a telephoto's ability to be an impressive structure look imposing. The scale of things on an ultra wide almost always makes things too small for my taste. That said, I almost always keep one on me just in case!

Hal Moran's picture

I shoot landscapes with one of two lens, my Canon 17-40 or 70-200 IS L series. I probably have as many with the 70-200 as with the wide angle tele. The question is - which one gives me the best composition I'm seeing. Those variables may include distance, DOF, image compression, etc. you don't have to break the bank to have a wide tele and a mid tele. I think sometimes we just get lazy in shooting when selecting a lens versus moving around the scene, if possible, to find the best perspective, then let that decide which lens to use.