Usually the words "landscape photo" evokes an impression of a sweeping vista shot with a wide-angle lens. However, this is not always the case—here’s why shooting telephoto landscapes can make those outdoor shots that much better.
Wide-angle lenses create depth in an image by emphasizing the foreground and help impart a three-dimensional feel to a 2D photograph. Therefore, it is not surprising to find high-quality wide-angle lenses in every outdoor photographer’s camera bag. However, on numerous occasions, photographs created using such lenses fail to make an impact because of too many things (distractions) in a frame leading to a non-harmonious composition. This is a common mistake and while reviewing my photos on a big monitor, I occasionally find a stronger composition within an image by cropping it. Mastering compositions is a continuous learning process and it should not deter an outdoor photo enthusiast from using wide-angle lenses for photographing landscapes. In fact, capturing landscapes can even be done on advanced mobile devices.
Yet, I want to illustrate another way of photographing landscapes and that is by using telephoto lenses. I’ll refer to "telephoto" as any focal length greater than 55mm. Also know that the images here were made from focal lengths ranging from 55 mm to 500 mm! (All 35mm equivalent)
A telephoto lens helps a photographer to easily emphasize a part of a scene and showcase a personal, selective vision even in the most clichéd places. (A wide-angle lens can also do this sometimes, but that will be a topic for another day). For example, imagine that you are in Yosemite National Park during a clearing winter storm. It is a great opportunity to make unique images and one way to accomplish it is by being selective (and not just trying to capture everything). Selectivity gets rid of unwanted elements and results in remarkable, intimate images; an attribute found in the beautiful work of the late Elliot Porter.
Four sections make up this blog post about telephoto landscapes and together these sections present the core compositional ideas I use for making landscape/outdoor nature photos using telephoto lenses. Each section is followed by a set of images, which augment the underlying concept (some images may belong to more than one section, which is understandable). It is also important to note that this is not an exhaustive set and several more ideas may exist.
I. Isolation in Telephoto Landscapes
In certain situations, simplifying a composition to its essential one or two elements works the best. This often happens when there is beautiful light on a relatively small, but striking part of the landscape or there is an emotionally strong element to carry the photograph on its own. So, as a general practice, I always mount a 70-200 mm lens (or a 300 mm lens) on my camera to look for few interesting elements to isolate and weave them together in a simple, elegant composition.
II. Compression in Telephoto Landscapes
Compressing a scene is a well-known effect of a telephoto lens that I have found quite useful for landscape photographs. One can use this to emphasize repeated patterns or convey a relation between different elements of the scene (often in a point-counterpoint fashion). Repeated patterns or lines also help the viewer’s eye to move in the frame and are an effective way of achieving depth in the photograph. (There are many more ways of creating depth, but that is out of scope of this blog post).
III. Juxtaposing Contrasts
The above two characteristics of telephoto lenses (isolation and compression) can be used very effectively with the idea of juxtaposing contrasts to create evocative images. Photos of the well-known Horsetail Falls in Yosemite National Park, which show an amazing contrast created by natural light, are a classic example.
In general, combining contrasts in landscapes in a strong, elegant composition has usually resulted in my more memorable images and I actively seek for contrasts in colors (warm-cool), contrasts in textures (sharp vs. soft) etc.
IV. Figures in a Landscape
Providing a sense of scale is a creative way of showing the grandeur of a landscape that works especially well for distant scenes photographed with a telephoto lens. Silhouetted figures often appear striking against a bright colorful sky and using a human element evokes emotions resulting in a compelling narrative. However, care must be taken in creating a balanced composition and not confuse the viewer about the main subject of the image. This is a subjective process and generally boils down to personal preferences.
Hopefully the above examples illustrate the idea of using telephoto lenses for making landscape/nature/outdoor photographs. Often, I force myself to use a telephoto lens and look for intimate scenes when photographing in familiar locations. This has typically resulted in fresh images along with the development of a personal, selective vision. So, next time you visit a familiar place that you have photographed before, use a telephoto lens and feel the excitement of finding new convergences of light and land.