Discover the Benefits of Telephoto Lenses for Landscapes

You don’t have to stick to just wide-angle lenses for your photo safaris. There are many ways get impressive pictures out of a telephoto lens. Even when you’re photographing landscapes.

Discover the Benefits of Telephoto Lenses for Landscapes

There’s no precise definition for what range of lengths can still be called a long lens. But at the low end you can find 65 and 100 mm lengths (full-frame equivalent), with everything higher being considered a long lens. Lenses with lengths like these are called telephoto lenses.

Until, that is, you reach extreme lengths of 300 mm or more—then they’re called super telephoto lenses. Other telephotos with lower focal lengths are sometimes termed medium telephoto lenses.

Choosing Your Details

The point of using a telephoto lens is to be able to pick a small crop out of a scene. What your eyes see as a mere detail feels more monumental when it’s covering the whole frame.

The picture series below gives an example of enlarging a detail like this. First here’s the telephoto shot itself:

Benefits of Telephoto Lenses for Landscapes: a mountain with the last rays of sun.

A telephoto picture of a mountain with the last rays of sun. 
Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon EF 70-200/2.8 IS II, 1/20 s, f/9.0, ISO 200, focal length 200 mm

The second shot shows the whole scene around me. To see for yourself how small a spot the picture above shows, take a look at this second picture:

Benefits of Telephoto Lenses for Landscapes: the overall scene that the previous picture was taken from.

The overall scene that the previous picture was taken from.
Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon EF 16-35/2.8 III, 1/6 s, f/13, ISO 200, focal length 24 mm

Mountainous layers disappearing into the distance are also a favorite:

Benefits of Telephoto Lenses for Landscapes: a detail picked out from mountains on the horizon.

A detail picked out from mountains on the horizon.
Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon EF 70-300/4-5.6 IS, 1/100 s, f/11, ISO 100, focal length 240 mm

However, this shot is again only a small detail out of the whole area, and you could easily miss it on a hike:

Benefits of Telephoto Lenses for Landscapes: the previous picture is just a tiny part of this scene.

The previous picture is just a tiny part of this scene.
Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon EF 16-35/2.8 III, 1/40 s, f/14, ISO 100, focal length 24 mm

As usual for telephoto lenses, there’s some perspective compression. That means that the mountains are shown as very close to each other, even though in reality each layer may even be miles from the next.

Leave Distractions Out

Your pictures become more impressive when you think about your composition and then leave out every distraction. Here again I’ll illustrate the difference with a pair of representative shots.

They both used a 300 mm lens, but one of them was then also cropped. It gives the impression that the little chapel is somewhere among vast green plains. And the only reason why is that you can’t see out to where the distracting paths, bushes, and groves are.

Benefits of Telephoto Lenses for Landscapes: a chapel without distracting areas.

A photo of a chapel that has been cropped to remove distracting areas at its edges.
Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon EF 70-300/4-5.6 IS, 1/6 s, f/10, ISO 100, focal length 300 mm

Benefits of Telephoto Lenses for Landscapes: a photo of a chapel with distracting areas.

The same picture with the distracting areas left in.
Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon EF 70-300/4-5.6 IS, 1/6 s, f/10, ISO 100, focal length 300 mm

Even when photographing faraway objects, you can change composition by changing your position. Below is an alternative view from a spot about 300 meters farther away (the chapel is about 600 meters away, and the forest is another 700 meters behind it).

This composition isn’t bad, but here no minor crop can get rid of the forest in the background. So it’s best to also think about where you’ll stand to take your shot.

Benefits of Telephoto Lenses for Landscapes: a photo of the chapel from a different place.

Taken from a different place, the chapel shot has a conspicuous bit of forest in it.
Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon EF 70-300/4-5.6 IS, 1/6 s, f/10, ISO 100, focal length 300 mm

With or Without the Sky

As you could see in the previous photos, your telephoto shots can, yet don’t have to, include the sky. With wide-angle lenses it’s relatively hard to completely exclude the sky, unless you’re taking pictures in the forest or up close.

Meanwhile with telephoto lenses, getting a skyless crop is easy. Frequently it’s also good training for photographing lines and other basically geometric shapes.

Both the landscape itself—often in cooperation with the sun and the shadows it throws—and human impacts on it create suitable shapes for this training. On the fields and vineyards, for example.

Benefits of Telephoto Lenses for Landscapes: “Moravian Tuscany” in the Czech Republic.

The spectacular landscape of “Moravian Tuscany” in the Czech Republic.
Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon EF 70-200/2.8 IS II + 2x Extender III, 1/40 s, f/10, ISO 100, focal length 170 mm

The Human Footprint

It’s better to avoid electrical poles, etc. when you’re photographing landscapes. Except when it’s not. If you find a way to incorporate them into a picture, then don’t be afraid of them.

Benefits of Telephoto Lenses for Landscapes: poles above fields as a part of the composition.

Poles above fields as a part of the composition.
Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon EF 70-300/4-5.6 IS, 1/50 s, f/14, ISO 100, focal length 150 mm

If a purely “technical” landscape attracts you, then you can go this route too.

Benefits of Telephoto Lenses for Landscapes: poles in the mist.

Poles in the mist with an afternoon sun.
Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon EF 70-200/2.8 IS II, 1/160 s, f/11, ISO 100, focal length 120 mm

But that’s an urban landscape; moving back to the wilds, you can also find a photogenic human footprint in large structures like ruins or old farmhouses, which you can as usual supplement with a background of your choice. I recommend using Google Earth to get an idea of your shot site’s surroundings.

Benefits of Telephoto Lenses for Landscapes: two castles.

These two castles in the southeast of the Czech Republic are only visible if you’re standing in the right place.
Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon EF 70-200/2.8 IS II, 0.4 s, f/14, ISO 100, focal length 200 mm

A Telephoto Lens Will Help You Catch Wild Game

If you have a telephoto lens ready, it pays to keep an eye out for any game animals wandering the landscape, or any you’ve flushed out. Of course this is easier if you’re off the beaten track. Or if you’re on the beaten track at a time when nobody else wants to go there.

Benefits of Telephoto Lenses for Landscapes: animals in winter.

On an ordinary freezing weekday, nobody’s there to scare away the animals.
Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon EF 70-200/2.8 IS II + 2x Extender III, 1/320 s, f/8, ISO 500, focal length 400 mm

Animals can notice you from even the next hill over, giving you just seconds to react. So it pays to take several shots. Then you can calmly choose the best one at home. Sometimes you can also predict animals’ motion and focus in advance on the spot where they’re headed.

Benefits of Telephoto Lenses for Landscapes: running animals on horizon.

I could see that these animals were running out past the horizon, and so I could prepare my composition in advance.
Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon EF 70-200/2.8 IS II + 2x Extender III, 1/320 s, f/10, ISO 200, focal length 400 mm

Birds and other flying animals are only partially predictable. But here again they can spice up a picture. Sometimes all you need is some patience.

The following photo shows an isolated church on a tiny island in the middle of a reservoir. I got the ducks on the water by standing in the right spot, and to get the ducks in the air, I just needed to wait a bit. But they were usually flying in other directions. So I had to wait for 10 minutes overall.

Benefits of Telephoto Lenses for Landscapes: ducks on the lake.

Choosing the right spot and waiting a bit can get you a shot of any animal—even birds.
Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon EF 70-200/2.8 IS II + 2x Extender III, 1/320 s, f/10, ISO 800, focal length 400 mm

Heading Out For Landscapes? Head Out With a Telephoto Lens!

Whenever I head out for nature photography, I take both an ultra-wide lens and some kind of telephoto with me (I don’t have medium lenses). They’re each irreplaceable in their own way. A telephoto lens doesn’t demand a perfect scene everywhere around. If at least some small element looks interesting, that can be turned into a great picture.

So work with a long lens supports you in seeking and solving compositions in your head. You’ll above all be rewarded when you visit lookout towers and other high places, where a telephoto will make you feel like you’re at a candy shop. You just have to pick out and photograph details around you, and then you can enjoy them at home as well.

Last updated 6. March 2018

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Author: Vit Kovalcik

I’ve been a freelancer since early 2012; photography is my living. I acquired my photography experience, both inside and outside the studio, during the previous years—when I was working all day and taking pictures every evening and weekend. I don’t have just one clearly defined topic; I like photographing people, but also cityscapes and landscapes.

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