Posted by: kerryl29 | July 21, 2011

Counterpoint: Telephoto Landscapes in Wide Open Locales

More than a year and-a-half ago I posted an entry on the use of wide angle lenses in tight spots, contrary to typical landscape photography focal length guidelines.  At the end of this piece I speculated on the inverted example:  the creation of landscape images using long lenses in open areas.  It’s been roughly 19 months since I published the earlier installment, so it’s about time to address the issue of long focal lengths and wide, open scenics.

Dunes Geometry, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

Experienced landscape photographers know–often through copious personal experience–of the great temptation that vast, open views present to the would-be image maker.  I think we’ve all been there:  you drag your sorry behind up to the top of some rocky outcropping and are suddenly presented with an expansive, breathtaking view.   Or, alternatively, you find yourself on a wide open beach, with the ocean (or a massive lake) stretching out to the horizon in one direction while an arching coastline draws your eye into the distance in two other directions.  Or you find yourself in a vast valley, with visual stimuli pounding your senses everywhere you look, and a powerful sky just begging to be emphasized.  Or you’re in the desert, with stark, craggy features enveloping you wherever you look.  Or…

Autumnal Impressions, Halfmoon Lake, Hiawatha National Forest, Michigan

The possibilities are nearly limitless.  And that, in a nutshell, is the problem.  There’s what amounts to a natural tendency to want to include everything.  The inclination is to whip out the wide angle lens and “do justice” to the scene.  And that is a very difficult thing to do.  Oftentimes it’s effectively impossible.

Autumn's End, Laurel Hill State Park, Pennsylvania

Now, this is not to say that using wide angles in these open areas is a “bad” idea or not recommended.  What I am saying is that effective wide angle photography in these settings is a lot more difficult than it may initially seem.

Foggy Morning, Swift Creek Overlook, Red River Gorge, Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky

Keep in mind what distinguishes wide angle focal lengths:  they are, by definition, broader in terms of field of view than what we can see with our own eyes.  When composing with a wide angle lens there’s a tendency for many photographers to more or less allow the “scene to speak for itself” by simply letting the grandeur of the locale carry the day.  This can be more or less summed up by the notion that “a good view makes a good photograph.”  T’ain’t necessarily so.  This type of approach frequently–usually, in fact–leads to flat, emotionless snapshot-quality images.  The scene may be very impressive in its own right, but a compelling two-dimensional photograph of that scene ordinarily requires more from the photographer than simply taking the widest possible view.

Dusk at Cannon Beach, Oregon

One way of beginning to break down a wide scene into its component parts is to look at it in smaller segments, and a potentially effective way of accomplishing this is to do something counter-intuitive when taking in a broad view–placing a telephoto lens on your camera and viewing the setting in much narrower chunks.  I often find that following this approach allows me to do two things:  1) find compelling-in-their-own-right long lens images that I otherwise never would have seen; and 2) fundamentally allowing me to see a wide scene’s building blocks–its individual components, which, at times, allows me to obtain a better grip on wide angle composition of the broader setting.

Dawn, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Illinois

Point #1 above is fairly straight forward; point #2 is a bit more complex and somewhat harder to explain.  But, not infrequently, when you see a scene as a sum of individual pieces, it can be easier to decide which of those elements to include, which to omit, which to emphasize, which to more subtly rely upon, and how to go about organizing the range of included bits into a compelling whole.  It’s not unlike breaking a complex problem that needs to be solved down into intellectually distinguishable components.

And, in the interest of full-disclosure, this is not something I always do when in the field…or even necessarily do most of the time.  Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, a wide angle image simply reveals itself to me immediately, and it’s difficult to ascertain why.  When this happens I will compose with a wide angle right out of the chute.  But even when I do go with the wide angle first, I usually will move to a telephoto lens after the wide angle shooting is done.  This is essentially a reversal of the method mentioned above, but the end results are typically similar and point #1 remains valid in both:  I almost always end up with images I wouldn’t have seen unless I made it a point to look for them with the long lens.

Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park, Washington

The three most obvious things that a telephoto lens can do–magnify distant objects, compress elements so they seem much closer together than they really are and simplifying the image by removing unwanted distractions–can be used to great effect in the creation of landscape imagery with a bit of experimentation.  All of the photographs that accompany this installment were taken with a telephoto lens.  The focal length used to create each image is in excess of 160mm and more than half of them exceed 250mm.

So, the next time you find yourself in a phenomenal, wide open setting–a brilliant vista, a sprawling meadow with a killer sky, the stark beauty of the broad desert; whatever it may be–pause for a moment and remember the potential power of the long lens.  If you don’t, you’ll never know what you’re missing.



  1. Kerry: As usual, articulate and insightful. Several years ago, I did an unscientific poll, of my own landscape images and found that my most common focal length was around 135mm.

    • Thanks, Andy. I think my average focal length is considerably shorter than 135mm, but it’s surely not sitting at 24mm or anything like that, and the more open the setting the higher my average is. Of that, I’m certain.

  2. […] his Lightscapes Nature Photography Blog, illustrates why previsualization is so important, in his article about the (almost counterintuitive) use of telephoto lenses and isolating important elements in a scene to make a meaningful image with visual impact. Kerry […]

  3. […] sacrificed (over, say, a 70-200 mm/2.8) in order to gain the flexibility of the focal range.  (As I’ve noted on this blog, I not infrequently find myself shooting at focal lengths well above 200 mm, so limiting myself to […]

  4. […] discussed the (counterintuitive) matter of photographing with telephoto lenses in wide open places before, but have never taken the time to delve in depth into a more common scenario:  wide angles […]

  5. And this is very helpful, too — as was your current post on foregrounds. Since I have a good telephoto lens now, tips on how to use it effectively are like gold. I’ve already discovered the value of selectivity, and this is one more way to make use of the approach. Thanks!

    • Glad to hear that this is helpful. I think that long lenses are heavily underutilized in some forms of landscape photography, and overlooks/viewpoints are first on the list. These two entries–this one and the one on foregrounds that brought you here–are thematic complements. I shouldn’t have waited more than five years to write the second installment. 🙂

  6. You have perfectly put into words the process I have developed for my landscape photography here in the northeast over the last few years. Unless there are a few super dramatic features in a broad landscape or as you point out, an interesting foreground, the wide angle stays in my bag. Then the 70-200 f2.8 comes out. One of my future purchases is going to be a 2x extender to really isolate features in the broad landscape. Thanks!

    • Hi Tim. It’s relatively rare for me to run across someone with such a developed approach with a telephoto lens when photographing the landscape, but it’s always gratifying when I do. I’ll bet it doesn’t take you long to find a use for that 2X TC once you get a hold of it.

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