6 Reasons Why You Should Use a Telephoto Lens for Landscape Photography

Six reasons why you should add a telephoto lens in your bag to improve your landscape photography images.

By: Brandon Dewey + Save to a List

When most people start out taking landscape photos, they think they need to get a wide angle lens in order to capture the whole landscape. When I bought my first DSLR, I was one of those people. I made sure I had a wide angle lens because I knew I mostly wanted to photograph landscapes from my adventures, and that’s what everyone told me I required to get the job done. For YEARS I photographed landscapes from my adventures only using my 18-55mm kit lens. Like most people, I would hike to the top of a mountain and want to photograph the entire grand vista in a single frame. It wasn’t until years later, when I started to take photography more seriously and really started to look other photographers' work, I noticed most of the images I liked were taken with a telephoto lens. Below are 6 reasons why you should also consider caring a telephoto lens in your bag:

1. Perspective

What is perspective, and how does it work in photography? First, objects will appear larger in the frame as you get closer to them, and foreground objects such as rocks, bushes, trees, etc. will appear larger in the frame than objects father away such as mountain ranges or sea stacks. A wide angle lens has a wild angle of view, which exaggerates this effect. This means when you use a wide angle lens, the small rocks you are standing on or the tree you are standing beside will appear enormous while the mountain ranges will practically disappear in your image. The below image was taken at 24mm, and since I was only a few feet away from the rocks on the right side of the frame, they look just as large if not bigger than 14,000' Longs Peak in the distance. A telephoto lens has a more narrow angle of view, which helps reduce this effect and compresses the foreground and background. This compression helps make the background elements more prominent in the image.

2. K.I.S.S.

Most successful landscape images are simple and have a clear subject. When I am photographing landscape images, I try to remind myself of the acronym K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid). Using a telephoto lens will help reduce the distractions of a grand vista by allowing you to pick out interesting details and subjects in the scene. The below image was taken at 120mm, which helped me isolate and draw the viewer's interest to the below group of trees from the rest if the wide vista. Using my telephoto lens also helped me fill the frame and show all of the different mountain layers. The second image was taken from the same location at 20mm; the image is busy, and the mountains are less prominent.

3. Composition

When I first arrive to a place I want to photograph, before I even get out my camera and set up my tripod, I look for a great composition while remembering K.I.S.S. When I have a hard time finding a clear composition because everything is too busy, I pull out my camera and put on my telephoto lens. A telephoto lens helps me to isolate and add prominence to the main subject while also adding layers (which adds depth), patterns, textures, etc. to the image. A wide angle lens usually needs a strong foreground element like a rock, flowers, a tree, etc. for the image to work. A telephoto lens will also help you exclude uninteresting foreground elements. The below image was taken at 105mm; this particular location has an outstanding but busy vista. I took out my telephoto lens, isolating this section of mountain ridges. By filling the frame with the mountains, it helped me add prominence to the mountain ridges, which helps show the viewer what is important in the frame. For more photography composition techniques click here.

4. Boring Blue Skies

Clear, blue skies make for a great day of hiking and exploring, but they also make boring pictures. Usually, the best time to photograph landscapes is around sunrise and sunset. If there are clouds in the sky during these times of day, they can reflect some light creating breathtaking views and photographs. But what do you do if there are no clouds in the sky? Instead of filling 1/3 or ½ your frame with an empty blue sky, use your telephoto lens, and find some interesting details near the horizon. As the sun nears the horizon, it usually creates some color in the sky just above the horizon, and a telephoto lens will help you fill part of the frame with this beautiful color. Or you can find a composition that excludes the sky altogether while being able to take full advantage of that beautiful light.

5. No Foreground Interest 

Most wide angle landscape pictures work really well when there is a clear and strong foreground element like a rock, flowers, a tree, a lake, etc. When there isn’t a great foreground element that will add to the image, this is another great time to use a telephoto lens. A telephoto lens will also help you exclude uninteresting foreground elements that will distract the viewer from the subject. The below two images were taken on the same morning in the same location. The first image was taken at 20mm, and the second was taken at 105mm. There wasn't a strong foreground interest to help anchor the image, so I put on my telephoto lens and took the second image using the valleys as leading lines and filled the frame with the mountains. 

6. Reduce Camera Shake

When using your telephoto lens, any minute vibration will be magnified and cause your image to lose a sharp focus. To mitigate this, make sure you have a sturdy tripod, and use a cable release or your camera’s self timer. The below image was taken at 150mm using the above techniques to insure my image was tack sharp.

To keep building your photography knowledge and to keep from repeating the same tips over and over again, I also recommend you quickly read 7 Essential Landscape Photography Tips. This is full of great tips that will help take your photography to the next level, and both articles will also help you improve your landscape photographs.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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