When I bought my first dSLR, the first lens I bought was an ultra-wide angle. The camera I’d been using before had a wide angle of course, but it was never wide enough to capture those epic vista shots that I’d been seeing. Those shots that have a foreground that comes right up to the camera, and a sky that feels like you could reach up and touch it before it recedes into infinity.
I love ultra wide angles, I love the scale and feel they give to a photo, and for a long while I thought it would be the only lens I’d ever really need for landscapes.
A year or so later though, I was on holiday in Brazil and wanted to get some different kind of shots to come home with, not only wide angle landscapes. I started off by using the telephoto lens for just for shooting flowers, isolating the coloured petals against the blue sky, and was immediately interested by how the rules of composition changed. Using a long focal length meant taking much more care to isolate elements and removing as many non-essential elements as possible. It felt like a completely different way of looking at the world than with a wide angle lens, where I’d always looked to build an image using a foreground element, an interesting mid-ground leading towards a dramatic sky.
Soon after, I was flicking through Art Wolfe’s Edge of the Earth, Corner of the Sky, and I realized that around half of his landscape shot were actually done with a long lens. Then, on a trip to Spain I found that I used my 80-400 lens more and more for landscapes, and on my next trip, to Umbria and Tuscany, I’d estimate that I used a telephoto lens for at least half of the shots that I took there, from compressing hills in early morning mist to isolating small elements of the landscape in the distance.
A telephoto lens is technically any lens longer than 50mm on a full frame sensor (about 75mm on a cropped x1.5 sensor) and shooting landscapes at that focal length and above requires a completely different approach to shooting with a wide angle. For a start, the camera is most likely going to be much further away from whatever foreground there is in the shot, and in some cases there might not even be space for the sky in the composition.
This is part of the attraction of composing with a telephoto lens. For example, the mountain picture below was actually taken from a car park in the peaks of Sierra Nevada, Spain. Below the car park were the large ugly hotels for the ski slopes, which themselves were scattered all around me. Shooting with a wide angle, it would have been impossible to avoid including all these unsightly elements, but at the same time, the light and sky were really attractive.
There was no time to hike to a different location where a more expansive wide angle shot could be composed, so I chose to shoot out and away from the mountain I was standing on to the neighbouring peaks, silhouetted against the setting sun. The only other time I could imagine getting a shot from this great vantage point would be out the window of a plane during flights to Cozumel.
Using a very long telephoto lens (400mm) the peaks were compressed together against the sky, and the distant clouds and mist around the peaks were emphasized much more than they would have been with a wide angle lens. The result is a clean shot that focuses only on the light and colour of the sky, contrasted against the simple shapes of the landscape. Of course, this view was only a tiny amount of the vista I had before me; there were the aforementioned hotels and ski runs, the cable cars and drag lifts, the sky was only yellow at the horizon, but faded to a clear blue above that. The telephoto lens however, eliminates all that, containing only what was essential about the scene It’s a similar story with the shot below.
One of the most iconic and photographed farmhouses in Italy, Belvedere is actually quite hard to shoot because there is a private farm that you have to shoot over or around to be able to get this composition. Added to that was a telephone cable and some treetops between my location and the farm itself, so it required a telephoto lens to “reach” through and across the clutter between the camera and the scene I wanted to photograph.
For the shot of the clouds drifting through the forest below, a telephoto allowed me to focus on the relationship between the clouds and trees and eliminate everything else distracting from the shot, like the roads and houses that scatter across the hillside. I stood at the roadside and watched the clouds moving through the forest, looking for compositions that gave strong shapes and lines.
With a wide angle, the vast majority of what’s in front of the lens is going to be included in the composition, but when shooting with a telephoto, quite often you’re photographing something that is only a small element of the entire vista that you see before you. This means scanning for compositions, for interesting shapes and patterns in the landscape which interact in a way that makes an interesting photo.
For the photo above, taken on a mountain plain in Umbria, Italy, I’d been shooting lots of wide angle compositions of the mountain range, but with a telephoto lens I felt that I could more strongly emphasize the shapes of the mountains and the contrast between the shadows and the last light of day. The same is true of the shot below, shot in the same location. The telephoto lens compresses the town against the mountainside behind it, making the two seem much closer than they are in reality. It highlights the location of the town beneath towering peaks, and the last light of day picking out the buildings of the village contrasting with the shadow of the mountain emphasize this relationship. The removal of any sky from the composition also strengthens the effect of the photo, emphasizing the mountains domination of the small village.
The compression of elements within an image, and the way a telephoto can bring you into the heart of the scene are really useful effects. The image at the top of this article is one example. At dawn in Tuscany the valley was full of mist, which pooled between the hills, making them seem like islands. Although these hills were actually quite far apart, the 200mm focal length has made them appear much closer together, and the telephoto has enabled me to cut out any distracting elements (for example, the field I was standing in to take the photo and the distant hills) focusing only on the relationship between the hills and the mist. Another example is when shooting sunrays bursting through clouds in the distance, a telephoto lens can bring the viewer right into the midst of the scene, giving the whole image a more immediate and dramatic feel. There’s nothing else in the frame to distract the view, just the bottom of the clouds, the sunbeams and the water they illuminate. Not using a telephoto would have meant including a much larger expanse of water and cloud, reducing the impact of the shot.
I love my 17-35mm wide angle lens. For land and waterscapes it’s still the first lens I think about when composing a shot, but my 80-400mm has rapidly become a favourite and I can’t imagine going anywhere to shoot landscapes and not taking it with me.
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