It’s no secret that landscape photographers love ultra-wides. If your lens isn’t equivalent to at least 16mm, you just aren’t part of the club. And if you really want to prove your worth, you’re definitely using a 14mm lens, or a 12mm, or, for the truly dedicated, a fisheye. (You can always de-fish it in Photoshop, after all.) But what if landscape photography has another side to it – a side that can be just as good? In fact, that just so happens to be the case. For many pictures, the best landscape photography lenses aren’t wide-angles at all. They’re telephotos.
I’ll start this article by saying that everyone is different, and that’s especially true when you’re talking about personal preferences like camera equipment. I like telephotos; you may not. Perhaps you shoot everything with a fisheye lens, or a tilt-shift lens, or an 800mm supertelephoto. I don’t write this article to change what you do, but instead to provide some reasons why one popular recommendation – that wider lenses are best for landscapes – isn’t always true.
One main reason is scale. Wide angle lenses don’t do a good job of showing the massive size of distant elements in a landscape. If you’re standing at the base of a mountain, an ultra-wide can make it look like a bump on the horizon.
An example? A few years ago, I visited Colorado for the first time to meet some of the Photography Life team. I had just bought my first truly wide angle lens – a 20mm. That’s far from extreme, but it was the widest I had ever used before.
The first thing I did upon arriving at an overlook of Mount Sneffels was to slap the new lens on my camera. I might not have been all the way at 12mm or 14mm, but I felt pretty great about my setup.
Here’s how that turned out:
So, why does the photo above look so bad? I’m at a beautiful scene on a nice morning. There aren’t any clouds, but I still should have been able to capture a decent photo. Instead, when I used the 20mm, I practically erased the mountain from existence, and I filled the frame with useless details instead.
Here’s how that compares to a similar photo taken at 70mm, which is starting to approach telephoto territory:
That’s a clear difference. Sure, the light is better, but the biggest improvement in the second photo has to do with composition – the overall scale of Mount Sneffels. By using a telephoto lens, you don’t have to be practically on the mountain you’re photographing in order for it to be the right size in an image.
Scale isn’t the only benefit of a telephoto, either. Long lenses also work well because they give you much more control over the elements that appear in your photo.
With a wide-angle lens, so much of the scene in front of you will inevitably end up in your image – a patch of grass, a lopsided cloud, a jumble of tree branches, and so on. Whether or not it adds to your message, you might just have to live with it. You can try moving around and adjusting your composition, but it’s not always possible to fix the problem completely.
Telephotos are different. They cover such a narrow field of view that you have more control over what you include and don’t include in a picture. With a telephoto, you can simplify your composition significantly. This makes it easier to unify your message, as well as take certain types of photos like abstracts that may be tricky with a wide angle.
That’s not to say images from a telephoto are always simple, or that wide-angle shots are always complex. Instead, it’s that zooming in makes it easier to exclude details you don’t want in your frame rather than capturing everything at once. For many landscapes, that’s a big deal.
Then again, I’d never recommend that you only use a telephoto. Personally, I still shoot a huge number of my photos with a wide-angle lens for one reason or another. But there are plenty of times when telephotos are ideal – enough that I consider them essential for landscape photography.
So, are telephotos the best landscape photography lenses, even more than wide-angles? There’s no a good answer to that question. Can anyone say whether something is “best” when two of them are equally important? I use wide angles and telephotos almost exactly 50/50. They’re both necessary. To some photographers, one may be more useful than the other, but that’s all down to your personal style.
To top it off, the scene in front of you also makes a big difference. If you’re in the American Southwest, with slot canyons and crazy lines in the foreground, I’d generally recommend a wide angle. If you’re hiking in the Alps, and you’re trying to show the size of distant mountains, a telephoto can be a huge help. For nature photography as a whole, there’s a reason why both lenses have a place in my bag.
Landscape photographers should be flexible. Having a mindset that wide angles are the end-all-be-all for landscape photography simply is not accurate. For many photographers, a telephoto is just as important, and, for some, it’s at the heart of their style. Either way, if you’ve never thought of telephotos as landscape photography lenses before, you owe it to yourself to try.
Pair this with a framework to choose the best landscape photography lens. Then, explore some of Nikon’s best lenses for landscape photography and for taking Milky Way pictures.
Hi Guys, Rookie photographer here.BOY, ain’t there tonnes of practical guides here! I salute your commitment and assistance in helping people like me out! THANK YOU VERY MUCH. However I’m requesting suggestions for an upcoming shoot high up in the mountain top…say…429m tall. It’s a post-graduation shoot out. Since I just recently bought a Nikon D3400 cam (twin lens- AFS-DX NIKKO 55-200mm f/4-5.6G EDVRII and 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VRII) a friend requested that we shoot up there to symbolize barriers and obstacles overcome’d (lol, no such word in the dictionary is there?) BUT I don’t have gears except the obvious (DSLR ), not even a tripod or ND Filters! I have a fair understanding of Camera settings and the likes but I’ve never done such a shoot before, let alone in Golden hours and way up in the mountains. I’m trying to save up for a tripod, speedlights lighting equipment, speedlights, small diffuser and trigger but it’s taking me a while now, I also have rent and food to pay ugh. Anyways, what do you reckon I take with me up there?? I just don’t wanna be all drained from carrying useless equipments and not having to use them at all. I have to do test shots first so I’ll be up there days before the actual shoot. Has anyone done such a thing before?? Any ideas to make for anow amazing shot?? It’ll be in Golden hours so…
The shoot is scheduled for September. I’m thinking I should just take a speedlight, trigger and a small diffuser?? Thinking…before sunrise. What do you guys think? Spencer Cox?
Happy to help! You definitely don’t need an ND filter or a tripod to do a post-graduation shoot. Taking test shots definitely is a good idea. If you are planning to bring a speedlight and trigger, is someone else going to be with you who can hold the flash off-camera? Or, are you planning to bring a light stand?
If you’re trying to go lightweight, I would stick with just the D3400 and 18-55mm lens. Zoom into 55mm if you need more of a telephoto perspective.
One last thing – if you want to use flash, it can be helpful for the flash color matches the sunlight’s color. If this is at sunrise, you may want to use a flash gel to color the light properly. This is something you will definitely want to test ahead of time in similar lighting conditions to get a result that looks natural.
Hope this helps! Let me know if you have any more questions.
“I don’t write this article to change what you do, but instead to provide some reasons why one popular recommendation – that wider lenses are best for landscapes – isn’t always true.”
I really like seeing those articles that challenge ideas that are readily accepted by many as “the rule”. Sometimes the conclusion will be that the original idea really is the right one, but even then, I think it is a worthwhile discussion. Technical and artistic considerations will be explored, and whatever comes out of it will usually apply to more styles of photography than what was initially being discussed. Hope I’m making sense here.
My favourite landscape lens these days is my Zeiss 135 APO F2. I also use my Nikon 45 PCE F2.8 quite a bit, and in the right environment my Zeiss 21 F2.8. The 21mm is good in places like Scotland, New Zealand, Iceland, Banff & Jasper, and Nepal, but basically outside of views where everything in front of you is pretty, or a mountain, it doesn’t see much use elsewhere (except Temple shooting in cities). The 135, that can take landscapes anywhere, and the only reason that I usually carry my 21mm is A) that its light, and B) so I have the option of the full view (but its not so often that this makes the best photos). I do end up with lots of panoramas with longer lenses that I can print very large as an added bonus :)
One nice feature of some telephotos is very low vignetting.
This is useful for stitching together a very large panorama with minimal banding.
On my last trip to Death Valley, I used a 200mm AI-S at optimum aperture to make very large panos.
The detail is superb, and allows any desired cropping without loss of image quality.
My normal pano lens is a Micro Nikkor 55mm f/2.8 AI-S stopped down to f/11 for the most uniform sharpness and the center and extreme corners.
The Sigma 135mm ART appears to have extremely little vignetting at its optimum aperture.
Thanks for the article and the photographs which illustrate your points – often photos are louder than words. I often see wide angle landscapes with blank meaningless space in the foreground. Yes the impression of space is established but the images lack drama and are boring. Wide angle landscapes do work, but the challenge of good composition, especially foreground interest, is immense. You have provided us with the challenge to think telephoto as a regular alternative to the politically correct wide angle.
Another informative article, thanks again – your first example nailed my attempts at using a 28mm for landscape photos so now I am looking forward to experimenting with my new 105mm.
In the area I live, I have little use for anything below 24mm — there are no vast spaces of desert, mountains or ocean beaches. Even in a place like Olympic National Park, I only sometimes wished for something below 24mm. On the other hand, I have used telephotos up to 400mm for landscapes, including sunsets.
(1) You have to be very careful about your eyes with sunsets taken with long telephotos. You might want to compose and focus with a strong ND filter, compose before the sun drops into the scene in the viewfinder, or use a mirrorless camera. The second option is my preference.
(2) Distant scenes taken over certain kinds of terrain with a long telephoto in mid-day sun can be plagued with mild “heat wave” subtle enough not to be noticed by your eye in the viewfinder, but strong enough to render a noticeable smear at pixel level.
Not sure if this is helpful, but I’ll put it out there. If you have the time to pause, then pause and take notice of your surroundings and contemplate how this 3D world will look on a 2D print/screen. As mentioned, use whatever glass you have in your bag to get the results you “think” you want. Then if time permitting, try another lens. During post-processing, you may be surprised by the alternatives you captured. Now the tech part. Wide-angle to telephoto, not only crops what you capture but changes the perspective of the elements. With a wide-angle, the distance between elements will be greater, whereas with the telephoto the distance will be compressed. That is with a wide angle lens, the gap between something in the foreground and the background may seem miles apart. With the telephoto, the distance may seem like a short hike. I struggled with wide-angle lenses for a long time, mainly because I couldn’t capture what I was seeing in my mind. It wasn’t until I used ultra-wide angle lenses did that change. It is also more than that, with these lenses you have to get up close and personal with your foreground subject. Sorry, but 24mm doesn’t fall into this category. For full frame, I’m talking 14mm-16mm lens. Angled slightly down or more from the horizon and you’ll have a dramatic effect. Again, not to duplicate what has been said, but there is no wrong lens. Depending on the subject and the light, one lens will probably get closer to your vision than another – at that moment.
Clifford, I think this is quite useful – thanks for adding it. In terms of translating the 3D world into a successful 2D snippet, that is indeed one of the greatest challenges of photography! Some people will try to close one eye to envision the scene with fewer depth cues. I tend just to look at the LCD (or viewfinder) for the same purpose – not a creative solution at all, but a valuable tool to have regardless.
I always read with great interest and attention the excellent articles written by Mr. Cox. Indeed the wide angle lens has been labeled as the “landscape lens” for several generations. I began to see the difference in the 70’s when I was still using film. I noticed at the time that using a tele I could compress and isolate pat of the landscape making the resulting image more interesting. Ever since a tele is my companion when I photograph sceneries.
The same happened to me with street photography, a 50 or a 35mm lens and coming close to the subject was what street photographers of the past did but when I began to use my tele with street photography I began to enjoy what I was doing and everything changed for me.
Teles, do not leave home without one.
Thank you, William! Above, Duffy was commenting about using a telephoto for street work as well, and I think you both are onto something. It’s common wisdom to use a 35mm or 50mm, sure, but that’s mainly because it worked so well for some famous photographers in the past (and one in particular, Henri Cartier-Bresson). It’s not that these are bad lenses for street work – not at all – but that it pays to keep an open mind to other possibilities!
Great comment. Have often wondered why the isolating effect of telephoto is not advocated for street photography.
Hi Spencer, good to put out these opinions backed up with good examples, as you have here. You’ve said in the last part of the article that you take BOTH wide and telephoto lenses along with you, as I am sure most photographers would do also. There is no perfect lens, there is only the perfect lens for the scene in front of you at that moment. I would never go out with just my 14-24 Nikkor and risk happening upon a scene where a 100mm would be perfect, ruining my trip.
I think sometimes we need to be reminded of basics, like going back to the days of Ansel Adams, and the ridiculous weight of his large format camera bodies, and lenses too, they were usually much heavier than the kind we have today, even our professional gold ring (or red ring) models!
These days, if you don’t have room for two, or even three lenses in your kit, you need to rethink it. A golfer would not go off with one putter, one iron, one wood and one ball, after all.
This is coming from someone who bought the nikkor 14-24mm fairly recently, so I hope it carries more gravitas when I say, for heavens sake take BOTH lenses to the party – They weigh a kilo, or just over two pounds – no excuse to leave it at home!
Thanks again for your interesting views and articles.
Agreed on all counts! The 14-24mm gets some negative press for its weight, but it really is amazing that we can capture such insanely wide photos at a wide aperture – especially for night landscapes – in a 2 lb/1 kilo package. I’ve been enjoying mine a lot, and only switch to my lighter 20mm f/1.8 when I’m on a long hike or need filters. Even then, I’m up in the air whether I’ll just go for the 14-24mm on an especially important long hike later this year (weeklong trek, but should be some incredible scenes). I’m leaning toward yes.
These days, I wouldn’t go for a landscape shoot without at least one wide and one telephoto. If I’m working out of a car, I have two wide lenses, a normal lens, and a telephoto. It just opens up a world of possible subjects to have both rather than just one – though I do know a couple people who stick with one or two lenses/focal lengths exclusively, with great results.