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.