Wide angle lenses are for landscape photography and telephoto lenses are for wildlife and portraits, right? Wrong. Lens manufacturers and camera retailers would like you to believe it, but it just ain’t so. The truth is, no one lens is ‘for’ any one type of photography. Granted, some are more suitable – a 14mm headshot isn’t going to be flattering – but there are no hard and fast rules to say what you can and can’t do. Photography is an art form after all. In this post, I’m going to take a quick look at using telephoto lenses for landscape work.
In many cases, I actually prefer longer lenses for landscapes over ultra wide-angle ones. Renowned war photographer Robert Capa famously said “If the shot’s not good enough, you’re not close enough”. That’s very true, but it’s hard to get closer when you’re standing at the edge of a cliff or the top of a mountain. What you need, in those cases, is a longer lens. The main advantage of a long lens is that it lets you crop out all the extraneous, distracting surroundings and just focus (literally and metaphorically) on the most interesting part of the scene.
Last month I rented a Nikkor 14-24mm 2.8 lens – widely regarded as the best lens of its type in the world. I took it up to Scotland, land of lochs and mountains, with a view to getting some photographs of grand vistas. However, while the lens is technically excellent, and I did use it for certain shots, I found that in some cases my cheap Tamron 70-300mm produced what was in my opinion a better shot. Take the two shots below for example:
Here you have a typical Scottish scene – a loch, mountains, and a fishing boat. The boat is naturally the focal point of the scene – the mountains and loch are the backdrop. But because of the wide angle (this was taken at 14mm), the boat is pretty much lost amidst the wavelets. Standing as I was on the shore, even a more standard lens like an 18-55mm would have trouble getting an ideal shot. But switch to a relatively long telezoom and:
You crop out all the extraneous surroundings and just focus on the most interesting part of the scene. (This shot also shows the importance of waiting for half-decent light).
Here’s another example, a ‘classic’ wide-angle sunset. At a wide angle, it’s really not very impressive:
The colour is kind of nice, but the shot itself is mediocre – anything interesting in the view itself is tiny and lost. But with a longer lens:
Instant interest. The long lens allowed me to get right in on the misty silhouettes of the town, the orb of the setting sun, and the most colourful part of the sky.
So, if you haven’t tried using your longer lenses for landscape photography, it’s definitely worth a try. There are a couple of things you can do to ensure good results:
Use a tripod. Longer lenses equal more noticeable camera shake, so a tripod is more or less essential for the best image quality.
Use a polariser. The more air the light is travelling through (i.e. the further away your subject is), the higher the likelihood that it will be affected by haze. A polariser can work wonders for eliminating this, so if you’ve got one that fits your long lens, use it.
Give it a go, you might be surprised at the results.