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You may also check out my YouTube video titled "Telephoto Lens for Panoramic Landscape Photography".
To understand why I often choose a telephoto lens over a wide-angle lens for landscape images, first let’s establish the differences between a wide-angle and a telephoto lens.
Focal Length. A 50 mm focal length is considered the human eye perspective. Thus, wide-angle lenses have focal lengths less than 50 mm and telephoto lenses have focal lengths greater than 50 mm.
Angle of View. Because of the difference in focal lengths, a wide-angle lens has a wide angle of view, while the telephoto gives us a narrow view. The telephoto brings objects closer to us and makes them appear closer to each other. For the image below, I used my 70 to 400 mm zoom telephoto lens. Everything you see in the frame is very far away. Essentially, the telephoto compressed the distance between objects and made them appear closer to me. Opposite to this is the wide-angle view in which objects appear farther away and the distance between them is exaggerated. This is why a wide-angle lens works best when you have something very close to you in the foreground that can add great depth to the scene.
Distortion. Because of the wide angle of view, the wide-angle lens will create distortion, especially around the edges of the frame. Basically, objects look stretched because of the exaggerated distances created by the lens. For example, notice the slanted trees on the left and right sides of the frame in the image below.
Now look at the next image shot with a telephoto lens. Notice that the trees look more realistic. It makes me think of a painting, where the artist painted as she would have seen the trees.
You can see that a wide-angle lens renders a scene very differently from a telephoto lens. Because of those differences, I find the telephoto lens to be advantageous over the wide-angle lens for the following reasons.
Remove the boring parts. Below are two images of the same tree hammock I photographed along Highway 41. The first one is a wide-angle scene to compare to the next image created with my telephoto lens. By zooming in, I removed the big sky and isolated the most interesting parts, which were the tree hammock and clouds. Much better!
Endless composition choices. With a telephoto, you can take a very large open scene and divide it into smaller, more interesting and intimate scenes. And if you have a zoom lens (like 70-400 mm), you have so many more choices.
Better control of the light. Think of a wide angle shot at sunrise or sunset, where you have very bright light in one area and dark shadows in another area all within the frame. With that narrow angle of view from the telephoto, you can eliminate the dramatic light contrasts and control the exposure more easily.
Easy to switch between horizontal and vertical compositions, as seen in the image below.
Easier to combine multiple images to create panoramas. Because you don’t get that distortion from a telephoto lens, it is easier to pan across and take 2 or more images and then stitch them together in an editing software program, like Photoshop Merge. Below are two examples, one from here in Florida and the other from Iowa.
Are there any problems to using a telephoto lens for landscapes? Possibly, but for the most part, they can be solved.
A large lens may not work on a ballhead. Because of the weight of the large lens, a ballhead attached to a tripod may not support the lens well enough. You may have to use something like a Gimbal head, as shown in this photo.
Because of the large size and narrow angle of view, shake can be a problem. However, if the lens is set up on the tripod, problem solved!
Yes, it is true that at a given aperture, depth of field will be less when using a telephoto. However, because you are shooting objects that are far away and do not have close objects in the frame, this is not an issue. I typically use apertures f8 to f11 and have adequate sharpness in all my telephoto landscape images.
As you can see, the narrower angle of view from a telephoto lens goes well beyond the wide-angle perspective and many more creative options for the landscape photographer. Amazing! Here are a couple more images that were shot with a telephoto lens and were the result of stitching together two or more shots.
If you are interested in learning more about camera or editing techniques, I offer individualized instructions in the field as well as in Photoshop. Please visit my website to learn more about these workshops or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions you may have.
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