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Shooting Landscapes With Long Lenses (Even Kit Lenses)

By Kishore Sawh on November 10th 2015

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When most think of landscape photography, the imagery that dominates their imaginations typically involve vast open spaces, sweeping vistas, and generally the encapsulating of a very wide field of view within a single frame. Thus, the lenses people associate with landscapes tend to be wide to very wide. They have probably also known a great many people who buy their first DSLRs strictly for their love of landscape photography, and their very next purchase is a wide lens with which to shoot it. This, in my opinion, is a mistake.

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First off, let’s just mention once more that the point of shooting wide, of using a wide angle lens, isn’t to ‘get it all in’ as most tend to think. Well, it’s not the only or even the most prominent use, and I encourage you to think of a wide lens as a lens that allows you to get closer while maintaining much of a scene within the frame.

Secondly, longer lenses (fixed or zooms), are often the lenses used to take many of the nature and scenery shots you’ve admired over the years. I’d wager than many of those images you favored were appealing to you because they made you feel as if you were there, right there in the mix, and that’s something a telephoto is actually brilliant at.

You probably understand by now that lens compression is a thing, and the compression from longer glass – telephotos – is great for portraits. This is simply because the compression can make things in the foreground, like a nose, seem a bit more closely related in size to items a bit further away than a wide lens would, even though technically something closer should look disproportionately larger. Well this function does well for landscapes too, since the telephoto has the inherit ability to bring you close and into the arena of the subject, and on top of that correct for some of the distortion of sizes that wide lenses give.

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A simple but effective illustration in these images by Mike, on how brilliant a long lens can make a landscape.

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In addition, the sense of bringing the background a bit closer, while it does in a sense distort the sense of depth, can do a different kind of magic for scale. In the video below, photographer Mike Browne does a great and concise job of verbally and visually demonstrating how nice a telephoto can be for landscapes, and honestly you can get beautiful shots like this with really inexpensive gear. You don’t need to be shooting at f/2.8 as he chooses to.

If this is something you’re more interested in, let me know in the comments, and I’ll be happy to dive into it further with you. And if you are starting out or planning on it, or you want to be educated with the foundation you may never have had or completed, take a look at Photography 101;  it may just be the perfect foundational block you’ve been looking for.

Find more from Mike from his site.

About

Kishore is, among other things, the Editor-In-Chief at SLR Lounge. A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

13 Comments

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  1. Stephen Glass

    I think the thing to keep in mind is what works for you. When someone says, “I use such and such…” someone who presumably has experience, it’s because they’ve made 10’s or 100’s of little decisions in support of that decision that led them there. With Norman a multi-row pano using a mechanical stitch… sure precision is required and lens creep is a factor. But in another circumstance a 70-200 might just be the ticket. I can think of 5 “what if’s” off the top of my head. Norman is evidently going for realism and a perhaps wants a huge pano like a “gigapan” approach. But someone like Erik Almas might use both in the same composite. Maybe you want and extended foreground but you want your mountains in the distance to look larger.
    As I see other photographers wins and losses be it at a wedding or a shoot for an international ad campaign there’s one common element to failure. That is the attitude “I always do it this way.” Just about every multivariable issue in photography can be answered with “It depends”. My lessons are to have a tool chest of technique and gear but also be open to the moment yet have a vision. If your vision is achieved by a 35mm prime or a 200mm prime… more power to you.

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  2. norman tesch

    f2.8 and f16 is a big difference. this had nothing to do with length of lens. the correct lens for the job is the one you need for your vision. im sick of people pushing that 70-200 lens. i use all primes when i do landscape, everything from 35 to 200. i wouldent use a variable because of lens creep. i do multi row panos.

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  3. Stephen Glass

    i have found the same to be true. Hand stitching is another good way to get landscapes with wider dimensions and less distortion.

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  4. Natoyi Lively

    Something i noticed wasn’t mentioned in the video or the comments about the long lens for landscape is the isolation of an element. Sometimes you see beautiful elements in landscapes that look a certain way from a distance, and different from close. The long lens is great for isolating it as you seeing it from where you are. Moving closer would make things look different and loose the effect they had from far.

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  5. Peter McWade

    But using the wide lens to get the same shot cropped will result in a photo that has limited resolution since you cropped out much of the image. I prefer to use the long lens of an 85 to get that up close and personal feel vs just cropping. Im more apt to just get up close and personal. My experience in the High Sierra’s when I was in the Scouts got me up and personal with the mountain and all that was in it. Those are the memories I retain. Not the far away shots of the whole.

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  6. Brandon Dewey

    Great Video! About 2 years ago I really started using my 70-200mm for a lot of landscape images to help compress the background and notice a huge improvement in my composition. Now when ever I go out to take landscape images I alway bring a wide angle and telephoto lens.

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  7. Chris Janzen

    Really liked this video, had me thinking about how I would take the shot in my head but then showing me another method that came out with a more pleasing result.

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  8. Michael Yuen

    I never gave it much thought about why a telephoto lens would “bring” the background closer and why that would be more desirable in many situations. This article, the video, and the 4 comments prior to adding mine really help. Thanks all! It’s making more sense now

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  9. Ron Fya

    A very important aspect of perspective (and effect of using a long vs a wide lens) is often misunderstood.

    Sentences like the following lead to a wrong comprehension of what is actually at play here.
    “… compression from longer glass, telephotos, is great for portraits. This is simply because the compression can make things in the foreground seem a bit more closely related in size to items a bit further away than a wide lens would.”

    What really make 2 items seems closer is the viewer being located relatively further away from both those items. The same way, what really make 2 items seems further apart is the viewer being located much closer to front item then the back item. This is because of perspective effects. And it only depends on the viewer’s position (i.e. the camera position) related to the items photographed. NOT the lens.

    The CONSEQUENCE of that is if you want the front item to fill the frame, you use a wide lens if you’re close and a long lens if you’re far from it.

    BUT (and this is key) if you take a picture form the same spot far away from your subjects with a long lens and a wide lens, you will see that the picture taken with the long lens is EXACTLY the same as a crop in the wide lens picture. Same composition and compression because of the perspective from your location.

    Try it for yourself. It’s enlightening to understand :D

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    • Ron Fya

      That also means that to take a flattering portrait of somebody, you don’t need to take the picture with a 85mm (or longer) lens, you can take it with a 24mm and stand at the same distance you would be if you would take the picture with a 85mm.

      Of course that means you will take a full body shot of the person, but if you crop the portrait of the head only, the result looks exactly the same as taking it with the 85mm from the same spot. The perspective and composition will be the same. The problem will be the loss of resolution because of the crop.

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    • Paul Nguyen

      You don’t even need to try it. Just go up really close to something and you’ll see how it’s much more bulbous and then walk further away and you’ll see the scene flatten down. It’s just basic mathematics and you can do it with your own eyes.

      It’s basic high school mathematics and anyone who has a basic understanding of ratios can understand it. Let’s say you’re 5m in front of your subject and they are subsequently 5m in front of another object. In that case, it’s a 1:1 ratio.

      Let’s say you move back 5m and now you’re 10m in front of your subject but they are still 5m in front of the previous object. Now, it’s a 2:1 ratio, thus, the background will appear “twice” as big.

      I say “twice” because we’re only considering one dimension here, but if you do some thinking and apply the same concept to two dimensions, you’ll get the point. It has nothing to do with focal length. It’s just that a longer focal length forces you to stand further back to get the same frame.

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  10. Andy & Amii Kauth

    Solid demo by Mike Browne.

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