Essential Photography: Telephoto Landscapes

Most photographers, particularly beginners, believe only wide-angle lenses are used for landscape photography. In fact, I’ve seen and heard some of my workshops students pull the wide-angle lens from their bag and exclaim, “I’ve got my landscape lens!” That’s a partially true statement since wide-angle lenses are indeed used for landscapes, especially near-far compositions where there is a compelling foreground to anchor the composition. But experienced landscape photographers know that a telephoto lens is every bit as important as a wide-angle when pursuing landscape images on a photography trip.

When it comes to creating telephoto landscapes, here are a few things to consider.

Telephoto Lenses Compress Perspective

Different focal lengths create different perspectives. The first image was captured with a 100mm focal length. The second image was captured at 400mm after backing up some distance. Although the foreground rocks are the same size in both examples, their relationship in size to the background mountain has changed dramatically.

While wide-angle lenses create spatial separation between foreground and background elements, making near objects disproportionally larger and distant objects much smaller than normal (this is exaggerating the visual effects of diminishing scale), telephoto lenses do the opposite – they compress perspective. Telephoto landscapes, such as a layered mountain scene you see above, can appear flat or two dimensional, even though the actual physical distance between the ridges is significant. To accentuate the mountain ridges, the telephoto lens can not only omits any unwanted foreground or excessive sky, but it flattens the perspective, amplifying the progression of repeating ridge patterns. What’s actually happening is that diminishing scale is nearly eliminated. 

The Art of Exclusion

By eliminating the many distractions near this tree (other nearby trees, a messy foreground, a bright overpowering sky) I am able to use the tree’s graceful shape as the backbone of the image and simplify my visual message.

Telephoto landscapes can isolate a small portion of the world in front of you. By paring away the unimportant and distracting visual elements to reveal only the most essential parts of the scene, you are practicing the fine art of exclusion. Visually distracting foregrounds and boring skies can be edited out of the image frame by simply zooming into what’s important. As a result, telephoto landscapes tend to “speak” with more clarity then wide-angle compositions that contain more visual information. 

A strong composition is vitally important when creating telephoto landscapes. Where wide-angle scenes tend to communicate a sense of place, telephoto interpretations do so to a much lesser extent. Refer to the example above. The image says nearly nothing about where this might have been captured. It literally could be almost anyplace where there are trees and a river. Telephoto landscapes say more about the photographer’s personal vision than sense of place. 

Lenses For Telephoto Landscapes

I suppose we could start a lively debate as to which focal lengths constitute a telephoto lens. A 70-200mm zoom is too short for most wildlife photography applications (and would probably be referred to as a “short” telephoto at best by wildlife shooters) but this focal range is nearly perfect for landscapes. For a photo trip that i know will be exclusively landscapes, I will pack a 70-200mm f/4 model rather than the heavier and more expensive f/2.8 version. Super large apertures and fast f/stops are rarely needed when doing landscape photography. Here are some superb options (all links to Amazon).

Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L is II USM Lens
Nikon 70-200mm f/4G ED VR Nikkor Zoom Lens
Sony FE 70-200mm F4 G OSS Interchangeable Lens

Richard Bernabe is a professional photographer specializing in travel, wildlife, and nature as well as an author of books, magazine articles, and travel essays published world-wide. Richard is a global influencer is the fields of photography, travel, and wildlife conservation with more than one million followers on social media platforms. He leads several photography tours and workshops all over the world and is invited to speak to photography and conservation groups all across the globe. For more great information on new images, gear reviews, book projects, and photography workshops and tours, Sign Up For Our Newsletter.