Digital SLR Photography

How to use a telephoto lens for landscapes

By James Abbott. Posted

It sounds like a cliché but, just like people, landscapes come in all shapes and sizes. From small and intimate waterfalls and streams to wide fells reaching as far as the eye can see and grand mountain ranges, landscape photography encompasses everything the natural world has to offer. And naturally, with this great variety comes the necessity to approach the subject with the right type of kit for the job in hand.

Most landscapes are shot with wide-angle lenses ranging from 16-35mm to capture wide and dramatic views. While this will always be the case, ask any professional landscape photographer what lenses they have with them at all times and the majority will say a wide-angle and a telephoto zoom. This combination provides them with every focal length ranging from 16mm or 24mm, all the way to 200mm in just two lenses; weight is kept to an absolute minimum without limiting creative options.

A telephoto lens is basically any lens with a focal length longer than a ‘standard’ 50mm. The most common telephoto zoom is a 70-200mm, but even a 24-70mm on a full-frame camera or an 18-55mm kit lens on an APS-C camera (offering an equivalent focal range of 24-82.5mm) can be considered telephoto at its longest focal length. So, even if you don’t have a mid-range telephoto, such as a 70-200mm, you can still achieve subject isolation within distant landscapes, although in some situation such as mountainous areas a 70-200mm will prove much more useful.

The advantage of shooting wider scenes and those with distant subjects, such as hilly and mountainous areas, with a telephoto lens is that you can get closer to the subject and capture cleaner compositions with no distortion. When shooting from one valley to the next, for instance, a wide-angle lens would capture too much of the area where you’re shooting from, leaving the distant focal point lost in a sea of irrelevance. The ability to zoom in and isolate the subject, however, will provide the focal point with the prominence it needs and a much more refined composition whether shot at 70mm or as long as 200mm.

1 Level your shot

Compose your image and zoom in as much as you need for a tidy composition that isolates a focal point. To fine-tune your framing, switch on LiveView and access your virtual horizon to ensure that, most importantly, the horizon is level but also that the lens is level on the vertical axis; when shooting landscapes at longer focal lengths you’ll want the camera and lens level to avoid distortion.

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2 Focus manually

Use manual focus to isolate the focal point itself. When shooting from a distance, you’re often cutting out any foreground interest so focusing directly on the most prominent feature in the landscape will ensure the whole scene is in focus. At this stage, make sure that image stabilisation is switched off because with the camera on a tripod having it turned on could actually introduce blur.

3 Camera settings

Set the camera to aperture-priority mode at f/11 with ISO 100. This should produce the sharpest possible results and a reasonably large depth-of-field, as well as no noise. Make sure White Balance is set to Daylight so if you’re shooting at sunrise or sunset, the camera is able to capture the colours in the sky without neutralising them, which is exactly what Auto White Balance would do.

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4 Add filters

Even when shooting with a telephoto, you can use ND grads to maintain sky detail. The exact types of ND grads you’ll need to use will depend entirely on the landscape you’re shooting, but for this image I used a three-stop reverse ND Grad to capture the horizon line that’s brighter than the higher sky, as well as a four-stop soft grad to further reduce the contrast between ground and sky.

5 Adjust the exposure

With the image composed, settings dialled in and filters in place, it’s now time to refine the exposure using the histogram for help. If your camera offers an active histogram in LiveView turn this on but, if not, take a test shot and use the histogram review option to assess how much exposure compensation you need for a perfect exposure. This scene required 1.3 stops of overexposure.

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