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Creating Telephoto Landscapes

Author: David Kingham

When people think of landscape photographs, most will associate using a wide-angle and standard focal length lenses. Wide angle lenses create dramatic effects when placed near a subject of interest, but not all landscapes are created equal as Jennifer demonstrates with this stunning photograph.

Jennifer Renwick - sand dunes glowing after sunset- Tamron 150-600 @ 600mm on D500 (Equivalent focal length of 900mm), ISO 640, f/8, 1/640s

Jennifer Renwick - sand dunes glowing after sunset- Tamron 150-600 @ 600mm on D500 (Equivalent focal length of 900mm), ISO 640, f/8, 1/640s

Extreme telephoto lenses have become an essential part of our landscape photography kits, we did not know what we were missing until they were in our bags.

I often ask my clients during workshops 'what is the subject of your photo?', it is often a challenge to place focus on one subject using a wide angle lens. With a telephoto, you are forced to pick a subject and create a compelling composition around it.

David Kingham - Fujifilm 100-400 @ 138mm (Equivalent focal length of 207mm) , ISO 800, f/5.6, 1/240s

David Kingham - Fujifilm 100-400 @ 138mm (Equivalent focal length of 207mm) , ISO 800, f/5.6, 1/240s

When creating landscapes with telephoto lenses, it is important to have a stable foundation, meaning a solid tripod. The tripod you use for your wide angle may not be sturdy enough to hold a big, heavy telephoto lens. I have found that I can get around this by using proper long-lens technique and a fast shutter speed. The technique involves draping your left hand/arm lightly over the barrel of the lens to stabilize it, combine this with a shutter speed that is equivalent to or faster than your focal length and you will come away with keepers. If all of the subjects in your frame are close to the same distance away, you can get away with an aperture of f/5.6 to let in more light. You do have to be careful with telephoto because the depth of field is very narrow; if the subjects have a fair distance between them, you may need to stop down your aperture or focus stack. You can also raise your ISO to achieve a faster shutter speed. While this will introduce some noise, it is better than the alternative of a blurry image.

Finding Compositions

Composing a telephoto scene can be more challenging than photographing a grand landscape. The subject is not obvious, and you must do the work to find it on your own. This can be creatively fulfilling finding a non-obvious subject that is unlikely to be re-created. On the other hand, it can be frustrating for those new to the technique.

Positioning yourself at the right location can be an important first step to finding compositions. Placing yourself higher than your subject is one way to find a subject with a telephoto, this gives you a clear view of distant subjects. Think of high mountain roads with clear views, etc. Another option is to shoot up, for example photographing mountain peaks from below allows you opportunities to create unique photographs, especially with dramatic weather.

In the examples below I used a mixture of patterns, light contrast, color contrast, curves, and empty space to create compelling compositions.

David Kingham - Fujifilm 100-400 @ 124mm (Equivalent focal length of 186mm), ISO 800, f/8, 1/150s
Composition - Use of zig-zag curving lines to create movement and depth, along with the literal contrast of life/death with the few remaining leaves on the aspen trees.

David Kingham - Fujifilm 100-400 @ 373mm (Equivalent focal length of 560mm), ISO 200, f/8, 1/900s
Composition - Negative space gives foreboding scale to the mountain cliff

David Kingham - Fujifilm 100-400 @ 347mm (Equivalent focal length of 520mm), ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/420s
Composition - Contrast between cold, cloud shrouded mountain with the warm light of sunset

David Kingham - Fujifilm 100-400 @ 252mm (Equivalent focal length of 378mm), ISO 200, f/5, 1/4500s
Composition - Negative space gives breathing room for the immense mountain peak

Jennifer Renwick - Tamron 150-600 @ 600mm on D500 (Equivalent focal length of 900mm), ISO 640, f/8, 1/1250s Composition - Contrast between light and shadows

Jennifer Renwick - Tamron 150-600 @ 600mm on D500 (Equivalent focal length of 900mm), ISO 640, f/8, 1/1250s
Composition - Contrast between light and shadows

Lens Recommendations

You may be ready to dive into the world of telephoto but have the belief that the lenses are out of your price range. Most likely this is not true! There are great options available now that do not require you to shell out 10k on a 600mm lens. I limited the options to lenses that reach at least 400mm, are relatively lightweight, and affordable.

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Fujifilm

Fujifilm 100-400 - The only super-telephoto option available for Fujifilm users, thankfully it is a superb lens with sharpness throughout the frame. This is the lens I used on all of my photos in this post. When used with the cropped sensor this is an equivalent focal length of 150-600 and only weighs in at 3 lbs.
 

Canon

Tamron 150-600 - The sharpest lens from edge to edge, which is the most important aspect to consider for telephoto landscapes. I would highly recommend this lens if weight is not an issue as it weighs nearly 4.5 lbs.
Canon 100-400 - Currently one of the best 'lightweight' options, but when the Sigma 100-400 comes out there will be little reason to get this lens considering it weighs 1 lb more.
Sigma 150-600 - From the reviews I have read this lens has superb sharpness in the center of the frame but falls off around the edges. A good choice, but for landscapes, I would recommend the Tamron.
Sigma 100-400 - Sigma has released a new lens (available in May 2017) that will be a fantastic option for those wanting to use telephoto while hiking. It is 2 lbs lighter than the Tamron, of course you lose 200mm in focal length, but it only weighs 2.5 lbs.
 

Nikon

Tamron 150-600 - Jennifer uses this lens on her D500. This is an incredibly sharp lens all the way to the edges and great for telephoto landscapes. I would highly recommend this lens if weight is not an issue as it weighs nearly 4.5 lbs.
Sigma 100-400 - Sigma has released a new lens (available in May 2017) that will be a fantastic option for those wanting to use telephoto while hiking. It is 2 lbs lighter than the Tamron, of course you lose 200mm in focal length, but it only weighs 2.5 lbs.
Sigma 150-600 - From the reviews I have read this lens has superb sharpness in the center of the frame but falls off around the edges. A good choice, but for landscapes, I would recommend the Tamron.
Nikon 200-500 - A fantastic lens that is quite sharp, but is heavy at 4.6 lbs, considering it weighs more than the Tamron, and has less focal length, I would not choose this lens.
Nikon 80-400 - Currently one of the best 'lightweight' options, but when the Sigma 100-400 comes out there will be little reason to get this lens considering it weighs 1 lb more.

Sony

Tamron 150-600 - Tamron makes the only super-telephoto lens for Sony; it is only for A-mount though, so you will need the adapter. This is an incredibly sharp lens all the way to the edges, great for telephoto landscapes.

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David Kingham