For the Love of Long Lens Landscapes
Simplifying Grand Scenes Using a Telephoto Lens
My humble beginnings in nature photography started with a 24mm prime, a 60mm macro, and a 70-300mm telephoto zoom because, well, you HAD to have a telephoto zoom lens, right? My interests were strictly underwater photography where the 24mm would be my wide angle, the 60mm would capture the critters, and the zoom was for those things on land I didn’t have much interest in. Fast forward eight years, and landscape photography became my passion. Chasing sunsets and golden light replaced chasing sea lions and getting tangled in kelp. My inspirations in landscape photography began with scenes filled with silky water, rugged rocks, and exploding beams of light. Simply put, I was drawn to the grand landscape with all the classic elements of fore, middle, and back ground. For the first couple years, I emulated those scenes and rarely did my wide angle lens leave my camera. But not unlike writer’s block, photography can become stagnant when creativity wanes. Photographing the same type of scene with the same lens gets tiresome. And seeing the world through a different lens, a different perspective, can be a breath of fresh air. I first found an affinity for my telephoto lens while panning ocean waves using ICM or intentional camera movement. (I plan on touching on this topic in another post soon). Using a long lens allowed me to isolate sections of waves while I panned my camera from side to side. I distinctly recall feeling a sense of joy and satisfaction when I first created these images. No longer was I dependent on “epic” clouds and unique atmospheric conditions to create images I enjoyed. The first image below was taken after a clear sunrise and instead of feeling “skunked” by the lack of clouds, I decided to try something new…and was rewarded. The second image was made during a clear sunset, and I realized I didn’t need an “epic sky” to create images I enjoyed. I was inspired!
Speaking of clouds, because I love clouds and they sure can add to a scene, but they do have a mind of their own…drifting away right before sunset, fizzling into oblivion. But sometimes the a few linger, clinging to mountain tops. A telephoto lens can be put to good use on these occasions. The two images below were both made during my first trip to New Zealand. Outside of either frame, not much else was going on, so I used my 70-200mm in order to fill the frame with the juiciest bits of light. Mountain peaks can exhibit great character; their angles and craggy patterns contrast nicely against soft clouds. They also work well when using the corners of your frame which enhance diagonal lines, two ideas I like to use to improve a composition.
Forests are a great example of visual chaos. I’m the first to admit, photographing forests still challenge me. Scenes with high levels of detail can lead to sensory overload and a lack of focus in an image. Zooming in to smaller sections of a scene is an effective way to simplify a composition. I find it useful to look for framing elements with trees and branches. Repeating patterns and symmetry are also ideas I use when photographing in a forest. Of course, some warm light or moody fog and sunbeams never hurt. The two images below were both taken in New Zealand during a trip last year. The first image presented itself after a hike to a waterfall. Practically back at the parking lot, I happened to glance over my shoulder from where I had just came, and this scene demanded to be photographed. I immediately pulled out my Sony 100-400mm lens and set up for a few frames. Believe it or not, the second image was made in a parking lot! You never know where the next image comes from. Have your eyes open to possibilities at all times.
In eastern Washington, Steptoe Butte draws photographers from all over the world to photograph the undulating agricultural fields. Steptoe rises up creating a pedestal to soak in the 360° views. But without a long lens, you’re missing out on arguably the most interesting compositions. There is a vastness here, a sea of rolling hills. Photographically “seeing” at the equivalent of 300-600mm and finding compositions can be challenging at first, but with time, practice pays dividends. Isolating small sections of a grander scene comes more naturally. A composition idea I practice here often is the idea of repeating horizontals to lead the viewer side to side and front to back. Both of these images were taken last year during my annual Palouse photo workshop.
These last two examples are merely examples of just how long a focal length can be used to isolate interesting patterns and detail out of a larger scene. While conducting my Death Valley photo workshop, I had a chance to demo the Lumix G85 and 100-300mm lens. Micro 4/3s cameras have a 2x focal length multiplier due to the smaller sensor. The first image was taken at 600mm equivalent while in the dunes. I used the narrow field of view to isolate a single dune curve and allowed that simple form to take center stage. The second image, inspired by Floris Van Bruegel, was taken close to a mile away from the dunes but photographed with my Sony A7R III with 100-400mm lens and a 2X teleconverter. Again, the idea of repetition is presented here.
The possibilities for creative expression in landscape photography are as unique and varied as we are. Finding and refining your vision is an ongoing process, so if you haven’t tried using a long lens for landscapes, I highly recommend giving it a try!