Landscape photography with telephoto lenses

Some time ago, I was questioned how to take photographs using telephoto lenses. As my answer started to be unexpectedly long, I worked out the topic in the article that might be of use for other readers. I really enjoy shooting with long telephoto lenses hence I take landcapes with them quite often.

Choosing right location and timing

There are not always suitable conditions out there for using long lenses and a careful selection of a compelling subject is fundamental for an image to succeed.
It is always a challenge to look at the landscape from a distance of few kilometers and single out a little scenery from what is offered to see. In general, it can be interesting lines or repeating patterns that become integral when framed within a viewfinder. It all becomes easier when you find an attractive subject to which you add something from its surroundings to complete a pleasing composition. A change of perspective finalizes the process - creating a very different projection of a landscape. If done well, the result can be marvellous eye-catching photographs. This is because such way of seeing is extremely unusual hence gives good grounds for an image to attracts viewers. Industrialized landscapes (power lines, transport communications, etc.) make it hard for wide angle shots, but it is easy to eliminate unwanted elements with telephoto lens.
Of course, I’m not trying to say that I’m a master of compositions who always finds something attractive when looking faraway. I would love to but it is not possible all the time.

Bohemian Switzerland National Park, Czech Republic
Ondřej Prosický |, Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, EF70-200mm f/4L IS USM, f/10, @1/25 s, ISO 100, 15. srpna 2016 6:28:28

Weather conditions

Good weather conditions are essential to capture long lens landscapes. The air needs to be clear and the visibility distance long. Cold weather is usually more appropriate as the hot air uses to shiver. But these are not the strict rules, it all depends on your creative intentions. What is a hassle for one, can easily become a strong point of interest for you.
In general, I prefer misty mornings, which are usually most demanding in terms postprocessing (see the paragraph at end of this article). Even the noon light can be acceptable if a motif is strong enough. In such a case, nobody would really care about harsh lighting and deep shadows. Widely speaking, the best conditions for photography using long lenses are during sunny cold days that follow a fast cold frontal wave.

Ještěd, Orlické hory, Czech Republic
Ondřej Prosický |, Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF70-200mm f/2.8 L IS II UM, f/8.0, @1/25 s, ISO 100, 19. ledna 2017 9:56:08

Selecting a lens

I have no doubt that the most suitable lenses for landscape photography are single focal length ones that ensure excellent capture of details. Zoom lenses are simply not able to record a scenery in good enough quality and level of detail, particularly at their longer end. For the distance of one kilometer, you won’t be able to recognize whether you’re looking at the leaf or coniferous forest. The only usable are short range L-series zooms of 70 - 200 mm (talking Canon). The best for long distance shots are single length lenses 300 mm and longer. When you use a 400/5.6 or 500/4 lens for one kilometer distance, it is possible to count cones on trees. But of course, only when you do a precise job when shooting.

Bohemian Switzerland National Park, Czech Republic
Ondřej Prosický |, Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF70-200mm f/2,8 L IS II USM, f/10, @1/5 s, ISO 100, 8. května 2017 18:01:44

Tripod, set it up firmly

It is hard to believe what I sometimes got to see on my photo trips. Once I saw an owner of the professional camera Canon 1Ds Mark III using plastic tripod that would hardly be able to carry my external flashlight. Quite a strong wind blew and the whole unit shook. And then one reads in discussion forums that the L zooms are fuzzy.
For photographing with long lenses, a good tripod and the right way of using it is more important than anytime else. Unfortunately, it’s obviously true that the heavier tripod the better, though it is not very comfortable to carry it everywhere. There is an option (not too cheap) - carbon tripod Gitzo 3-series. These are not so heavy but their stability is comparable to their heavier fellows (Mantfotto, etc.). By hanging a bulky backpack below the tripod head, you are meeting the one requirement for a sharp image. But that’s not it.

Ještěd, Orlické hory, Czech Republic Ondřej Prosický |, Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF70-200mm f/2.8 L IS II USM, f/9.0, @0.6 s, ISO 100, 19. ledna 2017 9:17:45

Tripod’s legs on stable ground

It is also important on what the tripod stands. Your photo system won’t be stable when you set it up in a forest, for instance. I suggest to remove leafs aside, and a layer under it before placing the tripod. It becomes easier on a rocky vistas where you get enough of firm base to stand it on. The worst places probably are wooden grounds and various watchtowers. Even the visitors don’t have to trample much and the desired sharpness will be not achieved no matter what you do.

Val d'Orcia, Tuscany, Italy
Ondřej Prosický |, Canon EOS-1D Mark III, EF100mm f/2.8 L IS Macro USM, f/10, @1/4 s, ISO 100, 1. května 2008 6:28:50

Stop the wind blowing

The wind is our enemy. The large area of a telephoto lens represents an ideal space that wind loves to lean against. Obviously, the bigger lens the worse it gets. It is wrong to think that nothing can move a 4 kilos lens. To eliminate shaking caused by wind, it is worth to consider removing the sun shield.
I recommend to make a brief test - look at the display in live view and enlarge it. Do you really think the result could be sharp? There are two ways how to eliminate a wind impact, hide from it or just wait. The combination of both is perfect. To protect from wind, use your own body, or umbrella or change the position (if it is possible to photography from a different, less windy place). For the patient ones, I advise to wait for a while when the wind blows less or stops to blow. And then as for all other reasons take 4 shots at least. You can choose the sharpest in the post-process. When the wind got really strong, I recommend to increase ISO. You will get faster exposures and your chances that an image is sharp enough will definitely raise. Don’t be too worried about the noise. Using the high quality digital full-frame camera set for ISO 400 - 800 can actually result into a more natural feel of an image (with a good postprocessing) than a steril digital one at ISO 100. But of course, this is more about individual preferences.

Bohemian Switzerland National Park, Czech Republic
Ondřej Prosický |, Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF500mm f/4 L IS USM, f/9.0, @1/200 s, ISO 400, 8. srpna 2009 6:12:05

Sharp focus when really needed

Absolutely precise focusing is another vital element of capturing all details of a scenery. As with any serious landscape photography, you must avoid an autofocus (AF). You can’t rely that the camera will focus exactly on your point of interest. Especially when photographing using long lenses for a distance of more than one kilometer. You simply have to focus manually, and there is a tool in all new DSLRs that makes it easier.
When photographing landscapes, I always use a regime with Live View on for focusing and exposing. Then, using a maximum zoom, I focus manually with the lens. In this case I recommend to lighten the preview by 2EV temporarily, focusing will be more visible. But don’t forget to set right expose settings afterwards. It works perfectly particularly for those who might have problems to see well into a long distance.
Lastly, it’s good to use polarising filter for making colors richer and reducing blue casts from shadows, although not everybody who uses a telephoto lens necessarily owns it. As an example, such filter for the Canon 500/4 is a special and quite expensive stuff (drop-in version). Still worth to get one, it will better serve the need with a telephoto lens than when shooting wide angle.

Bohemian Switzerland National Park, Czech Republic
Ondřej Prosický |, Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF 70-200mm L IS II USM f/7.1, @1/5 s, ISO 100, 28. října 2017 16:01:44

Where to focus

It could be a separate article about a point of focusing but because physics is definitely not my strength, I leave the others to write more about it. In a nutshell, I usually focus on the detail of a scenery that would apparently be the most attractive for a viewer looking at a final image. It is either a dominating subject (if any really eye-catching appears) or let’s say a stronger rim of a hill. If there is not such an element, you won’t do any bad by focusing into the middle.
When you have focused, don’t turn the Live View regime off but expose with a mirror locked up. It stays in this position while shooting and afterwards helping to avoid unnecessary shakes of your system. It is absolutely necessary to use a remote control and a mirror lock-up (if you don’t have Live View), which is so basic for any landscape photographer that there is no point in talking more details about it.
There is still lots of users of DSLRs who believe that their camera does photographs by itself. But wake up, your gadget just gathers data and a final image is a result of your processing of RAW data. You may choose one of the two approaches, either the final image totally reflects reality or you process data in a way that best interpret your artistic intentions. For shooting with long lenses, it is necessary to gently add contrast that is usually lost because of the air humidity. To increase the contrast, I advise to apply Curves function. By repeated application of an open “S” curve, the contrast will be increased only in parts of your desire. The change in lights and shadows will not be so visible. When increasing contrast, an intensity of colors will rise as well hence no need to further use Saturation function.

Val d'Orcia, Tuscany, Italy
Ondřej Prosický |, Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF500mm f/4 L IS USM, f/11, @1/8 s, ISO 100, 6. července 2009 6:43:15

Useless technical quality

To conclude, I have to add that the author of the above article is a person obsessed with a desire for highest possible technical quality of printed images in a large format. The above described practices are designed primarily for photographers (i.e. users of cameras who produce photographs). It is not necessity addressed to people who present their images on internet only.
The article expresses my opinions only, not a general truth. I have been using the above techniques photographing landscape for the last two years, and it works perfectly for me.

Kašperské hory, Šumava, Czech Republic
Ondřej Prosický |, Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM, f/13, @1/10 s, ISO 100, 14. října 2017 17:53:25
Ondřej Prosický
Ondřej Prosický

focuses on wildlife photography. He wants to capture the behavior of animals in their natural surroundings. Photo workshops and expeditions focusing on nature have been organizing since 2006, publishing in the media and having more than four dozen author exhibitions.

K jeho největším úspěchům patří účast ve finále prestižní fotografické soutěže Wildlife Photographer of the Year. Členem Asociace profesionální fotografů České republiky je od roku 2009. V květnu 2011 udělila Evropská federace profesionálních fotografů Ondřejovi Prosickému titul QEP (Qualified European Photographer) v kategorii Wildlife Photography a v témže roce získal v Bruselu ocenění FEP Landscape Golden Camera. Nejnovějšími oceněními jsou nominace a hlavní ceny soutěží Czech Press Photo, Czech Nature Photo a z Festival de l'Oiseau et de la Nature ve Francii.

18. 04. 2018 , categories: nature, landscape


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