Zooming into Landscapes

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Ask any ten photographers what a landscape photo is, and you will get ten different answers. The truth is that most of their definitions would be correct. There really is no set definition; you just know it when you see it. I define landscape photos as any image that conveys the photographer’s connection to the outdoor environment. That leaves the door open to any subject. It can be representational, impressionistic, abstract, urban, minimalist, rural, and natural. The goal is to achieve a feeling that closely resembles the photographers at the time of capture. If you can achieve that, then you have a landscape photo.

Those new to landscape photography often approach it with a handful of preconceived notions of what makes a landscape photo good. I will address the one I hear the most, which I feel is the most incorrect. There is a belief that the best landscape photos need to be taken with a wide-angle lens. A wide-angle lens is defined as any focal length of 35MM or less. This belief is more incomplete then it is incorrect. A wide-angle lens is an important weapon in attacking any outdoor scene. The sheer amount of subject matter collected by the wide field of view and then transferred to a small sensor presents challenges. The field of view will distort the distances between elements in the scene. Many compositional elements have to be addressed and presented harmoniously. It will contain foreground, midground, background, leading lines, depth, and impact. If all those elements are present in the scene in front of you, then, by all means, use a wide-angle lens, and the wider, the better.

Those looking to expand their landscape expressions should consider using a telephoto lens. Focal lengths from 100MM to 400MM can be used to create compelling images. Telephoto lenses are generally divided into three categories, short telephoto (85mm – 135mm), medium telephoto (135mm – 300mm), and Super (300mm +). The larger the focal length, the more money it will cost, and the more camera bag space it will consume. A telephoto lens will compress elements in the scene, making them appear much closer than they really are. This is a powerful compositional element that can be used by the photographer in interpretive ways that are not actually present when looking at the scene in person. A telephoto lens is a tool that helps you find the photo within the photo. The field of view is narrow, allowing you to present a meaningful subject surgically. A telephoto lens needs more light than a wide-angle lens this, when added to the narrow field of view and compression, camera shake will be an issue. Tripods are usually standard fare when using a long lens, especially focal lengths greater than 300MM. A Wide-angle lens will often make achieving a creative shallow depth-of-field difficult because of the extreme field of view.

The telephoto will offer plenty of creative depth-of-field options for all the opposite reasons mention above. Shallow depth-of-field is even achievable at the higher f-stops because of the distances involved and the perspective compression properties of “zooming in.” A longer lens teaches you to zoom in literally and figuratively on what makes the scene interesting and dynamic. It’s like having a laser pointer while making a presentation you can point your lens a something in the distance and say “this” is what I found important about this scene.

A landscape photo is your vision, and it helps you show the world (or your small slice of it) how beautiful locations are at 4 AM. Most people don’t get to see how beautiful the outdoors look at that hour, but you do. Your choices of what to include in your landscape images are driven solely by your intent. Whether it be wide-angle or telephoto, a lens is just a tool in that adventure, and landscape photography, when done correctly, is and should be an adventure. Good luck.

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