Useful for landscape compositions, as well, telephoto zooms give a variety of framing options and detail shots without the need for extra hiking, like these different perspectives of hoodoos taken in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.
When I finally saw the camouflaged Eastern screech-owl in the dead tree, I used my 500mm ƒ/4 supertelephoto lens and 1.4x teleconverter to fill the viewfinder with the little raptor and captured a portrait image. Earlier in my photographic career, I would have put away my gear at that point and headed on to new opportunities. Instead, I "holstered the big gun" and used a medium telephoto lens to capture the screech-owl in its environment. I always want working distance for wildlife, so I used my 70-300mm medium telephoto lens at 100mm. The resulting image, more interesting than the portrait image, gave the bird a sense of place and emphasized its cryptic camouflage plumage against the weathered mesquite tree.
New fixed and zoom medium telephoto lenses offer expanded ranges, excellent optics and affordable prices. Nature photographers should consider adding these great tools to their camera bags. Consider the screech-owl. I used a supertelephoto lens for the portrait image, but several excellent zoom telephoto lenses achieve that magnification level, or close to it, with superb sharpness. They also offer you the opportunity to back off from the maximum magnification, without switching lenses, and capture habitat images that can be informative, exciting and interesting to the viewer. Consider this as "reverse extraction," adding relevant elements to a scene to increase viewer interest or tell a story. The Sigma 50-500mm or 120-500mm lenses, and the new Nikon 80-400mm ƒ/4 lens, are extremely sharp and light enough to handhold. (Note: Canon is reported to be working on an upgraded version of its 100-400mm ƒ/4 lens.) These lenses have vibration reduction and their extended zoom ranges offer great compositional capability, providing the wildlife photographer flexibility in capturing wildlife images.
These telephoto lenses aren't just for wildlife; they're also great tools for landscape photography. Wildlife photographers usually start with the longest lens they own, but most landscape photographers start with a wide-angle lens. Wide-angle, grand landscape images have spectacular impact, but consider using telephoto lenses to capture landscapes differently, especially if there are key elements in the distant part of the scene. Use telephoto lenses to extract subject matter or key elements from the scene and compose the image around those elements.
An Eastern screech-owl "hides out" in a mesquite tree on a private Rio Grande Valley ranch in Texas. Taken with the Nikkor 200-400mm ƒ/4G VR lens, the flexibility of the telephoto zoom gave Welling a way to incorporate the bird's environment (left) while the zooming capabilities highlight the incredible camouflage abilities of the owl (right).
Zoom telephoto lenses are also excellent for slight cropping to eliminate extraneous elements from your scene. Cropping a wide-angle landscape image to isolate a distant element doesn't work well. Wide-angle lenses expand the scene, making elements appear farther apart and distant; key elements become small in the scene. Instead, use a telephoto lens to extract elements. Distant mountains become larger relative to the overall scene because of the magnification/compression effect of the telephoto lens. Now, you don't have to crop the image. The Snake River Overlook in Grand Teton National Park is perfect for wide-angle and medium telephoto image capture. A 20mm wide-angle lens captures a grand landscape feel, but the Tetons in the background will be relatively small in the image. A 200mm telephoto lens compresses the elements in the image and the Tetons become much more significant. You now have two very different images taken from the same spot. This telephoto extraction/compression technique won't work for all landscape images, but is worth considering when you have a key element you want to feature.
Zoom telephoto lenses also provide great compositional flexibility. You can photograph scenics like distant hoodoos in beautiful, late-afternoon light with a zoom telephoto lens using the low end of the zoom range. But light from the setting sun can change rapidly, so if the background hoodoos went dark while a shaft of light highlights one of the hoodoo formations, you can quickly recompose by zooming out to 200-300mm to extract the highlighted hoodoo and capture a completely different image.