Telephoto Isolation: The Art of Exclusion

(© Ian Plant) Each lens in your bag requires a different approach and way of thinking for a given scene. The way you use a long telephoto lens, for example, will be different from the way you use a wide-angle lens. The differences can be quite fundamental. I like to say that a wide-angle lens requires the art of inclusion, because the wide angle of view necessitates the inclusion of many elements, and the photographer has to find a way to make all of those disparate elements work together. On the other end of the spectrum are telephoto lenses, which require the art of exclusion—that is, learning how to exclude elements and to zero in only on what is important for the composition.

Of the two, telephoto isolation is arguably the easier. I’ll deal with wide-angle inclusion in a separate blog post. For now, let’s focus on telephoto exclusion. Although easier than wide-angle inclusion, exclusion still requires the ability to see what is important for a given composition, and what is not. Learning how to isolate “shots within a shot” with a telephoto lens is an important step for beginners, and will help you strengthen your compositional skills and make your photography more bold and compelling.

The key to telephoto exclusion is to determine what elements of a given scene are interesting, important, or relate to each other in a compelling way. Then, simply zoom in until you achieve a framing that includes only those elements. Sounds easy, right? Well, the devil is in the details, as they say, and this is one of those things that is often easier said than done. Sometimes it helps to think backwards: determine first which elements distract from or otherwise do not help support the composition, and then zoom in and reframe until those elements are excluded from the shot.

For the image above, I was attracted to the graceful curves of the backlit sand dunes and the lone mesquite bush in the distance. I carefully zoomed in only on the curves that worked together to form a graphic composition, excluding any elements that distracted from the scene. The main element that I excluded was the sky, which was just above the top dunes in the image. It was bright and featureless, and would have attracted too much attention. The main challenge was keeping light from the rising sun from striking the front element of my lens, which would have created flare.

As with anything, learning the art of telephoto exclusion requires practice, and plenty of it. In the end, it really is about learning how to simplify, and learning how to decide what is important to a composition, and what isn’t. The best advice I can offer is this: when working with a given scene, try several variations of the composition, zooming out and including more and then zooming in and including less. Decide which variation you like best, and think critically about why it is your favorite. This will help you sharpen your compositional skills, and make it easier for you to find the best shot the next time around.

Technical details: Canon 5D Mark II camera, 70-200mm lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1/50 second.

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