The Versatility Of A Telephoto

Whether photographing wildlife or landscapes, long lenses are great tools for more than just zooming
This Article Features Photo Zoom

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.

"The bison portrait was taken with my 500mm lens," says Welling, "but I switched to a Sigma 70-210mm ƒ/2.8 to include the geysers, putting the bison in his winter Yellowstone home. This approach is 'reverse extraction,' adding relevant elements to a scene to increase viewer interest or help tell a story."

Research your landscape location before you go. Wide-range telephoto lenses may be your only choice when your landscape subjects are significantly distant from your access points. Much of Bryce Canyon can be photographed with wide-angle lenses, but you need a medium telephoto lens to photograph icons like the Paunsaugunt Plateau, which is miles east of any Bryce overlook. A vertical image of the plateau at approximately 70mm can include amazing summer storm clouds for impact. If the storm breaks up quickly and rainbows form over the plateau, or stunning spotlighting occurs, you can quickly rotate the camera to horizontal, zoom out to 300mm and isolate the plateau with the rainbow or beautiful lighting.

Another great application for telephoto lenses is isolating an element in a scene and making it the sole feature of an image. Standing in the Merced River in Yosemite photographing these great rime ice mounds with El Capitan and Half Dome in the background, I used a 17-35mm wide-angle lens focused very close to the mounds to make them the key element of the image. When finished, I stood up and looked all around for other subjects, smaller and less grand, but equally interesting. (I recommend you do this no matter what you're photographing.) A dead, but beautiful, black oak leaf hanging on a nearby tree caught my eye. A small ray of light hit the leaf, highlighting the rime ice crystals along its edges. Rime ice was still my key element, but with a totally different perspective. I used my 70-300mm lens at 250mm to isolate the leaf and frame the image with as little background as possible. I was several feet from the leaf so I could use a shallow depth of field, ƒ/5.6, to blur the background, but keep the subject in apparent sharp focus. Telephoto lenses have much shallower depth of field for a given ƒ-stop than a wide-angle. You can use this to help blur backgrounds and intrusive elements. But, remember, unless you're isolating/featuring a specific element like the leaf, as you increase magnification, you may have to increase your aperture to give you enough apparent depth of field to make the whole scene appear in focus. Use your depth-of-field preview or camera monitor at 100% to check sharpness.

Telephoto lenses can help you create sequences that tell a story. Consider Angel Falls in Canaima National Park in Venezuela. After hiking a mile to the overlook for the falls, you're still a mile away, so even though almost 3,000 feet high, you still need 60-70mm to capture the full height of the falls and not have them look miniscule in your photo. A lightweight, cover-all-bases lens like the 28-300mm zoom from Nikon or an equivalent range from other manufacturers is perfect for hiking in the tough, humid, rain-forest conditions. You can use one lens like this to tell a story of your Angel Falls expedition.

When used with shallow apertures, a telephoto can compress the subject against out-of-focus backgrounds. Welling isn't afraid to use telephotos for subjects that normally would be considered to be macro, either. Top, left to right: A black oak tree bud covered in hoarfrost; a dead golden-hued black oak leaf; rime ice on a fir tree bough with a seed pod hanging from a tree. All captured near the Merced River in Yosemite National Park, California

From the drop-off point for the mile hike in, with the falls peaking above the rain forest, a 200mm lens setting allows you to capture the DC-3 that dropped you off as it flies above the falls. Use the wide-angle end of the range to capture rain-forest landscapes on the way to the falls. Use the 60-70mm range to capture the full height of the falls. Use the 150-300mm range of the lens to isolate sections of the falls. A telephoto lens can also help with perspective. A photographer in our group made the one-mile trek from the overlook to the base of the falls. From the overlook, I zoomed in to capture the base of the falls and incorporated him into the lower-left area of the compressed composition to highlight the perspective of the true size and scale of this magnificent waterfall. A wide-angle would have exaggerated the same foreground subject into unrealistic proportions.

See more of Dave Welling's photography on his website at

Leave a Reply

Main Menu