While shooting in Shetland recently I spent some time thinking about the lenses I use and which ones produced results that I liked, and more often than not this seemed swayed towards the telephoto range more often than the wide/ultra wide angle often associated with landscape photography. This was something I had been aware of for a long time but I wasn't aware just how much I like telephoto for landscape until more recently so I thought it would make a good topic to discuss.
In the beginning
Quite often when people take an interest in landscape photography they buy a camera with a kit lens, take a trip to some nice scenery such as a beach and start shooting. As they are standing on a long stretch of sand under a big sky they want to capture the whole lot and start shooting at the widest angle they can. But then they review their photos and see nothing but big expanses of sand and sky, and any detail in the distance has been squeezed to a thin, dark strip sandwiched between the two. They think 'why doesn't my photo look beautiful? This scene is beautiful, but this photo doesn't capture any of it'. If only they could get that interesting bit of coast to the left into the shot as well it would make it a better shot, 'I need an ultra wide angle lens!'. After shooting with the new lens for a bit they find most of the results are no better than before and the lens gets stuck in a drawer, or worse, on ebay.
The lens myth
There's a common misconception in photography that wide angle lenses are for shooting wide open scenery and telephotos are for weddings and wildlife. As a result, many photographers are missing out on the the true creative potential of different focal lengths. Another way to think of wide angle and telephoto is as follows:
A focal length that allows you to capture a subject in the foreground while reducing the scenery in the background.
A focal length that allows you to capture a subject in the distance, while exaggerating the scenery in the background.
Just keep these two ideas in mind when looking at the following photos
Both of these shots where shot at or near 200mm on a full frame camera. Notice how in both shots the details in the background have become exaggerated. In the top shot the tiny gher that I was focusing on is dwarfed by the section of rainbow and the dark outlines of the mountains. Had I shot this with a wide angle the rainbow would have been just a colourful smear on the horizon. In the second shot the jagged peaks of the mountains in the distance are much more prominent than if I'd used a wide angle and as a result they add yet more layers to the outlines of the icebergs.
Now compare this against these shots.
The two shots above were both taken at 28mm on a medium format camera (roughly 20mm on a full frame camera). In both of these shots I was focusing on the foreground and using the wide angle to push the scenery in the distance away. The strength of the wide angle is not in cramming everything into a single shot, but in its ability to get close to your subject while still retaining the landscape in the background to provide some context.
Of course, this is just another perspective and not a golden rule, but it is one that I find allows me to think differently about focal lengths and not fall into the trap of only using wide angle for landscape and telephoto for portraits and wildlife.