Shot with the Nikon 135mm f/2 DC lens.

Swap Out That Wide Angle Lens for Your Landscape Photography

Landscape shooters love their wide-angle lenses. From the amazing Nikon 14–24mm f/2.8 to the recent Canon 11–24mm f/4, it’s usually the wides that get everyone excited about landscape photography.

Every so often, however, it pays to change things up. I was in the same boat when it came to landscapes; I reached for the Nikon 14–24mm often, even when I was using my Canon 5D Mark II. Then one day, tired of going for wide, sweeping landscapes, I decided to switch things up. Here are three ways you can do the same.

Go Long but Not Too Long

Sweeping panoramas are awesome and, back in 2012, I used a slightly different method to create a couple of images that I still look at and like today.

In the image below I went with a “normal” length lens – the Canon 45mm f/2.8 Tilt-Shift lens.

The Legion of Honor, two-shot panorama with a tilt-shift lens.

The Legion of Honor, a two-shot panorama with a tilt-shift lens.

This is a composite of two shots, one with the lens shifted left, and one with it shifted right. Going with that normal perspective allowed me to avoid the one effect of wide-angle lenses that I don’t like: the tendency to often miniaturize things unless you’re pretty close to the subject (in which case they can distort things a bit).

I also wanted some compression in the perspective and if you look at the image at 100% even in its current downsized version, you’ll see that you can read the words “Honneur et Patrie” on the far wall of the courtyard just fine. I wanted that tiny bit of detail, as well as Rodin’s “The Thinker” statue framed and recognizable by those pillars behind it. That symmetry could have been pulled off by a longer lens but I feel that a normal lens helped maintain the compression.

Going Really Long

A little later that year, I was testing Canon’s new (at the time) 600mm f/4L IS II lens. I hiked up to the top of Mount Tamalpais and made one of my favorite photos of the San Francisco skyline with it.

San Francisco, taken from the top of Mount Tamalpais, 13 miles away. Canon 600mm f/4L IS lens.

San Francisco, taken from the top of Mount Tamalpais, 13 miles away. Canon 600mm f/4L IS II lens.

It’s a bit wavy thanks to atmospheric distortion and the distance at which it was shot, which happened to be around 13 miles as the crow flies. Still, it’s instantly recognizable and often evokes the question, “Did you take that from the air?”

That kind of set things off for me. I started using long lenses to try and get a different perspective on landscapes and cityscapes. Not long later I made what is now my absolute favorite shot of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Nikon 70-200mm lens, overlooking the San Francisco Bay Area.

Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II lens, overlooking the San Francisco Bay Area.

The shot above was taken with a Nikon D800E and the 70–200mm lens. It’s a 30 second exposure at night, back when the new Bay Bridge was still under construction, from a vantage point up in the Oakland hills.

My long-lens landscape work was starting to take shape. I made the image below with the D800E and the Nikon 135 f/2 DC lens.

Shot with the Nikon 135mm f/2 DC lens.

Shot with the Nikon 135mm f/2 DC lens.

Much later, when I returned to shooting film with a Nikon FE2, I still reached for a longer lens, shooting the one below with a 50mm f/1.4.

Shooting with longer lenses compresses the perspective, isolates objects, and allows me to get more minimal with my landscape work.

Stay Long and Get Close

As photographers grow and their work changes, it sometimes reaches towards the subtle and hints at the landscape as opposed to laying it out for the viewer. I’ve found myself doing this lately, reaching for that 50mm f/1.4 again.

Nikon 50mm f/1.4 with a shallow depth of field.

Shot with a Nikon 50mm f/1.4 lens with a very shallow depth of field.

The shot above just hints at the farmland beyond it. It focuses on the tall grass in the foreground but that’s not really its subject. It’s utterly obvious that beyond that tack-sharp foreground, the blurred rows of green and gold caused by the shallow depth of field represent a growing field of some sort. The minimalism of the image makes it more of a subtle suggestion than a blatant, “Here is a field” statement.

The same goes for this shot, taken with the same 50mm.

Nikon 50mm f/1.4 again.

Shot with a Nikon 50mm f/1.4 lens.

Take a more subtle approach. Focus on something in the foreground and let the details in the background be fodder for your viewer’s imagination.

What switching things does is shake you out of a fixed perspective where every image looks, stylistically, just like the one before it. Exploring a fresh perspective by swapping focal lengths is a quick and easy way to change things up. You may find, like me, that you absolutely love shooting with a longer lens. Or you may find that you don’t care for it as much but you return to your wides with a slightly different take on landscape photography.

Gear swaps are an easy way out of a rut. Shoot Canon DSLRs? Try a mirrorless camera. Used to working with smaller sensors? Move up to medium format for a weekend.

From photographer Hougaard Malan on shooting the sand dunes of Sossusvlei, Africa:

“…there’s something in the human psyche that bluntly refuses to believe that a heap of sand can be that high. Well, photograph it with a wide-angle lens and the results will add to the misleading scale. Photograph it with a longer lens in the right light and it becomes clear just how gigantic some of those sand-mountains are.”

So snap out of your current paradigm. Shoot differently – it’ll do your photography a world of good.

Sohail Mamdani is a writer, filmmaker, and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.


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