An easy assumption to make, when shooting landscapes, is to use a wide-angle lens. After all, most landscape photographers favor wide-angle lenses for a reason: They naturally give you the widest view and allow you to get the full landscape into the frame, from the foreground to the horizon.
Wide-angle lenses also have the widest depth of field, so you get the whole landscape in focus. And their distortion enlarges objects in the foreground, letting you show off close-up details. The same distortion also emphasizes leading lines, enhancing your compositions and giving your image a more dynamic feel. But when you default to wide-angle glass, you miss many hidden opportunities offered by telephoto lenses.
Field of view: The whole and its parts
This is the most basic difference between the two lens types:
Wide lenses give you a wide view; telephoto lenses give you a narrow view.
And while landscapes look great in their entirety, it’s a good habit to take a moment and look for details. These details are beautiful elements of the landscape that might get shrunken or ignored in the expanse of a wide-angle image. This is where your telephoto lens comes in. Its narrow field of view is perfect for trimming the extra elements and for focusing on small, beautiful scenes like the curve of a mountain, a reflection in a far-off pond, or the silhouette of a tree.
In the two images above, you can see this in action. They were both taken from Olmstead point in Yosemite National Park, one with a wide-angle lens and the other with a telephoto.
In the first image, the wide-angle lens shows off the total landscape. It includes both sides of the valley, the up-close textures of the rocks, and the far-off peak of Half Dome. In the second image, the telephoto lens brings the eye right up to the mountains, showing off their shapes and the details of the geology.
Another pair of images (below) shows this effect even more dramatically. The first image is not just a wide-angle image, but an aerial shot as well, taken from a small airplane over the Okavango Delta in Botswana. From this vantage point, all of the individual elements of the landscape become incredibly small and your eyes pay more attention to their arrangement than their individual shapes. In the second image, also from the Okavango area but this time on the ground, a telephoto lens is used to draw attention to the beautiful curves of a single Acacia tree.
Depth of field: Focusing the eye
The second major difference between wide-angle and telephoto lenses is the innate size of their depth of field.
Put succinctly, the higher the focal length, the narrower the area of focus. In practice, this means that when shooting wide, it’s much easier for you to get everything in focus, from the grass at your feet to the ridge on the horizon. This is especially true when you’re trying to use your lens’s sharpest apertures (the so-called sweet spot).
However, a narrower depth of field is much better for isolating your subject from the background, and this is where your telephoto lens comes into play. Try shooting a close-up detail at a wide aperture, using the landscape as a nice, creamy bokeh backdrop.
The two images above are perfect examples of this effect. In the first image, the wide-angle lens brings the whole landscape into focus, from the close-up sunflowers to the far-off mountains.
In the second image, shooting with a telephoto blurs out the flowers and mountains in the background, turning them into a nice soft background for the main sunflower.