Using a Long Telephoto Lens for Landscape Photography
Using a Long Telephoto Lens for Landscape Photography avatar

Many articles on landscape photography extol the virtues of the wide angle lens. Among those virtues, we are told, they have great depth of field and allow the photographer to capture broad expanses as well.

In this post we will study one example of effectively using much longer lenses. Among the features I find useful is the ability to select and isolate subjects from their surroundings. I also like the spatial compression they create. For example a subject 100 yards away, with a background another 100 yards beyond that when photographed using a 500mm lens on a 35mm full frame camera would likely seem to be much closer together. The lens and sensor in this example would be similar to looking at the subject through a 10 power telescope so the subject would appear to be 10 yards away and the background would appear to be 20 yards away. A side effect of this property is the steepening of slopes. Take a close-up photograph a flower with a mountain ridge a mile behind it using a wide angle lens and the ridge will appear much flatter than it is. Back up and use a longer lens and the ridge will get steeper – but may end up out of focus due to the shallower depth of field of the long lens.

All of the photos used in the post were shot with either a Nikon D70 or a Nikon D200. Both are digital SLR type cameras with APS-C sensor size. All of the lenses used were zoom lenses. Since we are only interested in the relative effect of long versus wide lenses I will not give all the details of each lens and exposure. Neither will I calculate the equivalent focal length that would be needed for the same field of view on a full frame 35mm camera. I leave that to you!

The subject of the photos is a Church on Van Schaick Island in Cohoes, New York. Our first image is close enough to the church that we need a wide angle to get the whole building into the frame. The second and third images are within a few blocks of the church and show that it is in an urban neighborhood. The last two images are from 0.78 miles (1.26 km) away. One is shot with a wide angle and shows what we’re shooting across and isolating our church from. The last image is shot with a 500mm lens through a chain link fence (which degraded the sharpness a bit). In it a distant hill – about a mile behind the church, across the Hudson River and all of North Troy – is made to look like it is directly behind the church. In this image we have not only isolated the church but have changed the appearance of its location from urban to rural!

Shot from across the street with 18mm focal length.

Shot from across the street with 18mm focal length.

A block west of the church we have moved up to a 90mm lens. Once away from the church but in the neighborhood, often the only part of the church visible is the bell tower.

A block west of the church we have moved up to a 90mm lens. Once away from the church but in the neighborhood, often the only part of the church visible is the bell tower.

A few blocks north, looking south on Park Avenue with the lens at 142mm.

A few blocks north, looking south on Park Avenue with the lens at 142mm.

0.78 miles west of the church. If you don't know where to look, you might not even see the church. Cohoes spread out across the foreground and Troy is hidden in the drop to the Hudson River behind the Church. Shot with an 18mm lens.

0.78 miles (1.26 km) west of the church. If you don’t know where to look, you might not even see the church. Cohoes is spread out across the foreground and Troy is hidden in the drop to the Hudson River behind the Church. Shot with an 18mm lens.

0.78 miles (1.26 km) west, 500 mm lens. Now we see the church surrounded by a forest in fall colors!

0.78 miles (1.26 km) west, 500 mm lens. Now we see the church surrounded by a forest in fall colors!

Another Momentary Flash of Brilliance … after everybody left the table
Another Momentary Flash of Brilliance … after everybody left the table avatar

A couple of days ago somebody asked me about photos with light as a theme. Of course I quipped that all photography is about light. But then my mind pulled up an image from decades ago. I vaguely remember seeing it in a photography magazine back in the early to mid-1970s. It was either Popular Photography or maybe Petersons Photographic.  The image was of a young man in an overstuffed chair with a light bulb where his head should have been. The article detailed how the shot was achieved – in camera. Briefly – a camera loaded with daylight balanced color slide film was mounted on a tripod and a neutral density filter was attached to the lens. I seem to recall that the exposure was on the order of 2 minutes. The subject kept his body as still as possible but continuously rolled his head during the exposure. An un-shaded lamp was behind his head. Rolling his head revealed the lamp bulb while also keeping his head from registering on the film. The end result was a warm, almost golden, image of a rather surreal scene.

So I decided to see if I could quickly and easily make a similar image without resorting to layering multiple images in Photoshop.

I decided to sit at my dining room table so I could have something to rest my arms on. I put a small folding table behind the chair and went hunting for an appropriate lamp. Instead of an incandescent bulb lamp I used a desk lamp with a daylight balanced, four tube, fluorescent bulb. I positioned the lamp so that the head was aimed squarely at the back of my head. I mounted my Nikon D300s on a tripod and framed the image area carefully cropping out extraneous items. This resulted in a focal length of 40mm on mu 18 – 70 mm zoom. With the lamp off I did a test exposure. I set the ISO as low as it would go at 100. I stopped down to f 29 and exposed for 30 seconds. Thirty seconds is the longest shutter speed I could get without having to use a cable release. I turned the lamp on and used the camera self-timer to get enough time to get around the table and into position before the shutter opened. I rolled my head quite rapidly to try to minimize any portion of it being visible in the image. I was quite dizzy when the shutter finally closed. Of course most of my friends would tell you I was dizzy long before trying to take this image |:-)>

Looking at the finished product, clearly, my effort is nowhere near as elegant as the one I remember. That’s not to say the experiment was a total failure. I did get a surreal image with little or no effort. I like the weird multiple lens diaphragm ghosts.

I think there a number of improvements I can easily make. My remote release is not working and it’s time to invest in a better release that will let me do longer exposures. A longer exposure coupled with using a more limber model will help to get rid of the unwanted blur of the shoulders and hands on the table. I will also look around the house and find a better light source. The lamp I used was too bright. Something with an incandescent bulb and maybe a dimmer should work better. I think the better approach would be to experiment with photographing a lit bulb until I find something that will allow me to get an image of the bulb without it being totally washed out, as in this image. Once I get that exposure I can light the front of the subject with something other than a flash if necessary to balance the exposure. Using a flash would freeze the head motion so we don’t want that. I’d say check back here later – but at my current pace it will probably be a month or two!

Another Momentary Flash of Brilliance!