Focal lengths and their image effect in land­scape photography

In land­scape photo­graphy, the choice of focal length is a decisive factor. The focal length not only influences the image detail, but also the effect of the image. In this blog post we will look at the diffe­rent focal lengths and their effect on land­scape images. 

The good thing in advance: every focal length is suitable for land­sca­pe­pho­to­graphy! So it doesn’t really matter which focal length you start with to capture land­scapes. Nevert­heless, each focal length range has its advan­tages. A wide angle is a must at the seaside, the stan­dard zoom range is advan­ta­geous in the forest and the tele­photo zoom range can be used to create monu­mental shots in the moun­tains. But always remember: crea­ti­vity in photo­graphy knows no limits and special shots are created precisely when you break away from the “stan­dard”. That’s why in this blog post I don’t tell you which focal length to use where, but explain the effect you achieve in the picture with the diffe­rent focal lengths.

wide-angle lenses

If you ask photo­graphers about a typical focal length range for land­scape photo­graphy, probably over 90% will argue for the 16–35 mm range. And it is indeed the case that a 16–35 mm lens is an abso­lute work­horse
in land­scape photography.

Blue Hour at Krip­pen­stein | Sony a7 III + Sony FE 2.8/16–35 mm GM @ 18 mm, f/11, 1/4 Sec., ISO 100

Image effect of wide-angle lenses

With the focal length range of less than 35 mm, these lenses are one of the most wide-angle lenses. They have a repu­ta­tion for being excel­lent for land­scape photo­graphy, as they are wonderful for captu­ring vast land­scapes. With the correct use, you can capture the impres­sion of the size and vast­ness of a land­scape for the viewer.

The distor­tion that occurs with wide-angle shots can also create inte­res­ting perspec­tives and effects. For example, if you posi­tion the camera verti­cally and place a moun­tain peak at the upper edge, it is “pulled up”, i.e. distorted in perspec­tive, which makes the peak appear larger.

Another charac­te­ristic of wide-angle lenses is that objects posi­tioned close to the camera appear much larger than those posi­tioned further away. With the right use, this can create a balance between, for example, a flower in the fore­ground and a moun­tain in the background.

Shoo­ting with wide-angle lenses allows the viewer to achieve shots where he or she has the feeling of being in the middle of the action. However, the correct use of wide-angle lenses is a diffi­cult under­ta­king, espe­ci­ally for begin­ners in photography.

Common mistakes in the use of wide-angle lenses

Since wide-angle lenses have the property of making distant objects appear smaller than they actually are, a common mistake when using wide-angle lenses is not being close enough. The moun­tain that one was so amazed by on site does not look monu­mental in the picture at home, nor does it cause the viewer to marvel.

Many begin­ners stand in the wilder­ness and are over­come with feelings about the wonderful nature around them, get the camera with the wide angle and photo­graph the scene with ever­y­thing as they are expe­ri­en­cing it. The result is a picture with a “heap of nature” and yet somehow nothing.

Sunstar at Fide­re­pass­hütte | Nikon D7200 (APS‑C) + Sigma 18–35 mm f.18 Art @ 18 mm, f/11, 1/400 sec., ISO 100

Tip when using wide-angle lenses

Espe­ci­ally when using wide-angle lenses, it is neces­sary to think in layers. Try to find a subject that is large enough that it does not become too small even with a wide-angle lens (a light­house, a moun­tain, a large tree, and even if it is just the dramatic sky on the beach, this works). Then find a suitable fore­ground, e.g. inte­res­ting patterns in the sand, special stones, grasses, roots, etc. and get close. Maybe a little closer? Be aware: this fore­ground will be the star of the show! It is not just a means to an end. It catches the viewer’s eye and the viewer in turn decides in a frac­tion of a second whether to continue looking at the picture or not.

Now try to combine fore­ground and back­ground. Play with the height and tilt of the camera. If the camera is higher, the middle ground increases. If it is not inte­res­ting enough, try a lower posi­tion to reduce its size and visual weight.

But be careful: If there are trees or buil­dings in the picture, you may want to refrain from tilting the camera, as this leads to plunging lines. Unless you want to do this from a crea­tive point of view.

stan­dard lenses

One focal length range that receives less atten­tion from many land­scape photo­graphers is the stan­dard focal length range, although, as I mentioned at the begin­ning, it is also well suited for forest photo­graphy. Lenses in the stan­dard focal length range are located between 35 mm and 70 mm. Often, however, the zoom lenses in this cate­gory have a bit more in store than just the stan­dard range and start already in the wide-angle range of 24–70 mm or have even more reach into the tele­photo range like my all-rounder, the Sony FE 4/24–105 mm.

Autumn at Gerold­sauer water­fall | Sony a7 III + Sony FE 4/24–105 mm G OSS @ 64 mm, f/16, 0,6 sec., ISO 100

Image effect of stan­dard lenses

The use of these lenses is an option if there is no parti­cular fore­ground or if the distant subject in the back­ground would become too small with a wide angle and you cannot get closer. In the stan­dard focal length range, the optical pheno­menon of distor­tion, but also the illu­sion of compres­sion (we will go into this later with the tele­photo ranges) is prac­ti­cally non-exis­tent or compen­sated for. 

If we think of the beginner from above, in the midst of the breath­ta­king nature that surrounds him, he would be well advised to pick out a few inte­res­ting areas with a stan­dard lens and photo­graph them rather than cramming ever­y­thing into one picture. He would probably have some inte­res­ting pictures after­wards instead of a featur­e­less photo with a bunch of something.

We can make good use of the charac­te­ristic of the stan­dard focal length range to empha­sise details in the land­scape or to focus on certain elements in the picture. From these focal lengths onwards, it also becomes incre­asingly impos­sible to get ever­y­thing in the picture in focus from fore­ground to back­ground without focus stacking. This is why you should deli­bera­tely shoot a fore­ground out-of-focus if this is possible in order to create depth in the image.

Due to their low distor­tion, they are also well suited for crea­ting pano­r­amic shots.

Common mistakes in the use of stan­dard focal length

Even though in the stan­dard focal length range the angle of view is already some­what narrower and thus simpli­fying a scene is easier, you should still make sure that you elimi­nate distur­bing picture elements in the compo­si­tion and fill the picture in a meaningful way. As always, ever­y­thing that is present in the picture should also serve the picture. The subject and nega­tive space should be in visual balance and as much depth as possible should also be created in the picture.

Boat house at lake Zurich am Zürichsee | Sony a7 III + Sony FE 4/24–105 mm G OSS @ 43 mm, f/8, 30 sec., ISO 100

Tips when using the stan­dard focal length

This is why you should also think in terms of fore­ground, middle ground and back­ground when photo­gra­phing land­scapes in the stan­dard focal length range, whereby the fore­ground is given much less importance than in a wide-angle shot and the main subject is often part of the middle ground. Excep­tions are of course always possible.

You should also be aware that there are land­scapes where wide-angle lenses simply don’t work. Every land­scape photo­grapher should know that. Perso­nally, for example, I have hardly seen a picture from Tuscany that was taken with a wide-angle lens and that even comes close to doing justice to the land­scape with its rolling hills. For such cases, the stan­dard focal length and tele­photo range are almost indis­pensable in land­scape photography.

tele­photo lenses

Tele­photo lenses have a focal length of more than 70 mm, for example a 70–200 mm, and even though in my early days as a land­scape photo­grapher I was often told that the tele­photo range was suppo­sedly less suitable for land­scape photo­graphy, my 100–400 mm is now one of my most frequently used lenses. And not out of lazi­ness, because it allows me to zoom in closer on distant subjects. No. Two charac­te­ristics of this focal length range play a special role in my land­scape photo­graphy. Firstly, its narrow angle of view makes it easier to simplify complex scenes, and the optical illu­sion of compres­sion makes it possible to create very special shots.

Lonely Pine | Sony a7III + Sigma 100 — 400 mm DG DN OS Contem­pory @ 326 mm, f/10, 1/800, sec., ISO 100

This and all other shots of this post you can request under “Prints” as an art print for your wall at home directly from me. 

Image effect of tele­photo lenses

This compres­sion makes a back­ground appear to be closer to the subject in the fore­ground. This is only an optical illu­sion. The tele­photo lens does not actually bring that back­ground closer. In the moun­tains, this feature is a great way to capture a subject such as a hiker in the fore­ground in front of a massive rock face. Since only a small section of the rock face is visible, it appears huge and monumental.

The narrower angle of view is also wonderfully suited to more mini­ma­list and inti­mate shots. The small details in the land­scape can some­times comple­ment the big views and in some cases may well outshine them. So with the tele­photo lens in your camera bag, you should defi­ni­tely start to sharpen your eye for it.

Common mistakes when using tele­photo lenses

The use of tele­photo lenses makes it almost impos­sible to think in terms of fore­ground, middle ground and back­ground. Often you pick a detail out of nature and by posi­tio­ning the camera you get the back­ground. Quite simple. Nevert­heless, you should make sure that the back­ground and the subject do not inter­fere with each other. This can be achieved when taking photo­graphs, for example, by sepa­ra­ting the same colours or tonal values.

In addi­tion, you should keep an eye on the expo­sure time. When photo­gra­phing by hand, you should choose a suffi­ci­ently short expo­sure time for such a long focal length. The 1 sec/focal length rule helps here. This states that the expo­sure time should be shorter than 1 second divided by the focal length. So for 100 mm: 1 sec / 100 = 0.01 sec. Image stabi­li­sa­tion in modern cameras and lenses help to be able to choose longer expo­sure times.

Other­wise, fort­u­na­tely, you can make quite few mistakes with the use of tele­photo lenses. Nevert­heless, there are some tips for dealing with the long focal lengths.

Looked through | Sony a7 III + Sony FE 100–400 mm GM @ 157 mm, f/4, 1/640 sec., ISO 250

Tips when using tele­photo lenses

For many land­scape photo­graphers, the tele­photo lens ekes out a shadowy exis­tence in the camera back­pack, yet you can make wonderful use of its properties.

Let’s take the example of a forest shot. Often I want to avoid having the sky shining through the canopy of leaves in the picture. The bright areas of the picture take up too much of the viewer’s atten­tion for some scenes. If I now use a longer focal length and go back a few metres, I can choose the same frame of my subject without having sky in the picture.

Another use should always be considered when the sky is not very dramatic and would be a boring spot in the photo anyway. Espe­ci­ally in the moun­tains, it is then possible to exclude the sky by conden­sing the scene and to give the viewer a feeling of gran­deur. In addi­tion, a tele­photo lens, like the stan­dard focal lengths, is wonderfully suitable for captu­ring small scenes, i.e. details in nature and also abstract motifs.

Slipstream | Sony a7 III + Sony FE 100–400 mm GM @ 150 mm, f/16, 1/640 sec., ISO 2500


The choice of focal length is an important aspect of land­scape photo­graphy. Wide-angle lenses are good for captu­ring wide land­scapes, but you need much more trai­ning in using them to make a picture work. Stan­dard lenses are versa­tile, espe­ci­ally today’s stan­dard zooms with large focal length ranges of 20–70 mm or 24–105 mm make them incre­dibly flexible. But tele­photo lenses are also excel­lent compa­n­ions when it comes to scaling and conden­sing a scene, espe­ci­ally for more inti­mate and mini­ma­li­stic shots. So it’s worth expe­ri­men­ting with diffe­rent focal lengths. So fami­lia­rise yourself with the image effect of the respec­tive focal length to achieve the effect you want in the picture.

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