Taking landscape photography to the next level with Canon telephoto lenses

A snowy mountain rising above an autumnal forest. Taken by Vladimir Medvedev.
Using a Canon telephoto lens for this landscape shot, Vladimir Medvedev took advantage of the haze and the long distance between the mountains to concentrate the viewer's attention on the contrasting foreground, creating an interesting pattern in the fir trees. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS II USM) at 70mm, 1/200 sec, f/11 and ISO100. © Vladimir Medvedev

Do you naturally associate landscape photography with wide-angle lenses? A good telephoto lens can raise a landscape photographer's creative game considerably – whether to draw out natural patterns that are less apparent when viewed through a wide-angle lens, or to enhance the density of a scene to capture a more naturalistic sense of scale.

Landscape photographer Vladimir Medvedev believes using telephoto lenses for landscape photography isn't just an interesting flight of fancy, but is essential for creating amazing photographs. "Using different focal lengths is one of the most powerful artistic techniques in the photographer's arsenal," he says. "Telephoto lenses enable you to emphasise details that cannot be achieved with wide-angle optics. No amount of processing will help compensate for the lack of a long-focus lens, so I can't imagine any expedition where I would go without a telephoto."

Here we examine the creative benefits of using telephoto lenses for landscape photography, and look at the best Canon telephoto lenses to use, with insights from Vladimir and fellow landscape photographers David Noton and Radomir Jakubowski, plus expertise from Canon product specialist John Maurice.

A frosty autumnal morning, Minterne Magna, Dorset, England, UK. Taken by David Noton.
David Noton has used the layers of trees, rolling hills and mist in the scene to create a sleepy autumnal morning landscape, focusing on the trees in the foreground to isolate details. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 100mm, 0.6 sec, f/11 and ISO100. © David Noton
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Isolate details and reduce depth of field

David says that the ability of long focal length lenses to isolate detail is particularly useful for emphasising a sense of scale. He often uses this technique to pick out one subject from a bigger backdrop. "Shooting landscapes in close-up is particularly appealing for me when I want to show the grandeur of a landscape," he says. "Trying to get it all in never works, while isolating one tree against the immense backdrop of a mountain rising above, does."

Radomir also uses this technique – as well as making use of the reduced depth of field that telephoto lenses inherently display. "With a wide-angle lens, the foreground is in focus and everything in the background seems to be little and unimportant," he says. "With the telephoto lens, the elements in the image are perceptibly pushed together. For my work, a landscape image with a telephoto lens allows me to take a photo that is more intimate."

For landscape photographers who need sizeable reach in a small package, John Maurice, European Product Marketing Manager at Canon Europe, recommends the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens. "The 100-400mm is perfect for those who want a portable, professional telephoto zoom with great reach," he says.

A rocky canyon in the middle of the Gobi desert. Taken by Vladimir Medvedev.
At the Mongolian canyon in the middle of the Gobi desert, rocks part the sand, like the walls of an ancient city. Vladimir has used a Canon telephoto lens to focus on the stone walls in the foreground, capturing incredible detail. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM lens at 116mm, 1/125 sec, f/9 and ISO200. © Vladimir Medvedev

John also points out that for Canon EOS R System users the Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM lens – the third in the Canon trinity of RF-mount zoom lenses with constant f/2.8 aperture – offers exceptional image quality in a compact design that truly makes it stand out against other f/2.8 lenses. "The compact nature of this f/2.8 zoom makes it remarkably portable when compared to similar lenses," he continues, "and the wide aperture will allow you to isolate subjects while simultaneously adding compression when capturing landscape scenes."

While telezooms typically have the upper hand when it comes to their zoom range, a fixed telephoto lens such as the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM can offer improved sharpness and a wider aperture that could be more beneficial in low-light conditions. John says: "This is a stunning telephoto prime that makes for images that truly impress with isolated depth of field and razor-sharp results even at f/2.8, or using teleconverters for extra reach."

A misty morning over The Gallup from East Hill, near Milborne Port, Somerset. Taken by David Noton.
David has used a telephoto lens to concentrate on key elements in the foreground of this scene, particularly the branches of the trees. The final product is this pastel-toned landscape shot, showing a misty dawn on The Gallup from East Hill, near Milborne Port, Somerset. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 100mm, 3.2 secs, f/11 and ISO100. © David Noton

Vary compositions from a single spot

The focal length flexibility in telephoto zooms gives photographers the option to recompose their landscapes without having to move from their shooting position. When shooting landscapes with telephoto lenses, David leans towards telephoto zooms because of their durability and flexibility for composition.

"Both the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens and Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens are optically superb lenses offering a convenient focal range, and are portable, rugged and weatherproof," he says. "Working with a zoom allows me to accurately compose without the need to crop. Every pixel is precious, after all."

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David adds that for long lens landscapes, the L-series Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM and Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM lenses have powerful features that make shooting simpler. "Wind is a frequent problem when shooting landscapes, and the sturdiest tripod in the world will not keep a long lens totally steady in a stiff wind," he says. "In such situations, I find the only option is to shoot handheld, with a higher ISO if necessary, and to lean on the lens's Image Stabilization (IS), as much as I can – it's fundamentally important for landscape photography."

Indeed, Radomir echoes that he also needs a telephoto lens with Image Stabilization because he shoots a lot of his landscape images handheld. "I enjoy shooting handheld with Image Stabilization because I find it easier to get sharp results and can use longer exposure times without blur," he says. "However, when I use a tripod and a remote shutter release, I turn the Image Stabilization off [because the remote shutter mitigates the risk of camera shake]."

John also recommends the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS II USM lens, which is well-priced and also includes a three-stop Image Stabilizer. "The 70-300mm is both practical and high quality with excellent reach," says John. "The lightweight nature of this lens makes it a good choice for those who like to explore, especially hikers."

Mist coming down the mountainside into the forest below. Taken by Radomir Jakubowski.
"Every year I head to Switzerland and use mostly telephoto lenses to capture the changing seasons," says Radomir. "In 2019 it rained for days, when suddenly the clouds moved up through the valley and I could capture this autumnal scene." Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM at 5 secs, f/11 and ISO160. © Radomir Jakubowski

Capture rich colours

Vladimir says zooms are especially useful when shooting from obscured locations or when vantage points are scarce. He also finds shooting landscapes with telephotos can often provide better contrast and colour accuracy than shooting with a wide-angle lens because telephoto lens hoods are usually longer, so block out sun flare better.

"I always shoot my telephotos with a lens hood," says Vladimir. "This increases the micro-contrast, removes unnecessary glare, and even protects the optical glass. Lens hoods on telephoto lenses are, for me, the most effective, and allow you to shoot even against the sun, achieving good rich colours."

A bright orange sky peeks over a dark and shadowy mountaintop.  Taken by Radomir Jakubowski.
"Early one morning, as I searched for rock ptarmigan [a game bird] in the Alps, I noticed the clouds and the mountains looked like Mordor from The Lord of the Rings trilogy," says Radomir. He used a telephoto lens to zoom in on the most dramatic part of the scene. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM at 1/80 sec, f/6.3 and ISO200. © Radomir Jakubowski

Shoot in the golden hour

The two favourite times to shoot landscapes are around the golden hours of sunrise and sunset, with twilight giving serene deep blues that flood the skies. But lower levels of light bring a problem: longer exposure time. To counteract the camera blur that may result, Radomir likes to open the aperture wide to let in as much light as possible. "At night I prefer to use a fast lens such as the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens," he says. "You need the extra wide aperture of f/2.8 to let more light in and allow you to see something at night through the viewfinder."

John agrees. "The Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens is known for its reliability and constant f/2.8 aperture," he says. "It's versatile and offers powerful Image Stabilization and sharpness."

However, Radomir points out that this doesn't prevent other telephoto lenses with maximum apertures of f/4 and greater from being useful, too. It all depends on the light that's available when shooting. "If you use the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens wide open at f/4.5 during low-light and night shoots," he says, "you just need to make sure there's enough moonlight to see through the viewfinder."

David finds that shooting in twilight hours, during long periods of low light, are when he gets his favourite landscape photographs. "The evocative blue and golden hours are when I'm out there, stood by the tripod, waiting for the light," he says. "At night all sorts of possibilities unfold. Shooting in such low-light situations is not easy, but fast apertures and sensitive autofocus help."

Írta: Jason Parnell-Brookes

Vladimir Medvedev's kitbag

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Vladimir Medvedev shooting with a Canon camera and lens by a stream with mountains in the background. © Vladimir Medvedev


Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM

"A stunning telephoto prime that makes for images that truly impress with isolated depth of field and razor-sharp results even at f/2.8," says John.

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