“Often, I will slap on the 300mm lens and just explore a distant scene to grab graphic elements that attract my eye”
Ask any landscape photographer what their favourite lens is and you’ll most likely get answers that include wide-angle focal lengths or maybe the inclusion of a mid-range telephoto, like a 70–200mm lens, for those more interested in intimate landscapes. But over the years I’ve come to rely on an unlikely lens as one of my favorite landscape tools — the 300mm f/4 lens. Normally considered a wildlife or sports lens, the 300mm lens is a capable and creative lens to make stunning landscape images. And the ƒ4 aperture means you have a choice of apertures that include thin, dreamy slices of depth-of-field all the way to the broader swaths of apparent sharpness that an aperture like ƒ22 yields. To learn more about the creative uses of the 300 mm lens, read on.
The extractive landscape
When most people think of longer telephoto lenses they think the main purpose of the lens is to bring distant objects closer just like binoculars. For landscape photographers, bringing distant objects closer is useful, but what we’re really doing is taking a small piece of a bigger scene and using the 300mm lens to “extract” parts out of the scene. With our eyes we naturally scan the scene and temporarily stop at parts that grab our eye. Why not use the 300mm lens to do the same thing photographically?
Often, I will slap on the 300mm lens and just explore a distant scene to grab graphic elements that attract my eye. It’s a little like magnifying a wide scene and seeing the pictures within the picture. The discoveries that can be made are akin to the discoveries you make when you put a drop of pond water on a microscope slide and magnify the scene. A world of unseen compositions and unlikely subjects suddenly appear. Putting a 300mm f/4 lens on a crop-sensor body will yield an even narrower view of a distant scene (from 1.5 to 2x more than on a full-frame body). Of course, magnifying a scene with a 300mm lens (10x human view on a full-frame body) demands good camera technique to get the best sharpness possible. I always use a solid tripod, a cable release and mirror lock-up (or live view) to create super sharp photos and prevent mirror-induced vibration. Also, a tripod with a good head allows one to finesse the composition in tiny degrees that you simply can’t do with a handheld camera. When you magnify scenes at least 10x you need the best stability and composition tweaks possible. Don’t be lazy and handhold your shots no matter what shutter speed you use!
The compressed landscape
When there are both foreground and background elements in your 300mm composition the background will loom large over the foreground. The 300mm lens slams the background up against the foreground with the distant between the two elements compressed. Sometimes the two elements seem pressed up against each other. My partner, Samantha, calls these pressed landscapes as they look 2D and flattened, which can be really effective with the right subject. Look for an interesting foreground subject (it doesn’t need to be close to you) that you want to “press” up against a distant background. If you focus on the foreground and use an aperture of ƒ4, the background will often be a dreamy blur, but at ƒ22, the background is more defined. Choose the aperture that gives you the effect you like best.
The dreamy landscape
Dreamy landscapes can be created by shooting a distant object through a “curtain” of transparent objects close to you. Focus on the background subject, use ƒ4 and the foreground will become a veiled blur of colour or tones. Composition is critical here and the blurred foreground must enhance and highlight the sharp background object. You can also try this technique with a scene that has foreground, midground and background. You can focus on the midground and have both the foreground and background a dreamy blur framing the sharp midground. When you process these dreamy images, don’t add too much contrast or the dreamy look will be lost.
To get used to the 300mm focal length I did numerous one-lens outings where the only lens I had with me was the 300mm. Doing this forced me to learn to see in 300mm and to understand what works and what doesn’t when it comes to subject matter and composition. If you have a 300mm lens or even a zoom that contains the 300mm focal length give this unlikely lens a try next time you go out to make landscape photos. You might be pleasantly surprised at the results! Happy shooting!