Prairie landscapes are often defined by broad sweeping vistas and big skies. A wide-angle lens can be great for capturing that kind of huge open landscape. However, I’ve gotten some of my favorite Nebraska landscape photos when I’ve exchanged my wide angle lens for a telephoto.
Using a long lens compresses a landscape and shows off the depth and texture of a landscape in a way that is very different from an image taken with a wide angle lens. The above photo of the Nebraska Sandhills came after several attempts to capture the immensity of the prairie with a wide-angle lens. My wide-angle lens showed a lot of the landscape, but it looked relatively flat and unimpressive – especially because there wasn’t anything going on in the sky. A longer lens brought the distant hills closer and made them more prominent. It also cut most of the sky from the image, leaving only the interesting parts of the scene.
Sunrises and sunsets, along with moonrises and sets, can often be disappointing in photographs because the sun/moon looks much smaller in the photograph than it does in real life. A long lens can help make the orb look more like our eyes see it when we’re there.
The photo below is one of my all-time favorites from the Niobrara Valley Preserve, and is actually a scan of a slide from back when color slide film (Fuji Velvia!!) was the state of the art in nature photography. Just as in the windmill/hills photo above, there wasn’t anything interesting happening in the sky, but the light was good (getting close to sunset) and the sideways light provided great texture on the distant hills. One of the hallmarks of the Niobrara Valley Preserve is that it hosts a convergence of multiple ecosystems, and this photo shows many of them.
If you find yourself standing on a high ridge or hilltop and can’t seem to make the landscape look as impressive on camera as it does in real life, try using a longer lens (or using the zoom on your phone or point-and-shoot camera). Though it seems counterintuitive, zooming in can sometimes help show off a broad landscape better than zooming out.