When I started taking photos way back when, I thought of lenses the way most people who are new to photography, or who aren't photographers at all, think of them. Specifically that telephoto lenses are used when things are far away, and wide angle lenses are for tight spaces or wide vistas. At the time, I was too new in my photographic journey to really understand lens selection from a creative standpoint. Now that I'm 30 years down the photographic road, I've come to understand why the decision behind which lens to use goes well beyond how far away your subject is.
The Creative Decision Behind Lens Choice
Wide Angle Lenses
Like most landscape photographers, I use wide angle lenses more than any other focal length. The reason is not just to show a wide vista, because the truth is, wide vistas, while pretty, don't always make the most interesting photographs, especially when photographed with a wide angle lens. When composing a scene, wide angle lenses emphasize whatever is immediately in front of the camera, while anything in the background appears much further away than it is in reality.
This distortion of perspective is useful in that it allows photographers to create a sense of place in the image, place objects in context, and create depth in the scene. The images in this section are all examples of images taken with wide angle lenses, in focal lengths from 12mm up to about 20mm.
Wide angle lenses create that feeling like you can just step into the image, because they have that feeling of dimensionality. One of the things I love about wide angle lenses is that they show people things in a way they aren't used to seeing them. Whether it's by emphasizing a foreground element, such as the wave in "Mystic Dawn", the flowers in "Tall White Asters at West Quoddy Head", or the reflection in the puddle in "The Bell House and the Beacon", wide angle lenses make those images possible and our eyes simply will not naturally see those scenes in the same way.
The downside of wide angle lenses is that in most cases, unless you can get close to your subject, they simply aren't as effective at creating a compelling image. This is why if you ever see me photographing along the coast, I'm generally standing close to where the waves are crashing to emphasize the splashes in the foreground.
Standard Focal Lengths
Standard focal lengths tend to be anything above 35mm and less than about 85mm, generally speaking. The technical definition is a little more specific but I'm not being technical right now. Standard focal length lenses tend to mimic the way our eyes see, which is why those of us who took Photography 101 in college or high school were forced to learn using a 50mm lens when we started. The reason for that is simple. Wide angles naturally distort perspective, which can cover for a variety of compositional mistakes, and telephoto lenses compress perspective and bring the viewer in closer, which also can hide compositional mistakes. Most college professors encourage their students to learn composition with focal lengths similar to how they see the world naturally, so learning on a 50mm lens makes a lot of sense.
Photographs made with standard length lenses don't have much perspective distortion or compression, so they tend to feel very natural to our eyes. If the subject is familiar, compositions made with standard lenses will look and feel very natural to the viewer. Looking at an image will feel similar to looking through a window.
I don't often venture into the mid range of my lenses, when compared to wide angles and telephotos, but the standard range is very useful, especially when I'm looking to create variety in my images of often photographed subjects.
Telephoto lenses, also known as "long glass", tends to be for subjects that are further away from the camera, but that's an oversimplification. Telephoto lenses compress perspective, meaning that they make background objects appear closer to foreground objects than they really are. Telephoto lenses tend to be anything above about 85mm. "The Nubble and the Full Moon", above was taken with a 600mm lens. To give you an idea, I was about a mile from the lighthouse in that image, and focusing on the lighthouse with that lens at that distance also made the moon seem much larger in comparison to the lighthouse. Had I been closer to the lighthouse, to keep it the same size in the scene I'd need more of a standard length lens, and the moon would be much smaller in relation.
Telephoto lenses in landscape photography help create more graphic looking images, allowing the photographer to fill the frame with the subject. In comparison to images made with a wide angle lens, photos made with a telephoto lens will have a flatter appearance, so depth needs to be created using atmospheric perspective or other compositional tools such as leading lines, layers, or light and shadow. There are times I will back away from my subject to make use of the characteristics of a telephoto lens.
The image above of the Bennett Bean Bridge was taken with a 100mm focal length. That allowed me to keep the hillside covered with colorful autumn foliage large in relation to the bridge, and more prominent in the scene. The image of rolling green hills in the Palouse, below, was also taken with a 100mm focal length.
The image below, "Appalachian Sunset II", was taken with a 400mm focal length to keep the disc of the sun large in relation to the mountain peaks in the scene. In the images that follow, you'll see pairs of images that are taken with two different focal length lenses, usually either wide or standard, as well as telephoto. It's interesting to see the difference in the way the same subjects can change based on the focal length used.
Primes vs. Zooms
This tends to be more of a personal decision. Prime lenses are lenses that just one focal length, while zooms cover a range of focal lengths. I have used both, but my current kit consists primarily of zoom lenses. My lone prime is a 105mm macro lens, which I love for portraits and still life images. I prefer the flexibility of zooms for my landscape work simply because I can't always get as close or as far away as I might like, and zooms can cover more focal lengths and take up less space in my camera bag.
I love the characteristics each lens offers. As I said, I tend to lean towards the wide angle simple because I enjoy the distortion of perspective and the challenge of composing with a wide angle lens, but each lens has a place in my bag and gets used when called for.