Using Your Telephoto to Convey a Sense of Scale


As you may remember from my previous post, I am addicted to the telephoto lens! It has become my favourite lens and it is what I reach out to first when I photograph landscape.

How many times were you awe struck by towering, majestic mountains, overwhelmed by their incredible vertical scale? Yet, when you return home and look at your images, they don’t seem to convey the mountain’s grandeur?

Here I give examples of using the telephoto to do what it is really good at, conveying a sense of vertical scale. The key is that the telephoto compresses the distance between objects so that they seem closer than what they really are. This becomes particularly effective when you photograph a smaller feature of the landscape in front of that towering mountain or other tall feature, the scale of which you want to capture.


1)  The mountains of Patagonia tower higher than anywhere else I have seen. It is truly mesmerizing. The telephoto lens is very important to convey that scale. Sometimes you don’t have to include the top of the mountains for the viewer to appreciate the majesty.

Argentina’s Cerro Torre towers 2.4 km over the lake near to its base, and neighbouring Mount Fitz Roy 2.7 km over some of the rivers where you can photograph it from in clear view. And the elevation gains are quite similar in Chile’s Torres del Paine! We will be photographing these majestic mountains again during our 2022 “Patagonia-Wilderness Untamed!” photography workshop. It was one of those magnificent moments in  Torres del Paine, when it all came together! As a boat full of admiring travellers crosses turquoise colored Lago Pehoe, beautiful warm light spotlights the foothills at the base of towering and ominous Mont Paine Grande, itself slowly unveiled by the clearing clouds. Canon 5D III, 144 mm, f/13.

2)  The telephoto lens was essential for me to capture this beautiful scene in Namibia’s world famous Sossusvlei region as the last light of day touches a lone tree, behind which towers a giant red sand dune.

This is a spot I take my workshop participants to on our “Surreal Namibia” photography tour
, and we will do so again in 2020! The dunes in Namibia’s Sosssusvlei are gigantic, the largest in the world. However, it is important to include smaller objects for a sense of scale. This lone tree, and the way it interacted with the setting sun, was perfect. The tops of the dunes are further from the viewer than the base, and this is also the case for mountains, unless they rise vertically above the ground. This makes it more difficult for the viewer to perceive how tall they actually are. The telephoto is great at counteracting this, since it compresses distances. Canon 5D III, 400 mm, f/10.

3)  The scales in East Greenland’s Scoresby Sund are awe inspiring and I was continuously looking for ways to best convey the incredible elevation gains of the mountains and cliff faces as they towered by as much as 2 km above the water!

As my workshop participants were getting ready to photograph the amazing scenery of Scoresby Sund, we were delighted to see this two masted schooner emerging from the majestic O-fjord. I waited for the moment that it passed between two icebergs to set it against the towering mountains and cliff faces. For a sense of scale, the tops of the schooner’s masts stand about 20 to 30 metres above the water!  Had the boat been further away, and closer to the distant mountains, the sense of scale would have been even more impressive! Canon 5D III, 400 mm, f/7.1


4)  Can you see our camp site? Look closely and you will see a ring of tents fortuitously spot lit by the afternoon sun at the base of the mountain!

During our photography expedition into the majestic, unforgettable Peel Watershed in Canada’s Yukon territory, 
we climbed up the slopes of a nearby mountain to enjoy a bird’s eye view of the incredible alpine valley, surrounded by towering, endless mountains. When I noticed the spot light on the camp site I had to capture it, and the telephoto once again proved its worth in conveying the breath taking scales here. What helped here was also the fact that the camp site was right at the base of the mountains. Had it been further away, the relative sense of scale would not be that impressive.


I hope you found these tips on when and why to use your telephoto lens for landscape photography useful. It will open a new world to you and I hope it will give you as much joy as it does me!



Related articles:

15 tips for stunning mountain photographs

The telephoto lens for landscape photography

Effective composition tips


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Canadian Rockies