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Telephoto Isolation: The Art of Exclusion

An important step to taking better photos is to learn how to master "the art of exclusion," which involves rejecting visual elements that don't make the photo stronger. A telephoto zoom lens is ideal for this exercise, as it allows the photographer to more easily exclude irrelevant or distracting objects to focus the viewer's attention on only the most important details of the scene or subject.

A telephoto zoom allowed me to pare this scene down to only the most critical element, the backlit polar bear (intentional underexposure helped as well). Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, USA. Canon 7DII, Canon 200-400mm lens, ISO 320, f/6.3, 1/1000 second.

Each lens in your bag requires a different approach and way of thinking for a given subject. The way you use a long telephoto lens, for example, will be different from the way you use a wide-angle lens. The differences can be quite fundamental. I like to say that a wide-angle lens requires the art of inclusion, because the wide angle of view necessitates the inclusion of many visual elements, and the photographer has to find a way to make all of those different elements work together. On the other end of the spectrum are telephoto lenses, which require the art of exclusion; that is, learning how to exclude visual elements and to zero in only on what is important for the composition.

I zoomed in tight to photograph this storm at sunset over the mountains of Patagonia. Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. Canon 5DSR, Tamron 70-200mm lens, ISO 100, f/8, 1/200 second.

Of the two, telephoto isolation is arguably the easier. I’ll deal with wide-angle inclusion in a separate article. For now, let’s focus on telephoto exclusion. Although easier than wide-angle inclusion, exclusion still requires the ability to see what is important for a given composition, and what is not. Learning how to isolate “shots within a shot” with a telephoto lens is an important step for beginners, and will help you strengthen your compositional skills and make your photography more bold and compelling.

I zoomed in tight to exclude the sky and most of the surrounding landscape, focusing the viewer's attention instead only on the curving shape of the dune crest and the lone dead tree beneath it. Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia. Canon 5DIII, Canon 200-400mm lens, ISO 800, f/11, 1/250 second.

The key to telephoto exclusion is to determine what elements of a given scene are interesting, important, or relate to each other in a compelling way. Then, simply zoom in until you achieve a framing that includes only those elements. Sounds easy, right? Well, the devil is in the details, as they say, and this is one of those things that is often easier said than done. Sometimes it helps to think backwards: determine first which elements distract from or otherwise do not help support the composition, and then zoom in and reframe until those elements are excluded from the shot.

The bright overcast sky was incredibly distracting, so I zoomed in tight enough to exclude it entirely from the composition, focusing attention only on this grove of shapely cypress trees covered in Spanish moss (and its reflection). Big Cypress Bayou, USA. Sony a7R IV, Tamron 150-500mm lens, ISO 500, f/5.6, 1/250 second.

As with anything, learning the art of telephoto exclusion requires practice, and plenty of it. It really is about learning how to simplify, and learning how to decide what is important to a composition, and what isn’t. The best advice I can offer is this: when working with a given scene, try several variations of the composition, zooming out and including more and then zooming in and including less. Decide which variation you like best, and think critically about why it is your favorite. This will help you sharpen your compositional skills, and make it easier for you to find the best shot the next time around.

About the author

Whether hanging over the rim of an active volcano, braving the elements to photograph critically-endangered species, or trekking deep into the wilderness to places most people will never see, world-renowned professional photographer Ian Plant travels the globe seeking out amazing places and subjects in his never-ending quest to capture the beauty of our world with his camera. Known for his inspiring images and single-minded dedication to creating the perfect photo, Ian has reached hundreds of thousands of people around the world in his mission to inspire and educate others in the art of photography. Ian is a frequent contributor to many leading photo magazines, the author of numerous books and instructional videos, and founder of Photo Masters.

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