Telephoto lenses are versatile lenses with a long focal length that give the appearance of being closer to the subject. If I had to recommend only one lens, it would be a telephoto lens because of their flexibility to photograph anything from macro photography to wildlife photography.
What Is A Telephoto Lens?
A Telephoto lens has a focal length of 70 mm or longer that magnifies objects from a far distance. They excel in a variety of ways from versatility and creating unique artistic effects that improve image quality.
Different Types Of Telephoto Lenses
70–200mm lenses are popular portrait and wedding photography lenses because they can easily transition between portraits and longer shots and have an accurate scale with minimal distortion.
85mm prime lenses are common macro and portrait lenses because it is an impressive combination of magnifying your subject, lens compression (also known as the telephoto effect described below), and bokeh (background blur).
135mm prime lenses are known for their build quality and are very similar to the 85 mm prime lens. They create sharp subjects with a creamy background blur that portrait and macro photographers love; unlike super telephoto lenses they have a shorter minimum focusing distance which allows you to get closer to the subject.
100–400mm zoom lenses are great all around lens for landscape and wildlife photographers, especially for capturing wildlife in the landscape versus the closeups that super telephoto lenses take. It is a more compact and practical alternative to a super telephoto lens and has the most flexibility between macro, portrait, landscape, and wildlife photography.
300 – 600mm super telephoto zoom lenses have the most dramatic telephoto effect which creates a shallow depth of field. Wildlife and sports photographers favor these lenses because the longer focal length makes small or more distant subjects appear larger and fill the frame.
What Is The Difference Between A Telephoto Lens And A Zoom Lens?
A telephoto lens has the capability to make objects appear closer than they are, but not all telephoto lenses are zoom lenses. For example, the Sigma 150-600mm lens and Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 500mm F/5.6E lens are both telephoto lens, but one is a prime lens, which has a fixed focal length, and the other is a zoom lens.
We think of zoom lenses as bringing far to near, but a zoom lens is actually the ability to change focal lengths; a change commonly referred to as “zooming in” or “zooming out”, but not all zoom lenses are telephoto lenses. The Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM lens, Sigma 17-70mm f/2.8-4 DC Macro lens, and Sony SEL1655G E 16-55mm f/2.8 G lens are all considered zoom lenses but are not telephoto lenses.
What Are The Benefits Of A Telephoto Lens?
Bringing Your Subject Closer
The main benefit of a telephoto lens is the ability to make objects appear closer without getting physically closer. This is especially useful in wildlife photography where getting closer is not possible. Look at how this images of the Great Smoky Mountains changes with each focal length, all of which are beautiful, but he mountains fading into the horizon are hardly visible in the first two images.
Isolate Your Subject
A good photograph doesn’t include distracting elements of a scene that don’t contribute to the story. Wide-angle lenses capture more of a scene which is useful in many scenarios, but can also add clutter when misused. A telephoto lens narrows the field view so you can focus on the subject and eliminate distractions.
The Telephoto Effect
The telephoto effect is the optical effect that compresses the scene and makes the objects in the background appear closer together than they appear at wider focal lengths. The further you stand from the subject the closer objects in the scene appear together, so it’s actually the lens that creates the illusion. Since telephoto lenses usually require a larger distance from the subject, the elements in the scene get compressed and appear closer together. Getting the same crop with a shorter focal length would require getting physically closer to the subject which increases the perceived distance between the subject and the background.
Telephoto Lenses are Unique to Higher End Cameras
These days, phones can actually take pretty good landscape photos, and the new portrait mode has given photographers the luxury of a background blur. But, the extreme magnification found in telephoto lenses is still unmatched; you won’t see many wildlife photos taken with a phone unless they could get extremely close. I don’t know about you, but I like to keep my distance from bears.
What is A Telephoto Lens Good For?
The quick answer is everything! My telephoto lens is my primary lens because of its versatility and it’s typically easier to back away from a subject than it is to get closer. If you read through the different types of telephoto lenses, you may have noticed the transition from portrait to wildlife life as the focal lengths increased, but any telephoto lens is a good all around lens.
Wildlife Photography And Sports Photography
The primary benefit of a telephoto lens is the ability to capture distant subjects which is not a strength of macro or wide-angle lenses. Since getting closer to your subject is not always possible or safe, sports and wildlife are almost exclusively shot with a telephoto lens.
Fill The Frame
Fill the frame is a composition technique that leaves zero negative space. Longer focal lengths allow for a tighter crop and forces the viewer to appreciate the details from far away.
Bugs and insects are the first thing that come to mind where a telephoto lens is useful because getting too close with a macro lens will scare the creature off. It’s also perfect for taking close ups for water plants and the telephoto effect adds “wow” factor of flower fields.
A wide-angle lens captures an entire scene, but a telephoto lens gives you more creative control over the elements of the landscape you want to emphasize. Whether it’s a waterfall in the background or a closeup of the details, a telephoto lens allows you to choose your details by isolating the subject or capturing abstract textures and colors.
Telephoto lenses with a focal length between 70 mm to 200 mm are popular among portrait photographers because they show the most accurate scale. Other lenses create more visible distortions that elongate a person and over-accentuate facial features which could make them look unnatural.
Tips For Using A Telephoto Lens
Use a fast Shutter Speed To Reduce Camera Shake
The longer the focal length the more susceptible the lens is to camera shake which creates blurry images from unsteady steady hands. To compensate for the sensitivity to movement you will want to increase the shutter speed to at least 1/focal length or use a tripod.
Know The Focusing Distance
Not to be confused with focal length, focusing distance is how close you can get to your subject and still be able to focus. Macro lenses can focus with the lens less than 12 inches from the subject whereas a telephoto lens may require several feet. If your images are coming out blurry, the subject may be too close and you need to back up.
Don’t Be Afraid To Increase the ISO In Low Light
The maximum aperture on most telephoto lenses doesn’t get as wide as macro and wide-angle lenses, especially at longer focal lengths. So it’s a delicate balance of increasing the shutter speed to compensate for camera shake and increasing the ISO to improve the camera’s sensitivity to light. Many scenarios may call for a higher ISO, which will increase the digital noise, but you can improve the noise in post processing.
Related: Understanding the Exposure Triangle and how aperture, ISO, and shutter speed work together.