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What Is a Telephoto Lens? Photography Basics Explained

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telephoto lens

Nowadays, most people use cameras with a fixed lens and have to make do when it comes to taking high-quality photos. You can’t capture the beauty of a flower without the proper equipment, nor can you zoom in on things from afar. This is where telephoto lenses come into play.

Telephoto lenses are particular types of camera lenses that allow you to zoom in on subjects without actually moving closer. They are perfect for photographing landscapes, nature, and even wildlife.

What makes them so unique is their ability to increase focal length. It allows you to capture the subject in more detail that you otherwise couldn’t with a fixed-lens camera. Here’s an in-depth overview of telephoto lenses and their uses.

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How Does a Telephoto Lens Work?

The mechanism of action of a telephoto lens is basically the same as that of a conventional lens. Light travels through the lens and is refracted by the curved surface on one side.

The other side of the camera lens contains all the focusing mechanisms and electronic components, allowing for greater control over how light is refracted and captured to create an image. However, a telephoto lens differs from other lenses in its focal length, which is the distance between the lens and the sensor. A telephoto lens has a long focal length, which means that it can capture more light and produce a sharper image.

Typically, a telephoto lens has a focal length of greater than 50 millimeters (mm) of focal length. The advantage to using such lenses is that they can have a narrower field of view while still allowing the subject to remain in focus.

Additionally, telephoto lenses are less likely to cause motion blur as objects appear larger in the picture and become more visible. In contrast, wide-angle lenses have a shorter focal length and a wider field of view, meaning the image will be less focused, and the subject may appear smaller in the photo.

man using super telephoto lens
Photo Credit: Tanes Ngamsom, Shutterstock

What Are the Different Types of Telephoto Lenses?

There are two main types of telephoto lenses: zoom and prime lenses.

Zoom telephoto lenses consist of multiple elements that can adjust to focus on different objects at varying distances away. These are the most versatile type of telephoto lens and work best for shooting subjects that can’t be easily approached or have a wide range of distance between them and the camera.

On the other hand, prime telephoto lenses consist of a single fixed focal length. Because they cannot zoom in or out, these lenses tend to be lighter, smaller, and faster than zoom lenses. Prime lenses are ideal for shooting fast-moving subjects or in low-light conditions where every millisecond counts.

Telephoto lenses are available in a wide range of focal lengths, from the relatively modest 85mm to the massive 600mm. The right lens for you will depend on your specific shooting needs.

A zoom lens is better if you want to take photos with more zoom and flexibility. On the other hand, a prime lens is the better option for faster shutter speeds and better low-light performance.

Types by Focal Lengths

Lumix DSLR
Photo Credit: Clément Rémond, Unsplash

Telephoto lenses also differ based on their focal lengths. However, here are some common types:

  • 70mm to 200mm: These lenses can zoom in on your subject from a distance while still maintaining a decent field of view. They’re ideal for sports and nature photography.
  • 100mm to 400mm: These lenses have an even greater zoom, but they also have a much narrower field of view. They’re often used for wildlife photography.
  • 85mm Prime Lenses: Since they sport a shallow depth of field, these lenses are often used for portrait photography.
  • 135mm Prime Lenses: A 135mm lens is also great for portraiture, but it can also be used for other types of photography, like landscapes.
  • Super Telephoto Lenses: These lenses have a focal length of 600mm or more and are often used for sports photography and other situations where you need to zoom in from a distance.

Types by Function

There are several types of telephoto lenses, including standard telephoto lenses, super-telephoto lenses, macro telephoto lenses, zoom telephoto lenses, and specialty telephoto lenses. Here’s how they work:

  • Standard: A standard telephoto lens is a high-quality glass tube with a focal length between 135mm and 300mm. The longer the focal length, the more magnification the lens can produce.
  • Super: A super-telephoto lens is typically defined as having a focal length of 300mm or greater. These lenses are typically used for wildlife, sports, and other types of photography where the subject is a significant distance away.
  • Macro: Macro telephoto lenses are generally short focal length (50mm–105mm) zooms that produce more magnification than standard telephoto lenses. However, macro lenses also offer exact focusing capabilities.
  • Zoom: A zoom lens provides all-in-one versatility by allowing the photographer to change the lens’s focal length, thus changing the field of view and magnification.
  • Specialty: Specialty telephoto lenses are designed for specific astrophotography or infrared photography applications.

No matter what type of telephoto lens you choose, remember that these lenses are designed to be used with a tripod or monopod to keep them steady. As a result, even the slightest movement can cause blurriness, which lowers the overall quality of the photo.

Where Is a Telephoto Lens Used?

Photo Credit: SplitShire , Pixabay

Photographers use telephoto lenses for various purposes, including the following.

Make Subjects Seem Closer to the Camera

When taking pictures of faraway objects, such as animals in nature or a stage performance, a telephoto lens can help you fill the frame with your subject. In addition, these lenses allow you to get closer to your subject without physically moving closer to it.

Create Shallow Depth of Field

Telephoto lenses have a shallow depth of field, meaning that they can create photos with a soft, blurred background and a sharp foreground.

Boasting a large aperture (the opening at the front of the lens that lets in light), telephoto lenses let in more light than a standard lens, making them ideal for low-light photography.

This shallow depth of field is especially useful for portraits as it helps draw attention to the subject and away from the background.

Taking Action Shots

Action shots refer to any photo that captures a subject in motion, such as a sports game or a bird in flight. Telephoto lenses are ideal for taking action shots because they allow you to zoom in on your subject and capture it in sharp detail, even if it’s moving quickly.

Advantages of Telephoto Lenses

Telephoto Lens
Image Credit: Pxhere

Telephoto lenses have several advantages over normal lenses, making them more useful for some applications. Some of the key advantages of telephoto lenses include:

  • Narrow Fields of View: Telephoto lenses have much narrower fields of view than regular lenses, allowing photographers to selectively focus on just a portion of the scene in front of them. It is useful for capturing fast-moving subjects, such as wildlife or sports action, where it can be challenging to get all the intended subjects in the frame.
  • Greater Magnification: Telephoto lenses can also magnify distant objects, making them appear much larger in the frame. Thus, a telephoto lens has many applications, such as wildlife photography, where it is important to get a close-up view of animals in their natural habitats. It can also be useful for photographing small details or objects far away.
  • Shallow Depth of Field: Telephoto lenses also have a shallower depth of field than normal lenses, which means that the foreground and background will be more blurred. It can be used to create a more aesthetically pleasing image or isolate the subject from the background.

Disadvantages of Telephoto Lenses

Telephoto lenses are not without their drawbacks. Here are some shortcomings of telephoto lenses:

  • Large and Heavy: Telephoto lenses can be heavy, large, and expensive. As the telephoto lens is longer than a normal lens, it has to have extra length added to focus on objects that are further away from the camera. The added length and weight make telephoto lenses difficult to carry around and use for extended periods.
  • Hard to Use: Telephoto lenses can be hard to use because they are often quite long and bulky. The build of a telephoto lens can make it difficult to keep the lens steady when taking a photo, resulting in blurry or low-quality images.
  • Expensive: Telephoto lenses can be expensive, especially compared to normal lenses. The extra length and weight of a telephoto lens often make them more expensive to produce, which can drive up the cost for consumers.
  • Requires a Tripod: You’ll also need to use a tripod when shooting with a telephoto lens, as it is much harder to keep the camera steady when using such a long lens.

shutter camera divider 2 Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Here are some commonly asked questions about telephoto lenses.

What Is the Difference Between a Normal Lens and Telephoto Lens?

A regular photography lens has a field of view similar to what the human eye can see. It is around 50–60 degrees. A telephoto lens has a much narrower field of view. The most common telephoto lenses have a field of view ranging from 30–40 degrees. Therefore, a telephoto lens can make objects appear closer than they are.

How Does a Telephoto Lens Work?

A telephoto lens works by bending light. The longer the body, the more the light is bent. The short focal length means that the image will be magnified. It allows a photographer to capture images of distant objects with great clarity and detail.

Telephoto Camera Lens
Image By: Pxhere

How Does a Telephoto Lens Differ From a Wide-Angle Lens?

A wide-angle lens has a field of view that is much wider than a telephoto lens. The most common wide-angle lenses have a field of view ranging from 60–90 degrees. It allows photographers to capture more of the scene in front of them. Meanwhile, a telephoto lens has a narrower field of view and allows photographers to capture distant subjects.

Can You Use a Telephoto Lens for Portrait Photography?

Yes, you can use a telephoto lens for portrait photography as long as it is one of the lenses renowned for its ability to produce bokeh. In addition, a telephoto lens produces a great depth of field due to its compression, which means that your subject will always come out clear from the background.

It helps you take flattering portraits since you can crop out any unwanted features in the photo and focus only on your subject. It is also perfect for taking photos of groups of people since you can fit everyone in the frame without stepping back. A telephoto lens is also perfect for candid shots since you can take the photo from a distance without your subject’s knowledge.

Which Is Better for Landscape Photography—A Telephoto Lens or Wide-Angle Lens?

It depends on the type of landscape photography you are performing. A wide-angle lens is better if you want to capture a vast and sweeping landscape. A telephoto lens is better if you want to focus on a specific part of the landscape or moving subjects.

Which Camera Can You Use a Telephoto Lens With?

You need a full-frame camera to really get the most out of a telephoto lens. With smaller sensors, they won’t be able to yield clear images with all that extra magnification. This is because the focal length will have to be reduced to focus on a smaller sensor, resulting in poor image quality and poor performance when shooting at long distances. Of course, you can also use telephoto lenses on APS-C cameras, but you’ll lose a lot of the performance that you paid for.

Image Credit: MAD.vertise, Shutterstock


How to Use a Telephoto Lens?

When you are using a telephoto lens, there are a few things that you need to keep in mind. First, you need to ensure that you have a steady platform to rest the lens on. A tripod is ideal, but you can always rest the lens on a solid surface if you don’t have one.

Second, you need to be aware of your surroundings. It is crucial when using a long lens, as you don’t want to accidentally focus on something in the background instead of your subject.

Finally, it would be best if you were patient. Telephoto lenses can take a while to focus, so it is important to be patient and wait for the perfect shot.

A Reference Guide: Common Focal Lengths

Focal Lengths Uses
70mm–200mm Weddings, wildlife, and sports
85mm Weddings and portraits
100mm–400mm Wildlife and sports
135mm Sports, wildlife, weddings, and portraits
Over 600mm Wildlife and sports
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A telephoto lens has a long focal length and allows you to take photos of distant subjects with great clarity and detail. There are many different telephoto lenses available on the market, from short to long focal lengths.

Telephoto lenses are perfect for taking photos of wildlife, athletes, and sweeping landscapes, but they can be quite expensive. So, before you buy a telephoto lens, you should determine whether it is worth the investment for your photography needs.

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Featured Image Credit: Piqsels

About the Author Jeff Weishaupt

Jeff is a tech professional by day, writer, and amateur photographer by night. He's had the privilege of leading software teams for startups to the Fortune 100 over the past two decades. He currently works in the data privacy space. Jeff's amateur photography interests started in 2008 when he got his first DSLR camera, the Canon Rebel. Since then, he's taken tens of thousands of photos. His favorite handheld camera these days is his Google Pixel 6 XL. He loves taking photos of nature and his kids. In 2016, he bought his first drone, the Mavic Pro. Taking photos from the air is an amazing perspective, and he loves to take his drone while traveling.