Design, Photography, & Fashion

Photography 101: What Is a Telephoto Lens? Learn About the Different Types of Telephoto Lenses, Plus 3 Tips for Using a Telephoto Lens

Written by MasterClass

Aug 31, 2019 • 4 min read

How do wildlife photographers get their shots of massive lions on the savannah, or cheetahs resting in trees? Do they walk right up (or climb right up) and point the camera right in the animal’s face? Of course they don’t; they simply employ a technology known as a telephoto lens.

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What Is a Telephoto Lens?

A telephoto lens is a long-focus lens that allows photographers to utilize a focal length that is in fact shorter than the lens’ physical length. A telephoto lens will attach to the camera body of your SLR or DSLR camera, such as those manufactured by Canon, Nikon, and other leading brands. Some telephoto lenses can even attach to a smartphone camera.

What Is the Purpose of a Telephoto Lens?

In a nutshell, a telephoto lens makes a photographic subject appear closer than it actually is. This can be ideal for photographers who are unable to be close to their subjects—either due to physical constraints or out of concern for safety. These lenses also serve an artistic purpose, and are remarkable at creating contrasting focuses between foreground and background.

What Are the Different Types of Telephoto Lenses?

Most telephoto lenses range from “medium” (with a focal length between 70 and 200mm) all the way up to “super telephoto” (with focal lengths longer than 300mm). Such lenses can either subtly or dramatically change your camera’s field of view, permitting full frame photography in a wide array of shutter speeds and f-stop numbers—from rapid action shots in full light to nighttime photos set at the lens’s maximum aperture. Here are some popular telephoto lenses within this range:

  • 70–200mm lenses are able to zoom to any focal length within the stated range. These are great for portrait photography, with a sharp subject and a pleasing bokeh blur effect in the background. Meanwhile, on the outer edge of their range, these lenses work for long-distance event shots, like at a wedding or a sporting event.
  • 100–400mm lenses are also zooms, and they push their boundaries beyond what the 70–200mm lens can offer. Sports and wildlife photographers value these lenses’ long range and handy ability to zoom.
  • 85mm prime lenses have a shallow depth of field, so they are great for portraits with sharp foreground subjects and blurred backgrounds. Today’s digital cameras and phones frequently offer a “portrait mode” that mimics the effect of an 85mm prime lens.
  • 135mm prime lenses have the same shallow depth of field as 85mm prime lenses, only at greater distances. They’re used for portraits, weddings/events, and more artistic experimental photography.
  • Super telephoto prime lenses usually start at around 600mm and are favored by wildlife photographers who take many shots of faraway animal subjects. These long lens photographs are often characterized by an extremely shallow depth of field.

A wide array of lenses are available from premium camera manufacturers like Canon, Sigma, and Nikon.

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3 Tips for Using a Telephoto Lens

There are three great ways to get the most out of your telephoto lens.

  1. Use a telephoto lens to show accurate scale in your photographs. Unlike a wide-angle lens, which can alter dimensional perspective, a properly-used telephoto lens can represent all components of a photo in their actual sizes.
  2. Use long focal lengths for an exaggerated depth of field; use shorter lengths for balanced sharpness between the foreground and background of your photograph.
  3. Beware of camera shake. While telephoto lenses magnify the best parts of your photography, they equally magnify the worst parts. So be sure your shaky camera technique isn’t exaggerated by a telephoto lens. Get your technique right first, and then start playing with telephoto technology.

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

Some amateur photographers use the term “telephoto lens” as a synonym for “zoom lens.” In truth, these two lenses are not identical.

  • A telephoto lens has a long reach—traditionally this means a focal length of 60mm or more—but it does not necessarily need to slide through a range of focal lengths.
  • By contrast, a zoom lens is defined by being able to slide through many focal lengths, but there are zoom lenses that don’t magnify enough to be considered “telephoto.” (Note that when discussing zoom lenses, we refer only to optical zoom lenses. Digital zoom is not created by physical equipment but rather by computer processing.)

What this practically means is that you can have a telephoto zoom lens, which slides through focal lengths, or a telephoto prime lens, which has a fixed focal length.

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What Is the Difference Between a Telephoto Lens and a Wide Angle Lens?

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A telephoto lens and a wide angle lens are not the same thing.

  • A telephoto lens increases focal length. It’s most commonly used to show far away objects with accurate perspective and with a level of precise detail that was once only possible with close-range photography.
  • A wide angle lens expands the horizontal scope of a camera shot. On the one hand, this can make a photograph more similar to what we experience in viewing the world with our own eyes. On the other hand, wide angle lenses often distort perspective within a photograph. Wide angle lenses generally a longer depth of field, which means that they don’t compare to telephoto lenses for photos where you want just the subject in sharp focus, like in portrait photography.

Whether you’re just starting out or have dreams of going professional, photography requires plenty of practice and a healthy dose of patience. No one knows this better than celebrated National Geographic photographer Jimmy Chin. In Jimmy Chin’s MasterClass on adventure photography, he unpacks different creative approaches for commercial shoots, editorial spreads, and passion projects and provides a valuable perspective on how to bring your photography to new heights.

Want to become a better photographer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons from master photographers, including Jimmy Chin and Annie Leibovitz.

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