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Design & Style

Wide-Angle Lens vs. Telephoto Lens: Understanding the Difference

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 5 min read

Two of the most commonly used tools in professional photography are the wide-angle lens and the telephoto lens. These unique lenses are often confused with each other, but both bring very different features to the table.

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What Is a Wide-Angle Lens?

A wide-angle lens is a type of lens that has a shorter focal length than a normal lens. Photographers use the short focal length of wide lenses to expand the horizontal scope of a camera shot. With a wide-angle lens, subjects closer to the camera will appear larger than subjects further away—resulting in a slight barrel distortion of the image. A wide-angle lens keeps almost everything in focus, unless your subject is very close to the lens.

An ultra-wide-angle lens, also known as a fish-eye lens, can take in a full 180-degree radius and is often used to create perspective distortion in photography and cinematography.

A wide-angle lens will attach to the camera body of your SLR or DSLR camera, like those manufactured by Canon, Nikon, Sony, and others. Some wide-angle lenses can even attach to a smartphone camera, like an iPhone or Android.

When to Use a Wide-Angle Lens

A wide-angle lens is an important tool for a few different types of photography.

  • Landscape photography: To capture a wide field of view like a mountain range, you’ll likely want to fit as much horizontal scope into your images as possible—a wide-angle lens is a perfect tool for the job. A wide-angle lens also allows landscape photographers to get closer to a large subject while keeping it in frame, allowing photographers to emphasize an interesting detail rather than shooting a flat image.
  • Architecture photography. A wide-angle lens is a great tool for architectural photography. A wide-angle lens allows you to capture an entire building without being very far away, giving you the option to choose an interesting focal point to frame your shot rather than relying solely on the building to carry the shot. The wide-angle lens creates a perspective distortion that really shines when photographing objects with lots of straight lines (like a building).
  • City photography. Wide-angle lenses are most often used to shoot cityscapes because the width of the lens can easily capture a large crowd or a busy city street.
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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 shorter than the lens’ physical length. Photographers use telephoto lenses to focus on a single (often faraway) subject and create contrast between the foreground and background. Like a wide-angle lens, a telephoto lens will attach to the camera body of your SLR or DSLR camera, with some telephoto lenses even attaching to a smartphone camera.

There are different telephoto lenses with a range of focal lengths, in a wide array of shutter speeds and f-stop numbers:

  • 70–200mm lenses are able to zoom to any focal length within the zoom range. These medium telephoto lenses are great for everything from portrait photography to long-distance event shots.
  • 100–400mm lenses are also telephoto zoom lenses, with a longer range.
  • 85mm prime lenses have a shallow depth of field, so they are great for portraits with sharp foreground subjects and blurred backgrounds.
  • 135mm prime lenses have the same shallow depth of field as 85mm prime lenses, only at greater distances. These telephoto prime lenses are used for portraits, weddings/events, and more artistic experimental photography.
  • Super telephoto lenses usually start at around 600mm and are favored by wildlife photographers who take many shots of faraway animal subjects.

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When to Use a Telephoto Lens

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A telephoto lens makes a distant subject appear closer than it actually is. A telephoto lens is ideal for:

  • Physical constraints. If you’re physically unable to get close to your subject—whether you’re taking photos of high-flying eagles or a shy animal across a field—a telephoto lens is a great way to capture close-up, in-focus shots.
  • Safety concerns. Telephoto lenses are the most popular choice when it comes to photographing dangerous subjects, like big cats, since they allow the photographer to remain far away and still capture the subject in sharp detail.
  • Creating contrast. Telephoto lenses create a strong contrast in focus between the foreground and background. A telephoto lens is a good tool to use to isolate your subject from the background and draw viewers’ eyes to the details that you want them to focus on. For example, if you want to isolate a single sunflower against the backdrop of an entire sunflower field, a telephoto lens will help you draw that flower into focus and blur the rest in a nice bokeh effect without the use of photo-editing software. Use long focal lengths for an exaggerated depth of field; use shorter lengths for balanced sharpness between the foreground and background of your photograph.

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

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A wide-angle lens increases your horizontal scope, while a telephoto lens allows you to focus in on a subject from far away. These are the two main differences between a telephoto lens and a wide-angle lens:

  • Focus: A wide-angle lens is all about wide focus: it keeps the entire shot in focus regardless of distance. A telephoto lens is all about selective focus, or choosing which objects looks sharp or blurry. Wide-angle lenses generally have a longer depth of field, which means that they are not the right fit for a situation like portrait photography, where you only want the subject in sharp focus. In order to choose the right lens for your situation, you’ll need to decide how much in-focus detail you want in your shots.
  • Scope: A wide-angle lens is designed to increase your horizontal field of view (or angle of view), allowing you to capture as much of the scene as possible, similar to a human eye. A telephoto lens allows you to hone in on a particular subject in the foreground with a narrow field of view, obscuring details in the background that would distract from the composition.

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