What is a telephoto lens?

You don’t need to spend 1000’s to get a half decent telephoto lens, there’s something to suit everyone’s budget.

If you’re thinking of buying a telephoto lens for the first time here is everything you need to know about telephoto lenses.

What is a telephoto lens?

A telephoto lens is a lens which can zoom in and magnify a subject in the distance giving the appearance of brining it closer to us. Think of it as binoculars for your camera.

In photography focal lengths of around 35-55mm are considered a standard as these mimic the field of view of the human eye. Once we start zooming in past 70-80mm we are into telephoto albeit short telephoto.

Most telephoto lenses photographers will have in their bag usually range from 70-300mm.

These lenses give you a fantastic reach and are just what you need when shooting sports, wildlife, and action that is in the distance.

Depth of field and telephoto lenses.

As you zoom in naturally the depth of field (plane of focus) gets shallower and shallower. Even when shooting at smaller apertures it can sometimes be difficult to stop this as it is just an inherent feature of shooting at longer focal lengths. Test this out for yourself, it’s really cool playing around with the shallow depth of field a telephoto gives you.


250mm f5.6 1/400 ISO 200

A great use of this feature is when you want to really isolate a subject and throw the background out of focus. This is usually a much cheaper alternative for photographers who don’t have 1000s to spend on the latest f1.2 lens!

Get close to the action.

Telephoto lenses get you so close to the action you can almost reach out and touch it! If you’ve ever fancied yourself as as sports photographer then get yourself a lens and get shooting!


250mm 1/1000th

A great tip to keep your action photos in focus would be to select the centre focus point and set your cameras focusing to AI servo if using a Canon or continuous with most other makes. This will keep the camera focusing constantly as long as hold your finger half pressed on the shutter button.

Can I use a telephoto lens for portraits?

Yes. A lot of professionals use them for portraits. As we talked about previously an inherent feature of using longer focal lengths is to compress a photo and give a shallow depth of field (bokeh). This gives the impression of bringing the background closer to the subject and also compresses the features of a face giving a more flattering look to a person’s facial features.

Look at these two images below. The first is shot at 10mm the second at 150mm.


See how the portrait shot at 10mm pulls the nose towards the camera and distorts the face.

Also have a look at how far away the background appears.

Contrast this with the photo shot at 250mm.


The facial features appear more natural and flattering and see how the background has been brought much closer and compressed. Also see how the depth of field has been dramatically reduced.

Broaden your horizons.

Another great use of telephoto lenses happens when the sun goes down and the moon comes out to play.

This is definitely a photo you can take at home with a telephoto lens. A good time to try this would be when the moon is at its biggest and a clear night would help out too!


Photo by Ross Elliott

Look at how much detail you can see in the moon here. It’s a good idea to have a tripod for this and put your camera in live view and manually focus to make sure the moon is tack sharp!

Here is great tool, moonrise and moonset calculator for checking out when the next full moon will be where you live.

Macro and telephoto lenses.

Although telephoto lenses are not macro lenses they still can produce some stunning ‘macro’ style photos. Some telephoto lenses even have a macro mode built in which lets you focus even closer to your subject giving you some striking shots!


It’s worth checking if the telephoto lens you ae buying has this feature if this is something you’d be interested in shooting.

Telephoto for landscapes.

You might be tempted to reach for the wide angle lens on your next landscape adventure but why not try out your telephoto instead?


Shot at 200mm

I included telephoto lenses in a previous post, best lenses for landscape photography because they let you pick off detail shots within a landscape, giving you a very unique photo. Sometimes a wide angle just won’t do a certain scene justice.

Try it yourself next time you venture out into the wilderness to capture that breath taking landscape shot – you might be pleasantly surprised!

What you NEED to know

Price – This varies massively. But never fear there is something for everyone’s price range. You pay a lot more for professional quality lenses with constant apertures. Thankfully lens manufacturers are always bringing out new lenses with improved optics even at consumer prices. Check out lenses here.

Camera shake (blurry photos) – When using telephoto lens keep a close eye on your shutter speeds. Remember the golden rule of keeping your shutter speed above your focal length i.e. 200mm lens 1/200th and above. Some lenses will have image stabilization which will help with reducing camera shake but if your lens doesn’t you can always put your camera on a tripod and get pin sharp photos.

Depth of field – Remember when shooting at longer focal lengths the depth of field dramatically reduced and your photos look a lot more compressed. Use this to your advantage J

Image stabilization – If you haven’t purchased your telephoto lens yet getting one with image stabilization would be well worth it. This will help you shoot in lower light and at much slower shutter speeds giving you a lot more flexibility when shooting.

So that pretty much does it for telephoto lenses. If there’s anything else you need to know come get in touch on twitter or youtube.

And don’t forget if you still learning photography I have a beginners photography course just for you completely free!

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