What is a Telephoto Lens and When to Use One

Any new photographer can easily be overwhelmed when it comes to choosing which lenses to buy. Prime, zoom, wide-angle, telephoto, fisheye, oh my! The choices are virtually endless.

This guide will take an in-depth look at telephoto lenses. What is a telephoto lens used for? We’ll explain the different types of telephoto lenses, the difference between telephoto and zoom lenses, and go over the different ways photographers put their telephoto lenses to use.

telephoto lens
Photo by Christian on Unsplash

What is a telephoto lens?

The word “telephoto” is a general term to describe camera lenses that have longer focal lengths than the actual length of the lens. The purpose of telephoto is to make objects appear closer than they are. They are the preferred lens of wildlife photographers, sports photographers, and some portrait photographers. Telephoto lenses excel at bringing the photographer close to their subject, but they also have a naturally shallow depth of field, which makes for beautifully blurred backgrounds. You can find telephoto lenses from all major brands like Canon, Nikon, Sony, Sigma, and others.

What are the different types of telephoto lenses?

Telephoto lenses range from short all the way up to super-telephoto. They are available in prime (fixed focal length) or zoom (variable focal length) with a wide range of maximum apertures. Here are the three categories of telephoto lenses:

  • Short telephoto: (85mm – 135mm) These are great “every day” lenses. They are lightweight and fairly compact. Short telephotos like an 85mm prime make wonderful portrait lenses. 
  • Medium telephoto: (135mm – 300mm) Lenses in this range are widely used in sports and wildlife photography, particularly the 100-400mm zoom lenses for their reach and ability to zoom in and out.
  • Super telephoto: (300mm and beyond) These telephoto lenses are preferred by wildlife photographers who shoot animals from very far away.
bird photography
Photo by Vincent van Zalinge on Unsplash

What is the difference between a telephoto lens and a zoom lens?

A new photographer may think the terms “telephoto” and “zoom” are interchangeable. However, in photography, they are two very different things. A telephoto lens describes a lens with a long focal length — usually 60mm or more.

It might be a prime lens, with only one focal length available, like an 85mm portrait lens. On the other hand, a zoom lens is a lens that can change focal lengths. A telephoto lens might also be a zoom lens (for example, the 100-400mm telephoto zoom we mentioned above), but a zoom lens might not always be a telephoto (for example, a 15-30mm wide-angle zoom).

When to use a telephoto lens?

Most obviously, you’ll use a telephoto lens when you want to get closer to your subject when you can’t physically get closer to it. That said, there are other times when the artistic qualities inherent in a telephoto lens come in handy, too. When you want to highlight the specific details of a far-off scene or when you want to separate your subject by blurring the background, then reach for a telephoto lens.

Here are several ways to use a telephoto lens:

  • To bring your background closer to your subject

When shooting with a telephoto, objects that are far apart from each other will appear closer together. The longer your focal length, the more obvious this effect will be. 

Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash
  • To photograph the moon

You can capture great photographs of the moon with a tripod, some skill, and a super-telephoto lens.

moon photography
Photo by Stephen Walker on Unsplash
  • For shooting wildlife

When photographing wild animals, it’s important to keep your distance, so you don’t scare them away and lose your shot. It’s also safer for you, depending on what animal you’re shooting! That’s why telephoto lenses are a must-have for wildlife photographers.

Photo by Geran de Klerk on Unsplash
  • For portraits

It may seem strange to shoot a portrait with a telephoto lens, but there are a couple of reasons it’s a good idea. First, the longer focal length gives a pleasing perspective without the distortion that comes with wider lenses.

Next, shooting from farther away means you’re not in your subject’s personal space, and they’ll feel more at ease, leading to a more natural photo. Finally, telephoto lenses have a naturally shallow depth of field, so the background will be blurry, and the focus will fall on the subject.

Photo by Caleb Lucas on Unsplash
  • To capture the action when you can’t get close

Telephoto lenses are used by sports photographers because they need to be in the middle of the action — without actually being in the middle of the action! 

airplane photography
Photo by Paul Jespers on Unsplash

Final thoughts

As you can see from this guide, a telephoto lens is a must-have for most any photographer’s camera bag. Whether you’ll use it to photograph wildlife, sports, weddings, portraits, landscapes, or something else is entirely up to you! Depending on what you shoot, it may end up being the most used lens in your kit.

Brooke Arnold

Brooke Arnold is a writer and award-winning photographer specializing in cat portraits. She is an advocate for rescue animals and is best known for dressing up her cats as famous people like Bob Ross and Evel Knievel. Her biggest claim to fame, however, is being child #2 in an orange juice ad that hung in a mall in Miami at age 8.

Leave a Comment