What is a Telephoto Lens? | Definition, Tips, and Examples

This is a guide covering telephoto lenses.

In this glossary definition you’ll learn about:

One of the most important lenses (especially for portrait photographers) is the telephoto lens. What is the telephoto lens and what is it used for?

Let’s dive in.

telephoto lens

What is a Telephoto Lens?

A telephoto lens is generally regarded as a lens with a focal length of 60mm and longer. The lens will give photographers a long reach, allowing them to photograph subjects and objects far away with godlike sharpness.

The telephoto lens is one of the best investments for taking your photography to new heights. Telephoto lenses are very popular among amateur and professional photographers since they’re useful in various situations and often make your photos look better.

Amateur photographers often get confused between telephoto lens and zoom lens although they are quite different from one another. A telephoto lens “can serve as” your zoom lens, but it doesn’t make it one.

Telephoto lens’ also come in various focal lengths:

  • Medium Telephoto: Usually around 70-200mm
  • Super Telephoto: If it’s longer than 300mm

Both of the types can either be zoom or prime lenses. But what matters the most is the focal length. After explaining the telephoto lens meaning, let’s continue exploring why these lenses are so popular!

telephoto lens
Photo by SplitShire

What is a Telephoto Lens Used For?

1. They Make Subjects Appear Closer

Normally, everyone desiring a telephoto lens will think about this feature first. Telephoto lenses will help you take pictures of subjects far away. This handy feature allows you to take pictures of images you can’t get close to, don’t want to get close to, or are just too far away from you.

The easiest example lies in wildlife photography (check out list of best lenses for wildlife photography). It’s hard to take close photos of squirrels, birds, or other animals that are afraid of us. The loud and unnatural shutter sound from the camera might spook them out, thus ruining the image.

There are also hostile/territorial animals that might attack us if we get too close to them. Bears and tigers are quite frightening and outright dangerous to take close-up images with. For the sake of your safety and sharp images, use the telephoto lens.

It also has a compression effect that improves your subject’s visual relation with its surroundings. It’s quite similar to how our brain creates relationships with an object and its background.

Objects or subjects that look weirdly placed on top of their respective surroundings are visually translated better when using telephoto lenses (when compared with wide angle lenses). In a nutshell, telephoto lenses upgrade your photos by making photo subjects appear closer to the camera.

telephoto lens animal
Photo by Diana Parkhouse

2. Emphasizes Blurred Backgrounds Even More

Every photographer loves a creamy and blurred background. It’s like a pizza, all pizza tastes great. But the pizzas that are done correctly, put the others to shame.

Photographers will usually use a telephoto lens to recreate this blurred and creamy background, with the super sharp subjects. You can also find this effect commonly recreated in portrait photographs.

If you want to recreate this effect, simply shoot with your long lens and use the widest aperture it can offer. If you are using a 50mm lens with a subject 4 meters away while using a f/2.8 aperture, you will isolate your subject and give them a flattering yet creamy background.

The quality of bokeh that your telephoto lens can provide is quite amazing compared to a wide angle lens.

To further increase the subject isolation effect you can also:

  • Get closer to the subject
  • Move your subject further from the background (if possible)
  • Increase your f-stop (f/1.4, f/2.0, f/2.8)

These rules don’t give you any significant changes if you are shooting really wide, especially when moving from a 150mm lens to a 200mm one. Oh, while we’re on this topic I suggest you do not blur the background and isolate the subject by default.

An image must have a concept and message behind its creation. Although many portrait photographs tend to just isolate the subject from the background, maybe put a little thought into the background. The background itself can be the key to describing your subjects attitude and skills.

So, perhaps consider how the background can enforce your theme and subject before isolating them from the subject.

In short, the longer your lenses and the wider your aperture is, the better the subject isolation effect will be! Longer lenses allow you to shoot from far away, perceptually shrinking your subject in the process but maintaining the background size.

The focus of this effect lies more in the distance between you and your subject, the lens comes after.

telephoto bokeh
Photo by DSD

3. Create Amazing Portraits

Telephoto lenses are also flocked to by portrait photographers because of its magical capacity at making portraits. The distance between your camera and subject will affect your subject appearance in the frame and between each other.

When you shoot with varying focal lengths, your subject will become smaller against the background. This also helps make the subject appear more proportionate.

You will risk distorting your subjects’ features if you use lenses wider than 50mm. But feel free to adjust your lenses depending on your subject’s type of face.

Combine this amazing proportion ability with the telephoto lens capability to isolate subjects and become a portrait photography master! Or an over geared amateur photographer.

telephoto portrait
Photo by Misha Voguel

How Does a Telephoto Lens Work?

As you may know, a telephoto lens is a one-of-a-kind lens that has a focal length longer than the lens itself. They can do this by using a special lens from the telephoto group, these lenses are able to extend the light path that enters the lens.

Lenses with long focal lengths are often called telephoto lenses, although this is technically incorrect. Why? Because a telephoto lens specifically incorporates the telephoto group.

Now we delve into the nitty gritty construction details, this is aimed to help you understand how a telephoto lens works.

Construction

The usual simple lens of a non-telephoto design is made by using only one lens. This is done to lessen aberrations and include several achromatic lenses. For these lenses to focus on an object, the distance from the lens to the camera’s focal plane needs to be adjusted to the focal length.

Basically, if the focal length is 500mm, the distance between the lens and the focal plane will be 500mm. The longer the focal length the more physical length of the simple lens is needed. Making it hard to wield, thus being it’s biggest weakness if shooting far objects.

On the other hand, telephoto/long-focus lenses have two important parts; front and rear. People often think that the telephoto lens definition is based on its multiple lenses, but what defines the lenses are the front lens and the magnifying rear part.

So rather than having a 23 inch cannon hanging on your camera and potentially damaging it, the lens can simply zoom it in. That’s to put it in very simple terms.

Long and short telephoto lenses have their own respective uses.

  • The popular long telephoto lenses are able to compress their object and squeeze everything into a neat and tight image.
  • On the other hand, a short telephoto lens will help you stretch out your subject. It can also help you with close-up photography.

Which One Is Better: Telephoto vs. Wide Angle vs. Zoom Lens?

Since we covered the telephoto lens, let’s introduce the other competitors in terms of lens choices.

Wide-Angle Lenses

Wide-Angle lenses have a shorter focal length than your usual lenses. Photographers take advantage of this to expand the horizon in their shots. Using a wide-angle lens will make subjects that are closer look larger, while leaving the background untouched.

Pros

  • Although it’s debatable, wide-angle lenses force you to get up close and personal with your subject. This helps you catch details that you would otherwise miss from a distance.
  • Wide-angle lenses are usually smaller and lighter, giving you a lightweight solution for a full day of photo journaling.

Cons

  • No more bokeh, since you have a long depth of field. You can still manage getting some bokeh if you get extremely close and your wide angle lens has the needed capabilities.
  • Not ideal for low-light conditions and it’s not cheap either.
wide angle lens
Photo by Jakob Owens

Zoom Lenses

Zoom lenses provide a wide array of focal length for their user. Some have short ranges, but usually it ranges from wide to telephoto. Although the telephoto results may have a significant decrease in quality.

Pros

  • Ease of zooming in and out. This helps you change your photos composition and take the perfect shot. If your subject moves, just zoom it either in or out. Just make them fit properly in the frame.
  • Saves space and weight since you can carry multiple focal lengths in one lens.

Cons

  • However, these lenses will only take in limited amounts of light. Giving you a clear disadvantage whenever shooting in low-light conditions.
  • Zoom lenses also tend to have an issue with sharpness. They are less sharp then the competing prime and budget telephoto lens.
zoom lens on chair

So which is better? Well, all of them! It’s hard to deny that every lens has their intended uses. They will all shine in different situations. But! If I was forced to choose one of these lenses to use for my whole life, I’d choose the telephoto lens.

Which may seem quite obvious, but you can’t deny that it does a really great job at compressing photos with astounding sharpness.

Telephoto lens photography is quite flexible too, making it a good choice for photographers who would like to mix it up.

Final Remarks

Here is a quick recap of the telephoto lens:

  • Telephoto lenses have a focal length over 60mm.
  • It is capable of bringing your portrait and landscape photography to the next level with its ability to isolate subjects, make objects appear close, and create astonishing portraits.
  • Telephoto lenses work by zooming the subject with a narrow angle of view. This effectively crops the image while keeping its quality high.

Telephoto lens photography does a great job when capturing portraits and subjects that are far away. It becomes a worthwhile investment that elevates your photography to new heights.

But don’t just rely on your gear too much, since you still need to study how to effectively capture images using the various concepts tied to your niche. Keep practicing and studying!

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