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How to Use Telephoto Lenses: The Definitive Guide

Rajib Mukherjee Avatar
Rajib Mukherjee
18 January, 2023 • Updated 14 days ago
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photographer shoots outdoors with a camera with a Telephoto lens on the background of a sunset
Telephoto lenses are one of the most commonly used lens types in photography. They come in various focal lengths, maximum apertures, build quality, and prices to suit a range of different needs.

 In this discussion, we will talk about how to use telephoto lenses in your photography. I will cover the applications of telephoto lenses, the conditions under which you can use telephoto lenses, the precautions that you should take when using these lenses, and the limitation telephoto lens users have to work around.

What are Telephoto Lenses?

women's white bucket hat photo in Namibia

Let’s briefly touch on the definition of telephoto lenses. We know that the 35mm and the 50mm are standard focal lengths. The 35mm is a slightly wide-angle lens compared to the 50mm, widely considered the standard prime focal length. Any lens with a focal length longer than 50mm is technically a telephoto lens.

The purpose of telephoto lenses is to shoot over a long distance and yet still fill the frame with the subject you’re focusing on. Telephoto lenses are also helpful when you want to take candid pictures of your subject and therefore do not want to get too close, like when you’re capturing wildlife or recording moments at an event.

One exciting feature of telephoto lenses is that they are capable of magnifying objects. To test this effect, shoot with a 50mm prime before switching to a 200mm focal length without moving – you should notice that the subject appears much larger than it is.

Telephoto Primes vs. Telephoto Zoom

flat lay photography of DSLR camera set photo

Telephoto lenses come in two different varieties. These are telephoto primes, and telephoto zooms. Telephoto primes are lenses that don’t zoom. They have a fixed focal length. Telephoto zooms, on the other hand, are lenses that offer a variable focal length.

Prime telephotos are ideally suited when you can control the distance between the subject and the camera, such as with still lifes.

Zooms, however, are more ideal when you have little control over your subject and may have limited mobility while capturing an image, such as when you’re stuck in your seat at a sports match. Wildlife photography is also best captured using a telephoto zoom lens, as you won’t want to startle your subject while trying to create the perfect composition with a prime lens.

Different Uses of Telephoto Lenses

This section will cover the ideal genres of photography for telephoto lenses, as well as their application in these fields.

Sports Photography

Horse race in Sankt Moritz called White Turf, Saint Moritz, Switzerland

Sports photography is one of the most demanding genres of photography. It’s heavily dependent on both the equipment you use as a photographer and your skillset.

 Sports photography requires some of the best telephoto lenses in the business. The minimum focal length you need to shoot sports photography is a 400mm lens. Professional sports photographers use lenses that are longer in focal length than this. In other words, a telephoto lens is essential to shoot sports photography.

There are expensive lenses, such as the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8, which cost nearly $12,000! This lens has a maximum aperture of f/2.8. However, it’s prohibitively expensive and beyond the reach of most photographers. If you are beginning in sports photography, you can use lenses such as the Sigma 100-400mm f/5-6.3 or the Tamron 18-400mm f/3.5-6.3.

Wildlife Photography

brown lion on green grass field

Wildlife photography is also a very demanding genre of photography. The lens requirement for wildlife photography is very similar to sports photography. Just like in sports photography, you need lenses that have a fast aperture; in wildlife photography, you also need to shoot with a wide aperture and long focal length. A fast aperture helps capture a lot of light, and that’s always great for shooting in less than sufficient circumstances. The long focal length lets the photographer reach the action without putting himself in harm’s way or startling the subjects.

Portrait Photography

woman in black hat

Telephoto lenses are great options for portrait photography because the photographer does not have to get too close to the person to capture the image. With lenses that require close physical proximity, facial features can often become distorted, leading to an image that does not reflect the person in it.  With telephoto lenses, especially lenses with a focal length of 85mm, the focal length is perfect and suitable for portrait photography.

Travel Photography

person in gray hoodie using camera with Telephoto Lens

Travel photographers often use a telephoto lens because they prefer to travel light, and one lens, preferably a zoom that offers both wide angle and telephoto, is preferred.

The telephoto-zoom lens can be 70-200mm or 24-120mm or anything else that offers wide-angle and telephoto properties. The telephoto focal length ensures that the lens can capture images at a distance. Because of the focal length, a tight composition can be achieved. The same telephoto lens can be used as a portrait lens using tricks like background blur and background compression. It’s a versatile tool suitable for all facets of travel photography.

Telephoto Lens Features to Master

If you are going to use a telephoto lens to its fullest potential, you need to understand how and why to utilize the features most telephoto lenses are packed with.

Focus Delimiter Switch

black camera lens

A focus delimiter switch is present on many telephoto lenses and is important for focusing times. This button can be easy to spot because it has a few numbers and signs either on or next to it. For example, the Canon 400mm f/2.8 has the letters 2.5m – 7m and 7m ∞ mentioned. The word ‘Full’ can also be spotted. This suggests you can select the focusing distance when working with this lens. When you select ‘Full,’ the lens’s entire focusing range is utilized to look for focus.

When the 2.5m – 7m is selected, the lens’s focusing range is limited to within that range only. When the 7m to ∞ is selected, the focusing range from 7m to ∞ (infinity) is used for locking focus.

The focus delimiter button is handy when shooting wildlife, sports and action photography, as it allows for quick focusing times. The focusing range is set to only a limited distance, preventing the lens from having to hunt through various focal lengths to focus.

To use this function, photographers have to know the ballpark distance at which their subjects can be, allowing them to set the focusing distance accordingly. This saves them critical time and improves their chances of capturing just the right moment.

Manual Focusing Override

camera in the hands of the photographer

A manual focusing override is a tool that’s provided on most new lenses. This tool or feature allows a photographer to grab the manual focusing ring to adjust the focus, even when the lens’s autofocusing mechanism is engaged.

With standard lenses, i.e., lenses that don’t have this option, you will have to slide the AF/MF manual selector switch to the MF position, and only then will you be able to operate the manual focusing ring. This takes additional time that you may not have when shooting a moving subject.

Manual focusing isn’t the preferred way to focus when shooting moving subjects, as human error may prevent you from capturing the perfect shot. However, in case of emergency, it’s nice to have the option available.

Telephoto Lens and Aperture

Telephoto lens aperture

There is a close relationship between telephoto lenses and apertures. As we know, telephoto lenses can magnify images. But when the subject is magnified and brought closer to the camera, it also increases the chance of a shallow depth of field. When you’re focusing on a face, for example, and your aperture is at its widest, you will notice that the eyes are sharp, but the rest of the face, such as the tip of the nose and the ears, are not in focus. This happens because those fall outside the depth of field. If you ensure that the aperture is smaller, you can increase the depth of field and bring the whole face into focus.

Your aperture will also depend on how much of the frame you’re going to fill with your subject. Let’s say you’re photographing someone standing at a distance of ten feet, you’re using a 70-200mm lens and decide to fill the entire frame with the person’s face. Your aperture should be slightly on the smaller side to ensure that the whole face is focused (as has also been demonstrated above).

On the other hand, if you’re only going to use the face to fill a small part of the frame and the rest of the frame is filled with the background, you can use a bigger aperture and yet get the whole face within the depth of field.  

The Inverse of the Focal Length Rule

white snow on blue ocean water during daytime

What if you’re using a legacy DSLR system complete with a lens that does not have image stabilization? How do you manage shooting with such a rig without image stabilization? There is an old system legacy camera users tend to abide by. This system uses a simple technique. They used a shutter speed that’s the inverse of the lens’s focal length. For example, if someone uses a 200mm focal length, they would use a shutter speed of at least 1/200 sec. This would ensure that the image isn’t blurry.

Conclusion

Hopefully, the above techniques I have shared have helped you better understand how to use telephoto lenses. I’ve covered many working examples to showcase these lenses’ real-world applications, so now it’s time for you to go experiment with your own telephoto lens. Happy clicking!

Rajib Mukherjee Avatar
Written by
Rajib Mukherjee
Rajib is an avid travel photographer and an overall shutterbug. The first time he ever clicked an image was with an Agfa Click IV back in 1984. A medium format film camera. From that auspicious introduction to photography, he has remained hooked to this art form. He loves to test and review new photography gear. Rajib travels quite a lot, loves driving on Indian roads, playing fetch with his Labrador retriever, and loves photography. And yes, he still proudly owns that Agfa Click IV!
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