Capturing beautiful telephoto photography might seem hard, but it’s actually pretty easy – once you know a few tricks. I’ve been photographing with a telephoto lens for years, and over time, I’ve developed plenty of techniques that can elevate your shots to the next level.
Now, in this article, I aim to make you a telephoto expert. I’ll explain:
- When a telephoto effect is useful
- How to work with a telephoto lens for sharp pictures
- Extra equipment you may need to get the best results
- How to create stunning telephoto compositions
- Much more!
So if you’re ready to have plenty of telephoto fun, then let’s dive right in, starting with…
1. Use a tripod for the sharpest telephoto photography
Telephoto lenses are heavy, which means they’re prone to camera shake, plus they’re long, so they magnify any shake that does occur.
That’s why I always recommend you use a tripod with your telephoto lens if possible. Yes, tripods can be inconvenient and can limit flexibility, but they’ll keep your setup in a stable position while you shoot, and your files will turn out significantly sharper.
If you’d prefer not to work with a tripod, you might also consider a monopod, which is lighter, more mobile, and will still increase stability.
(By the way, a tripod or monopod has health benefits, too: It’ll save your back and arms from major fatigue and pain!)
2. Use a shutter release
If you do put your telephoto setup on a tripod, then you’re free to fire away…
…but I’d urge you to purchase a shutter release, which lets you fire off shots without actually touching your camera body.
Why is a shutter release so important? The simple act of pressing the shutter button will cause camera shake, and as I explained in the previous section, camera shake and telephoto lenses do not go well together. A shutter release will let you set up your camera, dial in the right settings, and then engage the shutter without causing extra vibrations.
Of course, there are times when a shutter release isn’t feasible. If you’re photographing fast-moving sports or birds in flight, you’ll want to ditch the shutter release and use your finger instead. But in other situations (e.g., when doing landscape photography), a shutter release will be a big help.
Also, if you use a DSLR, either activate the mirror lock-up setting or set your camera to Live View before taking a shot. When you hit the shutter button on a DSLR, the camera mirror flips up to expose the sensor, and this can create vibrations of its own – but mirror lock-up and Live View both flip the mirror in advance, preventing any loss of sharpness.
3. Bring the near and far together
Telephoto lenses offer a unique optical effect:
They flatten scenes, even those scenes that technically have great depth. And when used correctly, this can create some stunning results.
For instance, you can take two subjects, such as a person in the foreground and a mountain in the background, and make them appear on a similar plane. Or you can take a tree in the foreground and a moon in the background, smash them together (thanks to the telephoto effect), and get a shot like this one:
Do you see what I mean about the compressive telephoto effect? The tree and the moon look like they’re practically next to one another, and this gives a very graphic, striking result.
Of course, a telephoto effect isn’t always what you want – sometimes you might want to emphasize depth, and for that, a wide-angle lens is your friend – but I highly recommend you embrace telephoto compression and see what you can achieve.
4. Tightly frame your subject
Telephoto lenses let you get close to your subject. And you should use this capability to generate lots of impact.
Obviously, you can use a telephoto lens to get close to wildlife and show gorgeous details, like this shot (taken at 1200mm):
And by tightly framing the sea otter, I was able to create a more compelling, intimate composition.
But I recommend you go beyond tightly cropped wildlife shots. Try to crop tight with everything just to see what you get; go for tight buildings, tight people, tight landscapes, and more.
Tight crops aren’t always good, and there are times when it’s better to pull back a bit to show the subject in its environment. But a tight composition is a great place to start, especially if your subject includes lots of interesting details.
5. Isolate your subject
Here’s another telephoto photography composition tip:
Whenever possible, use your telephoto lens to hone in on and isolate subjects of interest from their surroundings.
Yes, you can capture isolated images of birds and other animals, which is great – but you can also isolate individual features of the landscape, as I did for this waterfall shot:
In fact, some of the most compelling landscape shots involve careful isolation, which is often best done at a telephoto focal length.
Don’t be afraid to include other relevant landscape features, of course, but before you go wide, ask yourself: What is essential to this composition? What do I care about? What do I want to show?
Often, by zooming in with a telephoto lens, you can get a simple – and stunning! – photo.
6. Embrace a shallow depth of field for a complementary background
Telephoto and super-telephoto lenses get you very close to the subject, and this decreases the depth of field.
In other words, when you’re shooting at 400mm, 500mm, and 600mm, you’ll have a razor-thin plane of focus to work with while the rest of the scene will be rendered as a blur.
And fortunately, thanks to the compressive effect of telephoto lenses (discussed above), the background blur tends to look really, really good. It’ll help your subject stand out, plus it can look gorgeous all on its own.
Note that, for the best bokeh effect, you’ll need to ensure there is a significant distance between the subject and the background. You should also dial in a wide aperture, somewhere between f/2.8 and f/6.3 (at least for most situations).
Check out the monkey shot below; do you see how the background has been blurred into oblivion so my subject is emphasized?
7. Try some telephoto macro photography
Did you know that telephoto lenses are amazing for macro photography, especially when combined with extension tubes?
You see, telephoto lenses offer great background bokeh (as I explained above), as well as compression, which means that you can isolate macro subjects without needing to get down in the dirt. The biggest issue is that they can’t always focus close enough, but that’s why you should invest in a handful of extension tubes, which let you get closer to the subject without reducing optical quality.
These clusters of flowers are smaller than a US quarter, yet I was able to photograph them at 420mm:
Note that telephoto lenses and true macro lenses have their benefits and drawbacks, so don’t feel like you should ditch your macro lens in favor of a telephoto lens or the other way around. Macro lenses let you get up close and personal with your subjects, and you can create interesting compositions by getting down on the ground with flowers, grasses, and the like.
But telephoto lenses offer flexibility, plus you get a nice background, so if you already own a telephoto lens, why not give it a shot?
8. Pan when photographing action
Panning is the practice of carefully following a moving subject with your camera (as opposed to leaving your camera stationary and waiting for the subject to venture into the frame).
And when you’re taking telephoto action pictures, I recommend you pan constantly.
For one, panning will ensure you nail focus as consistently as possible. It’ll also get you the sharpest shots because your lens will “stop” subject movement by staying in sync.
And panning can also give rise to a very cool effect, especially if you drop your shutter speed to around 1/60s and below. The subject will remain sharp – but the background will blur (as will any independently moving parts on your subject, like the legs of a running deer). Not everyone loves the slow-shutter panning effect, but it can look so artistic, and it’s a great way to keep shooting when the light is low.
9. Experiment with astrophotography
With a long-enough lens, your camera will become a low-power telescope, and you can capture images of the moon, the stars, and various planets.
No, your photos won’t be in the same class as astrophotography shots taken with a telescope, but you’ll certainly get eye-catching photos, especially if you restrict yourself to larger subjects such as the moon.
Before you get started, make sure you definitely have a stable tripod that can handle the weight of your entire telephoto setup, as well as a cable release (see the previous sections!).
I’d also recommend you set up in an area where there is little light pollution; that way, you can capture the most detail.
Note that the slightest vibration is enough to blur an astrophotography shot, so take special care to avoid this (use your camera’s mirror lock-up, and if your camera offers an electronic shutter, make sure it’s activated!).
For optimal drama, shoot with a high-resolution sensor and crop down in post production (while maintaining jaw-dropping detail!). That’s how I captured this moon photo:
Telephoto photography tips: final words
Well, there you have it:
9 tips for using telephoto lenses to capture beautiful photos. As long as you follow these tips, you’ll have a great time!
Now over to you:
What do you like to shoot with your telephoto lens? Do you have any telephoto tips I missed? Share your thoughts in the comments below!