What is a telephoto lens? And how can you use one to create gorgeous images?
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 explain:
- What a telephoto lens actually is
- The best telephoto lenses you can buy in 2023
- How to keep your telephoto shots sharp
- Much more!
So if you’re ready to have plenty of telephoto fun, then let’s dive right in, starting with…
What is a telephoto lens?
A telephoto lens essentially crops the world – so that the perspective you get when using the lens is tighter than the perspective you get with your naked eye.
You may be familiar with the standard 50mm focal length, which closely matches the field of view offered by the human eye. Telephoto lenses, therefore, feature a focal length that’s longer than 50mm, most commonly in the area of 70-300mm. Lenses longer than 300mm are designated as super telephoto, which is a subcategory of telephoto glass generally used by wildlife and bird photographers.
Because telephoto lenses are designed to get you a close view of your subject, they tend to be big and heavy. This presents a variety of problems, including increased camera shake and reduced portability. On the other hand, if you need to get a detailed shot of a distant element, a telephoto lens is often the best way to get it done, as I discuss in the next section:
When should you use a telephoto lens?
Telephoto lenses are handy in a variety of situations. I’d recommend bringing one out whenever:
- You want to capture a detailed shot of a bird, animal, or distant sports player
- You want to create a tight headshot
- You want to capture abstract shots of a distant landscape feature
- You want to create a beautiful background blur effect
- You want to highlight specific architectural features of a building
Basically, if your goal is to get closer to your subject, then a telephoto lens is a solid solution. (Sometimes it’s better to physically move closer – but in scenarios where this isn’t possible, your telephoto lens is the way to go.)
Of course, telephoto lenses do come with some serious drawbacks, as I mentioned above. Because they’re so big and heavy, it’s best to avoid using a telephoto lens when you’re attempting to shoot discreetly (e.g., on the street). It can also be a good idea to leave your telephoto lens at home when shooting in low-light scenarios; long, heavy lenses can exacerbate camera shake issues, leading to blurry photos. And if your goal is to capture an expansive landscape or cityscape scene, you’d be better served using a wide-angle lens.
Also note that different telephoto lenses do have different purposes. A short telephoto lens is best for larger, less skittish subjects (e.g., people portraits); a medium telephoto lens is best for larger subjects photographed from a distance (e.g., athletes, architecture, and landscape features); and a super telephoto lens is best for tiny and/or extremely skittish subjects, such as birds.
The best telephoto lenses in 2023
Every major camera manufacturer offers several outstanding telephoto lenses to choose from. Here’s a brief overview to help you out.
Canon photographers should consider the incredible EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM; sure, it’s big and bulky, but if you want to capture a variety of telephoto shots in nearly any lighting scenario, it’ll get the job done. Canon mirrorless users should also check out the RF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM, which is another incredible (though very pricey) option. And if you plan to shoot slower subjects (e.g., landscapes) using a tripod, I’d recommend purchasing the EF 70-200mm f/4L IS II USM or (for mirrorless photographers) the RF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM instead.
Finally, if your goal is to capture wildlife or birds, the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens is long, sharp, and very durable.
Nikon DSLR photographers would do well to consider the amazing AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II, which is perfect for low-light events photography, concerts, and sports. The Nikon mirrorless alternative is also outstanding: the Z 70-200mm f/2.8 S.
Nikon does offer a very nice 70-200mm f/4G ED VR model, though it’s tough to find new. And Nikon bird and wildlife shooters should consider the AF-S FX 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR (while mirrorless photographers may wish to look at the Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S).
Sony’s lens lineup isn’t quite as impressive as Canon’s or Nikon’s, but there are still several excellent telephoto options to choose from, including the FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS II lens – for fast-action and low-light photography – and the FE 70-200mm f/4 G OSS – for folks looking to do more deliberate landscape and architectural shooting.
9 tips for beautiful telephoto photography
In this section, I offer a handful of tips to get your telephoto shots looking sharp, well-composed, and refined.
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:
Your ultimate guide to telephoto lens photography. Make sure you carefully read each section and pay special attention to the tips. You’ll be capturing outstanding shots in no time at all!
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!