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Zoom In: How to Use a Telephoto Lens

A telephoto lens is a great tool for just about any photographer. They expand your range of options for your photography and allow you to get some surprising images — ones that can’t be seen with the naked eye because of the distance involved. Telephoto lenses take some getting used to, as they can lead to frustratingly blurry images to those that aren’t experienced.

Here are some tips for how to use a telephoto lens:

Surfer

200mm lens, cropped down to what would have been about a 400mm lens at f/2.8 and 1/3200 sec

What is a telephoto lens?

Generally speaking, telephoto lenses are 70mm or more in focal length. They can be prime lenses or zoom lenses. I’m sure other people have different opinions, but I would consider 35mm and under to be wide angle, 36 – 69mm to be a standard view, and 70mm and over to be telephoto. Telephoto lenses tend to be bigger, longer, and heavier than other lenses. One unique characteristic is that they do not produce much distortion, like a wide angle lens would. This is why they are great for portraits, when you want a person to look like they do in real life.

When should I use a telephoto?

Portraits are a good time to use a long lens for the distortion factor. They also allow you to photograph from a little bit of a distance. This can be helpful for putting your subject at ease, without a camera close to their face. Nature photographers use telephoto lenses because they allow the photographer to stay at a distance to their subject (perhaps the subject is dangerous or scares easily) while getting a close up photo.

Sports photographers use telephoto lenses often for similar reasons: they can’t get too close to the action and they want to get a close up shot. It’s not realistic to have a camera up close to an athlete while they are performing. Telephoto lenses are also helpful for detail shots. Depending on the minimum focusing distance of the lens, you can get a macro shot of an object to make it look larger than life.

110mm

What settings should I use?

The main complaint that I hear from new telephoto users, is that their photos are blurry. Before you blame the lens for your problems, take a look at the settings. Telephoto lenses require much faster shutter speeds than other lenses, especially if you are not using a tripod to stabilize it. My general rule of thumb is to divide 1 by the focal length for shutter speed. So a 200mm lens needs 1/200 sec to be sharp handheld. And a 500mm lens needs to be 1/500 sec or faster.

If you are using a cropped sensor, keep in mind that your 200mm lens is actually 300mm or more and set your shutter speed accordingly. Also, take note of your ability to hold the camera steady. Some people just have shakier hands than others. This will affect your ability to get sharp images with a long lens.

Tools to use

There are tools to help if you aren’t the steadiest of shooters. Consider a tripod or monopod to help stabilize the camera. Image stabilization systems that are build into your camera or lens can also help. Take a look at the specifications for your equipment to find out how many stops the image stabilizations covers you for.

Experiment

Take the time to experiment with the type of shooting you expect to do and what apertures work. In general, it’s best to keep the lens at the widest aperture you can, to keep the shutter speed as fast as you can. Since telephoto lenses have very thin depth of fields at wide apertures, you may need to compromise on shutter speed or ISO to get more depth of field. It may be that your entire subject is not in focus at 200mm and f/2.8 and you need to stop down to f/5.6 to get the focus you need.

Telephoto lenses do not need to be intimidating, but they do a require a little practice and knowledge to avoid frustration. Before you shoot important photos, take the time to test the limits of your equipment and your hands.

What kind of subjects do you photograph with a telephoto lens? 

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7 Comments

Cody Powers

In regards to crop sensor cameras and telephoto lenses. I question weather the crop factor plays a significant role in blur on long lenses. The effective focal length may be 300mm with a 200mm lens but the actual focal length and distance are still the same. The lens is just covering a smaller area not actually increasing focal length.

Reply
Daniel Foster

I don’t question that Cody, it’s a simple matter of ratio. If a cropped image is expanded to fill the frame, the sharpness will reduce by the ratio of expansion.

Reply
Daniel Foster

I don’t question that Cody, it’s a simple matter of ratio. If a cropped image is expanded to fill the frame, the sharpness will reduce by the ratio of expansion.

Reply
Tim

I see you still use the old 1 over focal length to determine minimum shutter speed, have you ever blown up an image taken at that to 100% and examined it closely? While my opinion doesn’t count for anything, I know a few long time work professionasl who have their minimum shutter speed as 3 times the focal length. If you want it sharp go as fast as you can when hand holding a big lens.

T

Reply
Duncan

“Since telephoto lenses have very thin depth of fields at wide apertures, you may need to compromise on shutter speed or ISO to get more depth of field.” I think you should add to this statement that you need to adjust the aperture yourself if you are in manual mode 🙂

Reply
malcolm

Hi. I am new to photography and have purchased a nikon D3200 dslr camera. I also have a 55-200 lens with it. I just purchased a 2X telephoto lens. When I zoom in on some thing it just seems to go slightly blurred and cloudy. It this the norm or is it a dodgy lens.

Many thanks.
Malcolm.

Reply
Jim

I have had problems with my zoom achieving focus lock at distant objects.
Any suggestions as to what focus mode I should use?

Reply

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