When and How to use a Telephoto Zoom Lens :: Digital Photo Secrets
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When and How to use a Telephoto Zoom Lens

by David Peterson 48 comments

The easiest way to achieve this is to use your feet. You can get almost as close as you want to a subject just by walking up to it. It's so easy (and important to good photos) that my very first tip on my free tips course is Move Closer. Filling the frame entirely with your subject makes a terrific difference to your photos.

Of course, that assumes you can actually walk up to the subject in question. Sometimes you have other objects in your way, or your subject is high above you. This is where having a zoom lens in the telephoto range comes in handy.

What is a zoom lens?

A zoom lens is any kind of lens that magnifies a part of the image so it appears as the full image. Most point and shoot cameras allow you to zoom in and out with a few buttons located on the camera’s main control panel. Digital SLRs have lenses mounted on the front, and the zoom can be adjusted by simply twisting the lens to the right or left.

The way the lens magnifies is by changing what is called the 'focal point' of the lens. The further the focal point is away from the image sensor inside the camera, the more magnified the image will be. You may have noticed that zoom lenses have two 'mm' numbers written on them. For instance, 50mm to 200mm. These are the focal points the lens is able to produce.

Lenses with a focal range above 100mm are classed as telephoto. These allow you to zoom in on the action. The higher the number, the further in your camera can zoom.

Many beginner digital SLR kits offer a 50mm to 200mm telephoto zoom lens. Whenever you zoom in completely with this lens, you are zooming all the way to 200mm. When you zoom out, you are going back to the normal 50mm focal length.

Normal and telephoto lenses

In photography, 50mm is considered the “normal” focal length. That’s because whenever you look through a 50mm lens, it doesn’t appear as if there is any magnification or other distortion. It is exactly like looking through your own eyes, and that is why 50mm is the standard lens focal length. If you were to multiply that number by four, you would get 200mm. In other words, a 200mm lens magnifies everything in the scene by a factor of four.

The higher the mm number, the more you will be able to zoom in.

Point and Shoot cameras have a 'digital zoom' that performs a similar function to the telephoto lens in that it magnifies the image. However, digital zoom is not really ‘zoom’ in the strictest definition of the term. Digital zoom just enlarges the image. It takes a portion of the image and enlarges it back to full size. You lose quality because of the enlargement process so photos that have been taken with digital zoom won’t look as good as those without. See my tip on Optical vs Digital Zoom for more details on why I recommend you DO NOT use a digital zoom.

Wide-angle zooms

There are other zoom lenses to cover focal lengths under 50mm. These are considered “wide angle zooms.” Imagine looking at something with your own eyes and being able to zoom out further without walking backwards. It’s a pretty strange thought, isn’t it? Wide-angle zoom lenses do just that! At any focal length under 50mm, the lens starts to take extra light in from the sides, bringing more of the surroundings into the frame. Hence the wide-angle name.

Keep quiet and get the best shots

The number one reason you will want to use a telephoto zoom lens is to get close to a subject when you either can’t or shouldn’t. Wildlife photographers love their telephoto zooms because they allow them to take pictures of animals without disturbing them. This makes it easier to get more authentic and natural images.

Speaking of animals, people tend to act quite differently when they know they are being photographed. With a telephoto zoom lens, you can capture candid moments while your friends or children are none the wiser. I’m not talking about doing anything crazy like hiding behind the bushes. Just casually sit back at a social gathering and snap away. As long as you don’t have to use a flash, most people won’t know they are being photographed.

Use a telephoto zoom to isolate your subject

Getting closer to your subject with a zoom telephoto lens will both isolate your subject and draw attention to it. Many second rate photographs aren’t visually interesting because the photographer hasn’t taken the time to isolate the subject and make it pop. When you zoom in on the important details, your subjects will always steal the show. Normal lenses don’t always give you this luxury, which is another reason why telephoto zoom lenses are crucial. I teach you this technique in my Depth of Field Secrets course.

Oftentimes, there is something beautiful and interesting on the horizon that you want to photograph. Of course you can’t actually walk up to it to take the photograph, so your best bet is to have a good telephoto zoom. This will allow you to isolate that mountain in the background or amazing sunset, keeping only the most important details.

A word of caution

There are a few precautions to be taken whenever you use a telephoto or telephoto zoom lens. At very high focal lengths, like 200mm, your pictures become more and more susceptible to camera shake. Some telephoto lenses have a vibration reduction mechanism that helps, but it doesn’t do the entire job. If you suspect your photo won’t turn out right because of camera shake, simply bring a tripod with your whenever you take pictures with your telephoto lens.

Telephoto lenses are known to distort images. This is known as the “telephoto effect,” and it amounts to a kind of flattening. Everything, when seen from far away, appears kind of flat. If you have ever been out hiking on a mountain, you know how this can become very deceptive. At first, you think your goal isn’t too far away. But as you get closer, you realize just how much mountain is in front of you.

We human beings are basically unable to know the depth of an object until we get up close to it. When you use a telephoto lens, you aren’t actually getting close to your subject. You’re just magnifying the horizon. Some photographers use the telephoto effect for creative purposes. Cityscapes, when taken with a telephoto lens, have an added element of spookiness and conformity. There are plenty of ways to use this flattening effect for your new idea.

A telephoto zoom lens is a great tool for capturing candid moments when you can’t get physically close to your subject. It lets you bridge gaps and isolate subjects while standing still. As long as you take the right precautions and use a tripod when necessary, you’ll have some visually interesting shots. Take some time and send a few my way. I can’t wait to see them.

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  1. Terry says:

    Hello. I have a nikon D3300. I just purchased a telephoto lense and attached it to my camera and in live vies it looks amazing ,however, when i go to take the picture, the result is a blank photo (all black) i have used my tripod and nothing seems to work...what can i do/am I doing wrong?

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Terry,

      There are a couple of reasons for getting a blank photo. First, make sure you are in Auto Mode. That will make sure you're not in any of the other modes (like Manual Mode) that can cause a black image. If that doesn't work, check that you have the correct lens for your camera model. If the electrical connections aren't the same, then the lens can't focus or tell the camera what kind of aperture it has. That normally shouldn't cause a black image, but it's worth a look.

      If none of those work, I recommend you take it back to your place of purchase (along with your camera) and ask them to diagnose. It will be a lot easier to find a solution to the problem when they have the lens and camera together.

      I hope that helps.


  2. Vedi says:

    Hi David, i want to purchase a DSLR so confused in brand canon or sony which one should i do buy. Though iam a beginer but want a lens which give a good images wen i travel to catch all landscaspe,monuments, sceneries, and family/people photos so which u suggest me

    • David Peterson says:

      HI Vedi,

      I would stick with the brand you know. If you already have a Canon camera, choose a Canon DSLR. If you already have a Sony, Nikon or other camera, choose that brand again for your DSLR. The reason I recommend this is so you don't need to re-learn all the menus. The menus for different manufacturers are quite different from each other.


  3. Rick Moore says:

    Hi, I have an Cannon EOS 1200D.
    I'm looking at getting a new lens for taking long distance shots, I do a few cruises and would like to take landscape shots from a distance but would like to know what's the best zoom lens (on a budget) for this as I'm just starting out (a novice).
    I look forward to your advice
    Thanks in advance.

  4. Renee franklin says:

    Hi! I am an inspiring photographer who just purchased a cannon sl1. Do you think this camera is good enough to begin with as I will be shooting family portraits. It came with an 18-55mm lens as well as a 75-300mm lens. I was also leaning toward the cannon t6i. Instead.

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Renee,

      Yes, that's a good entry level camera. It will be fine for family portraits.

      I hope you enjoy your new camera!


  5. Danielle says:

    I have a Canon Rebel T5 with 2 lenses. I want to use the telephoto lense for some shots at my son's lacrosse game. Any suggestions on the best way to do this? I use to use a lumix with a great soon but this DSLR was a gift and I want to learn to use it correctly. I have great action shots from my last camera. Any advice how to accomplish the same here? Thanks!

    • David Peterson says:

      You didn't state it, but I'm assuming you're having problems with blurry images?

      Unfortunately unless you have a very expensive telephoto lens, it's not going to be easy, as these lenses (particularly at full zoom) don't let a lot of light into the camera.

      However, there are some things you can do to help. Try some of the suggestions here: http://www.digital-photo-secrets.com/tip/4376/ask-david-scourge-photography-blurry-images/



        Thank you so much for the tips David. Already had the tripod ready to avoid camera shake but the other tips with be invaluable as I trgy to get some good shots of my son on the lacrosse field. We don't generally worry about the light as they play day games but the help with how and where to focus: Great advice. Thank you again!

  6. Sarah says:

    Hello! I have a canon eos rebel t5, and I was wondering if a telephoto lens is better for creating a more blurred background, or if I can create that effect by changing the aperture on my 18-55mm lens.

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Sarah,

      Yes, you can create a blurred background with your 18-55 lens. Use Aperture Priority with a low f-number, or choose "Portrait Mode" (which will do the same thing). You don't say what f-range your lens supports, but the lower the better.

      You don't need a zoom lens to create blurred backgrounds, but you do need to make sure your subject is a lot closer to the camera than the background is. Here's why: http://www.digital-photo-secrets.com/tip/4474/blurred-backgrounds/


  7. Peggy cooper says:

    I have a canon eos rebel t3 with lens efs18-55 mm.I want a lens that will take professional photos.what type lens do you recommend?

  8. Mary says:

    I have a Nikon D3200 and four different lens (still a rookie) but loving photography. I have not taken classed mostly due to distance and being older and trying to remember everything from a class ( I took Photgraphy 101) but tried to take notes and could not keep up. lol! I got frustrated so having these informative webs sites is what I am now using to try to get better pictures. I am leaning from you and thank you for this. I shoot (or try) to shoot wildlife but not an easy subject due to most are either hard to find..deer etc or the birds (hawks) just don't wait till your ready to shoot. I love the challenge tho. otherwise I love scenery and the farm animals ( they are quieter) and some or mostly candid shots of people as they are not my most favorite subjects. Thank you for helping me and others fine our way around the lens. Oh my next camer soon is going to be the Nikon D7100 as I am a bit afraid I am not ready for the D7200.

  9. Donna Dumas says:

    I received a canon eos rebel t5 for christmas. It doesn't seem to zoom in as much as my point and shoot did. The lense says 18-55mm. I like to take landscape/wildlife pictures. Will this be enough to zoom in on? What do you recommend. The camera was not that expensive as it is a starter but the lenses look very expensive in some cases costs more than the camera. Any suggestions?

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Donna,

      A 10-55mm lens is a more wide angle lens and doesn't zoom in much. So it's perfect for the landscape photos you want to take.

      To take close up images of wildlife, you'll need a zoom lens like a 55-300mm.

      Yes, lenses are expensive, but the great news is you can keep them and use them with any new camera body you purchase!

      More info on what the MM means on a lens is here: http://www.digital-photo-secrets.com/tip/215/what-does-the-mm-mean-on-a-lens/

      I hope that helps.


  10. Lpb says:

    When should I use a portrait lens vs. the telephoto lens?

    • David Peterson says:


      A portrait lens is usually a wider-angle lens, so you can fit more in the image. That's the opposite of a telephoto lens where you 'zoom in' to part of a scene.

      So use a portrait lens when you're taking photos of people (obviously!) or landscapes; and a telephoto lens when you want to get close to something without walking closer (for example, a wild bird).

      I hope that helps.


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