When and How to use a Telephoto Zoom Lens

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When and How to use a Telephoto Zoom Lens

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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About the Author ()

David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.

Comments (30)

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  1. Rosemary Meadows says:

    I will be happy to get information to help me Tahoe better photos for my art work.

  2. Kehinde Olarewaju says:

    Good job, well done. Please keep it up

  3. Ranjith says:

    Hi David,

    Very good tips, very helpful to beginners like me.

    Could you help me to decide on the best Av & exposure settings while using telephoto lenses. I have a canon 55-250 mm lens and I am using it in 2 scenarios. For shooting birds and shooting landscapes/mountains. While shooting birds using telephoto how do I get a freezing shot?
    Thanks in advance.

    • Hi Ranjith,

      Because the light changes so much, I can’t give you specific settings to use with your telephoto lens. All I can recommend is you use a shutter speed the inverse of your focal length. For example, if your lens is set to 200mm, make sure your shutter is 1/200 sec or faster. Otherwise you’ll get blurry images.

      I hope that helps.


  4. micron says:

    I have a camera which is cannon 600d with a zoom lens 80 to 200mm i cant shoot indoor with it without flash its always dark outdoor is normal
    Please help me out

  5. Irwin Partridge says:

    Hi David!
    Your articles are excellent i love reading them and they are very helpfull. I have a Question!
    When i use my 55mm-200mm lens it doesn’t matter whether i shoot at the 50mm range or zoom to 200mm i am finding that my shots are always dark,is there something i am doing wrong as i always keep my appeture open especially when zooming to 200mm.

    • odufuwafotos rahman says:

      Irwin , i believe wt an aperture at its widest and ISO increase a little and a mediumly increase light compensation you shld have a nirmal exposure

  6. Margaret Bracewell says:

    I was at the zoo yesterday taking pictures of animals with a friend. He has a more basic Nikon DSLR camera, while I have a Nikon D5300 with a 55-200mm telephoto lens. Why could he zoom in and get more up close shots than my camera would let me?

  7. Sarah says:

    Hi, I have question! I have a Canon 75-300mm lens. I love it, but I have to be standing at least 5 feet away from something to get a clear image. So if I’m a foot away from and object and want to take a detailed image, I can’t because my lens won’t focus. I’ve tried everything from manual focus to adjusting aperture… It won’t work! Am I missing something or is this what I should expect from a telephoto lens?

    • Hi Sarah,

      It depends on your lens. Some zoom lenses can focus closer to the camera, but others (like the Canon you have) can’t. If you want to take detailed shots, try macro instead – that will allow you to get a lot closer focus.


  8. Sunil Yadav says:

    Awesome Article Available on internet so far…….Mr. Peterson I have to say You Have Both camera as well as article skills….Good Job

  9. Angela says:

    great lesson learnt

  10. RC says:

    Great article! Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us.

  11. Luis Javier says:

    Amazing, you have git the claruty of those who really know the subject. Thank you for sharing your knoledge.

  12. Rajeev says:

    Really awesome article, very much helpful….
    Thanks a lot

  13. Tanmay Mandal says:

    thanx.really helpful..

  14. AppySa says:

    The article was very comprehensive. Thanks…

  15. Joanna Wood says:

    Mmmmmh the disadvantage of being older is that one forgets information!
    Well worth the effort to go back and read your articles David!

  16. Roy says:

    What is the difference in clarity/ sharpness between a photo taken at 200mm using a 70-300 telephoto zoom and one taken with a 200mm prime lens?

    • Lloyd says:

      Hi Roy, the difference is quite noticeable if you look at details. The prime lens has less glass through which light rays have to travel so there’s less dispersion and therefore always sharper. Some people can’t be bothered though as long as they are able to capture the essence of the subject being photographed.

  17. Keith Walker says:

    Lenses intended for use on 35mm film cameras have their apparent focal length increased by 1,5 times when used on an APS-C sensor. So a (say) 75-300mm Minolta lens used on a Sony DSLR would effectively turn into a 105-450mm equivalent

    The 18-70mm kit lens with the Sony A300 series has the same field of view as a 27-105mm would have on a 35mm film SLR camera

  18. Iulian Alex says:

    For one amazing efect to landscape photo, use wide-angle zoom ( for DSLR camera ) under 50mm. Sugestion: 10-20mm ; 10-17mm fish eye for APS-C DSLR camera.

  19. Iulian Alex says:

    David has wright. Used one telephoto have much moore oportunitty to catch images from long distance to subject. For portrait if use one telephoto with focusing on the center point, give one blurr efect arround to the subject. I used one 70-200mm f2.8 IS USM

  20. Hi Ramesh,

    If you have enough light (like a bright sunny day), you can still take non-blurry photos without a tripod. But if it’s a cloudy day or getting towards dusk, you have to use a tripod.

  21. Hi,
    Your tips are very nice for every moment.I have 70-300 Nikon Zoom.However being the Senior Citizen,it become shking.And every time I can’t carry tripod as it is rater heavy one.Please advice how should I take nice pictures with my zoom without tripod ?

  22. Vijayakumar B R says:

    I normally have my wide angle lens screwed in. Is it Ok if I change this to telephoto lens and use the 55m for wide angle purpose and zoom for other. Whis is advisable?

  23. Dumitru Drinovan says:

    Hi Dave,

    I believe you’re doing such a wonderful job with your photographic documentation/presentation in “Digital Photo Secrets”.
    I will recommend your site to my friends.
    It is not only very well documented but all explanations are so inspired and clear.

    Dumitru Drinovan,
    Hamilton, NJ

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