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What’s a telephoto lens, and is it worth it?

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by David Em
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A telephoto lens is a type of lens used to photograph a subject that’s far away. Learn everything you need to know about telephoto lenses.

Estimated reading time: 11 minutes

Photographer sitting outdoors and taking a photo with a telephoto lens.
Photo courtesy of Canva.

Telephoto lenses are essential for taking your photography to the next level. Whether you’re a portrait, landscape, or wildlife photographer, you can benefit from using a telephoto lens.

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Have you used a prime or zoom lens and felt that you weren’t able to get close enough to your subject? There are limitations with wide-angle and standard lenses when you’re trying to fill the frame with a subject that’s far away.

That’s why telephoto lenses are beneficial. If you want to take photos of subjects at a distance or magnify them, use a telephoto lens.

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Any lens with a focal length between 60mm and 300mm is considered a telephoto lens. Anything longer than 300mm is getting into the super-telephoto range.

How and why it’s used

The purpose of a telephoto lens is to make a subject appear closer. It’s not always possible to get closer to a subject. Sometimes, you may not want to be closer. That’s where telephoto lenses come in handy.

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You can capture an image that brings a scene or subject closer without moving. They’re common among all types of photographers. Regardless of your skill level or genre of photography, you can find a good use for a telephoto lens.

In portrait photography, you may think that a 35mm lens is the best because it’s similar to what the human eye sees. Maybe, you prefer the nifty fifty because it’s the most versatile.

While 35mm and 50mm lenses are great for portraits, telephoto lenses can help you capture even better photos.

Photographer with text overlay.

One of the best benefits is that it provides an incredibly blurry background. By clearly and smoothly separating your subject from the background, your portraits will have excellent isolation. It also gives you a narrower field of view.

Together, they keep the focus on your subject by eliminating distractions around and behind them.

Another benefit of using a telephoto lens in portrait photography is that it creates flattering portraits. Your subject’s face will appear more natural and proportional instead of being distorted, which can be the result of a wide-angle lens.

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Aside from portrait photography, wildlife photographers benefit from telephoto lenses because they can maintain a safe and comfortable distance from animals while capturing close-up images with great detail.

You can also capture stunning landscapes and cityscapes.

Regardless of the type of photography you do, a telephoto lens is essential because it makes a subject appear closer without sacrificing image quality.

Are telephoto lenses worth it?

Overall, telephoto lenses are worth it. However, they aren’t without drawbacks. The main drawbacks include it being expensive, large, and heavy.

Short telephoto lenses, such as an 85mm lens, are generally smaller and cost less than 70-200mm or 100-400mm lenses.

With a shorter telephoto lens, you can shoot handheld images without worrying too much about image stabilization. With longer lenses, you’ll need a sturdy tripod or monopod.

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While a telephoto lens shouldn’t be the first or only lens that you get, it’s best as an additional lens.

If you have the budget, space, and a good tripod or monopod to hold a camera with a longer telephoto lens, it’s a must-have.

Different types

You can get a telephoto lens as a prime or zoom lens. The one you choose depends on your needs.

Regardless of being a prime or zoom lens, they fall into three main categories. They’re as follows:

  • Short telephoto: Ranges from 70mm to 135mm.
  • Medium telephoto: Ranges from 135mm to 300mm.
  • Super telephoto: Focal length is greater than 300mm.

Within the different categories, the lenses will have different maximum apertures.

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Keep in mind that a larger maximum aperture typically means the lens will be more expensive.

However, it’ll allow more light in through the lens, be faster, and produce a sharper image.

Choosing a telephoto lens

Photographer using a telephoto lens.
Photo courtesy of Canva.

As with investing in any camera lens, you must consider the price, size, weight, compatibility, and additional features.

With telephoto lenses, you’ll find that certain focal lengths work better for specific genres of photography.

Related: Landscape vs. portrait orientation in photography

The following are the most common telephoto lenses and what type of photography they work well for:

  • 70-200mm zoom lens: Portraits, weddings, landscapes, cityscapes, wildlife, and sports.
  • 85mm prime lens: Portraits and weddings.
  • 100-400mm zoom lens: Landscapes, wildlife, and sports.
  • 135mm prime lens: Portraits, weddings, landscapes, wildlife, and sports.
  • 200-500mm or 150-600mm zoom lens: Weddings, landscapes, sports, and wildlife.
  • 500mm or 600mm prime lens: Landscapes, sports, and wildlife.

Besides the type of photography you do, one of the most important aspects of choosing a telephoto lens is the features.

With a longer and heavier lens, taking handheld photos may lead to slightly blurry results. That’s why a must-have feature is image stabilization. It ensures that your images are consistently in focus and sharp.

Related: How to capture the sharpest portraits

Also, look for lenses that have larger maximum apertures. It’ll lead to better low-light performance, sharper photos, and it does a better job at separating your subject from the background.

Related: Best low-light lenses

When you’re shopping for a telephoto lens, it’s easy to narrow down the choices. However, don’t commit to a lens until you’ve tested it out.

While it may sound like the perfect one, real-life usage ensures that it’s the right choice.

Best telephoto lenses

When it comes to lenses, it’s important to note that you don’t need to get the lenses from specific brands. Look for similar features to achieve the same results.

You can also use a teleconverter to mix and match lenses and camera bodies.

The following are some of the top and best-performing telephoto lenses from different brands.

1. Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM Sport Lens

Sigma 70 to 200mm zoom lens.
Photo courtesy of B&H.

The 70-200mm is undoubtedly one of the most versatile lenses on the market.

If you’re looking for a high-quality option that’s cheaper and not from the camera brand, such as Canon, Nikon, or Sony, Sigma is your best choice.

It features image stabilization, superb performance, and image quality. The only drawback is that the tripod mount isn’t removable, which makes it feel larger.

This lens is the best for Canon full-frame cameras, as it’s compatible with Canon EF mounts. However, you can also get the same Sigma Sports Lens for Nikon F mount cameras.

2. 85mm f/1.8 Lens (Canon, Nikon, and Sony)

Three 85mm camera lenses.
Left to right: Canon, Nikon, and Sony. Photo courtesy of B&H.

The 85mm f/1.8 prime lens is one of the most popular lenses for portrait photography. It creates beautiful blurry backgrounds and captures sharp images.

Another benefit is that it allows you to take photos from further away compared to wider lenses, such as a 50mm. It can make your subject feel more comfortable, as the lens won’t be in their face.

Canon, Nikon, and Sony make excellent options. Plus, the f/1.8 aperture costs much less than f/1.4 or f/1.2 while still producing top-notch results. It also does very well in low-light conditions.

3. Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM

Side view of the Canon 135mm f/2 telephoto lens.
Photo courtesy of B&H.

Canon’s 135mm f/2L prime lens is fast and takes sharp images. It’s also one of the most popular choices among portrait and wedding photographers.

It’s similar to the 85mm lens. However, it offers a closer view, better compression, and even more separation between your subject and the background.

The Canon 135mm f/2L provides quick and quiet autofocus performance. Ask any photographer using the 135mm lens, and they’ll rave about it.

4. Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f/4-6.3 ASPH. POWER O.I.S. Lens

Panasonic Leica 100mm to 400mm lens.
Photo courtesy of B&H.

If you have a camera with a Micro Four Thirds system and want a wide range of focal lengths, it’s difficult to beat the Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm lens.

For such a wide range of focal lengths, the lens is compact. Plus, it can handle outdoor use, as it’s a durable and tough lens.

Another benefit is the impressive image stabilization, which ensures consistently sharp photos. The main drawback is the maximum apertures.

While f/4 is good, but it’s only at 100mm. At 600mm, the maximum aperture is f/6.3. You won’t be able to use it in low light conditions without increasing the ISO.

Overall, it’s a relatively light and compact lens that offers an excellent range of focal lengths for Micro Four Thirds users.

5. Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR Lens

Nikon 200mm to 500mm lens.
Photo courtesy of B&H.

The NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR Lens from Nikon is a fantastic lens.

The wide range of focal lengths makes it versatile, and the constant f/5.6 maximum aperture ensures that you can snap a photo at 500mm as quickly as you would at 200mm.

It also gives you consistent blur and light regardless of the focal length.

The lens has Nikon’s Vibration Reduction image stabilization, which works well and provides sharp images as a result.

The main drawback is that it’s heavy. It weighs 5.07 pounds, which feels heavier the longer you use it.

Aside from that, it’s an excellent lens. It also costs less than $1,500, making it one of the most valuable telephoto zoom lenses on the market.

6. Sony FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS Lens

Sony 600mm lens.
Photo courtesy of B&H.

Sony’s 600mm f/4 GM OSS Lens isn’t for everyone. However, it’s a powerful and top-notch lens.

If you’re a wildlife or sports photographer looking for a fast prime super-telephoto lens, this is it.

You’ll have consistently sharp images, and at 6.7 pounds, it’s surprisingly light for being a large 600mm lens.

What makes the Sony FE 600mm lens so good is that you can use it without a tripod or monopod and still get amazing results.

The biggest drawback with the lens is the price. However, it’s completely worth it because the quality is on par with the cost.

Conclusion

Telephoto lenses offer many appealing benefits.

The ability to capture flattering portraits without distortion, getting a close-up shot of something far away and great picture quality are all examples of what a good telephoto lens can provide.

The bottom line is that a telephoto lens will help take your photos to the next level. It’s worth the investment.

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Featured image courtesy of Canva.

About David Em

David Em.

David Em is the founder of Portraits Refined. He’s a published portrait photographer dedicated to helping photographers develop skills, capture incredible photos, and build successful businesses.

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