How To: Use A Telephoto Lens

By: steve

July 6, 2011

These days, even a lot of compact cameras have powerful telephoto lenses built in. These can have the magnification power of some quite massive professional equipment, and camera manufacturers are constantly jostling with each other to compare sizes. But as we are all regularly told: size isn’t everything. To truly get the best out of a telephoto lens, you have to know how to use it.


San Bushmen, Kubu Island, Botswana. By Steve Davey

San Bushmen, Kubu Island, Botswana. A 600mm lens makes the walking men appear much closer to the rock island, which in turn looks far bigger.



Let Light In

One of the main drawbacks of the powerful telephoto zoom lenses is the aperture. This is the hole that lets the light into the camera. Large professional lenses – like the ones you see lined up at sports events – have large front elements and relatively wide apertures to let more light in. This allows faster shutter speeds to be used, helping to avoid camera shake.



Male polar bear eating a dead seal, Svalbard Archipelago, Norway. By Steve Davey

Feeding Polar Bear, Svalbard, Norway. A powerful 450mm telephoto lens is useful when it is not possible to get any closer.


Compact cameras and the amateur super-zooms tend to have much smaller apertures, which let far less light in – especially at the telephoto settings. This can mean they’re only really useable in strong lighting conditions – especially if you combine the small aperture with the fact that a telephoto lens magnifies any camera shake as much as it will magnify the subject you’re shooting.


New Perspectives

Using a powerful telephoto lens demands a whole new way of seeing. On the simplest level, this involves standing in front of an entire scene – like a massive landscape – and spotting a small part that you’ll then isolate and magnify. This can often be a more effective way of showing a mountain range or a significant detail like a farm building in a field.



Sugar Loaf Mountain and plane, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. By Steve Davey

Sugar Loaf Mountain and plane, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. A powerful 300mm lens makes the distance between the plane and the mountain seem much smaller.


A telephoto lens will also alter the apparent perspective of your image, changing the relationship between objects in the frame. Whereas a wide-angle lens exaggerates the perspective and makes objects in the frame look further apart, a telephoto lens makes them appear closer together, flattening the perspective. This can be a fantastic way to make your subject appear closer to the background and make that background appear larger in the image. You can create a link between objects that are quite far away from each other and also make crowds appear more packed. Telephotos are also really effective at making the sun appear larger when creating a silhouette with a sunset.


Faces at the Bayon, Angkor Thom Complex, Siem Reap, Cambodia. By Steve Davey

Faces at the Bayon, Angkor Thom Complex, Siem Reap, Cambodia. A telephoto lens can crop out of a scene and make objects appear closer together.



Depth of Field

A telephoto lens has inherently less depth of field than a wide-angle lens and the more powerful the lens, the smaller it will be. DOF is the amount of the scene in front of and behind the subject that is also in focus. You can exploit and exaggerate this effect by using a telephoto lens to make your subject stand out from an out-of-focus background.


There are a couple of extra things that can help when shooting with a telephoto lens: a lens hood will help prevent flare (reflections on the lens that affect picture quality), and of course a tripod or monopod can help prevent camera shake.

Check out Steve’s book Footprint Travel Photography for more on using telephoto lenses.

All photos by Steve Davey. Header image:

Jaisalmer, India. A powerful telephoto lens, such as this 300mm lens, can make crowds seem more crowded and buildings more jumbled.

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