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:


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.


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.


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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