Your Guide to Buying a Telephoto Lens

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Your Guide to Buying a Telephoto Lens

Telephoto lenses are used for capturing distant objects in sharp, detailed focus. They are ideal for wildlife and sports photography, where they bring the subject closer and enhance it for beautiful clear images. Because they are so useful, they are often one of the first additional lenses a photographer buys.

About Telephoto Lenses

Telephoto lenses give a narrower angle of view than standard lenses. They are frequently used by photojournalists, including sports photojournalists and news photojournalists as well as by wildlife photographers. Their ability to bring distant objects closer gives a view not possible otherwise. Often it is not possible to get any closer to the subject, as with wildlife and sports photography, but frequently, it is not desirable to do so even if possible. This could be because the subject might act differently, again with animals and also with people. So telephoto lenses are also useful for capturing natural shots of people; for example, children playing. A basic advantage that telephoto lenses offer is the ability to select specific areas to bring into focus. While this could be a distant object, such as a bird, it could also be a section of sky or of a building. It is also useful for portrait photography. This property gives images taken with telephoto lenses a quality that is very attractive in its simplicity. Telephoto lenses are dedicated, specialised lenses that typically offer benefits when it comes to image quality over standard zoom lenses or superzoom lenses.

Choosing Telephoto Lenses

There are many things to consider when purchasing a telephoto lens. These include compatibility, focal length, aperture, whether to purchase a zoom or prime lens, image stabilisation, and price.


The first thing to consider is compatibility with the camera. Check the manufacturer’s manual for compatible lenses as using the wrong lens can damage the camera and nullify its warranty.

Focal Length

The second thing to look for is focal length. Focal length is the viewing angle of the lens. This indicates how far the lens can compress the image or narrow the depth of field. Lenses with a greater focal length have a narrower viewing angle and can narrow the depth of field further. Standard telephoto zoom lenses have a range of approximately 70 mm to 300 mm, though ultra-telephoto lenses with focal lengths of 1200 are available. Telephoto lenses are broken down into sub-categories depending on their focal length, and while these are approximate and not fixed ranges, they do give a useful indication of the lens’ range.



Used For

Short/medium telephoto

70 mm – 135 mm

Typically used for portraits

Long telephoto

135 mm – 300 mm

Typically used for nature and sports photography

Ultra/super telephoto

Over 300 mm

Typically used for nature and sports photography


Aperture refers to the amount of light that can be allowed in. Lenses with a higher maximum aperture can allow in more light, which is preferable when photographing in lower light conditions. Aperture is typically given in f numbers, with lower f numbers somewhat confusingly indicating higher apertures. Aperture is also linked to shutter speed and ISO speed. Shutter speed indicates the length of exposure, and ISO speed indicates how receptive the camera’s image sensor is to light. The shutter speed can be quicker for lenses with a larger aperture, assuming the ISO speed is the same. Lenses with a larger aperture are sometimes called faster because of this. Having a greater aperture has its drawbacks as it decreases depth of field, meaning that a smaller number of objects can be in focus over the same area.

Prime and Zoom Lenses

Telephoto lenses are available as both prime and zoom lenses. Prime lenses have a fixed focal length, given by a single number. Zoom lenses have a variable focal length, given by two numbers indicating the upper and lower limits of the range. When it comes to image quality and clarity, prime lenses are often more highly regarded. Though this doesn’t mean that every prime lens is better than every zoom lens, it tends to be a general viewpoint. Prime lenses have a larger maximum aperture than zoom lenses and can capture more light. This is a big advantage when shooting in lower light conditions as it negates the need for a flash, resulting in more natural looking shots. Prime lenses are simpler in their construction, so they are typically cheaper and more lightweight. Lastly, a common viewpoint is that prime lenses enable more creative photography as the photographer is forced to move around to find the best shot. Zoom lenses, on the other hand, offer more in terms of versatility. Because they offer a range of focal lengths, there is no need to purchase different focal length prime lenses. When weighing up the price of a single zoom lens against multiple prime lenses, this can actually make them work out cheaper. Likewise, although zoom lenses are typically heavier and bulkier, there is no need to carry around separate lenses. Lastly, objects at different distances can be easily and quickly captured without the need to change lenses.

Image Stabilisation

Because of their greater focal lengths, telephoto lenses are particularly susceptible to the effects of camera shake, caused by the movement of the photographer’s hands. This can result in blurred images. One way around this is to select a faster shutter speed, which requires a higher maximum aperture or greater ISO speed. However, these mean either a smaller depth of field or increased image noise. Another way around it is to hold the camera steadier. While not always possible by hand, a tripod or other support can be used. Choosing a camera with decent image stabilisation always helps.


Telephoto lenses vary considerably in their price, from affordable standard telephoto lenses to high-end lenses with extremely long focal lengths. Ultra- or super-telephoto lenses, as they are known, are the lenses of choice for some professional wildlife, sports and fashion photographers, but the expense is not typically justifiable for amateur photographers. Another factor influencing price is whether it is a prime or zoom lens, with prime lenses typically cheaper. The particular brand will also affect the price tag.


Telephoto lenses have a narrower angle of view that means they are able to magnify distant objects. This property is popular with wildlife and sports photographers. Because they are dedicated lenses, telephoto lenses often offer benefits in quality over standard or superzoom lenses. Factors to consider when purchasing a telephoto lens include compatibility with the camera, focal length, maximum aperture, and price. The lens must be compatible with the camera, which can be found out by referring to the manufacturer’s manual. The focal length of telephoto lenses typically varies from around 70 mm to around 300 mm, though lenses with greater focal lengths are available. Lenses with focal lengths of 70 mm to 135 mm are referred to as short or medium telephoto lenses, while those with focal lengths of 135 mm to 300 mm are referred to as long telephoto lenses. Lenses with focal lengths greater than 300 mm are referred to as ultra or super telephoto lenses. The maximum aperture of a lens can give an indication as to how well it will perform in low light conditions, with higher maximum apertures able to capture more light. This also depends on shutter speed and ISO speed. Telephoto lenses are available as either prime or zoom lenses. Prime lenses have fixed focal lengths, whereas zoom lenses have variable focal lengths. Both have advantages and disadvantages with regards to price and portability, though zoom lenses are more versatile and prime lenses are typically regarded as better quality. Purchasing the right telephoto lens can open up a whole new world of photographing possibilities and is an asset to any photographer’s lens collection, whether professional or amateur.

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