Choosing a Telephoto Lens for Your Camera

4 April 2022

Owners of DSLR or Mirrorless cameras will be the first to tell you that the desire to add more and more lenses to your kit is hard to ignore. Telephoto lenses are always a popular addition as they help us get closer to subjects than what our position allows. There are many different varieties and sizes and they all serve a purpose. 

Today, we discuss the different types of telephoto lenses available and help you choose the right one for your camera.

Zoom lenses and prime lenses

There are two distinctly different types of lenses, which are known as prime and zoom lenses. We have discussed the differences between the two in detail in a previous post, but here is a brief outline.

Prime lenses feature just one focal length or field of view, while zoom lenses provide multiple focal lengths between two points, which is known as a focal range. There is no right or wrong answer as to which option you should buy but zoom lenses are known for being more versatile while prime lenses offer exceptional image quality and better portability.

Choosing a telephoto lens for your cameraChoosing a telephoto lens for your camera
Wildlife photographers rely heavily on telephoto lenses

Selecting a focal length

Choosing a telephoto lens for your cameraChoosing a telephoto lens for your camera
Short-telephoto lenses are perfect for portraits

A lens is considered to be a telephoto lens if it has a focal length of 60mm or longer. While this focal length is longer than normal, which is what your eye can see, it is far removed from the extreme focal lengths required for certain forms of photography, such as wildlife or sports photography. 

Different telephoto lenses fall into different subcategories based on their focal length,  which includes short telephoto, medium telephoto and super-telephoto. Below is a table that details these subcategories and what form of photography each is popularly used for, remembering, of course, there are no hard rules as to what you can use a lens for.

Type of Lens Focal Range Common Purposes
Short telephoto 60-135mm Portraiture, general-purpose
Medium telephoto 135-300mm Indoor Sports, Events, Weddings, Wildlife
Super telephoto 300mm -< Sports, Wildlife

Other considerations

Once you have discovered what type of telephoto lens is best for your style of photography you can start the fun part of sorting through the selections available for your camera mount. If you need some extra tips at this point our digital camera lens buying guide is a valuable source.

When making your final choice of telephoto lens for your camera here are a few final points that you should consider.

Maximum aperture of the lens - Having a fast maximum aperture serves a few valuable purposes. Firstly, it lets in more light so we can use faster shutter speeds, a crucial benefit for anyone photographing action of any type. Secondly, it helps us to produce greater background blur, otherwise known as bokeh

Prime lenses will generally have a faster maximum aperture, while with a zoom lens a faster aperture means a more expensive lens. If you can afford it, try to ensure your telephoto zoom lens has a constant maximum aperture, meaning the same maximum aperture is available throughout the zoom range; this ensures you don’t experience a drop-off in performance and usability as you zoom in.

Choosing a telephoto lens for your cameraChoosing a telephoto lens for your camera
Portability should be considered when purchasing a tele lens

Portability - This is a personal choice but it is worth mentioning that telephoto lenses can become very heavy and large, although the trend in modern times is to make these lenses as mobile as possible. Features that make a lens heavier and larger include increased focal length and faster apertures, which you may need to best capture the photographs you are after. Just make sure you check out a lens's weight or dimensions before you make your purchase, or better still, head to your local Ted’s store to try it mounted on a camera body.

Crop factor - If you are using a camera that does not feature a full-frame sensor, such as an APS-C format camera or a Micro Four Thirds camera, the focal length of your attached lens will be magnified. This is known as crop factor. While crop factor is not necessarily a bad thing, in fact, the extra length can obviously come in handy when using telephoto lenses, it means we use the wide reach of the lens. For example, if you purchase a 70-200mm zoom lens for use on an APS-C format camera, the lens will actually provide a range of 105-300mm; a handy focal length, but lacking some of the medium telephoto range that makes this lens such a popular choice.

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