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5 Tips about Telephoto Lenses on a Digital Camera

Learn about telephoto lenses from commercial photographer Dan Bracaglia in this digital photography lesson from Howcast.


The term telephoto generally refers to a lens with a focal length of well over about 120, 150 millimeters in length. The lens doesn't have to start at 120, 150, but the maximum range should be somewhere around there.

So this is, again, a 70 to 200 millimeter lens. This is sort of a normal, normal being 70, to telephoto lens. So 70 to 200. Now if this was a 70 to 450, we'd call that a normal to supertele. And it's a pretty simple term. It's telescopic and photo kind of mashed together, so you kind of get the idea that it's going to bring something very far away into very close focus.

I have an example here. I recently shot this space shuttle Enterprise flying over New York City for one of our magazines, "Popular Science." I used a fixed focus, 400 millimeter prime lens. This is just a photograph of that lens. In theory, it's technically, I guess, a supertele, but again, we're just going to call it telephoto to be simple.

Thanks to that, I was able to get some really tight shots of the space shuttle as it flew many miles away. And that's one of the advantages of telephoto. It's great for things like sports, football, race cars, horse racing. Anything like that where you're really going to bring things far away into close focus.

It's very different, again, from a wide angle lens because wide angle lenses is going to distort and you going to be able to get very close. Whereas you're not going to be able to get so close with a telephoto.

Another important thing to keep in mind with telephoto photography is there's going to be a pretty strong focusing distance. So you're not going to be able to focus super close to your subject because of how long the glass is. As the numbers in the zoom range increase, your subject is going to be brought closer to you. So 100 millimeters your subject's going to look a lot farther away than 400 millimeters.

And that's the principles of telephoto photography.

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