Telephoto Questions and Answers

What is a Telephoto Lens?

A telephoto lens has a focal length, or reach, which allows you to photograph a distant subject, magnify it and make it fill more of your frame. Generally, a telephoto lens with a focal length of around 70mm to 200mm is considered a ‘medium telephoto’ and anything over around 300mm is considered a ‘super telephoto’.

A telephoto can be a prime lens or a zoom lens. See below for more about prime and zoom telephoto lenses.

A telephoto lens is often used when we need to close the distance between ourselves and the subject. This makes them popular with wildlife photographers who are working with shy or timid subjects, small species of birds or mammals, dangerous subjects and also where it is important to maintain an ethical distance to reduce disturbance.

Black Mamba Alan Hewitt Photography

Photographing a Black Mamba venomous snake using a Fujinon 100-400mm telephoto lens at 400mm for ethics and safety .

What is the Difference Between a Prime Lens and a Zoom Lens?

A prime lens has a fixed focal length and a zoom lens will cover a range of focal lengths.

Prime lenses are often associated with being higher quality as they have fewer lens elements. They are also optimised for a specific focal length. Prime lenses often have larger apertures than zoom lenses. They are constructed with fewer moving parts and often more robust.

Zoom lenses are popular due to their convenience and versatility. They have more lens elements and moving parts, so they are often associated with being lower quality and less robust. But there are exceptions to these comparisons and some modern zoom lenses are exceptionally good quality too, in image and build quality.

Do I Prefer a Prime or Telephoto Zoom Lens?

I’ve used both extensively. Generally, the primes I have used have had a faster maximum aperture so I’ve opted for these when light has been low or where I have wanted a more shallow depth of field. That said, when I’m photographing wildlife in places like Kenya or South Africa, I wouldn’t be without a good quality zoom lens. We photograph so many birds and mammals of such varying sizes at different distances so the versatility of a zoom lens is incredibly convenient.

Which Telephoto Lenses do I use?

In years gone by, my main ‘workhorse’ was the Nikkor 200-400mm f/4 lens. I also used to use a Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8. These are both zoom lenses as they cover a range of focal lengths. I have also used the 300mm f/4 PF prime lens in Africa.

I now use Fujifilm cameras so my main lens is now the Fujinon 100-400mm f/4.5-f/5.6. I also use the Fujinon 50-140mm f/2.8. These too are both zoom lenses. I’ve also used the incredible Fujinon 200mm f/2 prime lens for the X mount, and the GFX250mm f/4 medium format lens on the GFX50s camera.

Cape Buffalo Alan Hewitt Photography

Cape Buffalo bull using a Fujinon GFX250mm f/4.

Why is There Often Such a Difference in the Size of Similar Telephoto Lenses?

It’s usually because of the maximum or widest aperture. A 300mm prime lens with a f/2.8 aperture needs to be much larger than a 300mm lens with a more narrow f/5.6 aperture.

And a Price Difference?

As a telephoto lens with a wider aperture needs to be much larger, so do the very expensive lens elements. Such lenses are usually associated with use by professional photographers where they need to be robust to cope with working in more harsh environments and are expected to be more resilient to bangs and knocks. This means more robust lens casings with additional demand for light materials which are also expensive.

What Difference Does Sensor Size Make?

The main comparisons of sensor sizes are with APS-C or ‘cropped’ sensors and those considered to be ‘full frame’ / 35mm equivalent.

As APS-C sensors are physically smaller than 35mm we have a reduced field of view in comparison. A smaller sensor with a common crop factor of 1.5x means a 400mm lens will see the equivalent field of view as a 600mm lens on a full frame camera.

Male Lion Alan Hewitt Photography

Male Lion Portrait, a telephoto is essential for ethics and safety! Fujinon 100-400mm.

Red Squirrel Alan Hewitt Photography

Using a Fujinon 50-140mm lens at 140mm and widest f/2.8 aperture to make this Red Squirrel stand out in the woodland surroundings.

Any Other Considerations?

Yes, technique and perspective

Telephoto lenses are less forgiving than wider angle or ‘standard’ focal length lenses. Depth of field is often a lot shallower and they may be significantly heavier and more susceptible to vibrations. A solid tripod and tripod head are often required. In-built lens stability is often very effective at combating shake or allowing you to use slower shutter speeds and maintain sharpness – but not always, especially if your subject is moving.

Perspective distortion can also vary greatly as longer focal length lenses are used. A telephoto lens gives the impression that near and more distant objects seem closer together than they actually are.

More Learning & Resources

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2021-06-09T22:57:09+01:00January 13th, 2019|Blog, Learning|10 Comments

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  1. Christine McConnell January 13, 2019 at 10:18 pm - Reply

    Explained in an easy to understand way, Alan. Thanks, good information worth hanging on to.

    • Alan Hewitt January 15, 2019 at 8:27 am - Reply

      Thanks Chris, hope it’s useful!

  2. Errol January 19, 2019 at 4:09 pm - Reply

    Do you regret losing your 200/400 f4 for the 100-400 lens? WHy not keep the 200-400 and use an adaptor from metabones or somebody else?

    • Alan Hewitt January 21, 2019 at 11:18 am - Reply

      Hi Errol, sometimes I think it would be nice to have f/4 at 400mm but the lighter weight and smaller size of the 100-400mm make up for this, especially given that it is so sharp and performs well with the converter. Wanting to reduce the weight of gear was a major factor so using an adaptor wasn’t an option and I think they also bring compromises with metering and autofocus.

  3. Will June 27, 2019 at 7:01 pm - Reply

    Send me the cameras you dont use and the lenses free only no payment

    • Alan Hewitt June 27, 2019 at 9:15 pm - Reply

      Sure, but only because you asked so nicely.

  4. Steve Morris July 22, 2019 at 9:37 am - Reply

    Love the shot of the squirrel. How do you get such dark backgrounds Alan, are you using a flash?

    • Alan Hewitt July 22, 2019 at 10:37 am - Reply

      Thanks Steve, I don’t use flash. The woodland background was quite dark to start with but exposing for the bright light falling on the whites on the squirrel also made the background darker too.

  5. Rob July 25, 2019 at 5:13 pm - Reply

    Hi, How does the IQ using the 1.4x tele-converter compare with digitally zooming without it (on the 100-400mm)? Thanks.

    • Alan Hewitt July 26, 2019 at 11:10 am - Reply

      Hi Rob, I haven’t tested it in this way but I’ll think about it in the future. I usually try to keep my work as a high res as possible.

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