“What I need is a telephoto lens.”
We’ve all said this. It doesn’t take long to discover we sometimes can’t get close enough to our subjects with a “normal” lens. If you have kids in sports or the performing arts, the rules keep our subjects too far away to make interesting photos without a long lens. Professional photographers reach for their telephoto lenses for the same reason — to fill the frame with the subject.
But pros use the telephoto lens for more than getting closer. We also use it to better tell a story.
Depth of Field
One of the most creative tools a photographer has is the ability to control depth of field (DOF). DOF is the portion of the photograph that appears in sharp focus. Telephoto lenses have a shallow DOF as compared to wide-angle lenses. With either lens, the smaller the f-stop (f16 vs. f8) the deeper the DOF. The reverse is also true. With either type of lens, the DOF is shallower the more open the f-number (f4 vs. f5.6).
By controlling (limiting) the depth of field, you can force the viewer’s attention to only what you want them to see. Take a picture of a football receiver catching the ball, for example. If the DOF is deep and almost everything is in equal focus, the player and the ball will be lost in the color and detail of the crowd. By taking the same picture using a telephoto lens with a shallow DOF, you can isolate the player and the ball from the rest of the picture, thus calling attention to what you want the viewer to see.
Similarly, portrait photographers use medium telephoto lenses to call attention to the face and not the background in both indoor and outdoor portraits.
When you increase the DOF with a telephoto lens, the background will appear closer to the subject than it will with a wide-angle lens. The longer (more powerful) the lens, the closer objects in the photo will appear to each other, and to you. This is a powerful tool that enables you to make all kinds of statements.
A sports photographer, for example, might use this technique to show a baseball pitcher in his windup. The scoreboard in the background shows a full count in the bottom of the ninth. By bringing that scoreboard up close behind the pitcher using a telephoto lens, you can see that it’s a no-hitter. That’s storytelling made possible by the creative use of a telephoto lens and selective focus.
By contrast, if the photographer instead uses a shallow depth-of-field, you won’t be able to read the scoreboard. If they use a wide-angle lens, the scoreboard will appear too far away to read.
In portrait photography, a medium telephoto lens shows faces in a normal perspective as compared to the distortion of a wide-angle lens. A moderate telephoto lens of say 80mm to 100mm on a 35mm camera will put you about five to seven feet from the subject for a head-and-shoulders photograph.
When photographing wildlife, the rule of thumb is to use a minimum of a 300 mm lens to fill the frame. You usually don’t want to be five to seven feet from wildlife. That’s why wildlife photographers use 400mm, 500mm, 600mm or even as long as 800mm lenses.
When you begin to shop for a telephoto lens, you’ll find many choices for the same focal length lens. Nikon makes lenses that cost a few hundred dollars on to up to $25,000. The f-stop is a big factor in the cost. The lower the number (faster the lens), the more expensive and heavier the lens. Faster lenses allow for making photos in less light, as well as for shallower DOF.
We all use telephoto lenses simply to “get closer” sometimes. But before mounting any lens on your camera, it’s important to ask yourself, “What story do I want to tell with this picture?” Your lens is a tool that can be used to make your point.