Taking a photograph boils down to a series of creative and technical choices. One of the first decisions you’ll make is which lens to pull out of your camera bag. You can think of a lens as your camera’s eye. It will shape how your camera sees the world. As such, the lens you choose will have a major impact on the photograph you create. This is why it’s important to be intentional in your choice of lens. In this article we discuss wide vs. telephoto lenses.
If you’re unsure when to use which lens, read on. By the end of this article you’ll have no problem picking the best lens for your photoshoot.
Before we get into the details of different lenses, let’s take a step back and cover a common term related to all lenses.
Lenses are described by their focal length. However, focal length is not the physical length of the lens. Rather, it’s the distance between the optical center of the lens and the camera’s image sensor.
Imagine you’re holding your camera up to take a photograph. As light rays enter the front of your lens, they soon converge to a single point within the lens, known as the optical center. The distance between this point and your camera’s image sensor is the focal length. But don’t worry if you forget all of that. The most important part is this next bit…
Focal length is the key to understanding different types of lenses. It is measured in millimeters and it’s printed right on the barrel of the lens.
It is important to understand the real world effects of focal length. Here are the three main areas to consider:
#1 Angle of View
Focal length is used to describe the angle of view of a lens. The lower the focal length number, the wider the angle of view.
For example, a 16mm focal length would be considered a wide angle lens. As the name implies, a wide angle lens provides a wide field of view. This means you’ll photograph an expansive portion of any given scene from side to side.
Conversely, a telephoto lens takes in a narrow angle of view. “Telephoto” is the term for a lens with a longer focal length, such as 300mm. With a telephoto lens you take in a narrower slice of any given scene.
Focal length also determines the amount of magnification a lens provides. The longer the focal length, the greater it will magnify elements in the distance.
For example, let’s say you’re photographing a bird at a distance. With a 16mm wide angle lens, the bird will look tiny. But if you put on a 600mm telephoto lens, the bird will be magnified, appearing much bigger in your image. A telephoto lens is like using binoculars. Things that are far away will be magnified. Whereas, using a wide angle lens will do just the opposite, making far away things appear even smaller.
A lot of new photographers don’t realize how important focal length is in determining the amount of compression between the foreground, midground, and background of a photo. A short focal length (wide angle) lens not only takes in an expansive view from side to side, it also expands the apparent distance between the front and back of a photo. Objects in the foreground, midground, and background will appear further apart from each other with a wide angle lens.
On the other hand, a telephoto lens can dramatically compress the distance between these planes, visually bringing the background closer to the foreground. The longer the lens, the more pronounced the compression effect will be.
Take a look at this example below. Notice how the apparent distance between the trees and the background/foreground expands or compresses, depending on the focal length used.
Range of Focal Lengths
You can think of focal length as a range from wide to telephoto. Let’s do a quick rundown of the possibilities, starting with ultra-wide lenses and working our way to telephoto:
On this end of the spectrum you have lenses that take in an extremely wide field of view, such as 8mm fisheye lenses. These lenses are so wide that they will usually have some distortion in which straight lines such as buildings will appear slightly bowed, especially at the edges. It’s sort of like looking through a fishbowl. With the right subject, some fun images can be created by playing with this extreme barrel distortion.
They are also very handy for photos like the one below where I wanted to include both the waterfall and a substantial portion of the night sky. Only my ultra-wide 8mm lens would allow me to do that from where I was standing.
Lenses in the approximately 10 to 35mm range are considered wide angle. They are great for landscapes, cityscapes, architecture, night photography, group portraits and any time you want a wide perspective.
Lenses around 50mm are called standard or “normal”. This means that they give a field of view and perspective most similar to the human eye. Typically light and compact, these lenses are great for travel & documentary photography. They are also the lens of choice for stitching multiple shots together as a panorama since they have very little distortion.
Lenses in the 70mm to 100mm range could be considered medium telephoto. Some of the most popular portrait lenses fall within this category.
Lenses from 100 to 600mm (and beyond) are ideal for action sports, wildlife and other long distance subjects. They are also great for event photography when you want to be further away and unnoticed. The longest telephoto lenses are called super telephoto.
Note: the categories above are general guidelines for grouping the focal length of lenses, rather than hard and fast rules. The focal length numbers will slightly vary depending on precisely which camera you are using and the size of the image sensor within the camera. It will also depend on if your particular lens is built specifically for a full frame or crop sensor camera.
However, the main takeaway always remains true. The lower the focal length number the wider the lens; and the higher the number, the more telephoto a lens is. Focal lengths of around 50mm will give a perspective most similar to the human eye.
Now that we’ve covered some general characteristics of both wide and telephoto lenses, let’s take a closer look at the creative possibilities each brings. This is where it gets fun!
Wide Angle Lenses
Wide angle lenses are wonderful for a range of subjects from landscapes and cityscapes to architecture and interior spaces. They are also ideal for group photos and environmental portraiture.
To get the most out of a wide angle lens, you have to know how to use it to your best advantage. The most important thing to understand is that wide angle lenses will make objects in the distance appear even smaller and farther away than they really are. They also exaggerate the size of anything that’s physically close to the lens. You can use this to your advantage, particularly when photographing landscapes.
Wide angle lenses are very popular with landscape photographers since they are often dealing with big, expansive scenes. Keep in mind that if you use a wide angle lens to photograph something like a distant mountain range, the lens will visually push the mountains into the background and they will look tiny and unimpressive. The trick with a wide angle lens is to include something in the foreground close to the lens along with the distant mountain range. This will help pull the viewer into the photo.
Wide angle lenses work particularly well with leading lines such as roads, trails, and streams. You can use these elements in your foreground to lead the viewer further into your photo.
Below is another example of a wide angle lens in use. Getting low and close to the flowers provides an interesting perspective. Notice how the flowers closest to the lens appear the biggest, even though they were all the same size in real life. This is the magic of a wide angle lens.
This distortion of near objects is the same reason that wide angle lenses are not the best for close-up portraits. In this situation a wide angle lens would dramatically increase the size of the subject’s nose due to its barrel distortion. Keep in mind that sometimes this effect can look fun with the right subject, such as kids or pets.
Another reason landscape and cityscape photographers love wide angle lenses is that they inherently have a deep depth of field. This means that everything from front to back in an image will likely be in sharp focus. The flip side to this is that it’s hard to blur the background with a wide angle lens. The only way to do so is to get very close to your subject with a wide aperture opening such as f/2.8.
Since wide angle lenses have such an expansive field of view, they allow you to experiment with unique angles such as getting down low or photographing straight up. These lenses give a fun perspective that looks fresh and interesting to the human eye. Since these lenses do take in so much of a scene, it’s important to watch for distractions and try to minimize or exclude anything that doesn’t support your subject.
They are also the lens of choice when photographing in confined spaces. A wide angle lens can make a small room feel much bigger.
All in all wide angle lenses are a lot of fun to play with and they open up creative options simply not available with other lenses. In summary, here are a few tips for wide angle photography:
- Experiment with camera angles.
- Include something in your foreground, close to the lens.
- Photograph scenes where you want everything in sharp focus.
- Keep an eye out for visual clutter and distractions.
- Compose carefully and make sure your subject doesn’t get lost in the scene.
- Make sure your horizon lines are straight.
There are generally three main reasons to use a telephoto lens:
#1. To blur the background (or foreground)
Popular with wildlife and action sports photographers, telephoto lenses excel at isolating a subject from its background. It’s easy to create a shallow depth of field (blurred background) with longer focal lengths, especially when paired with a wide aperture opening such as f/2.8 or f/4. This also makes them ideal for portraits/headshots, small details, and tabletop subjects.
If you’re blurring the background, pay attention to the color, brightness, and patterns created. Sometimes very bright backgrounds can be distracting, even if they are blurred out. Try to pick a camera angle that creates a background that lets your subject stand out.
#2. To photograph from a distance.
Telephoto lenses allow you to capture far away details, fill the frame with your subject, and remain unobtrusive. If photographing wildlife or birds, long lenses let you stay at a safe distance to not disturb. This is also nice for weddings and events when you want to capture special moments or document the day without interrupting.
Long focal lengths are also useful in landscape photography when you want to isolate a particular part of the scene.
#3. To visually compress distance.
As mentioned earlier, telephoto lenses compress distance from foreground to background, making objects appear closer together than they really are. In the image below, using a long lens makes the waterfall look extremely close to the person, even though there was actually more distance between the two in real life. These kinds of dramatic compositions are made possible with long focal lengths.
Telephoto compression is also visible in the photo below. Notice how both horses and the background seem very close together. That is telephoto compression at work.
Telephoto lenses are great for blurring the background, isolating your subject, and minimizing distractions. However, they do come with a few challenges as well.
Camera Shake & Shutter Speed
Telephoto lenses magnify everything, including camera shake. It’s all too easy to end up with blurry photos when shooting with a long lens. The key is to watch your shutter speed, particularly if you are hand-holding your camera.
A rule of thumb is that your shutter speed should be at least as fast as your focal length turned into a fraction. This means that if you are shooting with a 200mm lens, you should have a minimum shutter speed of 1/200th of a second. If your subject is moving, you may need even faster shutter speeds to freeze the motion.
Camera shake is also the reason why many telephoto lenses come with image stabilization (vibration reduction). This is usually turned on with a switch on the side of the lens, although some manufacturers have stabilization built into the camera body instead. Either way, if you’re hand-holding, be sure this feature is turned on.
Achieving sharp focus on your subject becomes particularly important when working with telephoto lenses. You will find that switching to single point autofocus allows you to choose the exact part of your photo that is in focus. Check your camera manual if you aren’t sure how to do this.
It’s a good idea to get in the habit of double checking your focus in the field by zooming in to 100% on the back of your camera. Increase your shutter speed if you see motion blur.
Here are a few tips for using a telephoto lens:
- Simplify your image and minimize distractions by using a wide aperture opening to blur the background and/or foreground, letting your subject stand out.
- Zoom in on small details or interesting moments. Isolate parts of a bigger scene.
- Make sure your main subject is in sharp focus.
- Turn on image stabilization (vibration reduction) if it is an option on your lens.
- Be sure to use a fast shutter speed if hand-holding your camera or shooting action.
- Use telephoto compression to create dramatic compositions and provide a sense of scale.
Zoom vs. Prime Lenses
If you are in the market for a new lens, you’ll want to carefully consider whether you want a zoom lens or a prime lens. Prime lenses are fixed focal length lenses. This means they have only one focal length as an option.
Zoom lenses will give you a range of focal lengths to choose from. Some zoom lenses give you a massive range from wide to telephoto such as 18- 200mm. Other zoom lenses give you a more limited range such as 24-70mm.
Generally speaking a zoom lens with a more limited range will give you higher optical quality. Do-it-all zoom lenses with a huge range of focal lengths tend to be priced in the budget category.
Whether to purchase a zoom or a prime lens depends on many factors and personal preference. No doubt zoom lenses are very convenient. They offer versatility and the ability to get a range of shots without having to change lenses. If you are photographing out in the elements, not having to change your lens and risk getting your image sensor dirty could be a huge advantage. Zoom lenses are also great for travel, when you don’t want to carry a lot of gear.
Fixed focal length (prime) lenses also have their advantages. For one thing, being locked to one focal length will make you move your feet more to get your composition. It’s easy to get a little lazy with zoom lenses. Prime lenses tend to be more compact and lightweight than their zoom counterparts. They are also known for optical clarity and high image quality. Lastly, they tend to offer wider aperture openings which is great for low light or night photography.
A Word of Advice
Whether you have a zoom or prime lens, my best advice is to start with one lens and get to know it really well. Focus on one lens at a time until you are comfortable and familiar with its characteristics.
When it comes time to invest in a new lens, I recommend purchasing the best quality you can afford. Throughout your photographic life, you’re likely to upgrade your camera body at least a couple of times. However, a high quality lens could last many years if you take care of it.
The most important piece of advice is to keep practicing to learn how to get the most out of every lens in your kit. The goal is to match your creative vision with the lens that best achieves it in the moment.
Want more about lenses? Check out this article!