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Every category of lens focal length has its own characteristics. From fish eye to super telephoto, each possess inherent qualities. Different families are fish eyes, super wides, wides, normal, telephoto, medium telephoto, and super telephoto. Add zooms to the mix that cover some of these families and it’s easy to see why beginning photographers find it difficult to decide what lens to add to their arsenal. In the hierarchy of purchased accessory lenses, telephoto zooms rank the highest and then comes wide angles.


Wide Angle Lenses: Wide angle lenses are those whose effective focal lengths are 35mm and wider. Ultra wides start at 24 and go all the way down to the realm of fish eyes. They provide a vast field of view compared to a normal or telephoto. In other words, they “see” what you would see if it were necessary to turn your head to the left or right. 


wide angle lenses

©Russ Burden


Wide angle lenses provide a lot of depth of field. In other words, it’s easier to obtain foreground to background sharpness in the composition. This is a plus in that wides are often used to photograph sprawling scenes that require sharpness throughout. The wider the lens, the more depth of field. Conversely, if you need to narrow the depth of field, a wide angle makes this difficult. That is one reason they are not used for portraiture. It’s better to have the background out of focus so it doesn’t compete for attention with the subject. On the other hand, if you make environmental portraits, they are perfect as the person and their locale can be included.


wide angle lens tips

©Russ Burden


Wide angle lenses are tricky to use. This is especially true if they are not perfectly perpendicular to the subject. Subject tilting is the biggest culprit. What most readily comes to mind is when a wide angle is used to photograph a building. In order to get the entire structure in the frame, the lens has to be angled upwards. In that the lens is no longer perpendicular with the building, the effect is the building tilts back. Vertical lines converge upwards and the sides of the structure are no longer parallel to the edge of the frame. If it’s possible to position yourself farther away so the lens doesn’t tilt as much, the effect is minimized.


Wide angle lenses are better in low light situations in that it’s easier to hand hold them and still get a sharp image. The wider the focal length, the less the composition is magnified. The more the subject is magnified, the more the image shows camera movement. Under normal conditions, most photographers can safely hand hold a camera whose lens focal length is 1 over the reciprocal of the focal length. For instance, if you use a 30mm lens, you can safely hold it at 1/30th of a second. If you use a 125mm lens, you need 1/125th. You gain two full shutter speeds with a 30mm lens over a 125mm lens. Photographically, that’s huge. 


Telephoto Lenses: Telephoto lenses typically start at 100mm and go up from there. Super telephotos begin at 400mm and go higher. They have a narrow field of view - the more telephoto, the narrower the field. It’s this narrow field that provides subject  magnification. If you need to pull distant objects closer so they fill the frame, a telephoto fits the bill.


telephoto lenses

©Russ Burden


A telephoto is primarily used to fill the frame with subjects that are too far away to be captured with a wide angle or normal lens. Sports and wildlife photographers rely on their use. The farther the subject, the higher number focal length is necessary to make the subject appear large. Additionally, the smaller the subject, the greater the need for a super telephoto. Bird photographer’s bread and butter lenses are commonly in the 500mm and 600mm range.


The obvious plus of a telephoto is its ability to make a subject bigger. Along with this comes factors that require your utmost attention to detail. Telephoto lenses magnify the subject. While doing so, they magnify any mistake. These mistakes can be focus errors, too slow a shutter speed and camera movement. It’s essential you place the focus point at the exact spot you want to appear the sharpest. It’s also essential to use a tripod, especially when light levels drop. Any camera movement whatsoever will be transferred to the sensor and net a soft photograph. 


telephoto lens tips

©Russ Burden


Telephoto zooms are popular at local sporting events. Many parents have cameras with lenses that reach out to 300mm. It allows them to photograph their kids involved in the games. Nature photographers find them indispensable to photograph wildlife. Some telephotos also double as macro lenses if they have close focus capabilities. Beware of manufacturers who tout their lens as a true macro. Before you make the purchase, be sure to test the lens in the store to see just how close it focuses. I hope the above provides you with a bit more information than you had prior to reading this tip and allows you to make a more educated purchase. As I encourage every motivated photographer to own both a telephoto and wide angle, you can’t go wrong if you choose one over the other as long as you make the additional purchase down the road.


To learn more about this topic, join me on one of my Nature Photo Tours. Visit russburdenphotography.com and click on the NATURE TOURS button for more information. Also, email me to be placed on my Tip of the Week list and to receive announcements about upcoming tours specials. Contact me at rburden@ecentral.com. Pick up a copy of my book, Amphoto’s Complete Book of Photography,  from Amazon.  


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Excellent reminders. Thanks for the great article.
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