“Telephoto” refers to any lens at 100mm and up. Commonly used to capture pictures at a distance, there are two types of telephoto lenses (well, er, lots of types, but one main distinction): fixed vs. zoom. While fixed prime lenses offer better quality, you can’t beat zoom for versatility. We recommend investing in a basic telephoto zoom lens after your first or second standard prime. Something like a 70-200mm zoom functions easily as a “workhorse” lens for anything from sports and wildlife to wedding photography. In addition to outlining the pros and cons to fixed vs. zoom lenses, we’ll also break down which telephoto ranges to consider as you progress.
There’s some confusion about fixed (prime) telephoto lenses. While they don’t zoom back and forth, fixed telephoto lenses still provide intense magnification. They’re often just as (or more so) expensive than zooms, depending on their aperture range. In general, fixed focal length lenses have a wider aperture than a zoom. For example, a fixed telephoto lens with a f/2.8 lets in a lot of light, and is likely to cost a pretty penny. As a rule, fixed telephoto lenses provide sharper images than zooms.
Zoom equates versatility. These bad boys take you from distant to right up in your subject’s metaphoric or literal face. With wildlife photography in particular, this is crucial. Telephoto zoom lenses let you keep quiet, and take shots without disturbing your subjects. Zoom lenses with wide, fixed apertures that stay consistent throughout the full focal range offer the most flexibility, as shots otherwise dim during zoom.
Short telephoto lenses are barely telephoto. Often zooming from 50 to 105mm, they only just make the cut. Short telephoto lenses capture more more context than their super-zoomy counterparts. In wildlife photography, a small telephoto (whether it’s prime or zoom) gives you more context. It’s not just the animal, but the life of the animal captured. It’s also, obviously, smaller and less tedious to carry around.
Standard or medium telephoto lenses are some of your workhorse lenses. Great for weddings, something like a 70-200mm lens lets you jump around with the action. Still fairly lightweight, these lenses work well for portraits through distance shots, indoors and out.
Super telephoto lenses jump anywhere from 200 or 300mm to 600 or 800mm. We recommend them for sports and wildlife photography, or just about any situation where you can’t get anywhere near close enough to the subjects on foot. Super telephotos produce close crops of the subject, and their popularity has exploded in recent years. Of course, just wielding a super telephoto behemoth is equal parts luck and skill. It’s a lens where vibration reduction is a necessary investment.
In general, while telephoto lenses are a dream come true in many ways, they are also more susceptible to camera shake. Some lenses come with a vibration reduction mechanism, but a tripod is a welcome addition to any telephoto. Where zoom provides versatility, fixed is better for sharpness. Short telephotos maintain surroundings in the shot, while standard telephotos are better for portraits at a distance. Super telephoto lenses, meanwhile, take no prisoners, so you should know how to wield a smaller telephoto before you pick one up.