For many shooters, telephoto lenses are a means of bringing distant scenes closer, and for the most part, this is an accurate description of what telephoto lenses do. But there's more to telephoto lenses than narrow fields of view. Perspective, compression of spatial relationships between subjects within the frame and the dynamics of selective focus are equally part of the game.
Unlike wide-angle lenses, which by design take in wide fields of view, telephoto lenses are designed to zero in on your subject, be it a long-range portrait or a distant landscape. In the case of portraits, telephoto lenses are unique in their ability to isolate your subject from the foreground and background, especially if your telephoto is a wider-aperture lens. Do keep in mind that the concept of "fast" or "wide aperture" is relative to the focal length of your lens. A 28mm lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 is so-so in terms of speed, whereas a 300mm or 400mm with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 is noteworthy—not to mention pricey and heavy.
The payoff is when you shoot a tight portrait with that fast telephoto at close range, compared to a similar focal length lens with a smaller maximum aperture. Unlike wide-angle photographs, in which it's often difficult to blur backgrounds unless you're right on top of of your subject at the lens's widest aperture (and not at all recommended for portraits!), telephotos allow you to focus the viewer's attention easily on the subject. (Filmmakers have long understood and made use of this valuable visual concept.)
All photos Copyright Allan Weitz 2010. May not be reproduced in any form without written permission.
As wonderful as all this sounds, there are a number of realities that go along with shooting with longer (300mm-plus) lenses. First of all is cost. Even though we'd all like to pick up the phone, log on or trek into the store and buy a 400mm f/2.8 lens, there's a matter of cost, which unless you shoot for a living and can justify the price of a lens with a 4- or 5-digit price tag, is beyond the realities of most of the general population.
Even if price isn't an issue, faster lenses are also notably larger and heavier than their smaller-aperture brethren, which is an issue regardless of how deep your pockets are if you plan on hauling your new pride and joy around all day, let alone pack it along with your carry-on baggage next time you fly off to Tahiti for the weekend. And then you have the issue of handholding a heavy lens steady enough to nail a sharp picture. If you plan on shooting from a tripod, though, you're good to go.
If, however, you do shoot handheld with longer optics, always keep in mind a basic tenet of photography that states you should never handhold a lens at a shutter speed less than the focal length of the lens. This means a 200mm lens shouldn't be handheld when your shutter speed is slower than 1/200th-second, a 300mm lens slower than 1/300th-second, a 500mm lens slower than 1/500th-second, etc. Now this doesn't mean you can't get sharp photos shooting at slower speeds, but it does mean you're less likely to get successfully sharp results each time you drop the shutter dial a notch.
The good news is that many of the faster leviathans we sell at B&H are image stabilized, which means they can be easily handheld three to four shutter speeds slower than normal. Additionally, we also stock a number of smaller-aperture—but equally sharp—fixed and zoom telephoto lenses. True, you lose a degree of selective focus control when shooting with slower-aperture optics, but everything has a price, and at the end of the day a good, sharp picture is a good, sharp picture.
One heads-up I would offer for users of lenses with smaller apertures is that if you should choose to use a polarizing filter, keep in mind that at about f/8 your autofocusing system can start getting sluggish, which means you should stick to your lens's widest aperture or bump up your camera's ISO sensitivity, which these days is an effective fix for such issues.
As for deciding between zoom and fixed focal length lenses, there are good arguments for both. When shooting sports or other fast-action activities where your subjects are moving quickly or at rapidly changing distances from your vantage point, zooms are definitely the way to go. The argument for fixed focal length lenses is that they tend to be available with wider apertures, are often lighter and in most cases focus closer and tighter than their zoom equivalents, though this argument is best made on a case-by-case basis.
One last consideration for those seeking the most bang for their hard-earned bucks is 500mm and 800mm mirror lenses, which in a nutshell are extremely compact mirrored telescopes. We stock a variety of 500mm and 800mm mirror lenses with single, fixed apertures of f/6.3 and f/8. They might be slow and manual focus only, but the flip side is they all sell for under $250.
A Selection of Extreme Focal Length
Zoom and Fixed Focal Length Optics
|Image Stabilized||Min Focus||Filter Size||Weight|
|Nikon AF-S Nikkor 300/2.8G ED VR II||Full-Frame APS-C||Yes||7.5' (2.3m)AF 7.2' (2.2m)MF||52mm Drop-in||102.3 oz (2.9 kg)|
|Nikon AF-S Nikkor 300/4D IF-ED||Full-Frame APS-C||No||4.8' (1.46m)||77mm||3.1 lb (1.4 kg)|
|Nikon AF-S 400/2.8G ED VR||Full-Frame APS-C||Yes||9.5' (2.9m)||52mm Drop-in||10.2 lb (4.6 kg)|
|Nikon AF-S Nikkor 500/4G ED VR||Full-Frame APS-C||Yes||13.1' (4m)||52mm Drop-in||8.6 lb (3.9 kg)|
|Nikon AF-S 600/4G ED VR||Full-Frame APS-C||Yes||16.4' (5m)||52mm Drop-in||11.2 lb (5.1 kg)|
|Nikon AF VR Zoom-Nikkor 80-400/4.5-5.6D ED||Full-Frame APS-C||Yes||7.5' (2.3m)||77mm||2.9 lb (1.3 kg)|
|Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200-400/4G ED VR II||Full-Frame APS-C||Yes||6.6' (2m)AF 6.4' (1.95m)MF||52mm Drop-in||7.4 lb (3.4 kg)|
|Canon EF 400/2.8L IS USM||Full-Frame APS-C||Yes||9.8' (2.98m)||52mm Drop-in||11.7 lb (5.3 kg)|
|Canon EF 400/4 DO IS USM||Full-Frame APS-C||Yes||11.5' (3.5m)||52mm Drop-in||4.3 lb (1.95 kg)|
|Canon EF 400/5.6L USM||Full-Frame APS-C||No||11.5' (3.5m)||77mm||2.8 lb (1.27 kg)|
|Canon EF 500/4L IS USM||Full-Frame APS-C||Yes||14.8' (4.51m)||52mm Drop-in||8.53 lb (3.86 kg)|
|Canon EF 600/4L IS USM||Full-Frame APS-C||Yes||18' (5.48m)||52mm Drop-in||11.8 lb (5.35 kg)|
|Canon EF 800/5.6L IS USM||Full-Frame APS-C||Yes||19.7' (6m)||52mm Drop-in||9.9 lb (4.49 kg)|
|Canon EF 70-300/4.5-5.6 DO IS USM||Full-Frame APS-C||Yes||4.6' (1.4m0||58mm||1.6 lb (720 g)|
|Canon EF 70-300/4-5.6 IS USM||Full-Frame APS-C||Yes||4.9' (1.5m)||58mm||1.4 lb (630 g)|
|Canon EF 75-300/4-5.6 III USM||Full-Frame APS-C||No||4.9' (1.5m)||58mm||1.05 lb (476 g)|
|Canon EF 100-400/4.5-5.6L IS USM||Full-Frame APS-C||Yes||5.9' (1.79m)||77mm||3 lb
|Sony 300/2.8G APO SSG||Full-Frame APS-C||In-Camera||6.6' (2m)||42mm Rear Screw-in||5.1 lb (2.3 kg)|
|Sony 500/8 Mirror||Full-Frame APS-C||In-Camera||13.1' (4m)||None||1.5 lb (665 g)|
|Sony 70-300/4.5-5.6||Full-Frame APS-C||In-Camera||4' (1.2m)||62mm||1.8 lb (800 g)|
|Sony 70-400/4.5-5.6||Full-Frame APS-C||In-Camera||5' (1.5m)||77mm||3.5 lb (1.5 kg)|
|Pentax smc DA 300/4 ED(IF) SDM||APS-C||In-Camera||4.6' (1.4m)||77mm||2.3 lb (1.07 kg)|
|Pentax smc DA 55-300/4-5.8 ED||APS-C||In-Camera||4.6' (1.4m)||58mm||15.5 oz (440 g)|
|Panasonic Lumix G Vario 45-200/4-5.6 MEGA O.I.S||Micro FourThirds||Yes||3.3' (1m)||52mm||13.4 oz (380 g)|
|Panasonic Lumix G Vario 100-300/4-5.6 MEGA O.I.S.||Micro FourThirds||Yes||4.9' (1.5m)||67mm||1.14 lb (520 g)|
|Olympus Zuiko Digital ED 300/2.8||FourThirds||No||6.6' (2m)||Dedicated Rear Drop-in||7.2 lb (3.3 kg)|
|Olympus Zuiko Digital ED 90-250/2.8||FourThirds||No||8.2' (2.5m)||105mm||7.21 lb (3.27kg)|
|Olympus Zuiko Digital ED 70-300/4-5.6||FourThirds||No||3.1' (96cm)||58mm||1.3 lb (620 g)|
|Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 75-300/4.8-6.7||FourThirds||No||NA||NA||NA|
|Tamron SP 70-300/4-5.6 Di VC USD||Full-Frame APS-C||Yes||59.05" (1.4m)||62mm||26.98 oz (765 g)|
|Tamron SP 200-500/5-6.3 Di LD (IF)||Full-Frame APS-C||No||8.2' (2.5m)||86mm||2.7 lb (1.237kg)|
|Sigma 300/2.8 EX APO DG HSM||Full-Frame APS-C||No||4.9' (1.5m)||105mm||5.7 lb
|Sigma 500/4.5 EX DG APO HSM||Full-Frame APS-C||No||13.2' (4m)||46mm Drop-in||6.9 lb (3.1 kg)|
|Sigma 800/5.6 APO DG HSM||Full-Frame APS-C||No||19.6' (6m)||46mm Drop-in||12.9 lb (5.87 kg)|
|Sigma 70-300/4-5.6 DG OS||Full-Frame APS-C||Yes||4.92' (1.5m)||62mm||21.5 oz (610 g)|
|Sigma 120-300/2.8 EX DG OS APO||Full-Frame APS-C||Yes||4.9' (1.5m)||105m||5.7 lb (2.6 kg)|
|Sigma 120-400/4.5-5.6 DG OS HSM APO||Full-Frame APS-C||Yes||4.9' (1.5m)||77mm||3.8 lb (1.75 kg)|
|Sigma 150-500/5-6.3 DG OS HSM APO||Full-Frame APS-C||Yes||7.2' (2.2m)||86mm||4.2 lb (1.91 kg)|
|Sigma 50-500/4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM||Full-Frame APS-C||Yes||19.7" (0.5m)||95mm||4.35 lb (1.97 kg)|
|Sigma 300-800/5.6 EX DG APO IF HSM||Full-Frame APS-C||No||19.6' (6m)||46mm Drop-in||12.9 lb (5.87 kg)|
|Sigma 200-500/2.8 EX DG APO IF||Full-Frame APS-C||No||6.5 - 16.4' (2-5m)||72mm (rear)||34.6 lb (15.7 kg)|
|Tokina AF-D 80-400/4.5-5.6 ATX||Full-Frame APS-C||No||8.2' (2.5m)||72mm||2.2 lb (1.02 kg)|