Tips for Shooting with Your First Telephoto Zoom Lens


Congratulations on getting your first telephoto zoom lens. Telephoto zooming makes for fun photography! Whether you got your 55-200mm or 55-300mm “kit lens” with a new camera, or you’re adding it, or a similar lens, to your quiver, your photography is about to enter a new world of awesomeness. In this article, we will discuss some tips for how to get the most out of your new telephoto zoom lens.

Photographs © Todd Vorenkamp

Before we dive into discussing your new lens, let’s make sure we get on the same page with our nomenclature. “Telephoto” and “zoom” are often used interchangeably in the photography world, but they mean two different things:

  • “Telephoto” refers to a focal length that is longer than a lens in the “normal” range of focal lengths. Basically, when paired with a 35mm camera, anything longer than approximately 60mm is considered telephoto.
  • “Zoom” refers to a lens that has an adjustable focal length. While many zoom lenses adjust the focal length in the telephoto range, others are wide-angle zoom lenses. Not all zoom lenses are telephoto.

Getting Closer

Since the dawn of optics, one of the primary missions of the lens has been getting the viewer closer to the subject. Telescopes, binoculars, magnifying lenses, microscopes, spotting scopes, and many camera lenses are designed to magnify an image so that we can see farther and/or closer.

It may seem obvious, but it is important to keep this in mind when wielding a telephoto zoom lens. If you are using a 55-200mm lens around the 55mm focal length, optically speaking, you will likely be better off with a normal-length prime lens, such as a 50mm. While it can take perfectly good images at 55mm, the telephoto zoom lens is designed to zoom into a scene and give you some extra reach.

Sweet Spot: Aperture

You may have heard the term “sweet spot” when a photographer is referring to the performance of a given lens. What this person is referring to is the aperture range of the lens that provides optimal sharpness in an image. For most lenses, this is usually the mid-aperture range. On most telephoto zoom lenses, you will find the sweet spot around f/8 or f/11, as sharpness tends to go away when the aperture is wider, and diffraction sets in when the lens is stopped down to more than about f/16.

You will find that dialing up those mid-range apertures will give you the sharpest images with your new lens. However, if daylight is fading, or if you are shooting indoors, you will likely have to open up your aperture to a smaller number to allow more light into the camera.

Sweet Spot: Zoom Range

When it comes to lenses, there is a second definition of “sweet spot,” which is the zoom range where the lens performs at its best. With zoom lenses, maximum performance is not usually discovered at the extreme ends of the zoom range, but in the middle regions.

If you are wielding a 70-300mm lens and your composition allows you to shoot at 250mm instead of 300mm, you might see some real-world gains in sharpness. Yes, you can get great images at 300mm, and if you have 300mm at your disposal, you’ll want to use it, but keep it in the back of your head that if you dial the focal length back a bit, you might get a sharper photograph.

Camera Shake

One challenge of telephoto shooting is dealing with the dreaded “camera shake.” Regardless of how steady your hands are, when you hand hold a camera and lens and release the shutter to take a photograph, the camera is prone to movement.

Mathematics and physics tell us that there is a relationship between camera movement and the amount of magnification of a given lens; the greater the focal length, the more the movement is amplified. Many of us dream of reaching out across a soccer pitch or up to the stars with a 300mm or 500mm lens, only to be frustrated by the fact that we have mastered the art of the blurry photograph.

There are a few ways to combat camera shake. One is by using a tripod or other type of camera support. This is the best method to steady a camera at any focal length. However, we don’t always have a tripod on us, nor is a support always practical. When shooting handheld, a good rule to use is that the shutter speed should be at least the same number as the focal length of your lens.

Example 1: When shooting a 75-300mm lens on a full-frame 35mm DSLR camera that is zoomed in to 300mm, you should aim for at least 1/300-second of shutter speed; 1/500 is even better.

Example 2: When shooting a 55-300mm lens on an APS-C cropped sensor DSLR, be sure to apply the crop factor to your focal length. A 1.5x APS-C crop gives that 300mm lens a 450mm equivalent field of view. Therefore, aim for at least 1/500-second, or faster, for your shutter speed.

Best Uses: Sports

Traditionally, the primary function of the telephoto zoom lens is its ability to capture sports action. If the field of play is larger than a squash court, keep in mind that it is difficult for a photographer to get close enough to the action to capture compelling images that isolate the athletes visually from the surrounding stadium or background.

Best Uses: Wildlife

Photographing wildlife is another genre of photography that is firmly in the wheelhouse of the telephoto zoom lens. It is not always practical to get face-to-face with a wild animal—it’s often best to keep your distance for many reasons, the greatest of which is your safety!

With a telephoto lens in your bag, you can photograph that distant bird, bison, or butterfly at a safe distance without disturbing them, or maybe even alerting them to your presence. In these situations, that extra reach can be critical to getting the shot.

Best Uses: Landscape

The default choice for landscapes is a wide-angle lens. But, the telephoto zoom lens is also a fantastic tool for the job, and it should never be discounted when it comes to landscapes. In fact, there are many scenarios where the telephoto zoom lens is superior to the wide-angle lens for capturing the view from a scenic vista—especially when the scenery is distant.

The other benefit of the telephoto zoom lens in landscape photography is its ability to zoom out to show detail in a distant scene.

Best Uses: Portraiture

Even if your new telephoto zoom lens does not have a large aperture like the behemoth f/2.8 “professional” zoom lenses, it is still possible, and even easy, to get those desirable soft and blurry backgrounds for your portrait shots. Are you ready to create some great bokeh?

To get the best results with this, you need three ingredients for your portraits:

1. Forget, for a moment, what I said about the aperture sweet spot and open your aperture to its widest setting.

2. Get as close to your subject as you can while remembering rules of composition and your desired framing.

3. Ensure that there is good separation between your subject and the background.

With those three things, you will be able to get a nice shallow depth-of-field image with a smooth, blurry background.

The Magic of the Telephoto Zoom Lens

The biggest attribute of the telephoto zoom lens might be its ability to reach across a long distance and isolate a subject—be it an outfielder waiting for the next pitch, a sliver of a landscape, or, creatively, a small segment of a larger scene that catches your eye.

One of my favorite uses for the telephoto is in isolating an abstraction from a larger scene. I love to look for the “photograph inside the photograph” and capture something that is unique to my vision.

On that note, get outside and go make some photographs with your new telephoto zoom lens! And, if you have questions or comments, serve them up in the Comments section, below!