Shooting with a long lens is really fun and it gives you so much versatility. But before we talk about how to love your long telephoto lens and the best way to use it, let’s define it.

The 50mm focal distance in photography is considered the ‘normal’ focal length. This is because it is considered to be the distance at which we see with the naked eye.

Therefore, using a 50mm lens is providing no magnification. If you were to multiply that by 4 you would get 200mm.

So when you shoot with a 200mm you are essentially magnifying your scene 4 times. Anything higher than 200mm gives you more magnification and ultimately more reach to your subject from a distance.

So now that we know what a telephoto is and what it does for us, let’s talk about how to use it (most examples below are with my favorite telephoto lens, the Canon 100-400mm).

1. Beautiful portraits

Having a telephoto lens is great for photographing people, especially portraits. Wide angle lenses create distortion that is not very flattering to a human face or body. Long lenses make your subjects look more natural and have the ability to isolate your subject from the background.

Different from depth of field, lens compression has the ability to make the background less distracting. When you shoot with a wide angle lens you capture much of the scene around the subject.

However, with a telephoto lens you change your shooting angle to have a much more narrow view and therefore less background is visible which makes objects in the background appear larger.

Here’s an example of a 50mm portrait vs a 400mm portrait. For these shots I kept my daughter in the exact same place. I chose a spot in my yard with a busy background so that you could easily see the difference between the two focal lengths.

Notice in the 400mm one how much closer the shed and the grasses behind her look? The background looks larger and less obtrusive.

portrait of girl with a wide angle lens by Jessica Nelson
portrait of girl with a telephoto lens by Jessica Nelson

As another example, these two were shot on the other side of my house and opposite the sun in open shade. These were also shot at 400mm, one close and one further back.

And even though this daughter looks fairly bored here, the background looks nice. 🙂

close up photo at 400mm by Jessica Nelson
close up
further back photo at 400mm by Jessica Nelson
a little further back

2. You can be a spy

You can photograph your kids without them knowing but still be able to get in close. Follow them around and keep quiet. When kids don’t know they are being photographed they act much differently.

girls playing in the snow photo by Jessica Nelson
Sisters act like they like each other.
picture of kid swimming by Jessica Nelson
And even photograph them swimming from a distance.

3. The bokeh is fantastic

Nothing beats the bokeh (the blurry background) you get from a long lens. Even at higher apertures you can get some beautiful creamy or circular bokeh. But in order to maximize your beautiful backgrounds you need to pay attention to what is behind your subject while shooting.

For example, I wanted to isolate this flower from the rest of the bunch so I used my 400mm lens knowing I would get a narrower background at that length.

The first image I shot looked like this:

yellow flower picture by Jessica Nelson

But then I realized if I moved myself slightly I could get the blue flowers in the background to be more behind the yellow which would be more complimentary and pleasing.

So this was the shot I ended up with:

photo of a yellow flower against a blue background by Jessica Nelson

And you can even photograph an angry bird from a safe distance:

angry bird picture by Jessica Nelson

4. Sports and action shots

Capture the action from the sidelines with a long lens. This is definitely a fun challenge to try to capture the fun and excitement of a game or maybe just a practice when you have a lens long enough to see everything from afar.

It’s something that takes a lot of practice and skill, since using a long lens can produce some camera shake if you don’t have a high enough shutter speed, but it’s worth getting acquainted with. Here are some of my meager attempts to capture my kids in action.

girls riding down a tube on the snow by Jessica Nelson
black and white photo of a football game by Celeste Pavlik
photo by Celeste Pavlik

5. Shoot at a safe distance

No one wants to be out in the elements exposing your camera to the rain, snow or even a sprinkler. But having a long telephoto lens solves that problem.

I shot these from a safe and dry distance:

girl in blue coat throwin snow by Jessica Nelson
photo of kids playing in the water hose by Jessica Nelson

6. Wildlife

This is by far my favorite reason to own a telephoto, to be one with nature.

Wildlife and capturing it has always been a passion of mine and I just love being able to observe from afar while using my camera to get up close. From birds to animals to insects, having a long lens allows you to be a part of their lives while letting them do their thing.

photo of a brown horse by Jessica Nelson
picture of flamingos by Jessica Nelson

7. Macro

While shooting with a long telephoto won’t give you macro results, similar to shooting with a macro lens you can get pretty close to subjects that you wouldn’t necessarily want to get too close to.

Insects are a good example of where having a long lens is a treat. You can capture them from a far distance while being virtually undetected. This helps with getting the photo you want and keeps you away from potential stings.

butterfly sitting on pink flowers by Jessica Nelson
backlit picture of a tree by Jessica Nelson
Reaching some pretty buds in a tall tree. Yay spring!
picture of a squirrel in a tree by Jessica Nelson
Or catch a squirrel munching.

Now you can see why I have so much fun with this lens and how rarely it leaves my camera.

If you need to break out of a rut or want to try something or build your biceps, rent or buy one of these babies and take it for a spin.