Hot Take — Telephoto Lenses Are Better Than A Wide Angle

With ten years under my belt as a professional photographer, I've found that telephotos are better than wide for my work — here's why.

Sallie Mann 900x660

Why I Like Telephoto Lenses

Longer focal lengths are perfect for bringing far-off objects and settings closer. There's a condensed, richer sense of detail in images shot on telephoto that you can rarely replicate with a wide lens.

From the trials of Zambia on an African Safari to local-studio portraits and stylized shoots, the photos crafted on my 70-200mm EOS Canon or 80mm lenses have always been a favorite.

No matter the backdrop or subject, the beautiful bokeh, and soft backgrounds create a near hyper-realistic scene I treasure. Captured on my Canon digital and a range of film cameras, I perpetually gravitate toward showcasing the tele-forward galleries for the portfolio.

Important to note: my breadth of work circulates human emotion, intimate details, and frames of sentiment unique to tighter scenes. I hardly shoot street sets or large landscapes that require a much broader perspective. My portrait work, lifestyle grabs, and even settings set in the outdoors derive from a unique view of my preference: tighter, creamier, and almost-ethereal cacophonies of frozen time.

I hardly find myself with a wide lens on the camera, simply because I don't find the need to if I don't want to.

Moment Sony SEL70200 G FE 70 200mm f 4 G OSS Lens thumbnail

Sony

FE 70-200mm f/4 G OSS Lens

Shooting far and wanting to keep it stable? Capture distant subjects while keeping your camera lightweight with the FE 70-200mm f/4 G OSS Lens from Sony

Buy for $1,498.00
Moment fujifilm 600022103 GF80mm F1 7 R WR Lens thumbnail

Fujifilm

GF 80mm F1.7 R WR Lens

Looking for that creamy bokeh? With its super-wide aperture of F1.7, the Fujifilm GF 80mm F1.7 R WR Lens delivers it with super sharpness in a durable body

Buy for $2,299.00

Captured on a 70-200mm. It brings the subject much closer, I couldn't have captured his facial expression on a wide angle otherwise.

Arcosanti on a 35mm, I love this image, but it's an example of wishing the background had more bokeh.

Layers on a Canon telephoto.

Technicalities & Use Cases To Consider:

For technicalities, "telephoto" is used informally to refer to lenses with a restricted field of view that are longer than 80mm. They are separated into three groups:

  • Short telephoto lenses have focal lengths between 85mm and 135mm and are ideal for daily usage due to their portability.

  • Medium telephoto lenses have focal lengths between 135mm to 300mm, which can be heavier than short telephoto lenses.

  • With focal lengths above 300mm, super telephoto lenses have magnifying power akin to a telescope but are too hefty for handheld shooting.

Thus, despite my assertion, it's wise to understand when to use a telephoto lens versus a wide one.

A deep depth of field is required if you want the entire scene in focus, as most wide lenses come with a lower aperture suitable for adequate exposure in any lighting condition. Telelenses are often manufactured with much higher apertures, making achieving an adequately focused image in softer light more challenging. For example, I particularly notice this when capturing tight ring or facial shots during indoor wedding ceremonies.

Moment Sony SEL200600 G Telephotozoomlens 200 mm 600 mm f 5 6 6 3 G OSS E mount thumbnail

Sony

FE 200–600mm F5.6–6.3 G OSS Lens

Great shots even from a huge distance! The Sony 200-600mm super-telephoto zoom lens is corner-to-corner sharp, has superb image quality, less chromatic abortion

Buy for $1,998.00
Moment fujifilm 16664339 XF50mm F1 0 thumbnail

Fujifilm

XF 50mm F1.0 Lens

Looking for shallow depth of field creamy backgrounds with your Fuji? The Fujifilm XF50mmF1.0 delivers! Get those beautiful portraits with this prime lens

Buy for $1,499.00

Rich, creamy detail on an 85mm.

The 70-200mm really brings you into the outpost, curating a sense of depth and peace.

An intimate moment on an 85mm; forcing to be closer on the wide angle would have been more disruptive.

Layers! Also captured on a 70-200mm.

The skin tones are perfected with the 85mm's compression.

Another example of vintage-looking compression and depth.

afterbefore
70-200mm Lens
35mm Lens

Comparisons & Examples

Many photographers I admire also imitate these similar sentiments with tighter focal lengths and shallower depth of fields.

Intel from LargeFormatPhotograph.com suggests that Sally Mann used a Rodenstock 300mm f5.6 APO-Sironar-N lens for her large-format photography. It's reasonably apparent Mann used longer ultra-tele lenses to provide depth to her most notable projects; you cannot quickly achieve her level of pure chasm without one.

My favorite Instagram follow, Pia Riverola, sports gorgeously warm tones and, you guessed it — depth. Similar to the famous and recognizable works of an old-timer, Willem Eggleston.

Notice the textures and their nostalgic-like tone; each frame's profoundness extends beyond its pictured subject matter, almost as if you're wondering what's beyond the composition.

The images exude a sense of absolving mystery, defiance against the rules, and idiomatic design.

Photo By: Willem Eggleston

Photo By: Pia Riverola

Photo By: Pia Riverola

Photo By: Sally Mann

Below are images captured by the Mamiya 654' 85mm, or my 70-200mm across a range of digital and SLR camera bodies. Each frame is labeled with the corresponding setup. I look forward to utilizing even longer lenses in the future, much like Mann's haunting negatives.

An intimate portrait on the 85mm.

The entire scene is still well captured on a mid-telephoto range.

The compression is so yummy here!

In Conclusion

Gone are the days when photography rules remain relevant.

After a decade of method, patience, and endurance in this ever-evolving industry — the best tool for any artist is the one they love the most. For me, it's a set of particular lens lengths, aperture settings, and camera bodies that I know will better embolden my visions than others.

If you prefer the fisheye for funky fashion portraits and street scenes under sunny skies — go for it.

Sometimes it's healthy to branch into the unknown or uncomfortable.

However — creating stunning results through practice, trial, error, and varied gear to find the recipe you like is equally a part of the creative process.

Photo By: Sally Mann

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