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Tips & Tutorials >> All Tips & Tutorials In Focus: Lens Basics- Part9

Lens Basics #8: Telephoto Lenses

Telephoto lenses let you fill the frame with a subject and create a creamy background blur, all with little distortion. Read on to learn more about them. (Reported by Tomoko Suzuki)

Lens basics top image


Introduction to telephoto lenses

Characteristics of telephoto lenses:

1. Let you “draw in” and fill the frame with subjects that are actually far away.
2. Shallow depth-of-field; makes it easy to create background blur (background “bokeh”).
3. Narrow angle-of-view; makes it easy to keep unwanted background elements out of the frame.
4. Perspective compression effect; makes elements look nearer to each other.


Telephoto lenses can generally be further separated into three sub-types based on their 35mm film-equivalent focal lengths:

Mid-telephoto lenses(also known as medium telephoto lenses) : About 85mm to 100mm, or even 135mm.
Normal telephoto lenses: 200mm to 300mm
Super telephoto lenses: 400mm and above

Images produced with a telephoto lens tend to be more true-to-life, with less apparent subject distortion than those shot on wide-angle lenses. When photographers prioritize the faithful reproduction of the shape of their subjects, they tend to choose mid-telephoto or normal telephoto lenses. In fact, 85mm prime lenses are also often called “portrait lenses” because they are popularly used for portrait photography.

See: Why the EF85mm f/1.8 USM is Ideal for Portrait Photography

The longer the lens focal length, the stronger their ability to “pull-in” and fill the frame with faraway subjects. (Read more about this in: Lens FAQ #7: What is the difference between a 200mm and 300mm telephoto lens?) As telephoto lenses also have a shallow depth-of-field and therefore can produce images with a narrow in-focus area, they are a good choice for capturing images with the background bokeh effect.

Yet another defining characteristic of telephoto lenses is their narrow angle-of-view. This makes it possible to exclude unwanted background elements from the image for a neater composition. Telephoto lenses are also good at making the distances between faraway and nearby elements look shorter. This is called the compression effect, and you can use it to reduce the sense of perspective in an image.


Main types of telephoto lenses

L lenses for full frame cameras

EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM


EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM
Click here for more details


EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM


EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
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EF300mm f/2.8L IS II USM


EF300mm f/2.8L IS II USM
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Non-L lenses for full frame cameras

EF70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS II USM


EF70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS II USM
Click here for more details


EF-S/EF-M lenses

EF-S55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM


EF-S55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM
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EF-M55-200mm f/4.5-6.3 IS STM


EF-M55-200mm f/4.5-6.3 IS STM
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Canon’s telephoto lenses can be divided into 3 categories: L lenses for full-frame cameras, non-L lenses for full-frame cameras, and EF-S/EF-M lenses.

Telephoto L lenses for full-frame cameras are premium lenses that provide professional-quality performance and high durability, and which is why they tend to be heavier and cost more.

Telephoto non-L lenses for full-frame cameras also provide rather high image quality, but they are more affordably priced and tend to be relatively more compact and lighter.

Telephoto EF-S/EF-M lenses are for DSLR cameras with APS-C size sensors and the EOS M-series mirrorless cameras, respectively. They tend to be compact, lightweight and portable to match the cameras they are made for.

You may be interested in:
Improve Your Travel Photos with the EOS M10 #3: Using a Telephoto Zoom Lens


The telephoto focal length range


A lens is usually considered to be a telephoto lens if it has a 35mm film equivalent focal length that is longer than 70mm. The range of focal lengths considered to be “telephoto” is very large, as you can see from the above diagram. The longer the lens focal length, the more capable it is of filling the frame with subjects from even further away.


Techniques to try with your telephoto lens

1. Make the background appear closer

This is called the perspective compression effect, and the effect is stronger the longer the focal length. The examples below were shot at 70mm and 200mm respectively. Although they are of the same scene, the 200mm example includes more of the wall in the far back, which indicates that the background has been “compressed” into the image. You can use this image to crowd elements closer together for a tighter composition.

Weaker compression effect

Strong compression effect

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM/ FL: 70mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/8, 1/60 sec, EV-0.7)/ ISO 2000/ WB: Daylight

Strong compression effect

Weak compression effect

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM/ FL: 200mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/8, 1/160 sec, EV-0.7)/ ISO 6400/ WB: Daylight


Here's a tutorial on this technique:
Irresistible Tips from Professionals on Bringing out Depth


2. Blur the background and frame the image to make the main interest stands out

The narrow angle-of-view of a telephoto lens and its ability to easily create background blur can be used to make your background appear simpler and less distracting, which also makes your main subject stand out. Indeed, adjusting the background colours and brightness can change the look and feel of your shot tremendously. One way to improve your photography skill is to pay careful attention to your choice of background and not just to the main subject when deciding on the composition.

A background defocused to look solid-coloured

Background defocused with a telephoto lens

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM/ FL: 200mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/5, 1/160 sec, EV-1)/ ISO 200/ WB: Daylight

A background full of bokeh circles

Background with bokeh circles created with the telephoto lens

EOS 6D/ EF70-200mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 200mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/4, 1/3200 sec)/ ISO 100/ WB: Daylight


Tutorials on this technique:
Utilising the Compression Effect and Large Bokeh of Telephoto Lenses
Camera FAQ #15: How Do I Photograph Small Animals Against a Busy but Beautiful Background?
4 Easy Steps to Capture Those Elusive Bokeh Circles!

Bonus! Here’s a slightly more advanced bokeh technique:
Telephoto Lens Techniques – Creating Multiple Layers of Bokeh


Telephoto lenses are wonderful for…

Telephoto lens distance compression “pull-in” effect

EOS 6D/ EF70-200mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 200mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/4, 1/640sec, EV+0.3)/ ISO 100/ WB: Daylight

…capturing large closeups of a subject even when you are unable to get closer to it physically
A telephoto lens is useful for when you need to photograph subjects from a distance away. Examples include animals in a zoo, or even flowers in a flower bed. For the above image, I “pulled in” the flowers with a focal length of 200mm.


Telephoto compression effect (packed street scene)

EOS 700D/ EF-S55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM/ FL: 222mm (355mm equivalent)/ Aperture-priority AE (f/5.6, 1/400sec)/ ISO 160/ WB: Auto

…Compressing distances between elements in a street scene so that it looks more crowded
You may also use a telephoto lens for its perspective compression effect, which is what I did for the street scene above, taken at focal length 355mm (35 film-equivalent). By leveraging on the resulting feel of compactness, I conveyed the atmosphere of the bustling street packed with shoppers.


Also see:
Photographing Sakura in Japan: Scenic Spots & Pro Photography Tips (2) (example #4)

Have a super telephoto lens, or curious about what these lenses can do? These 2 articles have tips and tutorials just for super telephoto lenses:
How to Photograph Dreamy Images of Decorative Lights
Super Telephoto Lens Techniques - Wildlife Silhouettes Against the Sun


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Digital Camera Magazine

Digital Camera Magazine

A monthly magazine that believes that enjoyment of photography will increase the more one learns about camera functions. It delivers news on the latest cameras and features and regularly introduces various photography techniques.
Published by Impress Corporation

Tomoko Suzuki

Tomoko Suzuki

After graduating from the Tokyo Polytechnic University Junior College, Suzuki joined an advertisement production firm. She has also worked as an assistant to photographers including Kirito Yanase, and specializes in commercial shoots for apparels and cosmetic products. She now works as a studio photographer for an apparel manufacturer.