Are you confused by photography talk about telephoto and wide-angle lenses? What’s the big deal anyway? Your lens choice does actually make a big difference to your final images, and we’re here to let you know all the facts about telephoto vs. wide-angle lenses.

What is a Telephoto Lens Used for?



Telephoto lenses have a long focal length and are used to bring subjects and far-away scenes closer. They don’t have to be zoom lenses, either – telephoto lenses can be prime lenses with a fixed focal length too.  Just to muddy the waters further, telephoto lenses generally come in three categories:

  • Short telephoto – lenses that range from around 85mm to 135mm fall into this category. They are great general-purpose lenses and can be carried around comfortably on a day-long shoot as they are quite light and compact.
  • Medium telephoto – focal lengths range from 135mm to 300mm, and they are usually bigger and heavier than short telephotos.
  • Super telephoto – these are the big guns! you often see sports and wildlife photographers toting these beasts around. The focal length goes from around 300mm upwards, and these lenses usually come with their own tripod collar because they are so big and heavy.

There are drawbacks to having such long focal lengths, though. The longer the focal length, the less light gets into your camera, and the darker your image becomes. Many telephoto lenses at the bigger end of the scale have a wider maximum aperture to let more light in, but they tend to be more expensive because of the extra optical technology needed to do this.

What Does a Telephoto Lens do to an Image?

In a nutshell, telephoto lenses allow you to zoom in on a subject or scene that is further away from you. They also compress the subject and background, affecting the relative size of your subject. This makes the background look larger and closer than it actually is.

If you shoot with a shallow depth-of-field and a telephoto lens, then the compression will give you a large and smooth bokeh effect in the background.

Best Ways to Use a Telephoto Lens

The main reason photographers use a telephoto lens is so they can get closer to the action without needing to go closer. Because of their size and the way they are built, medium to super-telephoto lenses are expensive and will be a big investment. So you don’t waste precious cash on a lens you will hardly use, it’s a good idea to figure out if you will get your money’s worth out of it before you take the plunge.

optical zoom telephoto lens
Sony A7R III, Sony 135mm f/1.8 GM telephoto lens, un-cropped

Here are some of the reasons to shoot with a telephoto lens:

  • Professional wildlife and nature photography where you need to get close without disturbing the animals
  • Sports events where you can shoot from the sidelines and still get close to the action
  • Photojournalism or events where you have to capture key moments without disrupting things and can shoot from a safe distance
  • Astrophotography
  • Lunar photography
  • To decrease the visual distance from the background to your subject, and to isolate your subject against the background
  • Get great-looking bokeh

[Related Reading: Top 3 Lenses For Photographing Bridal Portraits (And 5 Honorable Mentions)]

What is a Wide-Angle Lens Used for?

Wide-angle lenses do exactly that – give you a much wider angle of view than telephoto lenses, and they tend to go from 34mm on downwards, until you reach the ultra-wide-angle lenses and fisheye lenses of 14mm or so. As telephoto lenses have their problems, so do the ultra-wide-angle lenses – this time it’s image distortion, although some photographers shoot specifically to make creative distortion images, so it’s not necessarily a problem.

What Does a Wide-Angle Lens do to an Image?

When you shoot with a wide-angle lens, you are expanding the horizontal scope of an image, and almost everything will be in focus, unless it’s very close to the lens – this makes it a great lens for landscape photography. The wider the angle of the lens, the more distorted your image becomes. Ultra-wides, or fisheye lenses, can take in a full 180-degree radius and are often used specifically to create a distorted perspective.

Distortion is most visible at the outside edges of the frame, and straight lines become curved. The center of the image also looks further away and gives a skewed perspective that can add interest and depth. While this can give you unique, creative images, not everyone wants distorted photos, especially if they’re shooting portraits.

Best Ways to Use a Wide-Angle Lens

Rokinon 8mm f3.5 Fisheye Lens for Canon EFThe good news is, wide-angle lenses are generally much cheaper than their telephoto cousins. The bad news is that if you want straight lines in your images, you’re going to have to do a lot of distortion fixing in post-processing! Here are some ways in which you can put a wide-angle lens to good use:

  • Landscape photography – capture mountain ranges and large scenes. You can also get closer to a large subject and still keep it in the frame, like a tall building.
  • These lenses are great for creative architecture photography. The wide-angle lens lets you shoot cityscapes and buildings without needing to be far away, and it also creates that distortion of straight lines.
  • Real estate photography – wide angles allow you to shoot interiors and exteriors

Telephoto vs. Wide-Angle Conclusion

And the winner of telephoto vs. wide-angle is…both!

It’s a case of horses for courses, and each type of lens has its own strengths and weaknesses and is invaluable for different types of photography. I hope this article has cut through any confusion surrounding the subject and that it ultimately helps you decide which type of lens you’ll use most before you spend any money. Or, of course, you could have one of each type of lens to cover all the bases!