Telephoto Lenses


Choosing the Right Camera Lens


Lesson Info

Telephoto Lenses

All right let's talk about telephoto lenses here. So, we're gonna be shooting with a narrower angle of view. We're gonna start off with a 100 millimeter lens as far as a full frame camera. That's around a 65, and for those of you who got basic simple kits, you know, your standard Sony or Canon, or Nikon with your 18 to 55, put your lens at about and that's pretty close to what we're talking about here with the 100 millimeter lens. So, about a 20 degree angle of view of what you're gonna see, and this is obviously great when you physically cannot get or they don't allow you, or you will get in big trouble if you get any closer to your subject. And so when you want to get a tighter frame on your subject to tell a more tight and constrained story, you want to crop out details that are not important to you, isolating the subjects that you want. This 100 millimeter type lens is gonna be perfect for that. It's probably the most valuable lens in photography. There are more things that you ca...

n do with this than it seems like anything else. It seems like this is a great way to shoot, and the reason is is because you're able to crop out the things that you don't want in the frame. And so there are just so many different uses for a lens in this short telephoto range. This is also where we're gonna talk about macro lenses. Macro lenses typically are in this short telephoto range, and it's where lenses are best at focusing up close, but we'll have a separate section straight on macro lenses. But more than anything else, these lenses are known as portrait lenses, and that's because they render the human face, and the human form in a very natural perspective. It gives us a good and comfortable working distance between us and our subjects, and another factor that we're gonna talk about in the next section, which is depth of field. Notice these photographs, they have a background that is very soft and out of focus, so it keeps your eye on the subject's face, which is exactly where I the photographer wants it to be. And so if you want that shallow depth of field look, it's gonna be easiest to get that with a telephoto lens, and these short telephotos do a very good job of that. The next lens is the 200 millimeter lens, and in the wide angle section I said that most people are gonna want to have at least a 24 or equivalent millimeter lens, and then the other side of the coin is that I think everyone should have a lens that goes up to around 200 millimeters, and that's because photographers in general have an eye for details, and from time to time you're just gonna want to tell a tight story about a few little details. And that 200 millimeter lens is gonna be a not too big lens that allows you to reach out and grab those sorts of details. If you're gonna shoot wildlife, well this is just kind of the start of where you're gonna be shooting wildlife. You're gonna need 200 and up beyond that. One of the effects of the 200 millimeter lens and above is that you really start getting this compression effect. So subjects like these bridges in Prague are kind of far apart, several blocks apart but shot from the right perspective with a 200 millimeter lens, they really look like they're pretty close together. And so we're really able to compress a scene and pull out some interesting details when the whole area really isn't that interesting, but there is a narrow angle of view that does a very good job. This is obviously a great lens for a lot of sports photography, depending on what size of subject you're shooting and how close you can get to them, but pretty much all sports photographers are gonna have at least a 200 millimeter lens in their kit. But it's also good for portrait photography. Yes portraits of animals are portraits, and you could render that background nice and soft and out of focus so that your subject's face really stands out. 200 millimeter lens, it's not what most people consider to be the ideal portrait lens. It's a little bit on the long side, you're a little bit further away. So either that can be helpful because you don't want to be as close to your subject, or you can't be as close, or you want to shoot a little bit tighter head shot, a little bit closer in shot of your subject. And so very much within the realm of the portrait photographer. The last stop on our train ride here through the different focal lengths is the 400 millimeter lens, and so these are the big lenses. And these are gonna be very, very helpful when you are photographing subjects that you just cannot get physically close to. And so for many sort of motor sports, airplane photography, this is very, very helpful of a focal length, because you can reach out and get nice close details as that plane flies by. This is where we're gonna get into a lot of wildlife photography, and many of these 400 millimeter lenses can focus up pretty close, and so you can photograph relatively small subjects if you can get close to them. If you're into bird photography, you're gonna need at least a 400 millimeter lens. Many photographers are using 600 and millimeter lenses, but a 400 is gonna be a very good option when you have that chance. And this is where you can really isolate one subject, you'll be able to blur the background. But as I've been mentioning with the telephoto lenses, there is also this compression effect, and so using it for landscape photography is something that I really like to do, especially in a desert environment where you have a long viewing distance. You can compress the scene that's very far off and compress all these little sand dunes into one frame. Any sort of action photography is gonna be very, very nice. Things moving, you're gonna be able to isolate those details, have soft backgrounds if they're a little bit separated from your subject. These can allow you to be very, very creative with your photography, being able to shoot with that shallow depth of field. It can be a lot of fun because you can really isolate and tell the story of that particular subject. But the overriding theme on these telephoto lenses is this compression effect, where if you have multiple subjects in the frame that are at different distances to you, the telephoto lens is gonna make them seem pretty close together. So let's take a look at an example, going from wide angle to telephoto. So the subject in the foreground is gonna stay the same size in the frame, and the subject in the background is always going to be 10 meters behind our front subject, and here there is a huge size difference between our foreground subject and our background subject, and as we kind of cycle through from wide angle on our way up to normal, and then up to telephoto, you're gonna see the size relationship change. And you can see now our subject in the background is seeming closer and closer in size, and appears to be closer to our subject but in everyone of these photographs is exactly the same distance away from each other, and let's go back to 200, 100, all the way back down to 100 and then back up to 400. You can see, 400 millimeter lens compresses the distance between these two subjects and makes them look closer together. And so anytime you have subjects that are relatively far apart, and you want them to appear closer, you're gonna need a lot of working space. You move back, and you use a telephoto lens. This is the Very Large Array in, I think this is in northern Arizona, and each of these satellite dishes is over a quarter mile apart, and with a long 400 millimeter lens it makes them look like they're actually very close together. If you want to create a pattern from some trees that are pretty close together, a long telephoto lens is gonna magnify how close these are together. Downtown Seattle looks like it doesn't have any room for streets between the buildings when you are photographing from a distance with this long telephoto lens. It looks like all the buildings are really crammed upon each other, and so it's very good for creating patterns. When subjects are a little bit further apart, stand in the right area with the right lens and it looks like everything is very, very close together. So all of these photos I think are good examples of compression effect in order to create a pattern, and it can be used in many, many different environments, from the open desert to the crowded city. So the telephoto lens, anything in that range of 100 to 400 is gonna help magnify your subject when you are not allowed to get any closer to your subject. In general, they're gonna give you a shallow depth of field, and they're also gonna minimize the background area. I've got a good example of that coming up here in a little bit. And it compresses that foreground and background subject, and flattens the scene, which is good in some cases, not good in other cases. Now, we have all these different lenses, and it might be kind of hard to remember what lens does what, and you have to pull it out of your camera bag to see if it works, and then it's kind of hard to remember. So let me give you some tips on how you can do this without a camera, so no camera is necessary for this. So if you want a 50 millimeter lens, what you do is you put your hands like this, like a movie director, and you keep your thumbs about four to six inches apart. Bend your elbows in here, and what you see in those frame lines of your finger is around a 50 millimeter lens, and that's a normal lens, it lends a normal perspective. Now the 35 millimeter lens is gonna be very similar. You just need to have about a foot between your thumbs, the thumbs need to be further apart in that case. The 24 millimeter lens, it's a little tricky here, what you've got to do is you've got to put your hands on your elbows, like you're a genie, and then put your thumbs up, and what you see, I like to close one eye, what you see from thumb to thumb is about a 24 millimeter lens. I know it looks kind of goofy doing this, but it actually works, you might want to try it. Then finally, on the wide angle side, a 16 millimeter lens is about everything that you can see with one eye. I can barely see, let's see, I can see from here, all the way over to here. So, that's about a 16 millimeter lens for me. Now these are all rough estimates, these are not exacts. The telephotos are a little bit easier to do. Okay so the 100 millimeter lens is you take your thumb and your forefinger and you stretch it out, and you reach out in front of you and what you see from side to side in there is about what you're gonna see with 100 millimeter lens. So if I want to shoot a portrait, I can kind of size it up to figure out where I need to stand with that thumb to pinky setup there. The 200 millimeter lens, it's the here birdy birdy birdy, put your forefinger out like this, and what you see across your finger right here through one eye is about what you're gonna see with a 200 millimeter lens. All right, and finally, if you have a 400 millimeter lens and you want to know what that's gonna see, an arms length OK, so that means you do the OK and you hold it all the way out so that you just have this little tiny circle that you're looking through right there, and then you can see a 400 millimeter. Now another general rule of thumb is if you see something you want to photograph, and you put your thumb up, and you can completely cover up your subject, like let's say you're photographing the moon, and you completely cover the moon with your thumb, you're gonna need a really long lens, much longer than 400 for that. Because even at 400, that's quite a bit bigger area than just your thumb there. So if you can only cover it with your thumb, you're probably too far away, or you don't have a big enough lens most likely. So hopefully those will kind of help you figure out what lens you need, even before you go into the camera bag, even before you go back to the car to pick your bag up. You'll know exactly which lens you need.

Class Description

Once you’ve chosen the camera of your dreams, how do you know which lens will maximize your camera’s capabilities? Join camera expert John Greengo as he explains what the best lenses are to add to your camera bag. He’ll explain:

  • Which lens is best for specific areas of photography
  • The technology behind lenses
  • How to use specialty lenses including macro and fisheye
  • Tips on operating and maintaining your lenses

John will also talk about lens accessories including hoods, mounts, filters, and teleconverters. By the end of this class, you’ll understand exactly what lens you’ll need to take your best photos!


Boris Dimitrov

Excellent class packed with incredibly useful knowledge. John is an amazing lecturer. He has also developed really great materials to help explain all the concepts and technologies that are explored in the class. Looking forward to my next class with him!

a Creativelive Student

Great class. So informative. John Greengo is such a fantastic tutor and explains everything in such and easy-to-understand way. I would highly recommend this class. Prior to doing this class, I was so confused about which lenses are best for various photography. Now I understand lenses completely. Thanks John!

Lettie Turner

Another great JG class, my 4th. He gives a lot of individual attention to several popular lens brands. I really think after seeing this video series you could pick out three lenses that would fit your needs and your pocketbook. The class handout is spot on for what is covered in the video. Great job!! Thank you