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Look and think before opening the shutter. The heart and mind are the true lens of the camera.

Yousuf Karsh

In serious photography, there seems to be two types of photographers – the School of Wide Angle and the School of Telephoto. I belong to the latter.

The use of the word ‘school’ suggests any institution at which instruction is given in a particular discipline. In this case, it is not so much a formal institution, but more of a collective preference towards a certain style or approach to photography. When capturing images, practiced photographers tend to lean towards an approach that they favour personally. Images that please them aesthetically. In these two schools, there are several unique characteristics that creatively speak to the picture takers.

When using longer lenses, you realize characteristics such as shallow depth of field, which is a compression of the foreground and the background with the subject sandwiched in between. This creates a beautiful bokeh in the image which is a defocus fusion of the background with the subject. Bokeh is defined as “the effect of a soft out-of-focus background that you get when shooting a subject, using a fast lens, at the widest aperture, such as f/2.8 or wider.” It also results from longer telephoto lenses that defocuses the background. Simply put, bokeh is the pleasing or aesthetic quality of out-of-focus blur in a photograph.

Using telephoto lenses allows you to fill the image frame and draws in the eye of the viewer to direct them to see what you want them to see. Now, my wife tells me that I am a photography bully since I force the viewer to see only what I want them to see. Personally, I greatly appreciate the simplicity of a full frame.

A telephoto lens will allow you to take photos of subjects that are farther away. This comes in handy when you are taking photos of things that you cannot, or do not want to, get close to. Having more distance between you and your subject can help some people feel more at ease in front of the camera. Taking photos of a sporting event from the sidelines? A telephoto lens will get you closer to the action. Want to take a picture of dangerous wildlife from the safety of your car? A telephoto lens will let you do it.

The narrow angle of view of a telephoto lens makes it easy to keep undesired elements out of the image. So, these longer lenses isolate the subject and remove distractions. The image is compressed and flattened, which adds to the quality and feel of the photo. The different elements seen in the image appear to be closer to each other than they really are as a result of this flattening.

A telephoto lens is special because it has a narrow angle of view – but what does this actually do? A narrow angle of view means that both the relative size and distance is normalized when comparing near and far objects. This causes nearby objects to appear similar in size compared to far away objects – even if the closer object would actually appear larger in person.

As a dedicated Nikon guy, I use a variety of medium and longer Nikkor telephoto lenses.

  • AF-S Nikkor 24-120mm f/4.0G ED VR
  • AF-S Nikkor 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR
  • AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR
  • AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR
  • AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G ED VR
  • AF-S Nikkor 105mm f/1.4E ED
  • AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR
  • AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4.0E PF ED VR
  • AF-S Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
  • Nikkor 500mm f8.0 Manual Catadioptric
  • Nikkor 1000mm f/11.0 Manual Catadioptric

Needless to say, I love telephoto images and since I shoot airshows a lot, I tend to mix up the days and use different lenses on different days of a given airshow event. I use a pair of Nikon D850 bodies with battery packs. So, one day I may use the 70-200mm and the 200-500mm pairing. On another day I will use the 300mm and 500mm Phased Fresnel pairing. On a third day, I will use shorter wide angle lenses and the 85mm and 105mm to capture crowd reaction shots. When I attend AirVenture in Oshkosh, this is my normal approach to shooting. I do the crowd reaction shots on the third day as I know from days one and two what to expect in the program that will draw out the grasping mouths, wide-open eyes, and shocked amazed faces. This is especially true for the younger fans of airshows. Kids display all of the emotions when an elite performer stuns the crowd.

If weight is an issue, then the trusty 80-400mm is compact and lighter in weight than the classic 70-200mm, and it fits in my backpack camera bag better than the ‘holy trio’ 70-200mm. I have a total of 38 Nikkor lenses in my inventory with many wide angle lenses to augment my telephoto optics. Perhaps a dozen or so are vintage manual lenses that I still use. The optical quality is still there, even if the automation and stabilization is absent.

Now when I use my Z7, I have the seven lenses from the new S-series including the 70-200mm f/2.8 S lens for that kit. I look forward to more telephotos becoming available over the next few years for the Mirrorless approach. I hope to buy the recently announced Nikon Z9 body too. However, I am not yet convinced that the Mirrorless bodies are technically and functionally better than my conventional D750 and D850s. Maybe the next generation Z9 camera will convince me?

A misconception is that a telephoto lens affects perspective, but strictly speaking, this is not true. Perspective is only influenced by where you are located when you take a photograph. However, in practical use, the very fact that you are using a telephoto lens may mean that you are far from your subject – which does affect perspective.

This normalization of relative size can be used to give a proper sense of scale. For full impact, you will want to get as far as possible from the nearest subject in the scene (and zoom in if necessary).

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 to 105mm prime lenses are also often called “portrait lenses” because they are popularly used for portrait photography. These short telephoto lenses create a dreamy effect that enhances a portrait and makes the subject look more pleasing. One of the benefits of telephoto lenses for portrait work is that these lenses often have the effect of creating very flattering portraits of people. The distance between the camera and the subject impacts how close objects will appear in the frame and how they will look in comparison to each other.

For handheld telephoto shooting, image stabilization can be a huge advantage in getting consistently sharp shots. Optical stabilizers built into telephoto lenses often come with auto panning detection, or have manually switchable static and panning modes. When panning horizontally, stabilization is only applied in the vertical plane.

Newer cameras, such as my Nikon Z7, now have the stabilization built-in to the body rather than the lens. This is ideal since lower cost lenses result and the in-body stabilization is much better compared to the in-lens stabilization technological approaches. This stabilization capability permits getting rid of the tripod for more agile photography and less distractions when taking pictures. That is not to suggest that there is no need for tripods. They are valuable photography tools. But, the stabilization capabilities allow for greater freedom and flexibility in your picture taking.

Telephoto lenses are incredibly versatile and useful in a variety of situations. From zooming in on far away subjects to taking flattering portraits to “compressing” a scene to add drama, a good telephoto lens can help you take your photography to the next level. If you are having a hard time deciding which telephoto lens is right for you, taking a few lenses for test runs may be a good option. Take some time to decide and go to events with friends who own compatible, longer lenses for you to experience first-hand. I love airshows and often allow others to try out my longer lenses at these events.

————————–MJM ————————–

About the Author:

Michael Martin is the Vice President of Technology with Metercor Inc., a Smart Meter, IoT, and Smart City systems integrator based in Canada. He has more than 35 years of experience in systems design for applications that use broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless, and digital communications technologies. He is a business and technology consultant. He was senior executive consultant for 15 years with IBM, where he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He is a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN: TSX). Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO: TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX: TSX.V).  He has served as a Member, SCC ISO-IEC JTC 1/SC-41 – Internet of Things and related technologies, ISO – International Organization for Standardization, and as a member of the NIST SP 500-325 Fog Computing Conceptual Model, National Institute of Standards and Technology. He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) [now OntarioTech University] and on the Board of Advisers of five different Colleges in Ontario.  For 16 years he served on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section.  He holds three master’s degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has three undergraduate diplomas and five certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology. He has earned 20 badges in next generation MOOC continuous education in IoT, Cloud, AI and Cognitive systems, Blockchain, Agile, Big Data, Design Thinking, Security, and more.