The Guide to Telephoto Zoom Lenses for Non-Professionals

Telephoto lenses are those considered to be around 70mm and greater. They come in both zooms, primes, variable apertures and fixed apertures. Inspired by an email from a reader letter, we’ve decided to come up with a bunch of tips for non-professional photographers who want to become better.

The Email:

Hello Chris Gampat!
My name is Jakob and im reading thephoblographer for a few months now.

I want to introduce myself 🙂
I’m 17 years old and im a student in Austria (so please dont mind my lack of english grammar).
I’m very interested in photography and i bought myself a DLSR in November last year.

I upgraded my equipment since then in I worked for months to by myself the
Canon 70-200mm IS II USM (i really worked long for the sweet lady :D)

I try to improve myself every day and my school class and I are going to England in Mai,
and i really want to get some nice pictures from there, so could you give me a few tips of how to use tele lenses
Or how to improve using it
I use a 400D
and i’m normally interested in
Sports (like skateboarding)
and Street

I’m looking forward to hear from you.

Yours Sincerely


Throughout this posting, we’re going to refer often to the Sigma 70-300mm 4.5-5.6 EX Macro and 70-200mm F/2.8 EX DG OS HSM reviews.

With telephoto lenses, you often need to realize that you need image stabilization, higher ISOs/shutter speeds, or a flat stable surface (or one of two recommended tripods) to achieve sharp photos that don’t have camera shake in them. Camera shake is when the image you’re shooting becomes blurry due to your shaking.

You can see and read more on this in my stabilization test with the Sigma 70-200mm F/2.8.

Now, since Jakob is using Canon, the image stabilization is in the lens. However, with other camera manufacturers like Olympus, Pentax and Sony the stabilization is sensor based. Which one is better? I personally prefer it in the lens because the stabilization can be made the specifically work best with that focal length. However, this is all up to lots of debate.

As I saw in my squirrel test, you often need image stabilization and they need to correlate to your shutter speed and effective focal length. What that means is that:

– At 200mm a full frame Canon 5D Mk II will require a shutter speed of at least 1/200th.

– At 200mm an APS-C Canon 7D will require a shutter speed of at least 1/320th due to the 1.6x crop magnification.

To do this and achieve perfectly metered images, you’ll sometimes need to either raise your ISO or turn on image stabilization. Note that image stabilization will not stop fast motion, it will only compensate for the results of the 12 cups of coffee you just drank. I often need to keep that in mind when using my 24-105mm F/4 L IS. To shoot at a faster shutter speed in order to stop fast motion, I usually have to pull out my 580 EX II, 430 EX II, or both and set up a wireless flash situation.


Like many other lenses, telephoto zooms and primes both reach their peak sharpness at around F/5.6 and some reach it by F/8. With higher grade lenses like the 70-200mm F/2.8, the lens will already be quite sharp wide open. With variable aperture zoom lenses, it won’t always be that way. Granted though, that has been starting to change. When we went hands-on with the Canon 70-300mm F/4-5.6 L IS, we noticed that the lens was bleeding sharp wide open on the Canon 5D Mk II.

Users often purchase telephoto zoom lenses and neglect the apertures/f-stops. The truth is that these are very important to your image and most of these cheaper options are best used as doorstops. Instead, you’re better off taking a look at our Best Budget Lenses list and at our list of best Canon lenses.

Apertures need to be kept in mind because:

– they control the amount of light hitting the sensor.

– they control flash exposure

– they control how much of an image is in focus or not

– they are one of the major determining factors of sharpness.

Something else that you may want to keep in mind as well is how far out you’re focusing. The further out you focus your lens, the less you will typically see out of focus at a particular aperture. Once you start focusing out to infinity, nearly everything will be in focus.

Focusing Speeds vs Weight

The Flash

For Street photography, I often go with smaller cameras. But if you want to use telephoto lenses, then you should consider your lenses focusing speed and how the weight of the lens elements will correlate. Basically, if the lens element is heavier, then it will focus slower. That is why the Canon 85mm F/1.8 focuses so much faster than the 85mm F/1.2 L II. In most of my tests, I’ve often found a couple of light prime lenses to be able to fill the role of a single zoom lens because of their faster apertures and faster focusing abilities.

Handsome Knight

If you happen to be shooting at a little bit of a slower shutter speed than you usually do, ensure that your panning/continuous focusing mode is on. By slowing down the shutter speed a bit you’ll be able to keep your subject sharply in focus and the background in a blurry haze. Consider just how quickly your lens will focus due to the weight and size of the elements.

Also be sure to set the image stabilization mode to the right setting: some lenses have a specific setting just for panning.

Various Focusing Modes on the Switch

Pixie, the Fairy Dog

Many of these lenses have various focusing modes. Often what I’ve seen is:

– Full manual

– Autofocus throughout the entire focusing range (minimum to maximum)

– Autofocus throughout the further half of the focusing range (the lens totally ignores anything within the first half of the distance that the lens can focus. So if the lens has a minimum focusing of say, 3 feet and a maximum focusing of 20 feet, and this setting was selected, the lens would probably ignore everything about 10 feet away from you.)

You should really only use that setting when you’re far away from your subject.

Questions? Comments? Let us know!

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Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.