Soccer action photo using telephoto lens

Telephoto lenses prove invaluable when you can’t get near enough to the subject you’re photographing, as in most sports, where you have to shoot from the grandstand or sidelines.

It’s useful to think of telephoto lenses as telescopes for your digital SLR camera. Like a telescope, a telephoto lens enlarges your subject, bringing it closer and making it appear larger in your viewfinder and on your camera’s digital sensor.

The longer the focal length of a lens, the greater its magnification. Thus a 100mm telephoto lens gives twice the magnification of a 50mm standard lens, while a 400mm lens gives eight times (x8) the magnification of a standard lens.

Prime v Zoom Telephoto Lenses

Telephoto lenses fall into two main categories:

  1. Fixed focal length, or prime, telephotos
  2. Zoom telephotos, offering variable focal length

1. Prime telephotos offer optimum image quality because they have fewer lens elements, so fewer compromises have to be made. Their main disadvantage is the fixed focal length, limiting your options when composing the shot.

When photographing fast moving subjects, as in a football or soccer match, you can find the subject suddenly looming too large in the viewfinder. Fixed focal length telephotos can also be large, heavy, and expensive.

They are nevertheless the first choice for professional sports photographers because the image quality can’t be beaten and they offer wider maximum apertures than zoom lenses of equivalent focal length.

This allows for shooting in low light conditions, which is often a necessity for professional photographers when shooting sports under artificial lighting at night, or at indoor arenas;

2. Zoom telephotos are hugely popular because of their versatility and often affordable price tag. Lens technology has improved dramatically in recent years and today’s top-of-the-range zoom lenses compare favorably with prime lenses when it comes to image quality.

For all-round usefulness, combined with affordability and very acceptable image quality, telephoto zoom lenses make an excellent choice for sports photography as it costs a lot less buying one zoom lens rather than two (or three) prime lenses to cover the same range of focal lengths.

Popular zoom telephoto lenses include:
* Professional quality 70-200mm f/2.8 telephoto zooms
* 80-400 or 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 telephoto zooms
* More affordable 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 telephoto zooms

Whether you opt for a more expensive prime telephoto lens or the versatility and affordability of a zoom telephoto, some form of tele lens is essential to capture those special sporting moments.

See these outstanding Sports Posters and Prints for examples of sports photographs using a variety of lenses, including telephoto lenses.

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Filed under: Sports and Recreation