When you build up your cinema lenses collection, you might be tempted to focus more on the wide-angle end of things, or perhaps normal lenses. But a telephoto lens definitely has a place in your stash. They are much more versatile than you might think, and they bring a different dimension to your filmmaking.
What is a telephoto lens?
A telephoto lens is a lens with a focal length of 70mm or more. Anything over 300mm is a super-telephoto lens. They have narrower angles of view compared to normal and wide-angle lenses, which means they don’t cover as much of a scene in their frame. With a focal length of 24mm, the angle of view is 73.7º; increase the focal length to 100mm, and the angle of view decreases to 20.4º.
Telephoto lenses are best for bringing you close to your subject optically without having to get nearer physically. This makes them excellent for sports and wildlife photography and filmmaking. This is because you can stand well back while getting close to the action or leaving your subject undisturbed.
You wouldn’t want to get too close to this bear. Using a telephoto lens will keep you at a safe distance
from your subject
However, telephoto lenses make excellent portrait and landscape shots, too.
Telephoto lenses enjoy what’s known as the compression effect. This makes it look as if your subject is much closer to the background than they really are. For portraits and portrait-type filmmaking, a telephoto shot can ensure that the background can be blurred and the audience’s focus brought to the subject. This is useful for intense and intimate filmmaking.
For landscape photography and filmmaking, compression can produce a stacked or layered effect in your scene and make it look as if there’s a lot less space between different elements in the shot. So apart from creating beautiful landscape scenes, you can have 2 people relatively far apart, with one closer to the camera and the other farther away from it, but they won’t look too different in size.
Notice how the antelope toward the front of the herd does not appear very much smaller than those at the rear.
What’s the difference between a telephoto lens and a zoom lens?
A zoom lens is any lens with a variable focal length, for example, 24-105mm or 70-200mm. The opposite is a prime lens, which has a fixed focal length of, for example, 50mm.
Telephoto lenses are very often zoom lenses, but they can be prime, too. And zoom lenses can be wide-angle, telephoto, or span a range from wide-angle to zoom, for example, an 18-135mm lens.
What’s the difference between a telephoto lens and a normal lens?
Normal lenses have a focal length of around 50mm. They have an angle of view that is fairly close to a human’s undistorted vision, and when we watch films shot with a normal lens, we associate it with how we usually see the world.
Where a telephoto lens makes subjects that are different distances from the camera appear roughly the same size, a normal lens won’t compress the scene so much, so things will look more ‘normal’.
Telephoto lens vs. wide-angle lens
A telephoto lens produces the opposite effect to a wide-angle lens. Where a telephoto lens will give you a narrow-angle of view, a wide-angle lens covers a broad sweep over your scene. A focal length of 200mm has a 10.3º angle of view. With a 50mm lens, the angle of view will be a much broader 54.4º. You can use a telephoto lens to fill your frame with your subject, whereas wide-angle lenses are more useful for showing an entire scene.
The opposite of a telephoto lens’ compression effect is the foreshortening effect. This makes it look as if elements in a scene are further apart than they actually are and can make anything shot very close to the lens look disproportionately large. Try shooting a face from very close with a wide-angle lens, and chins and noses can look comically large. From this perspective, a telephoto lens is much more flattering.
While not comical, this clip demonstrates how a wide-angle lens accentuates the size of elements
closest to the camera
Smartphone telephoto lenses
For anyone who uses a smartphone for filmmaking (or for photography, for that matter), it’s easy to pick up a smartphone telephoto lens attachment. There are plenty of manufacturers that produce iPhone telephoto lenses and those compatible with other smartphone makes, too. I think the best place to start is with Moment, but there are plenty of other brands, for example, Exolens and Apexel.
Who should use telephoto lenses?
Telephoto lenses are must-haves for sports and wildlife filmmakers. They are great for anyone who wants to ensure that the audience is completely immersed in and focused on the subject. But telephoto lenses are useful for travel videographers, too. They let you get close to anything you want to film without being intrusive. And if you use something like an 18-135mm lens, you give yourself a lot of options. The same goes for indie filmmakers. A telephoto lens could be a very smart use of their money.
Wedding videographers can make excellent use of telephoto lenses. Being able to stand back but still get close to the action and capture candid moments is a real benefit for a wedding filmmaker. For a start, it means that you remain unobtrusive and do not interfere with significant moments or people just having fun. But it also allows you to look around. Being on the outside looking in gives you the opportunity to spot and capture sweet looks, funny moments, and the entire feel of the wedding. A 70-200 or 70-300mm telephoto lens is good for wedding videography because of its versatility.
While these are obvious examples of filmmakers who can make use of a telephoto lens, the truth is, almost everyone can. At least one telephoto lens has a place in every filmmaker’s kit bag.