Telephoto vs. Zoom Lens: What’s the Difference?

Telephoto vs. Zoom Lens: What’s the Difference?

In photography, being able to achieve different looks in photos largely depends on which lens you choose for the shot. Lenses allow for different depths and ranges, depending on which focal point you choose. The issue is though there are so many lenses, their purposes sometimes overlap.  For instance, the telephoto and zoom lens sound similar – which is for what purpose?

There are a few main differences between a telephoto lens and a zoom lens.

Telephone LensZoom Lens
Stationary: can only get closer if the photographer moves the camera.Moveable: Can zoom in and move out without having to physically move the camera.
Specialized: intended for angle shots and specific focal points.Versatile: can cover a wide range of shots and distances.
Can be an expensive option since it is so limited.Can be more economical because of the versatility.

Now that you know some specifics of how telephoto lenses are different from zoom lenses, you really need to dig into what those differences mean.  Without knowing why the variances are important, you are not educated enough to decide which lens you need, or in which situations you would need them. I’ll cover it all here.

Pros and Cons of Telephoto and Zoom Lenses

A telephoto and zoom lens seem like they do the same thing, although they do not. They are so different in the fact that they are not recommended to be used to take even the same type of photos. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages, which can help tell you a little more about which one you may prefer.

Telephoto Lenses

Telephoto Lens ProsTelephoto Lens Cons
Can be used as a zoom lens in some scenariosRequires physical movement from the photographer to change the focal point or distance of the subject
Has a focal length of 60mm or longerUsually stays in place, not versatile
Make objects appear closerNot used for wide-angle photos
Used for photos where distance is important rather than widthCan become pricey when you need several different focal lengths
Physical movements of the camera allow for different views and lighting
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When you choose to use a telephoto lens, you are choosing a lens that will require more work from you as the photographer and less work from the camera. A telephoto lens is going to need camera movement to adjust the image and lighting, which are all things you will need to do.

Some people use this as a zoom lens, but that is only in very certain photos where the focal point is fixed, and the subject is nonmoving. Otherwise, with a telephoto lens, you have to do a lot of work moving around to get the right shot.

Now, telephoto lenses can start to get very pricey, depending on how many you need. Since telephoto lenses are fixed, they cannot adjust without moving the camera. If you want different focal points without walking around, you need several different telephoto lenses. Thankfully, telephoto lenses are usually only used by those with very specific needs and desires for their photos.

Zoom Lenses

Zoom Lens ProsZoom Lens Cons
Versatile, can move in or out providing a wider range of options for a shotUsually heavier than telephoto lenses
Better used for wide landscape shotsConsidered a “slow” lens
Can be a middle man between wide-angle and telephoto lensesWith a faster lens, comes a higher weight and length
Can change focal point without physical movements from photographer
Lenses cover a wider range of focal points
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When using a zoom lens, you have a better opportunity for a wider variety of shots. Given that the lens moves, and you can shift the camera into different angles, you have such a variety of shadows, lighting, and angles that you won’t find two pictures that are the same.

Zoom lenses are perfect for wildlife, family, and candid photos because of their ability to focus on different points at a variety of distances. Zoom lenses can be much more desirable since they are able to be used more frequently.

Zoom lenses are also going to be a bit more budget-friendly when compared to telephoto lenses. When you buy a zoom lens, you are buying a large range of focal points in one lens, where a telephoto lens is only made to have one focal point per lens.

While a zoom lens seems like it is a lens you can use for everything, it definitely has its downfalls. When you use a zoom lens, if you want to background to be sharp enough to see what it is, you will need to do some serious photography tricks.

Usually, using a zoom lens will cause the entire background around a subject to be blurred and blended to ether to put maximum importance on the subject. When you use a telephoto lens, while the background is muted and blurred, you can still make out when the background is, and you get more of a full picture that way.

When to Use a Telephoto Lens

It is usually best to use a telephoto lens when you are shooting objects that won’t move or seem to be staying in one place for a while.  While telephotos can give the best view with long distances, if your object moves, you cannot zoom in or out. If you have to fix your view, you will have to physically move your body to adjust your focal point.

Get a Crisp, Detailed Shot

Telephoto lenses also help emphasize and sharpen the object in the foreground by purposefully blurring the background. Blur can actually be a very desirable tool in photography, and a telephoto lens does this by actually sharpening the blur of the background. This may sound counterintuitive, but take a look at the differences between the same object with a 50mm lens and a 400mm (telephoto) lens in this articleOpens in a new tab..

The telephoto lens has a way of making all aspects of the photo seem purposeful, and like every detail was entirely meant to be captured just the way it was. Having a crisp photo that captures the essence of the entire environment the subject is in has the ability to speak louder than any words you could use to describe it.

Be Mindful Not to Use Too Much Blur

Now, something to keep in mind when using a telephoto lens is that when you are using a focal point of 200mm or greater, your camera is going to be very susceptible to any shakiness or accidental movement. This can cause your pictures to be so blurry that you may not be able to even see the subject correctly.

Some lenses have built-in stabilization, but if yours does not, the best way to overcome this is to buy a tripod and find an area where it can be stabilized without risk of movement. This can make taking photos on difficult terrain very hard, but in the end, the quality of your photo will be more than worth it.

Is a Telephoto Lens Right for All Occasions?

No, not really. Telephoto lenses can also tend to make everything seem kind of flat in a photo. Telephoto lenses are made so that everything looks as if it is closer to the camera, but nothing actually is. Therefore, sometimes images can become a bit distorted.

Sometimes this produces an effect you like. But sometimes – and some clients may find – it is unprofessional and not attractive. It is always best to know your audience before choosing a lens so that when you present photos, you know they will be satisfied with the quality of the photo you provide.

A lot of photographers will take close to a hundred pictures of the same subject to provide a wider variety of options to choose from. When using a telephoto lens, that will require a lot of manual work and planning, especially if your lens doesn’t have built-in stabilization.

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When to Use a Zoom Lens

It is best to use a zoom lens when you are shooting an object that is far away; however, unlike a telephoto lens, you can focus on objects that will move frequently or change what subject you are shooting without having to physically move.

Zoom lenses have a wider angle than telephoto lenses do, so it would be ideal to used zoom lenses for wide-angle landscape shots that focus on the horizon as a whole rather than one specific subject.

It may come as a surprise that zoom lenses are also great for shots of people, like family photos and headshots. While telephoto lenses can focus in on a face better, zoom lenses can give such a variety of focus on people; it is usually preferred over telephoto. When you take a picture of a family, you can focus on just the faces, the top half of the body, and then full body shots, all without having to adjust them or yourself very much.

Often times, zoom lenses are also used for wildlife and other subjects that move frequently. This allows for a photographer to lay down, not disturb the environment, and still get candid shots that are the highest quality.

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The Biggest Difference Between a Zoom and Telephoto Lenses

When looking at both of these lenses, the biggest thing you need to focus on is what kind of photos you intend on taking. Really, the zoom lenses are great for wider angle shots with subjects that may move around a lot. At the same time, telephoto lenses are fantastic for sill shots of subjects that are pretty far away but need to seem like they are closer.

While there are other differences, these seem to be the biggest things you need to consider when deciding between these two lenses.

Finding the Right Lens For You

If you aren’t sure whether a zoom lens or a telephoto lens is what you need, try figuring out what shots you would more regularly take. If you can understand and work with the limitations of each lens, it should not be an issue for you to learn how to use them within their limits effectively.

Fully understanding how to use these lenses will give you the ability to really use their strengths to achieve the best looking photos that you can take. It just takes some research on your end, and practice on the right subjects to feel comfortable enough to use them in a professional setting.

In a lens that would work perfectly for you, you would need one that:

  • Fits your budget, considering that you may need to buy several.
  • Matches your camera brand.
  • You would get more than one use out of.
  • Is specifically made for the type of pictures you take most often.

Shopping for Your Lens

When you are looking through options for a lens, you are inundated with so much information that can be pretty overwhelming. The best way to figure out exactly what you need is to start eliminating lenses by process of elimination. Here are a few ways to help you settle on a lens.

  • The Type of Camera You Have
    This can eliminate a lot of options by just filtering out other camera brands. You won’t be able to buy a lot of the lenses that don’t match what brand camera you have; it simply won’t fit.
  • Your Budget
    Organizing the lenses by price from low to high can help you see what your realistic options are. However, cheaper is not always better.  More expensive lenses can often cover a wider range of shots, and one lens can replace three cheaper ones.
  • How Much You Need the Lens to Zoom
    There are large range zoom lenses, and there are smaller ranges. Buying a large rage lens will allow you to get the most out of your money.
  • How Much You are Willing to Lug Around
    Depending on what kind of subjects you are shooting, some lenses can get very large and heavy. Always look at the dimensions and weight of a lens before purchasing it to make sure you are willing to carry it around when taking shots.
  • Phone a Friend. If You Don’t Use Zoom Often…
    If you only need a lens for one or two shots, ask around for someone to let you borrow their lens. This may save you from having to spend a large amount of money to only be stuck with a lens you don’t ever use.

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Why Did Zoom Lenses Enter the Scene?

While zoom lenses date back to the 1830s, where they were functional in telescopes, they didn’t really become popular in photography until the ’60s or ’70s. They actually were used in filmmaking in the ‘20s and ‘30s before photographers got a hold of them.

So, before zoom lenses became popular, photographers would carry around a collection of telephoto lenses and simply change lenses whenever they needed to. If they needed to be closer to an object, they would just move themselves and their camera to get physically closer.

The great thing about this is, many times, photographers would discover several new things upon moving further or closer to an object.

  • New lighting
  • New shadows
  • New angles
  • Different approach to the photo
  • Different colors depending on the way the lights and shadows fall

This allows for such a varying degree of different photos of the same object that you oftentimes never found the same photo twice. Nor was it easy to find the same angle or lighting in a photo due to the physical movement that had to be made to get the shots.

How Did Zoom Lenses Get So Popular?

It is thought that zoom lenses became so popular due to the desired laziness of photographers. If the subject moves away, it was much easier to just zoom in with your camera, even if it meant sacrificing the sharpness of your picture a little bit. Photographers can get comfortable in one particular spot and not have to move much to get closer or further away from their subject.

Photographers also don’t have to move their subjects very much to get the perfect focal point if they are using a zoom lens, which is thought why zoom lenses became more popular in the mainstream use of photography. Family photos are an ever-growing field, and the less physical work you have to do, the get the shots, usually, the customers are happier.

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Conclusion

Photography comes with a long list of accessories that have an even longer list of things they can and cannot do. Most of the time, you can boil the differences down to what kind of pictures they are made for taking and how that can best serve you. Telephoto and zoom lenses are no different; they each are specifically made for certain types of photos.

The subject of a photo and its characteristics are going to be the biggest variable in the decision of which lens you need. Zoom lenses are great for things that move, while telephoto lenses are great for things that don’t move at all. Still, shots or motions shots are what your choices come down to when choosing between zoom or telephoto lenses.

Roy Davis

Roy Davis is the founder of YourPhotoAdvisor. He is a hobbyist photographer that loves the business side of things. He blogs about IT, cybersecurity, business, and more at BestofRoy.com. Follow him on social media at Twitter | Instagram.

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