Don’t use a telephoto lens

This photo was taken at 12mm on a Micro Four Thirds camera (which is equivalent to 25mm on a full-frame camera; see my blog post about the correct Micro Four Thirds focal length multiplier). You need a wide angle to capture New York City, or any other city full of tall buildings or narrow streets.

The gearhead types who frequent the message boards at dpreview love telephoto lenses. I read so many posts about people going on a vacation and not being able to leave their telephoto lenses at home.

But the truth is that telephoto lenses take ugly photos. Robert Capa is famous for saying, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” He meant that you need to get physically close using a wide-angle lens, he didn’t mean that you should get close from a distance with a telephoto zoom. Very few great photos are taken with telephoto focal lengths. If you visit a display of fine-art photography, you probably won’t see any photos with a telephoto look. Assuming you’re not a birder (which I consider to be a hobby distinct from photography) or a professional portrait photographer (I don’t dispute the value of using a short telephoto lens for a tight head and shoulders portrait), you don’t ever need more telephoto than what you get with a standard zoom lens, and I recommend avoiding any focal lengths longer than the “normal” (which is 50mm on a full-frame camera).

The camera companies won’t tell you this, because they make money selling telephoto lenses. They want you to think that to be like a “pro,” ready to take any possible picture at any time, you must buy expensive telephoto zooms. Don’t fall for the marketing.

A good take on the benefits of wide angle lenses is found in Rafi Letzter’s article at Business Insider, except that he confuses telephoto with zoom. Zoom means that a lens changes its focal length, it doesn’t say whether you are shooting at wide-angle or telephoto. You don’t need to buy prime lenses to get the wide-angle look, you just need to refrain from using the long end of a standard zoom, or you can buy a wide-angle zoom. (Although some people have the belief that zoom makes you lazy and less creative, and maybe even there’s some truth in that belief.)

One thought on “Don’t use a telephoto lens

  1. Good advice Jackson, but I hope you realize that it’s harder for the beginner, or average enthusiast to shoot with
    a wide angle, because it’s harder to compose, or crop in, to the heart of the image, with such a wide view. Every picture (should) tell a story, and in your example above, I could easily find dozens of images inside of that wide view. What first comes to mind, when looking at your example? For me, it’s the beautiful weather. While only the woman in green stands out, we can see the weather is clear, and they’re not wearing heavy coats. Other than that, it looks like a typical Spring or Fall day in New York City. I almost always advise people to put the kit lens aside for a while, and buy a “Normal lens”. A 50mm lens, on a Full Frame body, gives us a view closest to our natural vision.
    I find that this makes it easier to compose an image, and to show the point that they are trying to convey, or what attracted them to the scene to start with. The manufacturers may have had this in mind, when they started including
    the “Kit” lens, but I think the cost is roughly the same for an 18-55 F3.5-5.6, as it is for a 50mm F1.8 lens. If you are shooting the micro 4/3 format, the so called Normal lens, would be around 25mm at about the same price.

    If you are just starting out with a Wide angle lens, I suggest Landscape, Architecture and Real Estate Photography.
    If you’re creating some nice images in these areas, you will adapt to the wide angle view much faster. I do think that Wide angle is a skill in itself, and a taste that you may, or may not acquire over time. It’s surely worth looking into.

    Looking over my collection, I have an AF-S 14-24mm F2.8, 17mm F3.5 Tokina and AT-X 11-16mm F2.8 DX Tokina, and that’s about it for my Nikon cameras (D810, D700 & D7100, but I just started a m4/3 outfit; yes, it is my G.A.S.)
    I do concentrate on Portraits and Head Shots, so I’ve acquired many more Telephoto, and a few Zoom lenses too.
    In my Portrait (large) Case, my lenses range from 85mm to 180mm, but the truth is, an 80-200mm F2.8 (or equivalent) would be enough both for Portraits, and some Sports (maybe some Wildlife too). I would say that at least one fast Prime lens, may become your best investment. Somewhere in your travels, you will encounter a low light scene, that you will not want to miss. Whether it’s a Normal, or Wide angle, at least you won’t miss the opportunity for those low light scenes. Buy from a Camera Shop with a 30 Day return policy, because you may dislike a lens right from the start! I hope that gives you a slightly alternate point of view. … JP

    Liked by 1 person

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