Buying Telephoto Lenses

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Prime, Zoom, Telephoto, Buyers Guide, Knowledge Base, Aperture

A beautiful golden sun was setting across an equally beautiful sea, its azure colour a reflection of the heavens. The purple tint of cirrus high in the atmosphere contributed to a scene unashamedly cliched, but irresistible to photograph. Stepping back several meters, I added an unspoilt golden beach to the composition. Good enough to release the shutter? Yes, but it could be better; walking slowly along the beach were a young couple. Arm in arm, they were lost in the moment and each other. I paused, allowing them to walk into my scene, now an exercise in sunset contre-jour and blissful romanticism. The decisive moment had arrived, and I committed to celluloid a beautiful moment that faded with the setting sun.

The above is based on some diary notes, my memory, and an image that is now more than 35 years old, taken on a Tunisian Beach during my first ever trip overseas. It was December and a bitterly cold one in the UK at that. The weather could not have been more different to what I was experiencing on my twee North African adventure. This photograph, along with many others taken during the week, proved to be the catalyst for my pursuit of photography. Of course, I did not see any of the results until a week or so after the trip ended – this was way before the digital age. But the excitement began with the composition, having the building blocks of a good photograph in front of me. All I had to do was... well, compose. The anticipation waiting for my results to return from the lab added fuel to an already excited 21-year-old. Reviewing the photo’s revealed a mix of hits and misses, but little that disappointed at that time. It provided me with a pictorial manual that I studied time and time again in an effort to improve technique.

I had just two lenses for my SLR at the time; a 50mm f2 standard and 135mm f3.5 short telephoto. Referring back to the sunset image, either would have made a respectable job of the scene, albeit with differing interpretation. I chose to use a telephoto lens for the simple reason of getting a larger sun in the frame. What I did not realise was how its use contributed to the final scene when the young couple walked into it. The compressed perspective brought the suns orb closer to them. The sea revealed a little more drama. The lovers, no longer a detail, became the focal point. Simply put, this short telephoto added drama and emotion that would have been greatly reduced had I pushed the scene away from me by using the 50mm.

It was this photograph that revealed to me some of the more intangible aspects of telephoto attributes that became something of an obsession for many years.

The telephoto lens group is as equally large as its intended subject matter and, to my chagrin, one that I spent a lot of money exploring without having an intended target. I was more interested in how a specific magnification affected an image… its strengths and weaknesses. Over the next few years I found myself with a collection of telephotos much too large to carry around and too plentiful to allow quick selection. While I gained an understanding of what was possible with them, and situations I could best use them in, my results did not improve at the pace I would have liked. Not having a specific subject i.e. wildlife or sport meant that I did not settle on a favourite focal length for many years. Instead I drifted where curiosity took me before realising that my journey had, more or less, ended where it started… at around 135mm.

So, what has my telephoto voyage of discovery taught me? Below, rather belatedly, are some of the points I would consider when dipping my toe into the realm for the first time.

I am sure there are many more points to consider that seasoned telephoto users will be quick to point out. Not being a photographer dedicated to this realm, my own knowledge remains limited even after more than three decades. What my journey has taught me is;

Referring back to the opening paragraphs of this article, I wonder what happened to the couple that featured in my picture? Like my composition there were perhaps many possibilities. And like most of life’s journey, choosing the correct path is something of an unknown.