Struggling to choose between a wide-angle and a telephoto lens? You’re not alone. Picking the perfect focal length can be tricky, especially because wider and longer lenses each have their benefits (and their drawbacks).
Personally, I like both lens types, but particular focal lengths do suit certain shooting styles and subjects. In this article, I explore the key differences between wide-angle and telephoto lenses, and I share when you might want to use one over the other.
Let’s dive right in!
Wide-angle vs telephoto lenses: the basics
Here’s the fundamental difference between wide-angle and telephoto glass:
Wide-angle lenses offer an expansive view – that is, they show more of the scene. Telephoto lenses, on the other hand, zoom in close so you can capture highly detailed images.
Of course, there’s a lot of variation among both wide-angle and telephoto models. Wide-angle lenses span the gamut from around 10mm to around 45mm, with 10mm featuring an ultra-wide perspective, and 45mm featuring a perspective that’s barely wider than the human eye’s. Telephoto lenses span the gamut from around 60mm, which is good for close-ups of large subjects, to 800mm, which is used almost exclusively by bird photographers, wildlife photographers, aviation photographers, and astrophotographers.
But despite this range, it’s important to keep in mind some essential advantages and disadvantages of the two lens types:
1. Telephoto lenses emphasize the details
As you know, wide-angle lenses give you a wide view, while telephoto lenses give you a narrow view.
In practice, this means that wide-angle lenses are great for showing off expansive scenes, such as breathtaking seascapes, mountainscapes, and cityscapes. They’re also a good way to create more environmental images – that is, shots that showcase subjects within the broader landscape.
Telephoto lenses, on the other hand, let you get close to your subject – without physically moving forward. They’re essential tools if you want to photograph skittish wildlife, such as birds, or inaccessible subjects, such as athletes on the field. Telephoto glass is also perfect for capturing tighter portraits (e.g., headshots) without intruding on your subject’s personal space, and it’s a solid way to create intimate close-ups within a wider landscape or cityscape scene.
In the two images below, you can see a wide-angle and a telephoto lens in action. Both images were captured from Olmsted Point in Yosemite National Park, but notice the dramatic difference:
In the first image, the wide-angle lens shows off the total landscape. It documents both sides of the valley, the textures of the foreground rocks, and the far-off peak of Half Dome. In the second image, the telephoto lens brings the eye right up to the mountains, showing off their shapes and the details of the geology.
Another pair of images (below) shows this difference even more dramatically. The first image is not just a wide-angle image, but an aerial shot taken from a small airplane over the Okavango Delta in Botswana. From this vantage point, all of the individual elements of the landscape become incredibly small and the viewer’s eyes pay more attention to the overall arrangement than any individual shapes:
The second image is also from the Okavango area but was captured from the ground, and a telephoto lens was used to draw attention to the beautiful curves of a single acacia tree:
Neither of these effects is better than the other, but it’s important to recognize a) whether you prefer to capture more expansive or tighter shots and b) whether you’re physically capable of getting close to your subject.
2. Wide-angle lenses offer a deeper depth of field
The second major difference between wide-angle and telephoto lenses has to do with the depth of field they produce – that is, the area of the image that’s in focus. Here, a shallow depth of field refers to photos with only a small sliver in focus, while a deep depth of field refers to photos that are in focus from foreground to background.
Put succinctly, the longer the focal length (i.e., the more telephoto your lens), the shallower the depth of field. In practice, this means that when you’re shooting wide, it’s much easier for you to get everything in focus, from the grass at your feet to the ridge on the horizon.
However, a shallower depth of field is much better for isolating your subject from the background, and that’s where a telephoto lens comes into play. By dialing in a wide aperture (such as f/2.8) and getting close to your subject, you can create beautiful background bokeh, like this:
The two images below are perfect examples of this effect. In the first image, the wide-angle lens brings the whole landscape into focus, from the close-up sunflowers to the far-off mountains. But in the second image, the telephoto lens blurs out the more distant flowers and mountains, turning them into a nice soft background for the main sunflower.
Certain photographic genres rely heavily on the shallow depth of field effect, including portrait photography, wildlife photography, and sports photography. Other photographic genres tend to move in the other direction; landscape and still-life photographers, for instance, often obsessively pursue sharpness throughout the frame.
One caveat to keep in mind: Technically speaking, a wide-angle lens only deepens the depth of field compared to a telephoto lens when photographing from the same place. So a wide-angle lens won’t get you a deeper depth of field when shooting the exact same composition as a telephoto lens; rather, a wide-angle lens will get you a deeper depth of field when capturing a larger slice of the scene.
3. Telephoto lenses compress the scene
Telephoto and wide-angle lenses encourage different types of perspective distortion, which is an unavoidable part of photography and will subtly affect your images.
You see, wide-angle lenses generally force you to get close to your subjects, and this expands the sense of depth in your shots by enlarging elements in the foreground and shrinking those in the background. It’s great for creating landscape and street images that make you feel like you could step right into the frame. (That said, you do run the risk of making towering, awesome mountains in the distance look like puny hills.)
Telephoto lenses, on the other hand, generally compress depth and cause objects near and far to appear more similar in size. A compressed sense of depth is great for abstracting a scene and bringing out its graphical qualities. Colorful forest canopies, layered mountain ridges, and curving sand dunes are all great subjects for this kind of shooting; you can also create beautiful portraits, wildlife shots, and sports photos this way.
In the left image below, notice how the wide-angle lens exaggerates the size of the flowers in the foreground at the expense of the mountains in the background. The mountains are so tall that they’re shrouded in clouds, but the lens keeps them from looking especially grand. But pull out a telephoto lens, and you can zoom straight in on the mountain to show off the contrast between the rugged outline of the peak and the soft wispy form of the cloud (right).
Here are two more images, both taken at the same location in Big Bend National Park, that show off the compression effect. In the first image, you can see that the wide-angle lens increases the size of the plants and rocks in the foreground while shrinking the large desert mountains in the background:
In the second image, the telephoto lens flattens out the depth of the many desert ridges, calling attention to their graphic patterns and outlines:
Summary: space versus object
Have a hard time remembering all these details? Here’s an easy way to summarize it with a simple idea:
Wide-angle lenses show off space, telephoto lenses show off objects.
The wide-angle lens’s big field of view, ease of uniform focus, and depth-distorting abilities are great at showing off big, expansive scenes. However, they take focus away from individual elements within the scene in favor of showing the whole.
Telephoto lenses are naturally the opposite: they’re great at showing off the size, shape, and intricacies of individual elements. But their narrow field of view, small depth of field, and depth-compressing qualities make it hard to capture wider scenes.
You can analyze this final pair of images to see exactly how all of these techniques work together. First, see how a wide-angle lens fits the whole landscape into the frame, from close-up rocks to far-off peaks and sky:
Because of the lens’s deep depth of field, the whole landscape is in acceptable focus. The lens’s depth distortion is readily apparent, as well: the foreground rocks look very large, creating a pleasing sense of depth and emphasizing the leading lines that draw the eye from the edges of the frame to the center. Overall, you get a very good sense of the space and the expansiveness of the valley.
This next image was taken in the same place, but a telephoto lens captures it very differently. The photo brings out a single element of the landscape; look closely and you can see this peak in the previous shot.
Because of the telephoto lens’s narrow depth of field, the sky is slightly out of focus while leaving the details of the peak itself perfectly sharp. And most of all, the compressed sense of depth flattens the image, showing off the rocky mass of the mountain and calling attention to the beautiful curve of the ridgeline. Overall, you get a great sense of the mountain as a solid object rather than a bounded space.
Which lens should you use?
If you can only purchase (or access) one of these two lens types, it’s important that you think carefully about the subjects you hope to shoot and how you hope to shoot them. Wide-angle lenses are great for breathtaking landscapes and cityscape scenes. They’re also a great way to create more environmental street and portrait photos.
Telephoto lenses, however, are perfect for tight portraits, wildlife shots, and sports photos.
If possible, purchase both types of lenses and carry them in your camera bag. Then, when you head out with your camera, carefully evaluate the scene. Ask yourself: Am I looking to highlight individual details? Or do I want to show the scene as a whole?
Then make your choice accordingly!
Now over to you:
Which lens type do you plan to use, wide angle or telephoto? Share your thoughts in the comments below!