Wide-Angle vs. Telephoto: Which Lens Should You Choose?

A beginner may find it difficult to choose the right lens from the many options available for each brand of camera. A good, versatile lens with a wide focal range is the best choice. As you get more experience, and feel the need for greater focal lengths, you will want to explore lenses with “extreme” focal lengths. Photographers have a lot of options. Telephoto and wide-angle lenses are both great. These lenses offer a wide range of views that are not possible with the naked eye.

Although their names are obvious, once you have upgraded to a DSLR/mirrorless camera that allows you to interchangeably shoot with both types of lenses, such as the Canon EOS R5, Sony Alpha a7S III or Nikon D500, you will realize that they offer more than just two different views. This guide will compare wide angle and telephoto lenses.

camera with attached medium telephoto L lens

What is a Telephoto Lens?

Telephoto lenses are longer focal lengths, making them great for bringing distant subjects and scenes closer together. They are available in prime (fixed focal length) as well as zoom versions, just like wide-angle lenses.

Telephoto is also used to refer to lenses that have focal lengths beyond 80mm. They can be divided into three types:

  • Telephotos for short use – Available in a range of 85mm to 135mm. They are lightweight and compact, making them great for everyday use.
  • Medium Telephoto – Larger, heavier, and longer as they have focal lengths ranging from 135mm up to 300mm.
  • Super Telephoto – These lenses offer telescope-like magnification, but are too heavy to be used handheld.

The focal length of your image will determine how dark it becomes. Some telephoto lenses with higher quality are equipped with wider maximum apertures or iris openings to let more light in.

When to use a Telephoto lens

Telephoto lenses are used for the obvious reason of getting close to the action. It will allow you to “get closer” without actually moving closer to the scene. Because of its heavy build, not everyone can afford super-telephoto lenses. Before you decide to invest in a Telephoto Lens, consider the following:

  • Sport events: Don’t miss the action!
  • You will be required to cover events that have key moments.
  • Professional wildlife and nature photography
  • Try your hand at astrophotograp
  • Photograph majestic images of the moon from up close
  • Reduce the distance between your subject and the background.
  • Produce better-looking bokeh

There are many types of telephoto lenses

Telephoto lenses have many features and capabilities. Telephoto lenses are used for many purposes. However, one thing unites all telephoto lenses: the ability to show a focal length larger than their physical length. You can achieve this either with refraction, or with mirrors.

  • Multiple internal lens groups are used to make a refractive lens, also called lens elements. To magnify an image, they bend light and then straighten it out again before it hits the film or sensor.
  • Multiple curved mirrors are built into mirror lenses to reflect light and create magnification. This allows for a smaller lens to have a longer focal length.

It is important to keep in mind that although a refractive lens may be more expensive than a mirror lens, they are much more common and have better image quality.

What is Wide-Angle Lens?

Wide-angle lenses, as the name implies, offer a wider field of view from 64° to 180°. Wide-angle interchangeable lenses have shorter focal lengths, marked with smaller numbers. These lenses are 34mm or less, and the field of vision becomes wider than normal lenses.

camera with mounted wide-angle lens

The image will become blurred at the edges of the frame when you shoot wider with a ultra-wide angle lens or fisheye lens. These lenses can create some truly unique images. This lens can create unique images, but not everyone photographers will benefit from it.

Image via ShutterstockImage via ShutterstockImage via ShutterstockImage via Shutterstock

Wide-angle lenses allow for more detail to be captured. This is a great way to add more elements into the frame, provide context and create an environment for your subject.

Also, you’ll notice that the center appears farther away when the photo is taken from the ground. This creates a more detailed perspective and gives your viewers more things to see.

Lines and horizons can look curved when the edges of the frame are stretched out. This distortion can look bad, especially when you are shooting portraits. It is important to be aware of when and how you shouldn’t use it.

When to use a wide-angle lens

  • Photograph a group of people or a table filled with food in tight spaces
  • Real estate photography: Show the entire room
  • Use action cameras that have built-in wide angle lenses to make images and videos more immersive
  • Outdoor architecture photography: Take photos of buildings
  • If you aren’t afraid of distortion, photograph skyscapes and cityscapes.
  • You can easily take selfies without having to crop them
  • Fisheye lenses are a great way to create abstract and artistic images.
  • Increase the distance between your subject and the background.

There are many types of wide angle lenses

The wide angle lens category includes three types: ultra-wide, wide and fisheye. The 24-35mm lens range is considered wide angle. 18-24mm lenses are ultra-wide angle. Anything larger than 18mm falls under the fisheye lens category.

A wide angle or ultra-wide angle option is best for most traditional applications. These lenses offer the best combination of visual quality and field of view. Fisheye lenses are well-known for their unusual perspective and curved lines. This can be very stylistically helpful for certain applications but may prove to be quite distracting in other situations.

Telephoto Lens vs. Wide

focal length marking on prime lens

You’ll soon realize the differences between telephoto and wide-angle lenses. It comes down to the specific needs of a zoomed in telephoto vs wide angle perspective when deciding between them.

Telephoto Lenses: The Pros and Cons

ProsCons
This is particularly useful for wildlife.Telephoto lenses can be heavy and bulky.
It is possible to photograph distant objects without having to move physically.To balance your lens, you may need to use a tripod.
You can be a passive observer at events such as weddings or performances.Telephoto lenses with very wide apertures can be quite expensive.

Wide Angle Lenses: The Pros and the Cons

ProsCons
Photographing large objects, such as buildings, is possible.Wide angle lenses can often be affected by distortion.
They come in wide apertures.They don’t look flattering in portraiture.
They offer interesting perspectives.It is possible to pay a lot for high-quality options.

You will need to get more experience shooting at different focal lengths in order to determine the focal range. The best way to find the right lens for you is to be able to view the various angles of view.

A beginner may find it difficult to choose the right lens from the many options available for each brand of camera. A good, versatile lens with a wide focal range is the best choice. As you get more experience, and feel the need for greater focal lengths, you will eventually be able to look into lenses with “extreme” focal lengths.

Photographers have a lot of options with telephoto and wide-angle lenses. These lenses offer a wide range of perspectives that are not possible with the naked eye. Although their names are obvious, once you have upgraded to a DSLR/mirrorless camera that allows you to interchangeably shoot with both types of lenses, such as the Canon EOS R5, Sony Alpha a7S III or Nikon D500, you will see that they offer so much more than just two different fields.

It’s worth learning more about the lens and seeing what images they can produce. If used to your advantage, either one or both lenses can make you a more effective and successful photographer.