How To Shoot With A Medium Telephoto Lens

by William Lulow

Medium telephoto lenses are the best lenses to use for portraits. They include lenses in the 80mm to 135mm range. These lenses cover a field of view of roughly 20 to 25 degrees.  Telephoto lenses do several things:

  • They make the field of view narrower than normal or wide angle lenses
  • They tend to compress distances
  • They bring objects closer and make them appear bigger
  • They are heavier to carry and hold
  • They tend to give portraits more of a “normal” look
  • They cut down on depth-of-field

The reason these lenses are good for portraits is that they compress distances just enough to make faces appear more normal and more in proportion. They will also tend to keep backgrounds out of focus enough to concentrate the viewer’s attention on the subject’s face. Since these lenses are often heavier than the normal or wide angle lenses, it is often useful to use a tripod to keep them steady.

Examples of telephoto lenses for 35mm cameras (digital single-lens reflexes) would be:

  • 85mm
  • 100mm
  • 135mm
  • 150mm

One of the other properties of these medium telephoto lenses is that they allow the photographer to be further away from their subjects. This can be helpful when you want to capture more candid shots. But it is also useful in the studio. When I shoot studio portraits, I usually use my 85mm f/1.8 lens. Even though I rarely use it wide open, it is a great portrait lens because of its speed. As a matter of fact, when I use it in the studio, my usual setting is f/11 at 1/100th of a second with an ISO of 100. If I shoot outdoors, depending on the ambient light, my setting is usually f/4 or f/5.6 at 1/100th of a second.

Because of the greater distance allowed in order to fill the frame, the subject’s facial features are rendered more in proportion to what they really are. There is no distortion as there would be in a wide-angle lens if you were to fill the frame with only the subject’s face, say.

In portraiture, a subject’s face is said to be in proportion when the three elements of the face (chin-to-bottom of nose, bottom-of-nose to eyebrows and eyebrows-to-top of forehead) are roughly equal.

So, medium telephoto lenses work well for the following types of photographs:

  • Action shots of subjects not too far away
  • Portraits, either outside or in the studio
  • Subjects that don’t require the photographer to be at a great distance
  • Subjects where a tripod is not necessary
  • Portraits where you want the background to be out of focus

Here are some examples of shots taken with medium telephoto lenses:


This is an example of a normal, studio portrait shot with an 85mm lens. Note how the facial elements seem proportional to one another.


Here’s another made with the 85mm lens but set at f/4 with a flash fill-in. This exposure, combined with the longer focal length, renders the background soft.


And another shot of musician, Joe Crookston, made with a 135mm f/2 lens, shot from approximately 25 – 30 feet away with the camera on a monopod! Almost any shot with a medium telephoto will benefit from some support, either from a tripod or monopod.