Portrait photographers often overlook a telephoto lens because many people are under the misconception that these lenses are only for stunning skylines and distant subjects. However, these versatile pieces of photography equipment can create stunning portraits that flatter your subject better than an 18mm lens. Using a telephoto lens when shooting portraits will help reduce distortion that can unfortunately occur with wide-angle lenses.
The focal length of telephoto lenses range from about 28mm to 800mm and above. The longer the focal length the more detail the lens can capture from a distance. It also means the lens is bigger, heavier and more expensive. Telephoto lenses can be separated into three types:
1. Short Telephoto Lenses - These range from 85mm to 135mm (your mileage may vary) and are perfect for shooting candid shots and portraits. For example, the short telephoto lenses allow you to take stunning pictures at weddings where you're close to your subjects yet you don't want to intrude in the process. These shorter lenses are lightweight, compact and easier to hand, which allows for fast shooting.
2. Medium Telephoto Lenses - Ranging from 135mm to 300mm, medium lenses are ideal for action and sport photographers who -- for example -- are standing on the sidelines but need to get close to where the action is. This type of photography requires proper aperture setting to minimize blur when shooting fast-moving subjects.
3. Super Telephoto Lenses - Typically, these types of telephoto lenses -- which range from 300mm and beyond -- are used only in professional nature, wildlife and sports photography, and are not used for portraits.
These are not hard and fast numbers and you can find a number of ranges to play with. For instance I've fallen in love with the 28-300mm Nikor lens that lets me stand back and zoom in tight for great portrait photos.
Longer lenses provide a shallow depth of field, which helps isolate the subjects from the background and creates a strong, pleasant image. However, remember not to stop down the camera's aperture too much and instead leave it a bit wide so you don't lose the depth of field. When shooting from below or above the subject, you can unintentionally lose the unwanted perspective. With a telephoto lens, you are able to step back from the subject and the farther away you are, the less noticeable the height difference will be. This provides you with a head on, level view. Keep in mind that these longer lenses generally require a higher shutter speed to prevent camera shake.
Using a telephoto lens can help you step out of your comfort zone and improve your photography no matter what level of experience you have under your belt. Plus it'll let you keep your distance from your subject so you can still get great portraits without standing in his/her face.