Telephoto lenses are usually treated as options for sports, wildlife, or other distant action. Many professional photographers even recommend doing without telephoto lenses, because you should instead “zoom with your feet.” With regard to photography in the Disney theme parks, I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard people advise others to only take their telephoto lenses to Animal Kingdom, as that’s the only park where they’ll “need the zoom.” This advice concerning telephoto lenses and the limited idea of what they can do is flat out wrong.
Certainly, telephoto lenses are great options for sports and wildlife photography, but they have far more uses beyond situations where you need more reach. In fact, it’s downright puzzling that serious photographers (especially professionals) wouldn’t understand this. Every lens has separate practical and creative applications. Wide angle lenses give a wider field of view, but they also allow for introducing intentional distortion into scenes, suggesting expanses of space, and clever interplay with lines. 35mm or 50mm prime lenses fairly replicate the human eyes’ field of view, but they also allow for isolating elements of a frame with shallow depth of field. There are examples for every lens, and while the practical uses often define the lens, it’s the ability to harness the creative uses that define the photographer. If every lens has both practical and creative uses, why would a telephoto lens be any different?
It’s not. The difference with a telephoto lens, I think, is that it is much more difficult to use in creative ways, and the practical uses are so apparent that it’s very easy to just be content with using a telephoto lens for ‘zoom.’ I’m not chastising anyone for doing this, as I have done it myself. Telephoto lenses are a challenge to use creatively, and their size often makes it easier to just leave them back in the hotel when you know you won’t need them for their practical purpose. The purpose of this article is to take a look at some of the creative uses, and try to stimulate creativity so you use them for more than just sports, wildlife, and other action. While the examples here will be pulled from the Disney theme parks, the ideas are universally applicable.
Most of these photos are shot with a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR lens (and in some cases, the Nikon 1.7 II Teleconverter). However, the great thing about the types of shots discussed here is that you don’t need a fancy f/2.8 telephoto lens to achieve these results. This is not to say f/2.8 telephoto lenses aren’t great (they are), but for the shots here, a significantly cheaper Sigma 70-300mm, Tamron 70-300mm VC, or Nikon 55-300mm VR lenses will do the trick, and only cost around $150-400 each. Of course, image and build quality won’t be the same, but they will get the job done.
Let’s take a look at what–besides zoom–telephoto lenses can do!
This is by far my favorite use of telephoto lenses, and the one on which we’ll spend the most time. Unlike zoom, which is used to bring the subject closer to the photographer, compression is used to decrease the apparent distance between objects in the frame. While it’s a myth that lenses affect perspective (only where the photographer stands relative to the scene does that), focal lengths often do affect where photographers stand, so for practical purposes, there is a relationship between focal length and perspective. There’s a natural inclination to stand a distance from your scene that is the ‘ideal’ spot for viewing with your eyes. A telephoto lens allows you to purposely move farther back and zoom to effectively change the perspective you’re seeing. If that doesn’t make any sense, don’t feel bad. It’s a concept that is much easier to understand with photos.
First is a wide angle photo from Tokyo Disneyland. In the distance, you can see Cinderella Castle, but it appears fairly far away (it is–their hub is huge) and the length of World Bazaar is exaggerated. For this photo, I was standing near the front of the park.
Here, we have Cinderella Castle shot with a telephoto lens at 70mm from the same spot. The same support beams are pictured in the foreground that were in the background of the photo above, but World Bazaar appears condensed rather than exaggerated. The scene is compressed, so that it looks like Cinderella Castle is right behind the end of World Bazaar.
The reality is somewhere between the two photos, the first of which exaggerates the distance, and the second of which that compresses the scene. When looking at either of these photos by themselves, you wouldn’t think that focal length was an especially creative decision, but when comparing them, the creative difference should be clear.
Let’s do the same thing with Partners at Disneyland:
In this first photo, I’m right at the edge of the flower bed, shooting with a fisheye. Sleeping Beauty Castle is clearly visible, but it’s small. (I have shots with a wide angle lens from the end of Main Street with Sleeping Beauty Castle basically as a speck!)
Partners is actually a tad smaller in this shot, but Sleeping Beauty Castle is much larger. The difference is that it’s at 75mm versus 12mm for the previous shot.
Finally, Partners is slightly larger than it was in the first frame, but the Castle is so big only a portion of it fits in the frame. The difference is that this was shot at 340mm, and I was halfway down Main Street instead of at the edge of the flower bed.
Again, looking at each photo individually, it may not seem like focal length was all that creative of a decision. When viewed together, the role of focal length and positioning in the creative result of the photo is more obvious. “Little” things like this have a big impact on the end result, even if they aren’t immediately apparent as “creative.”
Now that we’ve covered how this works, here are some examples demonstrating how to leverage it with a telephoto lens for more creative photos:
Using a 300mm focal length on these ‘Mine’ seagulls, I was able to compress the distant, colorful attraction marquee to give the shot more visual interest.
This cannon by itself would have been a fairly mundane subject. Moving back and zooming in to compress the Pirates of the Caribbean marquee behind it gives it needed context that could not have been accomplished without a telephoto lens.
At 300mm, Big Thunder Mountain sure looks a lot closer to Cinderella Castle than it actually does from inside the Magic Kingdom!
The twin peaks of Sleeping Beauty Castle and the Matterhorn. Use a wide angle lens from the side of Sleeping Beauty Castle and you’ll end up with a cool photo of the two, but it won’t even begin to draw any parallels between the two, as the Matterhorn will be very small and the Castle will fill the frame.
Layering the Frame
This may seem somewhat similar to compression (there’s overlap between all three of these types of shots), but the idea here is to give more dimensionality to the photo by creating a distinction between foreground and background. One of the main pitfalls of using telephoto lenses is that they can make a scene seem flat. This is a way to combat that problem. Adding foreground bokeh is a good method, but there are other ways to do this, too.
Using a 210mm focal length and positioning myself under a tree allowed me to frame this compressed shot with some leaves in the foreground, the whale and Mickey in the mid-ground, and the Hong Kong Disneyland Train Station (and mountains!) in the background.
Here, I used a 130mm focal length and aperture of f/4 while getting low to put bokeh flowers both in front of and behind my subject, to give the scene a sense of depth (and added color).
This is a more subtle example. I started by using my Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 lens for this scene, but with that lens, only the helmsman Mickey and some poles in the frame. By switching to my telephoto lens, I was able to layer Mickey with the sun and the lighthouse, giving depth to the shot and context to the boat masts.
Placing the Flo’s sign in front of the Cadillac Mountain Range gives depth to what would otherwise just be a textured shot of the mountains.
I could have captured this shot of Nemo’s dad with a mid-range lens, but I wouldn’t have been able to stack the frame with Nemo and Dory that way.
Shallow Depth of Field
Telephoto lenses with an f/2.8 aperture are a double threat here. They have f/2.8 aperture, which allows for shallow depth of field at even shorter focal lengths, and they have longer focal lengths that are naturally conducive to shallow depth of field. Because of the latter, even telephoto lenses with apertures of f/5.6 or so can be used to produce shots with shallow depth of field. This can be great for creative purposes.
This shot combines two principles here: compression and shallow depth of field. My intent here was to make it look like the rabbit was ‘sniffing’ these Christmas lights at Disneyland. Unfortunately, they were over 100 feet behind him, so I needed a telephoto lens with a focal length of 270mm to bring them closer to him. This focal length coupled with an f/4.8 aperture (I was using a teleconverter, so that was my minimum possible aperture) gave me nice bokeh balls for him to sniff.
Using a 105mm focal length at f/2.8 turned a really distracting background into a (still sorta distracting and) vibrant backdrop with greater emphasis on Mickey.
Shallow depth of field isolates the beautiful Adventureland light fixture at Disneyland Paris. By using a longer focal length, I was able to draw in a better background than I could have with a shorter lens. Telephoto lenses are fantastic lenses for photographing details.
These flowers at the edge of the World Showcase in Epcot would look beautiful with any background, but I used a 500mm lens to place some Spaceship Earth bokeh in the background, giving the otherwise generic shot a hint of Disney.
Much like the earlier ‘Mine’ seagulls photo, the combination of focal length and aperture here (plus compression) make the yellow submarine in the background a smooth, interesting backdrop.
Hope this post gives you ideas for new ways to use your telephoto lens! I have three categories listed here, but the possibilities aren’t just confined to these categories–I have plenty of creative telephoto shots that don’t really fit any of them. (Some photographers even advocate using it instead of a wide angle lens for landscapes–and I sort of agree with them.) If you want other photography advice and equipment recommendations, I suggest checking out my Photography Guide. Here are a few of my other top photography blog posts: