127mm (203mm equivalent); 1?320 sec. at ƒ/8, ISO 200 This long-distance view of the Thikse Gompa in Ladakh, India, demonstrates the use of a telephoto to composite three widely separated subjects into a single image as though they were closely related to each other. It has always been assumed that the “normal” lens is 50mm, but to me, the eye seems to be able to take in a scene with more apparent magnification and peripheral vision, both at the same time, through a complex visual process of pans and scans and zooms all in the same mental image. In many ways, a medium telephoto represents how the eye sees multiple subjects in a scene, at least from a centrally focused point of view. Wide-angle lenses tend to overemphasize the foreground and diminish the background, so that the end result seems unfaithful to the grander impact afforded by your own vision. Here, a stabilized zoom, supported on a convenient chorten, made it possible to stop down to ƒ/8 for a bit of extra depth of field, just enough to hold adequate sharpness from foreground to background.
165mm (264mm equivalent); 1?90 sec. at ƒ/5.6, ISO 200 The optical compression of the telephoto blows up the background of golden spires and shrines of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar, and puts visitors in proper perspective to the size of the place. The magnification of the lens, here at just under 300mm (effective), has the effect of stacking up the subject details, essentially placing the real dimensions of subjects in foreground and background planes in relative juxtaposition. Thus, a five-foot person closer to the camera is seen in roughly the same size parity as a five-foot Buddha, which is farther from the camera. In contrast, a wider focal length would give the foreground the appearance of greater emphasis. In this way, the telephoto lens brings a sense of powerful dimension to a scene of grand subjects, whether massive pagoda or imposing mountains.
The benefit of stabilization can be seen even in the viewfinder, and most users find they can shoot handheld or on a monopod at shutter speeds about three stops slower than previously possible and consistently get sharp images. That’s an invaluable feature for low-light photography, long-distance portraiture and telephoto landscapes, all taken without a tripod.
With a steady telephoto, you can capture natural portraits without disturbing the subject or calling attention to yourself. For posed portraits, the telephoto perspective flattens the subject’s facial features for a professional effect. (Portrait lenses traditionally have been in the 100-150mm range, but even 300-400mm often is used for outdoor fashion work.) With grand landscapes and major monuments, the compression of a telephoto brings widely spaced features into visual juxtaposition, lending a powerful perspective to the picture.