Telephoto Lens vs Zoom Lens – Everything That Differentiates Them

When you are talking about photography, it is obvious that lenses are going to play an integral part in the conversation and it is simply something that you cannot miss out on or overlook. Now, when we discuss lenses, you will be surprised to know that the market has a lot of lenses available in the market. There are your standard kit lenses that come with the camera, but then you have the more expensive prime lenses that have a fixed aperture and focal length.

Then moving forward, you often run into the zoom lenses and telephoto lenses, and this is where the confusion that normally comes in. A lot of people in the world of photography have made a habit of using the term ‘zoom lens’ for ‘telephoto lens’ and vice-versa. I do understand this predicament and have to tell you that it is okay because this confusion is a lot more common than one might think.

That is why, in this post, we are going to clarify everything. If you have been stuck between the argument that goes like telephoto lens vs zoom lens, then this post is for you as it will help you a lot in making things clear.

Telephoto Lens vs Zoom Lens

What is a Telephoto Lens?

We are going to first focus on what a telephoto lens is because well, it is important. Telephoto lenses have been around for a long, long time. You may have seen these lenses on your phone cameras as well, and normally, they have a magnification number next to them like 2x, 3x, or even 10x. But what exactly is a telephoto lens, in the first place? That is the question that most people want to be answered and is it the same as a zoom lens? That is what we are going to sort out for you.

To put it simply, a telephoto lens is a long-focus lens that lets photographers use a focal length that is often shorter than the physical length of the lens. The lens attaches to a camera just like any other lens that you would.

Power of Telephoto Lenses

When you are using a telephoto lens, it makes the subject appear to be closer than it actually is, making it ideal for photographers who are not able to be close to their subject for one reason or another. In both photography and videography, telephoto lenses are crucial and make for compelling use cases around the world.

Types of Telephoto Lenses

With that said, telephoto lenses have types, as well. I have listed the two most common types for you below.

  • Prime Telephoto Lenses: As the name suggests, these lenses have a fixed focal length, but are telephoto lenses because the focal length is used for closed-in subjects. 85mm, 100mm, and 135mm are the most common prime telephoto lenses and all of them have their use case in the world of photography or videography. Then you have super-telephoto prime lenses as well that start at 600mm and can go beyond, as well.
  • Zoom Telephoto Lenses: The zoom telephoto lenses are the exact opposite of prime telephoto lenses, wherein, these lenses have the ability to zoom in and out of the subject. The 70 to 200mm and 100 to 400mm are the most common zoom telephoto lenses on the market.
road photography

Now that we know what telephoto lenses are, the next thing that we are going to focus on is zoom lenses and help you have a better understanding of both lens types. I do understand that this might be confusing at first but once you do go through both lenses and how they are different, you will have a much easier time

What is a Zoom Lens? 

As the name suggests, any lens that has the capability of zooming in or out of the subject is considered a zoom lens. Now, a zoom lens can be a standard zoom lens or a telephoto zoom lens, the functionality of zooming in and out is something that has to be there, or else it will just be considered a prime lens, in the first place.

Zoom lenses are available in a wide range of focal lengths, and depending on your need, you can find ones with a fixed aperture, or even variable aperture.

What are the Differences Between Zoom Lenses and Telephoto Lenses

Now that we are done explaining what zoom and telephoto lenses are, the next step is to start looking at the differences as they are often the most difficult when it comes to understanding, especially for a lot of people.

To be honest, there are not a lot of things that mark the difference between both lenses, but you can still have a look at them below.

  1. A telephoto lens normally has a longer reach, this means a focal length ranging from 60mm or more. However, it does not necessarily slide through a range of focal lengths.
  2. In contrast, a zoom lens is defined by the ability to zoom through various focal lengths. However, there are zoom lenses that do not magnify enough to be considered a telephoto lenses. When we are talking about zoom lenses, we only refer to the optical zoom lens as digital zoom is not accounted for.

What all of this means is that you can have a telephoto zoom lens that slides through various focal lengths or a telephoto prime lens that has a fixed focal length but not all zoom lenses can be considered telephoto. Take Sigma 18-35mm. This lens is not considered a telephoto zoom lens but is a zoom lens.

outdoor capture

Understanding the Pros and Cons of Telephoto Lenses

I am done explaining all the differences that you need to know between zoom and telephoto lenses and now it is time to know the pros and cons of telephoto lenses. Of course, every type of lens has its fair share of advantages and disadvantages, so we cannot really go ahead and overlook this simple factor.

Still, we are going to mention the pros below for you to look into.

  • Telephoto lenses allow you to keep more distance between yourself and the subject.
  • You can easily photograph distant objects without having to move a lot.
  • Using a telephoto lens, it is easier to act as a passive observer at events and still take photos without really catching any unnecessary attention.
  • Telephoto prime lenses are considered to be among the best lenses for taking portraits, whereas the telephoto zoom lenses normally tend to be all rounders that can be used for everything.

I believe that this should more or less explain all the pros of a telephoto lens.

Now that we are done with those, we are going to start focusing on the cons of telephoto lenses. After all, it would be fair that we are paying attention to both aspects and not just one, right? Let’s not waste time and have a look.

  • Telephoto lenses often tend to be heavy and bulky.
  • In some cases, you might need to go ahead and use a tripod for balancing.
  • Telephoto lenses that come with wider apertures are expensive, and those are also the best ones. So, you are stuck with paying more.

There you have it, folks. If you have been spending some time figuring out whether you should go for a telephoto lens or a zoom lens, these pros and cons should make it easier for you. Still, having a hard time? Don’t worry, I have the pros and cons of zoom lenses ready for you.

Understanding the Pros and Cons of Zoom Lenses

Moving on, we are going to focus on the pros and cons of zoom lenses. After all, these lenses are just as famous, if not more. So, they do deserve all the attention that there can be. Let’s look at the pros of the zoom lenses so you know what to go for and when to go for it.

  • Zoom lenses are known for offering great flexibility, especially lenses that have various focal lengths available. They can be used for telephoto lenses as well as wide-angle lenses without having the need to go ahead and change the lens.
  • Another great thing about zoom lenses is that they deliver great practicality. Why? Well, if you have a good zoom lens like the 24-70mm with a constant aperture, then you have a lens that can be used as wide-angle and telephoto. Imagine using a single lens that can be used for everything that you have. It is something that most people are looking for.
  • Moving further, another thing that I do love about zoom lenses is that they come with ease of learning and mastering. You can just use a single lens to master a number of focal lengths, and that too, with ease. I do understand that it is not for everyone but it does work really well.

Now that we are done looking at the pros of zoom lenses, let’s have a look at the cons, too. After all, they are just as important and we want to know about them.

  • The more affordable zoom lenses often have a variable aperture that can result in the images coming out really dark and requires you to bump up the ISO.
  • Most zoom lenses have sharpness issues, and if they are sharp enough, then they tend to be expensive.
  • Zoom lenses are often slower in terms of aperture.
  • Zoom lenses don’t deliver macro performance at all unless you are getting a prime telephoto macro lens.

There you have it, folks. You have all the pros and cons of zoom lenses at your disposal in case you want to go ahead and make a decision.

Telephoto Lens vs Zoom Lens – Which One Should I Pick

Another crucial question that most people send our way time and again is about the lens that they should be picking up. Should they go with a telephoto lens or a zoom lens? This has become a common debate for years now and honestly, the answer is a lot simpler than you might think.

In situations such as this, you just have to be certain that whatever lens you are picking up solves all your requirements

For instance, if you are in need of a lens that can zoom in and out, then absolutely go for a zoom lens. However, if you are only looking for a lens that can allow you to shoot at farther distances, then getting a telephoto lens makes more sense.

outdoor capture

Frequently Asked Questions

Yes, you can zoom with a telephoto lens if you are looking at a telephoto zoom lens. If not, then you cannot zoom.

Telephoto lenses, the good ones, are often more expensive than the standard offerings.

A telephoto zoom lens, as the name suggests, has the ability to zoom in and out of the focal length whereas the prime lens always has a fixed focal length.


For anyone who has been spending time trying to figure out whether they should be going for telephoto lenses or zoom lenses, it is more than safe to say that confusion can happen to anyone and if you are looking to avoid confusion in any way, this post is for you.

The purpose here was to ensure that everyone has had a simple and straightforward time making up their mind when it comes to the right lens because to be honest, we would not the users to end up with something that is not enough or will not cut it.

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