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Telephoto vs Macro Lens: Which To Use When

Macro photography and close up photography have become synonymous when discussing photos taken very close to the subject. While this is a convenient shorthand, a true macro photograph is one that was captured with a reproduction ratio of at least 1:1. This is sometimes described as 1 magnification.

So, a 1-inch flower would appear as at least 1-inch in size on the sensor of your camera. A macro lens lets photographers get extra close to their subject while maintaining a sharp focus. The resulting image can reveal small wonders that usually go unnoticed by the naked eye.

Close up shots are becoming increasingly popular, and a growing number of new photographers are wondering how to get macro results without splashing out on a new close-focusing macro lens. The best solution is using equipment that you already own.

Telephoto lenses are a common component of many kits and can be used to achieve the zoom necessary for imitating macro photography. Depending on your camera sensor, you may even be able to reproduce at a 1:1 ratio.

As a general rule, however, the larger magnification distances that come with these lenses mean that your ratio is likely to be less than true macro lenses.

Your focal length and image quality may change, but a telephoto lens can be a great option for getting stunning images of small objects with your camera.

Sony Alpha 70-350mm F4.5-6.3 G OSS Super-Telephoto APS-C Lens

Telephoto Lens Advantages and Uses

Taking a macro photo with a telephoto setup comes with a few distinct advantages. The most obvious of which is that many people already own one. Instead of having to buy new cameras and lenses, you can save a lot of money on your image if you use the gear you already own.

The next thing to mention, is that this type of lens comes with an increased working distance. This flexibility is where most of the telephoto benefits come from. When you use a telephoto setup to take macro images, you can take your shot from comparatively far away by using your available zoom.

The increased wiggle room with these lenses means you’re far less likely to bump into, or even scare away your subject. Let’s say you’re trying to capture a beautiful macro image of a ladybird on a flower. If you use a macro lens for this, your focal length means you’ll have to get very close to your subject. This could scare the ladybird away!

With a telephoto lens on your camera, you’ll be close enough to get the shot, but far away enough to stay hidden and leave your subject undisturbed. This increased minimum focusing distance also makes it much less likely that your camera will cast a shadow and ruin your photo.

It will be easier to frame your shot with a telephoto lens. As most lenses of this kind are able to zoom very well, it’s much less hassle to set up your image. These lenses have a better depth of field for this type of work. In certain contexts, this can allow for more flexibility when getting the right focus for your subject.

There are some great telephoto offerings out there from the likes of Olympus, Canon, and Nikon. Make sure the products that you’re considering are compatible with your gear and meet your requirements. The last thing you want to do is waste money on equipment you can’t even use!

Macro Lens Advantages and Uses

When it comes to maintaining a sharp focus at close range, your best option might be a macro lens. Nothing takes a macro image quite like a lens purpose-built for the job. These components add an unparalleled level of crispness and quality to your gear. If this matters to you, use a macro lens.

An f 2.8 macro option will offer an image resolution that’s great for most purposes. Where these lenses really shine though is with their f 4 and f 5.6 variants. These options offer phenomenal levels of quality for both professionals and enthusiasts. If you’re just starting out, an f 2.8 lens will save you money and still add tonnes of value to your gear.

The aperture that comes with your average macro lens means they’re more versatile than you might think. If you adjust to a broader focus, you’ll be able to capture excellent wildlife or sports shots. While it’s not the first thing that springs to mind with macro lenses, you can take some great wide-angle shots if you know what you’re doing.

If portrait or food photography is more your speed, then a macro lens can be a great choice. Their depth of field and ability focus at very close distances allow them to capture crisp, detailed shots of most things you throw at them. If you’re new to the field and looking to buy, a prime lens is the type to look for. Read our guide on everything macro to learn why.

Just so you know, the Canon ef series has some excellent lenses in a 100mm macro f 2.8 format. 150mm variants are available from the likes of Nikon, Sony, and Olympus.

Using a Telephoto Lens for a Macro Effect

So how do you get good close up images with a telephoto lens? There are quite a few obstacles when venturing into this type of camera work, so it’s definitely good to read up and come prepared.

One of your biggest challenges will be camera shake. As the approach here is to zoom in very close to the subject, even the tiniest nudge or change can cause your camera to move around too much. Use a tripod setup that uses a collar to firmly hold your device in place while you shoot.

It’s also worth picking up an IR shutter release. This way, you can keep your hands away from your camera once you’ve found the right zoom level. The less movement involved with your process, the easier it will be to maintain focus and get a crisp photo of your subject.

Use small aperture settings. When aiming for macro results with telephoto lenses, we’re dealing with excessive focal lengths and very close distances. This shrinks your depth of field way, way down. The right aperture setting will help with this.

Keep your sensor parallel to your subject if you want to maintain focus. Both your field of view and depth of view will likely be very small. For this reason, positioning your sensor correctly is very important.

If you want to give yourself a little more breathing room when shooting, consider picking up a teleconverter. This will allow you to stay the same distance from your subject while increasing your available focal length. This will add a welcome boost to your available magnification.

Keep in mind, that you’ll have to adjust your shutter speed and aperture settings if you add a teleconverter to your lens.

If your lens has the option, it’s time to switch to manual focus. You’ll need as much control over your shot as possible if you want the best results. This is one context where autofocus probably won’t cut it.

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Conclusion

No matter which lens you choose, it’s possible to create stunning macro photos if you know what you’re doing. Macro lenses have a lot going for them, but a telephoto lens is no slouch either. If the tiny focal length of a macro lens is likely to cause issues for you, it might be worth looking elsewhere.

The increased distance that comes with cameras using a telephoto lens can be a breath of fresh air. If you’re constantly aiming your cameras at living, skittish subjects, a zoom or telephoto lens will help you avoid scaring them off. If you need your cameras to deliver unrivaled close-range focus and quality, a macro lens is the way to go.

Remember to use the right distance for your lens and keep camera shake to an absolute minimum. These are critical for macro photography regardless of your set up.

Whether Sony, Nikon, macro or telephoto, we hope this page helps you get the most out of your lens. The tips on this site are designed to make photography as accessible as possible for everyone. If you want to elevate your photo skills, then check out our other articles and guides. Feel free to contact us with any questions or article suggestions!

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