Somewhat Secret Superpowers of Camera lenses

The greatest thing about interchangeable camera lenses is the variety of optical designs, from ultrawide to supertelephoto and everything in between, that offer an incredible amount of variety for visual expression, creativity, and optical performance optimized for different photographic situations.  And while it may be sometimes completely and totally obvious what types of photography a certain lens excels at—for example, everyone knows that Macros are designed to capture close-up details; telephoto lenses are great for long-reach wildlife and sports from the sidelines—many styles of camera lenses have lesser-known secret superpowers that can be called upon to make a photo. Let’s take a look!

Supertelephoto Lenses

Long lenses, like the Sigma 150-500mm F5.6.3, or 300-800 F5.6 to name two, are known to be great for making sports and wildlife images. Wide open, these lenses can isolate the subject from the background to really make the images pop. And of course, the wide apertures which give very shallow depth of field feel also yield the fastest shutter speeds, which are necessary to freeze a bird in flight, or an athlete on the move.

Everyone knows supertelephoto zoom lenses are great for long-reach photography at widest, like wild birds. Here, the Sigma 150-500mm is trained on an American Anhinga, at 500mm, wide open at F6.3.
Everyone knows supertelephoto zoom lenses are great for long-reach photography at widest apertures for freezing active subjects, like wild birds, with fast shutter speeds. Here, the Sigma 150-500mm is trained on an American Anhinga, at 500mm, wide open at F6.3.

And Landscape, or should we say sky-scape, photographers also know that longer focal lengths also can make for huge suns and moons, the effect of which is amplified when the celestial orb is near earthbound features in the frame.

Longer lenses can make the sun and moon much more prominent in the frame. Again, this was captured with the 150-500mm at 500m. 1/500 F6.3 ISO 100.

The Lesser-Known Superpower of Supertelephoto Lenses: Distance Compression

When supertelephoto zoom lenses are stopped down to smaller apertures, and focused at a longer distance, depth of field is increased, and the apparent relationship of distance between objects in the frame appears much more compressed than in a standard field of view.

When you use smaller apertures with supertelephoto lenses, you can compress the expression of distance. It can be used for much more exciting purposes than showing some afternoon downtown traffic; but this image illustrates the effect with objects of touchstone size. Everyone know about how big a car, traffic light, and two story building is, so this offers an understandable sense of scale. This image was shot at 500mm at F/13, to maximize depth of field while managing diffraction. The next image shows a map view with the distance between objects in the frame.
This Google Earth view shows that it is is just over one thousand (1,000) feet from my capture position to the hotel in the background. The yellow line shows the relationship of the objects in the frame. A is where I was standing, B and C are the cross streets with traffic lights, and D is the front of the hotel building. The long focal length combined with narrow aperture keeps everything sharp and seriously compresses the apparent relationship of distance.

The Achilles’ heels of telephoto compression

Stopping down a long lens to smallest apertures means you’ll need slower shutter speeds, so Optical Stabilizer or a tripod is often a must for this style of shot. And while the more you stop down the aperture, the greater the depth of field; going too far into the smallest diameter F-stops can introduce diffraction, which degrades total image quality. Slower shutter speeds mean that objects in the frame that are not totally stationary—branches blowing in the breeze, ocean waves, vehicles, clouds, and son on—may exhibit motion blur.

A little switch of position or a few moments in time can mean the difference between making and missing the shot you want when trying to align distant objects through a telelphoto lens. I used the Photographer’s Ephemeris to give me a reading on where the morning sun would be in relation to the Sandy Hook Lighthouse. And then, of course, the sun moves through the sky in an arc, so the position needs to adjusted every couple of minutes to keep the sun shining through the lighthouse. The inset frame shows the difference of just a few feet over from where everything is aligned correctly. 1/6400 F/11 on a 150-500mm. Please note: This sort of image is best framed on a LCD in live view to avoid eye damage from the direct sunlight through a lens.

As you zoom to longest focal lengths, the field of view gets very narrow. You need pinpoint precision to align objects of interest at different distances from the camera.  Changing position even slightly, a few feet this way, or a couple of yards that way can mean the difference between perfectly aligning the elements or not.


Ultrawide Lenses

Ultrawide lenses, of both the Fisheye and rectilinear variety, are wildly popular among landscape photographers, architectural specialists, and travel photographers for the ability to take in sweeping fields of view. These lenses are perfect for capturing sunsets that seem to go on forever; and capturing the total breadth and magnificence of buildings and monuments both ancient and modern.

The Lesser-known superpower of  ultrawide lenses: super-close-up imaging

As you may know, close-focusing distance of a lens is measured from the sensor plane (which is marked on all cameras with this symbol: ø) and not the front of the lens itself.  So, right off the bat, the wide-open close-focusing point is nearer to the front of the glass that it may first appear on the tech specs chart. For example, the Sigma 8-16mm ultrawide zoom lens is 4.2 inches long, and the close focusing distance is 9.4 inches. Add in the mount-to-sensor distance of 1.75 inches on a Rebel, and that’s close-focusing of just 3.45 inches in front of the front lens element wide open.  Stopping down the lens to smaller apertures can cheat focus and depth of field to even closer to the front glass of the lens.


This yardstick is actually resting on the edge of the lenshood and touching the side of the front lens element of the Sigma 8-16mm ultrawide zoom lens. The lens is stopped down to F/16, and as you can see, the ticks on the yardstick get sharp at the two and half inch mark.

This can be very useful for situations where you need to be right on top of something to make an image, or to make a small nature feature the hero in the frame. While the total magnification doesn’t necessarily enter into the “true macro” classification, the significant depth of field can help place an object in a context, unlike a traditional macro shot which has a very thin slice of sharpness, even at smallest apertures.

We’re right on top of this display of heirloom tomatoes at a a farm market captured at 8mm with the 8-16mm. The aperture was set to F/14 and the lens was manually set to its closest focusing distance. The apparent size of foreground objects is exaggerated in this style of photo, as the yellow tomatoes up front are of a golden cherry variety, and actually are much, much smaller in radius and volume than the tomatoes a bit farther back in the image.

The Achilles’ Heel

Again, diffraction is the challenge here. As much as you gain more an in-focus zone, stopping down too much counteracts the gains, as edges may not be sharp enough for bigger prints and presentations. Not very flattering for human subjects near the edge of the frame as the wide-angle field of views stretches and contorts.

Fast Standard Primes as Macros

A sharp, fast Fifty F1.4 is a beautiful thing—perfect for portraiture, documentary, and travel photography. The combination of focal plane sharpness, gorgeous bokeh, and field of view that nearly matches the human visual system can create astoundingly pleasing images that have a classic feel.

A fast 50mm offers shallow depth of field for great subject/ground separation and a field of view and relationship of objects in the frame that is very much like the human visual experience. Here, a herring gull strolls in front of crashing waves on a jetty, captured at 1/3200 F2, ISO 100.

Lesser-Known Superpower: Lens-Flip Macro

In a pinch, many standard prime lenses can be reversed and held in front of the lens as a manually operated macro lens for capturing close-up details.

The 50mm F1.4 DG HSM | A lens was turned around and held in front of the lens mount to close-focus on a penny. In a pinch, a standard prime can be used as a macro lens, but usually it’s full manual operation, with no control over the aperture diaphragm, so depth of field is exceptionally shallow.

Achilles Heel of Lens-flip macro

Since the lens is not connected to the camera, there’s no way to adjust the aperture, so you’re shooting wide open at maximum aperture. You’ve got to be careful with the front element touching the lens mount to avoid scratches, and in dusty or sandy situations, it’s not the best idea to have the lens removed from the camera for extended periods of time.


Telephoto Macros for Longer-Distance Photography

Sigma offers three telephoto range F2.8 macro lenses with life-sized reproduction, a 105mm F2.8, a 150mm F2.8 and a 180mm F2.8 Macro. Each of these features Optical Stabilizer, a focus limiter, and internal focusing paired with close-focusing at 1:1 magnification. Obviously, these lenses are designed for, and excel at, close-up photography.

Macro lenses are named and known for the ability to capture tiny detail at high magnification, such as this sloughed cicada exoskeleton as seen through the 180mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM Macro lens at 1/320 F/9 ISO 400 on a Reb T3i. But everything about Sigma’s three longest internal focusing, optically stabilized telephoto macros also makes these great for sports, wildlife, and other longer-reach subjects.

Lesser-Known Superpower

Some may not realize that everything about the design and build of these lenses makes them outstanding for longer-distance photography as well. In fact, the 180mm F2.8 Macro is just about the perfect mid-telephoto prime lens for birding or sports photography. The Autofocus limiter helps keep the focal range out of the macro zone for swifter long-distance response, and as a tele prime, the real-world samples are mind-blowingly sharp on the focal plane with very pleasing defocused rendering.

Here’s a gray squirrel seen through the Sigma 180mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM macro lens at a distance of about 30 feet, well out of the close-up, high magnification range of this lens. But the AF limiter and hypersonic motor for fast focusing, also make it a perfect telephoto prime for sports, wildlife and journalism work.

Achilles’s Heel of Macro for long-distance

There’s zero practical downside here. The only possible issue you may encounter is finding yourself needing to explain to other photographers why you’ve chosen a lens that’s designated as a Macro for  longer-reach photography.  And once they get it, they’ll get it, too.

Published by

Jack Howard

Jack Howard is a lifelong photographer and author of two editions of the how-to book, Practical HDRI. Based in Central Jersey, Jack's go-to photography spots are backroads and beaches of his home state. He loves to travel far and wide with his wife and daughter, visiting national parks, museums, tropical islands and more along the way.

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