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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Long Lens Techniques


How to use a big telephoto lens for wildlife and more!



This Article Features Photo Zoom

A violet-green swallow perched on top of a tufa at Mono Lake, California, brings a feather to its mate. Getting close physically and using the Nikon 600mm VR lens with a 1.7x teleconverter to isolate is key in making the shot click.


A bull moose in Alaska working the slope, controlling his harem. Shooting with a 400mm ƒ/2.8, a safe distance could be kept while still isolating the bull against the shaded slope, making him pop visually.
What if you just acquired your long lens; how do you get the most out of it? What if, like many photographers, you haven't had your big glass out for a while and things are a little rusty? Perhaps, just perhaps, you're just not getting the results from your long lens that you see in others' photographs. What can you do to solve that problem? Here, we'll cover basic to advanced techniques so you can make your long lens sing!

Let's start with a couple of definitions so we're all on the same page. When I refer to a long lens, I'm talking basically about any lens between 200mm and 600mm. At the same time, I'm referring to lenses in this focal-length range that have a tripod collar. That's because while almost all the techniques apply to wide-range zooms that contain 200mm, the lenses are so physically small that they really don't require such a concentration of thought. While a 200mm is a 200mm is a 200mm, how you use a 200mm ƒ/2 compared to an 18-200mm is a little different. With that in mind, here are my tips to make the most of your long glass.

Tripod And Head
The #1 mistake photographers with long lenses make is cheapening out on the tripod and head! That long lens must have a stable, yet flexible platform from which to operate. The #2 mistake they make is locking down all the controls before they make the shot, probably because they've made mistake #1. The general rule of thumb is when the tripod legs are opened up, they're at least as far apart as the lens/camera rig is long. This is a good place to start. I would add that the tripod height should be at least to your forehead. And lastly, you buy a tripod for the most unstable medium you can imagine.


The Arctic fox in the summer looks nothing like its winter self, but is always a character. Moose Peterson's Nikon 200-400mm VR II lens is a great tool for taking in the "wide" shot to include the animal's world and then letting you zoom in for the gesture that makes that animal a character.
Since I find myself in all sorts of unimaginable places having to wait long hours for my subject, I have maxed out in this department. I depend on the Gitzo 5560SGT with a Wimberley head. When you look up the specs of the Gitzo, you'll see it just about equals a four-story building. Why would someone need a tripod that goes that high? I asked the same thing until the first time I was on a severe slope photographing mountain goats. Being able to set up the tripod with one leg extended and going way down the slope and then with the others extended so I could stand upright, I knew this was the right tripod.

When you set up your tripod in muck, snow or wet, be sure you extend your tripod leg to its furthest so the leg joint stays out of the wet. In this same scenario, push the tripod leg in the muck; don't let it rest on the surface. By doing this, the tripod and the head provide maximum stability for your long lens. The Wimberley (a gimbal head) with this setup provides complete stability and, with the controls loose enough for movement but not so tight it chatters when you pan, it gives you a rock-solid shooting platform.

Stance And Grip
This is so simple yet so essential to get a sharp image at any shutter speed. The problem is that vibration starts at the camera body from either the hand resting on the body or the firing of the camera. This movement travels forward in a wave and hits the front element where it resonates and then travels back to the body, causing an out-of-focus image. You stop that wave and you can shoot at any shutter speed. How do you stop the wave?

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