Telephoto Technique For Wildlife

Insights into long-lens technique for wildlife photography.
Telephoto technique: A wild barn owl, not called or baited, in central California.
A wild barn owl, not called or baited, in central California. Canon EOS-1D X, Canon EF 600mm ƒ/4L IS II USM, ƒ/8, 1/1600 sec., ISO 2500, Canon Extender EF 2X III teleconverter, Really Right Stuff TVC-33 tripod, Wimberley WH-200 II head.

I still remember the first time I tried a 500mm ƒ/4 super-telephoto lens a few years back, and it wasn’t pretty. Having rented the lens for the weekend, I was overwhelmed by its size, and I was a bit self-conscious to bring it out to a local park in Los Angeles near where I lived. As I was carrying the lens and walking from the parking lot to the river where there was an egret rookery, I felt as if everybody there was looking at me. It took me half an hour to figure out how to fit the heavy lens onto the tripod, and by then I was soaked in sweat. I saw a great egret preening in the rookery about 50 feet away, so I pointed the camera toward it. I couldn’t locate the egret at all by moving the lens. All I saw was patches of green. Then the egret took flight, and, of course, I was far from being able to focus on the bird.

Within a few years, however, I was able to create lots and lots of images that I love using 500mm ƒ/4 and 600mm ƒ/4 lenses. I was fortunate to become the grand prize recipient of the Nature’s Best Photography photo contest, with photos displayed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., and most recently held my first invited solo exhibit.

Telephoto technique: A part of the background turned a salmon color at the last rays of sunset in the Alaskan Arctic.
A part of the background turned a “salmon” color at the last rays of sunset in the Alaskan Arctic. A 600mm telephoto lens and a 1.4x teleconverter made use of that background. The polar bear cub suddenly woke up, sat against its mom and made this expression, while its mom and sibling were in deep sleep. Canon EOS-1D X, Canon EF 600mm ƒ/4L IS II USM, ƒ/5.6, 1/800 sec., ISO 1600, Canon Extender EF 1.4X III teleconverter, handheld from a small boat.

So what happened in these few years? How did I change from someone who couldn’t aim from the viewfinder to winning awards using a super-telephoto lens? The first telephoto technique to learn is about the lenses themselves.

Price
I have to admit that it took me years to bite the bullet and invest in a 500mm ƒ/4 lens because of its price. Instead, I rented it from lensrentals.com and borrowlenses.com several times to make sure the focal length of the lens was right for what I needed. (Both companies are reliable.) The rental fee is quite expensive, but at least it’s not as expensive as buying the lens. I recommend that you try before you buy—but beware—the cost of multiple rentals does add up. One good thing about investing in a super-telephoto lens is that it retains value well. I purchased my first 500mm ƒ/4 lens for $5,800 and sold it three years later for $5,500.

Weight
The second thing that turns most people off is the weight of these lenses. Indeed, it’s true that not many people can handhold a super-telephoto lens for an extended period of time. A sturdy tripod and head are essential. I like to use the Gitzo 3542XLS or Really Right Stuff TVC-33 carbon-fiber tripod with the Wimberley WH-200 Head Version II for support. The fluid motion of the Wimberley head enables movement of the lens without the need to carry it. This setup is good for slow-moving wildlife or birds on a perch. When one needs to move around a lot, a monopod such as an Induro monopod paired with the Really Right Stuff MH-01 Pro monopod head (designed for heavy telephotos) is a good combo.

Telephoto Wildlife Tip
I don’t wear camouflage clothing. I just approach wildlife slowly and observe their behavior closely. If I sense they’re not comfortable, I back down.
Telephoto technique: The endangered San Joaquin kit fox.
The endangered San Joaquin kit fox, which once thrived in the San Joaquin Valley of central California, has had to adapt to live secretly amid development and rarely comes out in daytime. With lots of urban structures in the background, I crouched and stood, moved left and right, to find only this remaining part of the background that didn’t include man-made distractions, when the backlit kit fox mom and pup had this interaction. Canon EOS-1D X, Canon EF 600mm ƒ/4L IS II USM, ƒ/5, 1/1600 sec., ISO 1600, Canon Extender EF 1.4X III teleconverter, Induro monopod, Really Right Stuff MH-01 Pro monopod head.

When the wildlife action requires a bigger range of lens movement, handholding the lens is necessary. The key to handholding a heavy telephoto lens is to observe and anticipate the flight path of a bird or the moving path of an animal, and lift up the lens only when the moment is right. If you can minimize the time between holding up the lens and when autofocus is acquired, you won’t need to handhold it for an extended period of time. You can rest your lens on your shoulder or even put it on the ground to save your energy. Once action happens, all you need to do is swing the camera with the lens up to your eye, focus and click the shutter. Once the action finishes, you can put the camera down. On a related note, I always use a Don Zeck lens cap to protect the front element of the lens when not in use. I also replace the standard lens foot with an aluminum foot to reduce weight.

Size
With the huge size of a telephoto lens, it’s easier to get scratched when you carry it out in the field. (I always cover it with a LensCoat to protect it.) I “upgraded” from a 500mm ƒ/4 lens that I used for four years to a 600mm ƒ/4, thinking that the extra 100mm would give me an edge. It turned out that I couldn’t even fit the lens with a 1.4x teleconverter mounted to my camera on the passenger seat of my car.

One time while I was driving on a backroad, I saw a bobcat. When I tried to point my newly acquired 600mm lens toward the bobcat, I could barely stick the front element of the lens out the window due to its much bigger diameter. Maneuvering the lens to follow the bobcat was also more difficult. I ended up missing more shots with the 600mm than I did with the 500mm lens, so this is something to consider.

Telephoto technique: A brown bear pouncing for salmon in Katmai, Alaska.
A brown bear pouncing for salmon in Katmai, Alaska. Never attempt to get close to animals that are apex predators, such as this brown bear; use a super-telephoto lens to photograph them from a safe distance. Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, Canon EF 500mm ƒ/4L IS USM, ƒ/5, 1/1600 sec., ISO 800, Really Right Stuff TVC-33 tripod, Wimberley WH-200 II head.

The huge size of these super-telephoto lenses also creates a challenge for commercial air travel. I always put the lens in my Gura Gear Bataflae 32L camera backpack. For some reason, airline personnel tend to ask you to gate-check your bag if it has wheels, so I avoid roller bags for carry-on. I sometimes pack a Kinesis Long Lens Case (L522 or L622) in my check-in bags. These fit my camera, teleconverter and 600mm ƒ/4 all attached, with just the lens hood inverted, so I can quickly take it out without assembling the pieces.

Narrow Field of View
Finding a subject through a super-telephoto lens is like looking through a straw. One needs a lot of practice to quickly find and lock the subject in the viewfinder. For a fast-moving subject, it’s much more difficult. I suggest going to a local park where there are waterfowl to practice tracking them with the lens.

Teleconverters
I almost always have my 1.4x teleconverter on my 600mm ƒ/4 lens, as I don’t see any degradation of image quality. For a 2x teleconverter, traditional belief is that it degrades image quality significantly, but in recent years, I’ve seen in several online forums where professional photographers and enthusiasts posted their reviews of the performance of 2x teleconverters. The results blew me away, especially for Canon teleconverters.

Telephoto technique: American bison grazing toward a brown-headed cowbird
Subjects of different sizes can create tension and unexpectedness, as when this American bison was grazing closer and closer toward a brown-headed cowbird at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, Canon EF 500mm ƒ/4L IS USM, ƒ/6.3, 1/1250 sec., ISO 800, handheld.

Essentially, to the naked eye, the image quality was excellent when a 2x teleconverter was attached to a prime super-tele. The secret is to “stop down” the aperture. For example, with a 500mm ƒ/4 lens, when attached to a 2x, it becomes 1000mm ƒ/8. If one shoots wide open at ƒ/8, the quality degrades a bit, but once you set the aperture at ƒ/11 or smaller, the image quality is spectacular. This opens up a whole new world, as most wild animals are elusive and like to stay far away from us. In order to capture interaction, a super-close-up perspective always helps tremendously.

Shutter Speed and Image Stabilization
We’ve been taught that, in order to get a sharp photo, the rule of thumb is to have a shutter speed of 1/focal length of the lens. So, for a 600mm lens, one should have a shutter speed of at least 1/600. However, as long as the subject isn’t moving quickly, one can obtain a sharp picture with a lower shutter speed.

The traditional way is to put the camera on a tripod and use a shutter release, but as I mentioned, a tripod slows you down, and often it’s not suitable depending on the terrain, such as on a boat or in tall grass and twigs. We can, instead, use two advantages that technology provides: high frame rates and image stabilization. Nowadays, many lenses offer four stops of stabilization. I’ve produced sharp images with a shutter speed of 1/30 handheld.

Creative Telephoto Technique: Isolation & Interaction

Isolation. The narrow field of view of super-telephoto lenses allows us to isolate wildlife and creates soft, surreal backgrounds. Sometimes, less is more in wildlife photography. The ability to remove distraction is a strength of telephoto lenses. When using a super-telephoto, we always should have our eyes open to the way these lenses “see,” meaning we should remain aware of the small portion of background behind the wildlife and understand how the background that’s captured will get compressed, magnified and blurred because of the telephoto effect to create something surreal. Always move around to look for that background. Just a step to your left or right, or crouching down, will create a completely different—and better—background.

Interaction. The way super-telephoto lenses isolate the subject from the background allows us to show split-second actions and the intimate interactions with up-close details that aren’t easy to see with the naked eye. Those split-second actions require quickness to focus on the wild animal. In my experience, many of the interesting moments happen within a few seconds from when we see the animals or when we least expect it. The ability not to miss the moment requires us to minimize the time from when we acquire focus to the moment the action happens. Handholding the lens, or using a monopod instead of tripod, sometimes helps.

Technology has helped advance super-telephoto photography significantly. The weight of many long lenses is more manageable and image stabilization has greatly improved to allow a much slower shutter speed to create sharp images handheld. Also, the high ISO performance of many cameras opens up a whole new world for wildlife photography, as most wildlife and birds are active in early morning and late evening when light is insufficient for lower ISOs. By pushing the limit of the telephoto lens and your camera, you can create artistic images with perspectives unseen by the naked eye!

bioTin Man Lee has had a deep love for wildlife since childhood. His dream is to capture emotion through wildlife photography and to awaken empathy among us. See more of his photography at tinmanlee.com.

6 Comments

    I remember seeing your Bison and Bird photo and showing it to my wife. She was blown away by the clarity but also the playful mood of that photo. (As was I) I envy both your skill and also your equipment. I look forward to seeing more of your work.

    Paul
    Cold Spring KY.

    Canon EOS-1D X, Canon EF 600mm ƒ/4L IS II USM, ƒ/8, 1/1600 sec., ISO 2500, Canon Extender EF 2X III teleconverter, Really Right Stuff TVC-33 tripod, Wimberley WH-200 II head.

    Are you kidding? How about stories representing the majority of your readers who can afford 10% of that gear setup.

    Absolutely brilliant photographs and excellent advice! I used to slog through the snow, bush, and airports with a 600mm f4 with a pro body (both Canon and Nikon at different times). But, no longer. I’m now shooting an Olympus OMD E-M1 and 300mm f4.0 Pro and loving it! (That’s 600mm equivalent at 25% of the expense and weight!) Hand-holding even in the most difficult circumstances is a breeze and no more sore back and arms! I can easily capture great images while leaving tripod and gimbal mount at home. Something to think about. ;0)

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