Long Lens Tips And Techniques

Big-glass guru Arthur Morris shows you how to use long telephotos to get your best up-close wildlife shots ever!
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My first long lens, purchased back in 1983, was the Canon 400mm ƒ/4.5 FD. I worked with that lens for seven years, not fully realizing the incredible benefits of the really big glass until some guy let me look through his 600mm ƒ/4 Nikkor lens on Sanibel Island.... Soon after, I jumped all the way up to the old Canon 800mm ƒ/5.6 FD and entered the world of huge magnification. Since the advent of autofocus, I've owned and used several Canon EF 500mm and 600mm ƒ/4 lenses. Today, I've come full circle—my favorite big lens right now is the EF 800mm ƒ/5.6L IS. That said, I'm looking forward to the availability of Canon's two new big guns, the EF 500mm and 600mm ƒ/4L IS II supertelephotos.

Over the years, I've reviewed, sold and, most importantly, enjoyed more than a few images that were created with long lenses and teleconverters. In this article, I'll share many of the techniques that I've used and developed over the past two-plus decades.

1) Big Glass And Teleconverters Lens Correction
Many folks who invest in big glass shy away from using teleconverters. Doing so is a huge mistake as they're forfeiting focal-length flexibility and extra magnification, which provides more pixels on the subject. By practicing your sharpness techniques—try supporting the lens with your left hand from below rather than above—making sharp images with the 2x TCs and either the 300mm or 400mm ƒ/2.8 lenses should be child's play at most reasonable shutter speeds. And I've long believed that competent photographers should be able to create sharp images with a 2x TC and a 500mm or 600mm ƒ/4 lens down to 1⁄60 sec., as long as the subject isn't moving. And that goes double with the sharper optics and the improved image stabilization and vibration-reduction systems of newer lenses.
Canon EOS-1Ds, EF 600mm ƒ/4L IS USM, Extender EF 2x II, Gitzo 3530LS tripod, Wimberley V2 head

2) The Sharp, Fast, Versatile 300mm ƒ/2.8
For years I had my eyes and my mind closed to the 300mm ƒ/2.8 lenses. That all changed when I borrowed one for my big Antarctica trip with Cheesemans' Ecology Safaris in early 2012. I loved it so much that I extended the loan and brought it along to Japan for a month. On the Southern Oceans trip, I needed to travel light; the Canon 300mm ƒ/2.8L IS lens was my big lens. It was great in the Zodiacs® and great for handheld birds-in-flight photography with or without the 1.4x TC. I used it with the 1.4x TC for all of my sea eagle flight photography in Hokkaido, and it was great for the snow monkeys as well. Aside from the light-gathering ƒ/2.8 speed, the lens is mind-bogglingly sharp.
Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, EF 300mm ƒ/2.8L IS USM, Extender EF 1.4x III, handheld

3) How To Recognize Good Situations
Telephoto lenses offer a narrow angle of view, a bit more than 3º with the 800mm lens on a full-frame camera and well less with crop-factor bodies and/or teleconverters. Many folks don't realize that if you wish to create images that feature clean backgrounds, working with a narrow angle of view is much more important than working at the wide-open aperture. The farther the background from your subject, the softer the background will be. Learn to look for great situations where your long lens can provide clean backgrounds. Nearly all of the gannets at Bonaventure, Québec, nest on the ground. When I came upon a pair building a nest atop a viewing shelter, I stayed with them for several hours.
Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, EF 400mm ƒ/4 DO IS USM, Gitzo 3530LS tripod, 4th Generation Designs Mongoose M-3.6

4) A Tripod Is A Necessity!
Working off a sturdy tripod with long focal lengths will—almost without exception—pay huge dividends in terms of image sharpness. For years, I've used and depended on the sturdy and rugged Gitzo GT3530LS 6X carbon-fiber tripod. When using the 800mm ƒ/5.6L IS lens with the Canon 1.4x III teleconverter or the 300mm ƒ/2.8L IS II with the 2x II teleconverter as for the Macaroni penguin image, you'll always find my long lenses on a tripod. When working with relatively static subjects, snugging up the knobs on your tripod head will help you produce even sharper images.
Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, EF 300mm ƒ/2.8L IS II USM,Extender EF 2x III, Gitzo 3530LS tripod, 4th GenerationDesigns Mongoose M-3.6

Keeping Steady
One of Arthur Morris' skilled students, Clemens van der Werf, shows good technique. He's supporting the lens from below with his left hand, and his face is pressed firmly against the back of the camera. This is much more reliable than holding the lens on top and trying to keep it steady with downward pressure. With these long lenses, even the slightest movement results in softness in the image, so proper technique is mandatory.

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5) Rear Focus And Recompose
When using teleconverters with certain long lenses, you're often limited to the central autofocus sensor as I was here with the 800mm ƒ/5.6 with the 1.4x III TC/EOS-1D Mark IV combination. I set up all of my camera bodies to remove AF from the shutter button; I use the star button to focus. For this image, I focused on the chick's eye by pressing and then releasing the star button. Then I recomposed by pointing the lens to the right to place the bird pleasingly back in the frame. For flight photography, just push and hold the star button to track the subject. Also note that I've pointed my shadow right at the bird; doing so and getting low ensured pleasing results in the relatively harsh midafternoon light.
Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, EF 800mm ƒ/5.6L IS USM, Extender EF 1.4x III, Gitzo 3530LS tripod, 4th Generation Designs Mongoose M-3.6

6) Big Lenses And Gimbal Heads
It took me years to learn this lesson: Using a gimbal head makes lens handling easy and efficient; any telephoto lens will be rendered weightless (be sure to balance your rig whenever mounting the lens or adding or removing accessories). I used a Wimberley head for years, and many folks still prefer them for their bottom-mounting system—the lens plate is parallel to the ground. I went to the 4th Generation Designs Mongoose head years ago to save weight. I love the side-mounting M-3.6; the lens plate is perpendicular to the ground. If you can comfortably support your rig in your right hand for 10 full seconds while mounting, you'd surely enjoy the substantial savings in weight; the M-3.6 weighs only 26 ounces. Despite its light weight, I've had no problem making sharp images with my 800mm lens at shutter speeds as slow as 1⁄6 sec.
Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, EF 800mm ƒ/5.6L IS USM, Gitzo 3530LS tripod, 4th Generation Designs Mongoose M-3.6

7) Wildlife Shown Small In The Frame
Long focal lengths can be used to extract dramatic areas of interest from the grand scene and create images that effectively include small-in-the-frame birds or wildlife. I used my 800mm lens here to frame these distant sandhill cranes during fire-in-the-mist conditions in New Mexico, with the ground fog lit from behind by the rising sun. Remember that it isn't always necessary to fill the frame with your subjects to create powerful images.
Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, EF 800mm ƒ/5.6L IS USM, Gitzo 3530LS tripod, 4th Generation Designs Mongoose M-3.6

8) Handholding For Flight
There's a small, but growing army of folks led by my colleague Jim Neiger who find that handholding supertelephoto lenses for flight and for action enables them to capture high-quality images consistently. Strength and stamina are big factors, of course. If you try it, make sure to get your left hand well out on the lens barrel; you wouldn't try to hold a log by one end, would you? Don't attempt to hold the lens up in the ready position all the time. Instead, hold it at your side or find something to rest it on before raising it when the action develops. I had made a series of sharp images of this osprey while handholding my 800mm until fatigue got to me. This photo was created moments later with the lens on the tripod.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 800mm ƒ/5.6L IS USM, Gitzo 3530LS tripod, 4thGeneration Designs Mongoose M-3.6

9) Long Lens AF Tips
Learning and practicing the intricacies of your camera's autofocus system can help immeasurably in your efforts to create dramatic imagery. I recommend that you use rear focus 100% of the time. Done properly, you'll be in AI Servo or C and never have to switch to One-Shot or S ever again. Learn to manually select off-center AF points. Learn the advantages and disadvantages of the various AF options and arrays. When working with relatively distant subjects, make sure to set the limit range switch to far, especially for flight photography. And remember that prefocusing manually (if your system permits) will make for faster initial focus acquisition (especially when it's snowing!). For this red-crowned crane image, I made sure to prefocus manually and used central sensor/expand to 45 points.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 800mm ƒ/5.6L ISUSM, Gitzo 3530LS tripod, 4th GenerationDesigns Mongoose M-3.6

10) Your Vehicle As A Blind
There are countless situations where working from a vehicle can get you a lot closer to wildlife than if you were on foot. This is especially true at wildlife refuges that have auto tour routes. Approach very slowly, and be sure to kill the engine before making any images unless you're at a fairly high shutter speed and suspect that your subject is extraordinarily nervous. I use a large beanbag called a BLUBB (Big Lens Ultimate Beanbag) that I designed myself to ensure making razor-sharp images when working from my SUV. It's available from the BIRDS AS ART online store at store.birdsasart.com/shop/.
Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, EF 800mm ƒ/5.6L IS USM, Extender EF 1.4x III, shot from a car window with a Big Lens Ultimate Beanbag

Arthur Morris, a Canon Explorer of Light for the past 16 years, is widely recognized as one of the world's premier bird photographers and photographic educators. Learn more at www.BIRDSASART.com, and be sure to visit Morris' information-packed blog at www.BIRDSASART-blog.com.

16 Comments

    Moose Peterson suggests a hand on top of the lens to steady it. I’d be curious what others think about supporting from the bottom as Arthur suggest.

    The converter with the Canon 100-400mm lens is not a good pairing. With the 1.4X you will be focusing at an effective f8 after losing one f-stop. With a 2X you would be focusing at f11. In reality, most cameras will not auto-focus at all past f5.6, and manually focusing with a dark screen is not going to happen either.

    Thanks Artie – good article for everyone. I have to admire your technique.

    The technique of using a hand on the lens is important. Some lenses like the Tamron 200-500 are long, light lenses and absolutely require a hand on the lens barrel even when completely locked down on a tripod. Other big lenses will benefit from either a hand or beanbag across the top or on the lens foot. Either way the added weight of a hand or beanbag helps minimize vibration from mirror slap, wind, etc. and produce sharper images.

    Thank you for your article. I am preparing to travel to Alaska, Greece and Turkey later this year and have been considering a 1.4x and 2x TC. I have a 70-300mm Canon. I am also considering purchasing a monopod as it will be easier to take along. I’ve always held me hand under the lens with my elbow against my body. I’ve gotten sharp images doing this and holding my breath at 1/30.

    Imagemaker, check with Canon’s site before you invest in a converter. The list of lenses they work with is fairly limited. I’ve had great success with the 1.4X on the 300mm f/2.8 and even on the 500mm f/4, but was disappointed using the 2.0x on either lens for really crisp photos. You will need a gimbal or other solid mount and a lot of sun because you lose up to a couple stops.

    I have tried to use a 1.4X with a 100-400L on a 60D and could not get it to autofocus no matter what.
    Of course, the fact that the converter was a Tamron may have had something to do with it.

    Image Maker, I use the Canon EF70-300 IS USM for most of my wildlife photography. I use a monopod much of the time,and while it does not offer the stability of a tripod, is alot easier to move around with. I also will use a 1.4 converter, not a Canon brand, but do not care much for the results.

    rob…. it’s got nothing to do with the Tamron converter. The Canon extenders do not AF either with the 100-400L, so save your money. They work beautifully on lenses of F2.8 or faster, particularly the 70-200mm f2.8L.

    Thanks for this article. I just bought a used Canon 500mm F4 IS USM and I’m stoked about getting into bird photography now that I have a lens that will allow me to work with sea birds I have loved watching all my life. Once again, Outdoor Photographer and the wonderful contributing photographer give wonderful information.

    While I’m not able to purchase a “beefy” tripod at this time, I do appreciate coming away with at least one little bit of very useful information from these tips.

    From this article I will always remember…”a good technique to incorporate into your shooting is to lay your left hand on the barrel of the lens and slightly push down while you press the shutter.” This is a technique I can do.

    Thank you.

    Bean bags designed for photography are excellent for photographing from cars. they provide rapid deployment, stability, and vibration dampening that car mounted rigs don’t. Just another option to consider. Great tips Russ!

    the use of a monopod could be very helpfull, also if you reduce the long of the legs of the tripod will make it more stable, one more extreme but handy technique is to suport your telephoto with you left hand directly an put the elbo on the stomache this will increase a lot your balance and sharpnes of the picture….

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