Long Lens Techniques

Wanna get serious about your wildlife photography and create great shots of skittish animals? Then a telephoto is the lens de jour. If the animals are far away, small, elusive or a combination of all three, you’ll need a long lens to get frame filling images. If you’re new to long lens photography, if you’ve had your long lens in the closet for awhile, or if you’re not satisfied with the results you get when you use your super telephoto, the following tips will make you feel every dollar of the purchase was worth its weight in gold.

Use a Sturdy Tripod Coupled With a Gimbal Head: A long telephoto magnifies the subject. Commensurate with the increased subject size comes increased revealing of poor technique. A long lens magnifies the subject AND your mistakes. The most evident is lens/camera movement. As your shutter speed decreases so does potential image sharpness. To prevent lens/camera movement, use a STURDY tripod - bigger, bolder, stronger. Put your super telephoto on one that deserves its placement. Use what I call the “flick test.” Mount the lens to your tripod and give the legs a good flick with your finger. While looking through the viewfinder, if you see any movement, the tripod may be too small. When my long lens goes in the car, I bring my heavier tripod. Mounted to its top is a Wimberly gimbal head. There are a number of companies who manufacture gimbal heads and many are good. Be sure to purchase one that provides fluidity, ease, stability, and comfort.

Long lenses do not focus close. Their minimum focus can be measured in yards. To counter this, add an extension tube so the lens can focus closer. Small subjects that allow you to approach will appear bigger in the viewfinder. Less cropping will be necessary. Getting closer and bigger also helps offset the subject from the background. With this in mind, an advantage of a super telephoto is the narrow angle of view it provides. Coupled with extreme magnification, background distractions are lessened. They can become a wash of color which complements the subject. The subject stands out and is evident to the viewer. Another benefit is they provide a look that compresses subject layers. In other words, background and foreground objects appear closer together as if they are stacked. Used the right way, this provides a great effect.

Shutter Speeds: Fast shutter speeds counter blurry photos that come as a result of lens/camera movement. The rule of thumb is to use a shutter speed that’s 1 over the reciprocal of the focal length. For example, if you use a 500mm lens, use a minimum of 1/500th of a second to get a sharp photo. If the lens is mounted to a sturdy tripod, the fractional speed can be reduced. Don’t get overly confident, especially if you have a heavy shutter finger. Another shutter speed concept about which to be cognizant is how fast the subject moves. If the subject moves and the shutter is slow, even with the camera mounted to a very sturdy tripod, the subject will not be sharp.

The above focal length to shutter speed reciprocal is a guideline used for hand holding. But hand holding a long lens can present problems regarding a precisely framed composition. Even with image stabilization turned on, you’ll notice slight up and down or side to side movement. If the subject fills the frame and you don’t have Mr. Universe arms, you may clip a wing, hoof, ear or other important body part. With regards to VR or IS, be sure to consult your user’s manual to see if it should be on or off with the lens mounted to a tripod. Some have a tripod VR or IS switch and some don’t. If stabilization is turned on and it shouldn’t be, the gyros try to initiate stabilization when no stabilization is necessary. The movement of the rear element can impart an out of focus result.

Counter the Movement: Seasoned long lens photographers use their left hand to help stabilize the lens. There are two strategies: a) press down on the lens hood as you release the shutter. It tends to counter any movement transferred by pressing the shutter; b) Gently stabilize the underneath part of the lens hood with your fingertips. It produces an upward movement at the far end of the lens. The upward pressure of the left hand counters the downward press of the shutter. Even with these two strategies in your arsenal, if you’re a “shutter jabber,” become more gentle with your release. Gently press the shutter button as opposed to jabbing it. I was guilty of this and had to train myself to become more gentle. I got caught up in the moment and jabbed each time I released the shutter. My number of sharp images increased after adopting this strategy.

Additional Horsepower: You bought a 200mm lens and wished it could go to 300. You then buy a 300 and wished it would go to 400. You then get a 400 and wished........... you see the pattern. Regardless of the focal length you own, there will be times when you want more. This is where the teleconverter comes into play. The most common is a 1.4. It magnifies the effective focal length by 1.4x so a 500mm becomes a 700mm. This comes at a cost. You lose one stop of light which means a slower shutter speed. Sharpness will also degrade depending on the quality of the lens and teleconverter. If you do purchase a converter, it’s of even greater magnitude you incorporate the above techniques to ensure you get as sharp an image as possible.

Visit www.russburdenphotography.com for information about his nature photography tours and safari to Tanzania.


    This article came just in time. I just ordered a Gitzo 5541 tripod that is going to be here on Monday, not realizing that the 5561SGT was out there. After reading this article, I got one ordered and I’ll be returning the much shorter 5541 unopened because I’m 6’1 and ALL that height to play with will be nice! The next thing on my list is the 600mm F4 lens but that will require quite a bit more saving but in the meantime I’ll practice with my 100-400 on the Wimberley head that will also be arriving Monday. Moose is the man!

    Russ, this was another great article. I have a question about extension tubes. I have a Nikon D750 and a Tamron 150-600mm. Would extension tubes cause a loss of one stop of light? also, are extension tubes used only for closer up subjects or would you use them for birds in flight and/or wildlife in a field?

    Ronnie – thanks! Yes, an extension tube will cause a loss of light but if you need the lens to focus closer, they are good. The longer the tube, the greater the loss of light. Experiment with each size to see how much is lost. The extension tube prevents the lens from focusing at infinity so they are not good for birds in flight! On another note with regards to teleconverters, my recommendation is to use them only in two configurations: a) on a fixed prime lens; b) on a zoom that has a 2.8 aperture. The reason is the quality will be much better. While a TC will fit on your lens and on other 5.6 or 6.3 zooms, the sharpness factor suffers as does the speed at which the lens can focus. My recommendation is rather than add a TC, crop the file. If the crop is too severe, then you need to be closer. Hope all this helps!

    Another thing I do, to the dismay of folks who will only shoot with full frame, is to use my Nikon D7100 for those long shots. You can get closer and focus more exactly that way. Sure, I could accomplish the exact same photo by using a Nikon D750 and cropping the image, but I wouldn’t be able to see the bear (in my case) as closely to focus.

    I would add that you have a much better chance of getting sharp images of wildlife and birds in flight if you shoot multi-frame as opposed to single frame. This also increases your chance of getting an image with that special look. I generally shoot handheld with a 300mm f/2.8 and 2X TC for 600mm at F/5.6 on a FF Canon 5D using back button focus. Admittedly this is a lot of weight but reaction time is much faster for moving objects than on a tripod.

    Hey Russ, interesting write up will try a few of your tips next time when I go out bird watching. Now with the teleconverter especially on bird photography is a marksman tool. I wonder though how you handle the situation when the subject changes position and flies too close. You find that he becomes too blurred to even invisible, attimes they even move out of focus to a position of missed shots. I wonder if teleconverters could have an invert button to counter effect such circumstances?

    Thanks for the additional comments as space allows me to include a limited amount of information. KENRIQUE – made me smile. I always have a second body around my neck with a shorter lens and I quickly grab it if I anticipate the long lens will be “too long.”

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