Long Lens Tips and Techniques

Get the most out of your long lens when shooting wildlife
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A long lens is essential for photographing wildlife for a number of reasons. The most obvious is it allows the subject to appear larger in the picture. Unless you're creating an environmental portrait, bigger is usually better. A second reason is you can keep your distance which allows the animal to go about its regular business. This is a large plus in that it increases the likelihood of capturing behavior it wouldn't perform if it's in flight or fight mode. An additional reason magnification is beneficial is it provides a cleaner background. There's a narrower angle of view which reduces the amount of information taken in which in turn reduces potential background distractions. It also helps throw the background out of focus due to the narrow depth of field.

VIBRATION REDUCTION: Regardless of the brand or system you use, stabilized lenses are beneficial. When attached to a digital body with a magnification factor of 1.5 or higher, they provide a longer effective focal length. Vibration reduction or image stabilization allows the camera be hand held and still net sharp images. Work with as fast a shutter speed as the light allows. Set the ISO to 400 and fire away. If the subject isn't moving, shutter speeds of 1/250th and higher should net a sharp image, but the closer you get to this baseline of 1/250th, the more careful you need to be with your hand holding technique. If the subject is moving as in flight photography of birds, pan the camera using a smooth and liquid flow following its movement.

WINDOW MOUNT: Animals have become accustomed to vehicles which has lead to many images shot from inside a car. As it's awkward to set up a tripod around seats, center consoles, and steering wheels, so evolved window mounts. With a window slightly rolled up, they fit over the lip and are steadied by a section that butts up to the inside panel of the door. This creates a solid platform for a tripod head and long lens. There are a few things to keep in mind when using them. Engine vibration is easily transferred so make sure it's turned off. Additionally, if there are other people or photographers in the car, you need to have an understanding that movement is restricted to times when a warning is given.

BEEFY TRIPOD: Big telephoto lenses are long, heavy and expensive. An investment in one also dictates an investment in a heavy duty tripod for two key reasons. There's no sense mounting a super telephoto on a flimsy tripod as the end result will be a blurry photo because the tripod is not adequate enough to dampen lens movement at extreme magnification. Secondly, saving a few bucks by not investing in a proper tripod could cost you big bucks if it's not beefy enough and your rig winds up toppling to the ground. With it mounted on a sturdy tripod, 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 technique steadies the set up. Pressing the shutter creates an upward movement which is countered by the left hand resting on the barrel.

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    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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