Super-Telephoto Challenges

Super-Telephoto Challenges

Super-telephotos—Those 500mm or 600mm ƒ/4 bazookas, the 800mm primes that are super, super-tele or the latest superzooms that go from 150-600mm are coveted and loved by wildlife and sports photographers. Their ability to bring what’s far away much closer or make a small subject fill the frame is unattainable unless one of these monsters is used. As with anything that works miracles, there are factors that need to be addressed to get the most out of them. If you already have a super-telephoto and haven’t used it for a while or if you just bought one and want to get the most from it, below are ways I’ve learned to use a super-tele to attain the best possible images.

Before getting into the ways to conquer super-tele nuances, I want to share the virtues of what these lenses can do to bring your photography to the next level. The most obvious benefit is their capability to bring far away subjects closer and to make small subjects bigger in the frame. What’s not so well known is they compress distant objects, which makes them appear closer. Receding mountain layers can be stacked to have them seem nearer than they are—it’s known as compression. Another bonus is they provide very narrow depth of field. As a result, backgrounds can be more easily thrown out of focus. This allows a subject to stand out from the background. They also have a very narrow angle of view. This can help your compositions by eliminating distractions that would otherwise appear on the edges of the frame if a shorter lens was used.

Magnify the Subject = Magnify the Mistakes: Hand in hand with subject magnification comes magnification of poor handling technique. With a wide-angle lens, a tiny bit of camera movement can be tolerated. If that same amount of movement is created when you use a 200mm lens, the image will be soft. Now step up to a 500, 600 or 800 and it’s MUCH more pronounced. It’s essential the camera/lens combination is mounted to a solid tripod and head. For my 600mm, I have a dedicated sturdy carbon-fiber tripod. Attached to it is a gimbal head. Before I press the shutter, I tighten all knobs that control movement, and I don’t “jab” it. A soft gentle push is recommended. To make sure your tripod/head combination is adequate, mount the lens to the gimbal and tap the leg of the tripod with your index finger while looking through the viewfinder. If you see lots of movement, it’s time to upgrade the rig. A rule of thumb is to use a shutter speed that is 1 over the reciprocal of the lens’ focal length. For instance, if you have a 500mm, try to use a shutter no lower than 1/500. This rule is primarily in place for handholding, but I like to stick with it when I break out the big lens. I have used shutter speeds as low as 1/60, but I make sure everything is totally locked down and I also use a cable release or initiate the self-timer on the camera. If you have to resort to slower shutter speeds, be extremely aware of an animal’s movement. Any motion whatsoever when a slow shutter is used translates to a soft subject due to its movement.

Super-Telephoto Challenges

Close Focus Limitations: Long lenses aren't known for their close focus capability. As a matter of fact, they don’t focus close. To overcome this deficiency, I bring extension tubes into the field. The increased distance they create between the rear element and the camera body allows it to focus closer. The drawback is the lens loses its capability to focus to infinity, so if a gorgeous animal pops up on the horizon, the tube must be removed in order to make the image. Try to reserve the incorporation of an extension tube for times when you know the only subjects you photograph will be closer than the default close focus distance. There is also a loss of light associated with an extension tube, so be aware of the magnitude of ambient light.

Acquiring the Subject: Given the narrow angle of view, especially of a 600 or 800, if a small subject is close and it’s moving, it’s often difficult to find it in the viewfinder. A great trick I use is analogous to the sighting mechanism of a rifle. I place the lockdown screw on my lens hood in line with the hot-shoe on the camera. When I look just above the hot-shoe, I see the screw for the hood. If it’s not perfectly in line, I loosen the screw and “resight” the setup. When it comes time to find a subject, line up the hot-shoe with the lens hood screw and you’ll much more easily acquire it.

Add More Telephoto Capability: Here’s an all too commonly found scenario: You purchased a 500mm and wished you got the 600. You bought a 600 and you now kick yourself because you could have had the 800. You acquired an 800 and now wish the manufacturers would come out with a 1200—you get the idea! Regardless of the focal length you purchased, you develop lens envy for a more powerful tele. The teleconverter to the rescue. The most common is a 1.4. It magnifies the effective focal length by 1.4 times so a 600mm becomes an 840mm. One full stop of light is lost, but the quality of the lens is so good, the sharpness factor isn't impacted. Therefore, it’s a great trade-off. If you do incorporate the use of a teleconverter, it’s essential you adhere to careful camera handling techniques to ensure you get as sharp an image as possible.

Super-Telephoto Challenges

Image Stabilization: Should you leave VR or IS on or turn it off when the camera is mounted to a tripod? The answer to this question can be found in your user’s manual for the lens. Some have a tripod VR or IS switch and some don’t. Many manufacturers recommend turning it off if the lens is on a tripod and locked down. If the gimbal is set up to move vertically and horizontally, reference your manual for the recommended setting. Gyros try to initiate stabilization, and if no stabilization is necessary, the mechanism gets confused. The rear moving element doesn’t know what to do, which may result in a soft image.

Counter the Movement: To help offset camera movement as a result of pressing the shutter, long lens photographers stabilize the lens by supporting the underside of the lens hood with their left hand as they simultaneously press the shutter. Every press of the shutter produces movement at the far end of the lens. The left arm support counters this movement and results in a higher keeper rate. It’s also essential you don’t jab the shutter when it’s pressed. It’s easy to be a jabber because you get caught up in the moment and jab the shutter as the action unfolds. If I just described you, adopt the above technique.

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

2 Comments

    Fascinating stuff, Russ – thanks for sharing it. I love the main photo, of the bird on the back of the ?? (Dunno which animal it is)

    I’ll have to accept your explanation of what happens when you add extension tube – intuitively, I would have expected they would simply extend the focal length of the lens and increase (not reduce) the close focus distance.

    Countering movement – I’ve heard that mirror slap is one of the causes – is it better (if possible) to use live view on a DSLR? – and is it better to use a remote shutter release?

    With gimbals, I guess there’s a need to match them to the super tele you’re plugging your camera onto – some of those lenses are a lot fatter than others. (Not that I’m planning on getting one of those $20 grand jobs – ever! – and a porter to carry all my gear for me, to go with it!)

    Thanks for the kind words – appreciate it! (It’s a kudu with an oxpecker on its back)

    Yes, an extension tube will allow you to focus closer but at the same time you lose far distance focus capability but if you need to get close, it’s the way to go.

    Mirror slap can be an issue – live view works well and by all means use a cable release. The new mirrorless cameras work well to prevent movement due to the fact they don’t have a mirror!

    I do like my gimbal and I don’t have to go to the gym!!! 🙂

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