Long Lens Techniques For Wildlife Photos

How to use a big telephoto lens for wildlife and more!
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A violet-green swallow perched on top of a tufa at Mono Lake, California, brings a feather to its mate. Getting close physically and using the Nikon 600mm VR lens with a 1.7x teleconverter to isolate is key in making the shot click.


A bull moose in Alaska working the slope, controlling his harem. Shooting with a 400mm ƒ/2.8, a safe distance could be kept while still isolating the bull against the shaded slope, making him pop visually.

What if you just acquired your long lens; how do you get the most out of it? What if, like many photographers, you haven’t had your big glass out for a while and things are a little rusty? Perhaps, just perhaps, you’re just not getting the results from your long lens that you see in others’ photographs. What can you do to solve that problem? Here, we’ll cover basic to advanced techniques so you can make your long lens sing!

Let’s start with a couple of definitions so we’re all on the same page. When I refer to a long lens, I’m talking basically about any lens between 200mm and 600mm. At the same time, I’m referring to lenses in this focal-length range that have a tripod collar. That’s because while almost all the techniques apply to wide-range zooms that contain 200mm, the lenses are so physically small that they really don’t require such a concentration of thought. While a 200mm is a 200mm is a 200mm, how you use a 200mm ƒ/2 compared to an 18-200mm is a little different. With that in mind, here are my tips to make the most of your long glass.

Tripod And Head
The #1 mistake photographers with long lenses make is cheapening out on the tripod and head! That long lens must have a stable, yet flexible platform from which to operate. The #2 mistake they make is locking down all the controls before they make the shot, probably because they’ve made mistake #1. The general rule of thumb is when the tripod legs are opened up, they’re at least as far apart as the lens/camera rig is long. This is a good place to start. I would add that the tripod height should be at least to your forehead. And lastly, you buy a tripod for the most unstable medium you can imagine.

The Arctic fox in the summer looks nothing like its winter self, but is always a character. Moose Peterson’s Nikon 200-400mm VR II lens is a great tool for taking in the “wide” shot to include the animal’s world and then letting you zoom in for the gesture that makes that animal a character.

Since I find myself in all sorts of unimaginable places having to wait long hours for my subject, I have maxed out in this department. I depend on the Gitzo 5560SGT with a Wimberley head. When you look up the specs of the Gitzo, you’ll see it just about equals a four-story building. Why would someone need a tripod that goes that high? I asked the same thing until the first time I was on a severe slope photographing mountain goats. Being able to set up the tripod with one leg extended and going way down the slope and then with the others extended so I could stand upright, I knew this was the right tripod.

When you set up your tripod in muck, snow or wet, be sure you extend your tripod leg to its furthest so the leg joint stays out of the wet. In this same scenario, push the tripod leg in the muck; don’t let it rest on the surface. By doing this, the tripod and the head provide maximum stability for your long lens. The Wimberley (a gimbal head) with this setup provides complete stability and, with the controls loose enough for movement but not so tight it chatters when you pan, it gives you a rock-solid shooting platform.

Stance And Grip
This is so simple yet so essential to get a sharp image at any shutter speed. The problem is that vibration starts at the camera body from either the hand resting on the body or the firing of the camera. This movement travels forward in a wave and hits the front element where it resonates and then travels back to the body, causing an out-of-focus image. You stop that wave and you can shoot at any shutter speed. How do you stop the wave?

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Moose Peterson shows proper form when shooting with a large telephoto and a gimbal head. Balancing the lens on the head allows for fast and easy tracking of the subject.

Start with an eyecup that acts like a simple shock absorber between you and the camera. Next, rest your left hand on the top of the lens barrel just as you’d rest it in your lap. You can do this or place your hand on the bottom of the lens barrel and push up slightly. Either technique stops the wave from moving to the front of the lens or coming on back. Finally, roll your finger on the shutter release; don’t jab it like you’re killing a bug. This simple technique devised long ago works great and permits mobility so we can pan with our long lenses.

The technique of panning is the tracking of the subject in the viewfinder by moving the whole long lens/camera. You can do this technique with any lens, any length, as long as you practice, practice, practice. Using proper long-lens technique, stand between two of the tripod legs so you can follow the subject without tripping over a leg. When shooting, obtain the subject in the viewfinder and track it in the viewfinder by swinging the lens (why the controls aren’t snug on the head). The main aspect of this technique is you must keep the camera moving until you no longer hear the camera firing. You can’t stop moving the camera prior to that or you risk your subject moving during an exposure while the camera is not. This is a vital technique because there are times when you may be shooting at shutter speeds of 1⁄15 sec. That’s right, shooting telephoto as low as 1⁄15 sec. You can do it with practice!

Carrying Big Lenses
That long lens can be a heft to get around in the field. I’ve seen many a carrying style, and most of them look uncomfortable. More importantly, most styles don’t promote quick and stealthy deployment. Personally, I carry the lens on my left shoulder (there’s a permanent indentation now from this) with the tripod legs already set to the right length. Walking is done with the legs out front so it’s easy and fast to put it down. Getting the long lens and tripod down, set up and your eye behind the camera without scaring off the subject can be a challenge. With this in mind, put the rig down slowly and smoothly. Stay behind the rig because, for whatever reason, critters feel safe as long as we stay behind the rig. If you have to bend over to place the rig down, stand up slowly while staying behind the rig. So whatever method you find works for you, keep this in mind.

Heat Simmer
With sharpness being so important, this natural occurrence kills sharpness faster than anything else. Heat waves between our lens and subject create a curtain of heat shimmer. This can be caused by everything from blacktop to snow to sage. There’s no cure for this when it occurs. If it’s happening, you have two options: Don’t shoot or wait for a slight breeze. Heat shimmer is an effect that plagues long lenses only, so be aware of it.

MFD And Extension Tubes
Long lenses are best used when we’re physically close to that bird or moose. We use their isolating power to make the subject pop out in our frame. Minimum focusing distance (MFD) then is an important aspect of using a long lens—getting close physically and using optics to isolate our subject. Each lens has a different close-focusing distance. Newer lenses tend to have the best native MFD, but they can be costly. If you have a lens that doesn’t permit you to get as close as you’d like, you may want to invest in extension tubes. While you lose your ability to focus at infinity, they do permit you to get closer to your subject, making a much bigger image size with no light loss.

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What’s In Moose Peterson’s Bag?

Nikon D3X, AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm, AF-S Nikkor 600mm

Nikon D3X
AF-S Nikkor 600mm
ƒ/4G ED VR
AF-S Nikkor 200-400mm
AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm
ƒ/2.8G ED VR II
Nikon TC-20E III
Nikon TC-17E II

Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ballhead

Flash & Accessories:
Nikon SB-900 w/Dome
Nikon GP-1 GPS Receiver Module
Nikon SC-28 Sync Cord
Nikon SD-9 Battery Pack
BetterBeamer Flash Extender
Nikon Neutral Clear Filters on ALL lenses
Nikon Slim Polarizer
Lee 0.9 Soft Split Graduated ND filter
Nikon MC-36 Multi-Function Remote Cord
10 Lexar 32 GB 600x CompactFlash Cards
Gitzo 3540XLS Tripod with Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ballhead
Gitzo 5560SGT Tripod with Wimberley Head

There are times when our long lenses aren’t long enough; that’s when the teleconverter is the perfect tool. Personally, I always have the 1.7x and 2x with me when shooting with the 600mm and tend to automatically attach the 1.7x when I’m photographing birds. Generally, camera manufacturers say their DSLRs require an aperture of at least ƒ/5.6 for AF operation, but I find that most current bodies can work just fine with a smaller maximum. For example, I use the TC-20E III on my Nikon 600mm VR all the time and have AF operation except in particularly low-light situations. The biggest asset the teleconverter brings is a narrowing of the angle of view, which gives a better ability to isolate the subject.

Depth Of Field
The long lenses of today are all “fast,” but don’t get the idea that you can close down and gain lots of depth of field. Personally, I prefer shooting my 600mm ƒ/4 at ƒ/4 and at ƒ/6.7 with the 1.7x attached. This is, in part, because the narrow-band depth of field makes the subject really pop in the frame. The other reason is because depth of field is a real battle with long lenses on the same lines as it is with macro photography. You can close down your lens, of course, but the gain in depth of field will be minimal.

One thing I’ve seen many try, but to no success, is close their long lens down when taking a long-distance shot to get more in focus. I’m talking about hundreds of yards away, but the same applies to miles. With long lenses, the physics are against you. You’ll barely gain a few extra feet of depth of field when you close your lens down at the expense of needing a much slower shutter speed in the process. So the bottom line with a long lens is to be aware of the limited depth of field and use it to your advantage!

The greatest feature of the long lens is the complete control of the background! The very narrow angle of view of the long lens permits us to make small moves with the lens and completely alter the background. Why is that so important? You can completely change the story of your one click by changing the background. You make the smallest subjects fly off the page with the slightest moves of the big glass. Photography is all about communicating, and when it comes to wildlife, telling the story of the world around the subject tells the story of the subject.

How do you make such a radical alteration to your photograph with the long lens? All you have to do is move left or right, up or down, closer or farther from the subject just inches and you can alter the background. Of all the tools available to photographers, this is the easiest and the most powerful way of bringing incredible drama to your photography!

The last word of advice I’d like to pass along to you is to practice in your own backyard before venturing out for the real thing. Set up a stuffed animal the size of what you think you’re going to photograph in the wild and see just how that long lens helps you tell its story. Having these ideas as visuals in your mind prior to the real thing makes setting them up in the field faster, easier and more successful. This way, you can make the most of and have fun with the long-lens days of summer.

Moose Peterson‘s true passion is wildlife photography. He’s a Nikon Legend Behind the Lens, a Lexar Elite Photographer, a recipient of the John Muir Conservation Award and a Research Associate with the Endangered Species Recovery Program. Being a creative innovator of new techniques both behind the camera and the computer is the driving force behind his photography and goals. See more of Peterson’s work, read his blog, subscribe to his newsletter, the BT Journal, and find out more about his latest book, Captured, at www.moosepeterson.com.