11 Practical Techniques for Better Long Lens Photography

Shooting with a long lens requires a very different set of skills and techniques than shooting at normal focal lengths.  Even advanced photographers struggle the first several times they shoot at the long focal lengths.

This week I'm shooting in Yellowstone doing a free photography workshop with 40 readers of Improve Photography, and as I teach I'm remembering some of the mistakes I've made early on that hurt the sharpness of my photos.  Here is a rundown of some of the long lens techniques I've learned.

Photo by the author - Jim Harmer
Photo by the author – Jim Harmer

1.  Use Your Image Stabilization Modes

Many long lenses offer more than one image stabilization mode, and selecting the proper stabilization mode can make a significant difference in the sharpness of the photo.

Generally, long lenses offer two image stabilization modes.  Mode 1 is usually for general photography.  It's where you should be most of the time.  Mode 2 is for panning, where you'll be swinging the lens as you take the picture.  Mode 2 is most commonly used by bird photographers, but could be used in any wildlife situation.

It's silly to think you'd be flipping this switch on your lens every time the animal starts moving.  You don't have time for that.  But if you're in a situation where you know you'll be panning when taking the shot, go to mode 2 on the lens.

Each lens from different manufacturers implements focus modes differently, so it's worth double checking to see what modes are available on that lens, but usually it's 1 and 2 and they are for general and panning in that order.

Photo by the author - Jim Harmer. Taken in Yellowstone.
Photo by the author – Jim Harmer. Taken in Yellowstone.

2.  Use the Right Shutter Speed

The conventional wisdom when selecting a shutter speed is to use the 1/focal length rule, which means that you choose a shutter speed denominator equal to your focal length.  So if you're zoomed to 100mm on the lens (there is a scale on the top of the lens to show you what you're zoomed to), you'd choose a focal length of 1/100 or faster (such as 1/200 or 1/800 or 1/1000 etc).

That only works to a certain point.  When I'm shooting with a 500mm lens, I don't feel that I have to shoot at 1/500 all the time.  I can often shoot way down to 1/200 or so without issue if the lens has image stabilization.

I think the 1/focal length rule makes good sense up to a point.  But once you're to 1/250 or 1/320, it seems like your focal length can be quite a big longer.

For long lenses, I try and keep my shutter speed at 1/320 or faster.  Even with a crop sensor camera and a 600mm lens (effective focal length of 900mm), I find that 1/320 is fast enough as long as I am using good technique and holding steady.

3.  Set Your Focus Limiter if the Action is Predictable

Have you noticed how hard it is to adjust the stiff zoom and focus rings on a long lens?  If it takes that much force for you to twist, think of how hard the lens's focus motor has to push to get it to move.  Then think about the tiny battery in your camera that powers the focus motor.  Now you understand why focus is slow on long lenses.

All long lenses focus slow–even the $10,000 Canon and Nikon monster lenses.  They all focus slow when compared to your 70-200 or other traditional focal length lenses.  I find that even the excellent Sigma 150-600mm Sport lens takes about a full second to go from focused up close to far away.  So anything you can do to help the lens to focus faster can be a big win.

The focus limiter basically just tells the camera to ignore the close end of the zoom range.  This gives the lens less area it needs to search through to find focus.  It's like when a plane goes down and they set a search area so that the search crew's rescue efforts can be concentrated in the area most likely to find the downed aircraft.

The focus limiter on most long lenses will simply show distances.  If you know your subject will not be within 10 meters of the camera, you'd set the focus limiter to “10 – ∞”, which would mean that the camera will now only search for focus from 10 meters away to you, out to infinity (as far out as the lens can zoom).

For example, when shooting bald eagles, you can usually be certain that they won't fly up to within a 10 meters or so (32 feet).  So why not set the focus limiter and take some of the workload off your lens?

When I was shooting this duck, I knew I wouldn't be shooting it from very close. Since I knew the focus point would be more than 10 meters away, I set my focus limiter to get a faster focus speed.
When I was shooting this duck, I knew I wouldn't be shooting it from very close. Since I knew the focus point would be more than 10 meters away, I set my focus limiter to get a faster focus speed.

4.  Back Down from Racked Out

Photographers call zooming in a lens to it's furthest focal length “racked out.”  This is almost never the sharpest focal length on the supertelephoto zoom lenses on the market today.  For example, both the Sigma and Tamron 150-600mm lenses are significantly less sharp at 600mm when compared to 500mm.

If you can get closer to the animal or the action by stepping closer rather than zooming in, you'll sometimes see a nice sharpness advantage.

Check your lens's sharpness at different focal lengths by taping a piece of paper with text on it to the outside of your house (where there's lots of light).  Step away from the wall until you can fill the frame with the piece of paper and take a sample shot.  Now step back and zoom in to a different focal length and fill the frame again.  Do this at various focal lengths and you're likely to see a big difference.

5.  Get on the Tripod If You Can

Simply using a tripod can cover a whole host of long lens technique mistakes.  But using a tripod for fast action with a long lens can be very limiting.

Before suggesting you use a tripod, there are a few things to understand first.  Look down the sidelines of any major sporting event and you won't see even one tripod.  You'll only see monopods.  You may think that the monopod is used as a more convenient way to stabilize the image for when a tripod is impractical, and you'd be wrong.

When shooting sports, the monopod is NOT used to stabilize the image.  It's used to support the lens so the photographer doesn't have to hold the weight of the lens for the entire game.  In fact, assuming you could hold a long lens by hand, you'd see no difference in the sharpness when shooting handheld or on a tripod for a sporting event.  Why?  Because the shutter speed is usually above 1/1000.  That's fast enough that any camera shake will be eliminated under normal conditions.

Wildlife photographers, on the other hand, almost always shoot on a tripod.  This is also partially to support the weight of the lens, but also because wildlife shots are not always action shots, and wildlife are often photographed in dim conditions.  So if it's just after sunrise and you can only get a shutter speed of 1/100 and you're shooting a 600mm lens to photograph a fox that has stopped to look at the camera, you'll be just fine to take the shot if you're on a tripod.

But don't feel like you always have to use a tripod when shooting wildlife.  Whenever my shutter speed is fast enough, I love to get off my tripod for faster maneuvering if I'm shooting a lens that I can support handheld.  The ability to move around quickly can produce much more dynamic shots.

Photo by the author - Jim Harmer
Reminds me of a quote from my favorite movie: “Nobody wins with a head butt!”  Photo by the author – Jim Harmer

6.  Turn Off the Car

Sports photographers can skip this tip, but wildlife photographers often shoot out of a car when wildlife are near the road.  This is a good non-threatening position for shooting wildlife; however, the natural vibration of a car's engine wreaks havoc on image sharpness.

You can use a bean bag, try and support the camera with your hand, or try whatever else to cut out the car's vibration from the lens, but nothing will work if your shutter speed is not very fast.

If you're shooting wildlife from in a vehicle, turn off the ignition before you shoot and you'll get much sharper results.  This is true up until about 1/800 shutter speed.  At that point the shutter speed is fast enough that it won't matter anymore.

This is the last thing you see before your death :-) This photo was actually taken in captivity.
This is the last thing you see before your death 🙂 This photo was actually taken in captivity.

7.  Careful with the ISO

Raising the ISO seems like a panacea for better action shots with a long lens.  When shooting sports photography, for example, it's very common to see pros shooting at ISO 3200 in order to get a shutter speed of 1/1000.

For long lens shooting, it's always better to take the ISO up higher and end up with a proper shutter speed for the situation than it is to cheat down on the shutter speed to get at a cleaner ISO.

However, use caution with high ISOs when shooting wildlife if the animals are not moving around too much.  If I'm taking a picture of a bighorn sheep that is mostly stationary, I'd love to be able to drop the ISO as low as possible as long as the shutter speed remains reasonable.

One thing that is often not discussed in photography is the effect of ISO on sharpness.  Some people say that the grain in a high ISO shot can make it feel sharper because of the fine texture it puts on the photo.  I can see that point, but that ignores the fact that detail is always less when shooting with high ISOs.  Detail is sharpness!

Look at this shot of a coyote that I shot in Yellowstone today.

This picture is only moderately sharp. The shutter speed is fast enough, but it still doesn't look tack sharp. The culprit? Too high of an ISO.
This picture is only moderately sharp. The shutter speed is fast enough, but it still doesn't look tack sharp. The culprit? Too high of an ISO.

Even zoomed out, you can feel that the photo is only moderately sharp.  It's not terrible, but it's not the level of sharpness that professional photographers would be happy with.

When I zoom in on the fur of the coyote, you can see exactly why the photo doesn't feel sharp.

This is the zoomed in on the fur from the coyote picture above. You can see that the problem is not motion blur, but ISO which makes the photo not feel sharp.
This is the zoomed in on the fur from the coyote picture above. You can see that the problem is not motion blur, but ISO which makes the photo not feel sharp.

How high can you go with the ISO?  Well, it depends on a number of factors–mostly your specific camera body.  But test your camera and get a feel for how high you can go with the ISO before it starts to impact sharpness.  Even 1000 ISO on a 7D Mark II, which I'd consider a LOW ISO for shooting sports, may be too high for shooting a wildlife photo with a mostly stationary subject.

The fur on animals makes any minor sharpness issue easy to spot.

8.  Spend a Few Days Practicing First

If you follow the long lens techniques in this article, you're almost certain to end up with good results, but keep in mind that you're changing a lot of the “muscle memory” you've likely built up.  You have to shoot differently with a long lens.

Combine that fact with the common scenario of renting a long lens for a special wildlife photography or sports photography trip, and you're likely to make a lot of mistakes.

If you're using a new lens, even if you're a skilled photographer, it's worth renting for just a few extra days before the trip so you can go out and practice on birds in the backyard to decide how high of an ISO you want to go, what your shutter speed minimums are for handheld and on a tripod, etc.

Athletes who are serious about their work practice before the game.  Serious photographers do the same.

9.  Increase the F-Stop Where Possible

The most commonly photographed aperture with any long lens is wide open.  Sports photographers should use the lowest aperture available on the lens most of the time to blur out the background.

The same is not true in wildlife photography.  In situations where you already have enough natural separation between the animal and the background, it's nice to be able to stop down the aperture just slightly if your shutter speed is high enough.

Many animals are quite long, so choosing too low of an f-stop often means that only part of the animal body is in sharp focus.  Generally, you want your entire subject to be in sharp focus, so consider stopping down just slightly to get the entire animal sharp.

Aside from the increased depth of field, you'll also find that virtually all lenses are sharper when stopped down from the max aperture.  Just going from f/5.6 to f/7.1 can make a significant difference on some lenses.  It's worth testing.

bighorn sheep
This is when you know the shot is sharp. You can see each individual strand of hair. The compressed version online doesn't look as good as the high res version though. Photo by the author – Jim Harmer

10.  Support the Lens

If you are shooting with either a monopod for sports or a tripod for wildlife photography, place your left hand on top of the lens, as far out as you can comfortably reach.  This position reduces the shake on the front of the lens rather significantly.

If you're shooting wildlife from in a car, consider resting the lens on the window further up on the lens.  Resting the lens further back (toward the camera) on the car can still leave a significant amount of shake in the lens.

11.  This One's on You

What tips do you have for shooting with a long lens?  Any techniques been helpful for you?  Let me know in the comments what I've missed.

13 thoughts on “11 Practical Techniques for Better Long Lens Photography”

    1. Unless it’s something exceptional, don’t bother unless there is full or nearly full daylight. Anything less means high ISO and flat contrast. Your fox vs duck shots show how much considering the so-shallow DOF matters, what is or isn’t in the focal plane.

  1. Don’t forget the lens hood whenever possible. Not available, lost or gives some vignetting, try taking some heavy duty tin foil, spray it flat black and be creative on how you fold it/attach to the end of lens as wide and far out from lens as can to avoid light scatter on lens. There are some commercial sheets of this already flat black tin foil. Some was given to me so don’t have a web site/manufacturer for you. Good shooting. Joe

  2. I like the suggestion to spend a few days practicing with your new lens. I would suggest even taking pictures of different subjects to make sure that you are getting the full effect of your lens. When I get my new camera I will be sure to get the matching lens to enhance my photography skills.

  3. Photo bean bags are an excellent support system for shooting out car windows, you can use the bag itself on the door frame, or roll the window up a bit as needed and drape the back over and set the end of your lens on it. There are times like when its windy that setting the bean bag on your tripod and then the lens on top of that reduces wind shake and vibrations.

  4. Thank you so much, Mr. Harmer. I am very new to shooting with a long lens, and I’ve read several photography blogs looking for advice. Yours is the first that I felt I actually understood what you meant. I can’t wait to try some of these techniques.

    1. While I often shoot aperture mode on shorter focal lengths, I find the subject motion blur is a real problem unless it is really bright. I tend to default to shutter speed priority instead. I have an adapted Sigma 150-600mm C on a mirrorless (A6000), and the image stabilization keeps the in animate object locked, but inevitably the subject moves, or I move “new to big lens” . Like the author said, higher shutter speed, no problem, but if AP defaults below say 1/300 at 500mm (~750 mm effective) the subject will probably not be sharp if it moves much.

  5. Cheap bean-bag substitute: those U-shaped “travel” neck rolls that cost about $10-$15. They actually work very well when balanced on a car door or window! You may have to manipulate it a little, if the beans (probably Styrofoam pellets) not packed tightly enough, shake the pellets into the center of the U, then tied up each end to keep them there. The memory foam ones probably also work well.

  6. Foam pipe insulation (like a swimming pool noodle) the insulation has a slit in it that can be cut to fit the full length of the vehicle glass edge. Its a little more rigid but you don’t have to worry about beans/stuffing migrating away from the edge of the glass.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top