A Long Lens Primer: Tools & Techniques for Reaching Out

It’s been said that no matter how long the lens is, it’s never enough. While budget, carrying convenience, and how often you might use a long lens will determine your choices, once out in the field you’ll quickly see that they’re hard to beat for wildlife, birds, special effects, and landscape work. In this article I’ll cover some things to consider when thinking about which long lens is best for you, show some examples of both fixed and variable focal length lenses, and also share some of the work I’ve done with these impressive optical tools. When I say long I mean long, and here I’ll limit my discussion to lenses that can reach out to 200mm, and beyond, focal length.

Teles can be big and heavy, but give you reach that can transform the way you see and the images you capture. Here’s a Nikon 500mm f/4.

The truth is that for many of us long telephoto lenses are probably the last piece of glass we will add to our packs. Cost is certainly a big factor; super-long prime lenses in the 800mm class can cost upward of $200 per millimeter! But there are also many more affordable options, such as using a 70-200mm lens accented with a tele-converter to boost the reach or even on an APS-C sensor camera, which multiplies the focal length by 1.5 or so depending on the model camera.

Taken in Yellowstone National Park, this coyote was photographed as he was looking for a meal. Ears up, fully alert—you couldn’t ask for a better pose. Lens: 200-400mm f/4. Exposure: 1/500 sec at f/4; Nikon D3X on a Gitzo tripod.
All Photos © Stan Trzoniec

This buffalo and her calf were moving toward the nearest warm water geyser in Yellowstone. With the wind from the left, it is easy to see how the mother is protecting her young one from the brunt of the cold air. Lens: 200-400mm f/4. Exposure: 1/640 sec at f/4.5; Nikon D3X.

When something rare to the area arrives, news travels fast among birders and photographers. A white-faced Ibis came into the wildlife preserve close by and I was there with my 600mm lens. In concert with the lens, I attached a 1.4x extender, making it close to 900mm. At ISO 800, exposure was f/9 at 1/1000 sec, a shutter speed necessitated by the movement of the bird.

Image Stabilization
There’s no question that making a choice among the many focal lengths—and whether it should be a prime or a zoom—can be overwhelming. You might start by considering features that will pay dividends in the field. For me, image stabilization is an important feature, as is the lens coating, which helps prevent contrast-reducing flare. Image stabilization helps in getting steady shots when hand holding the lens and can get you an extra three, and sometimes four, stops gain.

The general rule is that you should shoot with a shutter speed that is the inverse of the longest focal length of the lens, so if, for example, you are shooting with a 300mm lens the slowest shutter speed for a handheld shot is 1/300 sec. (In truth, with a long, heavy lens I would double that.) But an image-stabilized lens extends that range, so, in theory, you can shoot with that lens handheld, in a three-stop range, at 1/30 sec. This can be beneficial because it allows you to shoot at higher quality, lower ISO settings in low light and should, even when shooting handheld with faster shutter speeds, help you get steadier images.

You can tell if a lens features image stabilization by codes in its identification. For example, Canon dubs it Image Stabilization (IS); Nikon has Vibration Reduction (VR); Sigma has Optical Stabilizer (OS); Pentax has Shake Reduction (SR); and Tamron calls it Vibration Compensation (VC). Note that some brands have an image stabilization system built into their camera bodies, obviating the need for the use of these stabilization lenses.

In truth, many long lens shooters generally shoot with the camera mounted on a tripod, with a gimbal head, but there are times when use of a tripod is not allowed or even practical, so having image stabilization available comes in handy. Also, note that in general you should turn off image stabilization when your camera and long lens are mounted on a tripod, although a few lenses will actually “sense” that the camera is tripod mounted and, in essence, turn it off for you.

On a trip to Africa, the perfect lens turned out to be a 200-400mm f/4. Using this lens day in and day out with the VR turned on eliminated the need for a tripod, especially in the confines of the Rover. Exposure: 1/2500 sec at f/5; Nikon D3S.

Here I employed the compression powers of an 800mm f/5.6 lens to show the train coming up and over the rise. Recorded on Fuji Sensia film in a Nikon F5 camera, exposure was about (and this is a guess because you don’t get EXIF data on film!) 1/500 sec at f/8.

If you are looking to photograph moose, Sandy Stream Pond in the Baxter State Park in Maine is the place to go. This was made with a 500mm f/4 lens. Waiting for her to bring her head up and out of the water, the moment was captured as she is watching her calf, while backlighting enhanced the effect of the water draining off her face. Exposure: 1/640 sec at f/5.6; Nikon D2X.

Prime And Zoom
Then there’s the toss-up between a zoom and a prime lens (fixed focal length). There’s nothing wrong with a zoom and there are many affordable options in that class, especially if you consider lenses that change aperture (loss of a stop or so as you go longer) as you zoom. Most incorporate a 200mm focal length, which can be extended with a tele-converter (an optical device that mounts between the lens and the camera body and that in essence magnifies the image) or when using the lenses on a smaller sensor camera body.

Examples of this include the following lenses: Canon’s 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS and 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS; Nikon’s 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR; Sigma’s 120-400mm f/4.5-5.6 and 150-500mm f/5-6.3; and Tamron’s 70-300mm f/4-5.6. When you get into constant aperture zooms you start to see the price go up substantially. One of my particular favorites in high-powered zooms is the Sigma 300-800mm f/5.6 lens that goes for around $8000. It’s a tool of my trade, and for me it delivers the goods. There are less expensive constant aperture zooms that have lesser reach such as the growing availability of 70-200mm f/2.8 optics that can save you some money and get you working in the field.

Long telephotos and shallow depth of field-producing wide apertures can be used for great image effects. I photographed these flowers with a 300mm f/2.8 lens and an exposure of 1/250 sec at f/2.8 on a Nikon D2X with an ISO of 100.

When I shoot long lenses off the tripod, I shut the VR off. To help quell vibrations, place your hand under the mounting plate and your head against the camera.

This is a typical setup with a Wimberley head. Here it’s on a Gitzo tripod and a rig consisting of the Canon EOS-1D Mark IV with their impressive 800mm lens all set to go.

Survey In The Field
As I travel around I usually take notice of what equipment other enthusiasts are using in the field and I usually see that many photographers prefer fixed focal length lenses. When I was recently at the famous Ding Darling bird sanctuary in Florida, the lineup of long, heavy glass was impressive, as it was on a recent photo safari to Africa. Many of the dedicated shooters work with 400mm, 500mm, and 600mm primes.

But this brings up another point—matching the longest focal length with the work at hand and making a choice between a prime and a zoom. Case in point: when in Africa I had a photographer share the safari Rover with me who carried a 400mm lens. Although he managed to carry the lens on the plane easily enough, when working in the confines of the safari he admitted that a smaller zoom that would reach in the 200-400mm range would have been a much better choice. Granted, his long prime had the image stabilization, but it was too long, too heavy, and by using a monopod negated the stabilization to the point where he could not use it for many shots.

Experienced long lens shooters use a tele-converter as a matter of routine, but you might also consider using a long zoom with an APS-sized sensor camera instead. Generally, tele-converters “steal” a full stop of light (or more) from your exposure (of course, you can always raise ISO, but sometimes there’s a price to pay in quality when you do). For example, my Nikon D2X is perfect for wildlife as the smaller sensor boosts the equivalent magnification from 600mm to 900mm without a full stop of light getting lost in the bargain. And, if you use a tele-converter with a slower (narrower maximum aperture) lens, they rob too much light from an already fairly narrow maximum aperture. Say you have an f/4-5.6 zoom and use a tele-converter that drops a stop of light—that means that your maximum aperture, in terms of light gathering, is effectively f/8.

Still looking for more reach? Try a tele-converter to extend your range. You can get tele-converters in 1.4x, 1.7x, and 2x power. You can figure the tele-converter reach by simply multiplying the power by the original focal length. For example, this 1.7x shown would convert a 300mm to a 510mm effective focal length. Be aware that tele-converters can take away anywhere from one to two stops of light.

From the top, this Canon lens has three modes of stabilization from which to choose. Mode 1 corrects in all directions; Mode 2 is for panning; and in Mode 3 IS is engaged only when the shutter button is depressed. The middle slider is the stabilizer on/off switch. The bottom slider allows you to preset the focus of the lens at a predetermined spot with a push of the button.

Tele Tips
To finish up, here are some tips I’ve gathered from my work with long lenses:
Always try to shoot at one aperture over the maximum for better sharpness, especially on edges.

Follow the inverse focal length rule when choosing shutter speed, and go an extra step for insurance, and adjust ISO to gain that advantage when necessary. Nothing ruins a shot like shake, so do all you can to prevent it, and when shooting handheld always engage image stabilization, regardless of the shutter speed.

Use a tripod (and disengage image stabilization) for most of your work. When on the tripod, brace the complete assembly by pushing under the center of the lens as it sits on the tripod with your forehead pushing forward on the camera. A cable release is a good idea, as is using the short self-timer mode to help reduce vibration further for those shots that do not rely on split-second timing.

Since most telephotos come with a lens hood that comes with a large attachment knob, I place this at the top (12 o’clock position) of the host lens and by looking over the camera’s hot shoe—much like a rifle sight—it becomes a perfect set of reference points in which to line up the subject.

And watch your foreground! While it sounds elementary, your image might contain a surprising element—an annoying branch or twig that somehow got into the range of your picture that the long lens and shallow depth of field did not make apparent at the moment of exposure. My technique is to sight my subject and if I have time to override or turn off autofocus and track the lens throughout the visual field.

Stan Trzoniec’s latest coffee-table book, Prime Mover!, is a study of the contemporary diesel locomotive in America and is available through his website, www.outdoorphotographics.com.

He can be reached via e-mail at fotoclass@aol.com.