10 Tips For Great Telephoto Photography

10 Tips For Great Telephoto Photography

Canon 1Ds Mark II + 600mm f/4 Super Telephoto Lens

One of the most exciting aspects of photography is working with Telephoto and Super Telephoto lenses. While out of the price range for most to buy, this lens family is easily accessible through lens rental services online or through local camera stores. Telephoto and super telephoto lenses enable photographers to explore a variety of subjects in new ways. Such lenses are often used in wildlife photography, but they can be used for a variety of subjects. Here are 10 tips and ideas for great telephoto photography:

1. Use A Tripod For Sharp Photos
By and large the vast majority of subjects photographed with telephoto and super telephoto lenses need to be tack sharp. Due to the narrow field of view and magnification of telephoto lenses ever so slight movements have an amplified impact diminishing image sharpness. The first thing you can do to ensure that you’ll capture sharp images is to use a tripod and a tripod head that can support the weight of your lens & camera. While this isn’t the only step to take to ensure sharp photos it is the essential first step. Using a tripod or even a monopod will also save your back and arms from unnecessary pain and fatigue.

2. Use A Shutter Release
Any movement is amplified when looking through the view finder of a camera using a telephoto lens. The simple act of pressing the shutter on your camera will cause even a tripod mounted camera and lens to shake when photographing a distant subject. To minimize camera shake use a shutter release. Quite simply a shutter release is a shutter release button on an extension cord. Minimizing movement of your camera and lens while mounted on a tripod will reduce unintended bluring of your photo.

Bonus Tip:
If your camera has a Mirror Lock-up function this in addition to the use of a shutter release will remove much of the mechanical vibration your camera itself can create. The mirror in the camera box of your dSLR allows you to see from the viewfinder out your lens. When you trigger the shutter the mirror will flip up out of the way so that light coming through your lens hits the sensor or film in your camera body. Mirror Lock-up will prompt you to trigger the shutter twice, first to move the mirror into a ready position and second to open the shutter. After the first trigger of the shutter you should wait 2-5 seconds for the internal mechanics of your camera and resulting vibration of your camera to settle to the point of being still before you trigger the shutter a second and final time.

3. Turn Off Lens Image Stabilization / Vibration Reduction for Tripod Mounted Cameras
When you have Image Stabilization or Vibration Reduction active on your lens the internal mechanics detects movement and counter acts it producing a sharp image. When your camera and lens are mounted on a tripod movement is removed, but your lens can errantly activating its IS/VR mechanism creating an image that is less than sharp. For this reason its a best practice to turn off your lenses IS or VR functionality when it is mounted to a tripod.

4. Telephoto Effect – Bringing Far and Near Together
Telephoto lenses have a unique optical effect in that they flatten scenes with great depth. Fittingly this is referred to as a Telephoto Effect. Making use of this effect can be very useful in composing graphically striking subjects and scenes. Unlike shorter focal length lenses that can provide a great deal of depth to a scene the flattening of a scene with the use of a telephoto lens can give the illusion that multiple subjects separated by great distances are actually very close. This effect can generate a great deal of impact with viewers.


Canon 1Ds Mark III and 600mm + 1.4x teleconverter for a total focal length of 840mm

5. Tightly Frame Your Subject
The most obvious use of a telephoto lens is to magnify a subject so as to close the distance between you and what you’re photographing. This can be of extremely valueable if you’re photographing wildlife and would like to get closer with out putting your life at risk. Beyond wildlife using a telephoto lens give you creative license to get extremely close to your subject in some instances. This is particularly useful in highlighting details that would otherwise be lost with shorter focal length lenses.


Canon 1Ds Mark III and 600mm + 2x teleconverter for a total focal length of 1200mm
Taken on my last Sea Otter Photo Tour

6. Isolate Your Subject
Telephoto lenses are great to more distinctly isolate your subject. While this can be done with shorter focal length lenses telephotos enable you to have greater reach to subjects that might be too far off otherwise. This is a middle ground use of telephoto lenses where you’re not looking to crop in too tightly or close the gap between subjects that are far apart.


Canon 1Ds Mark II + 70-200mm IS f/2.8 lens at 200mm

7. Make Use of Ultra Shallow Depth of Field
Telephoto and Super-Telephoto lenses share an optical characteristic that can produce very shallow planes of focus. As a result an often discussed secondary characteristic of long lenses, Bokeh, is the optical signature of out of focus portions of a photograph. Use of shallow depth of field can provide a non-distracting background to your subject enhancing perceived focus and its isolation from competing background elements. Understanding how Bokeh will look from one lens to another will enhance your ability to produce the highest quality image.


Canon 1Ds Mark III + 300mm f/2.8 IS + 1.4x teleconverter for a total focal length of 420mm
Lens provided by BorrowLenses.com 

8. Think Macro Photography
 If you’re not into photo yoga an alternate way to shoot macro photography is to use a telephoto lens. Extension tubes in combination with super telephoto lenses shorten the closest focusing distance of a lens. Working with a larger lens will not give you every vantage point that a smaller lens can provide, but it will enable you to obtain other unique perspectives all while saving you from getting your pants dirty.


Canon 1Ds Mark III + 300mm f/2.8 IS + 1.4x teleconverter for a total focal length of 420mm
Note these clusters of flowers are smaller than a US Quarter

9. Panning for Action
 Panning with a telephoto lens can provide high impact photos of almost any moving subject. Maintaining a sharp subject can be tricky requiring some practice. The added dimension of motion blur bring telephoto and super telephoto lens photos to life. This is a perfect technique for wildlife and action subjects alike.


Canon 1D Mark II + 70-200mm IS f/2.8 lens at 190mm + 2x teleconverter for a total focal length of 380mm

10. Experiment with Astrophotography
With a big enough lens your camera can become a low power telescope. Photographs likely won’t be in the exact same class as a true astrophotography taken with a telescope, but you’ll certainly get eye catching photos none-the-less. The key to successfully using telephoto lenses for astrophotography is:

1. Setting up in an area where there is little light pollution
2. Use of a tripod 
3. use of a cable release.

The slightest vibration will be enough to blur a photo with a long lens so special care should be applied to avoid this. For greater drama in post-production with a high enough resolution sensor you can crop down your image while maintaining mouth dropping detail.


Canon 1Ds Mark III and 600mm + 1.4x teleconverter for a total focal length of 840mm
Cropped in Photoshop for an equivalent focal length of 1800mm 

Jim Goldstein‘s landscape, nature, travel and photojournalism photography is featured on his web site JMG-Galleries.com, and blog. In addition Jim’s podcast “EXIF and Beyond” features photographer interviews and chronicles the creation of some of his images. In addition Jim can be followed on Twitter and FriendFeed. Also be sure to check out his workshops.

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Jim Goldstein is a San Francisco based professional photographer. An author as well as a photographer Jim has been published in numerous publications including Outdoor Photographer, Digital Photo Pro, Popular Photography and has self-published a PDF eBook Photographing the 4th Dimension - Time covering numerous slow shutter techniques. His latest work and writing can be found on his JMG-Galleries blog and on 500px

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