6 Tips for Getting Sharper Wildlife Photos With a Super Telephoto Lens

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In recent years, super telephoto lenses by third-party manufacturers such as Sigma and Tamron have been made available on the market for really reasonable prices. Earlier on, photographers had no choice but to spend a huge amount in order to buy a super telephoto lens, but now these third-party lenses make it more affordable. One such super telephoto lens is the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM, which allows you to get much closer to a distant subject.

Using a super telephoto lens for wildlife photography is in itself a skill to master as you may not get sharp and clear results when you first pick up the lens. The tips below will help you get work better with a super telephoto lens so you can capture sharper wildlife photos going forward.

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#1 – Choose the correct shutter speed

Selection of the best shutter speed is one of the most important tasks when doing wildlife photography. There is a standard rule which says that the shutter speed should be equal to or faster than the focal length of the lens you’re using. So, if you are shooting with a 500mm focal length, then you need a shutter speed of at least 1/500th or faster (1/1000th, 1/2000th, and so on).

Shooting at a shutter speed slower than 1/500th can introduce camera shake and thus will affect the sharpness of the image. However, if your lens features image stabilization technology, you can then shoot at a slower shutter than the focal length. How much slower will depend on the performance of the technology for that particular lens.

NOTE: This rule is applicable for full-frame digital cameras. If you are using an APS-C sensor camera, then you also have to multiply the focal length by the crop factor of your camera brand (1.5x for Nikon, 1.6x for Canon, etc). In this case, the focal length would become 750mm with a Nikon APS-C sensor camera and thus a shutter speed of 1/750th of a second or faster needs to be used to get sharp photos.

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Usually super telephoto lenses such as the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM perform the best from 150mm to 500mm, and as you go beyond 500mm the sharpness starts to lessen. So try and avoid using a focal length which is towards the maximum limit of a telephoto lens.

#2 Use the right aperture value

In wildlife photography, depth of field plays a great role in helping to make the subject stand out from the background. In case you are not aware, shooting with wider aperture (smaller aperture values like f/2.8) helps you to achieve shallow depth of field. This results in a photo where the subject is sharp and well segregated from the background, which itself will be out of focus.

But this does not mean that you blindly shoot using the smallest available aperture value. Instead, I recommend that you shoot at the aperture value which is the sweet spot of your lens. Usually the sweet spot of a lens is 2-3 stops higher than the smallest aperture value. So it would be around f/11 if you are using the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3. Shooting at the sweet spot aperture value allows you to get maximum possible sharpness in the photo, along with decent depth of field. By the way, you would likely be shooting at a focal length such as 500mm or so, and in that case, you would get shallow depth of field even at f/8 or f/11.

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#3 – Selecting ISO sensitivity

ISO sensitivity is one of the sides of the exposure triangle which needs to be adjusted as per the shutter speed and aperture value required for the shoot. In the case of wildlife photography, you will have to compromise on the ISO sensitivity over the other two elements of the exposure triangle. Why?

You will have to use a fast shutter speed in order to freeze the motion of the subject and an aperture value which is not that wide in order to capture sharper photo. This is the reason why you might have to increase the ISO sensitivity value in order to capture a well-exposed photo. So the ISO should be the last exposure setting that you adjust in order to correctly expose the frame.

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#4 – Use a tripod or monopod for stability

Considering the fact that the super telephoto lenses are really heavy, it is important and advisable to mount them on a tripod or a monopod. Almost all telephoto lenses have a tripod collar for mounting the lens on a tripod or a monopod. This will enable you to concentrate more on the surroundings and the movement of the animals/birds instead of worrying about carrying the weight of the lens.

If you shoot handheld at telephoto focal lengths such as 300mm, 400mm and so on, you are bound to get shake in your photos. As a precautionary measure, it is better to carry a tripod or a monopod along every time you plan to shoot wildlife.

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#5 – Image Stabilization mode in your lens

In a situation when you need to pan your camera along with the moving animal or bird, make sure that you have switched on the image stabilization on your lens. This is helpful in case you are shooting handheld, as it reduces the shake that is caused while panning or tilting the camera. Image stabilization mode can be found on lenses as IS on Canon lenses, VR on Nikon lenses, OS on Sigma lenses, VC on Tamron lenses and OSS on Sony lenses.

But in case you are using a tripod or a monopod as advised above, switch off the image stabilization mode on the lens. If you keep it switched on, the image stabilization feature introduces minor shake which in turn reaches the camera mounted on a tripod or a monopod. So in order to eliminate this minor shake you must switch off the image stabilization mode on your telephoto lens.

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#6 – Explore Back Button Focus

If you are not already using the back button focus method to lock the focus on the subject, then you must be half-pressing the shutter release button to do the needful. When you use the shutter release button to lock focus, you are further contributing introduction of minor camera shake.

By using the back button focus technique, you can dedicate one of the buttons located on the back of your camera to focus. By doing so, you are then balancing the weight of the camera as you press the button on the back side. Not only does it reduce camera shake, it also helps you shoot at much faster rate as compared to the traditional approach.

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Conclusion

Shooting with a super telephoto lens is a delight, but it is also really important that you understand the technical aspects of using it to get sharp results. Do not be disappointed if your initial shots are not as sharp as you expected them to be.

Make sure that you are using the right shutter speed and aperture values, these two elements of the exposure triangle contribute the most to the sharpness of your photos. If possible, use a tripod or monopod and mount your telephoto lens on it to avoid any possible camera shake. In case you are shooting handheld, switch-on the image stabilization feature on the lens to further reduce the shake caused during panning or tilting of the camera.

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Do you have any additional tips for getting sharper wildlife photos using a super telephoto lens? If so please share them in the comments section below.

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Kunal Malhotra is a photography enthusiast whose passion for photography started 6 years back during his college days. Kunal is also a photography blogger, based out of Delhi, India. He loves sharing his knowledge about photography with fellow aspiring photographers by writing regular posts on his blog. Some of his favorite genres of photography are product, street, fitness, and architecture.

  • A2_tha_MFK

    Hi Kunal, good article. I shoot wildlife & birds with a 1DX MKII and the 200-400mm F4L. I also find that if you rest your free hand on the Lens, this helps to also reduce vibration.

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  • Indeed, that is a great addition to the list. Using the free hand does help in reducing the camera shake caused because of the weight.

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  • ritwick

    Very helpful article elder bro. One little tip i want to share is that when i shoot handheld, i stop breathing before taking the shot. it actually helps to reduce camera shake…

  • Finn Johnsen

    Hello. I wonder if your comments on setting shutter speed is correct when using a Crop sensor such as APSC or m43. The amount light reaching the sensor is the same, but the DOF and aperture value has to be multiplied with the Crop-factor ?

  • Roger Lambert

    Very good tip re closing the aperture to ensure enough DOF. It is surprising how much DOF narrows down at longer focal lengths, especially when focus starts getting closer to the camera. Which is why normal lenses usually close down to f/22 or so, but long tele’s close down smaller than f/40.

    It is a very good idea to go to a website like [http://www.dofmaster.com/dofjs.html] and plug in numbers for your cam, lens, and focus distance to see the apertures you will need to achieve enough DOF.

    I have seen expensive wildlife trips ruined because people tend to shoot with too wide an aperture with long teles, and come home to see thousands of exposures are pretty much out-of-focus.

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