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


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.


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