Today’s article is going to be a little bit out of character for me – one of my great photographic passions used to be birding and wildlife; I don’t know how I got drawn into it, but my neighbor (and Photoshop guru, illustrator Gordon Hurden) happening to be on probably had something to do with it. I gladly spent my weekends in humid swamps, with nothing but mosquitoes and bugs for company; fortunately I managed to avoid dengue despite averaging at least a dozen bites from every session – inevitably on the tiny slivers of skin I’d forget to cover in repellant. I learned three important things from this period in my photographic career: one, patience and timing are everything; two, know your subject; and three, how to handle a long lens.
The first thing I can’t teach you, unfortunately; the second requires self-study, and the third is the subject of this article. For the purposes of simplicity, I’m going to wear the hat of a wildlife photographer, and discuss exceptions/ applications to other types of photography (sport, landscape, macro) at the end of the article. But before we begin, there are some golden rules that need to be shared and explained:
Forget about hand holding: Sure, you might get off a good shot or two, but try hefting that thing around all day and not getting tired – even if you are built like Arnie in his heyday, you’re not going to be at all stable. Remember: the longer the lens, the higher the magnification; the higher the magnification, the more obvious a given degree of angular shake is going to be proportional to the size of the frame (angular frame coverage decreases as focal length increases).
You get what you pay for: Cheap, optically good, and fast: when it comes to long lenses, pick any two. There are no bargains in the super telephoto world, unless you count some of the older manual focus lenses; then you lose AF, VR and gain a whole load of weight (no carbon-fiber hoods and helicoids here). This also applies to heads, tripods and any other part of the system you can think of.
Size does matter: For small, nervous animals – some birds are a great example of this – you can never have enough millimeters. And more millimeters means more reach, but also more shake. More shake means you need to go up a size for tripods, heads, etc – anything that forms part of your imaging system and associated supports.
You may be perfectly stationary, but your subject isn’t: Even if your system is rock-solid and can give you a perfectly sharp image consistently at say 1/10s and slower, your subject is probably not going to be able to stay still for that long – don’t forget this when you’re trying to figure out why there’s still motion blur in your image: it may not be from your camera or tripod.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the things we can do to minimize camera shake.
Increase shutter speed.
This seems like a no-brainer, but the inevitable tradeoff is shutter speed against noise: would you rather have a blurry image, or one that’s sharp but noisy? Personally, the latter gives you some options for processing afterwards, but the former may just land up being frustrating. Throw the 1/focal length rule out of the window: how slow you can go depends on your technique/ support system and subject – I limit this to about 1/60 with relatively lethargic birds, and 1/500 for hyperactive ones (hummingbirds are a good example). 1/60 also avoids the danger zone of most support systems, and You’re not going to be able to handhold a 600mm lens at 1/600s, so give up that idea.
Most the vibration in an exposure comes from either the action of depressing the shutter, or recoil from the mirror raising into position immediately before the shutter fires. The shutter itself is designed to be as light as possible with very little inertia so it requires little energy to move; it contributes relative little shake. Although mirror lockup (or at very least, a self timer) is a great way of removing this issue from long exposures, the main problem with wildlife photography and mirror lockup is that response is not immediate, and you’ll almost certainly land up missing the critical moment. The best way around this is to use live view, and fire the shutter that way – on most of the newer live view cameras (D800 and D4, for instance) the mirror doesn’t have to cycle before firing a frame; only the shutter fires, resulting in much lower vibration. Some cameras even have an electronic first shutter option (D4) which further lowers vibration. Needless to say, the mirrorless CSCs are the best type of camera for this kind of work thanks to their combination of reach/ crop factor and lack of a mirror; it’s just a shame that there are no serious long lens options currently available. (A good 300/4 wouldn’t cost that much and give 600/4 equivalent reach and speed – are any of the manufacturers reading this?)
Continuous AF, or manual focus
Long lenses have extremely shallow depth of field; if your subject (or you) move by a small distance, this is very obviously translated into the focal plane sand not covered by depth of field; you will need to either use continuous AF, and control the point used manually (hint: cover the near eye of your subject) or focus manually. I did most of my wildlife photography with an old manual-focus Nikon AI 500/4 P telephoto, which was both lighter than the autofocus versions, as well as being considerably cheaper.
I mentioned the act of depressing the shutter earlier – jabbing vertically at the button is almost certainly going to ruin your exposure through photographer-induced shake; slowly stroke the button instead from left to right, or roll the pad of your finger onto it from right to left. Either way, be gentle. Curiously the position of the shutter on the top plate makes depressing it especially susceptible to causing camera shake; I don’t know why none of the camera makers have cottoned on to this and implemented a more vertical release instead – squeezing the grip would produce far less shake, and still be just as ergonomic, if not more so. The only cameras that come to mind with a nearly vertical release are the old Olympus C-8080 and to a lesser extent, the Leica S2 – none of which are at all suitable for wildlife photography.
A good tripod is your best friend, and a must for prolonged telephoto lens use. Monopods are better for mobility, but lack the ultimate stability and require constant attention to keep upright – a tripod, on the other hand, is happy to stand by itself all day (unless attacked by a bear) and is far less fatiguing to use. It’s tempting to get something light – especially since you know you’re going to have to carry it to the shooting location, which might be quite far from your transport – but don’t fall into that temptation, even if some of the lighter tripods have higher load ratings than your camera system. The reason for this is small tubes – both in thickness and diameter – will be far less effective at absorbing vibration than larger ones, and smaller joins will always be less rigid. Again: you get what you pay for. Carbon fiber is preferable to steel or aluminum because of both weight and damping properties; the orientation of the weave helps with this. Wood is also another option, but a bit heavier and not so happy with moisture. I highly recommend the Gitzo 5-series systematic tripods for serious telephoto users.
If you need to run and gun, or are shooting with better light, or don’t plan to be out for long, then consider a monopod – it’s lighter, easier to set up, and more flexible. The same rules apply as for tripods – get the thickest, sturdiest one you can find; either attach it directly to the lens foot, or use a rigid monopod head (that permits only tilt) to minimize slop in the system. With the right technique, (see bracing below) I’ve been able to get critically sharp results from a monopod and 750mm equivalent lens at 1/30s. Note: monopods are not recommended if it’s windy; enormous lenses and their hoods tend to act like sails and windsocks and start to swing about a bit in the breeze.
There’s no point in spending a lot of money on a good tripod or monopod then letting it down with a lousy head – this is the critical portion of the support system. The most important thing is that the head must not be able to suddenly unlock and let go of your lens; this will make it both highly likely to result in an expensive accident, and difficult for you to adjust framing precisely. At very least, use a ballhead with tension control; I like the Manfrotto 468MG Hydrostat series. Ideally though, you probably want a gimbal head of some sort; this allows you to leave the system unlocked (providing you’ve mounted the lens at its balance point, of course) and simply aim the camera like a good artillery piece. Monopods should either have no head (screw the top of the monopod straight to the lens foot) or a dedicated monopod-only head to provide tilt. And this may sound stupid, but don’t forget to lock down the rotating collar on the lens – if it didn’t have any play in it, you wouldn’t be able to turn it. But at the same time, that play is death to stability.
If you have something to lean on, like a tree trunk, vehicle door or a wall, a beanbag can be an interesting option because it’s both stable and allows for a range of positioning; the beans mould to the shape of the lens and absorb vibration. In fact, this is one of the most stable support methods available. A cheaper (but heavier) alternative is a sack of rice. Just make sure you don’t let go of the lens, because it’s not attached to anything…
Bracing the camera lightly against your forehead via the eyecup is also a very effective way of dampening motion, because it couples it to the greater mass of your body. This is critical for monopod users, and of less importance for tripod shooters. In addition, if you’re using a monopod, it’s a good idea to put a little pressure on the monopod to keep everything under tension; hard to describe but what I usually do is stub one toe into the monopod’s foot, hold the camera at the grip and put a hand over the attachment point of the lens, whilst pushing forward slightly on the whole rig. This anchors the monopod firmly to the ground, as well as preventing the end of the lens from wobbling.
Similar to bracing, this is of importance to monopod users, but less so for tripod users as you should be shooting with the head locked down, and the entire setup static. Monopods are never static by definition, so you need all the tricks in the book to maximize stability. Don’t hold your breath when you shoot; this actually increases your heart rate over time. If you’re using a long enough lens – around 700mm and up – and hold your breath and stabilize the camera against your forehead/ eye socket, you’ll actually see the finder jump a little every time your heart beats. This is obviously counterproductive. The best technique to maintain an even heartbeat (shared with me by a competition pistol markswoman) is to exhale slowly when firi…oops, I meant depressing the shutter button.
Since we’ve already established that mirror lockup is not practical for wildlife photography because of the lag involved, the next best thing is to shoot in three-shot bursts – this helps with both finger-induced motion (your finger is static for the middle burst) and mirror-induced motion, and works best with high frame rate cameras. The idea is that the camera will be displaced during the first frame, stay there during the second, and move back to the rest position during the third (where you lift off) – all I can say is that it works.
Optical stabilizers work much better than sensor-based ones when using long lenses – this is because being at the nodal point of the optical system, they can correct for a much greater range of angular motion. However, they have their limitations – above a certain shutter speed threshold, stabilizers should be turned off; they simply don’t react fast enough and can actually cause double images. If you’re locked down on a tripod, they should be turned off too; these systems have a tendency to overcompensate for small movements of the kind that might be experienced on a tripod. Finally, although they can reduce camera motion, they can’t compensate for subject motion. Most of the time, I shot with stabilizers off.
Application to sport photography
Most sports are shot at high enough shutter speeds (to freeze action) that a monopod is sufficient, stabilizers aren’t really required, and although the refined techniques described above can help, they’re not strictly necessary until you start to get into the borderline 1/500s region – (due to the necessity to freeze fast action). Tripods generally get in the way and don’t allow the photographer to respond fast enough to changes in action.
Application to landscape photography
Although landscape photographers tend to not use such long lenses, a sturdy tripod is still recommended especially if long exposures are required; here mirror lockup (or at very least, the self timer) will help immensely with stability. Most support systems have issues around the 1/10-1/50s region; try and avoid this if possible, especially with longer focal lengths.
Application to macrophotography
At first glance, this may seem out of place, but in reality, macrophotography techniques are quite similar to those for handling long telephoto lenses; stability is paramount, and the smallest camera movement is hugely magnified. The main difference is your ability to control subject lighting with flash; this allows you to freeze motion (both camera and subject) through an artificially short exposure time – limited to the actual flash duration. All of the tripod-based techniques described above are useful to the macrophotographer; I can’t think of any situation in which a monopod would be useful.
You might also enjoy my review of the Gitzo 1542 Traveller and 5562 Systematic tripods here.
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