If you want to capture stunning wildlife photos – especially close-up, detailed shots of birds and small animals – a super-telephoto lens is essential. Unfortunately, even once you’ve purchased that super-telephoto glass, you’re faced with a slew of technical hurdles. Ultra-long lenses are huge and heavy, leading to handholding difficulties, and the increased reach makes it tough to capture tack-sharp images of wildlife subjects.
But don’t throw in the towel just yet! Yes, super-telephoto wildlife photography is difficult. But it’s certainly possible to capture crisp, clear, beautiful wildlife shots, even if you’re a beginner. In this article, I share seven practical tips to help you improve your wildlife photos using a super-telephoto lens – and by the time you’re finished reading, you’ll be ready to head out and capture pro-level shots of eagles, tigers, zebras, songbirds, and so much more!
Let’s dive right in.
1. Choose a sufficiently fast shutter speed
When doing wildlife photography, you must always set your shutter speed carefully – and monitor it as you continue to shoot.
But what shutter speed should you pick? The reciprocal rule says that the shutter speed should be at least as fast as the reciprocal of your lens’s focal length. So if you’re shooting with a 500mm lens, you’ll need a shutter speed of at least 1/500s.
If you drop your shutter speed below the reciprocal of the focal length, camera shake can start to interfere with your images, and you may end up with a batch of blurry, unusable files. Note, however, that if your lens features image stabilization technology, you can safely shoot at a slower shutter speed, but be careful; if you make the shutter too slow, camera shake will creep in again.
Even once you’ve established a minimum shutter speed using the reciprocal rule, you’re not done. You must also observe your subject for movement and adjust the shutter accordingly. A relatively stationary subject (e.g., a lion in the grass) can be photographed using the reciprocal-rule shutter speed without issue, but if your subject is moving – walking, trotting, running, or fighting – then you’ll need to boost the shutter speed, sometimes significantly.
For instance, a running mammal often requires a shutter speed of 1/1000s and above, while birds in flight usually need at least 1/2000s for tack-sharp shots. If you’re photographing on a bright day, I’d really recommend pushing your camera’s shutter speed to at least 1/2000s. There’s no real drawback to using a too-fast shutter speed – except for the loss of light – but if you use a slightly too-slow shutter speed, the effects will be catastrophic.
2. Choose a midrange aperture value
Many beginner wildlife photographers use the widest aperture their super-telephoto lens allows; after all, the wider the aperture, the faster you can make the shutter speed, and there’s nothing wrong with using an ultra-wide aperture…right?
Unfortunately, that’s not quite true. Wider apertures limit the depth of field – that is, the amount of the scene that appears in sharp focus – and if the depth of field is too shallow, your subject’s tail, wings, or even body may turn soft, which is far from ideal. In wildlife photography, it’s generally best to keep your entire subject looking relatively crisp (though you do have a bit of flexibility depending on the angle of your subject, so don’t go overboard trying to make everything tack-sharp).
On the other hand, a wide aperture will generally produce background blur, which looks great and makes the subject stand out from the backdrop.
Therefore, it’s important that you strike a balance when choosing your aperture. Don’t go so wide that your subject is barely in focus, but don’t go so narrow that you lose your stunning background bokeh. Instead, set your lens to f/6.3, f/7.1, or f/8 – depending on its focal length and your subject – take a few test shots, review the images on your LCD for sharpness and depth of field, then adjust accordingly.
3. Choose a high ISO if needed
The aperture, the shutter speed, and the ISO together make up the exposure triangle, which means that these three settings determine the overall brightness of your images. The higher the ISO, the brighter your images – all else being equal – and the faster you can make your shutter speed.
But high ISOs come with a drawback: They produce noise, which shows up in your images as little speckles that reduce image quality and look downright unpleasant.
So when choosing your ISO, it’s important to keep it as low as you can to prevent noise. At the same time, you shouldn’t sacrifice a fast shutter speed or a narrow aperture just to keep the ISO low; it’s better to capture a noisy photo than a blurry one.
My recommendation is to start by selecting your aperture and shutter speed. Then pick an ISO that gives you a good exposure, even if that ISO is on the high side (e.g., ISO 3200). If you feel the ISO will introduce too much noise, you can try to reduce your shutter speed or widen your aperture, but always keep in mind the consequences discussed above!
4. Use a tripod or monopod for stability
Super-telephoto lenses tend to be heavy, and the heavier the lens, the harder it is to keep the lens steady when handholding.
One way to counteract this issue is to boost the shutter speed, but as you should now be aware, you’ll need to widen the aperture or raise the ISO to compensate, both of which come with their own problems.
That’s why many super-telephoto wildlife photographers prefer to avoid handholding whenever possible; instead, they mount their lenses on a tripod or a monopod. These support systems will stabilize your camera and allow you to concentrate less on keeping your hands from shaking and more on the surroundings and the movement of the wildlife.
Note that most telephoto lenses have a tripod collar, and it’s important that you use it to mount your setup to the tripod or monopod. If you instead mount your setup from the base of your camera, it’ll put stress on the lens mount, which can damage your entire rig.
Pro tip: In scenarios where you can’t use a tripod or monopod, try to stabilize your body by lying on the ground, leaning against a tree, or crouching down so your elbows are resting on your knees. You can also try stabilizing the lens by placing it on the hood of a car, on top of a bench, or against the ground.
5. Get down low for beautiful backgrounds
Much of this article focuses on capturing sharp super-telephoto images. But while sharpness is important, you should also think about the aesthetics of the scene. In other words, before shooting, ask yourself: How can I capture an image that looks good?
One great method for spicing up your photos and getting a professional look is to shoot from a low angle. If you get down on a level with your subject – by crouching or even lying flat against the ground – you’ll get a more intimate perspective, which is always nice. And you’ll also tend to get a far more pleasing background blur that’ll make your subject pop and really spice up your shots.
Why does a low angle improve the background blur? For one simple reason: When you photograph wildlife from up high, the background is generally the ground behind the subject. But when you get down low, the ground falls away, and the background tends to become more distant trees, grasses, or even the horizon. Because of the way depth of field works, distant elements appear more blurry, giving you a stunning result!
6. Don’t forget to use image stabilization
Earlier in this article, I mentioned that it’s important to follow the reciprocal rule – unless your lens offers image stabilization.
You see, image stabilization is basically a lens mechanism designed to counteract camera shake. If you’re handholding, this technology will help you photograph at impossibly slow shutter speeds and still create sharp shots.
So before you start shooting, make sure your lens’s image stabilization is switched on! (Some cameras also offer image stabilization, which is similarly useful.)
You’ll sometimes hear photographers advise against using image stabilization when working with a tripod. But while it’s true that image stabilization can cause blur when shooting long-exposure photos with a tripod-mounted camera, that’s not generally a problem faced by wildlife photographers, so it’s safe to set your lens to its image stabilization mode and leave it on indefinitely.
7. Try back-button focus
The default method of focusing on modern DSLRs and mirrorless cameras uses the shutter button: Half-press the shutter button to acquire focus, then press the shutter button the rest of the way to fire the camera.
But while this method can work, it does introduce unnecessary complications. For one, you can’t easily alternate between your camera’s one-shot focus and its continuous focus, which makes it difficult to photograph subjects that go from stock-still to moving and back again.
Fortunately, you have another option: Back-button focus, which lets you decouple the focusing mechanism from your camera’s shutter button. Instead of focusing by half-pressing the shutter button, you focus by pressing a button on the back of your camera. That way, you can keep your camera set to its continuous focus mode, hold down the focusing button when your subject is moving, then release the button to lock focus when the subject stops.
Back-button focus will take some getting used to. But if you’re looking to capture sharp wildlife shots using a super-telephoto lens, it can be a game-changer!
Tips for super-telephoto wildlife images: final words
Shooting with a super-telephoto lens is a lot of fun – but because these lenses are so heavy and long, without the right techniques, you’ll struggle to get great shots.
Just remember: Carefully choose your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Keep your setup stable, and turn on the image stabilization. Get down low for beautiful backgrounds, and consider using back-button focus! Your wildlife images are bound to look amazing.
Now over to you:
What wildlife subjects do you plan to photograph? Do you have any tips that I missed? Share your thoughts in the comments below!