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© 2017 Les Zigurski   

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Long Lens Technique and Camera Settings


The following essay is intended for advanced and serious wildlife shooters. I frequently get requests from people to share some of my techniques, camera settings, etc. Therefore, I’ve put together the following article explaining how I go about getting my shots. I do understand that different techniques work better for different people, and there are other ways of going about wildlife shooting, but these are the techniques and settings that work for me

     Shutter Speeds   Image Stabilization 

              Shooting Hand Held

        Using Bursts      Settings

             Focus          Exposure


Shutter Speeds, Aperture, and ISO--First, for me, shutter speed is the king, both for freezing the action and for reducing the effects of camera shake. If the real estate people say that the three most important things in real estate are location, location, and location, for me the three most important things in shooting action with long lenses are shutter speed, shutter speed, and shutter speed.

If I’m shooting a static subject, I’ll try a shot with shutter speeds of 1/400, but even with a relatively static subject, it is amazing how much just a little movement in, for example, a bird’s head, can lead to a less than perfectly sharp shot. So, even for static subjects, I prefer higher shutter speeds. For a flying bird or a running mammal, I really like a minimum of 1/1500, but I prefer over 1/2000, and, if I can get to 1/3000 or more, I’m in shooter’s heaven. Since the best wildlife shooting opportunities are right after sunrise or right before sunset, having enough light to maintain those shutter speeds is often a challenge.

I am usually shooting in the manual mode wide open or close to wide open, both to maximize shutter speed and to isolate the subject with minimal depth of field. I will, of course, stop down if I'm trying to increase depth of field to shoot multiple subjects, and, if the light is sufficient to maintain high shutter speeds, I might stop down another 1/3 or 2/3 of a stop for a bit of extra sharpness.  Also, if I'm using a 2x converter, I will definitely stop down at least a full stop. 

I usually start out, if I’m shooting at sunrise, at ISO as high as 1600. About 45 minutes later, I can usually move the ISO down to ISO 400, and I almost never go lower. With the current generation of DSLRs, those ISO’s should not be a problem. With the 1D Mark IV, if I have to, I’m comfortable going to ISO 3200. Even at ISO 1600 or 3200, right after sunrise and right before sunset, I might not get the shutter speeds that I want. That’s where I consider Image Stabilization to be a must. While it won’t stop motion blur, it sure will do a wonderful job with the camera shake. Since much of my shooting is done hand held with marginal light, that is why, for me, I do much better with my IS lenses than I do without in all types of shooting situations. 

One additional point about shutter speeds is that, the closer you are to your subject, the higher the shutter speed needs to be to freeze the action because, the closer the subject is, relatively speaking, it is passing through the field of view faster. That's the reason why, with small song birds, it is very difficult to freeze the wing motion even if you want to. Since most pictures of small birds are taken from a very close distance, it requires exceptionally high shutter speeds to completely freeze their motion.

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Using IS--When using IS, I keep the IS on even if I have very high shutter speeds and I always use IS mode 1 only. If I come home and look at my shots and find that they are not quite up to the standard that I would expect, I can count on going back to the camera and finding that I either accidentally turned off the IS or accidentally switched to mode 2. I find that, even when I’m shooting birds in flight at 1/3000, camera shake can still have a minor negative effect on sharpness (perhaps, I’m just not as steady as others who say they don’t need IS). Further, I find that, even with high shutter speeds, IS can make it easier to acquire focus, track a moving subject, and maintain focus because it is easier to keep the focus point on the subject when it is not jumping around in the viewfinder. Also, with regard to the modes, even with birds in flight or a running mammal, I get better results with mode 1. It’s my theory that the movement is rarely a pure pan, and, thus, it benefits from both horizontal and vertical stabilization.

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Shooting Hand Held--Next, again, for me, shooting any kind of action works better hand held. If I know that my subject is going to stay in a small area, such as when I’m shooting a nest, a tripod is clearly going to be the best way to go, but, if the action is likely to range over more than a small arc, I need to shoot hand held, both to keep up with the action and to get the sharpest shots. If I’m on a tripod, the pivot point is a couple of feet in front of me. First, picking up the subject initially is less natural, but, also, keeping up with the action requires, in essence, walking my body around the tripod. Because "walking myself" around the tripod requires so much more movement, I can’t keep up for long doing that, but, even if I can, all of that movement results in a frantic effort on my part to keep up, and I end up jerking the rig around much more than is ideal. On the other hand, if I shoot hand held, my body is the pivot point. Gaining initial contact with the subject and tracking requires only a very natural movement of my head and eyes, and keeping up requires only a very small, smooth rotation of my hips and/or shoulders. The movement is smoother and smaller than I would get with a tripod, and, thus, my shots are sharper.

However, shooting hand held does not necessarily mean shooting with no support whatever. Whenever possible, I try to find something to help steady myself and the
camera/lens. Often, I can use a vehicle, a tree stump, or anything else on which to rest my elbows. If nothing is available, I’ll get down on my right knee and rest my left elbow on my left thigh, thus creating a kind of human tripod. Also, especially when shooting with my 500/4 and a 1.4x, I’m not going to try to hold the lens up for long periods of time. Normally, the camera is at my side. I try to anticipate the action, and when it comes, I rarely have the camera up to my eye for more than a few seconds at a time, which is what makes hand holding a large lens possible.

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Anticipating Action and Using Burst Mode--Related to anticipating the action, I try to take advantage of the burst rate on the camera, but I will rarely shoot bursts of more than 3 or 4 shots. When I have anticipated the action and take a burst of 3 or 4 shots, I am amazed at how many subtle changes can take place in a scene in frames taken just 1/8 or 1/10 of a second apart. Often, in a 3 or 4 shot burst, there will be a couple of very nice shots surrounding one really special shot. That one special shot might be the perfect pose with the subject’s eye looking in just the right direction, and so on. That’s the advantage of being able to take those short bursts at a higher frame rate.

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Camera Settings--With regard to camera settings, virtually all of my wildlife shooting is done in servo mode. Even if I’m shooting a static subject, I want to be ready if/when the subject starts to move. I do use the custom functions, however, which allow me, if I want to, to temporarily stop the servo operation. The specific custom function that allows this to be done varies, depending on the camera body being used. Further, virtually all of my action shooting is done with the manually selected center focus point. I trust my ability to keep the focus point on the subject more than I trust the camera’s ability to guess on what it should be focusing. If I’m using the 1D Mark IV, however, often I will use CF III-8, which will hand off a subject to the adjacent focus points if I lose contact. However, if the background is complicated, I’ll disable CF III-8, because the camera can be confused and hand off focusing to an adjacent point when it shouldn’t be doing so. On the 7D, the same option to expand focus points is available via the M-Mn button on the top of the camera.

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Establishing and Maintaining Focus--Also, it is especially important, even if it causes me to miss the first shot of a burst, to slow down and make sure that I’ve locked in focus with the center point, or else I’m going to just end up with several out of focus shots. Also, while I’m tracking, if I think there is any chance I’ve lost contact, I’ll release the focus and lock it in again before I continue shooting. Again, I may miss a shot by refocusing, but that is better than having the next 3 shots out of focus.

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Exposure--With regard to exposure, I use manual exposure for most shooting. With both of my camera bodies, I use the spot meter mode. I always try to expose for the whites and just up to the point where, if I went any further, I’d be blowing the whites. Depending on the light, with subjects that are partially white on a sunny day, I may have to dial exposure down anywhere from 1/3 to 1 2/3 stops if I am metering on a darker part of the subject’s body. All my shooting is done RAW. Before converting, I may have to slightly touch up the exposure to get the highlights perfect. If I need to adjust by more than 1/3 of a stop, then I didn’t do my job in the field. After conversion, in PS, I’ll use the Shadow/Highlight adjustment with small Shadow adjustment to bring back some of the shadow detail. Then, I’ll use a small levels adjustment of the right slider on just the inverse of the highlights, and, by doing those two things, I can usually get the shadows back without ruining the highlights.

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