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10 Telephoto Lens Tips For Beginners

I've been using my telephoto lens quite a bit recently, so I thought it was about time to share some simple tips with you all. I don't know about you, but getting my first telephoto lens was exciting.

As with many of my most exciting photography purchases, disappointment soon followed! Not disappointment resulting from the amazing lens, but impatience to charge out and shoot stuff without learning anything about it. Hence blurry, crap photos were the first products of the most expensive lens I'd ever bought. I wish I could be less of a child when buying new things, but the same thing happens every time! So hopefully these 10 beginners' tips will make your early endeavours with a telephoto lens more respectable.

1. Beating Blur: Image Stabilization/Vibration Reduction

Most telephoto lenses come with a little switch for Image Stabilization (Canon)/Vibration Reduction (Nikon). This compensates for camera shake when hand-holding, which is exaggerated with the long focal lengths. Make sure it's switched on. If I'd known this for my early telephoto attempts, I would have been able to recognize more of the people in my sports photos!

A word of warning though: it's as important to switch IS/VR off when using a tripod as it is to switch it on when hand-holding. Why? Because the system works by actively seeking camera shake and then correcting it. When there is none, the corrective measure itself becomes a problem. Make a habit out of checking the switch in your set-up for a shoot, otherwise you'll get that sinking feeling when checking images at 100% later!


2. Beating Blur: The Reciprocal Shutter Speed/Focal Length Rule

One of the first tips you probably picked up for increasing the sharpness of your photos was this reciprocal rule: select a shutter speed the equivalent of focal length, e.g. 50mm and 1/50th second, or 300mm and 1/300th second. This is a great rule of thumb for keeping things sharp and avoiding camera shake. As I mentioned above, a big telephoto lens that magnifies the subject is even less forgiving on camera shake, so shutter speed is extra important here.

But, (and this is a big but) the reciprocal rule only really applies if you're lucky enough to be shooting on a full frame camera (where the sensor is equivalent to 35mm film). Most of us aren't, and certainly most people who are relative beginners to photography. I didn't realize this when I first had my telephoto lens, which was just one of many reasons why my images seemed too blurry. If you're using a camera with a 4/3rds, APS-H, DX or APS-C sensor, shoot with a shutter speed 1.5x the focal length. For example, when zoomed in at 300mm, select a shutter speed of 1/450th.


3. Beating Blur: Using A Tripod and Shutter Release

My final suggestion for beating blur with your telephoto lens is probably the most obvious: become attached to your tripod! We all know that using a tripod has a big impact on sharpness. Combined with a remote release device, which eliminates the vibrations caused by pressing the shutter release with your finger, you should be able to capture really crisp images.

Think of all those photographers in the dug-outs at sports matches, with their huge lenses that cost about 3x more than my car! You've probably noticed that their tripods are correspondingly beefy, to support the weight. This was yet another mistake I initially made - using a tripod that was too feeble for my gear.

In my defence, it's quite easy for the weight of equipment to creep up without you realizing it's gone beyond the maximum your tripod can hold. First you switch from a plastic to magnesium alloy body, then you get hold of a telephoto lens, and you're already over the weight limit. It's important to keep an eye on your tripod's capacity as your kit big fills up.


4. Crank Up The ISO

A full size this picture has a bit of noise, but I'm glad I used an ISO of 600 to take the shot without camera shake.

High ISO speeds are not the enemy. Don't become totally obsessed by image 'quality' to the extent that it stops you taking opportunities. For quite a while I seemed to have a prejudiced view against anything over about 400 ISO on my camera, as though a little bit of noise would ruin the whole shot. That was completely daft, and speeding up ISO can be a brilliant tool for telephoto photography.

Sometimes it's just not possible to use a tripod. In fact, I've probably taken more wildlife shots without a tripod than with one, simply because there isn't always the time to set-up a shot before the subject scampers off. It's much better to use a fast shutter and high ISO (sharp, with noise), than low ISO and slow shutter speed (no noise but blurry).


5. The Perfect Lens For Portraits

My first thoughts when I purchased my telephoto lens where that I could finally gets some decent action shots at sports matches, and also take some good wildlife photos. Well, that was true, but before long my favourite subject became portraits

Portraits often look best when taken with a nice wide aperture, throwing the background out of focus, with the point of focus on the eyes. A long zoom flattens an image, de-cluttering the background and exaggerating the effect of a narrow depth of field. As a result it brings added impact and intimacy to the main subject.

6. Have Fun With Bokeh

Image by: Neal Fowler

Although the idea of using a wide aperture is to heighten the attention on a specific area, the out of focus section has its merits too. So when you're shooting portraits with a telephoto, think about the character of the blur in the background, because it can really add to the shot.

'Bokeh' (from Japenese, 'boke', meaning blur or haze) is the word given to background blur and its aesthetic quality. Artificial lights often produce fantastic bokeh - big, satisfying, colourful orbs. The wider the aperture the better, and you can even experiment with bokeh filters, which shape the light into circles, ovals or other shapes.


7. Shoot Minimalist Images

Image by: fdecomite

I absolutely love minimalist photographs. Clean lines, shapes and patterns in perfectly balanced compositions. These kinds of pictures are often bordering on the abstract, picking out aesthetic designs from the world of real things.

The flattening effect of a telephoto lens is a great device for reducing a subject to pure shapes and lines. It's especially useful for minimalist landscapes.


8. Fill The Frame

The great advantage of a telephoto lens in so many situations is that it allows you to zoom in close on distant subjects. No more compact/phone camera shots of sports matches that look like a big green field with a few tiny ants running around on it! So take advantage of this and really fill the frame with your subject.

Even now, when shooting with a telephoto lens, I have slight tendency to leave a bit too much space around the edges. Almost always my best shots turn out to be those that are tightly cropped. I took these 2 shots of J-Class racing yachts yesterday, and you can see how much more effective it is to zoom in close. (Here's a full guide to filling the frame and what it really means).


9. Shoot Sports Matches

Image by: John Togasaki

Unless you've had a really, really good seat, most professional sports matches can't be photographed that effectively without a telephoto lens. I love sports photography, as there are so many opportunities for awesome shots. Here are 3 quick tips.

1) Anticpate the action. Keep an eye on the wider play and prepare to frame a smaller part of it at the crucial moment, e.g. a crunching tackle, goal being scored etc.

2) Shoot faces. There's a lot of emotion at sports matches, hence some great expressions of joy, despair, anger and so on. So hone in close on faces.

3) Shoot the crowd. I often swivel around and train my lens on the crowd instead of the players. When you get a bunch of people moving in unison, throwing their hands in their, or whatever, it looks really cool.

You can also, of course, get much better pictures of your local teams by using a telephoto lens. But here's a big warning from my experience: If you're part of a sports club and start turning up with a telephoto lens, it will not be long before you're designated the role 'official photographer'! It's fun for a while, but before you know it, you'll be in demand for every single event, function and match - oh, and if you bail, you're just letting the side down! So watch out!


10. Shooting Wildlife Pictures

Image by: pheanix

Wildlife is another subject that only truly opens up with a telephoto lens. Here are some top tips for making the most of it:

1) Research wildlife in your area. You have to be organized when it comes to wildlife photography. Chances are, if you're shooting it, you'll be interested in it. So take the time to learn a bit more about certain animals' habits, to give your self the best chance of locating them.

2) Panning to show movement. Panning - moving your camera to track the subject - is a brilliant way to portray dynamism and action. It produces the effect of a sharp subject and blurry background. I think it's especially effective for depicting birds in flight

3) Leave moving animals some space. Sometimes cropping too tightly can ruin a wildlife shot when the animal is on the move. It's important to leave some space to show where the subject has come from/is going, otherwise they almost appear 'trapped' in the frame.

I hope these 10 beginners' telephoto lens tips have been handy. If you'd like to add any of your own, I'd leave to hear them in the comments.

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