Wildlife Photography I: long lens technique

Wild animals tend to not like people; they are afraid of us… I guess mostly because we have a habit of eating them.  As a result, photographers are going to need longer lenses, to try and fill the frame. 300mm is just a starting point, for those looking to get into bird photography, and no matter how much you’ve got, more would always be better.

The following tips will help you keep the long lens steady. Most apply for other uses of long lenses, too (field sports come to mind).

Use supports when possible. Tripods are often big, bulky and take time to set up. I use a monopod at times, with great success, provided the subject is fairly static (perched bird, etc.). If the lens has stabilization, great, but there are great budget options (Nikon’s stellar AF-S 300mm f/4), which are not stabilized by anything other than the photographer. Don’t have or want to carry the extra gear? Make support when you don’t have one: lean against a tree; use a wall to sturdy yourself; lie down on the ground and dig your elbows in; etc.

This Great Blue Heron shot was taken with a Nikon D90 (APC-sensor) and non-stabilized 500mm (effective focal length of 750mm).  I used a monopod, to allow me to shoot at 1/80″ – there’s NO WAY I could have managed this without support.



Use a faster shutter speed.  Kind of a “duh” suggestion, but so many people use an automatic camera mode, where the camera chooses a shutter speed too slow for the subject, or scene (hello iPhone, with seemingly constant shutter speeds of 1/20”).  Get the shutter speed up – you’re going to need at least 1/500” to stop or slow motion of fast subjects, anyway.  When it comes to the ISO implications, noise is better than burry.  Stabilization only removes blur due to camera shake – if the subject is moving, you need shutter speed to stop the action.

This Great Horned Owl image was shot with a shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second, and look how the eyes and body are sharp, but the wings are still blurred from movement.


“Roll on the shutter” when firing.  If you press the shutter button down hard when starting to shoot and fire in continuous, you will see more shake-induced blur in the first shot, and the images will bob down and then back up.  Amazing how jarring the action of pushing can be, huh?  It’s just like a high powered car – slam on the gas pedal, and you’ll be spinning tires; feather into it and you get a far better take off.  Similarly, if you slowly roll your finger onto the shutter button, you will get far better first-shot results.


Get into the stance.  We all know triangles are the strongest shapes, right?  Making sturdy triangles to hold that big lens up will help.  Spread your feet shoulder width apart, with the left foot forward; thus turning your left shoulder a bit forward, too.  Left hand cups under the lens, fingers out to the right, thumb out to the left.  The left is carrying virtually all the weight (like the pivot on a tripod), with your right hand holding the grip loosely, and index finger on the shutter.  Elbows should be tucked in (not pushing into you, but tight to the body).


Breathe.  Properly.  Slow your breathing pattern down.  Take slow, controlled breaths, and hit the shutter in the moment where you are in-between inhaling and exhaling.


Let’er rip.  This isn’t landscapes, or portraits, where you have full control over all the variables, including the subject.   Use the maximum frames per second your camera allows, to capture high-speed action.  You have no control over what the subject (bird, athlete, etc.) will do – the additional frames will help you find the best composition of the bunch.  It costs you nothing to delete unwanted files – there’s no penalty to overshooting, other than the amount of time you spend to review.  Below, you’ll see the photos captured leading up to the one with the eagle’s wings exactly where I wanted them.


Now, get out there and start shooting with that longer lens, and start taking better shots! 😉

209 thoughts on “Wildlife Photography I: long lens technique

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