Here I am again in this category of photography tips and technique, a category on which I had not taken the time to write for some time. And then, finally, the idea came to me and I had in mind a subject I hadn’t dealt with yet on our blog: shooting with a long focal length. I will talk about a lot of technical terms in this article, and I invite you to read the one on how to master exposure in photography.
At first glance, you might think this is a simple topic to cover, but on second thoughts, I do think there’s a lot to talk about. It’s a subject I particularly enjoy in photography and I must admit that after buying and having used my Canon 70-300 L IS for quite some time, I finally feel ready to talk about it. Certainly, I don’t own very long focal lengths, those famous super telephoto lenses beyond 300mm, but I had the opportunity to test several of them and in the end, the advice which are valid for a 300mm still hold for a 500mm.
In this article, which may be long I admit, and I hope you’ll excuse me, what am I going to talk about then? First of all, I will tell you what can be considered as a long focal length, some reminders about angles of view, the connection between sensor size and focal length and the different types of telephoto lenses. I will also explain the main interests of using a long focal length, and we will see that it goes far beyond the use for wildlife or sports.
I will then talk about all the tips I can give to shoot with a long focal length, both technical and practical ones. At the end of the article, I will also give you some advice about camera equipment, especially for choosing your telephoto lens and the accessories that go with it. Let’s go and have a good read!
Let’s start with the basics. What is a lens with a long focal length? How do we recognize it? Does it change depending on the type of camera I have? I tell you everything!
To understand and explain in a simple way what can be considered as a long focal length or a long lens, I have no choice but to make a little reminder on the term focal length (which I already detailed in the link above). To make it simple, the focal length, always expressed in millimeters (mm), is a technical characteristic of a lens. It can be fixed (Ex: 85mm, 200mm) or variable (18-55mm, 24-70mm). I also wrote a complete article about the differences between a fixed focal length and a zoom (variable focal length), if you are interested.
It is important to remember that the focal length is the distance between your sensor and the center of your lens. Thus, the focal length has a real influence on the angle of view that you will have in your viewfinder. Also, we will speak of short focal length (eg: 12mm) for a wide-angle lens, standard focal length (eg: 50mm) or long focal length (eg: 300mm).
Also, with a short focal length, your field of view will be very large and, concretely, you will see many more things in your viewfinder. Conversely, a long focal length will have a much smaller angle of view. There is a reason why long focal lengths are called “zooms”: because you will actually zoom in on something specific, reduce your vision to a more precise detail and make this detail appear much larger in your viewfinder, and therefore in your final image. Obviously (as for all types of lenses), there are long zoom lenses (eg: 70-200mm, 200-400mm) or prime lenses (eg: 400mm, 600mm).
Because of their construction, especially the presence of many elements added to increase the vision, long lenses are generally always heavy, long and quite expensive. Obviously, after, everything is relative depending on what you consider as such!
I will try to make it short and not too technical. As we saw above, a focal length is an intrinsic characteristic of a lens. The reference to measure a focal length is the size of a full frame sensor, equivalent to an old 35mm. However, in today’s digital age, not everyone uses a camera with a full frame sensor.
Many manufacturers, if not all, offer cameras with smaller sensors. There are essentially two types of sensors: APS-C and Micro 4/3. I know you’re going to say: so, what? I’m coming to that point. Contrary to what you may think, a focal length does not change, it always remains the same. A 50mm focal length will always be a 50mm focal length, no matter on which camera it is mounted. What changes is the field of view you get with the camera and focal length, depending on the size of the sensor.
With a full frame camera, you have a magnification ratio of 1x. With an APS-C camera, you have a ratio of 1.5x (to summarize), and on a MFT sensor, you have a ratio of x2. This is simply related to the size of the sensor which is for example twice smaller on an MFT than on a full frame. As a reminder, here is the size of the sensors:
- Full frame sensor: 36 x 24mm,
- APS-C sensor: 23.7 x 15.7mm (Canon’s are 22.3 x 14.9mm – 1.6x ratio),
- MFT sensor: 17.3 x 13mm.
You can refer to my article on sensor size in photography, available in the section camera equipment on our blog. Also, to get back to the topic in hand, the field of view obtained for the same focal length will vary depending on the size of the sensor used. Here are 4 examples of different focal lengths used on cameras with different sensors.
|Focal length||Full Frame||APS-C||Micro 4/3|
Also, you will have to be careful about what you choose as camera equipment according to the camera you will use, and especially to the angle of view that the camera/lens pair will give. Some lenses are intended for APS-C sensors while others are for Full-Frame, knowing that an FF lens will always be mounted on an APS-C camera. The opposite is also theoretically true all the time (except for Canon DSLR cameras – you will see vignetting on the edges of your images). It is simply the full frame camera that will automatically crop the image as the APS-C dedicated lens is not adapted to its sensor.
So, be careful: a 12mm lens on a full format camera is equivalent to a wide-angle lens, which will not be the same on a M4/3 sensor for example with a 24mm equivalent focal length. Generally, the brands offer focal lengths adapted to the type of sensor they produce. The most classic example is the standard zoom lenses. There is usually a 12-35mm for MFT, a 17-55mm for APS-C and a 24-70mm for full frame. Although the focal lengths are different, the view in your viewfinder (angle of view) will be almost the same.
There are several types of long focal lengths, called telephoto lenses. We always refer to a full format sensor here. In a very general way, remember that the longer a focal length, the more likely it is stabilized, its maximum aperture decreases while its price increases. For the moment, telephoto lenses are still more affordable on DSLR cameras in my opinion. We generally distinguish:
- Small telephoto lenses: between 85 and 135mm
- Telephoto lenses: between 135 and 300mm
- Super telephoto lenses: beyond 300mm
After having seen what could be considered as a long focal length and in which cases, I present you briefly the uses of a long focal length.
This is obviously a classic. So yes, everything will depend on which sport we are talking about. But globally, I include all sports where you don’t have close access (tennis, handball, baseball, volleyball, car rally, aerobatics, etc.). All these subjects will be too far away and using a long focal length will obviously be mandatory if you want to photograph these details up close.
This is one of the other classic uses. Again, I measure my words. You don’t need a very long focal length to take a picture of your cat or your rabbit in your garden (although it can be interesting!). But, as for sports, as soon as you want to take pictures of distant or fearful animals, using a long focal length will be necessary. I’m thinking of bird photography, safari photography, or globally any animal in its natural environment. Macro is a special field and there are dedicated lenses.
This is another frequent use. I insist on outdoor because indoors, for example in a studio, you will often lack distance to use a 100 or 135mm to shoot someone. Outdoors, you have more room and using a long focal length will allow you to isolate the subject from its background, in addition to using, of course, a large aperture. Contrary to what one might think, it is not the focal length itself that distorts the subject, but the distance to it. To put it simply, “with a short focal length, to frame tightly, you will have to get closer, which distorts the subject”. In portraiture, using a longer focal length will ensure a “correct shape” of the face.
As mentioned above, one of the main uses, or at least one of its consequences, is to be able to detach the subject from the background and thus put it in front. It is the notion of depth of field that comes into play here, and I invite you to read the article on the link above. Of course, this separation subject/background does not only depend on the focal length used, but mainly on the aperture, the focus distance with the subject, the distance of the background from the subject or the size of the sensor.
Even if the term “compress” is not perfect, long focal lengths tend to flatten the perspectives of an image. So, when you shoot with a long focal length, you get the impression that the different areas of your image are closer than they appear. A typical example is to shoot buildings with a long focal length. You can give the impression (using a telephoto lens) that two buildings (front and background) are very close, when in reality they may be several miles apart. Conversely, wide-angle lenses give the impression of immensity and give the idea that the subject and its background are very far apart, when actually they are not.
Finally, this is kind of a conclusion as it takes up all the points mentioned above. Using a long focal length usually allows you to highlight a detail, whether it is an animal, a human, a sport or any other subject. You can also isolate a detail from a tree, a flower, a car, a building, etc. by zooming in to frame precisely a part of it.
The two pictures above were shot with my Canon 70-300mm L IS USM f/4-5.6
I give you below my tips for shooting with a long focal length, both technical and practical details.
This is finally the best advice and the one you should focus on the most, because a long focal length often means a heavy lens. Imagine carrying a camera of about 1kg (like my 6D) on which you will add a 70-200mm or a 300mm lens, which will quickly weigh more than a kilo. In the end, you can easily have to hold 2kg/2.5Kg, and that weighs its weight. Undeniably, you will end up moving slightly or shaking when shooting. And what’s the result? A slightly blurry picture! Sure, it might not be catastrophic, but it’s always better to have sharp pictures, right? In fact, we could say that the tighter the framing (thus with a long focal length), the more the movements can be seen in the viewfinder.
By convention, we can say that for a full format camera, we advise to use at least the same shutter speed as the focal length used. For example, if you are using a 300mm focal length, we recommend shooting at least 1/300. If you have the possibility to shoot faster, for example by increasing the ISO by one stop, I think you should do it. For smaller sensors (APS-C / MFT), it is even more true, and I will even apply the crop factor. So, use a shutter speed of 1/450 for an APS-C camera and 1/600 for MTF. After, everything will depend on your ability to hold your camera and on the stabilization (or not) of the latter.
Of course, it is possible to shoot and get great pictures at lower shutter speeds. It will also depend on the subject (fixed/active, and if you can put your lens somewhere or on a tripod).
Finally, you should know that on some cameras (like my 6D), you can also set a minimum shutter speed. It works in Av mode on my Canon 6D and allows me for example to set a minimum shutter speed of 1/80 when using my Canon 85mm f/1.8. This is an example, but I often use it to avoid going too low in speed.
ISO is part of the famous exposure triangle, with shutter speed and aperture. As we have just seen, using a long focal length will very often require the use of a fast shutter speed when shooting. I would say that globally, you will rarely use small apertures with a telephoto lens (e.g., f/11), but rather quite large apertures (such as f/4), or even larger (remember, large aperture = small number).
Also, the key here is to find the right balance between your equipment, the situation you are in and the subject. Because in order to use a fast shutter speed, even with a large aperture, you will often have to increase the ISO on your camera. In daylight situations, there will be few worries, the light being sufficient to not have to increase ISO too much, even if the subject is fast. But as soon as the light goes down, you will have more trouble.
Remember, every time you double ISO, you can shoot twice as fast while keeping the same exposure of your image. However, the higher the ISO, the more noise will appear on your image, and the quality will clearly deteriorate. The main thing is to find the right balance between having enough shutter speed to shoot your subject with peace of mind (and therefore keep the ISO lower) and having a little more margin on the shutter speed side, but this will often mean having to increase the ISO. If you are not at full aperture, this is also the time to open your aperture a stop or two to gain speed, but you will lose some depth of field, depending on the situation.
Everyone will see where they stand here, but in my opinion, it is better to go a little higher in ISO and manage to capture your subject (for example if it’s moving) than wanting to stay on a low ISO at all costs and completely miss your picture. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing.
Note that you can often also fix on the camera (it’s the case of my 6D) an ISO range for the auto mode for example, which can be useful if you don’t want to go above or below a certain value.
After mentioning ISO above, I wanted to add a few words about the aperture to use when using long focal lengths. If we focus on sports photographers, you will often see them shooting at full aperture, mainly for two reasons: they need to use a very fast shutter speed and they usually need to blur the background. Using long focal lengths with large apertures allows it. We will find photographers using for example a Canon 400mm f/2.8…
However, you will not necessarily always need to shoot at full aperture. I take the example of a portrait picture outside or of a distant detail. You will certainly want to isolate the background to highlight your subject, but you also want to see more of your subject in focus. Closing the aperture a stop or two (e.g., instead of shooting at f/1.8 with my 85mm, closing to f/2 or f/2.8) will not only give me more depth of field (DOF – the sharp part of my subject will be larger, to put it simply), but also often gives me better image quality. For a portrait, closing the aperture a little bit will allow you to gain in DOF and will allow you to have something else than the pupil of the subject’s eye in focus, haha!
Another example is wildlife photography. If you already have a nice separation between your animal and the background, using a long focal length will be enough to produce a nice bokeh, a nice background blur. You may consider closing your aperture a bit for the reasons mentioned above: to gain depth of field and image quality. This will be very useful for wildlife photography since some of them are quite long/large, and if you use a too large aperture, you will only get a bit of the animal in focus (depending on the framing).
I’ve talked about it before on this blog, but lenses usually have a “sweet spot”, an aperture at which the quality is better. Most of the time, you just have to look at some MTF curves to realize that the best sharpness of a lens is never at full aperture, but rather 2/3 stops further. After, if you have to shoot at full aperture because you lack shutter speed and opening the aperture will allow you to get a good picture, then there is no debate. Well, on quality lenses weighing several kilos, like a 300mm f/2.8, the difference in image quality between full aperture and medium aperture is often pretty small.
In addition to having an aperture at which the sharpness is best, lenses also have a “best focal length”. In general, on telephoto and super telephoto lenses, the image quality will be worse at full focal length, or at full zoom as we say. Concretely, if you use a Sigma 150-600mm lens, you should not be surprised if the quality is not that good at 600mm.
If you have no choice, fine. But if, as for wildlife photography, you can sometimes move around and get closer to your subject, then it will be better to do it so, to move towards the subject and shoot at 500mm, rather than staying in your place and shooting at 600mm. Well, I’m not telling you either to stick to a bear just because you don’t want to use your longest focal length, eh!
This is something we don’t often think about but which is very useful when using long focal lengths. To explain it simply, this is a tool (adjustable on most long lenses, but also on some cameras) allowing to limit the area on which the lens will try to focus. It is truly very practical, especially for sports and wildlife, and can even be for a portrait, for example.
Basically, you’re going to ask your lens to limit itself to trying to focus from here, and no further than there. On telephoto lenses, you often have a button on the side noted for example “10 – ∞”. If you already know that your subject will never be closer than 10m, then this is a perfect way to help your lens focus.
Other recent mirrorless cameras, for example, allow you to set a precise front/back distance or even select the precise areas on which the lens should focus. By using this trick, you will gain in focus speed and put all the chances on your side to get good pictures, especially if the subject is moving.
I won’t go into detail here as things are quite simple. You have several types of stabilization: the one in the camera (like the Nikon Z or the latest Canon R5 / R6) and the one in the lens. In all cases, remember that using a stabilization system will allow you to shoot at lower shutter speeds while limiting motion blur. In other words, limit your movements, as the ones of the subjects do not are by the stabilization!
Generally, long lenses have at least 2 types of stabilization. Mode 1 is the simple mode that you can use daily. Mode 2 is very useful if you want to follow a moving subject, like for example to film or for a subject you simply want to follow.
I have written an entire article about the different modes in photography (of your camera). Even if it’s an article dedicated to tips for shooting with a long focal length, we can talk about cameras too. Indeed, all cameras offer different modes, the most known and used being the AV, TV and M (or A, S and M) modes.
Globally, I would say that if you are shooting a fixed subject or one that does not move much, the Av mode (aperture priority) will be fine. You set your ISO in automatic (or manual), then your aperture and the camera finally calculates the ideal speed.
If the subject moves, it may be more interesting to set the shutter speed, say for example 1/2000. You can set the ISO to auto (or not) and the camera automatically calculates the aperture it should use. When there is not enough light, in most cases, the camera proposes the maximum aperture anyway.
Nothing too surprising here, you might say, and it’s actually not a tip only for long focal lengths. Using a long focal length, a wide aperture and a far background distance will allow you to produce beautiful bokeh. I invite you to read my article on depth of field if you want to know more about this subject.
But clearly, with long focal lengths, the possibilities of perfectly blurred backgrounds are even greater. You just have to use the right settings and sometimes move a bit to separate the background from your subject. With such focal lengths, sometimes all you need to do is change and vary the framing by a few centimeters to make a big difference on the background and its quality.
This is an obvious one, but a very important tip. In addition to helping you carry your camera + long lens combination that weighs a ton, it will give you more stability and also the ability to shoot at slower shutter speeds. This is especially true for sports, wildlife and even portrait photography. By the way, you can look at the sports photographers around a soccer stadium or whatever, they are all, or almost, on tripods/monopods, and sometimes even on a little stool. Obviously, no one wants to carry 2, 3 or 4Kg of gear for several hours.
Of course, it is not mandatory all the time, but if you are doing stalking techniques for example in your garden or if you are stopped at a specific place waiting for an animal or a particular scene (for example during a safari), you will be happy to have a tripod or a monopod.
For safari photography, you may also want to consider purchasing a bean bag, which is a very useful photo accessory for stabilizing your long lens and limiting motion blur.
And finally, this is the last piece of advice I’m going to give here: you have to practice. It’s silly, but you’re going to need time and practice to master a long lens, to learn about its limitations, flaws and qualities. Only time and practice will help you. I advise you to train several days before the big day, for example if you go on safari.
I wanted to finish this article with some purely technical details regarding the choice of your long focal length and associated accessories. Indeed, it is possible that if you just came across this article, it means that you are about to buy a telephoto lens or to change your old one.
Let’s just start there. How to choose your long focal length? I would say that it will depend on several elements that I will resume below:
Right, this might make you smile. But don’t make me say what I didn’t say. I would never say on this blog that this lens is more suitable for beginners and that one for professionals. Everything will often be about budget, desire and, less often when you are a beginner, needs. If you are beginning in photography and about to buy your first telephoto lens, there are two ways to see things.
- You may want to get your hands on something basic and in this case, I would recommend staying with a cheap telephoto lens that you will find in all brands. Canon/Nikon offer for example 70-300mm around 500/600€ (or even less if you choose a telephoto lens for an APS-C sensor, like the Canon EF-S STM 55-250 mm F/4-5.6 IS or the Nikkor AF-S DX 55-200mm f/4-5.6G ED VR II). At this price, you obviously won’t have the best lens in the world, but it’s more than enough for beginners and you can already start getting familiar with your new toy. I personally began with a Canon 55-250mm…
- Or you have a bit more budget and, even if you are a beginner, you want to treat yourself by buying something better than the small aperture kit lens I mentioned above. You will be able to go for classic 70-200mm, 700-300mm lenses with larger fixed apertures, such as f/4 or f/2.8 (but you have to know that the price doubles or triples).
As we saw in the tips, everything will depend on what you want to photograph. If you want to focus on sports, it will be interesting to turn to a long focal length with a large aperture (e.g., f/2.8), which will allow you to freeze movements more easily. Remember, as mentioned above, an aperture of f/2.8 compared to f/4 will allow you to shoot twice as fast. Knowing that “cheap” telephoto lenses often offer apertures of f/4-5.6, or even f/6.3…
If you are not really focused on sports but you rather want to use it for travel and everyday life, the interest of owning a telephoto lens opening at f/2.8 will be more limited. I am not saying that it will be useless. You should know that a telephoto lens opening at f/2.8 instead of f/4 allows you to shoot twice as fast, but also to better blur your backgrounds. However, the downside is that the lens is more expensive, larger and heavier.
I agree, it is a bit like what I’ve mentioned above. We could generalize this way: the more the telephoto lens you’ll choose have a long focal length, the more it will usually be expensive, longer, heavier, and the max aperture will be smaller.
You will have difficulties to find lenses with a large aperture as soon as you choose focal lengths beyond 300/400mm. Also, be careful to compare apples with apples when you’ll make your choice. I talk about it in my article on sensor differences, but a 200mm lens on a Micro 4/3 camera or on a full frame will not offer the same rendering in terms of angle of field and depth of field. You will have to compare with equivalent focal length and aperture, but that’s another subject…
Otherwise, I propose you below some serious references from Canon and Nikon, for example. As a reminder, the acronym EF reminds of the full frame (DSLR) compatibility at Canon, while EF-S reminds that the lens is intended for APS-C cameras (DSLR) – RF = Canon mirrorless camera. At Nikon: FX = full frame and DX = APS-C. Nikon Z = Nikon mirrorless camera.
|Type||Lense||Focal length||Max. aperture||Ø filter||Stab.||Autofocus||Best Price|
|Telephoto zoom||Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM||70-200mm||f/2.8||77mm||YES||YES||Amazon|
|Telephoto zoom||Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS II USM||70-200mm||f/4||72mm||YES||YES||Amazon|
|Telephoto zoom||Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM||70-300mm||f/4.5-5.6||67mm||YES||YES||Amazon|
|Telephoto zoom||Canon EF 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II USM||70-300mm||f/4.5-5.6||67mm||NO||YES||Amazon|
|Telephoto prime||Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM||85mm||f/1.8||58mm||NO||YES||Amazon|
|Telephoto zoom||Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM||100-400mm||f/4.5-5.6||77mm||YES||YES||Amazon|
|Telephoto prime||Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM||300mm||f/4||77mm||YES||YES||Amazon|
|Telephoto prime||Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM II||400mm||f/4||-||YES||YES||Amazon|
|Telephoto zoom||Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM||55-250mm||f/4-5.6||58mm||YES||YES||Amazon|
|Telephoto zoom||Canon RF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS USM||70-200mm||f/2.8||77mm||YES||YES||Amazon|
|Telephoto zoom||Canon RF 24-240mm f/4-6.3 IS||24-240mm||f/4-6.3||72mm||YES||YES||Amazon|
|Telephoto zoom||Nikon Z 70-200mm f/2.8 S VR||70-200mm||f/2.8||77mm||YES||YES||Amazon|
|Telephoto prime||Nikon Z 85mm f/1.8 S||85mm||f/1.8||67mm||YES||YES||Amazon|
|Telephoto zoom||Nikkor AF-P DX 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3G ED||70-300mm||f/4.5-6.6||58mm||NO||YES||Amazon|
|Telephoto zoom||Nikkor AF-S 70-200mm f/4G ED VR||70-200mm||f/4||67mm||NO||YES||Amazon|
|Telephoto zoom||Nikkor AF-S DX 55-200mm f/4-5.6G ED VR II||55-200mm||f/4-5.6||52mm||YES||YES||Amazon|
|Telephoto zoom||Nikkor AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR||200-500mm||f/5.6||95mm||YES||YES||Amazon|
|Telephoto prime||Nikkor AF-S 85mm f/1.8G||85mm||f/1.8||67mm||NO||YES||Amazon|
Again, this is a topic that has already been covered in detail on the article dedicated to choosing tripods on our blog. So, I won’t go into it all again here. Remember that if you intend to buy a tripod / head for your future/new telephoto lens, you will have to consider the weight of your future camera + telephoto lens couple. This is the main element to consider when buying a tripod: the maximum load it can support. In other words, choose a tripod that can carry at least double (for more security) the maximum weight of your couple.
I have not yet written an article dedicated to these camera accessories (also known as TC, Extender or Teleconverter), but you should know that they allow you to “increase the focal length” of your lenses. They act like a magnifying glass and are placed between your camera and the lens. Once again, I won’t go into details, but they can be used if you find yourself too short in terms of focal length and you want to occasionally zoom further.
Keep in mind, however, that:
- There is a more or less significant loss of sharpness quality when using focal length multipliers. This will depend on the brand and the TC used, but also on the quality of the lens,
- There are generally TC x1.4 and x2. Be careful however, you lose one stop of light by using a TC x1.4 and 2 stops for the double (TCx2),
- Depending on the model and focal length used, you will sometimes lose your autofocus with these accessories,
- The TCs are more interesting if the lens has a large enough aperture, ideally f/2.8 or f/4.
In my opinion, they can be a way to troubleshoot, but I would not use them continuously.
That’s it, I’m coming to the end of this article about tips for shooting with a long focal length. I hope you’ve learned a few things. Please feel free to comment in the section below and tell me what you thought of it, and especially give me other tips that I might have forgotten!
If you want more photo tips and tricks on specific areas, feel free to check out the category page of the site.
See you soon,