Lightning Storm, Great Sand Dunes. Photograph by Sarah Marino

6 Essential Field Techniques for Using a Telephoto Lens

A telephoto lens can open up a world of opportunities for landscape photographers. With longer focal lengths, like 70mm and beyond on a full-frame camera, a photographer can zoom into a scene and isolate interesting details within a grander, more expansive landscape. But, because longer lenses have a larger physical presence and greater susceptibility to camera movement, some specific field practices are important to get sharp files.

Lightning Storm captured by Telephoto Lens, Great Sand Dunes by Sarah Marino

Lightning Storm, Great Sand Dunes. Photograph by Sarah Marino.

These techniques are even more important since landscape photographers often work in challenging, windy conditions and in low light — two factors that can conspire to make consistently getting sharp files a challenge for photographers new to using telephoto lenses. These 6 tips for better field techniques can help you address these challenges and increase your success when using a longer lens, even in challenging conditions.

Telephoto Lens Example from Zion National Park, Utah

Clearing Storm, Zion National Park. Photograph by Sarah Marino.

Use A Sturdy Tripod & Ballhead When Using a Telephoto Lens

Because landscape photographers often photograph in low light, a tripod and sturdy ballhead are essential tools when using a telephoto lens for landscape photography. A common rule of thumb for handholding a lens is this calculation: to get a sharp photo, you need a shutter speed of 1/focal length. So, if you are using a lens that is 200mm long, you need a shutter speed of at least 1/200th of a second or faster to get a sharp file. I can’t remember the last time when I used a shutter speed that fast while using a long lens, so a tripod is essential if you want sharp files when photographing in low light.

Since landscape photographers often hike and explore with their gear, choosing a tripod set-up is often a game of trade-offs in terms of sturdiness and weight. When purchasing a tripod and ballhead, look carefully at the manufacturer’s capacity rating and be sure to select a set-up that can handle your longest lens but will also not weigh you down to the degree that you will not want to use what you purchase. Once you have your tripod set-up, use it consistently and set it up correctly, with the legs planted firmly on as solid of a surface as the conditions allow and all the knobs/locks fully tightened.

Death Valley Dunes

Death Valley Dunes. Photograph by Sarah Marino.

Use a Remote Release

While it is easier to use the built-in timer on your camera, a remote release is a much better tool when using a telephoto lens. Remote releases come with two primary benefits. First, using a remote release means that you do not have to touch your camera and not touching your camera can help result in sharper files. Second, using a remote release allows you to time your exposure without having to wait a few seconds for the built-in timer to go off. Being able to time your exposure can help you click the shutter at a decisive moment, like right when a wave crests over rocks, or during a lull in the wind. For most cameras, remote releases come in both corded and wireless varieties. Although the corded variety can become frayed over time, I find them more reliable than their wireless counterparts. Again, once you have a remote release, use it consistently.

Pay Attention to the Wind

Since longer lenses are physically large, even a slight breeze can result in blurry files. If you are using a long lens on a windy day, pay attention to the patterns of the wind. You will often find that even on very windy days, short lulls will give you enough time to take a few exposures. By being careful about when you choose to click the shutter, you can increase your chances of getting a sharp file.

If you have an electronic level built into your camera, it is a handy tool for determining how wind might be affecting your photos. For my camera, I can display the electronic level in live view and on windy days, I can see it jumping around. If the level is jumping around, I know that I need to take extra steps to ensure that I will come home with a sharp file. With this information, I can do things like carefully timing my exposure during lulls in the wind or adjusting my settings as discussed below.

Pastel Badlands, Death Valley National Park

Pastel Badlands, Death Valley National Park. Photograph by Sarah Marino.

Adjust Your ISO

If you are using a camera that handles higher ISOs well, remember that adjusting your ISO is a great tool to help shorten your shutter speed. This kind of adjustment is especially helpful if you are photographing in windy conditions or if your tripod is set up on unsteady ground, like sand dunes or a beach. Let’s say you are photographing in windy conditions and are getting a proper exposure at f/16, 1 sec, and ISO 100. Since you likely do not want to change your aperture because you want to maintain depth of field, your shutter speed and ISO are the adjustable variables. By bumping your ISO up to 400, you can reduce your shutter speed to ¼ of a second. In windy conditions, this simple change for a shorter shutter speed can mean the difference between sharp and blurry files.

Use Your LCD to Check for File Quality

In photography, there are few things that are more disappointing than getting home and realizing that a photo that looked great on the LCD has a fatal technical flaw. For me, this sometimes happens with photos I took using a telephoto lens in windy conditions. After a few too many of these disappointments, I started taking more time to study my files in the field. With modern digital cameras and their high quality LCDs, taking a few minutes to zoom in and look at each corner of a file to make sure it is sharp and in-focus can increase your success when photographing in difficult conditions. If you find that you are not getting a sharp file, take the opportunity to adjust your settings in the field, like discussed above in the ISO/shutter speed example. I would much rather take the time in the field to make sure I have one sharp file than come home with 15 files that are all blurry due to camera movement.

Autumn in Colorado photography by a telephoto lens.

Autumn in Colorado. Photograph by Sarah Marino.

Take Multiple Exposures in Breezy Conditions

Even though I use a digital camera, I try to think like a film photographer. I try to be deliberate about my choices in the field and minimize the number of exposures I take. When using a longer lens, however, I often take more exposures than I would with a shorter lens, especially if the conditions are changing fast and I do not have time to carefully check my files as I recommend above. Because even a gentle breeze can reduce the steadiness of a telephoto lens set-up, especially when I am hiking and using a lighter-weight tripod set-up, I always take multiple exposures of the same scene to help increase the chance that I will have a sharp file once I get back home.

Bonus Tips for Very Windy Conditions

I sometimes photograph in crazy conditions, like the visit to the sand dunes captured in the photo above, because wind can create unique opportunities. The same wind that creates the frills of blowing sand makes photography exceedingly difficult. In these cases, getting a sharp photo requires all of these steps plus other interventions that sometimes work and sometimes don’t. For example, if you have a steady hand, placing firm pressure on the top of your lens with one hand and then using your remote release with the other can help steady your lens long enough to get a sharp photo. Lowering your tripod closer to the ground, the spreading the legs widely, and using your body to block gusts can also help steady your camera under certain conditions.

By improving your field practices in the ways discussed above, you can come away with more consistent results, sharper photos, and can be confident in your techniques when photographing in unsettled weather accompanied by wind. If you have any additional tips on using a long lens in the field, please share them below!

About Author Sarah Marino

Sarah Marino is a landscape and nature photographer from Colorado who is currently traveling full-time in an Airstream trailer with her fellow photographer husband, Ron Coscorrosa, and their two cats. Sarah strives to capture photographs that convey the elegance, beauty, and the awe-inspiring qualities of the landscapes she explores during her travels. In addition to grand landscapes, Sarah’s portfolio also includes a diverse range of smaller subjects including plants, trees, and abstract natural subjects.

Sarah has published a variety of educational materials for landscape and nature photographers. These ebooks and video tutorials include: Forever Light: The Landscape Photographer’s Guide to Iceland, Desert Paradise: The Landscape Photographer’s Guide to Death Valley National Park, Black & White Photography: A Complete Guide for Nature Photographers, and Beyond the Grand Landscape: A Guide to Photographing Nature’s Smaller Scenes.

You can view more of Sarah's photos, educational resources for nature photographers, and travel stories on her website.