Defeating the "Camera Shake" Enemy
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Using long telephoto lenses and taking sharp photographs is not easy. NPN Field Editor Bill Horn addressed this last year in his article "Mastering Big Lens Technique." This article will review the basic techniques outlined by Bill and delve into advance big lens techniques that will allow you to take sharp pictures with large lenses from atop your tripod, from cars, with teleconverters, and even with stacked teleconverters. These techniques can be used with most focal lengths but become more and more important with the longer and heavier lenses.
Getting that first "big gun" lens can be an exciting time. You have finally arrived as a truly serious photographer and purchased a 400/f2.8, 500/f4, or 600/f4. You are pinching yourself that you went for the dedicated 1.4x or 2x teleconverter too. This is one serious investment and now you are feeling all set to mix it up with the big names in nature photography. Judgment day comes when you get your first few rolls of slide film back from the lab and look at them with your loupe. "There must be something wrong with this lens - I had it on my tripod and the image looked sharp in the viewfinder but most of these photos are fuzzy!" This is an all too common occurrence. I have read numerous tales of people selling their new large lenses after a few outings because they were unable to get sharp pictures. The big enemy of long telephoto lenses is camera/lens movement. Even the slightest movement is dramatically magnified by long telephoto lenses. To illustrate the effect of movement on a long lens, imagine pointing a pen and then moving your wrist ever so slightly, the end of the pen moves a small amount. Now take a yardstick, hold it the same way and move your wrist the same amount - notice how much more movement there is at the end of the yardstick compared to the pen. The same thing holds true for long lenses in relationship to shorter ones. This motion at the end of long lenses is the main contributor to fuzzy images. The vibration can be due to any of several reasons including wind, an unstable platform or even the camera's mirror movement. Here are some basic tips to get sharp images with long lenses:
Teleconverters increase the focal length of your lens and reduce the effective aperture. A 1.4x converter increases focal length by 1.4 times while reducing the amount of light getting to the film plane by one full stop (50% less light). A 2x converter doubles the focal length while reducing the light to the film plane by 2 full stops (75% less light). When using these devices, not only are you increasing the risk of lens shake, the slower shutter speeds required can really put the sharpness of the image at risk.
In addition to all of the basic techniques above, the following recommendations will improve sharpness with teleconverters:
With the fantastic optics found in today's prime long lenses (300/f2.8, 400/f2.8, 500/f4, 600/f4) and teleconverters made specifically for use with these pro-grade lenses, it is possible to take photographs that are of publication quality. It isn't easy! In fact it's very difficult! All of the above techniques have to be applied perfectly and you have to have a cooperative subject that is very still. As an example, lets look at the effect on a 600mm/f4 lens with stacked teleconverters. The lens becomes a 1680mm super-telephoto (600 x 1.4 x 2.0 = 1680) or more than a 30x optic. The aperture becomes f11 - three full stops slower than the 600/f4 lens we started with. Not only is the lens 3 times more susceptible to lens shake due to the longer focal length, but it is 3 stops slower as well, making it 9 times more susceptible to lens movement compared to the lens used alone.
Mirror lock-up is highly desirable if not a necessity under these conditions. Everything on your tripod and tripod head has to be tightened down. Adding a beanbag or some other item that is not subject to catching the wind to the top of the lens to dampen vibration is recommended to improve sharpness. You should push the film a stop or two to gain back shutter speed. Finally take the picture. Then take as many more as the subject or your patience, or your film budget will allow. If everything was done properly and your subject cooperated, you will get at least one, if not many, sharp images.
Long lenses and Your Car
Bird photographers know that a car makes an excellent blind. For some reason our little avian friends aren't nearly as intimidated by a 4000 pound SUV barreling toward them as they are of a human making a slow approach. There are several ways to take sharp photos from inside your car with long lenses. One given in any photograph with long lenses from your car is that the vehicle should be still. That means not moving, engine off, and not being influenced by wind or by traffic going by.
The first method is the pillow or beanbag method. This involves draping a beanbag or pillow over your window and then resting the lens on this cushion. This is a surprisingly stable platform and I have made many very sharp photos (with IS) even at 1200mm. As usual, a hand draped over the top of the lens will help dampen out any camera induce vibration.
A second method is to purchase a window mount. There are several on the market that mount either onto the car window itself or the door at the base of the window. These mounts will accept any standard tripod head. You have basically turned your vehicle into a stable camera support system and again, using the basic long lens techniques above, you will be amazed by how sharp your pictures can be and by how close you can approach some wildlife.
Method number three was popularized by Arthur Morris as a bird photography technique. If you choose this method, do so very carefully. In this method, you set-up the tripod in your car by wedging the legs between the floor and the driver's door. You then extend one leg across the car to lock the tripod into position. The problem with this is that you will now be wedged into your car and will not be able to exit the vehicle until you tear down the set-up. If your vehicle suffers any kind of collision, even very minor ones, serious injury can occur.
The final method is the sunroof method. If your sunroof is large enough you can put the camera on the roof, preferably on a platform with a tripod head and the photograph using all of the long lens techniques outlined. Unfortunately, this method is much more threatening to wildlife than shooting out of a window.
Using these techniques and tips will maximize your chances of getting sharp images with those wonderful long lenses. As always, practice, practice, practice to obtain the best results.
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