In this third part of our series on local nature photography we takes a look at the medium telephoto lens in the range of around 70-300mm in 135mm format. This also includes, on cropped dSLR’s, the newer ‘super-zooms’ around 18-200mm. After the standard lens, discussed in part two this is probably the next most versatile and widely available kind of lens.
Many of the compact cameras have at least part of this range built into them and a good few have extenders available as an add-on. Others also have what is known as a digital zoom feature, but more on this later.
With Nature and Wildlife photography, the advantage of a telephoto lens is to bring the subject closer to you, without having to get physically closer to the subject! Everything from butterflies to large mammals are wary of human approach and will move away if you get too close, sometimes very rapidly and often never to return!
But that is not the only advantage. As with portraiture, a telephoto can give a more pleasing perspective to the subject and the restricted depth-of-field helps to separate subject from background. That restricted depth-of-field has another advantage if you are trying to take pictures in a captive environment, helping if you are trying to shoot through fences or wire enclosures.
Many of the compact cameras available, along with some of Sigma’s interchangeable lenses for SLR’s, have a close-up facility that operates at the long end of the zoom range and these can be particularly useful to the wildlife photographer too.
What subjects are suited to the medium telephoto lens?
The simple answer is everything from butterflies and birds through to lions, tigers and elephants in safari parks, although you might be pushing your luck with some birds and I’d leave out the giraffes unless you just want a head shot!
For example, Butterflies are notoriously difficult to approach in the wild but with a lens of 200-300mm effective you can get excellent results from up to two metres away. Most tele-zooms will still focus at this distance. Include some habitat and you can start shooting from further away to get the ‘banker’ shot before approaching too closely and putting the subject to flight.
Larger birds, like ducks and swans, which can be found in some parks and most rivers/lakes in Britain, are good subjects for this type of lens. Pick a spot and be prepared to sit and wait a while as the birds get used to your presence and they will come closer to you. Look out for reflections from water that can fool the metering, but also the reflections that can become part of the picture. Mirror images on flat water can be very effective.
Many mammals are displayed in fenced enclosures, and the fences can be quite substantial to keep some of the more powerful animals secure. In this case, get as close to the fence as you can and use as wide an aperture as possible. Take care where the lens is placed, as any gap in the mesh can be maximized by placing the centre of the lens in the centre of the gap in the mesh, but be aware that metal will scratch glass so a lens hood and/or protective filter (Skylight or UV) is recommended!
If your camera can be manually focused, make sure you know how and make yourself familiar with it. Something as simple as a few wisps of grass will fool autofocus cameras into thinking they are the subject and this can be very frustrating when trying to photograph wildlife from a distance. A grazing animal or perched bird may be partly obscured by branch or leaves, but if you can focus on it, and wait for the moment when the breeze moves them just enough, you have got your picture. But if the autofocus then starts hunting, the moment is lost. Manual focusing is also the way to get past wire fences in zoos and the like. Often, by focusing on the subject through the fence, you can loose the fence completely, especially if you use a wide aperture as mentioned above. Look for painted, rather than galvanized wire, as shiny fences are harder to loose! The idea is to get the fencing so far out of focus that it can no longer be seen!
Another problem with using telephoto lenses is that of camera shake. Once you go above about 100mm it is increasingly difficult to hold the camera still. The longer the focal length, the worse this problem becomes. There are, however, a number of ways to overcome the problem. A tripod is normally recommended for this, but they can be quite unwieldy and difficult to adjust quickly when you have a subject that refuses to stay still. More manageable is the humble Monopod, which is also much cheaper. Get one with easy height adjustment and a tiltable head and you won’t go far wrong. Another invaluable tool is the Beanbag. These can be bought, made or improvised very cheaply and solve camera shake in an instant. They are most useful in hides and for low level work such as Fungi and wild flowers.
More and more common are cameras/lenses with some form of anti-shake device like Sigma’s OS system fitted and they extend the possibilities of hand holding longer focal lengths but they still have their limitations.
Get out there and have a go with longer focal lengths. Experiment with depth-of-field and manual focusing and see what effects you can come up with. You might surprise yourself!