6 tips for getting better photos with a telephoto lens (by learning from my mistakes)

I wanted to write a blog post about one of my failed photos, and explain what I did wrong and what I’ve changed to not make the same mistake again.

To set the scene, earlier this year my wife and I travelled to Barcelona for a long weekend, which we really enjoyed. On this particular occasion, we were in Montjuic. For those not familiar with Barcelona, Montjuic is a hill that overlooks the city. On top of the hill is the Castle of Montjuic, and further down from the castle are the Olympic stadium and the National Museum of Art of Catalunya. Worth a visit if ever you’re there.

We took the metro to the Montjuic Funicular which left us at the bottom of a hill. You could then take a cable car to the top but we preferred to walk through some of the gardens. As we walked, the patchy cloud would let sunshine through and really light up the city below. I was watching how the light changed and lit up different parts of the city, and I envisioned a shot of the Sagrada Familia, one of Barcelona’s best known icons, lit up and the rest of the city in shadow. I kept an eye on the city and watched for the changing light.

We reached the top of the castle and the light was still changing. Eventually, the Sagrada Familia was lit up, with mainly shadow around. I attached my longest lens, which is the Sony 75-300mm f/4.5-5.6, and zoomed to 300mm. I then changed my settings for a decent exposure at the lowest ISO I have (to reduce noise), and shot three handheld frames. I then checked the LCD screen for the picture, and I was very happy with what I saw.

My camera settings were ISO-50, f/11 @ 300mm, 1/80s. Below is the result:


It should be large enough to see from the picture, but if not, try and see it on a large screen. The image is soft and blurry.

I’m still disappointed when I look at this shot now, but I am slowly getting over it 🙂

So what did I do wrong, and what should I have done differently?

1. Rule of thumb when shooting handheld with any lens: the shutter speed should be no slower than the focal length of the lens. For example, if you shoot with a 50mm lens, your shutter speed should be no slower than 1/50 of a second, unless on a tripod. This is to avoid camera blur. Your hands move the camera, so you will only get sharp results when holding the camera still. The rule of thumb above gives you an idea of what shutter speed you can shoot at for a given focal length without your own shaky hands making your image blurry. The more zoomed in you are, the more your movements are magnified in the frame, so your shutter speed must get faster when you’re zoomed in.

All this goes away if you’re set up on a tripod, because you’re not holding the camera.

Following that rule, my shutter speed should have been faster. Taking into account the 1.5x crop sensor of the camera, at 300mm on the lens, technically I was shooting at 450mm, which means my shutter speed should have been at least 1/500s, which is two and two thirds stop loss of light. To compensate for that, I should have increased my ISO from 50 to 400. That would have allowed me to keep my aperture sharp at f/11.

So my camera settings should have been ISO-400, f/11 @ 300mm (450mm), 1/500s.

2. When I checked the back of the LCD, the image looked fine. Generally, an LCD is too small to tell if an image is sharp or not. Most cameras allow you to zoom in on the LCD screen, which would have allowed me to see if the image was genuinely sharp or if I was being tricked by a small image.

3. Histogram check. The image is actually a little dark and should be brighter. Checking the LCD for the brightness of an image is bad practice, as the LCD is lit up anyway. You can actually set the brightness of the LCD, so relying on it to see how bright your image is misleading. This image would have benefitted from another 1/2 to 1 stop of light. So my settings should be even higher: ISO-800, f/11 @ 300mm (450mm), 1/500s would have gotten me that.

4. Lack of practice. I don’t often shoot telephoto, so when I shot with the long lens, I was applying what I was used to, which is a wide lens. A lot of the landscape images I shoot are shot with a Sigma 10-20mm wide angle lens. If shooting at 10mm, the crop factor is 1.5, so the lowest shutter speed should be 1/15s if handheld. This is a lot slower than 1/500s.

5. Shooting at a soft focal length of the lens. I didn’t know this at the time, but I knew the principle. Briefly, any lens is usually sharpest in the middle of the zoom, and is softest at the extremes. The Sony 75-300mm f/4.5-5.6 is not an expensive lens, and as such, is unlikely to be razor sharp at any focal length. It is definitely pretty soft at 300mm. However, choosing middle ground focal lengths and apertures is usually the best bet, and then crop later. You lose some pixels but you gain in a nice sharp image. Having known this and practiced more with the lens, I would probably have shot this at 200mm to retain sharpness, and cropped later.

So to take away from this lesson, if you are shooting a telephoto lens:

1. Get your shutter speed higher than the focal length of the lens. Don’t forget to take into account the crop factor.

2. Expect to use higher ISOs than you would shooting wide angle to achieve the faster shutter speeds.

3. Try and stabilise the camera, ideally on a tripod. If you don’t have a tripod handy, use a wall to rest the camera on or lean against a tree to steady your body.

4. Stay away from the extremes of your zoom range.

5. Try to use your sharpest aperture, which typically will be f/8 to f/11.

6. Use a tripod if you want to use longer shutter speeds or lower ISOs.

Thanks for reading: if you’ve learnt something from the article, why not share it on Facebook or Twitter so others can learn from my mistakes too?

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