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When shooting nature shots, getting close to your subject can be very tricky. Using a telephoto lens can bring your subject closer with great result. However, there are a couple of issues when using telephoto lenses that need to be considered. The first is camera stability and the second is shutter speed.

The importance of a tripod is primary when you break out those telephoto lenses. No matter how stable you can hand-hold a camera, you will never match the stability of a tripod.

The shutter speed should also be set fast enough to freeze any motion. Generally, the shutter speed on the camera should be set to one over the focal length of the lens for any hope at a sharp shot. In other words, if you have a 250mm lens the minimum shutter speed you can hand hold the camera is 1/250 of a second. Using this formula will get you close but adding the tripod will get you there.

In the following lesson we will look at shooting water foul at a local park using the Olympus 50-200mm zoom and the 150mm and the 300mm fixed focal length lenses. We will show how to correctly mount telephoto lenses to the tripod, allowing you to have the quick actions you need when you shoot wildlife.

(Click on any image below for an enlarged view.)

Topics Covered:

  • Finding the center of gravity
  • Correct lens mounting
  • Changing camera settings for motion

Equipment Used:
You can click on the blue links below for more info.


    Finding the center of gravity

    When you are out in the field shooting nature and wildlife, finding a flat spot to set up your shot can be rare. Setting up your tripod on the side of a hill or on a slope can present a few scary problems as well. Finding the center of gravity and setting your camera as close to this point as you can will ensure the safety and the long life of your expensive cameras and lenses.

    NOTE: This lesson uses a tripod model made by Manfrotto. Specific features on your tripod may vary, but the concepts shown in this lesson apply to most tripods.


    Figure 1

    In figure 1 we show the wrong way to set this shot up. The center of gravity is set to the low side greatly increasing the likelihood of the camera and tripod falling over.


    To correct this problem we made some simple adjustments to the tripod legs. The first adjustment is to the angle of a tripod leg.

    First, push the leg angle adjustment clip down to release the leg. Then pull the leg out and set into the next position, the leg will click into place and lock (figures 2 and 3).



    Because we have changed the angle of the leg we need to adjust the length to get our center balanced. To do this we unlocked the leg extension clip, centered the tripod, and relocked the leg into position (figures 4 and 5). Notice how the center column is vertical and well supported by all three tripod legs.



    Correct lens mounting

    The next thing to consider is how to mount the camera and long lens to the tripod. Most long lenses come with a mounting yoke attached to them and these are removable and adjustable in most cases. We highly recommend you use these, as they relieve the added tension the heavy lens puts on the camera’s lens mount. They also center the weight of the lens over the center of the tripod making the movement of the camera and lens much smoother.


    Figure 6

    We used an Olympus 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 zoom lens for our first shots. This lens is equivalent to a 100-400mm lens for traditional 35mm film cameras.

    In figure 6, we have attached a quick release plate to the lens mounting yoke. To be safe, we left the caps on the lens, and we mounted the lens to the tripod without the camera attached.


    We mounted the lens to the tripod's grip action head. Then we removed the lens caps and put the lens hood in place (figures 7 and 8).



    We attached the camera to the lens and started shooting (figure 9 and 10).

    We used an Olympus EVOLT E-300 SLR camera. When shooting action shots, it is best to use an SLR type camera to better catch the action. SLR cameras have no lag time between the pressing of the shutter release and the actual image capture. Other digital cameras will have some lag time for the exposure, making it difficult to catch the optimum moment of an action.



    We set up our camera as follows, for Focus we set it to Manual, ISO was set to 100, and Resolution set to TIFF. For our Exposure we used the BDE (Basic Daylight Exposure) also called “sunny 16”.

    For those of you that have never heard of this term, all it means is we set the aperture to f/16 and the shutter speed to 1/ISO or 1/100 of a second. This is a basic rule you can use any time when your subject is in normal sunlight.



    Here are a few shots we made at these settings (figure 11).


    Figure 11


    Changing Camera Settings for Motion

    While our exposures are good, the shutter speed (1/100 second) is too slow to stop any motion, such as a duck flapping its wings.

    We reset our exposure settings to increase the shutter speed and reduce the aperture, keeping the same exposure value. This means that if we increase the shutter speed from 1/100 to 1/800, we need to adjust the aperture by the same amount.

    The change from 1/100 to 1/800 is 3 stops (1/200= 1 stop, 1/400= 2 stops and 1/800= 3 stops). To match this, our aperture should be set from f16 to f/5.6 (f/11= 1 stop, f/8 = 2 stops, and f/5.6 = 3 stops).

    The shots we made after our exposure adjustment have the same look from the exposure stand point, but because we have a faster shutter speed, we should have no motion blur. Also, the wider aperture results in a much shorter depth of field (figure 12).


    Figure 12


    So now you can see the importance of the tripod when you’re shooting wildlife with a long lens. We could not have gotten any of these shots without it.

    The following are some examples of shots we made using the Olympus 150mm fixed focal length lens (figure 13). The in-flight image of the geese and the images of the ducks were made possible through the use of the grip head on top of the tripod, allowing us to follow our subjects with one hand while shooting with the other.


    Figure 13


    For these shots of the surfers in action, we mounted the Olympus 300mm fixed focal length lens to the tripod.

    We changed our camera settings to gain more depth of field. Our new settings were 1/200 @ f/11. This will give more depth to the final shots while the shutter speed is still fast enough to stop the action on the water (figure 14).


    Figure 14


    Using a telephoto lens can be great fun. Just keep in mind that a tripod should be used to keep your camera stable. A tripod will also save your arms and back from holding the camera steady waiting for that perfect shot. A stable camera is your best bet for getting sharp action images.


    Equipment Used:
    You can click on the blue links below for more info.

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