5 Steps For Avoiding Blur When Using A Telephoto Lens

Soon after buying my first telephoto lens I rushed out and took a load of wildlife pictures. I’d been desperate to photograph the impressive deer that roam the woodland near my house, and finally I had the lens to do them justice.

The shots looked great on the little 3″ LCD screen during the shoot. But back at my computer, zoomed in at 50% or 100% for post processing, I was really disappointed to find bad amounts of blur caused by camera shake.

So, if you’re new to using a telephoto lens, here are 5 simple things you can do to avoid the same mistake…

1. Use A Tripod Whenever Possible

I definitely needed my tripod to capture this fast moving yacht on a windy day without any blur

The magnification of a telephoto exaggerates the effect of camera shake, so you have to try extra hard to get sharp results. So a tripod is very much your best friend when using a long zoom.

Before getting my first telephoto lens, the only time I really used a tripod was for landscape photography. But that’s an easy target! Landscapes don’t just take off and disappear like many of the sports and wildlife subjects for which zoom lenses are so useful.

So, if possible, make use of a tripod that maneuvers easily. Personally, I prefer ball socket tripods to their tilt/shift counterparts, as you can swing the camera around in any direction with one simple mechanism.

2. Use A Remote Release Device

This picture looked sharp on the LCD, but zoomed in close you can see lots of blur

The remote release device is a brilliant tool that enables you to press the shutter button without touching the camera. A simple cord attaches to your camera, with a remote shutter release button on the end of it.

I use my remote release more and more. It eradicates the small, but discernible camera shake that results from the simple action of pressing the shutter button with your index finger. It might sound like perfectionism, but check out the difference once you start using it.

If you’re on the fence about buying one, bear in mind that it makes long exposure photos a whole lot easier too. No more using the self-timer and hoping that the wave breaks, or the firework explodes just at the right moment!

3. Remember The Shutter Speed/Focal Length Reciprocal Rule

These migrating terns were shot at 200mm focal length and 1/400th shutter speed

The rule that you should always shoot with a shutter speed the reciprocal of focal length (e.g. 60mm focal length demands 1/60 shutter speed) is a doubly important with a telephoto because of the unforgiving magnification effect.

It’s important to note that, for most people, this rule is actually a tad misleading. It really applies to anyone shooting on a full frame sensor. If you use a 4/3rds sensor, like most non-professionals, take account of the 1.5x crop factor, which increases effective focal length by 1.5.

So, if you’re lining up a wildlife shot at 300mm focal length, use a shutter speed of at least 1/450th. You may be disappointed by the results if you only use a 1:1 ratio for shutter speed and focal length with a telephoto lens.

Always check the VR/IS switch before shooting

4. Use The Vibration Reduction Feature

Vibration Reduction, or Image Stabilization for Canon shooters, is a great feature of modern zoom lenses that compensates for camera shake with a very subtle corrective movement. There’s a switch on the lenses for turning it on and off.But, like all technology, this system has its limits. It’s basically designed for helping you out when hand-holding – the time that camera shake is most likely to occur. When you are able to use a tripod (which isn’t all of the time, e.g. in the crowd at sports games), VR/IS systems should always be switched off. If the lens is held perfectly steady by a tripod, the VR will still go looking for shake and correct it even though it’s not there! This ‘correction’ actually creates blur, completely defeating the point.

5. Bump Up The ISO

I took this street portrait in tricky light at ISO 600 to avoid slowing the shutter too much

Noise performance in modern DSLR’s is stupidly good. But even leaving that aside, a little bit of grain in an image is far preferable to a lot of blur. Don’t develop a fear of increasing ISO speed beyond 400 or 500. If it’s a choice between higher ISO than I’d like and slower shutter speed than I’d like, I always choose higher ISO.

Ultimately, it’s the subject of your photo that counts, and ISO speeds are a big help in capturing shots in tricky light. In any case, it’s pretty easy to minimize or even eliminate noise in post-production these days. (Here’s a quick guide to ISO for the uninitiated)

These 5 things are all pretty easy to control and get used to. But they should really help you to get the most out of your telephoto lens.

Josh Austin

Josh Austin is an amateur photographer living in the UK. He spends most of his free time shooting, and the rest of it sharing ideas, tips and reviews with other keen photographers on his site Photography Art Cafe. You can find him on Facebook as well.

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