The Big-Glass Effect

I remember my first big telephoto lens. I was living in a small cabin in Alaska, working as a mountaineering guide and living on a shoestring budget. I awoke many mornings to see moose wandering through my yard or sandhill cranes feeding nearby. My Nikon 80-200mm ƒ/2.8 lens was always attached to my camera, ready to go. I captured some nice moose images, but I had one problem: 200mm just wasn’t long enough to get a close shot. I wanted a full-frame headshot, not a brown speck in a green field.

The next summer, I spent so much time guiding clients on glaciers that I missed summer; instead, I just saw snow and ice. But I had saved enough money to buy my first big lens, a manual-focus 500mm ƒ/4. I was so excited I found out where the FedEx truck would be loading my package and drove to Anchorage to intercept my big box. I’ll never forget opening that box and seeing the big, yellow Nikon 500mm case. I had just spent my entire summer savings, but holding that big black lens was a religious experience! Was it worth it? Absolutely!

Now, years later, I’ve owned many supertelephoto lenses, lenses 300mm and longer. My current favorites are a 200-400mm ƒ/4 and a 600mm ƒ/4. These lenses represent a big investment, but they’re critical in my work. Big telephotos not only allow me to get close to my subject, but also produce creative effects for portraits and landscapes. To get the most out of these lenses, you need to learn how to use them correctly and "see like a supertelephoto."


What’s the best telephoto lens for you? Price, weight and maximum aperture all will affect your decision. Start by asking yourself these questions: How much does this lens weigh, and will that affect how much you use it? I love shooting with my 600mm ƒ/4, but it weighs close to 12 pounds and it takes a lot of work to carry it around. On the other hand, my 200-400mm ƒ/4 weighs about seven pounds, is much smaller and is very easy to carry. I even handhold it on occasion, something I couldn’t do with my 600mm. Don’t buy a lens just to look cool! Get one you’re going to use without hesitation!

Another important aspect to consider is the maximum aperture of the lens. Lenses focus using the widest aperture of the lens, only closing down to the chosen aperture at the moment of exposure. A 300mm ƒ/2.8 lens is very bright, allowing lightning-quick autofocus, even in low-light situations. But a 300mm ƒ/2.8 is more expensive and heavier than a 300mm ƒ/4 lens. Today’s cameras have excellent autofocus systems that work in very dark situations, so maybe you don’t need that extra stop of light in your telephoto. Also, today’s cameras perform excellent at high ISOs, allowing you more shutter speed without needing a larger aperture—instead of going from ƒ/4 to ƒ/2.8, you can go from ISO 200 to ISO 400 to gain that extra stop of light.

If you’re a serious wildlife or sports shooter, then consider a 500mm or 600mm. If you only need big glass occasionally, then look at a 300mm or 400mm. You can use a teleconverter if you need more reach.


It’s all about the stability. The real trick to getting great photos using a big telephoto lens is keeping the lens rock-steady. We’re not just talking about putting the lens on a tripod and shooting away. Think more like exhaling with the lens pressed against your face as you gently hit the shutter, concentrating on Zen-like thoughts the whole time!

Seriously, proper tripod/lens technique is necessary to get tack-sharp images. Start by using a tripod and head that are big enough to support the lens. Remember, shooting with a 400mm lens is like looking through 8x power binoculars. At this high magnification, the slightest movement results in blurry shots.

Consider leaving your image stabilization on. Some manufacturers recommend leaving the image stabilization on when shooting on a tripod, while other manufacturers recommend turning it off (check your specific lens recommendation). I use a large Gitzo tripod and a Really Right Stuff BH-55 head. This setup works fine to support my 200-400mm lens, and I can adjust the drag for smooth panning shots.

Using the 600mm is another story. For best results with this lens, I use a gimbal head. Gimbal heads allow silky-smooth movement of large telephoto lenses like the 500mm and 600mm. Gimbal heads perfectly balance supertelephotos, allowing easy tracking of moving wildlife. I use a Really Right Stuff side-mount gimbal for my 600mm. The side-mount is lighter and more compact than a full gimbal head, and still offers fluid panning using big glass.


Once the lens is on a tripod, use good technique for sharp images. I start by firmly pressing my face into my camera while supporting the lens with my hand. This technique allows me to deaden any movement. Since eliminating lens shake is critical, choose the fastest shutter speed you can use for your shot. I like to shoot 1?1000 sec. and faster. My Nikon cameras work great at high ISOs, so I regularly shoot at ISO 800 and higher to get the fast shutter speeds I need using my big telephotos.


Supertelephotos offer three unique advantages: magnification, compression and a narrow angle of view. The most obvious telephoto advantage is the ability to bring distant subjects very close. A 600mm magnifies a scene similar to 12x power binoculars. Imagine filling the frame as the football star catches a pass midfield. With supertelephotos, this is possible.

Another advantage is the way telephotos compress elements in a scene. Since they magnify a scene so much, this creates a compression effect that makes subjects in your frame appear closer to each other than they really are. Recently, I was photographing climbers on a glacier. I started photographing them with a wide-angle lens. But then I decided to walk about a quarter-mile away and use a 500mm. This lens compressed the scene, making the glacier look like it was towering above the climbers. Using a supertelephoto lens was much more dramatic than using a wide-angle lens. A great effect related to scene compression is the unique bokeh created using shallow depth of field. Using wide apertures like ƒ/4 on a supertelephoto lens creates stunning, smooth backgrounds behind your subject. It’s worth noting that you can crop existing images taken with a high-megapixel camera to simulate using a telephoto lens. But the difference is you don’t get the compression effect or the unique bokeh using shallow depth of field with a big telephoto lens.

Another unique advantage to using supertelephoto lenses is their narrow angle of view. Distracting elements in a shot can ruin the image, but using a longer lens can help eliminate this issue. Imagine a scenario where you’re photographing a street mime in Paris. If you shoot using your 50mm at 10 feet, the mime is the right size in your shot, but there are distracting elements on both sides of your subject. If you move back to 20 feet and use a 100mm lens, the subject is the same size, but you’ve narrowed your angle of view and eliminated the distracting elements. My 400mm has an angle of view of nearly 6º, while my 600mm has an angle of view of about 4º. By comparison, a 200mm has an angle of view of almost 20º, and a 50mm is 46º. If you want to eliminate distracting image elements, use the narrow angle of view provided by a telephoto lens.


Choose the right autofocus. Many people buy supertelephoto lenses to photograph wildlife and action sports, which means fast-moving subjects. Choosing the right autofocus will impro
ve your big-lens experience. You have four variables to set: autofocus button, focus pattern, frame rate and focus range.

Choosing the autofocus button is your first decision. Pressing the shutter halfway down starts autofocus on most cameras, and works fine for many photographers. But some cameras allow you to set a custom function and use a button on the back of the camera for autofocus.

Why? Back-button autofocus separates the shutter and focusing operation, eliminating the chance for an unwanted element changing your autofocus in the middle of a sequence. Imagine photographing a hawk in flight, and as the hawk flies past, a tree comes between you and the bird. If you’re using shutter-button autofocus, then the camera will try to autofocus on the tree when it comes between you and the hawk. If you’re using back-button autofocus, you can stop autofocusing while you pan past the tree, but still keep shooting frames holding the shutter button down. Back-button autofocus isn’t for everybody and takes practice to master, but it can offer advantages in dynamic shooting situations.

Another choice to make is the autofocus pattern. I normally leave my camera on single-point autofocus, as this works best for most of my shooting situations. If I’m photographing a model with a 300mm lens at ƒ/2.8 at 36 feet, I have seven inches of depth of field. I need to make sure my focus point is right on her face or I may get a soft shot. With moving subjects, I use a nine-point autofocus pattern. This pattern has more autofocus area to track moving subjects, but is still small enough for fast autofocus. For subjects that are erratic and hard to follow, try using larger focus patterns to capture the movement.

Frame rate is the third variable to consider using telephoto lenses. Similar to single-point autofocus, my default setting is the single-shot setting. I use flash a lot in my work, and the flashes pop for one frame and then need to recycle. Multiframe bursts result in the first shot lit by flash and the rest are dark.

But photographing fast-action sports and wildlife changes everything. In this mode, it’s more about catching the action, and the more frames I get, the better my odds. I set my frame rate to its highest setting for action photography. Nothing sounds better than hearing nine frames a second popping off as a skier flies off a big jump!

The last setting to consider is the lens-focusing range. Most supertelephoto lenses have a lens-barrel switch that allows you to choose the focus range of the lens. If I’m shooting a subject very close, I’ll choose the distance setting that includes my close subject. This way when I autofocus, my lens doesn’t go out to infinity and back looking for my subject, which is right in front of me. You improve your autofocus speed by choosing the right focusing range.


Use that huge lens hood. Supertelephoto lenses are big by nature. But add on the enormous lens hood, and they look like a piece of military hardware in a war zone. However, the lens hood serves an important purpose. First, it protects the front element. Front protective filters can’t be used on large telephoto lenses, so the lens hood keeps damaging objects away from the front element. Second, the lens hood keeps errant sunlight and rain from hitting the front element. I frequently photograph in rain, and the huge lens hood on my 600mm keeps the rain from spotting the front element. And sun flare is eliminated using the lens hood.

There are times when I don’t use the lens hood. Sometimes I take off the hood to eliminate lens shake if it’s really windy. But this is risky if you have blowing sand and dirt that might hit the front element. I also take my lens hood off in photo blinds. Blind shooting requires you to stay fully enclosed in the blind. If you stick your lens out the window, chances are, you’ll scare wildlife away. Taking off the lens hood allows me to get closer to the shooting window in the blind.

Never use your camera strap! One summer, I was photographing grizzly bears at Katmai National Park, and the upper platform was packed with photographers using big telephotos. You could tell who the veterans were: scratched lens hoods, wear marks on the barrels. A few photographers with brand-new long lenses were visibly excited to be capturing grizzly headshots. Then, the unthinkable happened. A photographer took his 600mm off the tripod and starting walking away with the camera/lens supported by his camera strap around his shoulder. I could almost hear the lens mount on his camera cracking under the strain of a 12-pound lens. Supertelephotos have dedicated straps attached to the lens barrel to avoid this issue. Use your telephoto lens strap, not your camera body strap.


In the end, buying a supertelephoto is a big decision. Consider renting a big lens first, and see what you think. But be forewarned: Once you look through that supertelephoto, there’s no going back.

To see more of Tom Bol’s photography, visit his website at

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