Telephoto Vision
Are You Seeing the Big Picture?
December 16, 2004

Being in Malaysia while my luggage tours Japan has made me think about writing an article about doing without. Sometimes we must do without things because they are unavailable, and sometimes we should do without things to get better images.
Big Glass
Photographers lust after it and max out our credit cards for it. To be sure, prime lenses like the 600 mm f/4.0 perform like nothing else in certain situations. But, it is important to remember that shorter focal lengths still exist and often have greater artistic possibilities. Forgetting to consider shorter focal lengths for wildlife shooting can cost you some great images in addition to the steep price of the big glass. I was reminded of this on a recent trip to Yellowstone. My wife was shooting with a 100 - 400 mm zoom and I had the 600 mm lens. My photos were fine and about what I expected. Hers did a far better job of capturing the feeling of the place that morning, and explored compositional possibilities I had never seen through the restricted field of the longer prime lens.
It is also important to remember that super-telephoto lenses are by nature large and heavy, and they need a substantial tripod and head to hold them. If you are the one carrying all of this, you may want to think twice about your choice of lens. The perfect lens for a given subject is one you can get to the location and maneuver quickly enough to suit your subject's behavior. On our trips to Malaysia the 600 mm lens would be as effective as a boat anchor for getting good wildlife images. Using a 300 mm f/4.0 IS lens, occasionally with teleconverters, is a far more practical choice. If we needed a few specific shots and could wait for a month in a blind to get them, the big lens might be invaluable. Our time constraints, shooting style, airline restrictions, and the situations we usually encounter call for something much more agile than the cumbersome 600 mm behemoth. Once in a while I wish I had the big lens, but I know I would lose more images with it than I gain by not having it along.

One of the first rules every photographer learns is that you get better composed and sharper pictures when you use a tripod. There are times, though, when using a tripod will lessen the chances of getting photos in the first place. For instance, using a tripod to get images of a monkey moving among the trees in the jungle is an exercise in futility. The tripod legs hit branches and undergrowth as you try to move it. Apart from being slow and clumsy, this makes noise that can scare the subject. Moving the shooting position up and down for a clear shot is too slow to be practical. The legs slip on and get stuck between tree roots too. Hand holding while bracing against a tree and using an image stabilized lens is the best you can do in these situations. Refusal to abandon a tripod in this circumstance will result in lost images, plain and simple.
High ISO
Whether you use digital or film media, using high ISO settings means more grain and noise. Because of this, some would not dream of using transparency film pushed to ISO 800 or shooting digital at ISO 1600. If you hold fast to such a belief, sooner or later you will miss some stunning images because of it. Grain and noise are often not obtrusive when an image contains no large areas without detail. When such areas do appear in an image, digital processing can often reduce the noise or grain to acceptable levels. If you do not do what is necessary to capture an image in the first place, there are always no possibilities.
What's the Point?
The point of this article is not to rail against long lenses and tripods, nor is it to advocate using higher ISO settings than are necessary to capture an image. However, it is important to keep all options open to maximize the photographic potential of any situation. In life and photography compromise is often the only realistic solution to problems. Using any photographic tool that hinders what must be accomplished in a given situation is always a mistake. Images of something with acceptable levels of sharpness and noise are always better than tack sharp and noiseless images of nothing. In a perfect world we could always use fast lenses mounted to a sturdy tripod, and luggage would never get lost. It's an imperfect world, though. Perhaps that's why it's so much fun.
Happy shooting,

Florida Sandhill Crane, Portrait - 600mm f/4.0 with 1.4x teleconverter and 1.6x digital "cropping factor", ISO 400
Cooling Swim, Malayan Tiger, Perak, Malaysia - 300mm f/4.0 with 2x teleconverter, Provia 400 pushed to ISO 800
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Copyright 2004 Dean M. Chriss
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