Keeping sharp – Part 1

21 Dec 2015

I commented on a social media post today, by someone who was having difficulty getting sharp images with a telephoto zoom and it got me thinking about putting down some of the things I’ve learned on ‘e’-paper.

The reason I feel I am qualified to say something on this vast  and subjective matter is because I have intimate experience with one of the most tricky unstabilised telephoto lenses in existence: The Sigma 300-800mm f/5.6  EX DG APO HSM as well as another perennial favourite, the Canon 400mm f/5.6 L. Both of these lenses require some TLC but with the right techniques they can deliver!

Most lenses manufactured today in the Telephoto market are image stabilised (IS) either with some electricity inside the camera body (like Sony and Pentax) or in the lens itself (like Canon and Nikon). For me, IS is a bit of a crutch. It’s nice to have, but it is making us sloppy when taking images. Worse than that, it can mean that when we do get our hands on glass, either with or without stabilisation of a different make or type, we end up not being able to get the shots we want.

Flying Yellow Billed Kite

Get close

I am a firm believer in one main thing when it comes to wildlife and bird photography and it is this: For the absolute best image quality, it doesn’t matter what equipment you shoot with, it only matters how close you can get.

Getting as close as you can to the subject is essential. Think of it like eyesight, where do your eyes give you the best image quality, far away or close to you? Of course, there are lots of other factors at play here, not just reach but getting close to your subject will get you the best quality image no matter what lens you use.

Take your filter off

Ok, so if you are getting close already, what are the other things that might be preventing that tack-sharp shot? Well, the next biggest thing on my list of No-No’s is an UV filter, especially the cheap ones we begrudgingly buy. If you are going to use a filter, make it the best possible one you can afford or better still just leave it off!

When I first started out in telephoto photography I got myself an advanced enthusiast body with the latest technology sensor and the Canon 400mm f/5.6 L, one of the best value Bird-in-Flight (BIF) tele’s in the business, even today. Boy was I disappointed, I caried this combo all around the West of South Africa thinking I was going to nail some dream shots.

When I got into the pictures they all had this grungy unsharp grey feel and poor contrast. I had also bought a Canon 100-400 f/4-5.6 L IS MKI with me and this was producing the images I had hoped for. What was wrong with my priceless 400 prime?!

I took this lens to be calibrated, I spent hours testing it on chart shots alongside the 100-400 (it performed significantly better than the 100-400mm – which was soft on the left side!) and yet, when I went off to take pictures I was disappointed. I considered trading it, and my new body in for something else. One day however, I was walking around the house on another test run and I decided to whip the screw-in filter off. The image was a revelation! Sharp & contrasty!! The reason the tests hadn’t picked it up was because I took the filter off for them, doh! Now the 400 f/5.6 L is a firm favourite for travelling light or for BIF where it still excels against the rest.

Take your teleconverter off

The next culprit for image softness or quality issues is your teleconverter. Yes, these are great and speak to the standard belief amongst aspiring wildlife and bird photographers that tend to say “all I need is a little more reach! A 300mm, a 400mm, 500, 600….” It is the surest way to waste your money, I know because I did it!

Keep the teleconverter on if:

  1. The image quality is good enough for what you need to use the shot for.
  2. There is enough light to use a high shutter speed and low ISO.
  3. You are taking macro photos and want to increase the magnification.
  4. If you are concerned about image quality, take it off and leave it off. Crawl closer, move the hide, sit under scrim netting, swim or do whatever you need to do and move yourself closer instead.
Manfrotto Super Clamp with ballhead camera support

Support your lens

You know what it’s like. You just bought a shiny new magic lens and camera but you get a bit miserly when someone suggests you fork out your cash for a monopod or a tripod. It is still the case, that for most of us, the single biggest thing we can do to improve the technical quality of our images is to use adequate support.

For wildlife or birds, that means a beanbag, proper stance, weight training, practice, monopod, tripod, in fact, anything that you can use to steady yourself and equipment is a bonus.

In the next part of my articl,e I will discuss the more technical aspects that will help you in achieving sharp images.

About the Author:

Will G


  1. Kevin Hutchinson 6 Jan 2016 at 9:56 am - Reply

    Thanks Will. Great article and yes, time to let go of that filter. I battle with sharpness in a lot of instances and to be honest have never shot without it.

    • Will G
      Will Goodlet 7 Jan 2016 at 12:30 pm - Reply

      Thanks Kevin, appreciate you taking the time to read it, especially given your great bird shots! I guess you have to consider that none of the big primes have filters on the end (admit they have them in the barrel) but if it’s only on a lens to stop accidental bashing of the lens element is that really a good enough reason to keep it!?

      • Andre 22 Jan 2016 at 1:13 pm - Reply

        Thank you Will. As a newbie you answer two of my questions. One is using a filter and also teleconverters.

        Thank you enjoy reading it.


        • Will G
          Will Goodlet 22 Jan 2016 at 1:24 pm - Reply

          Thanks for reading it Andre! Keep a look out for part two which goes into camera settings 🙂

  2. rudi 6 Feb 2016 at 11:23 am - Reply

    Great article Will.
    Does the lack of IS on the 400 prime affect your shots a lot or will a good monopod/beanbag suffice ?


    • Will G
      Will Goodlet 8 Feb 2016 at 5:31 pm - Reply

      Hi Rudi,
      There is a second part to the article (ODP split it in half and have yet to publish part 2) which goes a long way toward explaining the camera settings to improve sharpness. The full article was designed as a check-list of increasing technical aspects which could isolate the causes of image softness if it was worked through.

      In short, yes, the lack of IS does affect the shot however, I would rarely shoot birds-in-flight for example, at a shutter speed where IS would make a difference. So low light static or portrait shots benefit from IS while good light and moving targets generally do not. In fact for these subjects I will often switch IS off and use a high shutter speed instead (around 1/2500th). Anything where the subject is moving requires a trade-off between shutter speed, ISO and aperture to do the subject justice. In this situation IS will not be decisive.

      For example, I recently photographed a Serval approaching head on on a rainy dark morning. Relying only on IS would have prevented some softness due to my own body movement but would have done nothing for the movement of the Serval. Only a reasonable shutter speed would have frozen the cat’s movement, somewhere in the region of 1/400 second. In this situation I would have traded IS and reach for an F2.8 lens and a fast shutter speed!

  3. Kevin Hutchinson 7 May 2017 at 1:28 pm - Reply

    Hi Will

    I was going through my archives and came across your Article which I thoroughly enjoyed. Did ODP ever publish Part2 of this article. Would like to read it but cannot find it.

  4. Will Goodlet 9 May 2018 at 12:06 pm - Reply

    Jeez sorry Kevin only just saw this comment now. No they never published part ii (they had some ‘notes’) and I decided to abandon writing here.

    • The Outdoorphoto Team 11 May 2018 at 11:24 am - Reply

      Hi Will

      Thank you for bringing this to our attention. As discussed, we’ve published the article without the suggested notes.

      Kind regards
      The Outdoorphoto Team

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