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.