Before we get much further I will touch upon the need to choose a correct DSLR camera body for your intended needs and purposes, whether you're a pro or hobbyist or anything in between. Let's begin with the premise that you need to use quality glass in order to reproduce your images so you can show them off in a myriad of ways so they look great for your intended audience. Cheap glass gives you poor results and you feel let down. Great glass gives you goose-bumps and leaves you speechless (often due to the price tag!) but with corresponding results.
Where do I spend my money?
I always spend most of my money on the best quality lenses and less on the camera bodies currently available. It must be said, in this day and age, sensor size, pixel count, sensor design, low-light capability, hardware, software and other factors are more important than ever before. One needs to keep in mind that the evolution of modern DSLR's is changing much faster than in the recent past. Many years ago one could have a "body" that was useful for 3-7 (or more) years and keep upgrading the lenses as your budget allowed. Now, every 12-18 months or so there is a new body with more amazing capabilities than ever before. It's hard to keep up with the technology and the expense of each new body so I try to upgrade bodies every two or three years. I prefer full-frame sensors and low-light capabilities as my first two most important criteria. With full-frame sensors I get to use all the millimeters that the lens has – no more and no less – so I am not worried about missing something. But, what you see in the viewfinder is what you get to frame with but an important factor to consider is whether the viewfinder shows you 100% of the image, as most do not. With cropped sensors I 'loose' on the wide-angle side due to the cropped sensor, but I 'gain' on the telephoto end as the cropped sensor 'adds' to the length of my telephoto. For example: if I use a 50% crop sensor I loose half of a 20mm lens so I am shooting with the equivalent of a 30mm lens. If I use a 300mm lens with a 50% cropped sensor I am effectively using a 450mm lens.
What is a definition of a telephoto lens?
The traditional definition of a telephoto in the 35mm format is usually a lens that is 70mm or longer up to 1200mm or more. These can be prime lenses (one focal length) or zoom lenses (you can zoom from one focal length to another) – both versions offer superb designs and exceptional quality optics. In this case, all the images I am showing were all done with a Canon EF 300mm f/ 4.0 prime telephoto lens. In my humble opinion, what counts is not the brand as much as the quality of glass you shoot with. But, there are some legendary glass manufacturers that are head and shoulders above others. Before getting mired in the brand vs. brand discussion all that matters to me is to use the best possible glass I can afford to buy. The best glass is expensive and usually there is no way around that. Most manufacturers have their 'top-end' glass and then everything else below that.
So how does one define 'quality glass' besides the 4-5-figure price tag?
From the pro to the consumer level there are numerous choices in the marketplace. The 'pro' equipment has very strict requirements due to the need to produce images that are superb in all categories and able to be used in all weather conditions. Some requirements are – sharpness, clarity, contrast, color, low chromatic aberration, AF capabilities, as well as handling, weight, balance, image stabilization, weather-proofing, system compatibility, etc. Thus the requirements for a 'pro' shooter who usually makes a living with their images (there are many definitions, pick one) are much more stringent than say for a 'hobbyist' who is probably more interested in the memories those images bring, having some prints made, e-mailing them to friends and family and entering a contest (yes, I am painting with a broad brush, please don't take offense). Having said that, I personally know some 'amateur' photographers that can shoot some 'pro' shooters out of the water with less-than-pro equipment. Finally, since these are not mass-consumption items, they only manufacture a small quantity, thus the prices are higher.
Does one really need to use those expensive long lenses?
The whole point here is that if you want to get quality results with telephoto lenses you need to spend some money and buy them or rent, which is totally valid and cheaper option. The Canon EF 300/4.0 that I currently use is roughly a $ 1,250.00 lens that provides awesome results if you use the correct techniques and proper methods. This is not very expensive for me but for some people it borders on ridiculous and way beyond their budget. I say save your money and slowly buy the best you can or rent one and test it out. I definitely will steer you away from lenses that go from wide angle to telephoto as their resolution capabilities are limited, especially on the extreme ends of their zoom range. Just because you can afford it doesn't mean you have a magic wand. You still need good technique, good support (tripod and head) and as important, a vision. You need to shoot a lot and learn from your successes as well as your mistakes.
Is the quality of long lens glass that much better for so much more money?
The simple and short answer is...yes. In order to get the best results one needs the best glass (read: somewhat to extremely expensive) so it can counter the many optical and atmospheric obstacles present in all shooting conditions like; low-light, haze, humidity, dust, wind, cold and heat, etc. The best lenses use glass that is unique, un-common and expensive to manufacture and is used to make a few key elements in a series of groups that reduce flare, haze, and other technological impediments that provide superior results. There are also special coatings and technologies in the manufacturing, like image stabilization, that add to this. The combination of precise glass elements are designed to give you results that give you clear, sharp, colorful images that have nice contrast and 'pop' and jump out at you. The internal mechanisms that provide sophisticated image stabilization and let you shoot in lower light levels add weight and expense – but are very much worth the extra cash. I always go with the stabilizer option if available. The cheaper lenses made of inexpensive glass, simple mechanisms and less stringent quality standards do not have the same capabilities. As the old adage applies - you get what you pay for. That does not mean you need to go broke and buy the most expensive lens there is but spending $1,000.00+ dollars vs. a few hundred dollars on the same length and speed of lens will be immediately obvious when you see your images on the computer screen or in print. You need to compare apples to apples.
What is your goal with the images you want to shoot?
My 'ultimate test' is to make a print from my images – usually starting at 11x14 and going upwards to 20x30 and beyond. If I use good glass, solid support, proper technique and focus properly, as well as process my files to the best of my ability (and I don't 'Photoshop' them to death) then I have a very good expectation that my images should be able to be printed properly and as big as I need or want and look great. The limitations will be decided principally on a combination of sensor size and type, your camera's capabilities, the quality of your glass and your technique and many other factors.
So, what do you want to do with your images? If you want to e-mail them or post them on the web, then your "needs" will be different than if you want the image to be judged on paper or used in publications or for commercial use. I know that if my original files are the best possible capture then I should have unlimited ways of distributing them (that is why I shoot in RAW). I expect a lot from my equipment and my techniques as well. I do not expect a quality file from cheap equipment or poor technique. Now, we may differ on what a 'good quality' file is, but the ultimate judgment is often determined by the quality of your equipment and an assumption that one is using proper technique and technology, too. Personally, I like my photos to be sharp! I usually like more depth of field rather than less. I am not a fan of calling an out-of-focus, soft or poorly composed image a keeper unless all of a sudden it becomes 'art'. I have had a lot of 'art' that has been deleted - I don't miss them and they don't miss me.
What about use in low-light conditions?
It's simple; faster lenses are heavier and slower lenses are lighter. I have some 'slower' lenses that are tack sharp but they limit my ability to shoot in low light conditions (even with a tripod) – which is when some of the best photo opportunities abound that require a combination of faster shutter speeds and/or more depth of field. The slower/lighter lenses are easier to carry on my back or around my neck and I can get to places that are harder to get to without the added weight. If there is a lot of light, they are fine but if the light is low then they are almost useless. That is, unless you have a camera that has some exceptional low-light gathering capabilities that let you raise your ISO by leaps and bounds and take advantage of that technology, within usable limits of course. No matter how much you can jack-up your ISO, shooting at lower ISO's is going to provide a much better file, so I prefer a faster/heavier lens instead of raising my ISO, if at all possible. I raise my ISO when I feel I need it - not because I can.
What tripod and head are best for using long lenses for landscapes?
I prefer mass over lightweight any day. A big, heavy and burly tripod will do more to help you get tack-sharp images than something lighter and this applies to the head of your choice as well. The mass will help absorb the minute shakes and vibrations that are caused by you merely touching the camera as well as wind or whatever is moving your lens. Big lenses are like sails, they catch the wind and shake. The stronger and heavier your tripod the more secure it will be from wind and prevent it from dropping to the ground with that big, expensive piece of glass sitting there helplessly. I recommend that you not leave big glass on the tripod for an extended time or when conditions are not calm or if you are not 100% sure it's secure and are watching it! That is why I use a QR mechanism to quickly take off the lens/camera rig and put it on the ground, or someplace safe – for my peace of mind – until I am ready to use it. Some tripods have hooks underneath them to hook a bag or some kind of weight (water bag, sand bag, etc.) from the center to stabilize it further. You can also have a strap that you can wrap a couple of times around the center column or platform to hang your camera bag from – a simple and effective solution. All of my camera bodies and lenses have QR plates on them (permanently) and that provides me with an efficient way to switch lenses and bodies and stay with a system that is universal. I use all 'Arca-Swiss' compatible plates and heads. That means most brands that use that system (Really Right Stuff, Acratech, Kirk, Foba, Gitzo, Feisol, Acratech, Jobo, Induro, Kirk, Wimberley, Mongoose, Giottos, etc.) are compatible with the different manufacturers of interchangeable plates and mechanisms. And of course, you are not limited to tripods and heads, you can very effectively use a monopod and many pros do on a daily basis. Use your legs to create a tripod effect and you will have great results. Learn by looking at the pros on the sidelines of sporting events where tripods are not allowed. They are masters of the monopod and long lenses!
Your technique will determine your results.
OK, you have the mother of all lenses, with a QR system on a burly ball or gimbal head on top of a very expensive set of carbon legs and are pointing this towards that one amazing landscape that you have been dreaming of for a decade. Everything is in place – you have the gear, you are at the right place, the light is nothing short of amazing....now what? Now is when you need to slow down and think!
To begin with, every time you touch this gear, the image is going to progressively get worse due to vibrations, movement, your breathing and your pulse. Telephotos are 'magnifiers' – they magnify the image (seem to bring it closer to you) and amplify everything – including your gentle hands that touch it. You need to minimize all shake, from whatever source, as much as possible in order to get a sharp image.
The first place to start is by choosing an appropriate shutter speed to not only stop the action of your subject but of your contact with the camera. A general rule of thumb is to choose a shutter speed that is a reciprocal of the length of the lens you are using. For example: if I have a 300mm lens I want to use a shutter speed that is around 1/300th of a second or higher (at bare minimum 1/250th second). I prefer to shoot at 1/500th or higher, if possible. When you choose that speed your apertures tend to get bigger (smaller numbers) and your depth of field considerably more shallow – especially since telephoto lenses are known for having very shallow depth-of-field. No matter what, you still need to get a proper exposure by using a combination of a proper shutter speed and aperture. This is where the big, fast glass comes into play as they gather more light. If you have AF and image stabilization then you can even shoot in even lower light and even possibly discard the "general rule of thumb" I just described as some manufacturers claim you can shoot in light that is two-three stops lower than before. I would agree up to a point. My experience has been that with digital cameras I do not have as much latitude as I did with film so I actually tend to shoot one shutter speed higher than I did previously (mind you, the last time I shot film was 7 years ago). So, if you have the technology in your hands, use it. If the light is low, first thing I raise is my ISO so I can keep the higher shutter speed and aperture for more depth of field. As the light gets lower, I then open up the aperture as necessary for a proper exposure. This is a situation where you may need to adjust both shutter speed and aperture in order to get a proper exposure. Yes, you can shoot with a lower shutter speed and a smaller aperture but make sure the camera/lens are rock solid. After you frame it, then lock it down so there is no movement from the lens tripod collar, head or tripod legs, including the dangling camera strap. You can even use the self-timer if you wish. You can further minimize shake by locking the mirror up (each camera has a different method and some cameras do not have this option) before shooting. This avoids the mirror-slap while going up and down before each exposure, which is often a cause of un-sharp images. A note: it's been recommended not to use image stabilization on lenses while on a tripod (turn it off) since the technology tends to produce more movement than necessary. Check with your manufacturer and confirm this, as not all manufacturers use the same technology.
Now is when you can decide to use the AF feature or not. Often, I use the AF to get me close to what I want in focus and then manually override it or turn it off. Keep in mind that the AF systems use complex signals to get a subject in focus and one of them is contrast. Have you ever tried to shoot a white piece of paper or a black wall that has no texture or contrast? The AF searches and chokes, causing you to miss the shot. Often I keep the lens loose on the tripod and engage the AF to where I want it focused, then turn the AF off and re-compose and then lock it all down. Sometimes I visualize and anticipate where the action will be (moving animals, clouds, cars, runners, etc.) then lock the lens to where the peak action will occur and keep a sharp eye on the action as it moves into the frame and depress the shutter at the right moment. Anticipation is key to many successful photos being captured, no matter the situation or lens used.
Let's talk about your hands. They are extremely capable appendages and can be gentle and kind as well as rough and aggressive. We want them to move the mass decisively and under control when necessary but be gentle and caress the shutter button so that your hands do not cause any more movement to your camera and lens. This means you need to have your tripod in a solid location, your feet firmly planted, your elbows tucked towards your torso, your arms holding your hands firmly and your fingers moving like a sharp knife on a silk robe. Any sharp movement will ruin your picture (...and your silk robe). Just before you gently depress the shutter button, take a deep breath, hold it, caress the shutter button and then exhale. Some people keep a tight grip on the camera body (adding another point of contact for stabilization) and another arm/hand on the lens to add mass and aid in focusing. Choose a technique that absorbs movement and avoids jarring the camera and lens. You need to practice these techniques!
Alternately, you may want to set the motor drive (remember that term?) to multiple-frames per second to shoot a series of shots (3-5 or more) whereas you will shoot many more frames but the ones that will be the sharpest will usually be the ones in the middle of the group. Try it and see for yourself. In addition to this you can choose to use an electronic/remote release in order to activate the shutter without actually touching the camera physically.
I suggest you use the tripod in the following manner; always extend the biggest part of the tripod first (the thick legs) then the next biggest one and leave the smallest (weakest) ones for last. Also, keep your center column down to keep the mass and center of gravity lower. Avoid raising the center column so your heavy lens and camera is not swaying in the wind like a flag. I have replaced my center platform with a leveling platform, with a built-in bubble level, which film/videographers have on their tripods which let's you adjust the platform not the legs in order get a flat horizon. With this aid, you can have your legs stand on uneven ground and still get level horizons. Some tripods offer this option (or as a kit) and if you can get one, do it. It will change your way of thinking where you can or can't use your tripod.
Now, let's talk about the real meat of the issue - your vision.
What exactly is it that draws you to shoot the great landscape?
Personally, what draws me to the grand landscape is the vastness of it all. So why choose to use a telephoto lens instead of a wide angle you say? Well, in my case, I like all angles, especially the ultra-wide and super-telephoto. I like to see really far and really tight. I love the optical effects of telephoto lenses over a vast landscape. Often, as I scout the land with binoculars, I see a detail, a color, an angle, a dissected piece cut-out from a far away subject that catches my eye. I am also drawn to angles and leading lines that give me a combination of compressed land and graphic lines at the same time. I often see rivers, mountains and undulating landscapes as graphic patterns - no matter what lens I am using. I am also deeply driven by color, closely followed by shapes and then I like to compress those elements into a pattern that show me a totally different image. By their design, telephoto lenses compress an image and if you know how to take advantage of that, you can make some terrific and unique images. I like swirling colors and shapes and unique angles, especially from above. I have a deep connection to mother nature so for me it's not a stretch to connect to the spirit of the land via the optics and technology afforded to me by telephoto lenses.
I talked about the pros and cons of technology, the gear, the techniques, and how I see the world. As I said before, there are lots of links in the chain. Fundamentally, I want to create the best possible work that I can, within the limits of my budget and come back with files that have no limits. Not everyone has all the cash to do it right and buy all the gear in one shot. Neither do I, but I have accumulated knowledge over decades and I try to make sure I use the best tools, in the best manner they are designed to be used to make images that are technically correct but as importantly, that are true to what I see. The methods I use are the same whether the final use is for friends and family or for a client. I use the right gear and apply the techniques described previously and let the work speak for itself. My goal is to be happy with the images I make (it's different than taking photos) and to see my world in a way that is unique and interesting to me. This 'vision' (if you will) can be applied to any subject – from people to architecture and from sports to animals and landscapes. If people like my work, that is a bonus.
There are many great camera and lens manufacturers in the market so use what you have and use the best glass you can get your hands on. Third-party manufacturers that produce excellent long lens optics are Tamron, Tokina, Sigma and the legendary German glass from Zeiss.
In case you missed it earlier – all the images shown here were done with ONE lens, a Canon EF 300/4.0 using a Canon EOS 5D, 5D Mark II (full-frame sensors) or 7D (cropped sensor).
© Sergio Ballivian
About the Author
Sergio Ballivian is a native of La Paz, Bolivia and currently lives in Boulder, Colorado. He is a professional photographer that works with editorial, commercial and fine art clients. He also runs custom photographic tours to a few exceptional locations around the world as well as adventure tours to Bolivia, Chile and Peru. He has returned to shooting video again, now taking advantage of the capabilities of HDSLR's for their unique look. He hates their shortcomings though.
You can see more work at his main website http://www.sergiophoto.com/
Photographic tours at: http://www.sergiophototours.com/
Adventure travel at: http://www.explorebolivia.com/
Stock images at: http://www.atlasexposedimages.com/index.php