Riccardo Zambelloni Photography
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5 Tips for Shooting Razor-Sharp Landscapes with a Tele-Photo Lens

 Low clouds + trees + a tele-photo zoom lens is a winning combination for some moody and unique captures

Low clouds + trees + a tele-photo zoom lens is a winning combination for some moody and unique captures

Everybody usually thinks that a wide-angle lens is the most important lens for landscape photography. While this may be 40% true, I strongly believe that mid-range to tele-photo zoom lenses are equally important and they should always be present in every landscape photographer’s bag. When I started out in landscape photography, I was a wide-angle addict; everything was wide-angle, 18mm here, 20mm there and 16mm over there. Every shot was a wide-angle shot as I wanted to take the whole view in. My addiction was that bad that I had to go to rehab and buy an 80-400mm lens. From that day, I was a new and penniless man and that lens opened up an endless and unique world for my landscape images. You see, wide-angle shots are great to get the greater view, but, ultimately, these frames are either dispersive or they are the “classic” shots. Using a tele-photo lens really makes you think harder about what is really important in the scene and how to compose the shot in a compelling way. The thing I love the most about long lenses is how they really simplify the scene and enable you to capture those intimate and close up details that you easily miss with a wide-angle lens. I also feel like tele shots are much more personal and they can tell you a lot more about the visions and thoughts of the man behind the camera. Don’t get me wrong, I still use my wide-angle lens, but I am always ready to switch to my tele lens if I see some interesting smaller scenes. If you are now aching to use a tele-photo lens in your next outing, here are 5 useful tips for you to get super dooper razor-sharp tele-photo shots.

1-Use a cable release

 A combination of cable release and Mirror Up mode helped me time and achieve a razor sharp focus for this tele-shot frame during a blizzard in the French Alps

A combination of cable release and Mirror Up mode helped me time and achieve a razor sharp focus for this tele-shot frame during a blizzard in the French Alps

This is no secret and it’s a very relevant tip for landscape photography in general and not just for tele-shots. A cable release or a delayed shutter release are extremely important to achieve razor-sharp images. When using a cable release, you minimise the shake of your camera caused by your finger pressing the shutter release button and, hence, you’ll take sharper pictures. Shooting at longer focal lengths like 200mm or even 400mm makes your camera very sensitive to any shake; thus, using a cable release or a delayed shutter release is highly recommended. Cable releases are a quite cheap accessory for your camera and they are also light to carry. You just need to find the right one for your camera (as cameras can have different cable outlets), plug it in and use it as a remote control. Easy-peasy. If, for some reasons, you don’t want to buy a cable release or don’t want to have the hassle to plug it in and out every time, you can choose a delayed shutter release. In this case, you press the shutter release button as usual and then the camera will take the picture after couple of seconds. I suggest you to set a 2 or 4 seconds delay to allow the camera to return still after pressing the button. Be aware that using the delayed shutter release instead of the cable release is totally fine for tele-photo shots, but it might be problematic when shooting waves, where you need total control of the timing of your shutter release (more on this in later posts). What do I use for my tele-photo shots? Glad you asked…cable release. ALL. THE. TIME.

 As I said earlier, a tele-photo zoom lens is your best friend for capturing intimate scene during those cloudy and rainy days

As I said earlier, a tele-photo zoom lens is your best friend for capturing intimate scene during those cloudy and rainy days

2-Switch to Mirror Up mode

Since we just talked about trying to minimise camera shake, switching to Mirror Up mode is another trick that will allow you to get even sharper pictures when using long focal lengths. Every time you take a picture, the mirror opens up to expose your sensor for a determine fraction of time to then closes again. This mirror movement can be problematic for tele-photo shots as it can be the cause of unwanted camera shakes that could blur your pictures. Using Mirror Up mode, you will have to press the shutter once to open the mirror and press another time to take the picture. Basically, the camera splits the command of opening the mirror and taking the picture in 2 separate actions that you can control independently. Whenever you set a composition and an exposure for your tele-shot, switch to Mirror Up mode, press once to open the mirror and wait for a couple of seconds before pressing again to take the actual picture. By doing this, you’ll avoid the camera shake caused by the opening of the mirror, thus getting sharper pictures. This can also be helpful in windy conditions as you can set up your shot with Mirror Up mode, open the mirror and then wait for the wind to die out a little to take the shot. Sometimes breaks in the wind last few seconds and with this set up you’ll be ready to fire instantly to get a sharp frame. Almost forgot, this tip is quite useless if you are using a mirrorless system as you don’t have any mirror.

3-Take extra care when focusing

Taking extra care when focusing your scene is another important thing when shooting with a tele-photo lens. The hyperfocal distance becomes quite tricky for these kind of shots as it’s harder to judge the distance of objects so far away from you. This can lead to blurry or soft focused part of your image and sometimes it requires fairly small apertures (f-14 or f-16) to get the whole scene sharp. If you feel like your tele-photo shot is somehow soft, make sure to use the appropriate aperture and that your focus is in the right spot. I suggest you to zoom in live view mode on your focus point, focus and then scroll up and down the image to see if the scene is acceptably sharp. If you want to be extra sure, consider to focus stack your frame. Don’t know what the hyperfocal distance is or how to focus stack? Don’t worry I’ll talk about these topics soon.

 
 For this shot, I had to use a very small aperture to get all the layers acceptably sharp from the foreground to the background

For this shot, I had to use a very small aperture to get all the layers acceptably sharp from the foreground to the background

 
 I have probably taken around 50 shots of this scene before noticing that my VR was on and was the only cause of my soft focus 

I have probably taken around 50 shots of this scene before noticing that my VR was on and was the only cause of my soft focus 

4-Disengage the Image Stabilisation

Image Stabilisation (IS) or Vibration Reduction (VR) are systems built into your lens to correct the camera shakes and to avoid blurry pictures. I know they sound super awesome, but all that glitters is not gold. Camera shakes when on a tripod are almost non-existent or far less than when handholding your camera. If you leave the IS or VR on when on a tripod, the system will try to correct possible camera shakes, even if there’re no shakes at all. This will force the VR to engage some sort of correction algorithm that ultimately will blur your picture. Therefore, these tools will actually ruin your shot and they’ll be the only cause. So, whenever on a tripod turn off the IS or VR. You won’t believe the amount of blurry or soft focus shots I got because I didn’t notice my VR was on. Because of that, I now turn the VR off all the time and I may turn it on only if I am shooting handheld with a focal length up to 35mm.   

5-Beware of ghosting

Tele-photo lenses are pretty famous to be very sensitive to ghosting effects, which manifest themselves as coloured hazy halos around a big portion of the frame. These effects happen especially if you are shooting a scene towards or close to your source of light (in this case the sun). If you spot some ghosting in your scene, you should mount your lens hood. If that bugger is still present, try to hover your hand close to the lens to cover it from the direct sun light. Since you are using long focal length, your hand should not be in the way of your shot. You can see from the picture below a perfect example of ghosting. I was shooting this intimate scene at 350mm towards the setting sun and this gave me a huge ghosting effect across my entire image. Since I forgot my lens hood in the car (dork!!!), I have tried to cover the lens with my hand to get rid of the scary ghost. The picture on the right is much cleaner and crisper than the left one as no ghosting effect is present. Even if you don't believe in ghosts, beware of them!!!

 OH MY GOD!!!! A GHOST.

OH MY GOD!!!! A GHOST.

 Pheeeew!!! Hovering my hand over my lens got rid of the scary ghost.

Pheeeew!!! Hovering my hand over my lens got rid of the scary ghost.