tips for sharper handheld telephoto images

I want to start by disqualifying myself as an animal photographer. I like to photograph them, but my hands are full learning landscape photography. As I evolve with my work I tend to use longer focal lengths. I have visited Yellowstone National Park several times, and I have never taken what I feel is a great shot of a bison. I have seen many from local photographers who live there, but I typically have a few days before it is time to leave. Animals require patience to get a picture of them with some action. I finally found a scene of a bison facing me, and had enough patience to wait for it to do something. Big accomplishment! :)

It's hard to beat the stability a tripod gives. Unfortunately, it is not always easy to adjust one quickly. It takes time. This is where knowing how to hand hold for photos becomes useful. The photos used in this article are handheld, but you cannot tell. A few things happen to make it possible.

First thing is to make sure your shutter speed is faster than your focal length. If you are shooting a 400mm lens, then you need a shutter speed above that. You cannot shoot a slow shutter speed on the longer lens and obtain sharp photos easily. This rule of thumb applies to all lens.

Secondly, You will want to brace your arm that is holding the camera. My preferred method is to turn my body sideways and fold my arm into my ribs. No matter how you move, your arm should remain locked into your ribs providing a stabilizing effect. Holding your breath helps, and if you cannot hold your breath, modify that by breathing slow so that your movement is smooth. Heavy breathing will create jerky movements. If you are shooting from a vehicle window, turn the vehicle off if possible. They have just enough vibration to create movement.

The other important part is light. Unless you have high dollar gear you need some light. Not harsh light, but just enough so that you can use really fast shutter speeds. We found an Osprey nest around the Tetons that we staked out for a little while. After about twenty minutes of patiently waiting, the bird finally took flight with a small fish. So I already had my arm braced, ready to go, and started firing away. Using a fast shutter speed allows you to freeze the frame. Some times butterflies WILL NOT stop moving, but you can overcome that with a fast shutter speed. It will freeze them. For this particular shot my shutter speed was 1/2000th of a second. So imagine if you could count to 2,000 in one second. As soon as you got to one the camera has already taken the picture. Blows my mind.

Obviously you need auto-focus for this technique. Animals move fast so you have to be ready. Dial in your settings when the animal is doing nothing. If you wait until the moment comes, you will miss it. 

My last thought is that all lenses are not equal. With any zoom lens you have a range within it that the lens is the sharpest. Typically zooming all the way out will not be as sharp as maybe a tad before it is zoomed all the way. This is something you have to take practice shots with to figure out for your particular lens. A zoom lens will always have a hard time being as sharp as a fixed focal length lens. It's a trade off. You sacrifice some sharpness for size and convenience. 

Bison camera settings: ISO 400, f5.6, 1/1000th shutter speed,and 270mm focal length. Shot with a Nikon D610 and a Sigma 150-600 contemporary lens.

Osprey camera settings: ISO 400, f6.3, 1/2000th shutter speed, and 600mm focal length. Shot with a Nikon D610 and a Sigma 150-600 contemporary lens.

Moose camera settings: ISO 250, f9.0, 1/640th shutter speed, and 600mm focal length. Shot with a Nikon D610 and a Sigma 150-600 contemporary lens.

Both images were processed using Light Room and Adobe Photoshop.