Camera Stability and Long Lenses

Posted on 29 January 2014

I responded to a question somewhere else and thought that it might be useful to share the response here, too. A photographer asked some questions about using long focal length telephoto lenses for landscape photography and how to deal with the issue of camera/lens stability, bringing up related questions about things like live view modes, mirror lockup, image-stabilization, and so forth. Here is what I wrote in response…

Rocky Creek Bridge, Surf and Fog

Rocky Creek Bridge, Surf and Fog

If you are shooting landscapes from the tripod…

  • Do use live view – it is the mode that introduces the least amount of shutter vibration.
  • Either mode 1 or 2 will perform essentially equally well when it comes to shutter vibration. (In both cases, there really isn’t any shutter motion vibration before the exposure since it is initiated electronically.
  • If you use a remote release (and you do, right?!) then there is no reason to use any delay setting on the camera to avoid vibration. (Many cameras have settings for 2 second or 10 second delays – mostly there so you can run and get in the photo, too!)
  • Mirror lockup is irrelevant in live view. The mirror is up by default in live view.  To be even more explicit, live view and MLU are mutually exclusive modes – they cannot be used at the same time.
  • After touching the camera, moving the tripod, etc., wait a few seconds for vibrations to dissipate before making your exposure. I  think that 2-3 seconds is sufficient, though some folks will claim that even longer might help.
  • Speaking of this, I would tend to avoid using either auto-focus (AF) mode when making landscape photographs with such a long lens. Either can introduce some amount of vibration to the system, but especially the mode that momentarily flips the mirror down, auto-focuses in the usual manner, then flips the mirror up to make the shot in live view. I prefer to manually focus at 10x magnification. If you must autofocus, do so before switching to live view mode, and then turn AF off before making the exposure.
  • Realize that the large area of these big lenses, combined with their very long focal lengths and great magnification, make the system far more susceptible to vibration from air movement. Even relatively weak breezes can create enough vibration to create a bit of blur and soften the image. Do use a high quality tripod and head, but even this won’t eliminate the issue. Some people recommend hanging weights from the tripod center column, but in my experience this also does not help very much with the sort of vibrations we’re talking about here. So, wait and try to time your exposure for moments when the wind is dead calm or as close to it as possible.
  • In this regard, I developed a trick that helps me with this timing. With the camera on the tripod I compose my shot and focus in live view. Once everything is ready to go, I leave live view at the 10x magnification setting and watch the rear display. This magnifies camera vibration by 10X as well, making it very visible. I wait until this magnified image stabilizes and then make my exposure. (If you have a camera strap that hangs down when the camera is on the tripod, watching it can also help you detect and assess air movement.)
  • There are other complexities when doing landscapes at very long focal lengths. For example, “heat waves” (which also occur in air that is very cold!) will diffuse the image and make it “bend” and “wobble.” With short exposures you will see a sort of “jaggy” effect on things that should have well-defined edges. (I have a great example in a shot of the cables on the Golden Gate bridge done on a cold winter morning.) With longer exposures, this necessarily “smears” details a bit. There is not a darned thing you can do about it other than shoot at a different time when the conditions change.
  • Haze can also soften your photograph at 400mm in ways that decrease the resolution that you want to achieve. When you are using the long lens to make tight compositions of subjects at a great distance, you get many times more haze between you and the subject than you would get using a shorter lens and being closer. This can be a good effect – I love to work this atmospheric haze in my photographs with the long lens – but you may need to moderate its effect with some work during the post processing phase.
  • Touching the camera can help dampen vibrations in a few rare situations, as long as your shutter speed isn’t too slow. The idea is not to try to “hold” the camera still, but to perhaps simply touch the lens with a steady hand to dampen some of the higher frequency vibrations a bit. I would only do this if I’m unable to time an exposure for breaks in the breeze and I must shoot with wind vibration. It won’t help with extremely long exposures.
  • There are other techniques in my bag of tricks for dealing with camera stability on the tripod. If you can work from behind almost any shelter – your car, a tree, a small building, some boulders – this can be enough to diminish the strength of wind-induced vibrations. Also, rather than shooting with your tripod at full height consider shooting from a lower position with the legs retracted. Not only does this reduce the potential for tripod vibration, but it may also help to get the system a bit more out of the wind. In some cases it can help to brace the tripod against something solid or even against your body.
  • Regarding IS, with the application of the other techniques mentioned above, you should normally not have IS enabled, especially with the 100-400*. On this lens the image will “wander” when the camera is on the tripod with IS enabled, and it can do so enough to change your composition. However, in rare situations the “wandering” might be less of a problem than small vibrations and it is worth trying an exposure or two with it on to see which works best.

* (The original question came from a person asking about using the Canon 100-400mm L zoom.)

G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
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Text, photographs, and other media are © Copyright G Dan Mitchell (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.


3 comments to Camera Stability and Long Lenses

  • Nice post Dan! Very thorough!

  • Great Blog. The tip about leaving the live view image on 10X is perfect. I do this when shooting my moon shots but forgot about it for general landscapes. Thanks!!!

  • RickyNo Gravatar says:

    Excellent post Dan.

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