Over the last year I have been doing a lot more wildlife photography than previously. Investigating, I found there is a concensus that the following is the best technique:

  1. Mount the camera and lens on a sturdy tripod
  2. Use a gimbal head, and mount the camera in a properly balanced position
  3. Loosen the panoramic axis control, the gimbal mount control and the lens collar mount. The camera is then free to move in any axis, and can pan and tilt to follow the wildlife
  4. To take photos, press the forehead lightly against the camera while pressing the lens lightly with the left hand, in either the up or down direction
  5. Roll the shutter button, rather than press it

My equipment is not quite as robust as is assumed by the above. In particular Gitzo recommend their series 3 tripods for the non VF 500mm lens I have, while I only have their series 2 tripod. Also the sources all seem to agree that the above technique cannot be used with a Wimberley Sidekick, which is what I have. All this has led me, as part of my kit familiarisation to test out various techniques. My basic approach is as above, but locking down the lens collar, which does seem to work with the Sidekick. I have tried locking everything down; attaching weights to the tripod; not touching the camera at all while taking photos by using a remote; burst shooting or single shot; and much more, with combinations of all of these approaches. For consistency I have been shooting static photos (of brick walls to facilitate comparison). The rest of my kit is a Nikon D500, and a hahnael Combi TF release.

All this testing has led to unexpected results - at 100% under these test conditions I cannot tell the difference between the approaches.

So my question is, under what circumstances, if any, is it necessary to adopt techniques such as the above to achieve first class results.

  • 5
    The question is what is wrong with your photos that you think needs fixing ? I would point out that brink walls are notoriously slow movers and perhaps not going to help you identify real world shooting issues. But it's a question of finding a technique that gets you what you need, not some myth of perfect one-size-fits-all technique. In step five I'd use a wireless remote, not the shutter button. – StephenG Dec 28 '16 at 21:01
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    The proof of the best technique is the photographic results. If there's no difference in the results then the techniques are equally good (or bad). It's also worth considering that good photographs are often a matter of making tradeoffs...if the technique applied to a situation leads to missing the shot, then it might not be the right technique. – user50888 Dec 28 '16 at 21:20
  • How about using a cable release (or wireless release) instead of steps 4 and 5? – Glenn Randers-Pehrson Dec 28 '16 at 21:33
  • @GlennRanders-Pehrson - in my testing I have used a wireless release. As with the other tests I cannot tell the difference between approaches. – Chris Walton Dec 28 '16 at 21:40
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    Considering the long list of problems that you're trying to fix, this question seems too broad. Are you asking about eliminating motion blur, or framing, or focussing? A more definite, specific statement of the problem you're trying to solve would help people write more useful answers. – Caleb Dec 31 '16 at 4:14

Clearly you didn't get to this point in your work by accident, your overall technique sounds fairly decent, so I'll offer a few suggestions or insights that didn't seem immediately obvious to me as I was working out my own long lens technique. Caveat: I don't do wildlife, but I do shoot multi row gigapixel panoramas with long lenses (300mm+) at night, in the wind, at low ISOs...at f/8...so some of these insights might apply to your workflow.

  1. The d500 is a very strict master. Any flaw in technique, lens or subject is going to be painfully obvious when viewed 1:1. The DX format doesn't make it less strict. Not at all.

  2. While carbon fiber is the greatest thing ever, it still obeys the laws of physics. As such, vibrations induced by moving the camera, moving mirror, shutter motion etc takes time to dissipate. This time is much longer than I expected. Get a good Vibrometer app for your phone, attach phone to top of lens with rubber band, and watch in horror how long things jiggle after you can't feel it moving. This doesn't matter shooting panos with the 14mm. At 300mm it matters a lot.

  3. To see how much this matters, mount a laser to the hot shoe of your body or better yet to the end of your lens with a rubber band. Point that at something suitably subject distance away. Shoot five frames. Watch that point wiggle. Sigh repeatedly. This is the point where you realize that despite whatever your thought you knew about tripods or however much you spent on the last one, you are going to have to buy a tripod that will cost more than you had ever thought to be reasonable. You are in Systematic land. Or RRS. Induro maybe.

  4. Concrete buildings and roads move more than I thought they did. If you are in an area prone to liquefaction and close to a freeway, industrial activity, rail yard, subway etc the vibrations will be transduced into your rig and this can degrade the image.

  5. Have you tried turning the VR off? That screwed me up for real.

  6. Shutter delay wouldn't be helpful because you are doing wildlife, but I use 3 seconds of delay between mirror up and shutter open. It really helps keep the vibrations down.

  7. Wind. Ugh. I have a chunk of 6' black foamcore that I keep in the car as an emergency wind deflection device. The only reason I bring this up is because anyone who has read this far is at least as much of a nerd as me and will hopefully understand.

Good luck, hope all these answers help.

  • 1 Noted. 2 Not liked at all but noted. 3 Double urgh. 4 Aware of this - I live on a boat moored in a marina built on clay, with heavy construction traffic nearby. This shows up vibration in a 24 tonne boat!! It seems less relevant to wildlife than your work. 5 N/A. 6 N/A. 7 Worthy of some attention. – Chris Walton Dec 30 '16 at 8:09

I think the simple answer is when whatever alternative techniques you use do not yield sharp results. It is worthwhile to take a comparison shot with all parts of the tripod locked down, mirror up (if your camera supports it), no hands release (if you can), and with the tripod out of the wind or other sources of vibration. You appear to have done that.

I personally find I can shoot at 400mm with reasonable shutter speeds (1000th) on a monopod, easily on a tripod, without noticeable shake. With a TC at 800mm, I find I can rarely get a shot without some blur on the monopod even at much higher shutter speeds, and even the tripod takes some significant degree of care (I do this a lot shooting baseball from the center field fence). This will vary by your own steadiness, sensor density, wind, tripod stability, shutter slap, etc.

I guess I am not too surprised at 500mm that just ordinary care yields sharp results; you are probably just steady. Try using a 2x TC on it, and you may find your limits somewhere up there. If you are just looking to experiment, just try dropping the shutter speed down to 100th or so, and see if you can see the difference when using different techniques. Also, try putting the lens hood on and going out with a good stiff and variable crosswind some day; I find shooting wind surfers to be particularly trying in that regard, those big lens hoods act like a sail themselves.

But... the short answer is, it only matters when it matters. I know that is not terribly helpful, but the reality is that all the various components (including you) can make a huge difference in when "good long lens technique" really starts to show (or lack thereof).

  • Wind surfers a helpful "use case". – Chris Walton Dec 28 '16 at 21:24

In brief, your question is "what is the best technique?" You haven't explicitly stated the goal you are trying to achieve; that is, what exactly do you mean by "best"? My assumption is that you are trying to minimise camera shake. As Linwood noted, sharp photos can be acheived using hand held or monopod at 1/1000. I tend to prefer 1/1,250 (at 300mm) to reduce wildlife's motion just a little more (which has the added bonus of reducing camera shake also). StephenG makes a good point to state that brick walls don't move - your tests may be good for testing how accurately you can focus and how much you can minimise camera shake, but they don't account for wildlife's movement. He also asks what it is about your wildlife photos that is unsatisfactory - a fair question.

I would recommend going out there and shooting wildlife with just the camera first. There is so much more to capturing wildlife well than just minimising camera shake - there's the ambient lighting which will be dependent on weather and time of day. There's the subject's behaviour, which you will have to learn in order to maximise your chance of capturing an interesting composition, action or in order to get close to your subject. Then there are your basic exposure settings and the tradeoffs in image appearance depending on how you tweak those - do you want higher ISO at the expense of graininess? Do you want narrower aperture to get the whole bird in focus, at the expense of a few stops of light? And so on. Then, as you evaluate the actual wildlife shots, identify what it is about each image that bugs you; that could be better. Now you have something to start with in asking the question "what technique would be best?" (ie. to minimise this effect; to improve this part; etc).

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