Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

What a 400mm focal length is good for

with 36 comments

Even at 400mm I had to crop the resulting picture quite a bit to close in on this northern mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos, that I spotted atop a bare poverty weed bush, Baccharis neglecta, in Cedar Park on December 1, 2017.

If you’re interested in the craft of photography, points 3 and 18 in About My Techniques are relevant to today’s picture.

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 1, 2018 at 4:10 AM

Posted in nature photography

Tagged with , , ,

36 Responses

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  1. Is your lens fast enough to forgo the stability of a tripod?


    December 1, 2018 at 4:24 AM

    • Good question. The lens offers up to 3 f/stops of image stabilization, and my default hand-held shutter speed is 1/400 of a second, which is what I used on this picture. The day was bright, so I managed ISO 250 at f/11. While I do wish the lens weren’t so heavy, that heaviness may add to stability when shooting hand-held.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 1, 2018 at 7:41 AM

  2. I love Mimus polyglottos, Steve, and your image. It reminds me I still have the Canon 100-400mm L Mark I which had an upgrade 3-4 years ago. The lens came with a collar mount. Do have this same version, or did you get the second version? The first version is good, but some criticized the push-pull zooming system.


    December 1, 2018 at 7:09 AM

    • I know, you could be thinking that camera equipment is actually secondary, and I agree, it is. Sometimes I enjoy the tech talk, however.


      December 1, 2018 at 7:25 AM

    • You’re the second commenter in a row to want to talk about equipment, Maria, and that’s fine with me. As you point out, Canon has made several versions of the 100-400 L-series telephoto, including, I think, one with a wider maximum aperture that’s no longer available. Mine is the EF 100-400mm F4.5-5.6L IS Mark II, which has conventional turn-the-collar zooming.

      Vision is indeed the primary thing, but having good equipment certainly helps.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 1, 2018 at 7:56 AM

      • The main flaw of the Mark I was the push-pull design, and the conventional turn-the-collar zooming was desired to make it more manageable and less prone to sucking in dust. However, the weight remains the same in the Mark ll.


        December 1, 2018 at 8:08 AM

        • Yes, and neither you nor I are happy with that much weight, 3.46 lbs. My camera bag got noticeably heavier when this lens replaced the 70–200mm (plus 1.4X extender) I used to carry around.

          Steve Schwartzman

          December 1, 2018 at 8:18 AM

          • I still think it’s worth purchasing. Canon’s optics are outstanding, and this lens gives you that extra reach, although people who are unable to hand-hold it need to be trained to use it with the collar mount and even consider other tripod heads, not to mention a sturdier tripod itself. I’m able to hand-hold mine but I only last 1-2 minutes. After that I start getting serious pain in my wrist and thumb. The weight of the camera also has to be factored in. In one of my articles I recommended a wrist brace for hand-holding heavy cameras & lenses. (https://wp.me/p44pnT-mk)


            December 1, 2018 at 8:32 AM

            • Fortunately 1–2 minutes is usually enough to get a decent picture. My hands would also get tired if I had to keep holding the combined weight of lens and camera for longer times. I just read your post about the hand brace and am glad it helps you. You must have gotten adept at operating your camera with the brace on, given that you’ve kept producing high-quality images.

              Steve Schwartzman

              December 1, 2018 at 8:58 AM

  3. I like shooting birds, but I figure the equipment expense curve is too high for me at this point. The best way that I have been able to get bird photos is to just set up a tripod near my bird feeder.

    Jason Frels

    December 1, 2018 at 7:32 AM

    • I think you’ve hit on something there. Serious birders have lenses longer and heavier and sometimes much more expensive than 400mm. I’m mostly a plant and landscape photographer, and the pictures I take of birds are incidental; if one is close enough to me, in a good position, and not moving too quickly, I’ll try to portray it.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 1, 2018 at 8:01 AM

  4. Excellent capture and dynamic composition. I like how the bird points left and the branches point right.


    December 1, 2018 at 8:12 AM

    • It’s good of you to notice (and appreciate) how the bird and branches were perpendicular. In looking at my archive I see that I took 17 pictures over a minute and a half, during which time the mockingbird never changed its footing. It did move its head a little but that didn’t change the overall composition.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 1, 2018 at 8:24 AM

  5. In spite of image stabilization in my 80-400 mm zoom, I sometimes have difficulties to get a clear picture. I’m torn between using a tripod and upping the ISO to be able to have a faster shutter speed. An additional difficulty is, I believe, the time it take the lens to stabilize.


    December 1, 2018 at 9:06 AM

    • I find it’s harder to get good focus with my long lens zoomed out toward the 400mm end than with intrinsically shorter lenses. I’ve gone with upping the ISO when necessary because I don’t like being tethered to a tripod. Adjusting a tripod would take a lot longer than the time for a lens to lock in its image stabilization, which in my experience is very quick. Could there be something wrong with your 80-400mm lens, if it’s taking a while to stabilize?

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 1, 2018 at 5:36 PM

      • I agree on your views about a tripod: most of the times too cumbersome. As to my zoom: I’ll have to check the manual again, which of the two VR-settings are for what prupose. Maybe it’s that. Actually, it doesn’t take (too) long, it’s just that I hear the motor humming (again) when I move it some. I’ll check and see.


        December 2, 2018 at 8:13 PM

        • My understanding about image stabilization that has two settings is that the first is for a steady shot and the second is for panning left or right to follow your subject.

          Steve Schwartzman

          December 2, 2018 at 8:18 PM

          • That’s what I seem to remember, too.


            December 2, 2018 at 8:19 PM

  6. I’ve often wished for a longer lens than my 70-300mm, but one of the best pieces of advice I’ve received was, “When the camera’s zoom isn’t adequate, it’s time to zoom the photographer.” With some birds, like your mockingbird, that works perfectly well, because they often are willing to stay put.

    I found a pair of crested caracaras sitting on a platform at Brazoria, and wondered how close I could get to them. I parked the car in the middle of the road and started ‘zooming’ myself toward them, a few feet at a time. Eventually, I ended up about ten feet from the bottom of the pole. There weren’t any photos that time, because a fine rain meant I left the camera in the car, but it was fun to watch the birds watch me, as though they were trying to figure out what I was up to.

    I’m glad you’re adding your technique information to the occasional post again. I often go to the page to refresh my memory, but new readers might not get there without your mention.


    December 1, 2018 at 9:31 AM

    • I like the notion of zooming the photographer. With fixed-focus lenses that’s the only way to zoom, and the standard way for most of the history of photography—unless you count the sort of “zooming” that takes place when you take off, say, a 100mm lens and replace it with a 400mm lens.

      Thanks to the mockingbird for staying put. Even at 400mm, my lens still couldn’t make the bird fill as much of the frame as I wanted, so I ended up cropping substantially. That’s one reason I went with a camera that takes 50-megapixel pictures: you can throw a fair amount away and still have a good deal left.

      With a subject that’s apt to scurry or fly away, I usually take my first picture from wherever I am, just to have something. Then I slowly advance, taking pictures along the way for as long as I can.

      I’ve vacillated with links to “About My Techniques.” Not having included them much for a while, I started doing so again, for the reason you mentioned: new visitors to the site probably wouldn’t have noticed that resource.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 1, 2018 at 5:56 PM

  7. Something new, Steve? I didn’t think you had anything that long. Even with the reach one still needs to get pretty close to fill a frame. A portable blind, or permanent setup in your yard helps.

    Steve Gingold

    December 1, 2018 at 9:57 AM

    • How long I’ve had a lens that long is about a year and a half, I think. A couple of people in Austin highly recommended the Canon EF 100-400mm F4.5-5.6L IS Mark II to me, and after reading favorable online reviews I took the plunge. The only thing I regret about it is the extra length, which has made my camera bag a couple of pounds heavier. That’s a lot to lug around for a lens that I use by far the least often of the three I carry with me all the time. You’re right that even at 400mm it can be hard to fill the frame with a subject like this mockingbird; that’s where a 50-megapixel comes in with lots of extra space that can stand to get cropped out.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 1, 2018 at 6:41 PM

  8. That is a beautiful mockingbird, Steve. And thank you for posting your techniques!

    Lavinia Ross

    December 1, 2018 at 11:36 AM

    • You’re welcome, Lavinia. From time to time in a post I add a link to those techniques for the sake of people who haven’t noticed them before and might take advantage of some of them.

      Mockingbirds are quite common in central Texas but they’re not always easy to photograph.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 1, 2018 at 6:43 PM

  9. It’s a very nice shot of one of my favorite birds. I know they mostly imitate other types of birds, but we once heard one, that I think was trying to imitate our cat (even the vet has commented on this “very vocal” animal, meows more than any other cat I’ve known). Maybe the bird was mocking him, who knows.

    Robert Parker

    December 1, 2018 at 3:44 PM

    • I guess a mockingbird perched up high could well mock a cat that can’t get at it. And yes, it’s enjoyable to listen to a mockingbird go through stretches of its long repertoire.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 1, 2018 at 6:46 PM

  10. I appreciate knowing the link to your techniques. I took a photography class a couple of decades ago, which helped in operating a camera, but I was the only student who was interested in learning the technical part – most attending were people who needed to develop an eye for composition and “seeing” the photo moment. So, the technical aspect wasn’t really touched on much. Over the years, doing so much outdoor photography, especially of wildlife, I just gave up on working at the technical side. I let the camera make decisions, because most of the time wildlife gives me only moments to capture the subject. I generally stick to the shutter priority setting, sometime aperture. My brain doesn’t work fast enough to make adjustments with moving objects. I have the Canon EF 100 – 400mm 1:4.5-5.6 “L” IS. I shoot on the fly a lot and use my UTV or fence posts instead of a tripod. Yes it’s heavy. And I can vouch that the lens and camera have taken a lot of abuse in the 14 years I’ve had them.


    December 2, 2018 at 10:02 AM

    • Can you get Canon to pay you for your testimonial about the ruggedness of its 100–400mm lens? Almost all my Canon lenses are in the L series, and although they’ve held up well on the whole, two of them have had to go in for repairs, perhaps because I used them so heavily.

      You didn’t mention which Canon camera body you have. It’s apparently an old one (24 years), so you’d probably find that upgrading to a current model would solve some or most of your shooting problems, given the many improvements in cameras’ sensors and their built-in computers in recent years. The Rebel line is the least expensive of the Canon DSLRs yet still includes bodies that take excellent pictures. I often see them for sale at Costco.

      In any case, the techniques I outline are free and are intended to help people get better pictures. They’re mostly in line with that you said about the photography class you took: “develop an eye for composition and ‘seeing’ the photo moment.” On the other hand, some of the techniques do lean toward the technical. I mention the techniques every now and then because new readers here probably don’t notice the link in the sidebar.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 2, 2018 at 10:25 AM

      • I have a Rebel T1i that we acquired back in 2010 I believe. I like the Rebel for its simplicity and price. I still have my original Rebel camera – my first DSLR. I’m not sure what to do with it. It’s still operational, but I learned the hard way about getting debris in the body of the camera (shooting senior pictures of a niece on Mount Scott on a windy day 🙄). I took it to a camera shop when I was not successful in removing the last of the particles. The tech guy said they were too deeply embedded to remove. While a novice wouldn’t probably notice the debris, I do. So the camera and all accessories sit in the original box in a cabinet.


        December 3, 2018 at 7:37 AM

        • If you send your camera to Canon I’ll bet you can get the particles removed. At the same time, there have been so many improvements to the Rebel line in 8 years that upgrading to a current model would be a better use of your money (though a new body would cost more than getting your old one cleaned).

          Steve Schwartzman

          December 3, 2018 at 7:51 AM

  11. Such a lovely image, Steve. I love the way you have caught the feathers fluffing (or moving) in the breeze; a tiny motion in an otherwise very still composition.


    December 3, 2018 at 6:11 AM

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