The Catch

Shooting and Focusing Techniques for Telephoto Lenses (Podcast 584)

Last week a friend and fellow traveler on my workshops Ulana Switucha asked me a question about good techniques for using long telephoto lenses to photograph moving subjects. Although I have talked about much of what I will cover in other posts over the years, today we're going to...

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Martin Bailey
Martin Bailey is a nature and wildlife photographer and educator based in Tokyo. He's a pioneering Podcaster and blogger, and an X-Rite Coloratti member.
  • Tim Harty
    Posted at 20:44h, 09 August Reply

    Great episode Martin. My wife and I have been practicing bird photography and I’m going to try some of these settings. Thanks!

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 23:25h, 09 August Reply

      Glad to hear that Tim, and it’s great to hear from you! I hope you are both well.


  • Rick Verbanec
    Posted at 16:06h, 11 August Reply

    I’m gratified to hear your description of these settings, Martin. I stumbled across some of them on my own with an earlier Canon camera and am happy to validate their use, now with a 5dMk4. I’ve found the back button focus technique to be much more natural in the field.

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 16:15h, 11 August Reply

      Hi Rick,

      That’s great that you found this post useful.

      I know what you mean. I figure most stuff out myself but it does always feel nice when someone else helps to validate what you’ve found. Good stuff.


  • Philip Morris
    Posted at 07:13h, 14 August Reply

    Hi Martin,

    This was a particularly useful episode and will help me set up my AF point selection for my next shoot.
    Thank you.

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 09:10h, 14 August Reply

      Hi Philip,

      That’s good to hear. Thanks for letting me know, and good luck adjusting your settings.

      Let me know if you stumble across anything that doesn’t make sense.


  • Stewart baird
    Posted at 18:59h, 31 August Reply

    What a master craftsman you are. I wish non photographers knew how much skill goes into each image. I love birds- always a challenge!

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 08:34h, 01 September Reply

      Aww, thanks Stewart! For sure, that’s something that isn’t really understood until you try. 🙂

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  • Mark Casebeer
    Posted at 08:51h, 23 October Reply

    I really enjoyed this post. I’ve struggled shooting birds in flight and after setting up my camera (7D II) with these updated settings I took my best birds in flight to date. I’ve never liked BBF but I decided to bite the bullet and stick with it. After about two weeks I’m hooked. Shot some grandkids sporting events and also found it helpful. I also used your auto focus setup, I normally use just one center focus point as I’ve alway experienced the problems with to many misses using all 64 points. With your settings I had almost no misses. I was shocked at my keeper (critical focus) rate.

    I live on a small lake in Michigan. We had a pair of mature Bald Eagles this week and I’ve never been able to use my 1.4 III on my 100-400 II shooting birds in flight. Your setup and tip of zooming out a little really helped. I feel like I made a big stride at getting better shots. Thank You!

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 10:19h, 28 October Reply

      That’s great that this helped you to get some results, Mark. Well done!

      Thanks for taking the time to let me know too. I hope you continue to have fun with this.

  • Colin Elliott
    Posted at 16:33h, 13 February Reply

    I really enjoy reading your blogs and podcasts, and truly appreciate the effort that you put into these.
    One question that I have not seen addressed, but you may have mentioned is the issue of Image Stabilisation settings when the camera is on a tripod or monopod.
    Do you switch off the IS on the lenses.. Canon literature seems unclear to me.

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 18:39h, 13 February Reply

      Hi Colin,

      I’m pleased you are enjoying the posts. Thanks for stopping by.

      I generally leave IS on, even on a tripod, unless I’m going slower than around a 1/25 of a second. Once I get down to shutter speeds slower than that, I turn it off. A number of years ago I was doing around one-second exposures of a waterfall and some of them were blurred, as in, camera shake blurred. Then I figured out that it was the IS moving the lens elements during the exposure, trying to stabilize it, so now I turn it off when using a tripod for anything longer than around 1/25 of a second.

      I hope that helps.


  • Paulo Silva
    Posted at 03:01h, 24 July Reply

    Hi Martin! Great post of yours. I really love shooting birds and I’ll be trying this settings you recommended for the next few weeks.
    One question do I have is when shooting hand-held and the shutter speed remaining at least 1/focal_lenght, should we ever swich-off the IS? If so, in what kind of situations should we?
    Best regards

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 08:56h, 24 July Reply

      Hi Paulo,

      I’m pleased you found this post useful.

      For hand-held photography, I always leave IS on. The major thing to keep in mind is the IS mode. When photographing a stationary bird Mode 1 works best, as it tries to stabilize both vertical and horizontal movement. When tracking a bird in flight though, generally Mode 2 works better, as this only tries to stabilize on direction. For example, if you are panning horizontally (left to right or right to left) the lens will only try to stabilize vertical movement and leave the horizontal movement free. Conversely, if you are panning vertically, the lens will only try to stabilize horizontal movement.

      I also leave IS on when shooting with a gimbal head, as the same applies. I do turn IS off for exposures of say 0.5 second or longer, as the IS can move during long exposures.

      I’ve heard various opinions on this subject, but personally, I find that leaving IS on except for long exposures has always worked well for me, so I hope this helps.


  • David Ross
    Posted at 17:44h, 06 November Reply

    Just found this site! After forking out half my yearly state pension I really needed some help! I’ve just found it – thank you Martin.

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 20:26h, 06 November Reply

      Hi David,

      Thanks for the great comment! I’m really pleased that you’ve found my post helpful!


  • Stephen Wood
    Posted at 08:01h, 01 January Reply

    I have never followed podcasts— so the first 2 I listened to were yours. They are both terrific. This one is the most comprehensive discussion I have ever seen on shooting birds in flight. (and probably small children, as well). The method of setting up the autofocus is simply superb. I don’t shoot birds all the time but when I do, I shoot a lot. There is. no doubt in my mind that your methodology is going to make a marked improvement in the numbers of sharply focused images I capture.

    Your style is easy to follow and I like the fact that I can follow along in the text, as I listen to the podcast. The amount of work you put into your podcasts is obvious and the product is fantastic!

    By the way, what do you think of the Wemberly gimbal? I have a lot of RRS equipment, but I have not been able to convince myself to make the change to RRS gimbal.


    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 21:57h, 20 January Reply

      Hi Steve,

      Sorry for the late reply. I’m just catching up on comments.

      I’m pleased you enjoyed the posts. Thanks for letting me know!

      I replaced the Wimberley Gimbal with the RRS Gimbal, and I’ve been really happy with the RSS over the Wimberley. The Wimberley is OK, but the RSS breaks down nicely for transporting, and it has a much more fluid action with just the right amount of tension for a really smooth pan.

      BTW, I mailed you earlier about something we need for the tour pretty urgently. Please check your email and spam folder if necessary.

      Looking forward to travelling with you soon!


  • stillSteve
    Posted at 23:01h, 20 January Reply

    I think I will sell the Wemberly with RRS Gimbal. Breaking down for packing is a huge advantage.

    Thanks for your reply. I am excited about your training options. And, I signed up for the only one available.

    I also completed the form for the trip.


  • Viraat
    Posted at 18:48h, 25 November Reply

    Hi Martin

    Many thanks for sharing these insights. They are very useful. Will your inputs under the section “Selected Focus Point” in the post above also cater to canon EOS R camera? Or would we need to follow different steps as the features of EOS R may be different? I noted some of your experiences with EOS R and hence thought to ask you this question. Would appreciate your inputs. Thanks!!

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 18:51h, 25 November Reply

      Hi Rahul,

      Thank you for the comment.

      My setttings using the EOS R are very similar, but slightly tweaked. See the updated settings midway down this page:


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