Telephoto Lenses: How to Find Your Subject

When working with telephoto lenses, it’s difficult to get your subject in the frame. The task gets even more challenging if the subject moves fast. This struggle can slow you down, often leading to a missed photo opportunity. In this video, photographer Steve Perry presents a simple technique to help you consistently place the subject in the viewfinder:

Keep Your Eyes and Head Fixated on the Subject

Our general tendency is to put the viewfinder up to our eye and then start searching for the subject. This is where things start going wrong. Instead, keep your head and eyes fixated on the subject, and then place the viewfinder over your dominant eye. You should get the subject in the middle of the frame on your first try using this technique.

If you don’t see your subject, wiggle the camera around a bit and it will pop into the frame. Practice this technique for about 10 minutes and you’ll be finding subjects far quicker than before when using telephoto lenses.

Pre-Focus

Pre-focusing your lens to the approximately the subject distance is another way to find your subject quickly. If the lens is focused around its closest focusing distance or at infinity, you will have difficulty seeing clearly through the viewfinder.

blur viewfinder

A blurry view as the lens is focused at a closer distance

Zoom Out, Then Zoom In

If you use a zoom lens, first zoom out all the way. Then, locate your subject and zoom in. The wider field of view when working with the wider end of the focal length will make your work so much easier.

view from the wider end of the lens

When the Subject is Coming at the Camera

If the subject is moving toward the camera, finding it is easy if you follow the first guide. Simply fix your eyes and head on the subject, and place the viewfinder over your dominant eye without moving your head.

focusing a bird flying towards the camera

“Just bring your camera up while you’re looking at it and it’ll be right in the center of your viewfinder. So that part’s easy.”

When the Subject is Moving Across the Frame

It’s a tricky situation when the subject isn’t stationary and is moving across the frame. However, the basic principle remains the same.

Keep your eyes and head fixed on the running animal and place it in the center of your field of vision. To track the animal, keep your head still while twisting your torso. Then, bring your viewfinder up to your dominant eye while continuing to keep the animal in the center of your field of vision. Don’t let the housing of the viewfinder distract you. Keep your eye on the moving animal, no matter what. Even if you get blocked for a while, anticipate the animal’s movement, and keep tracking with your mind.

focusing a bird flying across the frame

“The trick is to keep tracking the animal even though the viewfinder’s housing is temporarily blocking your vision.”

Keep practicing with slower-moving subjects, and you’ll eventually get there with faster subjects.

Working With a Tripod

“In order for this to work real well for you, you’ve got to master the first technique with stationary subjects.”

Try to master the first technique handheld so that you can develop the required instincts. After you’re comfortable with it handheld, this technique that uses a tripod will come much more naturally.

When working with a tripod, have it set up in a way that lets you move the camera freely without the camera and the lens falling down. Then, as with the first technique, track the subject with your eyes and head fixed on the subject. Slowly move your head toward the camera while you align your camera with your field of view. Then, when you look through the viewfinder, you should be able to locate the subject easily.

using a tripod to locate subject

“This does take more practice though. But it’s definitely worth practicing and worthwhile doing.”

If you’ve been frustrated with finding subjects when working with telephoto lenses, definitely consider these tips from Perry.

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One response to “Telephoto Lenses: How to Find Your Subject”

  1. Roland Pauwels says:

    I use an old eyepiece on the flashshoe

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