“Super Telephoto Art” or “Why Images Pop!”

February 1, 2013

I’m frequently asked, “How do you get the background to look so clean in your images? Where are all the trees and stuff?” Others just get right down to the nitty-gritty and ask, “How do you make your images look this way?” The simple answer is that I don’t do anything to my images, other than capture them with a very long lens, usually of 700 mm focal length. Lenses of 500 mm and longer, often called super telephotos, have a very thin focus plane or Depth of Field (DOF), even at small aperture settings. Therefore, everything in the foreground and background of the subject, in this case an American robin, is melded together into an out-of-focus blur which is sometimes referred to as “bokeh,” a Japanese term which describes “the aesthetic quality of a blur.” I’ve used this image of a robin to demonstrate the effect. I captured the image from about 25 feet away with a 500 mm lens but as you can see, the tail is already losing focus in the foreground and the landscape elements behind the robin have assimilated into a winter-tan blur. Closer inspection reveals that the plane of focus in only a few inches thick and it runs right across the robin’s face which is in the same plane as its perfectly-focused feet. The overall effect is to produce an image of a critter that seems to pop off the screen or print. The most important part of the process is to always focus on the eye of the animal. If the eye is in focus, the image will usually look pleasing to most people.

A nicely-blurred background also can be achieved by shorter telephotos, such as a 200 mm lens, if the subject is very close. You can actually go to an excellent website called DOFMaster where you can enter the distance from your subject, focal length of your lens and aperture setting to determine the plane of focus across your subject. I did it with this week’s image and the focus plane came to a razor thin 1.2 inches!

A few other factors come into play when trying to capture an image with a buttery smooth background. One is the architecture of the aperture blades of the lens you are using. All lenses are not created equal and the best lenses often produce the most pleasing background blur. Unfortunately, a new Canon 500mm lens cost northward of $10,000 so you have to ask yourself, “How important is it to send my kids to college?” before you endeavor to become a wildlife photographer.

Another factor is the ISO setting that you use when you take the picture. Depending on the capability of your camera body to handle higher ISO settings, you might unfortunately turn your buttery background into a grainy mess by using a higher ISO in an effort to achieve a faster shutter speed. This is not as much of a problem with professional cameras but can be an issue with consumer bodies. Grainy or noisy backgrounds can be smoothed out in post processing but I prefer to optimize the image at the time of the capture—I’m old school that way. By the way, if you find the images of your point-and-shoot to be grainy all the time it is because the camera tends to set the auto-ISO very high so you’ll have a faster shutter speed whether you need it or not. I recommend setting the ISO in your point-and-shoot manually to avoid this problem.

I also get a lot of questions about if and/or how much I use Photoshop. The answer is easy—I don’t use Photoshop at all to optimize my images. All of my post processing is done in Canon Digital Photo Professional (DPP), the free program that comes with Canon SLR’s. You can’t do much in DPP other than convert RAW files to JPG files and adjust contrast, brightness and saturation as you would with the likes of Microsoft Photo Editor. In addition, DPP has a fantastic cropping and leveling tool and you can correct the loss of sharpness after resizing images for web devices. I like using a simple program because it makes my workflow lightning fast (no huge TIF files to worry about and store) and it makes me work harder in the field to get the shot right the first time. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always been impressed with the great things that photographers can do in Photoshop to make their images shine; it’s just not my thing. Maybe one day when I have more time I’ll begin using Photoshop, with all of its layering, isolating and selecting but my stomach is getting a little queasy just thinking about the extra time in front of a monitor.

I hope this post has answered some of your questions and provided a few tidbits for budding wildlife photographers to consider. I plan to share my post-processing workflow in a future post. Now that should be exciting to the non-photographers in the group. I’m glad I took the time to write this post because now when somebody asks me, “How do you make your images look this way?” I can just refer them to this link.

Have a great weekend!


American Robin; Canon 1D Mark IV; Canon 500/4 L IS Lens; 1/500 sec @ f/5.6; ISO 400; RAW Capture; Gitzo GT3530LS Tripod with Wimberley II Head; Converted and Processed in Canon Digital Photo Professional (DPP)


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11 comments on ““Super Telephoto Art” or “Why Images Pop!””

  1. Beautiful picture Danny….so clear…the bird looks like he was wondering what you were doing and he probably never even saw you….good job as usual…

  2. Well described. I thot I was the only one who got queasy thinking about learning PhotoShop.

  3. You MAKE it sound nice’n’easy, but it’s NOT. /Danny Brown, it takes a LOT/ To get each wonderful,spectacular shot!/The weather may be cold, but your images are HOT!/…Deepa.

    • Ha…Deepa…..heading out this morning for some icy shots at Hickory Canyon Natural Area.

  4. Great info Danny. I really don’t like to use Photoshop for my photography either. I like to get the shot that I see through the viewfinder without having to use any computer enhancement. Thanks for making us better photographers with your post’s. They are very informative.

    • You are welcome Mike. Had a nice morning at Hickory Canyons N.A. this morning…….still sorting through the ice images.

  5. Hi Danny. Just getting to my E-mails. Your explanation of how you get those great shots, was very interesting, and the end results are most rewarding. Thank you for shearing you Beautiful work, with the world. I know that it takes a lot of commitment, to do what you do, and to brave the elements.I thank you.


  6. Thanks for this post because I have been wondering about it for a while 🙂 And gorgeous shot!

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