Friday, July 20, 2012


By Heinz Richter

Wildlife is a readily accessible subject for photographers who are prepared, and a damn near impossible subject for those who are not.

Any successful wildlife photographer will tell you that preparation includes not only patience and knowledge of the subject, but also at least one long lens.  Convenience is almost never a consideration.

The possible subjects are of all sizes and temperaments; the appropriateness of any particular lens must be judged according to how well it allows the subject to fill the frame at a practical shooting distance.

It should be understood from the start that convenience in terms of size and weight should not play a major role in the selection of equipment.  Such considerations inevitably lead to compromises of lens magnification or quality, and then to compromises of results.  The photographer, who grabs his /her camera off the shelf, attaches a workhorse telephoto from the camera bag, and goes for a walk by the lake hoping to catch a shot of the loons he saw there last week will be sorely disappointed when he sees the results, and when he has to explain that those little dots there in the middle represent the Minnesota state bird.

Staying with birds as our example: most birds, large or small, are rather shy, so naturally we end up dealing with rather long shooting distances.  For those of us accustomed to 90mm or 135mm lenses, 200mm or 250mm may seem amazingly, encouragingly powerful.  Yet even with a 250 you might as well forget it, because unless you kill that bird first, you’ll never get close enough to fill even a quarter of the frame.

To cover a 20” horizontal with the 50mm lens, you would have to be about 28” (see accompanying chart) from the subject - and it would take a good size bird to fill a 20” field of view.  A 200mm lens, giving 4x magnification (with full frame sensors) over the 50mm, would allow us to be about 9 ¼ feet away, and a 250mm would put us at about 11 ½ feet, still hardly far enough to avoid scaring the wild and shy.

The shooting distance increases to about 8 ½ feet with a 400mm, probably a (minimum) workable distance for those with patience and persistence.  So we begin to see that the 400, far from being an exotic, is in this case a minimum requirement, the barest of essentials if any good result is to be achieved.

Leica R3, Leitz Telyt 400mm f/6.8

But it isn’t really all that bad, since we usually will be concerned only with filling half or maybe a quarter of the frame with the creature.  The 20” filed would then be about right for song birds and small animals, but for something like, for instance, a duck, which would have filled the 20” field of view, we could stay as much as four times the distance away, about 74-75 feet.  In most cases this would certainly be an easy distance to work with; however, I’ve found that some animals are so very shy that even a hundred feet is too close.  So you can see that for this kind of photography one has to be a little bit power hungry as far as lenses go.

Leica R3, Leica Bellows II, Leitz Telyt 200mm f/4.5

Needless to say, the size and weight of a lens like this is not small, and as we said earlier, there are no real compromises.  As far as physical size is concerned, the smallest of the high magnification lenses are mirror lenses.  Few of those have maximum apertures greater than f/8, which is pretty slow in many cases.  Out of focus highlight characteristically appear as doughnuts with these lenses and they do not have any aperture control past the maximum aperture.  Further, the contrast of even the best mirror lenses does not approach that of a first rate glass lens.

Leica R3, Leitz Telyt 200mm f/4.5

So we consider the glass lenses.  They are definitely larger than the mirrors, and the400mm Telyt, for instance, with its grip and shoulder stock weighs nearly twice as much as most mirror lenses of a similar focal length.  And for all that, the Telyt is still not a particularly heavy lens, and with the grip and stock is extremely well balanced and comfortable.  With higher ISO settings it becomes an eminently hand holdable wildlife lens.

Incidentally, most good long lenses by design give you optimum performance wide open. Meaning that the fastest shutter speed is naturally attained, something very importasnt if you intend to shoot hand held.

Leica R4, Novoflex 400mm f/5.6

Shooting with your camera on a tripod naturally allows slower shutter speeds.  But since much of wildlife shooting is necessarily handheld, higher ISO settings become a necessity.  The rule of thumb in handheld work is that the slowest shutter speed should not be less than the inverse of the focal length of the lens; in other words, 1/50 (1/60) second for a 50mm lens, 1/250 for a 250mm lens, and 1/400 (1/500) for a 400mm.

Leica R4, Novoflex 400mm f/5.6

If you will be shooting subjects which allow you to use a tripod, we recommend that you do so, by all means.  The results will justify the extra hassle.  As with so many other things in photography, you will have to analyze the pros and cons in your own work.  The tripod will slow you down, and in some cases it is just not an appropriate tool, as we mentioned earlier; handholding would certainly be the lesser evil.  Try it both ways and see which gives you better results.  Some people can handhold better than others, some don’t like it at all.  A third alternative would be a monopod.  It is a lot less cumbersome than a tripod and offers a substantially sturdier support for the camera than handholding alone. Experiment.

Leica R4, Novoflex 400mm f/5.6

One final suggestion:  all the precautions against bad pictures will be meaningless if the lens on your camera does not perform to your expectations, and there are an awful lot of mediocre to rotten long lenses on the market.

Leica R4, Novoflex 640mm f/9, Novoflex 2x Extender

Leica R4, Novoflex 400mm f/5.6

Leica R3, Leitz Telyt 400mm f/6.8

Leica M5, Visoflex, Leica Bellows II, Leitz Telyt 200mm f/4.5

Leica M5, Visoflex III, Leica Bellows II, Leitz Telyt 200mm f/4.5

Leica R3, Leitz Telyt 400mm f/6.8

Sometimes equipment requires to be more specialized to get the shot we are after.

Leica M5, Visoflex III, Leica Bellows II, Leitz 560mm Telyt f/6.8


  1. I am not familiar with Novoflex lenses. Could you tell us more about them?

  2. Novoflex is a German company that used to offer an excellent line of lenses of their own, mainly long telephoto lenses. They developed a unique focusing system called Followfocus. The lenses incorporated a pistol grip which, when squeezed, would shift the lens to infinity. Releasing the grip slowly, would focus at closer distances. After some getting used to, this system focused faster than anything short of autofocus. The lenses were of the same, two-element design as the Leitz 400 and 560mm Telyt lenses and offered equally high performance levels. For a while, the Leitz 400 and 560 mm Telyt lenses were available from Leitz with the Novoflex Followfocus system. Lenses of the system consisted of 200, 240, 280, 300 400 600 and 640 mm lenses.

  3. That sounds like a further development of the "trombone" focusing Leica used with the 400 and 560mm Telyt lenses.

  4. Yes, and it proved to be much easier to use than the Leica system. I also found the focusing movement of the Novoflex system to be much sturdier. Leica used four appr. 5 inch long steel pins that fit in grooves to effect the focusing movement. Novoflex used appr. 50 such groves for the focusing movement.

  5. Looking at some pictures of Novoflex lenses, it seems that the pistol grip focusing has a relatively short movement. Doesn't that put considerable restrictions on how close you can focus?

  6. You are basically correct. However, Novoflex offered a perfect solution. The interchangeable lens mount adapter in back of the lens is about 2 inches long. It can be replaced by a small bellows which then is adapted to fit the camera. With the bellows in its shortest position, the lens focuses to infinity. If releasing the pistol grip does not focus close enough, the bellows can now be used to focus closer. Setting the bellows slightly closer than necessary allows the use of the pistol grip for fast focusing changes. This system proved to be substantially more convenient and usable than any extension tube.
    The later Novoflex lenses replaced the bellows with a sliding extension tube. That too worked quite well, but to me the bellows has always been the most practical solution.