By Buddy Eleazer, owner of Magnum Excursions, LLC
Figure 1- Canon 400mm DO with 1.4x teleconverter (560mm), Canon 1Dx MkII at f/5.6, 1/2500 sec., ISO 500
The Bottom Line Summary
Recently, I was talking with a friend who was proudly noting that, with her 4/3 format Olympus camera, she could easily handhold a 300mm lens, the equivalent of a 600mm lens. She also noted that, with the use of a 1.4x extender (teleconverter) she could hand hold the equivalent of 840mm of lens.
As we continued to discuss photographing wildlife, she noted that sometimes, the images were not as sharp. This could be due to the camera focus system, but my bet is that the camera was not as stable as needed. I’m a wildlife photographer. I regularly shoot 400 to 800mm of lens. For close birds in flight, I may shoot handheld, but I know that when I can stabilize the camera the result will be more tack sharp images.
Often, a tripod is not convenient. In other cases, it may not be available. That’s when I turn to my trusty beanbag. Beanbags are small, extremely portable and a low cost option for stabilizing a lens. I mostly use mine on a vehicle window ledge or the roll bar between seats on an Africa game drive vehicle, but I also use them when laying on the ground shooting low angle shots, or when shooting over the hood of a car or from observation blinds.
I advise clients that when handholding a lens, they should try to shoot a minimum of the inverse of the focal length of the lens. In other words, a 400mm lens should be shot at at least1/400 sec., 600mm should be at least 1/600 sec., etc. Faster is better. However, when shooting with a beanbag, one can slow the shutter speeds, allowing for lower ISO settings and increased depth of field.
For the last year, my beanbag of choice is this one, sold by TheVestGuy.com. Here is what I like about this particular bag:
You may wonder how and when I fill my bag. The bag can be purchased buckwheat hull filling and this is a good idea if you don’t plan to travel with the bag as this is a light weight filler that still allows the bag to conform to both your lens and the support you are using. I travel a lot to my bag and would prefer it empty when traveling as it is lighter and more compact this way. Once on the ground, I fill my bag. I’ve used many different filling materials based on availability, but common fillings may be dried red beans, Lentils or mielie maize (a course corn product used to make a porridge meal). In a pinch, one could even use sand or even clothing. On a recent trip one client stuffed his bag with his used/worn clothing, using the bean bag as his laundry bag. Hey, it worked.
In Summary, if you are going a telephoto lens and want something more portable than a tripod, use a bean bag. Bean bags provide excellent stability for extremely large telephotos and also for more stable, sharper shots at lower shutter speeds even with shorter lenses. The bags work particularly well in vehicles or shooting from prone positions.
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