by Joseph LaQuiere

"Declaring the glory of God
through photography of His created world"
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  copyright 2008 by Joseph LaQuiere
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Heavy Lenses, Steady Shots!
When it comes to purchasing or using a large and heavy photographic lens we usually think of the negative aspects of weight, size and mass with the only positive being focal length or lens quality.  Let me offer, from my own personal observation a way to feel good about using big heavy lenses, even if they do tax our stamina (not to mention our wallet).

I am not talking about the super big lenses that really must be used on a tripod like the 500 or 600mm Canon f4, but  lenses like the Canon 100-400 L IS,  28-300 L IS, 35-350 LSigma 50-500mm also known as the (Bigma) or even the Canon 300mm F2.8, 400mm F4 DO.  These lenses are within the ability of most photographers to hand hold, but certainly are bulky, they weight a lot and are long.  In the case of the two Canon Image Stabilized lenses, that I have mentioned, I am including these as simply heaver lenses that fit into this group with IS turned off.  Any two lenses  can be considered in this context when a choice can be made between similar focal lengths and one lens heavier than the other.
Big Heavy  Bigma  vs Light Weight Canon 400mm F5.6 L

Let me make my observations based on two sets of examples, the first being between the Sigma 50-500 (Bigma) and the Canon 400mm f5.6.  The 400mm f5.6 Canon is well known because of it's optical sharpness and also for it's  light weight, the Sigma because of it's incredible range and it's bazooka like length and weight to match. I have owned a Sigma 50-500 for some time and being that I don't own any of the long 2.8 lenses or the 500 or 600mm Canons, the Sigma is the heaviest lens in my collection.

Over the time that I have owned the Bigma I am often amazed at how many shots come out good, while hand holding at the 500mm length, with amazingly slow shutter speeds. 1/80th - 1/250th. Many times, using good technique, the cardinal rule of "shutter speed should equal focal length" can be broken by a significant amount. 

Now conversely, while hand holding the lightweight 400mm F5.6 lens at low shutters speeds, I see a larger percentage of images that do not turn out as well.
Very Light Tamron 28-300 vs Much Heavier Canon 35-350

Another example can be made between lenses like the lightweight Tamron or Sigma 28-300mm zooms VS the heaver Canon counter parts.    I have found again, when trying to hold things steady, at slow shutter speeds, the much heaver Canon L series lenses dampen vibration and shakiness far more.

Bear in mind that I am making no comment about the comparative optical sharpness of these lenses but simply how the mass and weight aid in image sharpness at low shutter speeds.

Mass = Better Dampening

The mass and weight of the heaver lenses makes it easier to keep steady while hand holding.  If you use a good technique and if your muscles are not fatigued, a lens of greater mass is easier to steady.

Of course this is all basic physics about mass and the transfer of vibrations but this phenomena becomes very apparent when trying to hand hold and keep still 300 or 500mm of focal length with a lightweight compared to a heavyweight.

Good Technique

When you are trying to hand hold any lens at slow shutter speeds try this.  Spread your legs out and get a comfortable stable footing, position your arms as comfortably as possible and against your body if you can, do not have a tight grip on the lens or camera but let them rest in your hands as lightly as possible.  The biggest hindrance to steadying a camera and lens is the tendency to tighten up all the muscles in the body which causes micro vibrations to be produced because your muscles tend to tremor more.  DON'T squeeze the camera to death! If you do not wear glasses you can also apply  firm but not excessive pressure to your head while looking through the eyepiece.  The mass of your head in this case can help to stabilize. Now take a deep breath (the extra oxygen will also help your muscles to relax) as you exhale press the shutter.  You will be amazed at how this simple technique helps.  If you let this basic technique become second nature you will also find that you fatigue much less on long outings.

One interesting observation is if you have ever had the chance to use one of the Image Stabilized lenses you will find that this system works not by stopping all movement in the image but rather by producing a slow but steady orbital movement free from micro vibrations.  This is why you will find that IS will not work at all below a certain shutter speed because it actually introduces movement and if the shutter speed is below this threshold you will see the orbital motion appear in the image.

So next time you go out hoisting one of these heavier dudes console yourself with the fact that it can help you get better pictures at lower shutter speeds
Canon 400mm f5.6L  weight 2.8 lbs
Sigma 50-500mm  f4-6.3 weight 4lbs
Canon 35-350 L
Tamron 28-350mm  f4-6.3