Cityscapes from an Extreme-Telephoto Perspective

This surreal period of suspended travels has left many of us photographers exploring new forms of photography. From landscapes to still life, almost everyone I know has tried to expand their repertoire of photography skills. In this article, I hope to share how I use ultra-telephoto lenses for my landscape work and my main subjects will be the sun and the moon.

 

Alpha 1 | FE 200-600mm F5.6-6.3 G OSS | 1.4x Teleconverter Lens | 840mm | ISO 100 | 1/60 sec | f/9.0

 

To kick-start this topic, it's essential to note that ultra-telephoto lenses start from typically 201mm onwards. That rules out the extremely popular 70-200mm lenses. There is nothing to fret about because in the Sony full-frame ecosystem alone, there are 5 ultra-telephoto lenses that you can choose from; the affordable 70-300G, the extremely popular 200-600G, the 100-400GM which is used by even street photographers as a walkabout lens, and the GM primes of 400 and 600 that are both revered by wildlife and sports photographers. For Sony APS-C users, these lenses are perfect to use on your camera too.

Of all the above, I own the 100-400GM and 200-600G. Both are excellent and it will be tough to choose the better between the two but for the sole purpose of this article, I will be referencing the 200-600G and at times, the 600GM.

 

Alpha 7R III | FE 200-600mm F5.6-6.3 G OSS | 1.4x Teleconverter Lens | 734mm | ISO 3200 | 1/60 sec | f/9.0

 

As to the camera of choice, it doesn't matter. All Alpha cameras are suitable and will be a great choice to have no matter which you choose.

While photos of just the moon or sun alone in the sky are fascinating, I personally feel (no offence here) that they are akin to passport photos of the celestial bodies. It's a nice experience to have one for keepsake. Once you have done that, just tell yourselves that you got the starting image; now let's move on to the challenging ones that will wow the audience more.

 

Alpha 1 | FE 200-600mm F5.6-6.3 G OSS | 600mm | ISO 200 | 1/20sec | f/7.0

 

Many of us here have been amazed by images that show a sense of scale. Some may be exaggerated, but they still thrill us nonetheless. I have been in awe for years and it was during this pandemic period that I decided to plunge deep down into getting images that show the city of Singapore juxtaposed with the sun or moon; basically showing my viewers what they probably have not seen before. An ultra-telephoto lens is essential to making this happen so I purchased the 200-600G. It is a lens that I had deliberated on for some time, and this project became the catalyst in my swift purchase.

I came up with a list of conditions that would get me a successful image:

1) The sun or moon has to be huge while the human/city elements have to be as small as possible. To get a larger-looking sun/moon, I have to shoot at the longer end of the lens – almost always at 600mm. That itself creates another issue; the buildings in the scene will look equally huge so the next consideration to get myself as far away from the scene as possible to ensure that the buildings look smaller in the frame.

 

Alpha 7R III | FE 100-400mm G Master super-telephoto zoom lens | 400mm | ISO 100 | 1/1250sec | f/9.0

 

2) Landmarks featured should be recognizable and preferably relatable. A random tree or forest line will just not cut it. I made a list of subjects that will propel us in the right direction when I do my research on the best shooting spots. This reduces the possibility of losing track of my visualized image. A piece of advice here: Take your time to conjure up this list.

3) Finding shooting spots that could give me an unblocked view of the sun/moon aligned with my chosen landmarks. This is the most tedious step. I had to scout, both on site and virtually to find the spots. During the circuit breaker period of 2020, I spent an entire week locked onto my computer with Google Earth, Google Maps and The Photographer's Ephemeris aka TPE. The first two are free to use while TPE is free with limited features. I am using the paid version, but it should not differ much from the free version.

 

Alpha 1 | FE 200-600mm F5.6-6.3 G OSS | 444mm | ISO 800 | 1.6secs | f/10

 

The programs are really intuitive and simple to use! In fact, I only use the most basic functions of each of them and that is all I need to plan for my shots. There are many tutorials available on YouTube should you need help understanding the programs.

Once the virtual scouting has been accomplished, the next step is to head to the site itself. Google Maps can be a little dated (depends on the location) so nothing beats a physical scouting session. Doing so will maximise your chances of getting “The Shot”.

 

Alpha 7R IV | FE 200-600mm F5.6-6.3 G OSS | 1.4x Teleconverter Lens | ISO 200 | 1/200 sec | f/14

 

Gear-wise, what you need to bring is minimal. Other than your camera setup, you just need a Neutral Density (ND) filter of at least 6 stops (for the sun), a remote and a solid tripod set-up.

The camera and lens have been mentioned earlier so we will jump straight to the usage of an ND filter. The sun can be too bright even when we use the fastest shutter speeds, slowest apertures and lowest ISO settings. That can be solved with ND filters. I find that the 6-stops ND filter and sometimes the 10-stop ND filter are most useful in these situations. Whether you choose to use the standard circular filters or the slot-in system, do your best to ensure that the filters are clean, void of stains and fingerprints.

 

Alpha 7R IV | FE 100-400mm G Master super-telephoto zoom lens | 1.4x Teleconverter Lens | ISO 400 | 15 sec | f/13

 

A remote is essential to negating vibrations on an ultra-telephoto setup and we recommend getting the Sony RMT-P1BT as it allows you to adjust focus (when set to manual) without ever touching your setup. How cool is that?

One small issue I faced while shooting from high viewpoints is wind. An ultra-telephoto setup is a perfect wind catcher. To reduce that, I remove the lens hoods to make the setup even smaller. Using a strong ball head for your setup is also essential in reducing the negative effects of the winds.

To sum up

• Scout for good locations that give a sense of place and scale.

• Use as good a shooting technique as you can. Long lenses are unforgivable when it comes to inferior handling techniques.

• Use manual shooting mode and feel free to do exposure brackets for situations when you want some detail in the foreground. I recommend a 2-stop difference between each exposure and 3 to 5 exposures will be more than enough to cover all situations.

• Sunsets are less challenging as you can arrive earlier on location and plan your shots with time to spare. The problem is that the Singaporean horizon is rarely clear. Dust and low clouds are common along the western horizon while sunrises can be much clearer as dust would have settled overnight.

 

Alpha 1 | FE 200-600mm F5.6-6.3 G OSS | 600mm | ISO 800 | 3 secs | f/10

 

You may still encounter depth of field issues especially while shooting the moon where I may use faster apertures. Your foreground subjects may be distant but could still be out of focus. Either use a smaller aperture and focus stack or just focus on the subjects and let the moon be slightly out of focus. I find that sharp silhouetted subjects are way more desirable than getting them blurred out and having a sharp focused moon. This applies to the sun as well though we have more than enough light during sunrise and sunset to use the smaller apertures.

Lastly, the sun can be blinding so ND filters can be of great aid here. Protecting your eyes should be a top priority while embarking on sunrise/sunset shoots.

There you have it, the “secret” recipe to ultra-telephoto photos of the sun and moon. It takes some imagination, plenty of preparations and a tiny dose of luck but when the stars are aligned, the images are literally out of this world.

 

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not reflect the opinions or views of Sony Digital Workshop

 

 

Wee Han & Charmaine’s Gear

Alpha 1

ILCE-1

Alpha 7R III

ILCE-7RM3

Alpha 7R IV

ILCE-7RM4

FE 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 GM OSS

SEL100400GM

FE 200-600mm F5.6-6.3 G OSS

SEL200600G

1.4x Teleconverter Lens

SEL14TC

 

 

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