Bird Photography on a Budget (Part I)

Carolina Chickadee Hanging Out

I have been asked two different times recently as to how to get started in wildlife photography and how my photographs are so sharp? I of course gave the obligatory answers about shutter speed, aperture, a good tripod and practice, but this has unfolded into larger questions for me. How can a person become a proficient wildlife photographer on a budget? How can he take sharp images without spending 10,000 dollars on equipment? Is this even a possibility?

So for the next several weeks I will not only talk about investment in gear, but also how to invest in practice and experience. Bird photography and photography in general is a blending of knowledge, pre-image visualization and gear which when used properly will result in better photographs of the subject. In this series of blog entries, first I will put together a good starting lens, camera body and tripod and in coming weeks conclude by showing techniques I have learned using the gear presented.

My photographic adventure started in 1995 when my future wife invited me to help her develop some film and make some prints in the university's dark room as part of a class she was taking. From the moment I saw the print magically appear in the developer I was hooked. From there I started photographing whenever possible and started shooting for the Liberty University newspaper. As I got better I moved into assistant photo editor and then photo editor for both the Liberty Champion and Selah (our school's yearbook). Back then it was all 35mm black and white and color slide film. I spent hour after hour in the dark room developing hundreds of rolls of film and I loved every minute of it. Today I am using all digital equipment and I still love every minute of the process of making the photograph and then polishing it in post production. I currently do sell my photographs, but do not make a living doing so. I am not the best photographer out there by any means but I have gotten better over the years and I want to pass on what I have learned.

I mention my background to give a little context but also because it was in those early years that I began to realize that photography was an expensive hobby and career. So when someone tells me they can't afford a new lens let me just say that I completely understand and can relate in total.

Equipment (yep, I am going there right off)

When dealing with wildlife and birds in specific we are dealing with a subject that has little tolerance for meddling humans with a lens sticking out of their eye. To them we represent a threat and as a photographer we need to minimize that threat in order to obtain good photographs. One of the ways we can minimize the threat is by lens selection. By using the right lens we can not only increase our working distance from the subject but also create a pleasing background blur for our image (more on that in later posts).

In the words of Arthur Morris, "It ain't the lens." What he means by this statement is that ultimately no matter the lens you use it is about YOU and how YOU see the subject and how YOU use the lens to capture the photograph. Yes, the lens is very important but just having a big, expensive lens doesn't guarantee you success. In the end it is about hours of practice, understanding bird behavior and sometimes just plain dumb luck! A lens is a tool to our craft just as a wood sculptor needs a chisel, we need our lenses. It is how that sculptor uses that chisel that makes the difference. It is a tool to bring his vision to reality. So now that we know that it isn't just the lens let's get back to talking about hardware.

There are two main categories of lens which are used in bird photography. The first is the medium telephoto and the second is the super-telephoto. When I speak of the medium telephoto I am referring to something in the 200mm to 300mm range and when I speak of super -telephoto I am thinking about a lens over 400mm in length. Let's start with the medium telephoto.

The lens I recommend to people as a low budget medium telephoto is the 70-300mm. I find this lens to be very versatile for the beginner and will serve him well for many years even after he accumulates other lenses. Having this focal range gives the new photographer access to several different lenses in one and can save him time and money. Now I don't recommend buying the cheapest 70-300mm you can find, but you also don't need the most expensive either. Remember these blogs are about bird photography on a tight budget. In keeping with that theme, my recommendation for a good solid medium telephoto is the Tamron SP 70-300MM F/4-5.6 Di VC USD. I use this lens all the time and it is sharp, has vibration compensation and is moderately fast to focus. Many photographers out there seem to have a problem recommending gear but in short I do not. So just like that you have a lens to start looking for on the internet. Did I say internet? Yep, that's where you will find the best deals on used lenses. Additionally I am going to recommend a company to buy them from and that company is KEH. KEH has been around for a long long time and they are top notch in customer service. I highly recommend them.

Tamron 70-300 SP VC

So why did I pick this Tamron lens out of a myriad of lenses on the market? I found this lens to offer the best optics and features for the price. In recent years Tamron and Sigma have really stepped up their game in the telephoto range and have forced brand camera manufacturers to respond with newer glass. That says something for Tamron. I am always looking for bargain glass which offers superior performance and I believe that Tamron SP lenses are top notch. Please note that I am not saying this is the only lens that works, but in this series of posts I am putting together a formula I have found that works for me. This lens provides me will full time manual focus, vibration compensation and a sharp photo even at 300mm f5.6. Next I want to examine the different features of the lens and why I like it.

First, the full time manual focus allows me to adjust the focus of the lens even while auto-focus is engaged. So when I need to focus on the eye of a bison and his eyebrows are getting in the way of auto-focus, I can make the subtle correction without ever turning the auto-focus off. Next it has vibration compensation (VC) which is a mechanism that allows me to handhold the camera even during low light conditions. I can gain up to 3 or 4 stops. So if I can normally hand hold this lens at 1/320 of a second shutter speed then I can expect to be able to hand hold this lens at about 1/60 of a second with the VC engaged. This is especially useful when photographing stationary birds in lower light conditions. Finally this lens is sharp and you don't have to take my word for it. Bob Atkins review of the Tamron 70-300 SP

OK so this lens is not all good, right? I mean nothing is perfect, right? No, this lens is not perfect and if I had to nit pick on this lens it would have to be auto-focus. I particularly notice it to not be as fast as other Canon lenses when shooting birds in flight but it is adequate. The speed of the auto-focus is much faster when using a 1 series body like the 1D Mark II but I do use it on the 7d as well and it can perform worse on the 7D. Is it a show stopper? No, it isn't. You just have to practice with it.

So bottom line: what can I expect to pay for this lens on the used market? On KEH you can buy this lens for under $300.00 in excellent condition. When you consider that a Canon lens with the same feature will cost you around $1,000.00 used, it is a no brainer for the budget minded photographer to start with this lens. Is it as fast as the Canon or Nikon equivalent? Nope, but it can hold its own and remember we are on a budget. If you can afford the best made lenses I assume you would not be reading this post. Finally I like to set this lens at an f8 aperture which by far the most used aperture for bird photography in general. The lens does perform quite well though even at f5.6, but f8 is it's sweet spot in my opinion.

In next weeks post I will continue with equipment and discuss what camera body you should buy when on a budget. In the following weeks I will show you how to take that combination and create surprisingly good photographs. So keep watching and reading because we are only getting started. Below are just a few of images I have taken with the Tamron 70-300 SP VC recently:

I apologize for the image quality on these. It is due to something dreamstime is doing with the resizing. To see the image go to: American Gold Finch in Snow

Carolina Wren in Snow

American Gold Finch

Carolina Wren in Snow

Photo credits: Matt Cuda.

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June 10, 2015


Nice pics and a very elaborated article!

May 12, 2015


Nice article!! Thanks for the tips.

May 11, 2015


Great article with beautiful pics.

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