Bird Photography: Equipment
A couple years ago, I decided I wanted to photograph birds.
While most professionals already know all the following information, it may be useful to beginners interested in working towards bird photography. Either way, it gives you an idea of the equipment I work with in my photography. :)
Obviously, to take photographs, the first step is going to be a camera. Most professional photographers these days are using Digital SLR cameras over point-and-shoot cameras for the additional features and lens interchangeability. For bird/wildlife photographers it becomes especially important to use a DSLR, as you are most likely going to be shooting at greater distances than a P&S (even with its stunning 5X optical zoom!) can appropriately handle.
As far as camera makers, I have used Canon equipment for a number of years, and never had any major complaints; in short, I think I’m hooked on Canon!
If looking to buy a DSLR for bird photography, I would recommend purchasing either Canon or Nikon. They are the most popular, therefore Canon and Nikon equipment is easy to get either new or used just about anywhere.
Pretty much any of Canon’s DSLRs (and Nikon’s too) will suit bird photography. Whether you choose an entry-level DSLR or all the way up to the advanced (and expensive!) 5d Mark II, you will be able to take stunning photographs of birds with a little experience and:
More important than the camera body (provided you have a somewhat decent body), is the glass you put in front of it. While there are some decent third-party lenses (and some pretty nice ones!), it seems that none can match the quality of a well-made lens from one of the major makers. (i.e. Canon, Nikon) Once again, however, you’ll find that you normally don’t pay for the mechanics of a lens, (though you will pay for some features, such as fast auto-focus) you usually find yourself paying for high quality glass. Always read plenty of reviews before purchasing a lens. If possible, test it on your body before shelling out a lot of green stuff for an expensive lens. Also keep in mind that most entry to mid-level DSLR bodies have a crop factor of 1.6X or so. This means that if using a 300mm lens on such a body, it will produce the same image as a 480mm lens on a Full Frame body.
As far as focal lengths, lenses useful for bird photography could be grouped into categories of:
WIDE ANGLE (17-35mm) and STANDARD or NORMAL (50mm) LENSES
Unless at point-blank, short lenses are not going to get you that wonderful shot of a bird filling the frame. However, they can be very useful for photographing flocks of birds in a landscape.
SHORT to MEDIUM TELEPHOTO and ZOOM LENSES (70-300m)
Like wide angle and standard lenses, these lenses can be very useful at times, but don’t really provide the necessary magnification for an everyday bird photography lens. However, some professionals opt for a high-quality 300mm with a teleconverter.
LONG TELEPHOTO LENSES (400mm and 500mm)
Many serious bird photographers choose their everyday lens from this group. After getting reasonably close to your subject, these lenses offer enough magnification for satisfactory images. Coupling a long telephoto with a teleconverter may be a better option than shelling out many thousands of dollars for:
SUPER TELEPHOTO LENSES (600mm and 800mm)
As mentioned, these lenses are extremely expensive, very heavy and difficult to maneuver and quite fragile. However, with these lenses, you can often simply get out of the car and start shooting.
With lenses, you get what you pay for. While it certainly isn’t necessary to own a ten thousand dollar lens to be a good bird photographer, beware of off-brand telephotos that cost only a few hundred dollars. Due to the low quality glass, many are simply incapable of producing satisfyingly sharp images. When purchasing a lens look for markings such as APO, UD, LD, L, ED, or SD, signifying that the lens has special glass elements to enhance its performance. While more expensive, these lenses will produce much more satisfactory images.
The speed of the lens is also something to consider. The faster the lens (wider opening) the better it will perform in low light situations. But also, the faster the lens, the quicker your money will disappear. Fast telephoto lenses cost many times as much and weigh a lot more than slower lenses. Find an affordable balance between the two.
A tripod is an accessory that I consider essential. While it is possible to produce sharp images handholding a lens, it is always better to use a tripod. When using long telephotos, it becomes a necessity if you wish to produce razor-sharp images.
Basically, you want to use the heaviest, sturdiest tripod that you can carry afield. Ideally, the tripod should be taller than you when set up, so that you can comfortably work while photographing birds high in trees. It is also ideal to choose a tripod whose legs can extend flat, for photographing birds on the ground.
Personally, I cannot stand pan-tilt heads for bird photography. While they may be preferable for landscapes, they are not practical for wildlife photography. In order to lock them down all the way, three knobs must be tightened. That takes too much time, especially for birds, not to mention that the handles often get in the way. Ball heads, though perhaps more expensive again, are a much preferred way to go. Framing the image is easy, you can follow moving birds, and it is easy to lock, all controlled with one knob.
Armed with a decent body, tripod and a high-quality lens, you are now ready to go out and take stunning photographs. While not absolutely essential, you will find yourself adding some accessories such as a shutter release, battery pack, maybe some filters etc…
One method of bird photography that I worked with for a while, is the art of digiscoping. Digiscoping is the process of taking photos with a P&S through a spotting scope. I dabbled at it for a while and purchased a $400 spotting scope. However, scopes in that price range do not offer quality glass, and I experienced horrible problems with chromatic aberration. High quality Swarovski, Nikon, Leica etc... scopes can easily cost over $2000. Rather than pursuing digiscoping, I spent that money on a DSLR body and my Canon EF 100-400mm lens.
While some people (like Mike McDowell), are capable of turning out stunning images using digiscoping, for the beginning serious bird photographer, it is probably more worth while to invest towards a DSLR setup. Digiscoping is ideal for birdwatchers who have already invested in a scope with high quality glass.