Ophrys Photography

Wildlife photography by John Devries, Kent UK. Inspirational images from nature.
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Tips and tutorials
Photographing wild birds Part 2

Equipment for bird photography

Unfortunately you have to be pretty serious to contemplate getting into photographing birds .There is no way around it - the equipment required doesn't come cheap and it is also bulky and pretty heavy. It certainly took me some years to acquire the long lenses that I now own.

My advice is to buy the longest prime lens (fixed focal length) that you can afford. Unless you are in to photographing ostriches 400mm is the shortest focal length you can realistically hope to get away with.

In the Canon range, if money is tight or if weight is a big issue, I would recommend a crop camera such as a 40D/50D or 7D combined with a 400mm f5.6L lens. This will yield an effective focal length of 1.6x 400 = 640mm. The lens is light and compact, very sharp, has great contrast and accepts a teleconverter very well with insignificant quality loss, but you then have to manually focus unless you have a 1 series camera - which will retain AF on the 1.4x converter. It also autofocuses very quickly which is great for birds in flight (BIF). The lens's biggest minuses are that it is a "slow" f5.6 lens that lacks image stabilisation - so it works best in good light or should be supported on a tripod or monopod. However, lacking IS keeps the size, weight and cost down. It is quite a bargain.

Canon 400mm f5.6 lens

The widely-used alternative to the 400mm f5.6 is the Canon 100-400 f4.5-5.6L IS zoom. This lens is slightly less good optically than the prime, particularly when used at maximum aperture but does have image stabilisation and is more versatile being a zoom. Although it is called a 100-400, it actually only manages 380mm at the long end, so if you think you might regularly shoot with it at maximum zoom, you could be better off with the prime lens. Some people use it successfully with a 1.4x teleconverter but I have always found the image degradation to be slightly too much for my needs.

If money and weight is less of an issue, the 1 series Canon cameras offer superior image quality and far better autofocus ability along with weather-sealing. They also retain autofocus at an aperture of f8 (centre AF point only) which is an important consideration when using teleconverters.
Lenses to consider are the 400mm f4 IS DO - this is very compact and light but very expensive. You can use a teleconverter with it. Image quality is excellent but not quite in the same class as the other "super telephotos".

Another option to seriously consider is to go for the 300mm f2.8 IS and use it with teleconverters. This is probably Canon's sharpest lens, so it accepts converters very well and can even retain autofocus on any Canon body. A 300f 2.8 with a 2x converter becomes a 600mm f5.6 lens. Combine this with a crop camera and you still have lots of reach.

The 400mm f2.8 lens is a very heavy and bulky lens and retains AF with both extenders on any Canon camera - so it can become an 800mm f5.6 lens with a 2x converter with the benefit of being a very fast lens - ie. it can maximise shutterspeed in low light situations.

I consider that the best lens for bird photography is the 500mm f4 IS. It is expensive, large and heavy, but is far more manageable than the 600mm f4. The image quality is identical to its bigger brother i.e. stunning, it has fast autofocus, takes both extenders extremely well and AF is retained with all cameras with the 1.4x and a 1 series camera will still AF with the 2x converter - yielding a massively powerful 1000mm f8 lens. The lens is just about the longest that you can get away with as carry-on luggage when travelling by plane and you can even hand-hold it for short periods if you have average strength thanks to the IS ! Compared to the shorter f5.6 lenses, it is much easier to throw the background out of focus into a pastel blur.

Fieldfare in snow - taken with the Canon 500mm f4 IS lens

The final lens to consider is the 800mm f5.6 IS. This is another big, heavy and even more expensive lens, but not the monster that an 800mm f4 lens would have had to be if it existed. This is a highly specialised lens and I have had no personal experience of it. It will only autofocus with the 1.4x extender on a 1 series body but not with the 2x extender.

Being a Canon shooter, I am no expert on Nikon equipment, but as I once considered changing to Nikon tempted by the excellent Nikon D3 camera, I did look into what lenses are available.You are very much more restricted in choice in the cheaper and shorter telephoto lengths it appears, but Nikon do have some excellent super telephotos that are easily equivalent to Canons.

The equivalent lens to Canon's 100-400 IS is the 80-400mm F4.5-5.6D VR. I have never used this lens, but I am told that the image quality is similar to Canon's offering but autofocus is slow as the lens lacks an inbuilt USM motor, relying on a motor in the camera driving the lens through a helical gear.

There is a 300mm f4 that will accept a 1.7x teleconverter to yield 510mm but lacks VR.

There is a 300mm f2.8 VR, 400mm f2.8 VR , a 400mm f2.8 VR, 500mm f4 VR and 600mm f4 VR which are all said to be excellent and equivalent to the Canon offerings. There are also two teleconverters - a 1.4x and a 1.7x.

Finally Nikon have the 200-400 f4 VR lens which is a heavy and expensive but very high quality zoom that Canon has no equivalent to. It will accept extenders well apparently and has the zoom benefits of versatility. It is lighter than a 500f4 lens so is more hand-holdable for Birds in Flight (BIF). Some people have bought a Nikon camera just to be able to use this lens !

Moving on from Nikon lenses to cameras, at the time of writing, Nikon has the 12Mp full frame D3s SLR with 12 Mp, the D3x with 24 Mp full frame and the D300s 1.5x crop camera with 12 Mp. I have used the D3 and think that it is superb. Its strengths are exceptional high ISO noise ability, 9fps shooting speed, great image quality and probably the best AI servo autofocus currently available in a digital SLR. On the downside, the full frame sensor has a low pixel density so you will frequently be reaching for a teleconverter or longer lens to address the shortfall. I don't think I would go for the D3x despite its very high image quality as it has sacrificed the high ISO ability and frame rate of the D3 for double the megapixels. The D300s has a high pixel density benefit for birds but apparently gives away some image quality to the D3 cameras. A D300 plus a 200-400f4 VR or 500mm f4 VR on a D3s are potent birding combinations. Sigma also have a very good 500mm f4.5 USM lens but this lacks VR and does not retain autofocus with teleconverters as it is just slower than an f4.

The final requirement for bird photography is a good tripod and head. If you can afford it I would recommend a carbon fibre model as they are both sturdy and lighter than their metal counterparts. I use a Gitzo and Markins ball head or Wimberley gimbal head with Kirk or Wimberley quick- release plates. You can read more about these items in my equipment update.