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Part 1 - The Camera - So Really, How Do Pros Get Their Bird Shots?

Updated on June 9, 2015
Sherry Thornburg profile image

Writer, photographer and birding enthusiast, Sherry Thornburg writes about birding and birding related topics.

Harris Hawk Close-up

Source

Bird Photographers

I’ve been a professional portrait photographer for over 20 years. Now that I am retired, I mostly do nature work. The change has led me to talk to many professional and serious amateurs involved in bird photography about the differences and how to get the beautiful shots I see in magazines and pro galleries. Almost every time I come across a long time birding photographer, I see these things.

  1. A willingness to talk to others about their passion
  2. A smile when someone asks what they have in their camera bag.

Photography is an expensive hobby. It is an even more expensive profession. The fact that most don’t use film anymore has helped reduce the expenses significantly, but the camera itself and those tubes of glass are gold and are priced as such. You can mitigate this somewhat by choosing your brands, but all of the better brands are going to cost you. That is likely why we photographers pick each other’s brains about equipment so much.

To answer the question, I will talk not about specific brands so much as types of equipment. There are great reviews on the internet that can discuss Nikon verses Canon verses Sony, Olympus, Fujifilm, or Panasonic and on and on. I won’t talk about professional flagship cameras much either.

Have you ever noticed that whatever brand of camera you presently prefer has one of two professional cameras they talk up as the best there is and a wide variety of amateur cameras in all price ranges? That is because there are more serious amateurs out there than professionals with big camera budgets. Or, as Mike Randolph puts it,

“I’m willing to bet that Canon and Nikon sell more of their flagship cameras to amateurs than they do to professionals, for the simple reason that there are a lot more serious amateurs in the world (and ones that have money to burn) than there are pro photographers (who generally don’t).”

Bird Photography

Becoming one with your subject
Becoming one with your subject | Source

So What does a Professional Take to the Field

Scott Contini is a bird photographer with many awards for his work. He has a lovely picture of Fairy Wrens that he uses as a sample in an internet tutorial. It was taken with a Canon Powershot S3 IS, yes, a point-and-shoot camera. His other camera is "a Canon EOS 450D (also known as EOS Rebel XSi) which is an entry level DSLR." Coincidentally, that was my first digital camera, which I also still use for birding.

So now that you know that, let’s just get over the name brand and camera model thing and talk about what professional bird photographers have in their bags.

A Photographer Needs

  1. A camera
  2. Telephoto lens
  3. Tele extenders
  4. Tripod or monopod
  5. Microfiber lens cloths and other accessories
  6. SD storage cards
  7. Extra batteries
  8. Flash unit

What Makes a Good Camera for Birding

Source

The Truth about Megapixels by Gadget Guy TV

Auto Focus Choices Explained by Lynda.com

The Camera

In today’s world, Wildlife Photographer Glenn Bartley says, the digital single lens reflex (DSLR) is the go to camera for serious wildlife photographers. “They allow the user to look into the viewfinder and directly through the lens to their subject. They allow for the use of a wide variety of lenses. They come with sophisticated autofocus capabilities, have high speed shooting capabilities, and allow their users to quickly change settings.” Let's talk about the features in the camera.

  • Megapixels – A camera that offers 8 megapixels or more is sufficient for wildlife photography. This may sound counter to the megapixel hype you may be hearing, but the video to the right explains the megapixel myth and what you really need to know about the subject.
  • Crop Factor – We are talking focal magnification here. This goes hand in hand with megapixel size spoken of in the video. The sensor size in your camera may enlarge the image, causing a boost in magnification if you have a camera with a 24mm sensor verses a 32mm sensor. My Canon T4i has this creating a crop factor of 1.6x. This means my lens in the 100 mm range will become equal to 160 mm and my 300 mm range images will have a magnification factor of 480 mm. For birding, paying attention to the crop factor is key to getting close clear bird shots. A landscape photographer, however, would prefer a full frame digital camera sensor of 32mm or a one that doesn’t have a crop factor to cut their wide angle views.
  • Frame Rate – The speed in which the camera can write images into the memory card is important. If you are taking pictures of birds in flight, it can be critical. My Canon gets five frames per second (fps) of continuous shooting. The best, last I looked, will offer 10 fps.
  • Auto Focus – Auto focus systems are getting better with every camera model offered. The number of sensor points that are available to keep your bird in focus can mean a lot. My old T4i has nine sensors, but the EOS-1D X will offer 61 cross-type AF points depending on the lens you use. The newer the camera, the more sophisticated the auto focus performance. To understand auto focus choices, see the second video to the right.
  • ISO Capacity – ISO, in old school film terms, meant the film’s sensitivity to light. A number was on the packages from 25 to 1600. The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive the film. For digital cameras it speaks of the light sensitivity of the image sensors. Image sensors have a native or base ISO where the best images can be achieved. Early DSLRs had a native ISO of 100 and later cameras tend to work best at ISO 200. At present, neither Canon nor Nikon reports this. Photographers testing their own equipment have come up with this information. Moving the ISO selection past the 100 or 200 position doesn’t change the sensitivity of the sensors, it amplifies the data the camera can produce. This also amplifies noise, which will degrade the image quality. You can test your own equipment using the simple test method below.

Test Results

ISO 100 sample
ISO 100 sample | Source
ISO 1600 sample
ISO 1600 sample | Source
ISO 12800 sample
ISO 12800 sample | Source

Testing Your ISO Range

In a non-scientific test:

  1. I put my camera on Program (P) mode, set it on a tripod and took pictures at all ISO levels in a dark area with no flash.
  2. I then cropped those shots down to a 20% area and watched the grain spots (visible noise) build up in the shadow areas and black image spaces.

ISO 100 had the best picture. ISO 1600 was the highest point where the noise still allowed a good looking image. By ISO 6400 the noise was degrading the picture in the light areas as well. So for the best pictures in low light, I wouldn’t want to push beyond 1600.

The camera’s maximum ISO setting is 12800, three steps further up. I have used that ISO setting on bright days in order to extend my shutter speed to catch flying birds, but that is about the only light condition I would use it in.

Glenn Bartley says, “if high ISO performance is important, we recommend buying a camera with fewer megapixels.

  • Build Quality – This factor is directly proportional to how much you are willing to pay. Rugged cameras built of stronger materials and waterproof bodies that can handle the bumps and bangs of nature photography will cost a bit more. The higher end cameras will also have shutters rated for greater usage; something to think about if you like to use the continuous shutter setting.

Final Word

With this information, you should have all you need to choose the best camera for the job no matter what brand you prefer. Don’t be discouraged if you can’t get the camera model you really want right away. None of us could. Camera companies make new improvements every year anyway, so what you think is the best now may be on the bottom of the good camera list in as little as one to three years.

Lens Choices

So Many Lens Choices
So Many Lens Choices | Source

What’s Next?

While the camera is the brains of our camera outfit, the lens is the eye. Lenses come in all manner of focal lengths with accessories to boost their abilities.

The Rest of the Series

Happy Birding


© 2015 Sherry Thornburg

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