[Portions update Sep. 2013]
This Digital Bird Photography series is quite lengthy. It chronicles much of what I have learned about bird photography during my first 6 1/2 years of the hobby–from acquiring my first Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera, birding lens, and camera accessories, finding birds, taking shots, all the way through to post-processing photos, my workflow, and posting images on the Internet.
During my 6 1/2 years of shooting, I feel I’ve taken steps toward “paying my dues,” so to speak, and I’m hoping that sharing my experiences might give other people (including new people to the hobby) who have an interest in bird photography an idea of what to expect on your journey to taking the best pictures you can.
While I have dabbled in photography and Single Lens Reflex cameras since the late 1960’s, I didn’t specifically begin doing wildlife/bird photography until the end of 2006. I didn’t go out and take a bird photography class or accompany a pro bird photographer’s group to Peru to learn how bird photography is done. Instead, I started out with minimal equipment, read bird forum posts on the Internet, did research on the Internet, talked to other pros in person and on the Internet, and most importantly, I practiced shooting–a lot. I’m thinking there are others who may want to get into this hobby in a similar fashion.
So if you are a beginning or intermediate bird photographer, seriously interested in becoming better at it because you love getting out in nature and capturing birds and other creatures in images you can enjoy and share with others, then this series of articles will provide at least one more person’s experience on the subject, and in the process, assist you in learning something new or maybe just give you a reason to try something new. Most of what you read in this series is based on my experiences including tidbits I picked up over the last 6.5 years shooting, talking to pros, amateurs, and doing Internet, magazine, and book research on the subject. Some readers already into bird photography may find parts of this information ‘old hat’ so please hang in there through these parts. Let’s get started with the basic equipment needed to begin photographing birds: A camera, lens and memory card.
Bird Photography Equipment (basic)
Most folks that follow my blog and website know that I shoot Canon equipment and I don’t want to get into the merits of whether Canon is better than Nikon, or any other brand of camera and lenses. Most major camera companies have an impressive line of bodies, lenses, and accessories that can produce top notch results, in the right hands. Which system you go with is a personal decision. If you haven’t yet chosen your system, be sure to do research, talk to other photographers, and don’t forget to look at prices–which can vary between systems.
One thing you need to know if you are just starting out and you’re shooting with a “point and shoot” (P&S) camera, bird photography is not cheap! And, no matter what equipment you currently or ever have, there will always be more expensive gear that you wish you could afford. So be prepared to shell out some relatively big bucks if you are serious about this hobby (I’m calling it a hobby here since that’s what it is for me). I’m assuming also that most folks reading this are not independently wealthy with an unlimited budget for photography gear. I started out with consumer level gear and have worked up to professional level gear. I’m real happy (and fortunate) to have been able to improve both my camera body and birding lens, step by step. I systematically upgraded each major piece of equipment as I could afford it. I used each item to its fullest potential and seemed to know when it was time to consider upgrading.
If you’re just now beginning bird photography, you have an advantage over me because for $1,000, you can get a much more fully featured DSLR than I was able to get back in 2005 (a Canon Rebel XT). So you already are starting out ahead of me. Each year, more features are available on DSLR’s for nearly the same price as the year before. Lenses are a different story. They don’t replace lens models nearly as often as they do camera bodies. And the price of lenses just seems to go up each year by around 10%. Canon replaced several of its 300mm to 600mm lenses with new upgraded models (series II lenses). In some cases the replaced lenses have been around for the last 13 years. So you can see that the upgrading of lenses is a much slower process than is the upgrading of camera bodies. And, on top of the infrequent upgrading schedule of many lenses, the prices for the Canon lenses I mentioned earlier almost doubled over the prices of the lens they replaced. This can make it real tough to own the latest models of a professional quality lens.
But let’s get back to the subject at hand….If you own a P&S camera that has a fairly powerful zoom lens on it, don’t be afraid to go out in your backyard or to a nearby park and try taking images of your cat or dog, squirrels, chipmunks, birds, etc. No matter what gear you have, practice is the one best thing you can do to improve your images. At the least, you’ll start getting the feel for how difficult it is to get close to animals, especially wild ones. And for small birds, you’ll get a feel for how little area the bird takes up in the frame, especially if you weren’t successful at getting close to the bird. When you get back home to view the shots on your computer, you may not be able to tell what kind of bird you photographed because it is so small in the picture. You can crop the photo to “get closer,” but you may notice that the bird appears even more out of focus than before you cropped. These (and there are many more) are just some of the hurdles bird photographers must deal with. I’ll be covering all of this in this series of articles…and much more.
P&S cameras have come a long way in the past 10 years. Some of them sport quite long zoom numbers, high megapixel counts, relatively high quality lenses, etc. But when you look closer, these cameras do not measure up to most DSLR’s. Sure, they are fine for snap shots and vacation cameras, but when it comes to a technically good image of a bird that is in the wild, that is hard to get close to, and that moves unpredictably, picture quality will not be as good as a DSLR can produce with a good lens on it. Here are a few specific examples of where a P&S may fall short:
1) In many cases, the higher end of the zoom scale on P&S cameras is usually not achieved by optical zoom; it’s usually a computerized/electronic zoom which is inferior to optical zoom, quality-wise. Additionally, most P&S cameras do not zoom out with enough reach for general bird photography.
2) The image sensor on almost all P&S cameras is very, very small and no matter how many pixels have been crammed into the sensor, the image quality suffers because of it small size. DSLR’s have much larger sensors making more room for the pixels. More on this later!
3) Have you ever hit the shutter button on a P&S and missed the shot because the camera had a one or two second delay before the shutter actually operated? Generally speaking, DSLR’s do not have this delay and the shutter operates as fast as you can press the shutter button. Getting immediate shutter actuation when pressing the shutter button is imperative in serious bird photography.
If you just went out and spent a couple hundred bucks on a P&S camera, I honestly am not criticizing your purchase or trying to make you feel bad. I am simply pointing out that serious bird photography does not get done with a P&S camera. I doubt very much that you had serious bird photography in mind for the camera anyway. P&S cameras are great cameras for many other types of photography!
For some though, a P&S camera with a ‘long’ zoom lens may be adequate for your needs. For me, it wasn’t adequate so I did some research and made some purchases. The remainder of this article series speaks to those folks who would like to kick their bird photography up a notch or two and go beyond point and shoot.
The minimum gear you will need to begin even trying to get shots that exceed ‘point and shoot’ quality consists of a DSLR and a decent quality telephoto lens that has a focal length of at least 300mm, but preferably 400mm +. (‘Decent’ quality is very subjective and we’ll be talking more about that later). You’ll also need an adequate memory card for the camera that can hold several hundred images and has a good write speed. With these three items, you can go out and begin to photograph birds. (Another assumption I make is that you own a computer to which you upload your images and work on them).
But, when I say you can go out and start photographing birds, realize that there are so many other things you’ll want to learn, buy, and practice on before you’re likely to be bringing home and producing high quality, pro-level photos of birds. If you are serious about this hobby, you’ll also need to be committed, be patient, be passionate, have respect for birds and nature, work hard, have a reasonable budget available, have time to devote to it, and, love being out in nature by yourself for extended periods of time.
I will interject here a few self-imposed rules– that my style of bird photography doesn’t include photographing captive birds, but if it did, I would always disclose that they are captive, and I also do not photograph birds that have been baited with bird seed/food to get them to land on a temporary human-constructed perch. I also do not photograph birds in a manner that in any way might harm them, such as getting too close to their nest. These ‘rules’ are a basis for this entire series of articles on Digital Bird Photography. So, for instance, you won’t see a section on how to set up a perch and throw down seed to attract birds. It’s not my type of bird photography. Let’s move on and talk more about bird photography equipment!
In 2005, I bought a Canon Rebel XT (350D), which was the second DSLR that Canon produced for $1,000 or less. The XT was the successor to the 300D, which came out in 2003. The XT featured an 8 megapixel (MP=million pixels) sensor and 3.5 frames per second (fps) in burst mode. Nowadays, you can get a DSLR that features a 15 to 18 MP sensor and a burst rate of almost 4 fps for even less than $1,000. So, like many electronic items, DSLR’s have become better and cheaper over the years.
Because of the advanced features now found on entry level DSLR’s, it is not necessary to go out and spend thousands of dollars on a camera body to make good bird photos. Especially for beginners with a limited budget–you are much smarter in my opinion to start out with a lower end (but maybe not the lowest) consumer DSLR and put your money where the glass is–i.e., put your money into the best lens you can afford. (more on lenses later).
The Canon Rebel T3 or T2i are perfectly adequate bodies for beginners, especially, and are much more richly featured than my XT body back in 2005. Some of my personal favorite shots were taken with the XT body. The T3 will cost you about $550, and the T2i about $700, excluding the lens. (As a note, when I suggest specific Canon gear in this article, folks who have chosen to go with Sony, Nikon, etc., can easily search the web for those companies’ model line ups that are similarly featured and priced). UPDATE Sep. 2, 2013: Of course, there have been other camera models introduced by Canon (and other camera companies) that did not exist when I originally wrote this article. Each one is probably better than the one before in the same class. So do your research and read reviews so you will get a good feel for which model will work best for you. Reading my articles all the way through might just help you understand some of the features that you may want or need–at least I hope so!
I cover DSLR’s next.