Camera Features for Bird Photography
Here are some of the camera features that I think are important for bird photography and photography in general.
APS-C, APS-H or Full Frame Sensor:
The sensor is the flat part of the camera that sits behind the lens, perpendicular to it, and collects the light that comes in through the lens. It records all the different colors of the scene onto the pixels that are located on the sensor. The data that makes up your image on the sensor is then sent within the camera to the memory card you have inserted in the camera. This process is all done very quickly inside the camera. The speed at which it is accomplished depends on the speed of the camera’s image processor and the speed of the memory card. Usually, the more expensive the camera body, the faster the processor. And this speed/cost relationship also goes for the memory card.
You’ll notice I used the term full frame, APS-C or APS-H to designate a sensor. These terms refer to the size of the sensor in the camera bodies. A full frame sensor is the equivalent of the size of a 35mm negative. An APS-H sensor is one that is 1.3x as small as a full frame. And, an APS-C sensor is one that is in the range of 1.5x to 1.8x smaller than a full frame sensor. So for Canon cameras in any one of the xD, xxD, or xxxD series, these all have APS-C 1.6x cropped sensors, which are 1.6 times smaller than the rectangular full frame sensor bodies. Many of the Nikon and Sony bodies have a crop factor of 1.5x, so their sensors are 1.5 times smaller than full frame sensors (just a touch bigger sensor than Canon’s 1.6x bodies). The 1.6x cropped sensor is the one you’ll get if you buy a Canon T3 or T2i, all the way up to their most expensive prosumer body, the 7D. The 1D series of Canon bodies has a crop factor of 1.3x (APS-H). The 5D series of Canon pro bodies has a 1.0x factor, or a full frame sensor.
So you say, “I don’t want a tiny little sensor on my camera–I want the full sensor!” Everything else being equal, you’ll need to cough up a lot more money for a camera body with a full size sensor, or even a 1.3x crop factor sensor for that matter. Plus, for bird photography, having the cropped sensor is not all bad. The 1.5x or 1.6x cropped sensors actually chop off a good portion of the surrounding edge of the image rectangle and forces the ‘field of view‘ to be smaller and makes your view through the lens appear that you have a longer telephoto lens. For instance, I used a 400mm lens when I had my 1.6x cropped sensor body, the 7D. My field of view was equivalent to having a 640mm (approx.) lens on a full frame camera body. (Multiply 400 x 1.6 = 640). The smaller field of view makes it appear that I am closer to the bird, which means the bird takes up more space in the frame. The more space the bird takes up in my image, the more pixels are included in the bird which makes a for a potentially higher quality image and the need for less cropping in Photoshop. (much more about Photoshop and other image processing programs later!). I now shoot with the full-frame 5D Mark III body.
There are many reasons so-called ‘pro’ bodies cost more and one of them is the full frame sensor. The area on this sensor is almost 40% larger than on a 1.6x cropped sensor. It’s the size of a 35mm negative. A Canon 7D has 18 million pixels all crammed onto this smaller sensor. If these same 18 million pixels were crammed onto a much larger full frame sensor, they would not be as squeezed together as they are on the 7D’s smaller sensor. There would be more room between pixels. Partly because of this, the larger sensors produce a cleaner image, less noise, and greater dynamic range, making superior images over cropped sensor cameras, everything else being equal. (Noise is that unwanted speckley stuff that you see in some images, especially in darker areas of an image). The good news is that if your shot is exposed properly in a cropped-sensor camera, noise is manageable with good photo editing software. We’ll cover much more on noise control and post-processing in a future article!
The cheapest full frame camera body that Canon makes is the 6D, which is priced at $2000. Other pro bodies can cost upwards of $7,000 or more. (These prices are for new equipment). For most of us beginning and intermediate bird photographer hobbyists, our budgets may not support these prices. Especially when it is possible to get darned good looking images with any of the cropped bodies. And remember, you need a decent lens to go with that body when you’re starting out so don’t spend all your money on the body–please!
Update 11/9/2012: I updated the above paragraph with the fact that Canon has released a new “entry level” full-frame camera in December 2012 named the EOS 6D. It will cost about $2000. Also, the 5DMarkII has been replaced by the 5DMarkIII, which sells for around $3400. I was fortunate enough to acquire the 5DM3 recently and can say that it is a fantastic wildlife shooter’s camera. This is way out of the reach of most beginner and many intermediate bird photographers–and it should be. The whole premise of my series of articles is to start with decent equipment and upgrade over time as you get better at it and as you learn to enjoy the hobby more. When I get something new, I’m almost assured that I’ll be selling it in 18-24 months and upgrading to the next best item I can afford. Evolve, improve your skills, and have fun over time!
The above discussion of cropped sensors and sensor image quality is obviously very simplified and is meant only to give you some general information about these features. There are many articles on the web that cover these issues in minute detail. Search the term “cropped sensors” or “APS-C sensors” for many choices of articles discussing the subject.
Like in a computer, there is one (or more) ‘central processing unit(s)’ in the camera–usually called an image processor. The processor determines how fast the camera can process images internally and send them to the memory card and also do things like auto focus and auto expose. Current entry level Canon DSLR’s will usually have just one processor called the Digic 4 or Digic 5 processor. The processor is no slouch and can give very good performance for the beginning to intermediate bird photographer who has done some serious practicing.
Even the $1,000 60D and the full frame 5D Mark II have just the one Digic 4 processor. The highest priced prosumer body Canon makes is the 7D which sports dual Digic 4 processors. Canon has recently introduced their newest flagship pro body, the 1Dx, which has dual Digic 5 processors and will set you back $6,800. It was released around March 2012. Again, the more money you can throw at these things, the better and faster the camera works. But the ‘expense to benefit’ ratio gets bigger and bigger as you move up in price, especially for the needs of a beginning bird photographer. A beginner is probably not going to consistently take any better pictures with a 1Dx than they would with a T2i. So for now, save $6,000 and start out with the T2i (or whatever you can afford) which has plenty of punch!
This refers to the ISO setting that tells the camera how sensitive to light you want the sensor to be. Almost all Canon bodies are advertised with a range of 100 – 6400. In reality, with the 7D I rarely used an ISO setting above 800 and I tried to stay closer to ISO400 for most shots. The ISO ‘rule’ is the lower the setting, the less noise will be produced in your image, making for a better quality photo with less post processing of the shot needed on your computer. But, the lower the ISO, the more light is needed to expose the image. So the fact that the setting can be as high as 6400 (or even higher on some bodies) doesn’t mean much for the consumer bodies. Higher ISO’s are used in low light situations which usually means that it is unlikely the wildlife shot will be appearing on a magazine cover anytime soon anyway. So don’t worry much about the ISO range as virtually all cameras have whatever range you will need for shooting birds.
I do want to add that camera manufacturers are always coming out with improved ISO functionality. The Canon 1D Mark IV pro body is a 1.3x crop body and is advertised to allow shooting at ISO’s up to 102,400. I’ve never used this (or any pro body) but for me, the jury is still out on the usefulness of this high ISO. But camera manufacturers are working all the time to produce better sensors and processors to make high ISO shooting a very real thing.
Update 11/9/2012: As mentioned up in the DSLR section, I have recently acquired the 5DMarkIII camera body and have to say that the jury is no longer out on high ISO shooting. I’m not suggesting I can shoot at ISO 102,400 but I’m finding ISO 3200 and sometimes even 6400 is not out of the question. This can help a lot with shooting at faster shutter speeds in low light. SO, the pro-level full frame bodies can be very helpful to your shooting. But again, most of us will want to work up to the pro-camera level both from a skill standpoint and from a financial standpoint. It took me six years to decide I could benefit from a pro-level full-frame camera and also acquire the funds to buy it.
Auto Focus (AF):
The more expensive the camera body, the faster your auto focusing function will likely work. It’s pretty obvious that the faster you can focus the lens on a bird, the more likely it is you will get the shot before the bird flies away. Most of the consumer/prosumer bodies in the Canon line-up do not differ much in AF speed, with the possible exception of the 7D (always debatable!). And in my experience, I have found that real AF speed is more a function of the lens you have and not the camera. So, again, you can spend more money for faster AF but when it comes down to it, the beginner will likely not notice the difference. It’s not a very good reason in itself to buy a more expensive DSLR. (Please see the next paragraph!)
Update 11/9/2012: After shooting with the Canon 5DMarkIII for a while now, I can say that my assessment above may not have been accurate. The AF on the MarkIII is an amazing improvement even over the 7D both in focus speed and accuracy–at least in my experience. This is not to say that the 7D is a slouch but there are reasons the pro cameras cost so much more than the consumer models. So as you improve yours skills over time, you may want to make a pro camera body a goal down the road. Great wildlife photos though are still within reach using a cropped sensor camera.
There are other aspects of AF and one of them is the number of autofocus points and groupings of these points that the camera uses to focus the lens. These points appear in your viewfinder and range from 9 to 61 (for Canon) depending on the model of DSLR you get. As with the many ways you can program your camera to fit how you shoot, there are many scenarios in choosing the location and number of autofocus points to use. This, like many other settings, is a personal thing to each photographer. My 7D has 19 AF points but I rarely use more than one–the center point. (Sometimes for birds in flight I will use a small cluster of AF points). I know many bird photographers who also use the center point most of the time. The Canon T2i and T3i have 9 AF points. But for the shooting I do, and for my shooting technique, all I really need is the center AF point, which all DSLR’s have. Now if you’re into other genres of photography like macro, portrait, or landscape, the AF point system of the camera may be of utmost importance to you and you may rely heavily on the ability of the camera to select certain non-centered AF points or groups of AF points. So keep that in mind when choosing the camera body you want to buy.
Continuous Shooting fps (frames per second):
The entry level Canon bodies have about 3 to 3.7 fps continuous shooting speed. The fastest new Canon 1Dx body can do up to 14 fps, but you pay a lot for this capability. The Canon 7D is in the middle at 8 fps, and I liked it when I used the 7D. Even so, I don’t recommend that the bird photography beginner put $1600 into their first DSLR to get the 7D. If price is no issue, then sure, get the 7D, but only if you have enough cash to get a good lens, too. And don’t forget to budget for a whole bunch of accessories for bird photography that I haven’t even mentioned yet but will in the next article in this series. For the beginner, as you are getting the feel of your new equipment and shooting as much as you can, 3.5 fps will do you just fine. I got this shot with my Canon XT in May 2008, a camera that had only 3 frames per second burst speed.
So it’s possible to get exciting action shots with the lower fps bodies. Logic tells us though that faster fps rates will increase your chances of getting the shot and pose you want. But for most beginning bird shooters, especially coming from the point and shoot world, 3.5 fps will seem pretty fast and will surely be adequate for a while.
Live View Mode and Movie Mode:
These are features that may not be necessary for bird photography but I have to admit it’s fun to shoot video of birds and animals now and then to post up on YouTube. Most of the bodies coming out now are capable of these features so it’s hard to get a body without it. My highest priority when I’m out shooting is to always try to get a decent still photo of wildlife. After I’ve taken enough shots of a bird to give myself confidence that I have some keepers, I may flip the switch to shoot some video of the bird, if the bird is still hanging around.
One use of the Live View mode (that some models have) is if you need or want to manually focus the lens for some reason, you can turn on Live View and hit the LCD zoom button a couple of times to get a 10x zoom of the subject on your LCD screen. Using the LCD you can then get a pretty good close up view of your subject while turning the lens’ manual focus ring to achieve the most detail. Then, turn Live View back off and shoot without activating auto focus (i.e., by either turning the lens switch to MF before depressing the shutter button or, having your camera programmed to auto focus with a separate button on the back of the camera. More on this later!). Otherwise, you’ll undo the work you did to manually focus the shot when you press the shutter button, which by default, is used to activate auto focus.
An additional tip, especially for first-time DSLR buyers, is to go out to a local store and pick up the model you are interested in and handle it. Try taking a few test shots and be sure your hands are big enough to easily reach all controls and buttons. If you have large hands and the camera body seems too small for you, there are battery grips you can buy for the camera that markedly increase the physical size of the camera and it should make it feel better in your hands. The battery grip is one of the accessories I’ll talk about in the next article in this series. By the way…..ch-ching$$$$$$$….so save some money in your budget for accessories!
There are other camera features such as LCD screen size and resolution and memory card types the camera may accept. Most current LCD screens are of ample size and clarity to preview shots and navigate the menu system. Some models have a swing out LCD screen similar to many video cameras which doesn’t interest me in respect to a DSLR.