A 'Birds of India' feature

Bird Photography for beginners - II by Sumit Sen     

Part - II   

© Sumit Sen Equipment

Bird photography is equipment dependent. As we discussed in Part -I, magnification, accuracy and detail are key components in a successful bird image. That, coupled with the fact that birds are small, wild and unpredictable makes the choice of equipment a prime consideration. That means cameras, lenses , stability devices and light enhancements. The first thought that crosses almost everyone's mind is reach. What focal length do you need to make good bird images? There is no straight answer. Circumstances and goals dictate the choice in many cases. The image of a Short-eared Owl below shows what reach can do:

Simulated image sizes based on lens focal length

The original image is shot with a 300mm lens on a DX camera which effectively mimics a 450mm lens. That plus the cameras megapixels determine the final size of the subject on your screen. The full size image is the one on the extreme left. How useful is this image? In my opinion it works for web use and is not so useful for fine print work. See here:

Cropped image for web post

The examples above introduces us to the importance of lens size and megapixels in bird photography. But there are other factors which influence our final results. One goal that is key is sharpness of the image. Any bird image that shows shake, whether it be due to a combination of slow shutter speed and bird movement or just due unstable camera operation, requires only one action – the use of the delete button! Unless the image is of a true rarity or captures a rarely documented moment, images that are unsharp are fairly worthless. This is not evident at times. Many a times size compression for web posting can result in an unsharp image looking acceptable. See the example below:

Full frame Bengal Bushlark images resized for web post

These Bengal Bushlarks for shot at different times at the same location. The image on the right is possibly the more interesting one because it shows the bird singing. But when you look at the close-ups below you start noticing that the image suffers from both camera shake and slower-than-required shutter speed. This is particularly evident in the area around the eye, a critical focus-point in bird photography [Not that the image on the left is any great shakes but I could not find another image with shake to use as an example and had to use this one]

Crop of head area showing shake in image on right

Sharp images require a lens that gives sharp results, a camera capable of resolving the details that the lens captures, fast shutter speeds which are often a function of available light, and the camera's ability to increase gain without adding noise. Equally important is a fast lens (determined by the lowest f number), something to steady lens movement like in-camera (or lens) image stabilization and use of a tripod or monopod. There is also another tool that can help, an artificial source of light which may even be the built-in flash on your camera. Often when you are dealing with low light, or even when the ambient light is just right, the use of fill-flash can bring out additional detail and add sharpness to the image. It can also give you a higher shutter speed which could make a real difference to the final image sharpness.
Have a look at the images below.

Plaintive Cuckoo images shot with and without fill-in-flash

At this distance it is hard to make out the impact of the pop-up camera flash of the D200. But when you see the close -up below you start seeing the differences in the results.

Crop of the head area; Plaintive Cuckoo

Incidentally, the camera data also reveals another aspect of bird photography. The time difference between the shots is about 35 seconds, 35 seconds in which I had to close the flash and change the ISO and recompose. So you have to be fast and know your equipment very well if you want to get a chance to shoot a keeper image because much of what you get is often junk. [Note another aspect of flash-use in wildlife photography. The bird was relaxed in the 1st image (image on right), but the flash going off alerted it and the next image shows that it is somewhat stressed. One reason why the flash was turned off, another use would have ensured that the bird would fly off]

 So the key equipment needed for successful bird photography would in short order be:
1. Camera: A camera that has lots of megapixels, can handle high ISO needs and can match the resolution of the lens used. Ability to shoot at shutter speeds up to 1/2000th of a second and shoot multiple frames at a fast rate are added pluses, as is absence of shutter lag and fast focusing capability.
2. Lens: The lens is often the key. What we are looking for here is reach, sharpness and how fast the lens is. Plus image stabilizing ability is an important consideration. A 600mm f/2.8 stabilized prime would be a dream birding lens. The fact that one with those specs does not exist in the market, and if it did, would cost you enough to need to rob a bank is the good news. The additional cost of a tractor to carry the lens is the bad news.
3. Camera Flash: The merits of a flash-gun are debated but I find them useful in many situations, not least where light is clearly insufficient but the subject of great importance.
4. Teleconverters/Extenders: These are lenses which can be added between the camera and the shooting lens to increase the focal length of the combination.
5. Tripod: A sturdy tripod or often a monopod is of great value unless you are in the minority like me and do hand-held bird photography.

or, for those who can only have a compact camera, a

6. Super-zoom compact: Not the best choice, but this all-in-one camera can take good bird images in suitable conditions.

Camera & lens:
The key element is of course the recording equipment – a camera. Modern cameras are essentially of two types. Those that record in film medium and those that record in digital medium. For the purposes of this article we will concentrate on the currently dominant digital medium recognizing that much of what is written about that medium will hold good for 35mm film cameras as well.
Digital cameras for amateur bird photography are usually of two kinds. The most suitable is the digital Single Lens Reflex camera (DSLR) which uses interchangeable lens to record images on a large sensor. The cheaper (not better) alternative is the modern Super-zoom compact camera (SZCC) which comes with a fixed zoom lens and uses a smaller sensor for recording. Birders who prefer digiscoping usually use a high-end compact camera which can focus down to a couple of cms.

Super-zoom compact cameras:

© Sumit SenSZCC's are popular with those who are starting bird photography, or those who are looking at convenience, or those who cannot afford a DSLR kit. These cameras have improved a great deal with the rapid advancement of digital technology and in some conditions can take very useful images of birds. They are inexpensive, convenient, unobtrusive and provide long reach with image stabilization. Their main handicap is the small recording sensor used which cannot match the quality of the larger and more sophisticated DSLR sensors (it may be mentioned that sensor sizes as described in megapixels are not comparable between a SZCC and a DSLR). Such cameras work best at their lowest ISO, which is often 64 or 100. Anything higher, and the image suffers from serious noise problems. Noise is of two types - luminance noise' (graininess) and 'chrominance noise' (colour splodges) both of which degrade the quality of the image to unacceptable levels. Noise-reduction software, when applied, removes as much detail as noise. Additionally, the SZCC's are hampered by the inability of the user to focus through the lens, are usually slow in acquiring focus, and lack many essential controls. In bright clear light with a stationary bird, a photographer with good technique, will make a very useful image with a SZCC. But such restrictive ability makes it a tool which is at best a launching pad for the bird photographer – it cannot be a device which allows the hobbyist to grow into a full-fledged bird photographer. For that you need a DSLR!
Popular SZCC's for bird photography:
Canon PowerShot SX40 HS 12.1 megapixels 24 – 840 mm
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ150 12.1 megapixels 25 – 600 mm RAW
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ100 14.1 megapixels 25 – 600 mm RAW
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX200V 18.2 megapixels 27 – 810 mm
Fujifilm FinePix S4500 14.0 megapixels 24 – 720 mm
Fujifilm FinePix HS30EXR 16.0 megapixels 24 – 720 mm RAW
Website for more info: http://www.dpreview.com/

Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras:

© Sumit SenDSLR's are the most appropriate photographic tool for the budding, as well as the mature, bird photographer. DSLR's are similar to 35mm Single lens reflex cameras in construction and instead of capturing and recording images on successive strips of film, these 'auto-focus' cameras record image data on a CCD or CMOS sensor and transfer the digital information to a storage medium which is usually a CompactFlash (CF) or a Secure Digital (SD) Card. These stored images are then transferred to a viewer, usually a home computer, and edited and stored. Images are viewed on screen or as print. One important difference between DSLR's and film cameras is the ability to change the sensor's sensitivity at will in the digital camera. This is like being able to shoot at ISO 100, 400, 3200 all on the same roll of film. A development that makes it  possible for us to take stunning low light images at ISO000 or above.

DSLR's use interchangeable lenses, i.e., they don't come with a fixed lens attached to the camera body. These external lenses come in various configurations of aperture and focal length from wide-angle (good for scenery) to super-tele (good for birds) and can be zoom lenses which cover different focal lengths with the same lens or prime lenses which have a fixed focal length. Some lenses (Canon, Nikon) come with built-in image stabilization which neutralizes involuntary camera movements to give sharper images, and some cameras (Sony, Pentax etc) have built-in image stabilization in the camera itself! Additionally, not only do camera manufacturers make various lenses for their bodies, third party manufacturers (like Sigma, Tamron etc.) make lenses for leading camera makes which can be used on those specific cameras. Most leading camera brands have proprietary lens mounts and, for example, a Canon lens cannot be used seamlessly in a Nikon camera. As a general rule, a zoom lens is cheaper than fixed lens covering the same maximum focal length and images are also generally inferior in comparable quality. 3rd party lenses are usually cheaper than matched brand lenses and may not give the same results as a similar camera brand lens, though some offer great value for money.

DSLR's vary greatly in features and ability and this is reflected in their prices. A capable DSLR is just one of the many factors that contribute to good bird photography and is not the be all and end all of that hobby. If you are new to bird photography, buy a DSLR that allows you to wet your feet but is general purpose enough to be used for other purpooses should you choose not to pursue the hobby any further. It is best to start with a DSLR that is reasonably priced but allows you to control the camera and will let you decide how you want to shoot a particular image. This boils down to cameras which allow multiple modes such as Manual, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and other goodies like frames per second, various light metering modes, built-in flash support, continuous shooting etc. Fortunately, most popular camera brands like Nikon, Sony, Canon etc. offer all these features as standard for even the most inexpensive DSLR in their line and really differ in the amount of data that can be recorded in the sensor (megapixels), the number and rapidity with which they can shoot successive frames, ergonomics and ability to take punishment. Of these the megapixel is the 'king'. Higher megapixels mean more information and this translates to a bigger image on the screen. But numbers here are not straightforward. A 4 megapixel camera does not give you an image half the size of a 8 megapixel camera. As a rough guide, the square root of the stated megapixel should be used to compare cameras. So, a 4 megapixel camera shoots an image which is half the size of a 16 megapixel camera when you compare them on your computer monitor. But why are megapixels important in the 1st place – because they determine the size at which you see your image (and subject) or print them. As we all know by now, birds are small and difficult to capture in detail. A larger megapixel camera magnifies the image and allows us to use even a small part of it effectively. Put it another way – a 16 megapixel camera with a 300mm lens attached will give you almost the same size of a sparrow to view/print, as a 4 megapixel camera would with a 600mm lens. Talking of magnification brings me to the next talking point on DSLR's as they relate to bird photography – their ability to seemingly enlarge images shot through a standard lens by a field of view crop factor when compared with film SLR's using the same lens. Much has been written about what actually happens here - but for a lay person, suffice it to know that by reducing the angle of view and recording on a smaller surface than 35mm film, some DSLR's (those that we are concerned with, as opposed full-frame DSLR's) leave out information from the area that a 35mm film would cover (to the extent that the sensor is smaller). While achieving this the camera and lens capture a larger image of the subject and that can be as much as 1.5x in Nikon, 1.6x in Canon and a whopping 2x in Minolta, Sony etc (a different technology is used here). So in effect all your 300mm lenses become 450mm in reach on a Nikon DSLR and a 300mm lens on Sony would take images the size of a 600mm lens on a film camera.

Lens:© Sumit Sen

Having dealt with what goes into bird photography with a DSLR, we are ready to match a lens with our camera. We now know that a DSLR will produce a larger image than the focal length of the attached lens. We also know that a larger image is also a function of sensor size. So, a 300mm maximum focal length lens with a Canon camera should give us the reach of a 480mm lens. Additionally, if we have enough megapixels (say, 12mp) we will get an even larger image – something which mimics a film camera with a 500mm lens. And 500m effective reach is a great starting point for bird photography – you will not get frame filling images with it, but your cropped image will certainly be worth sharing and may even be printable in books and magazines. And you will get many 'keeper' 'environmental shots', in which you see the bird in its natural habitat – a presentation which is in increasing demand these days. Why 300mm – why not 400mm? - because 300mm is a generic lens and inexpensive compared to the more specialized 400mm or larger brethren.

There are more factors that affect lens quality than those that affect cameras. We are not in a position here to evaluate lenses but since our choices are limited to one segment, there is little significant in terms of differences in features to deal with other than the availability of image stabilization or lack of it. Image stabilization (IS) or Vibration Reduction (VR) is important for Canon and Nikon lenses as their cameras do not offer any stabilization themselves. Image stabilized lenses allow use of shutter speeds two or three stops slower than with non-IS/VR lenses, e.g. to use 1/125th sec instead of 1/500th sec with similar results. This allows you to shoot in low light and that can make a huge difference in practice. These lenses, though more expensive, are not an indulgence for a new bird-photographer, but a necessity. I strongly recommend them.

Popular lenses for bird photography:
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM
Canon EF 300mm f/4.0L IS USM
Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM (no image stabilization)
Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM
Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM
Canon EF 400mm f/4.0 DO IS USM
Canon EF 500mm f/4.0L IS II USM *
Canon EF 600mm f/4.0L IS II USM
Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM
(* The most popular bird photography lens as far as I know)

Nikon AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4D ED-IF (no image stabilization)
Nikon AF Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED VR#
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/2.8G ED VR II
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 400mm f/2.8D ED-IF II #
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 500mm f/4D ED-IF II
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 600mm f/4D ED-IF II
(# Very popular)

Camera Flash:

© Sumit SenMost digital cameras that we have discussed come equipped with a low-range pop-up flash which adds illumination to the subject. This is not adequate for bird photography and an external hot-shoe mount flash can be employed to allow use of the camera in low light situations or when fill-flash is employed to balance available light and improve an image. Flashguns come in various types and sizes and a good choice is to buy a dedicated flash with as high a Guide Number (GN) as you can afford. Bird photography requires a minimum GN of 100 at ISO100 to make any meaningful contribution in the field. Beginners may do well to start their hobby without a flash and add one at a later stage, if necessary, based on a better understanding of the pros and cons of flash usage.


Teleconverters/Extenders: Teleconverters or extenders are lenses which can be added between the camera and the shooting lens to increase the focal length of the combination. A 1.4x converter when attached to a 300mm lens will give an effective focal length of 300mm x 1.4 = 420mm and a 2x will double the effective reach of an attached lens. While it is tempting to think that a $500 investment (branded converters are expensive) will add photographic versatility without the expense of an extra lens there are no free meals to be had. Except when used in very expensive and sophisticated lenses, teleconverters degrade an image and make it more difficult to acquire a good one. Beginners should stay far away from teleconverters till they upgrade to more specialized equipment and understand how and when to use such tools.

© Sumit SenTripods (three legs) and monopods (single leg) are mechanical supports that add stability to a camera and eliminate inevitable camera shake while taking hand-held images. As shake contributes to unsharp and blurry images, tripods can make the difference between a 'keeper' and a junk image. This is especially true for those who use telephoto lenses as shake is magnified with increase in focal length. Indeed most skilled bird photographers swear about the indispensability of a tripod when it comes to using a long lens. I am somewhat in the other camp though and feel that good technique, availability of in-camera image stabilization, high usable ISO, medium telephotos like a 300mm (max) lens, and the fact that bird movement requires the use of higher shutter speeds balance the freedom and flexibility of a hand-held approach versus the stability benefits offered by a tripod which has to be lugged, is heavy, and which often hampers your ability to move your camera with the birds. Tripod or no tripod, the choice is yours. But if you do invest in one, buy a tripod that is heavy and stable – it may be a lifetime investment and going upscale here at the start is a wise thing. Cheap tripods are fairly useless in any case and do more harm than good. One alternative (not a substitute) is to use a monopod – these are easier to carry and much less expensive. But monopods are difficult to handle and takes a lot of experience to give effective results.

The next part deals with the basics of Bird Photography.





A presentation by Sumit Sen; September 2012
Image copyright with the photographers. All rights reserved.

 Last updated 17 Sep 2012