Stare Down | X-T2 W/XF100-400mm F4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR
Birding season is here....FINALLY!
I haven't given it any serious effort since 2012...which coincided with my changeover from Canon to Fujifilm. Back then Fuji didn't have a prime or telephoto zoom that was equivalent. That changed with the introduction of the XF100-400mm lens. The 5 things I'll touch on here can be applied to any camera system though.
Just a foreword: If you are an amateur or hobby birder, please don't waste too much time with the fine details of the information in this post. Get yourself a decent camera and long lens, wait for good weather with lot's of light and go outside for a few hours of fun. If however, this is a serious pursuit then you will want to pay close attention. Skimping on any one of these five things will seriously hold you back.
1) Megapixels, Auto-Focus and great Dynamic Range
Buy a very good camera...resolution should be at least 16 Megapixels because you will be cropping. Some bird species are so small that you can palm 3 or 4 of them in one hand and still have plenty of room to hold a set of car keys. Annoyingly those small ones...are among the most interesting and beautiful. Even with a long focal length of say...600mm [See No. 2] you will have to crop for composition and have enough leftover for a decent sized print.
You won't always have time to fine-tune your composition. The bird lands...and you aim, adjust exposure as best you can and take the shot(s). Later on you can make it conform to the rule of thirds to keep the technical people happy. I've very rarely viewed an image with the animal dead-center that appeals to me. I shot that particular image this way to give myself framing options.
Fujifilm X-T2 | 1/300 sec F6.4 at ISO400
Occasionally I mess up big time...focus is off etc. The very worst is when I completely blow the exposure and end up with this. If your camera has a nice wide dynamic range you can significantly edit the image to save an otherwise decent capture. The image of a crane above is a classic example and good reminder that neither me or the camera are perfect. I was exposed for the bright background which rendered the bird dark but I could tell that it was a sharp capture. I boosted it about 2 1/2 stops with a few other little tricks for the final printable shot.
Essential to bird photography is a camera/ens combo that focuses very fast. Birds tend to move around quickly the smaller they are. Larger birds such as cranes, egrets, ducks etc. tend to be more predictable. Even they are typically on the move. Your gear must be able to acquire a focus lock without too much hesitation. Each camera platform is slightly different but your going to want one with enough focus points to cover the entire viewfinder which aids in getting your composition very close to finished right in camera. I myself alternate between a small focus group or single point focus. Whether you opt for continuous focus or not is a personal choice.
2) A very long lens
I'm not kidding...get something on the order of 300mm or longer. These lenses are not cheap. A 300mm prime lens in the F4-F5.6 category will set you back at least $2,000 and if you get brave enough to look at an F2.8 model your going up significantly into the $3-8K range depending on which camera platform you use....Canon makes an 800mm monster at nearly $20K. I actually have friends who have sold valuable assets including cars in order to fund these things.
A less expensive option is to get yourself a telephoto zoom.
A zoom is infinitely more versatile and can potentially lighten your gear bag for a long day out in the field. If you are going this way then get one with image stabilisation or make room in your budget for a sturdy tripod.
These lenses will be large just to accommodate the massive amounts of glass they employ. Which reminds me..if the lens does not come with a tripod collar, make sure to add that to the purchase price as well. It's essential for two reasons...it takes the weight/pressure off the lens mount and allows for portrait and landscape orientation without messing with your setup.
By the way, going with a crop sensor multiplies your focal length making that 300mm lens an effective 450mm (**). On a micro four thirds body it becomes a 600mm setup. On top of that you can very likely add a 1.5X or 2.0X telephoto converter for even more reach.
3) Fast Memory Cards
Whether SD or CF cards, get a set with large capacity (32GB+) and fast enough to keep up with your camera. You only have to learn this lesson once when you let off a burst of frames and the camera locks up while the image buffer empties. 16MB files probably won't cause too much of a headache but once your dealing with a 24MB+ RAW file that all changes. Action/performance oriented cameras can rattle off frames like a machine gun. Skimp here and you will be watching the birds come and go instead of making images. I personally would not use a card with a Read/Write speed of less than 200MB per/sec. Understand though that these R/W numbers from card manufacturers are theoretical (IMHO). My advice...try several different brands and go from there.
4) Get Used to high ISO
ISO 400 is just a starting point and more likely than not you will be between 1600 and 3200. [SEE #1].
Unless you like blurry or out of focus images you need a very high shutter speed on the range of 1/500 to 1/2000 which can be a big challenge in heavy cover or overcast days. The idea is to overcome your shaky hand movements and freeze the subject's motion. You just have to trust that your camera has good performance in this area...Full-Frame, APSc and Micro Four Thirds sensors in that order. There is just no way around the science but depending on the camera model and your post-processing skills that may not be a big issue.
5) Get Some Camouflage Outfits
When it comes to camouflage I'm of two minds...on the one hand this is an area of photography where blending into the environment actually increases your chances of getting closer to the subject animals. When they are comfortable your images will be much less forced and nothing beats a natural look. On the other hand...can you go too far?
I've heard all the jokes...mostly from friends and family but it's a practical matter so suck it up and get suited. My girl was particularly cruel. Since my threshold is low, I keep things simple. Hat, Top/Bottoms, gloves and dark colored boots. On occasion I will break out the lens coat to complete the kit when using a lens that is any color but black.