Novice no more! Bird Photography

I recently came across the term, “satisficed”, meaning you have enough knowledge and ability for the job your doing; (of course my wife asks why that’s different from “proficient.” The debate rages on!)

I’m now on my third birding camera and would like to share my thoughts to help find a birding camera you’ll be “satisficed” with.

Things are changing all the time, but basically, there are three “levels” of birding camera available. 

Bridge, Mirror-less and DSLR cameras. 

All the companies have a wide range of models in all these categories:

Bridge cameras:

I still own and use a Nikon Coolpix P600 bridge camera. It was my first camera and I wrote about it in my blog “A neophytes guide to bird photography.” 

These are “point and shoot”, cameras with more sophisticated lenses that allow zooming to various, sometimes extreme, degrees – the Nikon Coolpix P900 has a 90x zoom! 

The sensors are smaller which means picture quality has a limit. But, and this is a BIG but, they are small, portable and reasonably priced, so loss isn’t a financial catastrophe! 

Below are a few “Coolpix shots”. As you can see, they’re pretty good.

Wood Ducks captured with a Coolpix Bridge Camera

For birders who want to get good, (sometimes great), bird photographs, look no further! 

Female Wood Duck with the Bridge Camera Coolpix

I was recently on an African safari. Animals are close so big zooms are not needed, but smart phones are NOT adequate and I saw more than one fellow tourist lament that fact. A bridge camera would have been perfect. A few minutes learning the ropes and they’d be “satisficed.”

Mirror-less cameras:

These cameras are small and use larger sensors and interchangeable lenses. So why upgrade?

  1.  Sensor quality yields a better image. Image quality depends on many factors besides the sensor, but overall, it’s noticeable.
  2.  Bridge cameras have a 0.5 second lag after you shoot. This wasn’t a big deal to me until I went mirror-less, where you shoot in real time. But it irritates me now and has “spoiled” me for the bridge camera, which I now only use for extreme zoom, to ID birds. 
  3.  Everything is generally higher quality and more complex, with more options – speed, burst photography, (which is great when you have twitchy, flitty birds who won’t sit still!), better auto-focus, image, menu options etc. 
Marbled Godwit shot with a FUJI X-T3 (Mirror-less)

You’re in the big leagues now and to get the best out of these cameras, you really need some knowledge – I said “some”, not a four-year degree – of photography to adjust on the run and take advantage of the mirror-less system. *

And there are cons:

  1. Changing lenses in bad weather, or if your touring a city and suddenly an interesting bird shows up, is a pain! With a bridge camera, just rev up the zoom.
  2.  The 60x zoom on my Coolpix remains the best zoom, by far, for reaching faraway birds.
  3. Mirror-less cameras are generally more expensive.
  4.  My new Fuji mirror-less system is a lot bulkier.
Sandwich Tern shot with FUJI Mirror-less camera

DSLR cameras:

The DSLRs are bulky, needing huge expensive zoom lenses. They are the top quality cameras of course and the vast majority of those wonderful, wildlife shots in National Geographic are taken on DSLRs. For ordinary shooting of scenes or family, there are now reasonably priced DSLRs available, but for birds you need those big zoom lenses. 

An Eagle in flight – way up! Captured by Carmen on his DSLR with 600mm zoom.

Let me share an experience: 

A friend had a Nikon DSLR, D500 with 200 -500mm lens for sale. This is the gold standard for wildlife photography and I wanted it, so I took it home to try out. But as it sat on my kitchen table, huge and heavy, my wife just laughed. “You’ll never pack that around on a hike!” She was right. It was huge and after lugging it around the house for a while, trying to figure everything out, I bailed and didn’t buy it. 

Great Blue Heron captured with a DSLR. (photo by Carmen Adair)

Now this article is NOT aimed at photography experts or professionals, it is too basic. But for everyone else, I will stick my neck out and advise you to resist the “urge to splurge” on a DSLR, just because you can. You can be “satisficed” without one and will retain some disposable income! **

So where am I now? 

I have owned a FUJI X-T3 mirror-less camera and 100 – 400mm lens, for the last month.

I used to hand hold my Coolpix, snapping as I go, but as my birding has evolved, I now have pretty good shots of all the commoner local species and I’m more selective, or as we said on safari, “we don’t stop for Zebras!”

The FUJI is bulkier, so I work differently. I now have the FUJI ready to go in a backpack and carry a monopod that double up nicely as a walking stick, (which my old knees appreciate!).

When a photo-op presents, out comes the FUJI and “voila”, it’s done. When finished, it’s back in the backpack and away I go. 

It is intuitive and I love it. 

But I am also more knowledgeable about photography and can set the camera up. For example, in Mexico recently I was on a small boat on a windy, glary, sunny day trying to photograph water birds. So I needed a super fast shutter speed and the right settings. It worked beautifully.

I love the pros of mirror-less cameras and have adapted to the trade offs, (greater bulk, more complexity and ok, I’m lucky, I can afford it!). 

The menus are very deep and I’ve only scratched the surface, but I’m satisficed! Or perhaps “proficient” is the better term.

I still have my Coolpix tucked in a side pocket, in case I need that crazy extra zoom. ***

Golden-crowned Kinglet FUJI Mirror-less camera.

Footnotes:

* I struggled with my first Olympus, mirror-less camera. It wasn’t ideal, but it was adequate. I was slow on the uptake and really struggled with the auto-focus especially, so it never worked for me. It had a limited zoom range, with “digital cropping”, which doubled the zoom, (“great!” I thought), but it destroyed image quality -more like “digital crapping” really!  A bad marriage with both sides at fault I guess, so we separated. As is so often the case, “My ex was decent, we just couldn’t get along!” 

Cooper’s Hawk shot with an Olympus Mirror-less

** And I should add, a friend recently went on a very expensive, elite, birding trip. There was a choice of high end DSLRs available for use, as part of the package!

*** And to get the equivalent zoom on a DSLR, you will need both a massive lens and bank account!

Colin Rankin – Author, birder for TRDB

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