phil jeffrey:: bird photography dogma

Phil's Comments on Camera Systems for Bird Photography

Although I recall taking completely indistinguishable photos of (Ring-necked) Pheasants and House Martins with my Kodak Instamatic 110 format camera when I was 8 (back in Britain), my first real bird photography system was my father's old Canon FT QL 35mm film SLR with a preset (manual diaphragm) manual focus 400mm f6.3 lens back in ~1978 (I was 14 then). This system was notable mainly for it's inconvenience to use. It was manual focus, manual match-needle exposure, and the exposures had to be checked in stopped down mode (this was back in the days of the Canon FL mount) - manual diaphragm control too ! Nevertheless I still keep several images from that era (including an immature Curlew Sandpiper which is OK unless you look too hard). Taking in-flight shots with this was a challenge, and that's probably why I've kept about 5 of them in total (including my "famous" blurry Barn Owl shot shot at dusk with about 1/4 second exposure - you can take my word for it that it's a Barn Owl). However Little Gull in-flight shots aren't easy to come by at the best of times, so....

Equipment snobbery aside, always bear in mind that one can take decent photos with almost any system given sufficient care. Expensive systems just buy you speed, convenience, an extra edge in sharpness, and an endless line of guys asking what size your lens is and whether you are a pro (*). It's great for the ego but the practical significance is questionable unless you shoot a few hundred rolls of film per year or dropping $15K on a system is small change. Being able to carry 25 lbs on your right shoulder would be a necessity, too.

(*) Actually my favorite variant on this was getting on the Manhattan M66 cross-town bus one day to go back home, carrying my 500mm system, when the bus driver quipped "I'm ready for my extreme close-up Mr. DeMille".

Minimal Systems

You need:

A camera
A lens
A tripod

and that's about it. A 300mm lens is about the shortest you can use for bird photography. With teleconverters (1.4x and 2x) you can get a pretty usable 600mm lens if you are careful, which appears even larger if you're using a typical digital SLR with a chip that is smaller than 35mm format. You won't find cheap 35-80mm zooms or 50mm standard lenses useful unless you plan on taking artistic shots of very large birds (e.g. Mute Swans) from very close distances. Just in case that last sentence comes back to haunt me, bear in mind that it's not always a good idea to get very close to a Mute Swan, especially during the breeding season. Many cheap used manual focus telephoto lenses can be picked up on Ebay . This is perhaps not the worst way to go. My pro 300mm, 500mm and 600mm autofocus lens were all obtained used (the 300 on Ebay, the 500 and 600 via the classifieds section in Good places to buy new stuff are Adorama , B+H . Mail ordering means that you have to suffer the trauma of having a $8K lens shipped across the continent by someone like UPS. I have seen how UPS handles packages, and it's not with kid gloves.

You NEED a tripod. Telephoto lenses greatly amplify camera shake, and you'll frequently be using less-than-impressive shutter speeds. It'll be very hard to admire your stunning picture of a singing male Hooded Warbler if the thing is a yellow-green blur on the slide from camera shake. Buy a tripod, and use it. ALL the time. The only thing you'll want to hand-hold for is for flight shots, and even with that I frequently use a tripod.

Dogma aside, there are circumstances where you can use image stabilization (IS in Canon-speak, VR in Nikon-speak) to get a reasonably sharp shot in cases where you cannot use a tripod because of bulk or weight. A monopod can also be an effective alternative. However image stabilization only goes so far and as the number of megapixels continue to rise, you're only going to continue to see a gain in image quality if your camera handling is not your weak point.

Modern Autofocus Systems

I've shot a lot of bird photos using manual focus. I've MISSED a lot of bird photos using manual focus. In my recent bird photography epiphany, two things became obvious: autofocus means more shots that look like you intended them to; larger lenses are better for everything except your bank balance and your back.

Autofocus lenses are not a panacea - they take time to focus, each camera has it's own idiosyncracies about when it will and will not focus correctly, and no system is psychic - it doesn't know what you want to focus on. Sometimes it seems like it does know what you want in focus, and purposely focusses on something nowhere near it, usually when a male Cerulean Warbler comes down to bathe about 10 feet in front of you. Your sense of irony will come in handy at such moments.

But, once you learn the system's "personality", autofocus can reliably be expected to beat manual focussing by one to several seconds. Frequently this makes all the difference between a good shot and a missed shot. With the best lenses, you can use autofocus to get you close, then tweak the focus manually so that the bird's eye is in focus. Practice is key here, and many of the standard manual focus tricks (e.g. prefocussing to the expected distance the subject will be at) are useful.

Recent experience with the Canon 1D Mark III debacle also illustrates that fast isn't everything. That camera gains focus faster than anything else, but it's also prone to dropping focus pretty readily. It might be better than my Mark II under some circumstances, but bird-in-flight shots may not be the thing I'd pick it for.

It's All in the Lens

The main difference between the entry level Canon Rebel XSi digital SLR and the pro level EOS-1D Mark III is autofocus speed, motor drive speed and ruggedness of construction. Both the Rebel and 1D3 will take essentially the same picture if handled carefully. In crunch split-second situations the EOS-1v will win hands down. This is just as well since the Rebel XSi costs $750 and the EOS-1D III costs $4000.

The MAJOR determining factors in the quality of images produced are the quality of the lens and the skill/vision of the photographer. Amateurs can (and often do) produce professional quality results with sufficient care, but they won't be doing it with $100 Vivitar mirror lenses. The most appropriate use for that particular lens is as a paperweight. The most important expense in the entire system is the lens. If the lens is bad, your photo will be bad. If the lens is good, then the rest is up to you. Prime lenses (fixed focal length) will almost invariably be sharper than zoom lenses. The discontinued $800 Sigma 400mm f5.6 prime was probably as sharp (if not sharper) than the $1300 Canon 100-400mm f5.6L zoom at 400mm. The Canon is a very good zoom, but it's still a zoom. A prime lens limits your possibilities for framing the image, but with most birds you'll just be grateful the subject is larger than a speck of grain anyway.

Current dogma is: buy an OEM prime lens (Canon, Nikon, Minolta etc). You get what you pay for, and pro lenses are built rugged and as sharp as they can theoretically be (they are "diffraction limited"). The cheaper 300mm f4 and 400mm f5.6 lenses seem to have gone out of favor with the third-party manufacturers anyway. In my biased opinion Canon/Nikon lenses are optically indistinguishable, but until recently Canon was beating Nikon hands down on real world factors such as autofocus speed and noise, plus the image stabilisation features on the new Canon Pro lenses. As with digital SLRs, where Canon also ruled the roost until recently, Nikon has put a major effort into reasserting itself. It's probably not enough of a reason to sell your existing Nikon system, but if you're starting from scratch Canon have the slight edge right now.

Before I get flamed, Sony (what used to be Minolta), Pentax and Olympus do make some nice cameras and lenses. The problem with the smaller vendors is that the supply of lenses on the used market is smaller, and they also tend to be less innovative with their lenses. Unless you have a strong preference for these smaller vendors, stick to Canon or Nikon. Do not buy Leica or Contax unless you have more money than sense - they are not significant players in the nature photography field and I've never met a photographer that uses them for that purpose. The future the Contax SLR line is more than a little in doubt (now discontinued, and I'm not sure about Leica).

Digital vs. Film

The original versions of this page were based on the assumption that you'd shoot 35mm film. However:

As of August 2003 I switched completely from film to digital. So completely that after putting 10,000 exposures into my EOS-10D I went out and bought the new EOS-1D Mark II which I recently replaced with an EOS-1D Mark III. I've given the 10D to a friend but now have the Rebel XTi. I have a brick of Provia F in my fridge but do not remember the last time I actually shot a roll of slide film. Probably some time in fall 2003.

My EOS-3 was probably the last film SLR I will ever buy (unless I drop it in the parking lot like I did with the original one in FL). There's enough review data out there to indicate that digital has reached the quality of 35mm film. Images from the "consumer" 10 megapixel EOS-40D camera are already good, and the 22 megapixel EOS-1Ds Mark III is regarded by some to be as good as medium format film. The rate of progress is startling, especially in light of the recently announced 15 megapixel EOS 50D from Canon, the Nikon D300, and who knows what else waiting in the wings. There's no reason to think that digital will not exceed film quaity in the forseeable future. The successor to the full (35mm) frame 13 megapixel EOS 5D appears imminent.

My very good (consumer) Nikon LS4000 slide scanner is about 24 megapixel full-frame, but always loses some detail going from slide to digital. Plus there is the film grain issue which tends to substantially impinge on image quality - it's in this regard that digital wins over film. I shot my EOS-3 and EOS-10D (6 megapixel) in similar conditions before I came to the conclusion that the 10D was giving me the same sort of quality as 35mm slide film did after scanning, despite 1/4 of the number of pixels. I'm shooting 10 megapixels now on a 1D Mark III.

Digital has it's own set of challenges, not least of all wrangling 20+ Mb image files (or 100+ Mb from scans) and color management issues, but the advantages of digital SLRs are considerable: it costs nothing to shoot more photos (unless you count recharging batteries), and you can review your results almost immediately to check composition and exposure. If you shoot 200 rolls of film a year, even a $6000 digital SLR pays for itself in 4 years even assuming the cheapest slide film.

One of the most interesting "cheap" digital SLRs right now is the Canon EOS 50D, which at 15 megapixels has just been announced (see Dpreview preview). The 10 megapixel 40D was no slouch (see a Dpreview review), and while the performance of the 50D is still unproven, it's one of a series of cameras that started with the D30 and there are solid expectations that it will be a good performer. Fifteen megapixels will show up the limitations in all but the best lenses. The 12 megapixel Nikon D300 is an analogous system (see Dpreview review) that has slightly few Mpix but a few better features. DSLR chips produce images better than anything out of a point and shoot camera for a variety of reasons including superior engineering and physically larger pixels. Interestingly for a nature photographer the CMOS sensor in the 40D and 50D is about 1.6x smaller on an edge than 35mm film (2.5x in area), meaning that your subjects look bigger in the frame (but all that happened is that your frame got smaller). Your lens didn't get any sharper, so it's basically emulating the image magnification of a teleconverter with the attendant loss of sharpness (assuming you blow the images up to the same size), but from the framing perspective your 300mm lens now looks a lot like it's a 480mm lens (the depth of field still looks like a 300mm). Canon calls this a "telephoto effect" but optical purists will point out it's more like a "digital zooming effect" that you'd see on film if you cropped your image accordingly. In this regard the EOS-10D is to the 35mm format what the 35mm format is to medium format (6x4.5). A EOS 40D can produce very good results up to at least 10x8 prints, and probably further. Blowing a 20D image up to 10x8 is equivalent to blowing a 35mm up to 16x13. So it's only as good as the best 35mm film, but 35mm is not as good as 6x4.5cm medium format either.

At the lower end the Digital Rebel XSi has 12 megapixels but lacks the features of the 40D or 50D. Then again with digital SLRs it's always a case of "watch this space" since the series of camerais starting with the D30 and currently up to the 50D were all replaced less than 2 years after they became available. It's a very exciting time to be doing photography, as long as you can adopt the mindset where the next iteration of your camera appears only 2 years after you got the last one.

Something you will find as a digital photographer is that you're going to spend a fair amount of time time post-processing the results. Digital SLRs don't tend to sharpen as much as digital point and shoots and so a copy of Photoshop is a considerable boon here. It'll let you tweak color balance, contrast and sharpness on whatever image you get back. Also a fair size CF card would be useful - my 1Gb card stores about 150 raw images or nearly 300 large/fine JPEG images off my older 6 mpixel EOS 10D. As the number of megapixels increase, so will the need for ever larger CF cards (I have 4Gb and 8Gb CF and SD cards in my EOS 1D Mark III). A small flotilla of ancillary software may also prove useful: ICC profiles to tweak the color representation of the camera; 3rd party RAW converters like Lightroom or Breeze Browser; various Photoshop plugins; noise reduction programs like Noise Ninja or Neat Image. I have the Epson P-2000 which has a 40 Gb hard drive and an excellent image viewing screen that serves as an intermediate for when I fill up my cards. An iPod Photo with the Apple adaptor would also work.

Those of you that like to treasure your SLRs as state of the art for 20 years (hey, I still have my Canon A-1) are going to be unhappy with digital SLRs. Right now they are like computers - every 2-3 years they are rendered "obsolete" by the newest greatest thing. If you want to go digital I'd suggest getting out there and buying one, because in the 2-3 years while waiting for the the next thing you can take an awful lot of digital photos. I shot 10,000 images on my EOS-10D in 18 months, and for 6 months of that it wasn't even my primary SLR.

So, for what it's worth, most of the rest of this page talks about digital. However the first "inexpensive" system is 35mm film, for reasons of cost.

An Inexpensive Autofocus Camera System - 35mm

Canon Rebel 2000 ($220)
Sigma 400mm f5.6 HSM Lens ($650)
Bogen 3011 Tripod ($100)
Bogen Ball Head (3262QR, ~$50)

Total: $1030

Here most of the cost is in the lens. The Sigma 400mm is a decent performer, has relatively fast autofocus, and is relatively sharp. You could get a good 1.4x teleconverter (Sigma, Canon) and have yourself a usable 560mm f8. This setup will be manual focus at f8 but it will still work fine. You should probably resist using a 2x teleconverter to get a 800mm f11 lens out of it - the lens just isn't inherently very sharp, and f11 is very very dark. Teleconverters always lose you sharpness (and light) and 2x are especially prone to reveal optical limitations.

The Rebel 2000 is a competent performer. It's Canon's base level model that does 35mm film but it's still OK in autofocus speed. Some of the features (like depth-of-field preview) you probably won't miss, since you'll almost always shoot a telephoto wide open. You will eventually outgrow the camera, but it's only a $220 item so it won't break the bank. The new Rebel Ti probably works a little faster than the Rebel 2000 and is about the same price. The Digital Rebel is a good option if you want to use the coming wave of digital photography rather than 35mm film format. The Digital Rebel costs $800+, raising the price of this set considerably. However with digital SLRs turning over every 2-3 years, just hold your breath and the camera will get better, or you can pick up a used one from the relentless upgraders out there.

You might want to stick an average flash on top of this setup (Canon 380EX $160; Canon 420EX $220) if you plan on taking photos in darker areas (underneath forest canopy etc). Expect to get red-eye or blue-eye with the flash mounted on the camera - to get good results you need to move it further off the lens axis using one of those remarkably expensive flash brackets made my Wimberley, Really Right Stuff, Kirk etc. Personally I prefer the Really Right Stuff brackets, although I have the older design.

The Bogen 3011 is your basic lightweight tripod. It's sturdy enough for this system, fairly reliable until it gets a little worn. Gitzo make better tripods, but they are also much more expensive and the Bogen is the better bang/$. The Bogen 3262 ball head is a smallish ball head - you might prefer pan/tilt heads but most pros prefer ball heads for nature work since they are much faster to reorient and often less prone to vibration. Kirk Photo used to sell a Bogen ball head with an Arca-type quick release mount and also Arca-type plates for most lenses (Really Right Stuff [RRS] make better lens plates than Kirk). With sufficient creativity you can make a similar cheap ball-head with parts from Kirk or RRS. There are numerous other mid-range ball head systems, including those by Acratech, Kirk, RRS and Markins.

A More Expensive System - Digital SLR

Canon EOS-20D ($1500)
Canon 400mm f5.6 USM Lens ($1100) or 300mm f4 USM-IS Lens ($1100)
Bogen 3021 Tripod ($125)
Kirk BH-1 Ball Head ($340)
Canon 1.4x teleconverter ($380)
Really Right Stuff plate for lens ($70)

Total: $2435

The EOS-20D is the latest incarnation of Canon's mid-level digital SLR line that began with the EOS-D30. It is a very competent advanced amateur SLR, featuring faster autofocus than many film SLRs. The Canon 400mm is also an upgrade over the Sigma - subtly quieter, faster and perhaps even sharper (this latter point is a matter of debate). However it lacks image stabilization - you might prefer to use the 300mm f4 lens of comparable price with image stabilization. The 300mm f4 on an EOS-20D gives the same framing as a 480mm f4 would do on a 35mm SLR - but there's no extra magnification going on here, it's just an image cropping issue. (The 400mm would give something analogous to a 640mm f5.6 lens on a 35mm). Both lenses are well matched to the Canon 1.4x teleconverter giving you either 420mm/f5.6 or 560mm/f8. Unfortunately the EOS-20D will not autofocus at f8. I've recommended a heavier tripod here and a good ball head (a clone of the Arca Swiss B-1 but about $100 cheaper). Again the Digital Rebel could substitute for the EOS-20D, at a savings of $800.

Pro Systems

Canon EOS 1D Mark II N ($4000)
Canon 500mm f4 IS or Canon 600mm f4 IS ($6500/$8600)
Gitzo 1325 Carbon fiber tripod (or perhaps the 1329) ($730/$800)
Really Right Stuff Ball Head ($440)
Canon 1.4x teleconverter ($380)
Canon 2x teleconverter ($380)
Canon 580EX flash ($320)
RRS Plate for lens ($70)
Quantum Turbo or Turbo Z battery pack for flash ($400)

Total: you don't want to know

The pro system recommendations depend a lot on one's tolerance of weight. A friend's setup of EOS-1D2/600mm is significantly heavier than my EOS-1D2/500mm but has a longer focal length. Both are excellent systems. They weigh in at 22-32 lbs and cost the mean annual household income in Pennsylvania. Both of us get good photographs. We could debate ad nauseam about the relative merits of both systems, and indeed we will be more than happy to bore you to an early grave on that very subject. These systems are just about the largest and fastest pro level bird photography setups you can get your hands on. They are heavy, but if you can cope with them they will give you better photographs than you probably deserve. Potential upgrades to this system include the EOS-1Ds Mark II with 18 megapixels and a price tag to match ($8000) but a slower motor drive rate.

Accessories and Other Stuff

If you are using Arca Swiss ballheads or clones thereof (e.g. Kirk) you'll want some Arca plates for your lenses. DO NOT buy the plates made by Arca, but the plates made by Really Right Stuff , which are generally better than those made by Kirk Photo . RRS have recently lurched into the 21st Century and their website is considerably more usable.

You can extend the range of your flash and shorten the recycle time on the flash by getting the "Better Beamer" flash extender sold by Kirk Photo (and others). This is basically a fresnel lens that attaches to the end of your flash that partially focuses the flash beam - works well on focal lengths >300mm. There are also a host of 3rd party batteries for high-end flashes like the Canon 550EX and if you intend to use flash a lot these are good options (e.g. the Quantum Turbo and Turbo Z models). However they do add more weight (and expense) to the systems. You will also want some sort of flash bracket to move the flash further off the lens axis and reduce "red"-eye. If you are using RRS plates, the RRS bracket is an excellent choice, and if you are using Kirk you can use theirs instead. Some people rave about the Wimberley flash bracket but I've not used it myself, and a friend's experience suggests that it may be difficult to aim. I also have the more generic Stroboframe Pro-T flash bracket which is less convenient to use but applicable to other uses.

If you are fortunate to have birds come close to you, they'll sometimes come within the minimum focussing distance of your lens. There are two solutions to this: step back; or use extension tubes. Extension tubes pad the distance between your lens and the body, allow you to focus closer, but then you can't focus at infinity. Like anything else it's a trade-off, but extension tubes are relatively cheap. Probably the 25mm is the most important one, but 12mm helps a little. Focus speed and light loss are the main problems with using such tubes - sharpness isn't affected since there's no additional glass between you and the lens.

Unless you have shoulders of steel you will want foam tripod leg covers. There are various models, but they all do basically the same thing. You can sully your tripod with duct tape and pipe insulation if you are feeling cheap, to much the same effect. Most photo places carry this sort of stuff.

I have assorted bags, but the LowePro backpacks are very useful - I have the Nature Trekker and a friend uses the larger the Pro Trekker. Both are usable on airlines (or at least were before 9/11 - I still have had no problems getting mine on an aircraft, although I get inspected all the time). I used to use a belt system by LowePro to carry film etc when I'm not carrying the larger Nature Trekker (LowePro's Street and Field line).

WWW Resources

The site is still the #1 site for equipment reviews and informed discussions. There is also a huge user-contributed section on this site. Especially useful are the Canon reviews and Nikon reviews. Other bird photography tip/advice pages are found on Bird of Oklahoma site, Scott Fairbairn and John Reaume's tips, Arthur Morris's FAQs, New York Inst. Photography guide etc etc etc. A promising site is

For digital you might also want to look at:
Luminous Landscape
Digital Photography Review
Roger Galbraith DPI

Places to buy new stuff:

Camera World of Oregon
Really Right Stuff
Kirk Photo

Places to buy used stuff:

Ebay classifieds
KEH used cameras

Other source of Info:

The extensive learning section