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Loc: Maryville, Tennessee
Camera Gear - Birds In Flight / Birds On Water
This will be my thoughts on the camera gear needed to successfully photograph our forum topic subjects Birds in Flight and Birds on the Water. Of course it will not be the only gear items or methods that will work
this article will be a place to start healthy discussions. The gear ideas discussed in this topic are referenced to help you increase your keeper rate when photographing BIFs and BOWs.
While the camera gear that you need for photographing Birds in Flight (BIF) and Birds on Water (BOW) are not the exactly the same if you have birds in flight gear then you will have all that you need for birds on the water.
First of all you will need a high end dslr camera body and ultra long fast glass
Of course I am just kidding! There are many accomplished bird photographers that do not use either. However for the purpose of this topic I will not discuss point-and-shoot cameras. Yes it may be possible to capture decent BIF images using a compact camera, but the purpose of this article is to help increase your keeper rate. Compact cameras are fine for static bird subjects, not so much for moving birds.
As a note of full disclosure
I use Canon photo equipment; however I am not the type of person that will get in the childish debate over Canon versus Nikon, or Sony or any other brand. The main camera brands that I will reference in this article will be Canon and Nikon, because I know those two brands the best. I have friends that are accomplished bird photographers that use Canon, or Nikon or Sony
.. Quality images are possible using each of these camera bodies.
One final thought before we get into the heart of this discussion
Camera gear that is capable of providing quality BIF and BOW images can be expensive, and an investment, as well as a commitment.
Photo Equipment for Birds In Flight
Dslr camera body (recommend one capable of 6 frames per second (fps) or faster)
Minimum lens focal length of 300mm (can be zoom or prime (fixed) lens
Sturdy / stable tripod (one rated for at least twice the weight of your camera body and heaviest lens)
Quality ballhead or gimbal type head
Quality circular polarizer (dont buy the cheapest one available)
External (off camera) flash
Better Beamer flash extender
Tele extenders (1.4X / 1.7X or 2X)
Dslr camera body (recommend one capable of 6 frames per second (fps) or faster)
Why are the frames per second (fps) rate important?
We are photographing birds that are moving
the wings are up, the wings are down the bird is banking, hovering, gliding and taking off or landing
. We want to be able to capture a sequence of images and review them, selecting images is that are the most pleasing to us. There is a method of BIF photography known as Spray and Pray
While I am not a proponent of this method
all birds in flight photographers use it at times.
Larger memory cards
. You are going to take many more images of flying birds than you will the kids, grandchildren or the pets
extra storage volume will be important. My suggestion is a minimum of 16gb. It is not unusual for me to come home from a day of BIF shooting with 600 - 800+ images to sort through.
Minimum Lens Focal Length of 300mm
Chances are good that this section will generate the most opinion and discussion. And thats a good thing in my opinion
we all learn for considerate and thoughtful discussion.
The standard recommended focal length lens for birds in flight is 500mm to 600mm. Can great images be taken with lenses of shorter focal lengths? Of course they can.
Fixed or Zoom Lens? The if money is no object answer is
. both. Personally I prefer a fixed focal length lens for the sharpness advantage over a zoom lens
But I also have a couple of long focal length zoom lenses. Sometimes you just need a lens that has variable focal length
Brands of Lenses? Nope
not falling in that trap either. Much like camera bodies there are several excellent choices.
Fixed Focal Length (prime) Lenses
Canon and Nikon each manufacture 300, 400, 500 and 600mm fixed focal length prime lenses (Canon also has an 800mm length lens). Canon and Nikon both make 300 f/4 and 400 f/5.6 lenses
You do not need an f/2.8 lens (fast glass) for bird photography. Many folks get great BIF images with the f/4 lenses.
Canon, Nikon, Sony, Sigma and Tamron each manufacture quality Ultra or Super telephoto zoom lenses that are used by many for bird photography. My recommendation is to start with not less than a high quality 70-200mm zoom lens and a 1.4X or 1.7X extender.
Or a 70/75-300mm quality zoom that is capable of focusing quickly
. You absolutely get what you pay for in this neighborhood.
. Word of caution on the purchase of an inexpensive 70/75-300mm lens
. Most times these kit type lenses will not focus fast enough to work well for birds in flight. Both Canon and Nikon make higher end quality lenses in this zoom focal length. Sigma has a 120-300mm OS zoom lens that is very good
. Also with a cost of nearly $4,000.00.
Longer reach zoom lenses. I would consider these to be the lenses in the 100/200-400mm, 50-500mm, 150-500mm length lenses. And the beast Sigma zoom lens of 300-800mm, which I have never used, but would like to try one day. A lens in any of these focal length will not be inexpensive and some can be extremely expensive
.However a great many bird (and wildlife) photographers use these focal length zoom lenses, with excellent results.
One truism regarding lens focal length and bird photography is that you will always want a longer, faster focusing lens! We all do
Much more on lenses as this forum develops
Sturdy / Stable Tripod
This will be the best investment that you will make after your camera and lens purchase(s) A cheap unsteady tripod will be the cause of more missed opportunities than most people realize. I am going to stick my neck out a bit on this topic and say that I will always tell folks to save their money and get a Gitzo tripod, if at all possible. There are other quality tripod manufacturers, such as Manfotto
. But pay attention to any group of long lens bird photographers and note how many are using Gitzo pods
.. Its not a status thing, its because the Gitzos are that good and worth the high price. And no, I do not get gear or money from Gitzo
.. I wish that I did.
One final thought about tripods
. USE ONE! Your keeper rate will improve dramatically.
Quality Ballhead or Gimbal Type Tripod Head
I personally use a Wimberley Gimbal type tripod head for all of my bird photography. I have friends that use quality ball type heads with excellent results.
Choice can be as simple as an individuals personal preference. It is important to have a tripod head that will move quickly on four planes
up and down, left and right. The head must be able to be adjusted in such a way that it will remain where you leave it when you are not holding the camera, but be able to be moved immediately (without touching knobs) when a photo opportunity presents itself.
Note: A landscape pan type head is not a good choice for this type of photography.
More on brands and types of tripod heads as we go along
Quality Circular Polarizer
We are photographing birds against bright blue skies, in highly reflective water, white birds on bright sunny days
All great reasons to use a circular polarizer
Many folks make the mistake of purchasing an inexpensive circular polarizer and then finding that the image quality of their work is being degraded
This is many times the result of glass in the polarizer that is less than high quality
To my way of thinking it does not make a lot of sense to spend money on a high quality lens and then place an inferior quality filter in front of the lens glass
. Purchase a quality CP the first time and you will not regret the decision.
External Flash / Flash Extenders / Lens Focal Length Extenders
More in the coming days on these subjects
Below are a couple of photos of my "go to" birding camera set-up
Canon 1D Mark IV (camera body)
Canon 500mm f/4L IS (lens)
Canon 1.4X Tele-extender
Gitzo 5540 Carbon Fiber Tripod
Wimberley Head® - Version II (WH-200)
Wimberley F-1 Telephoto Bracket
Canon 580 EX Flash
Better Beamer Flash Extender
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