Photography Tips for Birders Part 1 Equipment

Carolina Wren

I am giving a talk to the Monticello Bird Club next week and thought I would share the information in my talk over a few blog posts. Many birders would like to capture images of the birds they see. They are out weekly, sometimes daily looking for birds, so the opportunity to capture shots is great. They also head out early in the morning, this is a great time for good light, if it isn’t a cloudy or rainy day!

Maybe you want to capture images for ID or maybe you want to get some good shots to print or use in presentations. Whatever the reason, I hope this series will help you get better bird images.

Digiscoping

Many birders already have scopes, so one option is to buy a camera and attach it to the scope. Essentially the scope acts as the lens and gives you good magnification. You can even stack the camera lens/zoom on top of the scope to get even more magnification! The better the quality of your scope the better quality images you can get.

There are 2 main types of cameras, point and shoot or DSLR. Point and shoot (P&S) cameras are smaller and cheaper. There are a number on the market compatible with a scope. Make sure you use a P&S with a short zoom of 3-4x, the longer zooms will create problems with vignetting (black corners in the view/image). You use stepping rings to attach the camera to the scope along with a digital camera adapter. You will need to do some research to find what works best for you and the scope you have.

DSLR cameras are larger and more expensive. You can get a good entry level camera for $500-800, so it’s not astronomical. There are obviously much more expensive cameras available as well, it all depends on what you want to do with the camera outside of birding. The advantage of a DSLR camera is much better quality of image, especially at higher ISO settings (I will expand on this in Part 2). They also focus faster and give you more control over settings.

You can attach the DSLR body directly to the scope using a T2 mount and digital camera adapter or attach it to a lens using stepping rings and a digital camera adapter. The lens must have threads for the stepping ring to attach to.

There is a lot of information on the internet regarding digiscoping, just google the name. A few websites I found helpful were:

http://www.digiscopediary.co.uk/digital-cameras.html  – a British bird enthusiast

http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/gear/Digiscoping/ – good basic info but written in 2006 so recommendations are outdated.

http://www.digiscoping.com/articles.shtml – from the guy who started digiscoping, has a list of scope/camera combos

Binoculars

There are Binoculars with a camera built in. This makes for a portable compact package and seems like the best option for ID photos. There is not a lot of control and image quality is probably on par with a P&S camera. I haven’t tried this personally, so you’ll need to read reviews to see if this is for you.   Bushnell is one brand reviewed in Bird Watchers Digest : http://www.birdwatching.com/optics/2011binocular-cameras/binocular-cameras.html

DSLR

Immature Black Skimmer

The final equipment option is a DSLR camera with traditional lens. This will most likely be the most expensive route, but will give you the higher quality images and more control. However, you will not get the reach/magnification you can get from a scope.

To photograph birds you need at least a 400mm lens.  I use this when I travel as it is smaller than my big lens. Bigger lenses give you more reach, but cost more; 500mm, 600mm, 300-800 and 1200mm are available sizes. You can also use teleconverters of 1.4x and 2x for more reach at a cheaper price, but they only work on certain lenses. A 1.4x on a 400mm = a reach of 560mm while a 2x on a 400mm -= a reach of 800mm. There is some loss of image quality, especially with the 2x. Make sure to read reviews prior to purchase.

When not flying for travel, I use a Sigma 300-800mm lens on a Gitzo tripod with Cobra head on my Canon 1DMark III. This setup runs around $13K, so it’s not cheap, but I’m a photographer first and birder second.

In part 2 we’ll look at some camera settings to use to get good images.

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