Equipment

Epiphany

I have no idea why I took so long to buy a camera that really is suitable for bird photography. The one I bought years ago, a compact digital with a 10x optical zoom, was supposed to do the job (according to the salesperson) but the images were feathery blurs that were small in the frame. The rare reasonable photographs were of large birds that posed patiently, like herons, but even those images lacked definition. I eventually gave up trying.

The realisation that I needed a new camera, one that could take photographs like those in the Birdlife Australia competition, was ridiculously sudden. Hadn’t I always known this? I love bird-watching and have spent countless hours in the field learning about birds and their habits, I can find and track birds with binoculars, and I treasure the times I am so immersed in nature that time slips by in a blur of twitters.

 

Equipment Updates 1, 2 and 3 below include camera and other upgrades and additions

I have wasted  decades trying to photograph birds with the wrong equipment and this time I wanted to get it right. No more 10x optical zoom on a camera the size of a matchbox. I wanted something so good that I’d know it was my fault, not the camera’s, if the image wasn’t right.

I started trawling websites, looking for bird images I particularly liked and checking what equipment had been used for the shot. With few exceptions the photographs I most admired, including images of birds in flight, were taken with Canons or Nikons. From the reviews I read it seemed that the Canon/Nikon debate came down to personal choice, they both have an excellent range of camera bodies and lenses. In the ancient days of film cameras my brother had given me a Canon Sure Shot, plus a family friend is a Canon repairer: I narrowed the field quickly and unscientifically.

I originally considered the Canon EOS 60D but decided I like the extra features on the Canon EOS 7D. Its weatherproofing would be important, including for shooting waders at the beach. I like its metal body and 8 frames per second continuous shooting as that upped the chance of me getting a good image. I wanted to make the right choice first time and not be back at the camera store trading-up before they’d forgotten me.

When deciding on lenses I had weight to consider as well as specifcations and price. I kept the Canon EFS 15-85mm IS USM kit lens for portraits and landscapes, and chose a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS USM for capturing images of birds. I read numerous reviews on the 100-400mm and was swayed by the photographers who said it is an ideal serious wildlife lens due to focal length range, high quality build and versatility. Looking down the track I hope to add a Canon 100mm f/2.8 USM macro lens to my camera bag and maybe one day swap my car for a long prime lens that I would hardly be able to carry.

I am totally enamoured with  the 100-400mm zoom lens. I have a lot to learn but I have taken photographs of tiny birds, birds in flight, shy birds, groups of birds, distant birds and close birds  – I would not have had such flexibility with a fixed lens. Some reviewers mentioned the push/pull operation of the lens can be awkward but for me it’s easier as I can support the weight of the lens while changing the focal length, something I cannot do so readily with a twist style zoom.

I opted for Sandisk memory cards, one 16gb Pro and one 32gb Extreme and hope they are good choices. I purchased a spare Canon battery, mainly because I thought I’d need it for long trips but I’ve used it many times already. I weighed up the pros and cons of lens’ filters, reading comments like ‘Why wouldn’t you protect an expensive lens’ and ‘Why would you cover an expensive lens with a cheap filter’. I opted to protect the expensive lens. I’m often walking through dense bushland and would hate to scratch my lens as often as I scratch myself. I bought a Hoya PRO1 for the small lens and a higher quality Hoya HD UV for the zoom lens.

The learning curve begins

It’s kind of embarrassing how clearly I remember unpacking my Canon 7D and feeling my hand mould around it so comfortably. I knew nothing but theory about DSLRs. I had never before owned a DSLR or even an SLR. I had never changed lenses. I’d heard of shutter speed and over/under exposure but that was about all.

I read the manual, watched videos about autofocusing and vignetting and fstops and lens aberrations and aperture priority which is sometimes called Av and sometimes called AE, and the only thing that was clear was that nothing was clear. I made a definitive decision never to use the camera on automatic.

I charged the battery, fitted the lens protectors, attached the 15-85mm lens, inserted the memory card and started taking photographs of my dog – she was the only animate object willing to be photographed at 1am.

 

Mai

Equipment Update 1

By the end of 2012 I had added:

  • 1 x Sandisk 32GB Extreme Pro memory card (trialling the extra speed and liking it)
  • 1 x Canon spare battery (I now have three batteries which I use in rotation)
  • 1 x Manfrotto 679B monopod
  • 1 x Manfrotton 234RC monopod head (replaced, see Update 2)
  • 1 x Lowepro flipside 300 camera backpack
  • Lightroom 4
  • Photoshop Elements 11

I rarely use the monopod but it is invaluable for occasional shots when I’m waiting, hopefully, for a bird to land in a particular place. It helps minimise camera shake but I find it cumbersome to cart around when walking. I bought the set up second hand and I’m pleased to have it available.

The Lowepro backpack is excellent. It fits all my camera equipment while keeping the 100-400mm lens attached to the camera.

I’m having fun learning the software packages. The catalogue system with Lightroom 4 has been brilliant, it’s great to have all my images keyworded so I can develop and delete appropriately. Photoshop Elements 11 is proving useful for cloning out the occasional stray branch. Although I aim to keep post-processing to a minimum I’m looking forward to learning more about LR4 and PSE11.

Equipment Update 2

During April/May 2013 I added:

  • Tripod – Feisol CT-3402 rapid, carbon fibre
  • Tripod Ballhead – Acratech GP-ss with lever clamp
  • Monopod replacement head – Manfrotto 234 tilthead
  • Lexar USB3 card reader
  • Rain cover E702 clear/black
  • Hoya UV Absorbing Polarising filter

The tripod and ballhead are awesome. Until now I’ve not enjoyed tripods, finding them heavy, awkward and annoying but this setup is great. It’s light and easy to use with metal twist locks that don’t attack my fingers. I’m super-impressed with how low it goes to the ground, and by using the ballhead to mount the camera off-centre I can take shots from virtually ground level.

The rain cover is great. The transparent section, which covers the entire camera and lens, does not wrinkle, even if folded up and stuffed into a jacket pocket.

Equipment Update 3 – February 2014

  • Canon 5D Mark III
  • Wimberley Sidekick
  • Lexar Professional 1000x 32gb memory card
  • Rapid Strap RS – W1

After waiting forever for Canon to announce the 7D Mark II I gave up and bought the 5D Mark III and haven’t stopped smiling since. See 5D Mark III for a selection of images and comments from the first week of using the camera. The auto-focus and lack of noise are brilliant. I also like the larger rear screen with improved definition, the dial lock and the extra megapixels. The camera is a perfect upgrade from the 7D as the layout is basically the same, the 5D Mark III was immediately mine.

When trying to capture tiny bush birds I need to follow their movements smoothly. Some little tackers turn back and forth on the perch during their routine safety checks and it’s tricky to maintain focus on their eyes when they are moving just a few inches each time. Although my Acratech GP-ss is smooth there was a miniscule hesitation on the turn that was only an issues when trying to track minimal movements. The Wimberley Sidekick has solved the issue, my camera and lens seem to float.

I bought the Lexar Professional 1000x at the end of last year, it’s speed means that I can take more shots before the buffer fills; I like it.

The Rapid Strap hasn’t been a hit though I know of others who find them excellent. When I use it I feel trussed up like a Christmas turkey rather than windswept and free. It may be that I’m yet to adjust it correctly so I will persevere as the concept definitely appeals when I’m hiking to a location.

Equipment Update 3

4 November 2014

  • Canon 7DII

Early sample JPGs posted on Testing the Canon 7DII

 

Equipment Update 4

2016 – I have upgraded much/most of my gear over the past couple of years, including moving on from the 7DII.