Another way to observe birds on the Inca trail is by taking pictures. After spotting a bird, we sneak up as close as possible and take pictures of it. Since all cameras are functional, it does not matter if they are low or high end. Since, often the birds perch in the bushes that are next to the Inca trail. Therefore, many times we can obtain good quality photos.
GOpro cameras are excellent for taking panoramic photos and videos of the entire Inca trail. However, they are not very useful for bird watching. Since, they do not have the necessary focus “zoom”.
CAMERAS FOR BIRD AND WILD NATURE PHOTOGRAPHY
Some tips and recommendations for choosing your camera and equipment for photography of birds and wild animals.
If you like bird photography or wild animal photography (for example, if you plan to do some kind of photographic safari) and you are looking for your first camera or want to improve your equipment, I recommend that you read this article calmly.
For simplicity, I will always refer to bird photography. An equipment that is valid for photography of birds is normally valid for photography of wild animals and possibly for sports photography, although within sports photography there are many variants.
In any case, bird photography is a specialty in itself.
Birds have their peculiarities: they fly and are more difficult to follow, they have very fast movements even when perched, some are very small and tend to be very suspicious animals, that flee easily from human presence (or from any element they consider suspicious or that is not part of their usual environment)
The ideal equipment for bird photography
Let’s see what technical characteristics are important for this type of photography.
It does not mean that you have to look for a team with all these characteristics. The ideal camera or the ideal photographic equipment does not exist. Each one has to find their balance, sacrificing some characteristics to have others.
To give us a basic idea of the importance of each element, we could say that in regards to the technical part, the objective is 80%, the camera 15% and the tripod 5%.
The experience and technique of the photographer is of course very important. In many cases the limitations of the equipment can be compensated with knowledge, imagination and patience.
And if you don’t have patience, or knowledge (of photography, the species you want to photograph, the environment in which they live, their habits and schedules …), or experience in bird photography … even if you have the best photographic equipment in the world, your results are going to be mediocre.
In the case of photography of birds in flight, the technique and experience of the photographer is perhaps the most important factor. But logically in those cases it is also necessary that the equipment has a minimum performance in sections such as the focus system and the shooting speed.
Lenses for bird photography
We are going to start with the objective, since it will determine the type of photography that we will be able to take and it will also partly condition the characteristics of the camera.
1 | We are looking for a long telephoto lens
With a minimum equivalent focal length of about 300mm.
Greater focal length translates into a narrower angle of view, that is, we could see it as more ‘range’ to capture far away animals in detail.
There is a preconceived idea that with a telephoto lens we will be able to photograph birds from miles away. This is not like this. To get quality photos we have to be within walking distance: we are talking about several meters in the case of small birds and tens of meters in the case of medium and large birds. As the distance increases, the quality worsens due to atmospheric effects (suspended dust, humidity, thermal currents …) and we would also need much longer focal lengths to get a close-up.
2 | A very good optical quality
The birds have a very fine texture and very beautiful patterns in their plumage.
Normally we are going to photograph the animal from a certain distance and on many occasions we are going to make a crop in editing (to keep a close-up of the main subject).
The better the sharpness of the lens (acuity / contrast), the more detail of the bird we can capture in our photo.
3 | The widest possible opening
This has to do mostly with shutter speed.
Birds are animals with continuous and rapid movements, even when they are perched.
We need very high shutter speeds to freeze these movements and get super sharp images (to avoid shaky areas of the image).
The same applies to photography of birds in flight.
In bird photography it is very common to work with speeds above 1 / 1000s
The point is that to get a good exposure at such high shutter speeds we need a lot of light on the sensor.
The larger the lens aperture (small F-numbers), the more light the sensor can pick up, and the camera’s ISO does not need to be raised.
The maximum aperture of the lens can also limit the effectiveness of the camera’s focusing system, the focusing system also needs quite a bit of light to function properly.
4 | Very fast focusing motor / system
The focus system depends on the lens + camera combination.
If the camera has a perfect focusing system but the lens has a certain inertia or a slow motor, the weak link that will limit us is going to be the lens.
High-end telephoto lenses often include some type of focus range selector or limiter.
For example, if we are going to photograph small birds that are going to be perched at 4 meters from a hide, we would put the selector in the focus range of nearby objects.
If we are going to photograph birds in flight we would put the selector in the focus range of close objects.
The range limiter optimizes the response time of the focusing system.
5 | Optical stabilizer
For telephoto lenses (long focal lengths) the optical stabilizer built into the lens tends to work much better, compared to a stabilizer built into the camera sensor.
The stabilizer only helps us when we use the freehand camera.
With the camera on a tripod or sweeping it is often advisable to deactivate it (it depends on the camera).
On the other hand, the optical stabilization system always introduces a small loss of optical quality (they are moving optical elements inside the lens), therefore you have to assess which aspect is most important to you.
If you’re just starting out with long telephoto lenses and aren’t very experienced, I think a stabilizer lens is going to give you a bit more headroom in certain situations.
The loss of sharpness that the stabilizer can introduce is minimal and there are about 1000 external factors that will most affect the quality of your photos in these types of photos.
6 | Fixed focus vs zoom lens
Fixed lenses add an added bonus to optical quality and usually offer a larger maximum aperture.
Zoom lenses are more versatile.
Many times we have to be still in one position and we do not know in advance where the bird is going to be placed. With a zoom lens we can play around with the framing a bit. With the fixed lens we only have that angle of view.
To begin with bird photography I would recommend a telephoto zoom lens.
It is true that in the end we tend to use it in the longest focal lengths in any case, but it gives us more room for maneuver.
When you have a little more experience it may be worth taking the leap to a fixed lens to gain that little bit of optical quality and aperture.
7 | Multipliers / Teleconverters
They allow to increase the equivalent focal length of our lens.
The standard teleconverters are usually the 1.4x and 2x
The operation is very simple. They act as an intermediate optical element. They are placed between the lens and the camera.
If we have a 300mm objective, by placing a 1.4x multiplier we would have an equivalent focal length of 420mm.
If we put a 2x multiplier, the equivalent focal length would be 600mm.
Logically they have their disadvantages:
Those intermediate optical elements always subtract some optical quality from what the lens offers separately.
The teleconverter reduces the aperture of the lens, and this has two negative effects: in some cases it will force us to raise the ISO more to maintain an adequate shutter speed, and the other unwanted effect is that in some cameras the focus system can stop to function properly
In general, they are only recommended for lenses with a large aperture: f / 4, f / 2.8 …
The 1.4x teleconverter reduces the aperture of the diaphragm by 1 step. For example an f / 4 would become an f / 5.6
The 2x teleconverter reduces the aperture by 2 steps. An f / 4 lens would become an f / 8
For a given system (a mount) not all multipliers are compatible with all lenses and with all cameras.
In most cases the limitation is in the ability of the camera to focus at certain apertures (the phase detection focusing system of SLRs requires a certain minimum aperture to work properly).
We could use the lens with manual focus, but for this type of photography it is difficult to achieve good results without the help of autofocus.
In other cases it may be physical limitations, there are teleconverters that include protruding optical elements and could find the optical elements on the back of some lens models.
THE IDEAL CAMERA FOR BIRD PHOTOGRAPHY
Today all digital cameras offer excellent image quality. The point is that for this type of photography we are going to put the camera very close to its limits in some cases.
It is not so much about image quality as it is about versatility and the number of ‘good’ photos that we can get (keeper rate) in a session.
Let’s see then the most important characteristics:
1 | Focus system
A good system of continuous focus, especially if we are going to take photos of birds in flight or animals in movement in general.
Typically phase detection focusing systems work best in continuous focus because they ‘know’ the distance to the subject, whereas contrast detection has to constantly test to optimize contrast.
Hybrid systems combine the best of both technologies and are often fast and reliable.
It is also important that the camera allows the focus areas to be configured flexibly.
Especially for photography of birds in flight, it is very difficult to work with a point focus in the central area and keep track of a bird in flight (there are photographers with a lot of experience who are able to follow the movement of the bird and keep the focus point where want).
In general, it is much more efficient to use a multi-point focus area that covers a certain surface of the frame, to always try to keep the bird within that active area.
On the other hand, if the area is too large we run the risk of losing focus if another bird crosses or if the background where it is flying contains elements with a certain texture (rocks, vegetation, etc.)
In slightly higher-end cameras, some parameters of the focus system can be customized: the reaction times of the system (sensitivity), the inertia or behavior with acceleration / deceleration of the subjects that we are going to photograph, or the behavior of the points. focus when we choose a group or focus area that includes multiple points.
2 | Burst speed
It is a very important feature in action photography in general.
For example with birds in flight it is literally impossible to synchronize the shot with the position of the wings, etc. using single shot.
To increase the probability of ‘hitting’ you have to take a burst shot and then select the most attractive photo in the sequence.
For perched birds, the burst is not usually so important unless we want to capture, for example, the moment when it is launched into flight or some movement or special situation (capture an insect, etc.)
There are cameras that include some kind of early-release feature (like Olympus’ Pro Capture mode). With this function, the camera starts shooting with the shutter button pressed halfway and stores the photos in the internal buffer.
When we finally press the shutter button to start the actual burst, the camera is left with part of the sequence it had shot earlier.
In this way we can capture actions that happen so fast that they exceed human reaction time.
3 | Buffer size and buffer cleaning times
Directly related to burst shooting.
It matters both the maximum burst speed (number of photos per second) as well as the time that the camera is able to maintain that speed and the average speed that it can achieve over, say, 4-5 seconds.
And it is also very important that the time it takes for the camera to empty the buffer is as small as possible since most cameras get blocked (we cannot take pictures or operate the camera) during that process.
4 | Image quality / behavior at high ISOs
On many occasions we will have no choice but to raise ISO to maintain a sufficiently high shutter speed.
Keep in mind that typical shutter speeds will be on the order of 1 / 1000s or faster in many cases.
A camera that offers a good signal-to-noise ratio with high ISOs will give us more versatility, especially in situations where the lighting conditions are not perfect.
5 | Sealed against dust and moisture
A sealed chamber will especially give us more peace of mind when conditions are bad.
Keep in mind that we are going to spend many hours in the field and we are not always going to have a perfect time.
Also, even if you do not plan to photograph if it is raining, you can find yourself in humid situations, near water (possibility of splashes), with dust, etc.
Remember that for a sealed camera to be protected the lens has to be sealed as well.
6 | Grip and ergonomics
Very important especially when we use the freehand camera with large lenses.
When we use telephoto lenses normally the weight of the whole, the center of gravity, is shifted towards the front.
The left hand holds the lens and carries most of the weight (it acts as a tripod when shooting freehand).
The right hand holds the camera and we need some freedom of action to access the settings, but at the same time a good grip to direct the camera, frame and shoot in a matter of seconds.
7 | Button customization and shortcuts
In action photography, birds, animals … many times you have to make very quick decisions and make configuration changes on the fly.
If we have to access a menu to configure an X parameter every 2 minutes, it is very possible that we will lose many interesting photos.
Most interchangeable lens cameras have the basic exposure management dials and controls.
As we move up the range, cameras tend to have more customization options and more buttons and quick-access controls.
An interesting option is that the camera has the possibility of disassociating the focus button from the shutter button (back button focus).
In many cases it is more convenient and more efficient to activate the focus from an external button. In this way, the shutter button is only for that, to activate the shutter, the camera does not have to do intermediate actions when pressing the button (refocus, measure the light …)
8 | Sensor size
The size of the sensor will mainly influence two things:
Equivalent focal length (crop factor)
Image quality when we have to set high ISOs
The focal length is a characteristic of the lens, independent of the camera in which it is used.
In photography and video, the focal length gives us an idea of the angle of view (framing)
For historical reasons, the Full Frame / 35mm film sensor is taken as a reference.
For example, a 300mm lens on a camera with a Full Frame sensor gives us a horizontal angle of view of about 7 degrees.
If instead of a Full Frame sensor we place a smaller one, for example an APS-C sensor, the image will be projected on a smaller surface. There is a crop with respect to the image that a Full Frame sensor would give.
We have a framing that would correspond to what we would have in Full Frame if we used a lens with a longer focal length.
To further relate focal length and angle of view (photographers are more comfortable with focal length) we use the concept of equivalent focal length.
For example, the 300mm lens on an APS-C sensor camera would have an equivalent focal length of about 450mm (300 x 1.5 which is the crop factor of an APS-C sensor). Those 450mm offer a viewing angle of about 4.5 degrees.
So, using a smaller sensor has the advantage that it gives us more ‘range’, it gives us a greater equivalent focal length.
On the other hand, the quality of the image is related to the amount of light that the sensor receives.
A larger surface area means more light (total photons received in the sensor assembly) and a better signal-to-noise ratio.
For technology equality (sensor technology is a very important factor), a larger sensor will provide an image with a better signal-to-noise ratio. This is only noticeable when the lighting conditions are not perfect or when we have to raise ISO.
For bird photography, a larger sensor gives us an advantage when the lighting conditions are not perfect or when we use a lens with a low aperture (for example, if we want to achieve a greater depth of field by closing the diaphragm a little).
Practically any interchangeable lens camera, SLR or EVIL, can be used for bird photography using the appropriate lens.
The lens is usually far more important than the characteristics of the camera.
With their limitations, bridge-type superzoom cameras can also be a good option, especially for perching bird photography.
The characteristics of the camera, especially the burst shooting speed and the performance of the focus system, will help us increase the chances of getting a good photo, especially if we try to take pictures of birds in flight.
Cameras with a Full Frame sensor: better performance at high ISOs, more versatility (being able to raise more ISO to have an adequate shutter speed), but larger, heavier and more expensive lenses to achieve the same range.
Cameras with APS-C / Micro 4/3 sensor: the crop factor works in favor (more reach with a certain focal length), smaller, lighter and cheaper lenses. Although in some systems we will only find long telephoto lenses designed for Full Frame sensors, the APS-C cameras in those systems will give us more range.
If we photograph perched birds, we will not need those very specific characteristics (burst and focus), although birds in particular are very fast moving animals, especially the smallest ones.
There are times that only by shooting in bursts we can achieve that pose we were looking for (discarding many other photos of that sequence).
In this type of photography, many photos are discarded and it is difficult to get a perfect photo: focus, framing, pose of the animal, background …
Therefore, the cameras that are more specialized in sports and action photography are the ones that will give us the best performance in bird photography. Better performance here means a higher percentage of ‘hits’ or good photos per session.
With a non-specialized camera we can also get very good photos of birds, but depending on the situation we will surely have fewer useful photos per session (compared to a camera with better performance)
Regarding image quality (electronic noise), in good light conditions all cameras: bridge, SLR, EVIL can give excellent quality.
As the lighting conditions get worse, cameras with a larger sensor can raise more ISO while maintaining an acceptable level of quality.
On the other hand, as we have seen, cameras with a larger sensor need larger, heavier and more expensive lenses to achieve the same range.
BIRD PHOTOGRAPHY TRIPODS
All tripods look good until you put a camera on them with a telephoto lens.
Working with long focal lengths, any minimal movement or vibration of the equipment transforms into an earthquake in the image.
To use long telephoto lenses, above 300mm, we need a very very robust and stable tripod that absorbs any type of vibration.
Sturdy and stable tripod usually equates to large and heavy tripod.
I think it is impossible to have a very light tripod that we can transport with a small size (legs with many sections), and that it is also very stable when we use telephoto lenses.
Normally, you want the tripod to be high enough to be able to work with the camera in a comfortable standing position.
Tripods without a central column are usually more stable, they would be equivalent to a tripod with a column, with the column located in the lowest part, but the fact of not including a column provides more rigidity in the upper part and allows it to be placed practically at ground level if necessary.
Tripods without a center column that reach a certain height are usually quite expensive.
For example, some tripods widely used in this type of photography are the Gitzo without a central column (the current models without a column would be series 3, 4 or 5 of the Gitzo Systematic) that would be over 1000 euros.
An option with good value for money could be a Manfrotto, for example a Manfrotto from the 055 series.
The Manfrotto 190 series tripods could also be an interesting option or even the 290 series tripods, depending on the balance you are looking for between stability, size and weight.
A tripod with good value for money for medium equipment can be this tripod from K&F Concept that can be transformed into a monopod.
The head also has to be very robust to leave the frame nailed in the position that we say. Note that a telephoto lens can exert quite a bit of leverage on the head.
A good ball head might work for photography of perched birds or even birds in flight, although it is usually not the best option.
For bird photography, especially if you are going to take birds in flight, gimbal or rocker type heads are often used a lot:
They are the heads that offer more flexibility to follow animals in motion and also offer a lot of stability if we need to keep the camera in a totally static position.
Recommended equipment to get started with bird photography
Bird photography is a very demanding specialty.
Shooting with telephoto lenses requires some experience, which is acquired with practice.
I think that the essential qualities for this type of photography are patience and perseverance, as it can be very frustrating at times.
To start with bird photography, I would recommend one of these options:
Bridge superzoom camera for bird photography
You already have an interchangeable lens camera: find a lens for birds
Camera with APS-C or Micro 4/3 sensor recommended for bird photography
Bridge superzoom cameras for bird photography
They are cameras in which the optics cannot be exchanged, it is fixed to the camera.
Panasonic Lumix FZ300
Generic characteristics of this type of cameras:
The focal range is usually huge.
Longer focal lengths (above 1000mm in equivalent focal length) would be practically impossible to achieve on an SLR / EVIL equipment
Optical quality is usually pretty decent.
They usually include lenses with good optical quality, designed specifically for that camera and that sensor. It should be borne in mind that the greater the focal range, the more difficult it is to achieve a certain homogeneous optical quality throughout that range, there is usually a sweet spot, a combination of focal length and aperture, which is the one that offers more sharpness. For medium long focal lengths the quality is usually acceptable.
The sensor is usually small.
Most use a 1 / 2.3 ″ (6.17 x 4.55 mm) sensor. Some models use a 1-inch sensor.
The overall focus system is slower.
In general it is considerably slower than in generic SLR / EVIL and much slower than in specialized sports and action cameras. They are cameras that can be used perfectly for photography of perched birds or in predictable positions, but it would be very difficult to capture birds in flight.
The main advantage of superzoom cameras is that for a reasonable price we have a complete equipment, relatively light, very flexible and versatile, with very long equivalent focal lengths that will give us a great ‘range’.
We will only get photos of very good image quality in good light.
When the light goes down a bit and we have to raise ISO to maintain the shooting speed, the image quality suffers.
Surely they will limit us to birds in flight, since their focus system is not usually very fast
In some models we can limit the maximum shutter speed.
In general, they are perfect cameras for ‘bird watching’, that is, for bird watching and collecting photos for registration and documentation.
Excellent quality photos can be achieved under the right conditions.
Keep in mind that if extreme focal lengths are used to take photos of subjects that are far away, the chances of obtaining a certain quality image drop considerably, and this applies to all cameras and equipment, including the higher ranges.
The atmospheric conditions greatly influence, the risk of shake (any camera shake will generate a shaky image) and also the difficulty of achieving a perfect focus in those conditions.
There are people who try a camera of this type with the maximum focal length, freehand, and are surprised to see that the photos are not perfect … No camera could take a good photo in those conditions.
Bridge superzoom cameras recommended for bird photography
If you already have an interchangeable lens camera and you want to try bird photography, I think the most reasonable thing to do would be to start with a simple zoom lens in the 300mm range.
A 300mm on an APS-C sensor camera would have an equivalent focal length of around 450mm, which is pretty good.
On a Micro 4/3 camera like Olympus or Panasonic, 300mm would correspond to a 600mm equivalent focal length.
If you already have experience, you can go to a longer telephoto lens, in the 500-600mm range.
Always keep in mind that as we increase the focal length it is increasingly difficult to achieve good results and we will need more experience.
Also remember what we have discussed. It is not about taking pictures of animals from miles away. The idea is to find a way to keep the animal as close as possible: using hides, from bird observatories and viewpoints, approaching natural drinking fountains or feeding or resting areas, preparing feeders or drinkers … But always respecting the animals and respecting the natural environment through which we are going to move.
Canon EOS 90D
According to Canon, the EOS 90D would be the evolution of the Canon 80D and the Canon 7D mark II (the latter has been one of the most widely used cameras for bird photography)
Canon EOS 800D reflex camera
The 90D is one of the most complete APS-C sensor SLRs on the market: excellent for video and photography.
We could say that it is a general purpose camera that also has very good characteristics for sports and action photography, and therefore it is a very good option for bird photography.
The main focus system for photography (when we use the optical viewfinder) allows a very precise configuration (sensitivity for tracking, acceleration, custom tracking zones…) that is very useful especially for photography of birds in flight.
Burst shooting can go up to 11 fps with single focus to first photo or 10 photos per second with continuous focus, maintaining focus between shots.
Tamron 150-600mm f / 5-6.3 SP Di VC USD G2
Sigma 150-600mm f / 5-6.3 Dg OS HSM Contemporary
Canon 400mm f / 5.6 L USM
The D7500 is a kind of Nikon D500 (one of the best cameras for sports and action photography) packed in a smaller and lighter body.
Nikon D7500 reflex camera
Nikon’s D7000 series cameras have probably been the most widely used for bird photography.
The image quality offered by the D7500’s sensor is exceptional, it is one of the best APS-C sensors on the market.
The D7500’s photography focus system is also excellent: 51 phase-detection focus points spread over much of the frame, with 15 central cross-type points (for vertical and horizontal pattern detection).
You can shoot up to 8 photos per second while maintaining focus (continuous focus) between shots.
Video image quality is very good but it is a limited camera due to its video focus system (bad). If you are looking for a camera for photography in general or bird photography in particular, the D7500 is one of the best options. If you are looking for a camera for photography and video, it is not the best choice from my point of view.
Tamron 150-600mm f / 5-6.3 SP Di VC USD G2
Sigma 150-600mm f / 5-6.3 Dg OS HSM Contemporary
Olympus E-M1 mark II
It is probably the best option if you are looking for a lighter equipment with a very good value for money.
Olympus OM-D E-M1 mark II
The Olympus E-M1 mark II’s performance is impressive.
There are many people conditioned by cameras with a Micro 4/3 sensor (a little smaller than the APS-C sensor), thinking that their performance will be much worse, when the reality is that in practice the differences are minimal, perhaps on the order of 1/2 step of ISO relative to APS-C.
On a day-to-day basis, you will find very few situations in which that difference will give you a competitive advantage.
The E-M1 mark II has a hybrid focusing system with phase detection (cross type focus points) and contrast detection. With 121 points spread throughout the frame.
With the mechanical shutter you can achieve 15 fps with single focus and about 10 fps with continuous focus while maintaining focus between shots.
With the mechanical shutter we would have up to 18 fps with continuous focus and up to 60 fps with simple focus.
It also has the Pro Capture function that makes the camera start buffering photos before pressing the shutter button (with the button in the middle focus position). In this way, for scenes in which we know something is going to happen but we do not know exactly when, the Pro Capture function anticipates the user’s reaction time and allows us to have photos that we would have otherwise lost.