Some notes on digital still cameras for bird photography: Part 3

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Subject: Some notes on digital still cameras for bird photography: Part 3
From: "Robert Inglis" <>
Date: Wed, 17 Jul 2002 06:52:51 +1000
Hello dedicated digi-birders,

This is Part 3 of my comments and notes on using digital cameras for bird

In this part I will discuss the following features of typical 'consumer' digital
cameras and how they 'stack-up' for bird photography.

- Physical size:
- Lens power: (including teleconverters)

Physical Size:
Actually the physical size isn't really important in as much as that you will
have to take what you can get.
As with film cameras in the same 'class' there is a great variation in size
model to model.
By the same token, there seems to be a trend towards smaller and smaller still
cameras just as there is the same trend in video cameras.
The cameras that bird photographers favour, however, will still tend to be
amongst the 'larger' models because of the need for more powerful lenses.
It is important that the camera feels comfortable in your hands.
Larger cameras can often be easier to handle than smaller ones.
Also, digital cameras often come with lots of buttons which can be hard to use
if they are crowded onto a small body.
Probably the thing to note, though, is that generally speaking, digital cameras
are fairly 'delicate' especially ones with lenses that extend a fair way when
the camera is switched on.
Many cameras look and even feel like they are made of metal but they are more
likely to be plastic.
A digital camera with a 6x to 10x zoom lens fitted with a teleconverter to
extend the power of the lens will certainly weigh a lot less than a 'consumer'
SLR film camera with equivalent power lens.
Although it may seem a lighter weight would be an advantage it may in fact be
harder to hold a light camera steady than a heavier one.
For that reason a tripod is still recommended when using a digital camera with a
powerful zoom lens.
Having said all of that, there is a limited number of digital cameras on the
market with lenses powerful enough for some bird photography and these
are not exactly 'pocket-size' models.

Lens Power:
As all the 'consumer' class digital cameras that I am aware of have fixed lenses
(i.e., non-detachable or inter-changeable), it will be necessary to choose one
with a powerful zoom range.
Unfortunately, for some reason most digital cameras have zooms limited to 3x or
4x (a magnification of 3 or 4 times the lowest power).
This is probably because of inherent problems with CCDs and powerful lenses
(more on that later).
Also it is cheaper and easier to fit small, low power lenses into small camera
At this point it is worth noting that I will only be referring to the optical
power of the lens.
That is, the degree of magnification provided by the elements in the lens.
A trick possible with digital cameras is the ability to simulate a higher zoom
power electronically with a 'digital-zoom' facility.
In my opinion it is not wise to take notice of the 'digital-zoom' capabilities
of a digital camera.
As with video-cameras, digital zoom is a bit of a gimmick and generally results
in a poorer quality image.
If it is found necessary to digitally enlarge an image it is best done outside
the camera in a computer based software program.
The most powerful zoom lens that has been fitted to a consumer digital camera
that I am aware of is 10x.
There have been several models with 10x zoom lenses over the past year or so
but, unfortunately, it seems that they have all been superseded by models with
less powerful lenses in the range of 6x to 8x.

It is possible, of course, that examples may still be available new or second
The 2 megapixel (or greater) camera models that I know of are:
Sony Mavica MVC-CD1000 (this was the first Sony model that recorded onto small
CD-Rs - recordable compact discs);
Sony Mavica MVC-FD95 (This one looked like the one above but was more
Olympus Camedia C-2100;
Olympus Camedia C-700 UZ (replaced the C-2100 and now, apparently replaced by
the C-720 but with an 8x zoom lens).
Canon Powershot Pro90 IS (this model is the only one that I know of that has a
mechanical image stabiliser built into the lens).

When considering a zoom lens in a digital camera I find it useful to be able to
compare the power with that of a 35mm film camera.
There is a way of working it out if you know the physical size of the CCD in the
camera but the easiest way is to check the manufacturers specifications.
They often provide this information, however, the figures quoted should not be
considered perfectly accurate.
Still, they are generally close enough for the purpose.
However, just because two digital cameras both have 10x zoom lenses they may not
be equivalent in 35mm camera terms.
Check the lowest figure quoted in the zoom range; digital cameras, as with
compact 35mm cameras, tend to start with a slightly wide-angle at the low end of
the zoom.
However this is not always the same from camera to camera, eg, one may start at
30mm (equivalent) and the other may start at 38mm (equivalent).
Thus it can be seen that one will end up with 300m at the 'top' end and the
other with 380mm.
Bird photographers will, if possible, want to go for the camera that provides
the most power at the 'top' end.

Currently the most powerful lenses on the market (on 'consumer' cameras) come
out at around 250mm to 380mm which is not really all that powerful.
The average 'consumer' digital camera with a 3x zoom lens will 'max out' at
about 100mm equivalent.
Think about how big a fairy-wren looks in a 35mm print when photographed with a
300mm lens from about 10 meters let alone a 100mm lens.

One way to increase the power of the lens is with a 'teleconverter'.
Teleconverters are small lenses that are placed either between the camera body
and the normal lens or on the front of the standard lens.
Obviously with digital cameras that do not have removable lenses the second
style of teleconverter will be used
Teleconverters are generally considered by photographers as a good way of
reducing the quality of the photographs taken.
However, if you want to extend the power of the zoom on your digital camera to a
reasonable point for bird photography this is the way you will have to go.
(Unless you go for the far more cumbersome Digiscoping which I will
discuss in a later posting.)
>From my experience it is possible to use teleconverters on digital cameras and
still obtain reasonable results.

The multiplication factor of teleconverters seems to range from 1.4x to 8x (some
being fixed at a particular power and others being zoom types).
Look for the teleconverters on the "Accessories Reviews" page of: .
So far I have only had experience with teleconverters ranging from 1.4x to 2x.
Generally speaking the results have been acceptable but there are problems with
using teleconverters which I will discuss later when I get onto CCDs and

At this stage we do have one of the advantages that digital cameras have over
film cameras when used for bird photography.
My Olympus C-700 UZ (10x zoom) fitted with a 2x teleconverter (giving an
equivalent of approx 760mm) is about half as long as my 35mm SLR fitted with a
400mm lens and 2x converter (giving about 800mm).
The digital camera setup also weighs considerable less than the film camera
The digital camera in this form is far more manoeuvrable than the 35mm SLR.
Whether the final result from the digital unit is as good as or better than that
from the 35mm unit is debatable but, for me, it is acceptable.

More to come......

Bob Inglis
Woody Point

Please note that these are my personal opinions gained from personal experience
and observation; other people may have other opinions and different experiences.
What I have written below is not intended to be absolute.
Anyone contemplating purchasing a digital camera for any reason or purpose would
be advised to seek advice from other sources as well.
Note that, except where a particular model of digital camera is mentioned, these
comments and notes are meant to be general by nature.
These comments and notes are not intended to be an endorsement for or a
statement against any particular brand or model of digital camera; they are
intended only to be a point of discussion for those people who may be
considering purchasing and/or using digital cameras for bird photography.
It should be realized that changes are occurring seemingly daily in this field
and therefore features and usability of digital cameras are changing also.
The types of digital cameras will change regularly as will the quality of image

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