I’m very grateful to everyone who responded so generously and informatively to my question last month about how to set up a teenage son for bird photography. I received lots of ideas, people shared their experience,
and several were prepared to let my son try out their camera.
This isn’t the summary of consensus opinion I had offered. Rather, it’s a summary of the diversity of views I received - there is a wide range of favoured camera equipment out there in bird-land. (There is also a very
large number of camera review websites, I have found!)
Clearly the best set-up for bird photography is a DSLR (digital, single-lens reflex) camera with a long (telephoto) lens. Canon or Nikon were highly recommended as brands, and a lens focal length of at least 400 mm was
generally seen as the minimum (whether a Canon or Nikon lens to match the camera body, or a Sigma or Tamron one). A zoom lens was seen as useful for both finding the bird then focusing in on it, in spite of the slight reduction in image quality over a fixed-length
However, the cost of a DSLR set-up of acceptable optical quality and build quality turned out to be approximately $1000 for the camera body, and $1500-2000 for the lens – that’s right, the lens should be well over half
the total price of a good quality set-up. I was advised that cheaper bodies and lenses would need to be replaced after a few years, either through user dissatisfaction with the results or through the equipment not lasting too long. Moreover, even a minimum-quality
DSLR camera-lens combination is heavy and unwieldy in the field, particularly for small hands, and many suggested that it was not the way to go for a beginner.
Luckily there are a range of other camera types available. These generally have different (smaller) image sensors than modern DSLRs, so image quality is reduced, but they have other advantages. ‘Bridge’ cameras area
a kind of compact camera that bridge the quality gap between cheaper compact cameras and DSLRs, and ‘super-zoom’ bridge cameras have very long zoom lenses suitable for birding. Like ordinary compact digital cameras, bridge cameras don’t have exchangeable
lenses. The superzoom bridge cameras of recommended brands such as Sony, Fuji, Panasonic, Canon or Nikon typically have 1/2.3-inch sensors, and these smaller sensors mean that the zoom lens on the camera is not excessively large or heavy. The superzoom lenses
have wide focal ranges such as 25-600 mm, so also can be used for normal photography (of landscapes, buildings, people &c) as well as bird photography, plans macro functions for flowers and insects. So they can serve as an all-round camera without the need
to change lenses – great for a beginner who is not looking for highest image quality.
These superzoom bridge cameras are substantially cheaper than DSLRs with telephoto lenses – they cost $400-700 for ones with quality optics. They are also much smaller and more portable than DSLRs, although not so compact
as to fit in a pocket. Several people told me stories about bird shots they took with their compact cameras in situations where they would not have been able to carry their DSLR and/or would not have had time to get their DSLR ready! The best superzoom bridge
cameras have reasonably fast autofocus, manual as well as autofocus lenses, image stabilization in the lens, excellent light-collection ability (an f2.8 lens from 25 to 600 mm, for example), and the ability to produce pictures in the unprocessed RAW format,
and have been improved through a series of models over several years. Many individual models were recommended by people. I’ve decided to purchase the newest, weather-sealed version of one of these - a Panasonic FZ300, as it happens, but other brands also
have well-regarded models.
A range of bridge cameras with larger, 1-inch sensors have been on the market for a couple of years now (such as the Panasonic FZ1000, and
Sony and Canon also have examples). Image quality is better than with the smaller 1/2.3-inch sensors, but they are somewhat heavier, more expensive, not so good in low light, and often have zoom lenses of smaller range. It will be
interesting to see how this larger-sensor bridge camera format develops in subsequent iterations of these models. But the laws of optics mean that larger sensors need larger lenses, so (no matter how the image-handling software improves) there is always a
trade-off between image quality and camera size.
There is no doubt that a DSLR with a telephoto lens produces the highest quality images, and this is the set-up used by all professional bird photographers. My son may well progress to a DSLR over time – I hope he does.
But there do seem to be cheaper and smaller ‘superzoom bridge’ alternatives available nowadays that produce reasonable images, and allow the novice to learn about composition, exposure and so on. It would probably take me years to work out all the electronic
modes of any modern camera, but I bet my son will have it sorted within a day!
Thanks again to all,
From: Steve Read [
Sent: Friday, 18 September 2015 9:28 PM
To: 'COG List'; 'Birding-aus'
Subject: [canberrabirds] Advice on first camera
My 14-year-old son, a pretty good bird-watcher, would like to get into bird photography. This would be his first camera, and I’d like some suggestions on good camera-lens combinations for him. I’m happy to go the DSLR route but don’t
want to break the bank.
Happy to receive suggestions or commentary off-line if preferable (and then will provide a summary of any consensus).
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