Tuesday, March 24, 2009

How Technology is changing Bird Photography

The Traditonal Approach to Great Bird Photography

Taking quality Bird photographs has always been a trade off. Buying a quality DSLR with a quality 500mm lens (the best for bird photography) would not only set you back thousands but you would have a weight of about 9-10 pounds as well as a tripod for most situations. Plus you want to take your binoculars as well, right? So you are talking about at least 12 pounds to lug around with you. Does this sound like a practical solution for bird photography if you are a serious birder and want great photographs? Now with this setup the photos you do take will be exceptional. There is no question about that. Shooting bird photographs from a 500mm prime lens sitting on a tripod will get you the highest quality photographs that technology will allow you today. But how many will you miss? Setup time is long. Can you really carry all this around for a few hours while birding? Of course not!! You will shorten your walks with the equipment and miss many birding photographic opportunities.

The Digiscoping Alternative

For many years, digiscoping was an alternative solution that many people followed and were able to capture good photographs in an affordable way. The major trade off here was the quality of the photograph and of course you still needed to carry a tripod along with you. Setup time was also a problem as it is in the first alternative above.

So what do we need to fix for a much better solution? First, we don't want to spend the kids college fund to take bird pictures. So we need something affordable. Second we need to realize that we are birders and we will be walking for hours on many of our trips so weight of our equipment is important. Lastly we want photographs that we can be proud of and hang on the wall if we so desire.

Because of all the increased technology options at much reduced prices, I offer a solution to these challenges with minimal trade offs. This is what I ended up doing myself.

The Solution

How to minimize weight?

First thing we need to do is get rid of our 500mm prime. This is the heaviest piece of equiment and restricts our mobility the most. Luckily this is also our most expensive item so helps enormously to bring our cost down. The alternative is a lower cost (not cheap), lighter (not light) 200mm - 500mm zoom lens. Tamron and Sigma choices will not only save you money but save you weight as well. You can expect to pay $800 - $1200 as a rough guideline. Your weight reduction will be around 6 lbs!

Now before everyone jumps all over me. This does create a problem. These lenses do NOT let in as much light as the more expensive 500mm lens. This is a problem that needs to be addressed which I will do later.

How do I improve reaction time and get more bird pics?

This is an easy one, we leave the tripod at home. Contrary to popular belief you can handhold a telephoto 200-500 lens and get great shots. The key is to shoot at high shutter speeds of at least 1/500th sec. This will also let in less light and greatly contibute to our lighting problem described above. What you will achieve is a reaction time that no other solution can hope to compete with.

How does AUTOISO solve my problems?

Most DLSRs today have an autoiso feature. What this does is automatically change the ISO or ASA setting with each picture you take. What this does is effectively allow you to shoot at 1/500th sec and lets say F6.3 but at a higher ISO which would allow you to take the picture that normally you could not.

Whats the problem with AUTOISO?

Shooting at higher ISO creates noise on your photographs. The conventional way of thinking which is still correct is to be able to shoot at the lowest ISO as possible.

How is newer technology solving this problem?

Two equally important technology developments are going along way in reducing noise. First, and most importantly the latest cameras are beginning to reduce noise significantly at high ISOs. I was shocked at the lack of noise in my Nikon D90. The second way is through using post processing software to reduce the noise in your images.

The photograph below of the Indigo Bunting was shot using an ISO of 2000. Although there is still some noise, it is much reduced from what you would have seen just a year ago using older technology.

There are many other advantages to shooting in the method I am describing however I do want to just get my main hypothesis out as clearly as possible. Using Flash will again minimize the high ISOs as much as possible.

I hope this has helped people think of more creative solutions in their bird photography and increase the number of quality bird photographs they are able to achieve.

Join me on one of my birding tours. Visit www.birdinglifetours.com for details.


Anonymous said...

Nice writeup. How about using a camera with a greater crop factor than what you get with standard SLR? E.g. with the new Panasonic G1, with a 2x crop factor, you could get away with using a 300mm lens to get the same reach as with that 200-500mm mm lens of yours. Just an idea.

tsiya said...

I can set my FZ30 to 3MP, use the TCON 17, and come up with over 1000mm equivalent. I usually run it at 5MP, very good results.

Michael Nelson said...

Thanks for the comments. Yes, there is the whole technology side of cropping that has changed as well. Your example of the Panasonic is a good one. Also with higher megapixel cameras you can crop much tighter with better results provided you have a decent lens on the camera.

Anna said...

I don't see any grain, this photo is really nice, sharp and so much detail. Anna :)

Michael Nelson said...

Thanks Anna, It was a good example of what can be done now.