My Suggestion (October 2012)
For the budget minded consumer looking to buy his or her introduction DSLR setup I suggest buying
Canon EOS 7D . Note however that you can get perfectly good images from a Canon EOS 50D back to the 20D model if you would stumble upon one for little money (or need a cheap backup camera, note however that the battery in 7D is different from these earlier models). The worst thing about them is the noise. But they gain the crop factor making them into in house extenders of any lens you put on them.
There are three competing lenses discussed below. They all have their unique features and you will get a good lens no matter which one you decide upon.
Canon 400mm f/5.6 L USM was my first choice based on the razor sharp images it does take in good light. But I often cursed the fact it didn't have image stabilization. A Bushhawk shoulderstock helped me a lot in allowing very sharp hand held shots when seabirding or in a forest. But the lack of IS was often an issue.
It is however the sharpest lens of the three. It is also the least heavy, most portable and comfortable to shoot with.
Canon 300mm f/4 L IS USM is light weight, has image stabilization, and you can make it into a 420mm by coupling it with a Canon Extender II 1.4x without loosing autofocus. It is also very good used as a prime lens for birds up close, or for insect and flower macro.
I loved this combo for the extra focal length, the IS, the portable size with the pull out hood that is so great. It also rendered beautiful pictures with good sharpness and contrast. Though not as sharp as the prime.
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS USM is great for its zoom versatility, light weight, and image stabilization.
But it is heavier than the other two lenses. It is not as "tack sharp" as the 400mm prime or even the 300mm + extender. It has slower AF than both of these lenses. With the Zoom you do best with the center, "spot", AF point and not to use the new 7D AF features. It also lacks the pull out hood and has instead a plastic detachable lens hood which is more cumbersome.
It is true that "the longer lens the better" in bird photography and you will be using the max focal lenght 90% of the time. But the Zoom saves your life in cases where you need to photograph from one and the same location; one small bird using the 400mm, and a larger, faster bird where a 400mm is too much. It is also a great lens to have when a bird suddenly jumps right in front of you or a mammal appears from no-where and you need to change focal length quickly.
The ultimate "future"combo!
I think it should be one 1.6x crop camera and one full frame camera. This coupled with the new Canon EF 500mm f/4.0 L IS II USM, and the new Canon EF 100-400 f/4-5.6L IS USM with ring zoom (the zoom lens is a recent Canon patent, but not officially announced).
The reason for this is that a full frame cameras simply has the lowest image noise, and would be perfect in overcast situations, dawn and dusk etc. The zoom is obvious for its versatility, and I would imagine it would be even better optically than the current zoom. The light weight makes it the lens you most often would carry on your shoulder, and perfect for snapshots. The larger lens has reduced its weight in this new version so it is very compelling for most bird photo situations; especially its ability to couple it with both extenders.
- The very first thing if I have time is to review the pictures on the LCD at the back of the camera, deleting as many as I can easily determine to be not sharp or otherwise bad.
- After downloading the RAW images to the computer using a Sandisk reader (USB), I begin by viewing/erasing bad pictures
in Adobe Photoshop CS4 Bridge. (comparable to Adobe Elements 7.0 Organizer).
- I open the good pictures in Adobe Photoshop CS4 (or you could use Adobe Photoshop Elements 7.0), and adjust only the exposure with the histogram as the guide. I open them as 16 bit files
- I crop and resize. Note that you can easily create some dynamics in the picture by not cropping to close, leaving some space in front of where the bird is leaning. Same thing in the vertical cropping. A flying bird looks best if it has more air underneath than above. But note that the complete opposite can sometimes give unexpected effects and be just as good!
- If I were to use the noice reduction filter it would be now. It is great for creating super smooth backgrounds
- I adjust ligthening, and sharpening also when in basic Photoshop Elements mode.
- The quick and dirty sharpening technique often used to speed up web postings is done by selecting the parts I want sharp with the Lasso Tool, and then selecting sharpening edges (CS4 only), Sharpen, or Unsharp Mask.
- I try to keep the images 1000 pixels wide to avoid tiny pictures in high resolution screens (like in all laptops, notebooks and even netbooks).
- Finally I convert the pictures to 8 bit files, and save them for the web with 65-75% quality (file size is about 100-200 KB for 1000px wide).
- Since RAW images take a lot of space I move out last years images to a 1TB external storage.
Canon Digital SLR Cameras
You can start with the cheaper models the so called Rebel or 500D. They can be bought for little money used or affordably so new.
But for the photo buff, but not yet professional I suggest taking one more step.
Canon EOS 7D is my latest choice because of the new AF options that are perfect for flying birds, sports etc. It retains the 1.6x crop factor it also boost HD video capture, has a new flash support, weather sealing and much more. It is jamed packed with small new features that indeed makes it a super upgrade to 50D. The only but about it is the noise.
Canon verses Nikon
You can also pay a heck a lot of money for the 1DX or a 5D Mark III to get rid of the worst noise. But starting with the 50D and hopefully 7D I see no reason for the hobbyist to spend that extra money. Instead save that for the telephoto lens. you will need it!
I chose to review Canon since it is the most common brand among birdphotographers. But today there seems to be very little difference between the brands, and either one is a good buy.
I believe the Nikon D3S is the very best house available today. This due to the extremely good high ISO and the color rendition. But it is a full frame Camera so you will be needing a 500mm which is not only very expensive, but very heavy as well.
The image sensor can be full frame,
or smaller than the regular 35mm film plane. If it's smaller it will increase
the focal length of any lens that you attach. Thus the focal length multiplier or "crop
factor" of the different cameras differ. Canon EOS 7D have a focal length
multiplier of 1.6x the original lens, which will increase the focal length of
a 300mm telephoto lens into a 480mm super telephoto lens. Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III has a full frame sensor and Canon EOS-1D Mark IV have a factor 1.3x.
In birdphotography focal length is gold worth. A 600mm or 800mm will cost an arm and a leg. But you can easily steal a few mm by chosing a 1.6x crop factor camera. But the full frame Cameras usually have a better image and can handle higher ISO better.
If you change lenses often there is a high likelihood that dust will start sticking to the image sensor. This will ofcourse affect the pictures you take, and you should check the amount of dust by taking a photo of a white wall, or a clear sky.
should learn how to clean the CCD/CMOS yourself. This problem isn't such a conundrum as you might think at first. Just as you need to clean your telephoto lenses once in a while, the covered image sensor needs its cleaning. Note that the latest cameras come with self cleaning sensors. But the word is that you still now and then need to clean it manually.
My suggestion is to simply buy a set of 12 Sensor Swabs (size 1, 2, or 3 depending on your camera model), and a bottle of Eclipse glass cleaning liquid. Check out Photographic Solutions, Inc. website for retailers.
Note that with my Canon EOS 7D I no longer have felt the need to clean the sensor as it has a good preventive system in place. May I need it in the future, but right now I have not seen any disturbing spots on the sensor.
Up to May 2012 and for cameras such as Canon 7D, 5D Mark III and 1D Mark IV Rob
Galbraith's CF Database was the place to go to find out what Compac Flash card that worked the fastest for your camera. It is no longer being updated. But in general Lexar Professional and Sandisk Extreme Pro are the best with maybe Lexar taking the lead. I have used Sandisk Extreme for years and they have worked impeccably.
Portable Hard Drives
Today the small Netbooks together with a small external HD like Western Digital Passport makes a perfect match.
In the past (still a demand for it) there was a number of small harddrives with little screens and card readers built in. I still have one called the Wolverine ESP with a horrible screen, but nice and small with 80GB of storage (wolverinedata.com). Though they still are the smallest option, a Netbook offer so much more to the travelling birder.
autofocus is also a great advantage in many situations. In fact Canon's very reliable,
and fast autofocus was one of the reasons that initally made this brand the most popular one among
Note that selecting all available focusing points
can make the camera simply focus on something else. In
bushes, or at sea you might want to select only the center focusing point, a selected
few, or switch to manual (all depending on what camera you have, and the particular
I most often use the center focusing point.
Exposure control, and use of flash
Spot metering has been very popular in bird photography because the bird usually takes up a very small part of the entire film plane. But it is difficult to use it on flying birds. It is more common that people us Evaluative Metering and adjust the white balance to get it right. You can also in most situations use a gray card or try it out with Manual Exposure. I have also used Program to test under difficult light situations and have often been quite surprised by the results (it often light up shadows very well).
You often need a flash to fill in some light. This is especially true for dark plumaged birds, uneven ligthtning, or when the light isn't enough to bring out the colors of the bird.
Note that full strength flash can reflect details of birds feathers which will cause un-natural glossy images where the bird look overly illuminated. You should instead use it as a fill (note that you most often need a tripod to accomodate the slow flash sync and dial down the flash to avoid over exposure). You can use the Better Beamer to reach far away birds or simply to save battery. Some of the best guides to the art of flash photography can be found on Luminous-landscape's
You can also increase ISO settings from 400 to 1600 ISO,
but using a flash is often better since high ISO can produce noisy/grainy pictures. Note that high ISO settings can produce very good pictures up to 400 ISO, and sometimes quite usable pictures up to 800-1600 ISO. Rule of thumb: A sharp grainy picture is better than a fuzzy low ISO picture.
can recover many badly exposed photos in Photoshop, but you need to take the picture
as good as possible not to lose too much in quality!
Most DSLR pictures need improvements such as sharpening, color, contrast, or light
adjustments. It is very important to learn digital basics to post-process your
images. You can learn a lot about digital basics such as editing your images in
Photoshop, and how to set up a digital workflow to minimize the time spent post-processing
the images from Luminous-landscape's
Tutorials. You can read more of what a digital workflow can look like at The
digital picture: Digital Workflow. There is also an all in one purchase of
such a digital basics tutorial from "Birds as art" founder Arthur Morris Digital
Basics (a pdf file for $20).
Hogan's Sharpening 101 page is also a great short reading on the importance
of sharpening correctly, and Ed
Rotberg's Sharpening Tutorial is an excellent guide on how to get the best
pictures out of your digital photos.
Most tutorials use Adobe Photoshop
CS for their image editing, but you can accomplish great results with the much cheaper Adobe Photoshop
Elements 3.0 (and later) which comes with 16 bit, RAW image support for less than $100. The drawback being fewer tools that actually support 16 bit, and some tools that are only found in CS.
If you want to take the highest quality pictures your camera can muster you should always use uncompressed
format - RAW instead of compressed jpeg that holds much less
information, and where image editing produce only small enhancements.
The PC setup:
Your personal computer setup is also very important. You might adjust the images with a defunct screen which is not displaying the correct colors and thus you believe you have the perfect image while a majority of users see it differently. Same thing trying to print a picture and noticing how different it is from the computer rendered image.
First you need to have the power to edit images. For RAW image editing you need more juice than if you simply edit jpeg's. If you edit HD film clips you will need an even faster computer with a lot of RAM. If your Photoshop is running slow then you can review your setup with the help of the manufacturer product website Optimize performance | Photoshop CS4, CS5
To calibrate your screen your operating system (Windows 7) comes with build in step-by-step calibration. But if you, like me, cannot always trust your eyes to get the perfect screen setup, then buy a calibrator such as Spyder3Express.
If you want to see your RAW images in Windows Explorer (if using Windows), then you need to download the Codec for your camera. Microsoft Camera Codec Pack. Note that these are being updated for new cameras, but it can take a year before they have support for a brand new camera model!
Finally remember to check if there are any Camera specific updates, Firmware, that you need to install. Canon 7D - Firmware
Lense Quality - The MTF Chart:
There is a standard in measuring the quality of a lens and it is described in the so called MTF Chart. Luminous-Landscape has a great explanation on how to interpret the graphs.
To get the
best pictures you need a fixed super tele (prime lens), and if used hand-held
with image-stabilization (e.g., Nikon 500mm VR, or Canon 500mm IS),
and/or a shoulder stock with remote release (e.g., BushHawk).
The most common prime lenses are the Canon 500mm followed by the Canon 300mm. Both works well with Extenders.
The most popular hand
held lens today in USA is the Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS USM which is preferred
because of its versatility, relative low weight, and image-stabilization. Sharpness at 400mm doesn't seem to be as good as with primes.
Another very nice zoom range is the 70-200mm L IS USM f/4.0, but you would need another telephoto lens to complement that one (if you are looking for only one telephoto lens setup).
Teleconverters loose a little light (one stop
in aperture for a 1.4x Converter), and it doesn't produce as sharp/contrasty pictures. The largest drawback is however the decreased autofocus speed.
Note that excellent
pictures can be produced with teleconverters, but quality lens combinations are
The teleconverters are a great choice for creating super telephoto
lenses without spending huge amount of money on a fixed lens, and to get the reach that
you otherwise cannot get. The combinations are often much less heavy than the
fixed lens counterpart.
Maybe the best lens combination is the Canon
300mm f/2.8 L IS II USM + Canon Extender III 1.4x. One very popular alternative is the Canon 300mm f/4 L IS USM + Canon Extender II 1.4x which is much cheaper, and very light weight.
Great DSLR and lenses links