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DSLR Photography

My Suggestion (July 2016)
For the budget minded consumer looking to buy his or her introduction DSLR setup I suggest buying the Canon EOS 7D Mark II. If you want to save money then look at Canon EOS 80D. Note that 7D Mark II has a new battery model but it can also take the older version that is in 70D/7D. The worst thing about them is the noise. But they gain the crop factor making them into 1.6x in house extenders of any lens you put on them. The noise is also continously improved so the difference is shrinking. However if you want the best image you need to sacrifice the APS-C sensor cameras with 1.6x crop factor and go with a full frame camera such as the very expensive Canon EOS 1DX MII or Canon 5D Mark IV (sson to be released). Note that the Canon 6D and the new Canon 5DS (link to comparison with 7DMII and 5DMIII) are too slow (small buffer) for rapid series of photos that is often used in bird photograpy.

I recomend the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6,3 DG OS HSM Contemporary zoom lens for most users. For those who want a slightly better lens and do mostly Birds in Flight (BIF) then you should go for the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM. IT might have finally killed off the older siblings Canon 400mm f/5.6 L USM, Canon 300mm f/4 L IS USM, and Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS USM. It improved in both sharpness and contrast as well as AF speed. Interesting with this new lens is that it can be coupled with a 1.4x extender on a Canon 7D Mark II (no AF on Canon 70D).

This lens was long anticipated and beats the very old prime 400mm in versatility and image stabilization. Beats the 300mm+extender due to versatility and image results as well as better magnification (for Macro). Finally it beats its predecessor in AF speed, image quality, IS options, and only has one real drawback, its weight.

Note that these improvements might have been accomplished by skimping on the focal length. Their 400mm is not 400mm, but about 380mm! They should feel ashame of this balancing act of keeping within some 5% focal length margin mentioned in some fineprint somewhere...(I wish there was a case for a class action lawsuit).

Another miss is the sliding window on the lens hood. Great for those using it with a polarizer. But this sliding door is too easily opened and can let water or drizzle hit the front lens element. I have to tape it shut.

The Sigma zoom is not as fast as the shorter Canon zoom, but the built in zoom reaches 600mm (verses about 530mm for the Canon + 1.4x extender! The Sigma produce perfectly fine images for the majority of photographers. It is also half the price of the shorter Canon zoom. You might have to sharpen a bit more, or use larger aperture to compete with the Canon lens. But it is very priceworthy and would make most photographers very happy. Note that the weight is a concern, but the new Canon zoom is not very much lighter, just enough to make it a better Birds In Flight (BIF) lens.

Finally there are two new super zooms from Sigma that also should be able to compete, especially with the Tamron, Sigma 150-600mm F/5-6.3 DG OS HSM "C" and "S" versions. The lighter of the two have gotten rave review, also by professionals.

I just wish Canon had done one of these lenses instead of the extremely over-worked 200-400mm+1.4 bulit in extender. Canon knew they had to produce a new longer range zoom, but missed the target by creating this monstrosity. Large, heavy and extremely pricey! It might be interesting for sport journalists (that do not own their own equipment), but as news agencies are cutting down, eliminating entire photographer staff it might not have been their best strategic thinking. Unfortunately we will probably not see a similar lens from Canon for some time.

The ultimate "future"combo!
I favor snapshot shooting, versatility, and lightweight. Canon EOS 7D Mark II is my new camera as I want to be able to couple an extender to my Canon 100-400mm. It is a bit heavier than my beloved 70D, and has no built in WiFi if that is important to you (not for me). What I miss the most is the swivel touch screen of the 70D. But the huge memory buffer for rapid picture taking, AF with 1.4x extender on the Canon Zoom, and the built-in GPS are important improvements. The full frame 6D is too slow for my taste (memory buffer limitations), but I like the clean images of the 5D Mark III. However with a max focal length of 400mm I would stick with the 70D/7DMII especially if you like me rarely use a hide. With the super-zooms of 600mm, or for those with 600 primes, it again becomes interesting to look towards the 5D Mark III or the new replacements. Of course if you have the money then use the 7DMII for daylight and the 1DX or 5DMIII for when you need to bump ISO to 800-1600 in a dimly lit forest or the like.

Tamron had its new super tele-zoom for 2014, and Sigma in 2015 which are perfect for us who have been stuck at 400mm for an affordable lens. The big question was if they could compare to the Canon originals. I think Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD can compete quality wise with Canon's original lenses. You might want to add some contrast, but otherwise a very good buy. The Sigma 150-600mm F/5-6.3 DG OS HSM "C" version is just as good option if not better than the Tamron.

The Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM produce excellent, contrasty and sharp images even wide open! Maybe a smidge sharper stopped down one stop. In comparison, the Tamron needs to be stopped down to f9 in the 150-500mm range and f11 at 600mm for the utlimate sharpness. The Tamron has also a much longer built in focal length so it is about 300grams heavier, just about to make the Canon 100-400mm feel lighter and easier to hand hold, except if you go with the 7DMII instead of the 70D as the Canon combo is instead slightly heavier! 

If money and weight are of no concern then I would suggest the Canon 600mm f/4.0 IS II USM + Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM and the Canon EOS 7D Mark II (and a full frame camera such as Canon 1DX MII or the hope to come Canon 5D M IV).

My Workflow

  • 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.

  • If travelling light and you do not have a laptop available then consider a an external HDD or SSD. One interesting option is WD My Passport Wireless Pro

  • After downloading the RAW images to the computer, I begin by viewing/erasing bad pictures in Adobe Photoshop CC Bridge. (comparable to Adobe Elements Organizer).

  • I open the good pictures in Adobe Photoshop CC (or you could use Adobe Photoshop Elements), 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 a lot of 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.

  • 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 (CS and CC 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 2TB external storage.




Canon verses Nikon
I chose to review Canon since it is the most common brand among birdphotographers and the brand I have experience of. But today there seems to be very little difference between the brands, and either one is a good buy.

I believe the Nikon full frame cameras are the very best houses available today. This due to the extremely good high ISO and the color rendition.


Crop factor
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 Mark II has 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.

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.

Image Sensor
If you change lenses often there is a likelihood that dust will start sticking to the image sensor. This will of course 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.

New cameras all have a sensor clening system so you should not be too concerned. But in case you need to clean it for some reason I suggest first using a Giotto Rocket Air Blower. If that doesn't work then look at buying 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.

Memory Cards
Lexar Professional and Sandisk Extreme Pro are the best with maybe Lexar taking the lead. I have used Sandisk Extreme since 2005 and they have worked impeccably.

Portable Hard Drives
Today the small Laptops and Tablets together with a small external HD like Western Digital Passport makes a perfect match. One of the smallest solutions would be the Microsoft Surface 3 or Surface 3 Pro depending on needs in the field. Another solution would be the powerful, yet small, Dell XPS 13 inch with infinity screen.







Autofocus
Fast 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 bird photographers.

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 circumstance).

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 Tutorials.

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.

You 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!

Image editing
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),but it has become so large that I think most users will be deterred by the sheer size!

Thom 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 CC or CS for their image editing, but you can accomplish great results with the much cheaper Adobe Photoshop Elements 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 CC/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, CS6, CC

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 Spyder5Express or even better get a high quality external screen with hardware calibration.

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 Mark II - 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.

Prime Lenses
To get the best pictures you need a fixed super tele (prime lens) e.g., Nikon 600mm VR, or Canon 600mm IS.

The most common prime lenses are the Canon 500mm followed by the Canon 300mm. Both works well with Extenders.

Zoom Lenses
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS II USM is preferred because of its versatility, relative low weight, and image-stabilization. Sharpness at 400mm (actual 380mm!) can compete with primes even wide open.

Another very nice zoom range is the new Tamron (and Sigma) 150-600mm. They are very sharp and affordable lenses though you need to stop the down a bit to get the best sharpness. Tamron needs to be stopped down to f9 in the 150-500mm range and f11 at 600mm for the utlimate sharpness.

Teleconverters
Teleconverters loose a little light (one stop in aperture for a 1.4x Extender), 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 a must.

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 most common lens combination is the Canon 300mm f/2.8 L IS II USM + Canon EF 2x III Extender. One very popular alternative is the Canon 300mm f/4 L IS USM + Canon EF 1.4x III Extender which is much cheaper, and very light weight.


Great DSLR and lenses links






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