Chapter 2


Choosing the proper camera gear is obviously an important first step for any would-be bird photographer.  Perhaps the greatest impediment is the bewildering range of options that are available. There are numerous manufacturers, each offering a plethora of different models, all with different specs and at sometimes vastly different prices.  Cameras today range in price from several hundred to several thousand US dollars, and lenses can cost far more than the cameras they’re attached to. Of course, different people have different goals when it comes to photographing birds, and so the optimal choice of equipment will depend on not only how much money you have to spend (or how many banks you’re willing to rob), but also how much firepower you really need
    In this chapter I’ll be considering a wide range of camera options
including even the cheesy point-and-shoot cameras, which can, in combination with a decent spotting scope, often produce quite satisfying images via the practice of digiscoping (see section 2.2). However, since virtually all pro (and a great many amateur) bird photographers use digital SLR (DSLR) cameras and detachable, telephoto lenses, I’ll be concentrating on this class of photographic solutions. In Part II of this book I’ll be covering all issues related to technique, and that’s where I’ll go into great detail on the operation of the camera. For the present chapter I’ll instead be discussing the capabilities of various types of cameras, with the overriding emphasis on helping you choose the best camera for your particular bird photography goals. Since the next chapter (Chapter 3) focuses on the equally important problem of choosing an appropriate lens, we’ll largely restrict our attention in this chapter to non-lens-related camera issues (except for the special case of digiscoping, or when considering camera models having the lens built in).

2.1 DSLR Cameras

Today, pro bird photographers (and most serious amateurs) use a type of camera known as a digital SLR, or DSLR. The D in DSLR of course requires no explanation, but the significance of the SLR part of that acronym is less widely understood by non-photographers.  The acronym actually stands for Single Lens Reflex, though that’s utterly useless to know, so don’t bother trying to remember it.
    An SLR camera
whether digital or film-basedis basically a camera that accepts interchangeable lenses. And that’s a very good thing: it means that you can upgrade to a better lens when you grow out of your current lens (or when you can afford the better one). And if you already own multiple lenses, it means that you can choose the most appropriate lens for each situation.
    This last point is especially relevant for bird photography, since birds come in many different sizes, and also because they often differ in how close they will allow you to approach them. Birds of different sizes and/or at different distances will fill different amounts of the image frame for a given lens. By switching to a different lens you can change how much of the frame is taken up by the bird
and how much is left over for the bird’s surroundings. For a small or distant bird, you’ll want a lens having a larger focal length (this term is discussed in great detail in Chapter 3), which translates into greater magnification. For a larger bird at close range, however, a large-focal-length lens may result in only part of the bird being in frame, which sometimes isn’t what you want for the photo you’re trying to craft. Although zoom lenses (these are discussed in detail in Chapter 3) offer some flexibility in this regard, no digital camera with a built-in zoom (whether digital zoom or optical zoom, or some combination thereof) will give you the flexibility of a DSLR camera in terms of either framing the shot (we will discuss frame composition in some detail in Chapter 6) or in terms of reachi.e., raw magnification, as needed for obtaining detailed shots of small birds at a distance.

2.1.1 The SLR Light Path

In addition to accepting interchangeable lenses, there is one very important feature of SLR (and DSLR) cameras, namely, that they allow you to see the subject as it appears through the lens, before you actually take the photo. This is due to the use of a mirror inside the camera, which deflects the light path coming in through the lens and directs it through the pentaprism and further through the viewfinder, where you place your eye while taking the picture.  Because of this feature, what you see through the viewfinder iswith very few caveatsexactly what the imaging sensor (or film) sees when the photo is captured. The figure below illustrates how this all works.

Fig. 2.1: SLR Anatomy. (A) Light from the subject passes through the lens and is deflected
by the primary mirror through the pentaprism and into your eye. (B) After pressing the
shutter-release button, the mirror flips up and the shutter opens, permitting the light path to
strike the sensor, where image data is collected.

As you can see from the figure, rays of light (i.e., photons) from the subject pass through the main lens, are reflected by the primary mirror into the pentaprism, and are then focused on your retina, so that you can see almost exactly what the camera’s imaging sensor (or film) will
see when you press the button and snap the picture.  Part A of the figure shows the configuration of the SLR camera during the composition phase of operation, when the user composes the image by adjusting the focus, the aperture and other exposure parameters, and the framing (position of the subject within the image) of the scene.  Part B of the figure shows what happens when the user presses the shutter release button: the primary mirror flips up, the shutter opens, and the sensor/film is exposed to the light focused on it by the main lens, so that the subject and scene can be captured into a static image. Since most birds tend to move about quite a lot, the duration of the imaging interval, during which light is continuously accumulated by the sensor/film, needs to be kept extremely brief, as we’ll discuss in much greater detail in later chapters.
   In order to appreciate the advantages of the SLR camera architecture, it’s useful to consider a few of the most popular alternatives. In older (and, admittedly, still some contemporary) devices known as rangefinder cameras, the user instead looks through a rangefinder lens built permanently into the camera, which is completely unaffected by the particular lens attached to the camera (some rangefinder cameras, like DSLRs, also accept interchangeable lenses), as illustrated below.

Fig. 2.2: Rangefinder Anatomy. Unlike in an SLR, the image reaching your eye is not the
same as the image projected onto the sensor. You cannot pre-visualize the image that will be
captured through the imaging lens (unless the camera offers a "
Live View" feature).
However, rangefinder cameras do have one advantage: there is no vibration from
the mirror slapping into place as there is with an SLR.

The advantage of the SLR approach is obvious: by giving you a
preview of the photo before you even press the button, you are able to judge the aesthetic quality of the scene, and to decide whether (or when) to even take the photo. In the case of bird photography, in which you’d typically be using a telephoto lens producing a fair amount of magnification, the ability to see the subject through the lens during composition means that you’ll have that much more information as you decide whether the photo is worth capturing at the given time. Furthermore, you’ll be able to see more precisely what your subject is doing at any instant in time; much of bird photography is about snapping the photo at the right timei.e., when the wind is blowing the feathers in just the right way, or when he or she has his/her head cocked at just the right angle so as to catch that glimmer in the eye, etc...  It’s also useful for verifying that the subject is fully in-focus. 

2.1.2 Live View

A close contender to the through-the-lens view offered by traditional SLR cameras is the Live View feature that comes standard on most point-and-shoot cameras these days and is becoming standard on the newer generations of DSLR bodies being released. In Live View, there is no mirror diverting the light path from the imaging sensor, and even the shutter mechanism, which normally covers the imaging sensor, is left open. Imagery from the sensor is continuously fed, in real time, to the LCD screen on the back of the camera, where you can see the actual image being captured by the sensor. This is just about as close as you can get to a WYSIWYGWhat You See Is What You Getscenario in still photography, since the only factor differentiating what you see in Live View from what you get in the captured photo is the time lag between when your brain decides that it likes the image it’s seeing and when your finger actually presses the button and the image is recorded to digital media.

Fig. 2.3: LiveView shows you exactly what the imaging sensor is recording electronically, by feeding the
electronic signal from the sensor into the LCD panel on the back of your camera.

    Although Live View is rapidly finding its way into the feature set of most modern DSLR models, this feature still faces some uphill evolution. First, the quality of the image rendered on the LCD screen on the back of the camera depends on the resolution and color fidelity of the LCD itself.  It’s doubtful that any future camera model will have an LCD screen as large as the one you use at home to eventually edit your photos on your personal computer.  Using the digital zoom feature in Live View to enlarge the subject on the LCD can mitigate the resolution issue to some degree, but the problem with this practice is that at larger magnifications the digital zoom results in an image that is very jumpyi.e., as the camera/lens unit shifts ever so slightly due to air movements or hand tremors, the optical leveraging (see section 3.5) conferred by the magnification level of the system can induce such large-scale movements of the image rendered on the LCD that the view becomes effectively useless for the purposes of operating the camera.
    Another problem with Live View is that leaving the sensor activated for a long time can result in significant generation of heat (since the sensor is an electronic device drawing a fairly significant amount of electrical current). Unfortunately, heat affects optical fidelity
as you probably know from the way cars on a hot road in summer can appear distorted in the distance.  Sensor heat is a major contributor to image noise, an issue we’ll consider more fully later in this chapter.

2.1.3 TTL Exposure and Focusing

A further advantage of the basic SLR architecture (as well as some non-SLR designs) is the ability of the camera to further divert some of the incoming light for various other purposes. The most obvious of these other purposes is the management of exposurei.e., judging to what degree the resulting image is likely to be overexposed (unpleasantly bright and washed-out) or underexposed (overly dark, dull, or drab).  The advent of TTLThrough The Lensexposure has drastically simplified the photographer’s task of correctly setting the exposure parameters so as to achieve a pleasing image in the resulting photo. Modern flash technology (flash is discussed in detail in section 4.3 and in Chapter 7) is also dependent on TTL capability for assessing the appropriate flash output power to achieve a desired exposure level.
    Another use for further diversion of the incoming light path is for autofocus, also known more concisely as AF (autofocus is discussed in much more detail in section 2.6). Between auto-exposure (commonly abbreviated AE) and autofocus, quite an enormous amount of manual effort is eliminated (or at least, significantly reduced), leaving the photographer free to concentrate on the subject and the scene.
  The automation of these functions also transforms the learning curve for new photographers, so that novices can begin getting good photos soon after picking up the camera.  Though these functions are also available in today’s point-and-shoot cameras, the ability to override AE and AF in those situations that require it (we will be considering many such situations in this book) render DSLR’s much more powerful when placed in the hands of more competent users.  The fact that film-based SLR cameras have served as the workhorses of professional photography for many years serves as a testament to the utility of this camera architecture for high-quality imaging, even in the digital age.

Fig. 2.4: Autofocus in an SLR. Part of the main mirror is semi-
transparent, allowing some of the light to pass through to be
directed into an autofocus circuit, which in turn adjusts elements
in the lens so as to maintain focus


2.1.4 Lens Mounts

The place on a DSLR camera where the lens is attached (and the precise mechanical and electrical means by which that attachment is made) is called the mount.  Different manufacturers have different (and largely incompatible) mounts, explaining why lenses of one manufacturer will, more often than not, be incompatible with cameras of another make (a notable exception is that of so-called third-party lenses, which are discussed in section 3.6).  It is for this reason that one’s choice of a camera model should take into consideration not only the features offered by the model under consideration, but also the lens line of the manufacturer of the camera.  In the case of bird photography, it is very arguably the case that the lens line of a manufacturer is far more important than the roster of features touted for the most recent camera model marketed by that company.  If a manufacturer’s lens line doesn’t include a number of good birding lenses in the 400mm to 600mm range, it is my opinion that investment in any of that company’s camera models is ill-advised for any ambitious bird photographer.

Fig. 2.5: A DSLR lens mount. The mount (circular metal ring) is where the lens engages.
The precise pattern of ridges and grooves in the mount precludes compatibility between
competing brands.  Notice the eight electrical contacts at the bottom of the mount,
which allow the camera to control the lens’ focuser and iris (aperture).

    Even within a single company’s camera offerings, it’s not unlikely that you’ll encounter several different types of mounts.  As a first example we’ll consider Canon.  Canon’s current product line includes two different (and only partially cross-compatible) mount types: EF and EF-S. The former, EF-mount,  is the current standard for all Canon cameras and lenses: any EF lens should work fine on any current Canon camera model.  (By
current I simply mean any product line currently listed in Canon’s catalogue; previously offered Canon products that are now no longer being manufactured are not considered current, for the purposes of this discussion).  Lenses designated as EF-S, on the other hand, are only fully compatible with Canon’s consumer and pro-sumer camera bodies, and are at most only partially functional on Canon’s pro bodies (see section 2.1.5, below, for a description of these different classes of bodies), because EF-S lenses restrict the light path so as to focus it on a reduced sensor region.  Cameras with larger sensors can sometimes utilize these lenses, though vignetting will typically occur, leaving an unpleasant, faded ring around the outside of the image.  Canon’s main competitor, Nikon, also utilizes two distinct mounts for the different sensor sizes of its cameras: AF for larger sensors and AF-S for the smaller ones.
    When purchasing used equipment, it’s good to keep in mind that older mount types also exist, and are generally not compatible with the most recent mount types.  As just one example, a number of older, FD-mount lenses (especially long telephoto lenses in the 600-800mm range) appear weekly or monthly on used resale sites such as Amazon and Craig’s List.  Attaching an older, FD-mount lens to a newer Canon body requires the use of a special adapter, which of course requires an additional outlay of cash, and may be hard to find even in the second-hand markets.  Most importantly, these FD-mount telephoto lenses typically don’t support autofocus on EF-mount cameras, making them very difficult to use for practical bird photography. On the other hand, because of these handicaps, these older FD-mount telephoto lenses tend to be extremely cheap, so if you’re working within the constraints of a very tight budget, this might be exactly what you’re looking for. Just keep in mind that manual-focus lenses can be very, very challenging to use for bird photography, especially for birds in flight or for small birds such as warblers that tend not to stay still for more than a few seconds.

2.1.5 Product Lines

The top-tier DSLR manufacturers (e.g., Canon, Nikon) partition their product lines into distinct segments to exploit the inherent economics of the feature/price spectrum. The three broad categories of DSLR products are:


The consumer lines are generally targeted at novices
i.e., first-time buyers who are not yet sure how serious they are about photography, or who are strongly budget-constrained (or both).  In the U.S. these cameras often run for $500 to $900 for the body alone (not including any lens, which must be purchased separately in order to use the camera).  Some of the popular models in Canon’s line-up have included the Digital Rebel, the Rebel XT, XTi, and XSi.  Surprisingly, these models have tended to have rather high pixel densitiesoften rivaling or even exceeding the pixel density of more expensive cameras from the same manufacturer. The reason for these higher resolutions is discussed somewhat later, though the short version of the story is that these cheaper models tend to have larger numbers of noisier pixels than the more expensive models, so that the overall level of detail in images will often be lower than in the pro and pro-sumer bodies, after controlling for noise.  We’ll discuss this in much more detail in section 2.3.
    The pro-sumer bodies are those that are targeted at the serious amateurs.  In the U.S. they have run between about $800 and $1300 for the body alone.  The imaging quality of these models can be quite good, compared to professional models, and with proper post-processing, the images from these cameras can sometimes rival that of the far more expensive pro models.  Continuing with the Canon example, this manufacturer’s pro-sumer line has included models such as the 20D, 30D, 40D, and 50D, which have ranged from 8 megapixels to 15 megapixels, all in a 1.6x crop factor (crop factors are discussed in great detail in section 2.3). Canon’s pro body line, which has included models such as the 1D and 1Ds (with various additional designations such as Mark II, Mark IIn, and Mark III) currently run about $4000 to $7000 in the U.S.
Whether you should buy a consumer, prosumer, or professional model is a difficult question, though one which should be rendered much easier as you read the following sections and chapters. A brief characterization of the differenceswith a number of caveats to follow in the sections aheadis as follows. For beginning photographers, the consumer line is a reasonable place to start, though those who feel reasonably convinced that they’re likely to continue pursuing photography for some time to come would very probably be better off investing in a pro-sumer model right away. The pro-sumer models tend to offer a very nice sweet-spot in terms of the quality-price tradeoff. In the U.S. they can be had, new, for between $800 and $1300 for the body alone (you’d need to buy a lens separately), or a bit more for a kit that includes both the body and a starter lens.  Used bodies are generally a few hundred dollars cheaper, but with the rampant scamming that occurs on internet-based auction sites such as eBay and the like, it’s much wiser to purchase used equipment from reputable resellers such as B&H and Adorama. The big resellers sometimes offer cameras that have been factory reconditioned by the original manufacturer, and will sometimes offer their own in-house warranty.
    Professional camera bodies tend to be enormously expensive compared to the consumer and prosumer models.  Whereas pro-sumer bodies in the U.S. hover somewhat above or below $1000, pro bodies from Canon and Nikon currently run about $4000 to $8000.  Many serious amateurs, after spending several years using pro-sumer models, decide to upgrade to a pro body.  While the prosumer bodies undoubtedly provide the greatest
bang for the buck in terms of features and image quality per dollar, the dominant camera manufacturers always ensure that the prosumer bodies lack just enough features that the serious amateurs will be tempted to upgrade to the pro model.
handicapping of the non-pro bodies relative to the pro models can take a number of forms, encompassing things ranging from image quality and ease-of-use to durability.  Whereas non-pro bodies are generally constructed of plastic (often with an inner metal chassis), pro bodies typically feature an all-metal construction, making them heavier (and sometimes bulkier) but also much more durable.  Since cameras for wildlife photography are generally used outdoors, durability can be a desirable feature.  Many pro bodies are weatherproof, meaning that they can safely be used in snow, sleet, or light rain (though this ability is sometimes predicated on the use of a pro lens having a rubber gasket, so that moisture can’t enter the camera via the lens mount).  In practice, since rain tends to make photography difficult for other reasons (such as reduced visibility or fogging of outer lens surfaces), weatherproofing tends to be more of a peace-of-mind feature for those who sometimes hike large distances from their car on days with an uncertain weather forecast.

Fig. 2.1.6: Pro-sumer Body (left) vs. pro body (right).
The pro body, the Canon 1D Mark III, is significantly larger and
than the pro-sumer body, the Canon 30D.  The pro body has better
weather sealing, a better viewfinder, an easier hold for portrait
shots, and a more durable shutter, but lacks a built-in flash.

    Pro bodies generally feature significantly more accurate autofocus capabilities (autofocus is discussed in section 2.6), so that users of pro bodies may expect to get fewer out-of-focus (OOF) images during a shoot than users of non-pro bodies.  A notable exception to this general rule is the now-infamous example of the Canon EOS 1D Mark III, which, despite its initial $4500 US price tag, was prone (at least for particular units) to producing sometimes large numbers of inexplicably out-of-focus shots, due to manufacturing defects (which now appear to be fully corrected).  Pro bodies often have lower noise levels (noise is discussed in sections 2.3 and 2.5) than their non-pro counterparts, may have better color fidelity, often have bigger and brighter viewfinders, and generally allow greater use of teleconverters (teleconverters are discussed in section 3.4) without requiring manual focusing.
    Current pro offerings from the dominant manufacturers also feature longer expected shutter lives than cheaper bodies
say, 300000 versus 100000 expected shutter actuations before failure. The truth is that this difference is not as important as it may seem.  Firstly, these are only expected shutter lives; some pro bodies have needed to have their shutters replaced after as few as 300 shutter actuations. While still under warranty, shutter replacements are generally performed free-of-charge by the manufacturer; out-of-warranty shutter replacements are typically $200 to $300 US.  Spending an extra $3000 on a pro rather than prosumer body in the hopes of putting off a $250 shutter repair for an extra year or two seems hardly worthwhile.  Furthermore, at the rate technology continues to advance, it’s doubtful that many serious photography addicts can go more than a couple years without upgrading to the newest model.
    As I’ll show in Part III of this book, much of the image quality sacrificed by using a non-pro body can be regained during post-processing through the effective use of image enhancement software (though at the cost of spending more time manually processing the images after they come out of the camera).  That leaves only one major feature that the prosumer bodies lack: namely, pro autofocus capability. There are several components to this.  One component is the ability to focus accurately and rapidly in low light; for the purpose of photographing flying birds at not-very-wide apertures (aperture is discussed in section 3.1), pro autofocus can easily make the difference between getting a pleasing photo of the bird and getting a photo so blurred as to be useless for most artistic purposes.  Non-pro bodies have traditionally been limited to autofocusing with lenses that are f/5.6 or faster, which is most often problematic when using a teleconverter (section 3.4).  Pro bodies sometimes focus faster (and have higher frame rates
see section 2.6.1) than non-pro bodies, which can be very useful for fast-moving birds in flight.  Finally, pro autofocus has traditionally been more consistently accurate, and pro bodies have often been better calibrated at the factory so as to minimize the incidence of systematic front-focusing or back-focusing problems (front/back focusing is discussed in section 2.6.3).  Fortunately, this latter advantage is beginning to disappear now that the so-called AF microadjust feature (section 2.6.3) is increasingly being incorporated into pro-sumer bodies, so that users can calibrate the autofocus of their cameras themselves.
   In summary, while pro bodies do offer features not present in the cheaper models, for bird photography the pro-sumer models continue to become increasingly capable. In the further sections of this chapter we’ll consider in much greater detail the various technological issues
such as sensor design, megapixels, and ISOwhich can complicate the task of choosing a suitable camera for bird photography.