Photographing Birds

Discussion in 'Nikon' started by mark_esposito, Oct 27, 2009.

  1. Since we talk about getting the right lenses quite a bit, I thought this might be of interest.
    I've just completed an article on the subject of photographing birds, inspired by my own trial and error, as well as various threads over the years. Here's a link to the full article, and I've attached my main image here. Let me know what you think.
    - Mark Esposito
  2. pge


    I read your article and it left me with the impression that unless I am going to spend $10,000 on a lens, me and my only 12mp camera (d700) should not bother with birds. Is that the impression you intended to leave me with?
  3. Whether or not the 200-400 is the right lens for small birds is debatable - but you state yourself that a 600 would serve the purpose better. Certainly the wrong camera for the job though. You would have gotten a slightly better image with the D300 and the 200-400 alone and certainly a better one with the 1.4x attached. - strictly going by how many pixels would be on the bird.
  4. Thanks Phil,
    Actually, no, I mentioned that the alternatives were to get a Blind or hide out need a feeder. These are common for those with a passion to photograph birds. I also mentioned that there were alternatives to the ten thousand dollar Nikon solution. The focus was not on the alternatives, but on the lens solution, and the common mistake of underestimating the focal length that is needed.
    I also don't expect everyone to relate to my experience, so if you don't, no problem. :^}
    Signature URL deleted per Community Guidelines - More specifically, in this particular case, the first URL was okay because it was content-specific to this thread. The followup signature URL's have been deleted.
  5. How about a D300 with a 70-200 vr and a Nikon 1.7 teleconverter. Doesn't that equate to 390mm on FX?
  6. If you hide out in a blind near a feeder, then 200mm is OK. If you are shooting semi-tame large shorebirds, 200mm is OK. But if I was trying to capture truely wild birds without the aid of a blind then give me the longest lens available.
  7. What if I were to bolt my AcraTech ballhead onto a solid perch I know birds habitually use, attach my D300/17-55mm lens, and fire it using one of my nifty CyberSync triggers from 150 yards away? I wouldn't need an expensive lens, and I'd still get the shot maybe? There's more than one way to skin a cat.
    Kent in SD
  8. So if one is using a more (less costly) regular Nikon DSLR body, i.e., a D40x, one can't get a decent bird photo?
    Regardless of what body-lens combination you use, a bit of luck and a measure of decent lighting are factors that get your image of a bird (or just about anything.)
  9. I hesitate to write out what I think of your article. My mother would not be pleased with me.
    First up - if you wish to photograph birds. Start with a crop factor camera. So at present the top choice would be the D300/D300s
    Second - minimum focal length is really 500mm - but the longer the better. However, most can't afford the 600VR & fact is that people who shoot both Nikon & Canon always complain about how poorly the Nikon lenses hold up with a TC on it. (we can argue this till the end of time, but I have far too many friends who shoot both systems with that opinion - with the top lenses at that)
    Thirdly - the amazing 200-400VR is really not long enough. It has to be paired with a TC. Problem is - ask on most boards.... The 200-400VR seems not too happy with a TC. Now add that the 1.4 is really the only one where you will not have too much quality loss in your shots. (So how is it Canon shooters can stack their TCs I wonder.... & they have a great 2x TC as well)
    Fourthly - blind..... yes blinds can work. If you're in such a location. Reality is this - As much as I would have liked the 200-400VR I soon realized that with my locations, there's no way I could shoot with that lens without a permanently attached TC. Nor can I really use a blind. And lets not forget that a blind requires often showing up & setting up long before the birds do. The there you sit & wait.
    No - if on a budget. Start with the D300 or D300s. Now add the 300 AF-S f/4 & a 1.4 TC - - that's doable to start with.
    I have a friend I call "the Master of the 70-300VR" & what he shoots with that little lens is amazing. He does Nikon proud.
    So - whatever your budget..... You can not ever have enough reach. So - start with a crop camera body. Buy the best you can afford. And get a 300mm minimum lens to start with a TC. If you can afford - go for a 500mm f/4 because that's really minimum if you want to get those little birds.
    I would much rather buy a crop camera like the D300/D300s over the D3x for $ 8,000 as I will not have to crop remotely as much with a D300/D300s (or any of the other crop Nikon bodies) as I will with the D3x.
    As for the D700 as a birding camera - - oh it's great - when the subject is close enough. Not to mention that you can get those real early morning & late afternoon/early evening shots due to high ISO out of the D700.
    Enough said or rather written as I lovingly think of my wonderful husband who bought me the 300-800mm Sigmonster. Oh and I almost forgot to write - you're entitled to your opinion. But I humbly disagree.... :)
  10. 70-300 VR may work for big birds. For small, distant birds, wouldn't a Nikon Fieldscope be a better idea?
  11. Lil,
    >> I hesitate to write out what I think of your article. My mother would not be pleased with me.
    And you humbly disagree? I think you confusing the word 'humble' with some other word. :^}
    In fact, it sounds like you agree with most everything I said, so I'm confused. I never said in the article that an FX camera was best for photographing birds. I mentioned that the D3X has more pixels, but that it was NOT the most important factor compared to the lens. The D3X is just what I happened to be using. The article didn't compare body types. It was all about the focal length that is needed when NOT using a blind.
    Of course a DX body would be better for reach. FX bodies have a few things going for them too.
    - Mark
  12. Who was your target audience and why did you write this article? I ask because authors tend to write better when they know for who and why they are writing. Are you writing for experienced photographers? New photographers? People with lots of money or little money?
  13. Jerry, obviously you are right that you can use cheap gear for birds but you did pick one of the largest birds in North America while Mark is using a tiny cardinal as his example. Many times I have been so close to herons that I had to back up because I couldn't fit the bird in at the 200 end of my 200-400.
  14. Walt,
    >> Who was your target audience
    Good point. My area of photography is Fine Art, but on a blog I'll write about things that I find interesting on the technical side as well, as that's part of who I am. This particular article is written for someone new to photography, or at least new to trying to photograph birds. These are people I come in contract with all the time. They have a new camera, and they want to photograph A,B and C, but don't know what lens they need. Many of these people are going to head to a park to photograph a bird 100 feet away with their kit lens. Or, they are going to a sporting event with their 18-55mm.
    I find it highly interesting how tough it is to determine focal lengths based on the factors of size and distance, especially when the size is 4 to 6 inches. If people here don't find that interesting, they aren't my audience, which is ok.
    - Mark
  15. For what you said in your article, I also got the impression that someone must expend 10 K for a lens to get good enough pictures of small wild birds.
    In a way I have to agree that I would love to have a 600 mm lens or at least a 500 mm one but I can not justify the price for the use I would give it. Specially being just a hobby and having 2 kids to support.
    At the moment all I use is a D300 with a 300 f4 and TC1.7II and I am happy with my results. I know I could get better results with the big guns but as hobby I can live with my results.
    Most important than the reach of the lens is the lighting and composition. Being patient to get the bill at right angle and most of all eye contact on the shot. (Never shoot a bird from behind).
    The following samples are all large crops but I have printed them to A3 size with good results.
  16. Sample #2
  17. Sample #3
    All these shots have been taken in the wild. NO feeder and NO blind. I must admit that I have a blind but I have never used it.
  18. Rene',
    >> I also got the impression that someone must expend 10 K for a lens to get good enough pictures of small wild birds.
    Thanks. Sorry you got that impression. Here's what I said: "There are other brand lenses that can be considered with some trade-offs and a lower price." --- meaning, to get you to the required focal length without spending 10k. The article isn't exhaustive, so there are other ways to get to the goal of getting enough Bird in the frame. (crop factor and teleconverter's)
    >> D300 with a 300 f4 and TC1.7II
    Nice shots. We're no in disagreement then. You have accomplished exactly what I suggested was needed. 300 * 1.7 = 510mm plus the crop factor. You had more 'reach' than I did with the 200-400mm and 1.4x, and you got the subject filling enough of the frame to end up with the detail you needed.
    - Mark
  19. This is a Nikon forum, but we make the same mistakes over on the Canon forum. I have a FF Canon 5D2 which is great for scenics, protraits, archetecture and most subjects, but then I thought I'd try my hand at bird photography and bought a 400mm f5.6L lens. I was hooked and got "good" results from day-one.
    Like Mark, I was cropping A LOT, so I too began yearning for more focal length and was blown away by lens prices at 500mm and up. Fortunately, I woke up and realized that I could by a 1.6 crop sensor 7D for way less than any quality lens of 500mm and over.
    Now I use the 7D for birds and macros and the 5D2 for almost everything else. I may also some day buy a 500mm lens, but, for now, I'm happy that my former 400mm lens is now giving me a 640mm-equivalent focal length, with my subjects filling up many more pixels than before, even though my uncropped pixel count is much lower.
    Thanks to sites like and even Flickr, I have looked at many stunning bird images over the past several months. By pixel-peeping I saw the weakness of my heavily cropped images and started working to clean them up. When I look at the EXIF data I see almost all crop-sensors. There's a reason that I now fully understand.
  20. As I prefer full frame, at least 500/4 is almost essential with my Canon film cameras. Neither the 2x or 1.4x did a very good job on the 100-400. It is a little better with digital as i can clean it up better with PS. All said, I found the 500/4 the best all around bird (wildlife) lens. Good reach and more portable than the 600/4. 100-400 does a good job but just a little short and not fast enough to compare with the super-telephotos.
  21. I don't consider myself a birder by any means. But you don't have to have a $10,000 lens to photograph them....although I'd love to have a 500 f/4 AFS VR....I probably will never have one. So I'll just make due with what I do have.
    D200, 180 f/2.8. In my back yard just after pulling into the driveway.
    D200, 300 f/4 D

    D200, 300 f/4D, Tamron SP 2x Tele
  22. Keith, do you live near Denver?
    The owl and Canada geese look to be just a mile or two from my house!!
  23. It's not a about how long your lens is, it's all about how close you can get to the bird with the longest lens you have. You left out one of the most important thing about bird photography, that is knowing the bahavior of the birds you shoot.
  24. Sinh,
    >> You left out one of the most important thing about bird photography
    I left out lots of things. It's a blog, not a book.
    If you read it fully, and in-between the lines, it addresses your point.
  25. +1 Sinh Nhut Nguyen
    Rene' - that #3 is a stunner.
    fact is that people who shoot both Nikon & Canon always complain about how poorly the Nikon lenses hold up with a TC on it​
    Hmmh, since I don't have experience with either manufacturer's supperteles, I can't agree or disagree. Given the fact that the TC are specifically made for the 400/500/600 - I have my doubts about this "fact" though.

    I do avian photography and use the 300/4 AF-S with TC-14E and mostly with the TC-17EII attached. The combo works OK in good light and the quality is sufficient when I get close enough to not have to crop the image to a large extent (just for composition or aspect ratio). In terms of quality the 500mm achieved this way are not even close to what the 500/4 delivers - a 4x the cost of course. I also use the 80-400 - mainly to overcome the lack of VR on the 300/4 and occasionally because I am close enough to need to back off from the maximum focal length.

    I had considered the purchase of the 200-400 last year but was amazed to see many renowned bird photographers offer theirs for sale and opt for the 500/4 or 600/4 instead. It gave me reason to pause. While I am certain that the optical quality is higher than that of the 80-400 and likely even the 300/4 with 1.4x TC attached, I felt that most of the time I needed to add the 1.4x behind it anyway - and as Lil stated, on many online boards that combination wasn't rated highly. Certainly better than the 300/4 AF-S with 1.7x - but also at 3x the cost and about twice the weight.

    Unfortunately, the lenses that would suit my personal situation best are from Canon - the 400/4 DO would be perfect for BIF and the 800/5.6 would give me the reach without the need for an extender. Maybe Canon will eventually manufacture a body with an ergonomics and control layout that a lifelong Nikon shooter can get comfortable with. Then all I need is about $20K in cash - wonder which one will happen first.

    Mark, is the image that you show on top a crop? It looks very soft to me. It is hard to tell from the small size - but it appears the wire is in focus and the bird's eye slight OOF.
  26. Sinh Nhut said:
    "It's not a about how long your lens is, it's all about how close you can get to the bird with the longest lens you have. You left out one of the most important thing about bird photography, that is knowing the bahavior of the birds you shoot."
    This is absolutely true and can't be denied, but it comes off as a put down.
    I know the behaviour of my favorite kingfisher, for instance, but he likes to hang out on a little island on my favorite birding pond. I can get my feet in the water. To get closer, I'd have to float out there while he's gone and lay in the mud for hours waiting for him to come to me. Some would do that, I realize, but I can get a nice shot by waiting for him to call me and then getting right on the edge of the pond and using a longer lens.
    I think the comment was meant as a reminder. You can take stunning images with a 400mm f5.6 lens. There are good reasons to get a longer lens, but I think that you shouldn't move up until your get a high percentage of keepers with a 400mm or less.
  27. OHhh ok , it's a blog. My bad, you said it was an article in the OP, I was just trying to help you improve your poorly written and lack of information "article".
    By the way I didn't read it fully, so can you please point out where in your article really addresses my point? Which is "knowing the bird behavior".
    Do you know what your problem is? You ask us for our opinion and when we do give them to you, instead of accepting it you offensively reject it.
  28. Sinh,
    Thanks for your comments. I was refering to your comment about getting close enough, not the other about behavior. Getting close enough was my point after-all.
    If it's poorly written, then I accept your critique. It didn't feel poorly written when I was done, but that's me. I'll try to do better. Hopefully some people can come away with the simple message that you need lenses that are sufficiently long for "some" kinds of Bird photography.
    I had always planned a part 2 of this blog article, so maybe I can close the loops that way.
    - Mark
  29. Even though this is not a small bird, I was about 8 feet away, as I remember. As far as this Great Egret was concerned, my car, on the shoulder of a farm to market road, was a blind he found of no interest on that spring day:
    I rested my Nikon 990 with Nikon TC-3ED (focal length equivalent 115mm x 3 = 345mm) on a coat draped over the edge of the passenger window. The beaten up 990 (which required one to hold the broken battery door shut with one's thumb) and converter cost a total of $113 on Ebay.
  30. Paul F, I'm not sure why you needed 345mm-equivalent for a great egret, but YES a car does make an amazingly good blind, IF the roads are near enough to the subjects.
    One of my friends recently saw a ring-neck pheasant by the road as she drove. She turned around and pulled up close and waited for the bird to start moving around again and got some wonderful shots from the driver's window. I recently chased a red tailed hawk with my car. It was funny, he got angry a yelled at me when I got out of the car, but when I got back in he'd always calm down.
  31. Mark, I for one enjoyed your article and your image of the bird on barbed wire looks good to me. I don't use Nikon or Canon but your advice on lens selection I think would be true for any system. I guess I'll go take a look at some of the old minolta long glass.
  32. Mark
    Thank you for your article.
    The message I take from it is DX format plus the longest lens you can afford to buy (and in my case, carry). I shoot everything handheld – so unless I am close, no pictures. And as your article suggests, I do my best to fill the frame. I don’t normally shoot birds but as luck would have it I managed to capture this on the weekend.
  33. Mark, I do some causal bird photography for myself. After reading your article which is how you describe it I am not sure it really would help someone new. Your approach is from the high end which is not usually where some one new is starting. IMHO it would have been better suggesting knowledge of the subject first by spending lots of time watching then getting close to fill the frame or something to that effect. Of course I do not consider myself a writer. Although I use FX with a older used 500mm f4 lens + 1.4 TC on a tripod I think I would be better off with DX and no TC since I carry this around the woods watching birds and would suggest DX to anyone who shoots finches, sparrows, nuthatches etc. I also don't think having to read between the lines conveys knowledge to beginners, better to be specific to be helpful. I started years ago with a 300mm f4 + 2x TC with film with poor results then to a 400mm f5.6 in DX which was much better with improved technique and about the same as my current setup.
  34. When shooting birds all you need is time an patience and some skills on knowing how to hide from the birds. I usually try to hide behind the bushes or trees and start taking shots every few feet as close as I can before the bird fly's away. Works most of the time you can get really close with a 300mm lens. I have got lucky on some Green Jay's where the bird took up most of the frame in a Nature reserve. So it also depends on luck too. Also, if they also put food out also increases your chances of getting really close to the bird as well. Big lens come in handy when shooting big animals like Jags, and bears.
  35. David Stephens [​IMG] , Oct 28, 2009; 12:12 p.m.
    Keith, do you live near Denver?​
    Montana. But the Rocky Mountains in Colorado are earily similar to being in Montana, and vice versa.
  36. The message that I get from your article, and especially from the photograph that you have chosen to illustrate it, is that a gazzilion millimeters of focal length won't help if the exposure is wrong.
    Greg, that's quite a photograph.

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