What's your favorite superzoom for birding?

Discussion in 'Nature' started by john_mcmillin, Aug 26, 2013.

  1. My dear wife, God bless 'er, has taken up a new hobby: birdwatching and identification. Her first "Big Year" has brought her into the dozens after only a few months. She likes to photograph new birds in the field, and identify them later at her leisure. Although I own four digital cameras, none of them are ideal for her project. She doesn't want to lug my big Sony FF and 100-300 zoom around, and my compacts, the Fuji x10 and the Panasonic LX5 and 7, were selected more for their wide-angle capabilities than their long-zoom reach.
    Please feel free to share your peeves and preferences among 'superzoom" and "travelzoom" models. Especially if you've actually used them to chase down LBBs (Little Brown Birds) birds hiding on the other side of that tree! What works, what doesn't work so well? Here are my own criteria:
    - Small is beautiful: like most women, the wifey wants a tiny camera that fits in her purse and is easy to hold (I'm aware that this conflicts with stability and optimal sensor size). Travelzooms are much more compact than superzooms; would I miss the typical extra 300mm reach, or can that disadvantage be overcome by cropping?
    - Seeing comes first: Since she won't use a viewfinder, the quality of the rear LCD is paramount. Since I would use the EVF, and I despise all EVFs I've seen, which EVF is slightly less vile?
    I don't need to spend my way to the bleeding edge of the latest releases. Scanning KEH, I found many superzoom options around $100-200, and that's my comfort zone for a fifth camera. Once again, Fuji and Panasonic are appealing to me, either the HS20 & up or the FX150 (can't justify the price of the 200, but a 600+mm/2.8 sure has its appeal. Could you even get a whole bird in focus at that setting?).
    Feel free to inform me about the one class of camera I'm least familiar with...
  2. As a birder and photographer for some 40 years, I think carrying a camera for identification is the wrong
    way to go about it. If she is serious, get her a pair of high quality binoculars in the $1000-2000 price range. That will be a bargain over what is necessary to do high quality bird photography.

    Join a bird club, bird with other birders. Ideally, you should be able to identify most birds prior to going out
    in the field. Study, study, study, the books. The British do this and don't even carry a book into the field.

    Taking photos and trying to identify the bird later is just a bad idea. Carrying a camera for identification
    could easily be a handicap. With a photo, even with a good one, you will capture a single angle. A sharp
    birder will see the bird from different angles, flight style, etc. It would take a really excellent photo to
    identify a species that you can't do by visual identification. She needs to learn birds visually.
    Learn the birds first and heir habits first, do the photography when proficient as a birder.
  3. how about this
    I'd first learn my birds and then try and photograph them. I'd also sped my $$$ on binos and bird song CD
  4. Being an active Waterfowler I would have to agree with Ms. Grim, Identifying a bird is much easier with binoculars than one shot with a camera.
    Good luck!
  5. I agree with the other responses. A superzoom/travelzoom isn't likely to satisfy. Wifey's expectations aren't practical. Spend the money on binocs, field guides and field experience.
  6. I am a small woman who doesn't own a purse. I would encourage your wife to learn to love lugging gear. :)
    My favorite "superzoom" for birding is a 60mm Nikon Fieldscope with a zoom eyepiece, not a camera at all. Bird watching/ID and bird photography are 2 different activities. I do keep a small pair of binocs and a field guide in my camera bag. The method you describe of photograph now, ID later, leaves most of the information in the field. As she is starting out, why not get her a decent pair of binoculars and see how it goes. You don't need to break the bank on this. Binocs are tools, and you can get the right tool for the job in the $200-$500 range. (not trying to underscore the value of high end binocs) The pair I take on photography outings cost about $100 and they serve my needs. I think the compact zoom will leave her wanting. Perhaps she would enjoy carrying binocs around her neck and a tripod mounted scope on her shoulder.
    If small is beautiful, and seeing comes first, then get binocs for birding. Good luck.
  7. I agree with what everyone else had said, and will add that she should try the binoculars before they are bought, so that they are sure to fit her hand and her eye.
  8. stemked

    stemked Moderator

    Okay, I guess I'm going to have to play devil's advocate.
    I DO identify most of my birds with good binoculars (10X43 DCF ED Pentax), but not all of them. My eyesight is good, but not as good as it used to be. I listen to takes, but I am rather visual and identify few birds strictly by sound. Frankly sometimes I DO Identify birds through photographs.
    Examples: shore birds and gulls. I have been with PROFESSIONAL BIRDERS (ones who make a living watching birds) and have seen fights break out over the id of some (especially shorebirds). My photos cleared up the discussion. I have rarely done this with lenses under 400mm (I recently Id a wren as a Sedge wren from a 55-300, but that is rare). My idea of a useful zoom is not tiny, a 150-500mm Sigma. And frankly my 600mm f5.6 is my main lens to id things.
    That said, I was out on a walk one day and ran into a fellow using a Olympus Micro Four Thirds body and Olympus M. Zuiko Digital ED 75-300mm f4.8-6.7 II lens, which is equivalent to a 150-600mm lens that he claimed he used for birding. I was skeptical. But the images he showed me were pretty revealing and certainly good enough for id purposes. The worst thing is the lens weighed practically NOTHING (ok, about 15 oz). I will say I have NO PERSONAL EXPERIENCES with this combo, but my back was begging me to consider it. I would suggest doing some searches with this combination and see what people can do with it. If it works out your wife will be a happy camper, but it is going to be a bit pricier than your limit.
  9. I doubt that any of us (especially those of us who hang out with professional birders!) would argue that photographs can't be used to ID birds and sometimes provide a critical clue in the field. It's happened to me, too (when, for example, my not-very-good photograph proved that we had, indeed, seen a Bumblebee Hummingbird.)
    And there's certainly nothing wrong with wanting even a mere "record shot" of each bird we've seen. Heck, I keep a "photographically annotated birding life list" on my website, and I am not proud of some of those shots, even if I am proud of having seen the bird at all!
    But I think we're questioning the wisdom of the apparent goal of having a standard operating procedure of "shoot-first-ID-later."
    I think.
  10. One area where photography might help leaning birds. Digiscoping. I never did it but saw many fine
    photographs of distance birds that were very good. It takes a good (read expensive) scope but not an
    expensive body. This would be best for distant shorebirds that are not easy to identify.

    Photographs are often used to very a species by a records committee. Sometimes it proves the
    identification wrong, or does not show the critical field marks needed for a rare species, which is usually a
    combination of field marks.

    However, photos go a long way toward verifying identification. It is not perfect but much, much better than
    someones perception of what they saw.

    BTW, it is Mr. Grim, no Ms. Grim.
  11. stemked

    stemked Moderator

    Sorry, didn't mean to be rude with the caps. I am certainly only a hobbyist at best although my ABA bird list now is somewhere around 450 life birds. Most of the Eastern US (non-sea) birds that I haven't been able to separate out are shore birds, and the only way I can id them is by photograph.
  12. Thanks for so many spirited responses! The same inquiry over at dpreview yielded precisely nothing.
    I will pass along all your suggestions about the advantages of firsthand viewing through various binocs and scopes. I've offered my spouse any of my four pairs of binoculars, ranging from little Pentax 8x25 to Nikon 9x40s and my big astro pair, a Celestion 15x70. For whatever reason, she's one of those folks who doesn't enjoy looking through optics with eyepieces.
    So far, She's used my spare compact camera to capture bird images for further study. Since that's a Panasonic LX5 that stretches to a whopping 90mm of optical zoom, there must be better choices. So, what's a practical choice in a compact superzoom camera, since that's the largest camera she wants to carry everyday? After all, we have to make sure there's room in her purse for binocs, too.
  13. But binoculars aren't an accessory to hide away in a purse. They are (like a camera) a necklace! :)
    (I wish your wife a wonderful future with her birding, John. It may be that as she gets more into the activity--as her skills improve, she goes after more challenging species, etc.--her priorities will change.)
  14. And she'll find out what works best over time. But a lot of her birding is spontaneous-- birds come to us, at our deck and our feeder, because our acre is a green spot in the city. Whatever she uses, it has to be relatively small.
    If I have a specific camera in mind, it's the late-model Panasonic FZ150 and FZ200. Has anyone tried to focus one at 600mm/f2.8? That lens sounds like either a magical revelation or a maddening frustration. Then there's the FZ70, smaller, cheaper and with a 1200 focal length zoom- starting at 20mm! That sounds too good to be true. Is the image stabilization really string enough to tame the jiggle of a 1200 lens? I know they all have small sensors, likely to be noisy, but ultimate IQ isn't the mission for this camera. I'd rather use my Sony A850 and FF Minolta lenses for that.
    Ideas? Suggestions? Experience?
  15. Have you taken a look at the link provided by Hugh? It may be useful as it addresses the FZ70. There are real world pictures and you can get an idea of what a bird might look like. Your wife (name?) will have a challenge for sure holding the camera out there and using the LCD. IS will only help so much. Perhaps she can mount the camera on a monopod. The link does caution about keeping expectation realistic. I wish her all the luck in the world. Birding is an interesting hobby choice if one has a dislike for eyepieces.
    Noreen, we share the same taste in jewelry. ;-)
  16. If she's really gotten the bug then what I would second especially among the preceding responses is Kerry's suggestion to check out digiscoping: a good spotting monocular scope on a tripod used together with a small but good point&shoot will help her much more than a superzoom. It will take some getting used to equipment-lugging-around, but not as much as a serious SLR-based photography setup. At 600mm focal length equivalent or more, it is definitely not an option to handhold a superzoom and get a stable image on the rear LCD - in fact most of the time it'll be almost impossible to find the bird at all!
    BTW - just to avoid any confusion - the listed f2.8 of an FZ70 is the aperture at widest angle - not at 600mm.
    Even more nit-picking, while it's true that effective light intake at a given aperture does not change with sensor size, the same is not true in terms of DOF: you'll need to consider the 4x crop factor of the FZ70, for example if its minimum aperture would be f4.5 at 600mm equivalent then the DOF would correspond to f18 on a full frame sensor or approx f15 on APS-C. Add to that the likelihood that the optics in a superzoom will not give you best sharpness wide open, so you'll most likely have to stick with narrower apertures. No idea if that will improve the odds of a superzoom's AF getting focus right (hopefully it will) but you'll definitely get more cluttered backgrounds (which your wife may not care about of course, if her purpose is to have photos help with ID of the bird).
  17. As a birder and nature photographer, the best way to learn birds is with a pair of good binoculars or a scope on a tripod. A camera with a long (500mm f4.0 or longer) heavy lens and tripod is what you need to get good bird images after you have learned the basics. Any other camera/lens system will result in frustration. I like the Nikon Monarch binoculars, 7 series, 8x30, with ED glass.
    You can combine a scope and camera with the Nikon Digiscoping system with various Nikon scopes. You need to buy a Fieldscope with an objective lens, and the correct special attachment to attach a Nikon DSLR or a Nikon 1 body or a Coolpix camera to the scope. See the details on pages 32, 36 of the sports optics brochure. Best details are in the separate EDG brochure. You can find these at these links below:
    Joe Smith
  18. There's a right way to do everything, an expert solution, and then there's the convenient way. That's what my wife is asking for here. Since she says the LX5 has been helpful to her in capturing enough detail to help ID birds, I'm just looking for another compact camera that's better optimized for telephoto. There seem to be plenty of these in the marketplace, with huge zoom ranges. Elsewhere online, I've seen credible photos taken of birds in the wild taken with superzoom cameras. But perhaps I'm hearing that none of the experts here are using them for birding.
    I'm looking at the FZ70, but my instincts, plus several reviews, tell me to stretch a little extra for the FZ200. Those are my leading contenders right now. Owners of the corresponding Fuji HS50 sound unhappy, over in their chat rooms. Sony makes the best sensors, I'm convinced, but their current cameras seem to cheap out in key areas. Canon's not under consideration, because of a hair-pulling hour I spent recently trying to school a G12 owner in the mysteries of its menus, proof that the Japanese invented hieroglyphics. Nikon's an also-ran outsider the DSLR sphere, and Olympus, where are you? Mirrorless systems offer few long teles, and they don't save much bulk in the tele range anyhow. A proper DSLR would be a superior photographic choice, but equipepd with a birding lens, it's a real handful.
    So, once again, I welcome feedback from anyone who's ever chased a bird with a modern superzoom, successfully or not...
  19. John, notwithstanding the well-intentioned and valuable advice you've received, I'll take a crack at trying to more directly answer your question, albeit in a somewhat roundabout way, which may help you decide how useful this is. So first some thoughts: a few years ago I bought a Canon PowerShot SX230 HS, mainly for my wife. It is a 'travel zoom' that IIRC won a DPReview comparison. Its 12 MP BSI-CMOS sensor does a pretty good job, all things considered. Since then Canon has replaced it with the SX260 HS and then recently the SX280 HS; both have longer lenses than our 230 (which tops out at 384mm equivalent), in fact, the specs say they go to the equivalent of 500mm. I would expect these to be pretty good cameras, and you can still buy a 260 new for about $215. Beyond that, I think some of the Panasonics have good reputations, but I don't have much personal experience.
    Now is such a camera useful for birds? My perspective is a bit like yours: I'm looking for an answer for someone else's (my parents') bird-watching and photography, and dealing with their needs and limitations. The Canon 55-250mm IS lens on their DRXT (350D) gives a 400mm-equivalent field of view--and is often too short to really be useful, even understanding that you'll have to crop. I've tentatively come to the conclusion that the answer is one of the xxx-500mm zoom lenses. Such a lens would give an '800mm equivalent' field of view. You can get that on a compact superzoom, but the options are somewhat limited. Nevertheless, DPReview's widget came up with at least 32 cameras from Canon, Fuji, Kodak, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, and Sony that will reach the 'equivalent' of 700mm or longer, but if we eliminate the 'bridge' cameras, what's left is (starting with the oldest, and therefore maybe cheapest used) the Olympus SP-800 UZ (discontinued), Olympus SP-820 UZ ($280 new), Canon PowerShot SX500 IS ($235 new), Sony CyberShot DSC-HX50V ($450 new), and Canon PowerShot SX510 HS ($250 new).
  20. John, the reason why you are not hearing from anyone is that what you are asking for does not exist. Joe Smith
  21. Many bird photographers are not birders, myself included. I try hard to get a good picture of a bird, because it's a good looking bird and/or it's doing some interesting activity that I want to document. I went out with birders once and decided never to do it again. I might spend 30-minutes to one-hour with a subject, while the birders see it, count it and move on to increase their counts for the day. They don't care if they're on the wrong side of the light, or if waiting another 15-minutes might provide another view. I don't even own binoculars, because if I want to see something, I look through my lens. The birders are great people, they just have different objectives from bird photographers.
    That said, it doesn't really sound like your wife is a serious photographer and that she thinks that a camera might be good for ID. If you're talking about birds in you back yard and she can sit on the patio on take shots of birds that come near, then a super zoom might be a nice, fun answer. However, if she wants to walk in the woods and take shots, she's not likely to get close enough for her super-zoom to give a clear shot. In that case, she needs to buy some binoculars and join the birders.
    I take thousands of shots per month with a very expensive camera/lens combination. It is, indeed, pretty easy to identify birds based on camera images, but it costs a lot and takes lots of practice and patience to get the kind of pictures that make it easy:
  22. David S....I am LOL at you statement "I went out with birders once and decided never to do it again" I agree
    even though I am a serious birder because I basically feel the same way. I don't have the equipment to do
    serious photography and if I did , I could not do it with a group...most birders are are simply after a big list
    or chasing rare species as opposed to appreciating them. They keep in contact with one another with their
    smart phones and drop what they are doing to go see a rare bird the other guy found. That's their choice,
    but my dumb phone will be turned off and used for emergencies only. Always something interesting to see
    and enjoy whether or not I carry a camera. I don't need to see any birds or even take nature photos. That is
    secondary to enjoying the outdoors. Little doubt that a camera can slow you down and that results in seeing more.
  23. You know, photography and birding can be a lot like fishin'. If you don't enjoy sitting there when there's nothing happening, then you might not enjoy either activity. I've found that the more time that I spend sitting in a likely spot and waiting for something to happen, the better my photographs. The waiting also means that I go home with nothing, or something that I wasn't planning for when I started sitting. Here's a shot that I ended up with after 45-minutes of hoping a hummingbird would feed on the flowers that I had staked out:
    I'm not complaining. ;-)
  24. Thanks, Doug, I'll check out that site. Meanwhile, earlier today, my search took an unexpected left turn. Although just yesterday I dismissed mirrorless cams, and Sony in particular, my resistance collapsed when I saw Target was clearing out their NEX-3/ 18-55 kits for $145. So I'll be spending a little time sampling what that large APS-C sensor can do for the cause. The 18-55 is NOT the lens I'd prefer, and I'm shocked by the prices of telezooms for the E-mount. I've ordered an M42 adaptor to mount my Takumar 135/2.8, which just might be a powerful combination IF I can convince my wife to focus it. Magnified focus might be fun, on that big, clear rear screen.
    If it doesn't work out, I'm sure I can recover my investment and keep on looking.
  25. A few days later, I saw a Craigslist ad and took action. Now I have my wife's Christmas present, and I'm trying to test it while keeping it a secret. It's the Panasonic FZ200. My experience with the LX7 has been so positive that I'm leaning towards the brand (It's even better that Panasonic has such a low profile here in the USA. I like to be different. But this does feel a little like buying my Konica Minolta 7D back in 2005. I hope Panasonic/Lumix survives my choice.)
    Though other cameras have longer zooms and the Sony has a much larger sensor, the FZ200 stands far above in speed, which translates to high shutter and low ISO. My first tests with birds show inconsistent sharpness, but hey, the bird was over 100 feet away. Tests with closer objects like flowers showed remarkable sharpness and reasonable noise. Looks like a keeper. Look for the NEX on eBay.
  26. I have been using the Panasonic FZ10 & 40 for 5 years and love it.
  27. Everything depends on your expectations :) If you want a record of the critters you have watched and of course you don't expect to be hired by National Geographic Magazine, a superzoom can be a great companion for its price.
    I have the DMC-FZ200. (I can say I am a "Lumix" guy, my other camera is a LX2). The zoom lens reaches a "35 mm equivalent" of 600 mm, even when shooting raw you can make it double it with digital trickery (at the expense of quality of course, but I am talking about keeping a record of what you see, not professional magazine photos!) and the image stabilizer is so good you can manage to get reasonable (I say reasonable) handheld shots.
    The 2.8 aperture for the whole zoom range is amazing (although the depth of field is really shallow at the maximum reach of course) and forget about manual focusing, it's a pain in the ass with the digital controls. But the auto focus works very well.
    So: Not comparable to a DSLR with excellent optics, of course, but good value for money and loads of fun if you don't have too high expectations.
    In my opinion equipment can be classified in three rough levels: Bad, Nice and Orgasmic. Superzooms and mid level binoculars belong to the "nice" cathegory. Good enough to enjoy the activity without struggling against the equipment, which means fun. Orgasmic would be the top class which, of course, makes your activity easier and it's so good that each time you use it you are amazed by its quality.
    And yes, if you are too used to the "orgasmic" equipment you will consider what I put in the "nice" cathegory "bad". Again, it's a matter of expectations.
    So, the best advice is simple: search for photos made with superzooms and make a decision based on that.
    And, remember. Birdwatching is much more enjoyable using the binoculars and/or telescope because you are just watching. If you are fiddling with the camera trying to get a good shot you will surely miss some information such as behavior, surroundings...
  28. Borja makes a good point about what's more "enjoyable". A true birder is happy seeing the bird well and identifying it. OTOH, the bird photographer wants to capture it in flight, with a perfect head angle, perfect wing position, eye-light, super background or bokeh in a complimentary color. The two activities really don't mix well.
    A photographer friend, converted from bird watcher, convinced me to go with him once with one of the local birding groups. It was a total waste of time for me, since the guide always had us on the wrong side of the light and was happy to ID many of the birds by their silhouette. Conversely, the bird watchers are going to get impatient with a photographer that wants to take 100+ images of a hummingbird in flight approaching a flowering bush. They've already counted it, multiplied by two and they're ready to move on.
    Most true birders that I know (keeping lists, hunting for rarities and always trying to increase their counts) only do photography to document and provide for later study. A very few get much deeper into photography, but they usually change hats, depending on which group they're with at a particular time.

Share This Page