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General Bird Photography FAQ

by Arthur Morris, 1998



 

 

WHAT IS THE BEST FOCAL LENGTH LENS FOR BIRD PHOTOGRAPHY?

While 300mm, 400mm, and even short zoom lenses can be useful at times for bird photography, my recommendation to those seriously interested in making quality photographs of birds is to purchase a lens with a focal length of at least 500mm. For photographing birds in flight, however, handheld 400mm f/5.6 lenses perform superbly. And in places like South Florida where the birds are extraordinarily tame, a 400mm lens may suffice as a general purpose bird lens. Image size is, however, a function of the square of the focal length, so a minimum focal length of 500mm is to be much preferred. With the addition of the matched 1.4X teleconverter, you'll have an effective focal length of 700mm. You'll have many more chances to photograph birds than you would with any shorter telephoto lens. At present, the premier bird photography lenses are the 600mm f/4 autofocus lenses; my Canon EF 600mm f/4.0 L lens--often with the EF 1.4X teleconverter in place--is my everyday, workhorse bird photography lens. These big guns are, however, extremely expensive and brutally heavy--the lenses alone weigh almost 14 pounds. Before you run out and buy a 600 f/4 lens, rent or borrow one and see if you can manage it in the field. Remember, you may be walking miles on occasion. And remember to be careful and not to drop the big lens! Manual focus 800mm lenses can be purchased for well less than either the 500mm or 600 autofocus lenses, and provide a reasonable option for serious bird photographers. Their minimum focusing distances are in the 30-45 foot range; extension tubes need to be added and removed constantly when working with avian subjects at close range. (The 600mm autofocus lenses feature minimum focusing distances of less than 20 feet, even when used with a 1.4X teleconverter at 840mm effective focal length.) Let me repeat, however, 600mm autofocus lenses are brutally heavy!
 

WHAT IS THE BEST TRIPOD ON WHICH TO MOUNT A 500 OR 600mm LENS?

There are only 2 choices: the Gitzo 410 or the lightweight Gitzo 1548 Carbon Fiber. Both are strong and sturdy enough to routinely produce--with perfect technique on the photographer's part, sharp images at shutter speeds down to 1/60th of a second. Though the 1548 is expensive, and I wish that it were a bit taller, I absolutely love mine; it is my everyday tripod. When working out of and near my vehicle, say at Bosque Del Apache or Ding Darling, I'll opt for the heavier 410 tripod.
 

WHAT IS THE BEST BALLHEAD FOR A 500 OR 600mm LENS?

Here again, there are only two choices for general bird photography, and a third if you do lots of flight shooting with a 600mm f/4 lens. Simply put, the ARCA Swiss B-1 is my everyday tripod head. It is small, fast, lightweight, and strong. It has the smoothest tension adjustment of any tripod head on the market. For more than a decade, folks have been telling me that it is not possible to produce razor sharp images with big lenses and such a tiny ballhead, but my images prove that they are wrong. If you are a sharpness fanatic, or if your technique is not quite perfect, you may do better with the ARCA-Swiss B-1G, the giant version of my beloved B-1. I have recently come up with a way to prevent damaging the housing with either of these ballheads when a heavy lens flops down when you are working at a light tension setting and some drop-dead gorgeous bird makes you so excited that you loose control of your rig. Visit a local plumbing store and purchase two large rubber washers. You'll usually need to cut the hole larger to fit around the stem of the ball and to cut a slit so that you can mount the washers below the quick release plate. If you're too lazy or can't figure out what the heck I'm talking about, send me $5.95 for each precut set that you'd like; be sure to specify B-1 or B-1G. If you own a 600mm f/4 lens and do lots of flight shooting, the gimbal-type Wimberly Head may be perfect for you. It renders these big lenses near weightless, making flight shooting a snap; you can practically point and aim the lens with one finger. For a while, I used a Wimberly head as my everyday tripod head, but went back to the Arca Swiss B-1 because the latter is faster; with the Wimberly head you need to work three knobs before shooting, with the Arca Swiss B-1 (or B-1G), you need to work only one knob. I currently own 2 ARCA-Swiss B-1s, two B-1Gs, and a Wimberly head. I use an ARCA Swiss B-1 on my Gitzo 1548 Carbon Fiber Tripod, a B-1G on a Gitzo 410 and on a Groofwin Pod when shooting from the car, and the Wimberly head on the 410 tripod for flight shooting at places like the Venice Rookery and Bosque Del Apache NWR.
 

WHAT FILMS DO YOU USE?

I currently use two films. My main film is Fuji Velvia (RVP). I almost always push Velvia one stop, rating at Exposure Index (EI) 100. My lab, Chelsea Professional Color Photo Lab (ask for Sheetal Kumar at 212-229-2929; tell her that I sent you), processes the film a bit longer than is recommended by the manufacturer (explaining why most of the rest of the world rates Velvia at 40 (normal) and at 80 for a one stop push. I love Velvia for it's brilliant color, for its incredibly rich color palette, especially for the earth tones--greens and browns, and for its unexcelled sharpness. For years I have searched for a fast slide film that does not exhibit a magenta shift when pushed. I have finally found it in Fuji MS, 100-1000 Multi-speed (RMS). I first used this film on the Pribilof Islands where the murk and the fog often mandates the use of a fast film. The color was so good that when I opened the first box marked MS +2 I thought that the lab had mis- marked a roll of Velvia! Additionally, the film is sharp and exhibits little grain. In all but extremely dark conditions, I rate MS at 320, indicate EI 400 when I send it to the lab where it is processed as a 2 « (not 2) stop push. (Chelsea does not use Fuji chemicals necessitating a slightly longer processing time.) This film allows me to shoot in low light conditions where I would simply be out of business using my favorite film, Fuji Velvia at EI 100.
 

SMALLER LENSES or TOY LENS II by Arthur Morris

When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn, NY, I loved toys. I loved toy trucks, especially hook and ladder fire engines. And toy soldiers--the lead ones painted brown with khaki helmets. My dad would bring me home a few whenever I was too sick to go to school. He even brought them when I pretended to be too sick to go to school. Now that I'm all grown up and make a wonderful living photographing birds, I still like my toys. Many of you have read of my "toy lens," the Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L. Handheld, it is the premier lens on this or any other planet for photographing birds in flight. Many top bird photographers, even Nikon users, can be seen afield with the toy lens and an A2 body slung over their shoulder. I carry my toy lens outfit on a strap over my right shoulder while lugging the tripod-mounted Canon EF 600mm f/4.0L lens over hill and dale. (I now use an EOS 1N body with my toy lens; initial focus acquisition and film advance are much quicker than with the A2 series bodies.).

Recently, I bought myself a new toy, the Canon EF 300mm f/4.0L IS lens. The "IS" stands for image stabilized. This technology is designed to take the shake out when shooting with handheld telephoto lenses. As you look through the viewfinder and move the lens slowly, you'll note that the technology "damps" subject movement. Canon's first IS lens, the 75-300mm IS zoom, was an excellent travel lens, but was not razor sharp when shot wide open. And even though it was an autofocus lens, it was simply no good for photographing moving subjects. As you panned from left to right with a flying bird, the IS technology, in an attempt to stabilize the image, moved the bird left in the frame. The new 300mm IS lens is, however, a vast improvement in many ways. This "L" series lens is professionally sharp, even at wide open apertures. When hand holding this lens and shooting static subjects, most photographers can produce sharp images with shutter speeds in the 1/60 to 1/90 second range. And experienced shooters will be able to do the same even with the Canon EF 1.4X tele-converter in place. (You'll have a 420mm f/5.6 lens with functioning autofocus.) With static subjects, choose the "IS 1" setting, which stabilizes the image along both the horizontal and vertical axes. Nature photographers wishing to photograph running rhinos or flying falcons will choose the new "IS 2" setting; the image will be stabilized in one direction only, perpendicular to the movement of the lens. Now, as you swing the lens from left to right, the subject is stabilized only vertically; the subject will not be dragged backwards through the frame. The 300 IS focuses inside of five feet making head or eyeball shots of tame birds like gulls or fishing-pier pelicans (without having to mount an extension tube) a snap. And by using the "IS 1" setting, you can easily--on sunny days--stop down to f/16 or even f/22 (with 100 speed film) for added depth of field; when that Snowy Egret looks right down the lens barrel, you'll be able to make an image that is sharp from the bird's eyes to the tip of its bill. The EF 300mm f/4 IS lens is perfect for those who photograph nature from any type of water craft, be it canoe, kayak, poke boat, or ocean liner.

Making sharp images with the IS technology from a rocking boat is child's play. And the lens is superb in locations where the birds and other wild creatures are tame. On a recent visit to the Galapagos Islands, my good friend (and long- time Nikon shooter) Tom Vezo, brought his Canon 300 IS along and used it "more than 80% of the time!" Remember that handheld 300 and 400mm lenses can are ideal for photographing birds in flight or in action. Using the lenses in this class to photograph wildlife is far easier than using anytripod-mounted telephoto lens. Intermediate telephotos are less cumbersome to position and simply getting the lens on the subject is faster and easier. Similarly, it is easier to pan with the subject and keep the active AF sensor(s) on the subject with handheld outfits. And even when shooting static subjects with the 300 IS, you reap the same benefits: speed, maneuverability, and ease of use. I have quickly fallen in love with Canon's 300 f/4L IS lens, which I've affectionately dubbed "Toy Lens II." I absolutely love the close focus and have been experimenting with photographing moving birds at slow shutter speeds with the "IS 2" setting. Early results with these intentional blurs have been encouraging. I use Velvia rated at ISO 50 (I normally push nearly every roll of film that I shoot) so that I can select shutter speeds in the 1/15 to 1/30 second range. (In sunny conditions with 100 speed film, you would not be able to use such slow shutter speeds; you'd need to set an aperture smaller than f/32.) Now, on sunny days, I carry the 300 IS lens with an A2 body over my left shoulder, the 400 f/5.6 outfit on my right shoulder, and the tripod-mounted 600mm f/4. (The 28-105mm zoom lens is stowed in one of the large pockets of my Xtrahand vest.) On cloudy days, I do not take the 400 f/5.6, which I use almost exclusively for flight shooting on blue sky days. Since the introduction of the 300 f/4 IS, the most frequently asked question has been, "Which Canon intermediate telephoto lens should I buy, the EF 400mm f/5.6L or the EF 300mm f/4.0L IS? My answer is as follows: If you want the lens primarily to photograph birds in flight, the 400mm f/5.6 is better by far than either the 300mm IS alone or the 300 IS with a 1.4X tele-converter. Several factors make the EF 400 far superior to the EF 300mm IS for flight shooting.

(1) - The 300 IS has such a small minimum focusing distance that, even when the distance range limit switch is set to the "far" setting (3m to infinity), initial focus acquisition takes a bit longer than with the 400 lens (even with the image stabilization feature turned off).

(2) - With the IS feature turned on, initial focus acquisition is a bit slower still (but still adequate).

(3) - With a 1.4X tele-converter in place, initial focus acquisition will be slower than with the prime lens alone for all autofocus lenses, and the 300 f/4 IS is no exception.

But (and this is a very big "but"), if you want a highly versatile intermediate telephoto lens that can be handheld at relatively slow shutter speeds, can be used from a boat, is superb for sports photography, makes (with the addition of an extension tube or two) a superb macro lens that offers lots of working distance, is fabulous for shooting tame birds and other wildlife, and, is a good lens for photographing birds in flight and in action, then the Canon 300 f/4.0L IS lens might just be perfect for you. Though I've just started using the 300 IS, I've been very impressed and have lots more uses in mind for this technological marvel. It would seem to be the perfect kinglet lens. For you non-birders, kinglets are tiny, tiny landbirds that are often very tame. And though it's often easy to get within a few feet of a migrant kinglet, kinglets are very active. Light and hand holdable with deadly autofocus, the 300 IS might just be the kinglet-slayer. Similarly, the I believe that it will prove effective with tired, migrant warblers, so I'm planning to carry it afield on my next visit to Point Pelee National Park in Ontario this coming May. But my greatest plans for testing the versatility of the 300 IS involves my upcoming trip to Kenya this October. With the IS technology, no bean bag or roof mount will be needed to expose roll after roll of sharp images of lions and cheetahs and giraffes and hippos and Goliath Herons and African Fishing Eagles. As an adult living in central Florida and traveling the world photographing wildlife, I still love my toys.

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Article created 1998