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revised 19-3-2020

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Great white egret, Egretta alba

History

I have been photographing birds for many years, starting with a Box Brownie, then an ancient 4.5 X 6 plate camera, before eventually moving on to  35mm Zenith cameras, always concentrating on wildlife. When the marvellous little Olympus OMs appeared I committed to those, fitted with Novoflex squeeze-focus lenses. These were genuine long-focus lenses, not telephotos, extremely sharp and excellent for flight pictures, but also very heavy. They were originally developed for photo journalists, perfect for black and white work. When colour became the norm, with its attendant needs and costs, I gave up birds in favour of concentration on insects. The new outfit offered much reduced weight, comparatively low costs and subjects everywhere in the wild, on hedgerows, outside the front door or on the moors.

Digital

With the arrival of digital with all its possibilities, and low operating costs, I resumed the search for birds, but settled on a light Nikon outfit, one of the Nikon D7000 series cameras, plus a Nikon 70-300mm 1: 4.5-5.6 VR lens. Later, I added a Nikon 80-400mm lens, sharp but rather slow autofocus. In recent years these have been replaced by the latest equivalents; an AF-P Nikkor 70-300mm f4.5-6.3G ED and a Sigma 100-400mm 1:5-6.3 DG. Both are light and incredibly sharp, with excellent silent internal autofocus which really locks on. The shorter lens is generally kept in the kitchen to photograph garden birds and animals, while the other is carried on walks and used in hides. Both designs are excellent in catching birds in flight. It is important to have complete confidence in and knowledge of what your outfit can do, without having to think about the mechanics of taking the shot. Modern cameras and lenses are miracles of just what can be achieved.

From the kitchen window, male Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus,

Supports

The picture shows a Nikon D7100 camera (since replaced with a D7500), on a Kirk mini-tripod for use on hide shelves. This tiny support looks out of proportion, but is absolutely rigid and controllable, capable of holding up to 100lbs weight. Because it folds, it can be carried in a small gadget bag. Although the lens stabilisation systems are excellent, it is impossibly tiring to sit for ages holding even a light lens, so I carry one of three different supports; either the Kirk, an old aluminium Gitzo table-top tripod, or an elderly Gitzo monopod which has a built-in shoulder support. In all cases, the ball-head is slackened off slightly, the slide adjusted, until it just holds the lens in balance, perfect for following ducks and other fast-moving birds in flight. It has been said that lenses should have their stabilisation system switched off when using a tripod otherwise the pictures will not be quite sharp - see the instructions which come with stabilised lenses. However, this no longer appears to be so with the latest lenses. I have tried mine with stabilisation switched on and off and can see no difference, so now leave it switched on permanently - more flexible and yet another thing I do not have to think about, important in the excitement of a shoot.

Nikon D7100, Sigma 100-400, Gitzo head and Kirk mini-tripod

Nikon D7100, Sigma 100-400, Gitzo mini-tripod

The monopod shown below, with built-in shoulder-rest, provides a remarkably steady platform. Used outside, or where there is no shelf, as in parts of the main hide at Greylake, the sliding plate and ball-head allow perfect balance for smooth flight shots. Pressing the support against the shoulder produces a really rigid structure, as effective as any heavy tripod. Any form of support allows a relaxed approach, to be ready for unexpected action at the very moment it occurs. Holding a camera and long lens without some form of support is exhausting; leaving the lens lying down guarantees that at least some action is missed. The secret to taking advantage of every opportunity is having the camera supported, pointed in the right direction and focussed somewhere close to where an opportunity may arise. I find it odd that more people do not take advantage of these flexible supports, to be completely ready for the most unexpected events.

Gitzo monopod and ball-head, with adjustable shoulder-stock

Some other observations

I was looking through some old pictures when I realised how excellent were the results from a previously owned mirror lens. I came across an advert for one and bought it. I was not disappointed. Although it has certain traits of which you have to be aware, it has produced some stunning results, particularly in its sharpness. The lens is a Tamron SP 500mm 1:8 Tele Macro BBAR MC, unmarked by the passage of time. Why use this? The mirror lens extends the range even beyond my Sigma 100-400. But, it can produce some odd effects in certain light, though works really well in many circumstances, separating the bird clearly from its background. For all the foregoing, I have now given up using the mirror lens in pursuit of minimising the weight I carry. My whole effort is devoted to the Sigma lens and what it can achieve through its really sharp characteristics, combined with reasonable weight. I have settled on a ThinkTank backpack which holds the camera/lens fully assembled together with either the Gitzo macro tripod or a carbon-fibre monopod strapped on the side. It seems heavy when hefted in the hand, but much lighter when hoisted onto the back - a first-class, practical design. I use this on longer walks where it is a godsend.

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago - mirror lens

Every so often, I feel it is worth mentioning a bit of kit that I have found particularly useful, adding to the list of those already mentioned. One such is a diagonal sling for carrying long lenses, or the complete insect outfit. I was given one, and found it invaluable. If you are walking some distance, yet want a camera ready for quick shots of birds come across en route, it can be tiring to carry it in one hand by its straps. (I use two short straps clipped together in normal use) The diagonal strap clips onto these by way of a pair of quick releases that slide up and down the main section. The Optech strap has its trademark neoprene neck-pad which reduces the effective weight of the outfit most effectively and comfortably. This strap also fits over the passenger's headrest in the car, saving the camera/lens from damage if the brakes have to be applied heavily, while leaving the camera available for a quick picture.

Robin in field mode! Optech strap taking the strain

 



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