TECHNIQUES - BIRD AND OTHER PHOTOGRAPHY

Equipment & fieldcraft

Peregrine falcon, Falco peregrinus                       © robin williams

 

I have photographed birds for many years, starting at school with an ancient small plate camera and eventually moving on to  35mm cameras, before settling for Olympus OMs fitted with Novoflex squeeze-focus lenses. These were genuine long-focus lenses, not telephotos, and were extremely sharp and excellent for flight pictures, but also very heavy. I had both 400mm and 600mm heads which screwed onto the base unit. The majority of pictures were taken in black and white. When colour became the norm, wih attendant costs, I gave up bird photography in favour of concentrating on insects. This offered much reduced weight, with comparatively low costs and subjects everywhere, in the wild, local parks and reserves or outside the front door.

Later, with the arrival of digital, I resumed the search for birds, but settled on a far lighter Nikon outfit. The main lens was the quite excellent AFS Nikkor 70-300mm, f4.5-5.6 G ED VR. This gave the equivalent of 450mm on my D300 camera and was ideal for birds in flight. It may be carried all day and swung to follow a flying bird with ease. Why not go in for the much more popular bird-lens, the 500mm f4? Two important reasons - cost and weight. I value the freedom of the light lens, and of not paying more for a lens than a reasonable secondhand car.

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The picture shows my Nikon D300 camera, a Nikon 80-400 lens, Cullmann quick-release and sliding plate, Gitzo hollow-ballhead. The Kirk mini-tripod looks tiny and appears out of proportion, but is incredibly rigid and controllable, capable of holding 100lbs weight. Since I now spend a deal of time at a couple of hides where the birds may be further away, I succumbed to buying a second-hand 80-400 f.4.5/5.6 Nikon lens. This was very sharp but focussing proved unable to cope with quite a bit of flight photography - the lens would not lock on reliably. This has been replaced now with a lightweight Sigma 100-400 f5.6-6.3DG lens which has proved ideal. It is extremely sharp, the autofocus really speedy and the stabilisation excellent, while it is easy to carry. Although the stabilisation system is excellent, it is impossibly tiring to sit for ages holding even a light lens, so I do carry one of three supports. For hides with reasonably wide shelves, I use an old aluminium Gitzo table-top tripod fitted with their latest hollow-ball head, or a much more modern Kirk tripod designed to sit on those shelves without any adjustment. The ball-head is slackened off, and the slide adjusted, until it just holds the lens in balance, enabling you to follow ducks and other fast-moving birds in flight. Incidentally, stabilised lenses must have their stabilisation switched off when using a tripod or good, solid monopod, otherwise unexpected blurring occurs and the pictures are not quite sharp. Eventually, after years of service, the Nikon 70-300 stopped functioning and proved un-repairable. It has been replaced with a Tamron SP 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 lens at least as sharp as the Nikon, with lightning autofocus, selling at far less, a first-class buy which takes lovely flight shots of birds. Recently (2017), Nikon announced a new 70-300 lens with no obvious advantages over their already first-class earlier model, but nearly doubling the price! A strange way to attract users when other top-class alternatives exist. Is this the new way forward?

The monopod shown below, with shoulder-rest, forms a very 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 may be balanced perfectly for smooth flight shots.

Any form of support provides a relaxed way of being ready for unexpected action at the very moment it occurs. Holding a camera with long lens without some form of support can be exhausting, which does not make for succesful shots.

Every so often, I feel worth mentioning a bit of kit that I have found particularly useful, adding to the list of those already mentioned. The first is the use of a diagonal sling for carrying long lenses in particular. I saw an advert for one and was given one for my birthday eventually. I have found it invaluable for two quite separate reasons. If you are walking some distance, yet want the camera to hand for quick shots of birds seen en route, it can be tiiring 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 a pair of quick releases that slide up and down the main section. My Optech strap has its usual trademark rubber neck pad to reduce the effective weight of the whole. This strap fits conveniently over the passenger's headrest, saving the camera and lens from damage if the brakes have to be applied heavily, yet leaving the camera available for a quick picture through a window. I have no connection with these firms, just as a satisfied user. As the years go on, you collect your own list of useful gadgets, wishing you had known about them earlier.

Keep going! Optech/USA strap taking the weight of the camera


 




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