TECHNIQUES - birds and other 

equipment & fieldcraft

Great white egret, Egretta alba

I have photographed birds for many years, starting at school with a Box Brownie, then an ancient plate camera, eventually moving on to  35mm Zenith cameras, before settling for Olympus OMs, fitted with superb Novoflex squeeze-focus lenses. These were genuine long-focus lenses, not telephotos, extremely sharp and excellent for flight pictures, but also very heavy. I used 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, with its attendant costs, I gave up bird photography in favour of concentrating on insects. The outfit offered much reduced weight, with comparatively low costs and subjects everywhere in the wild, on hedgerows or outside the front door.

With the arrival of digital, I resumed the search for birds, but settled on a lighter Nikon outfit, a 70-300 Nikon and later added an 80-400mm lens. In recent years these lenses have been replaced by the latest equivalents; a Tamron SP 70-300mm f4-5.6 and a Sigma 100-400mm 1:5-6.3 DG.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, while the other is carried on walks and used in hides. Both are superb for catching birds in flight.

From the kitchen window, male Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus,

The picture below shows the Nikon D7100 camera, on a Kirk mini-tripod. This latter looks tiny, and appears out of proportion, but is incredibly rigid and controllable, capable of holding up to 100lbs weight. As it folds, it can be carried in a small gadget bag. Although the stabilisation system is excellent on these lenses, it is impossibly tiring to sit for ages holding even a light lens, so I do carry one of three supports. I use either an old aluminium Gitzo table-top tripod, the  Kirk tripod or an elderly Gitzo monopod which has a shoulder support. In all cases, 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 the pictures are not quite sharp - see the instructions which come with stabilised lenses.

Nikon D7100, Sigma 100-400, Gitzo head and Kirk 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 ensures a relaxed way to be ready for unexpected action, at the very moment it occurs. Holding a camera and long lens without some form of support can be exhausting, which does not make for a succesful outcome.

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

I was looking through some of my old pictures when I realised how excellent were the results from an old mirror lens, long sold and gone. I came across an advert for one and bought it. I have not been 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 in excellent condition, unmarked by the passage of time. Why use this? As usual, weight is the answer. for instance, when I visit Slimbridge, the 70-300 lens is ideal for birds in flight but too short for use in a hide, The two lenses in combination are perfect; the 500 mirror hardly noticed in a rucksac. My outfit it completed by a Kirk mini-tripod for use in the hide.

Common snipe Gallinago gallinago - mirror lens

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. A particularly important one is a diagonal sling for carrying long lenses or the insect outfit. I was given one and have found it invaluable for two 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. The Optech strap has its usual trademark neoprene neck-pad to reduce the effective weight of the whole. In addition, this strap fits conveniently over the passenger's headrest in the car, saving the camera and lens from damage if the brakes have to be applied heavily, while leaving the camera available for a quick picture. I have no connection with any of these firms, just as a satisfied user.

Keep going! Optech strap taking the weight of the camera


Wildlife photography

Visitors Counter