all pictures © robin williams
Photography - birds & mammals
equipment & fieldcraft
Great white egret, Egretta alba
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 specialist 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.
With the arrival of digital and all its possibilities, together with 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 with 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 In recent years these have been replaced by the latest equivalents; an AF-P Nikkor 70-300mm f4.5-6.3G ED and a Sigma 100-400mm 1:5-6.3 DG.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 for 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,
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 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, with the latest lenses, this no longer appears to be so . 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, ancient 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, so as 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.
Gitzo monopod and ball-head, with adjustable shoulder-stock
Some other observations
Nowadays, my whole effort is devoted to reducing weight; the Sigma lens meets that criterion as well as being really sharp. I have also settled on a ThinkTank backpack which holds the camera/lens fully assembled, together with either the Gitzo macro tripod (for use in a hide) 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 soon found it invaluable. If you are walking some distance, yet want a camera ready for quick shots of birds you come across, it is very tiring to carry an outfit 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. 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