ARTICLES: THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS
by Brian E. Small
The lens you choose is probably the single most important component of your bird photography equipment. By picking the proper lens for the right photographic situation, you will be equipped to take the photographs you want. Just by choosing a lens for a given circumstance, you are already determining what kind of photograph you are going for. The amount of magnification and the aperture (f-stop) of the lens you are using may be the biggest factors in the kind of photos you take.
As fall turns to winter, you will find many new opportunities to use a variety of lenses. When the weather begins to turn cold, great flocks of migrating geese, cranes and ducks will be on the move. Places like Bosque del Apache, New Mexico, California's Klamath Basin, Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin and the Wilcox Playa of Arizona are wonderful locations to break out any or all of your lenses. Whether you own macro lenses, short and medium zoom lenses or a long telephoto, there is a use for all of them in your bird photography. So reach deep into your camera bag and pull out all your glass because it is time to put it to work.
Have you ever thought about trying for artistically composed photographs of a feather caught on a branch or a bird's footprint in the snow? Maybe this fall you will come across an old nest or eggshell that would make an interesting composition. Whatever you choose to photograph, remember to try exciting new ideas in your photography. I have been photographing birds for close to 10 years now and always enjoy the challenge of finding new ways to take pictures. Now let's consider what different lenses mean to your bird photography.
A Closer Look
Now having said that, I would also tell you to be realistic in your expectations. You should not expect to get frame-filling images of the chickadees, nuthatches and sparrows at your backyard feeders with a short zoom lens. Conversely, you cannot take a close-up photograph of the detail in a birds' feather with a 600mm telephoto from 2 feet away. The point is that different kinds of photographs require different types of lenses.
As I mentioned in my September column, for bird photography you want to own the absolute best quality lenses you can afford. You may even want to go a little beyond that point because the quality of your lenses can, at times, make or break the quality of your photographs. As a general rule, I would also encourage you to own the longest (highest magnification) lens you can afford. Whether that means a 75-300mm zoom, a 400mm f5.6 or 500mm f4 telephoto, a super-telephoto 600mm or 800mm lens or something in between. When it comes to birds, it seems that you can never have too much magnification.
You may also want to look for lenses that have some "Extra-low Dispersion" glass elements. Different camera manufacturers have different designations for this term, so ask the salesman at your local store about this type of glass. Without going into a technical explanation of this term, I will just tell you that lenses with this type of glass are of the highest optical quality on the market today. Also, if you have a choice, another important feature I highly recommend you look for in a lens is "internal focusing" or "IF". IF lenses are lighter and better balanced, have very rapid and smooth focusing and can focus closer than non-IF lenses.
Autofocus is another important consideration you will make when buying lenses for bird photography. I think that if you asked 10 different photographers about autofocus you might get 10 different answers. However, there is no argument that autofocus can be an awesome tool for flight and fast action bird photography. Spectacular photographs of birds are being made now with autofocus lenses that were literally impossible to make before their invention.
Autofocus technology has greatly improved since it's initial introduction about 10 years ago. Over the years, autofocus lenses have gotten much smoother, faster and quieter. Canon has long been the leader in autofocus equipment and now Nikon's newly designed series of "silent-wave" lenses are the state of the art. Minolta, Sigma, Tamron and Tokina all offer autofocus capability in their line-up as well. Generally speaking, autofocus lenses cost more than their manual focus counterparts and it appears that camera manufacturers are making less and less manual focus equipment. If you choose not to own autofocus lenses, do not worry; you can still take many beautiful photographs with manual focus equipment. I have managed pretty well without autofocus for the past 10 years and so can you.
Short lenses are terrific for photographing large groups of birds. These lenses can provide a large field of view and the ability to get tremendous depth of field to get an entire flock of birds in focus. Think of the compositional possibilities of a pond full of beautiful white Snow Geese on crystal blue water where every bird is in focus. Or perhaps a flock of migrating Sandhill Cranes in flight against a magnificent golden twilight autumn sky. Photographs like these can be every bit as dramatic as frame-filling portraits and using shorter lenses is the best way to take them!
Short lenses are also wonderful for documenting birding locations or new habitats you are visiting. Maybe you want to photograph other birders and photographers in the field. Perhaps you will have the chance this fall to take close-up head shots of migrating raptors being studied at a research station. Try using a macro lens to photograph the amazingly intricate details and patterns of a feather. There are limitless possibilities for short lenses if you use your creative instincts.
Medium magnification lenses, say those between 100mm and 400mm, can be used effectively in a number of ways to photograph birds. There are quite a few, relatively inexpensive, good quality medium magnification lenses on the market today. In particular, the Sigma 400 f5.6 APO lens has gotten very good reviews by a number photo experts. A very lightweight lens like this, with a matched 1.4X teleconverter would be a great way to start your telephoto bird photography without spending too much money.
A 75-300mm or 200-400mm zoom would be marvelous to use at a feeding station in your yard. The ability you have with a zoom to change your amount of magnification can be very handy when you have different size birds coming to a feeder. You may get a tiny nuthatch or a much larger jay to land on the same perch near your feeder. The ability to zoom the lens will let you compensate for big differences in the size of the birds.
Lenses in this category can also be useful for portraits of larger, tame birds in well-traveled refuges and sanctuaries. At places like the Anhinga trail in Everglades National Park, the famous heron rookery at Venice, Florida or the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador you will find these lenses to be very effective. Medium focal length lenses can also be great for photos of bird groups. At other times, you may get to use a 300mm or 400mm lens for individual birds in flight. Because the lenses are small, light and maneuverable, you can also handhold them in some instances for flight photography.
Finally, there are the high magnification 500mm, 600mm and 800mm telephoto lenses. The lenses in this category are for the most part heavy, expensive and require a tripod at all times to be used effectively. Because they provide so much magnification, too much vibration of the lens will render photographs unacceptably soft. Now if I have not scared you off, let me also tell you that many of the beautiful photographs you seen in books, calendars, CD-ROM programs and magazines like WildBird are probably taken with a high power telephoto lens.
Well-known and respected professional bird photographers like Arthur Morris, Kevin Karlson and Tom Vezo need these amazing lenses to help them make a living. Long lenses not only provide these photographers with the magnification they need, but also with the narrow field of view and narrow depth of field that can isolate a bird from its' surroundings. A long telephoto lens will also give you a greater working distance from a subject and therefore, provide a better chance of not spooking a bird.
If you have an interest in owning a big telephoto, a great way to save some money is by buying used equipment. You will find that most people who own lenses in this category take very good care of their biggest investment. A few years back I was able to buy a mint condition, used Nikon 800mm lens for only $3,800. Now I know that is a lot of money, but when you consider that the same lens sells for over $6,000 new, you can see my point.
Camera lenses can truly be the most important photo equipment you will own. This autumn, I encourage you to become more familiar with what your lenses can do for you by experimenting in new ways with your outdoor and bird photography. Attempt new compositions, use your macro capabilities, experiment with wide angles, photograph at the feeders in your yard and seek out new locations to use a telephoto lens. If you make an effort to expand your photographic knowledge and skill by using a variety of lenses, you won't be disappointed.