Special features

Aiming high

Many of our Photo of the Week photographers are using cameras and lenses the pros use
By Matt Mendenhall | Published: 6/19/2009

Red-necked Grebe. Photographed by Laurie Wilson Neish with Canon EOS 20D and Canon EF 100-400mm lens.

Red-necked Grebe. Photographed by Laurie Wilson Neish with Canon EOS 20D and Canon EF 100-400mm lens.

Every Monday morning, we post a new Photo of the Week on BirdersWorld.com. It has been a popular part of the site for years. A crop of the image is featured on our home page, and it links to the full photo. We say a few words about the bird or birds shown and what the photographer did to take the picture. And we note what camera, lens, and other equipment he or she used to get the image.

brd-pr0809-1-200.ashxIn general, the photographers whose work we feature are not full-time pros, but their photos often rival the quality, clarity, and beauty of images we publish in the magazine. So we wondered: What cameras and lenses do Photo of the Week photographers use? Can anyone take high-quality bird shots with a $400 point-and-shoot model, or do you have to spend thousands of dollars to get top-flight photos of birds?

To find out, we compiled the equipment data on the photos we posted in 2007 and 2008. Of the 104 weekly photos, 99 were made with digital SLRs, some of which are among the best cameras on the market. All but one of the photographers using SLRs attached either a telephoto zoom or super-telephoto lens to the camera body.

brd-pr0809-1-600Three photographers used mega-zoom digital cameras, models that feature built-in 10-12x optical zooms. (Laura Erickson wrote about mega-zooms in our April 2007 issue, page 18.)

One photo was digiscoped using a Nikon point-and-shoot attached to a Zeiss spotting scope. (Ernie Mastroianni offered field-tested digiscoping advice in February 2007, page 28.)

And one photographer used a pocket-size Canon point-and-shoot to capture a Peregrine Falcon on an office building’s windowsill.

Violet-green Swallow. Photographed by Dustin Dovala with Nikon D200 and AF Nikkor 200-400mm f/4 lens.

Violet-green Swallow. Photographed by Dustin Dovala with Nikon D200 and AF Nikkor 200-400mm f/4 lens.

So, yes, we have selected Photos of the Week that came from cameras costing less than $400, but the vast majority of our photographers used camera-and-lens setups that retail for between $1,600 and $9,800. Granted, they may have spent less for used or refurbished equipment, but you get the idea.

I shared the data with Brian Small, a professional bird photographer whose images illustrate Kenn Kaufman’s “ID Tips” and often show up elsewhere in Birder’s World.

The equipment summary “looks about how I’d expect it to look,” he says, “because there are a lot of advanced amateurs or serious hobbyists who want to take beautiful photos.”

The most popular cameras and lenses used by Photo of the Week photographers are “definitely good enough to produce professional-quality images,” Small notes. “I’d be fine with owning any of the models on the top-10 list myself.”

Razorbills. Photographed by Anne Harlan with Canon Powershot S2 IS.

Razorbills. Photographed by Anne Harlan with Canon Powershot S2 IS.

In fact, he does own one of the top-10 cameras: Canon’s EOS 1D Mark II N. And he recently bought a Canon EOS 50D, which is the latest upgrade of the 20D, 30D, and 40D models that are most popular with our contributors.

“Clearly, some of these photographers have professional aspirations,” Small says, noting that several are using pro-level cameras (the 1D Mark II N and 1D Mark III) and lenses (500mm and 600mm).

The fact that about three out of every four Photo of the Week photographers use Canon cameras isn’t surprising, Small notes. The company dominates the camera market and has for years. “They have big research-and-development and marketing departments,” he says. “It’s sort of like Coke being bigger than Pepsi.”

Another reason many photographers prefer Canon is that it pioneered image-stabilization technology in super telephoto lenses. But Small says that in the last few years, “Nikon has closed the gap with Canon” because it offers lenses with the same feature.

Virginia Rail. Digiscoped by Jerry Jourdan with Nikon Coolpix P5000 and Zeiss Diascope 85T*.

Virginia Rail. Digiscoped by Jerry Jourdan with Nikon Coolpix P5000 and Zeiss Diascope 85T*.

The most popular lens focal lengths are 100-400mm telephoto zooms (used by 29 photographers) and 500mm super telephotos (used by 20 photographers).

“The 100-400mm makes sense for a lot of people,” Small says. “It’s a pretty darn good lens, easy to handhold, and extends to 400mm, which gives you a nice range. It’s especially good for someone who wants to be a birder and a photographer.”

Small uses a 500mm lens (and others) and says it’s “pretty lightweight,” allowing a photographer to use it handheld for shooting birds in flight.

The bottom line, according to Small: Camera equipment is only as good as the person who’s using it. “You can give a mediocre camera and lens to someone who really knows how to use them, and they’ll take professional-quality images. It’s like if you gave Picasso a crappy old paintbrush. He’d still make great art.”
- Matt Mendenhall

Peregrine Falcon. Photographed by Matthew Frederick with Canon Powershot SD450.

Peregrine Falcon. Photographed by Matthew Frederick with Canon Powershot SD450.

About Photo of the Week
A Snowy Plover crouching in the sand. An African Pygmy-falconperched on a thorny bush. A Pelagic Cormorant soaring above shimmering water. These are just a few of the hundreds of images that we’ve featured on our website’s Photo of the Week since 2003. We’ve presented shots of more than 230 species, selected from thousands of submissions from birders and photographers all over the world.

We look for photos that show wild birds in intriguing poses, making eye contact, or interacting with other birds. Plus, we’re always looking for birds that we haven’t featured, so we can add to our ever-growing species list.

And although we always report what camera equipment the photographer used, we never select photos based on the equipment. Did you get a cool shot with your camera phone? Send it in or submit it to our galleries; we just might make it a future Photo of the Week.