You can take great photos of birds without a spotting scope or a telephoto lens
By Laura Erickson | Published: 3/1/2007
Single-lens-reflex cameras with long lenses are best for taking professional-quality bird photos, and some tiny point-and-shoot models are great for taking pictures through a spotting scope (digiscoping). But not all of us have the time, inclination, or money to buy a good SLR, and some days we just won’t want to lug a long lens or scope. And who wouldn’t want one simple, affordable camera that works for 90 percent of our photography needs?
Fortunately, new point-and-shoot cameras with 10-12x optical zooms, built-in image stabilizing, and five megapixels or more represent a fine alternative. How should you select one that’s right for you?
Start by comparing cameras in the store to see how well they fit in your hand, how heavy they are, and how big and bright their LCD screens are. If you, like me, use product manuals as a reference, not as a reading assignment before trying out a new gadget, make sure the controls are intuitive.
Virtually all the cameras I’ve seen with 10-12x zoom and image stabilizing cost $500 or less. Choosing a model with six or seven megapixels instead of 10 will save more than $100. But if you’re serious about photographing birds, this is one feature you don’t want to scrimp on. The more megapixels your camera offers, the more you will be able to enlarge your photos and still have usable images of distant birds.
Invest in large memory cards. A gigabyte or more isn’t too much. Buy extra rechargeable batteries, too, and reserve a pocket for spare batteries and cards.
I’ve been using a Sony DSC-H5 for months and have been delighted with its simple operation and excellent results. It’s surprisingly lightweight, less than 15 ounces; I’m comfortable with it and my binoculars around my neck. It has an exceptionally bright and large LCD screen (three inches) — it’s the only one I’ve tested I can use easily in even the brightest sunlight. And thanks to the large number of megapixels and crisp Zeiss lens, many images are suitable for printing. Canon, Kodak, Nikon, Olympus, and Panasonic make similar models.
Digiscoping isn’t as successful as it is with smaller cameras, but I’ve taken usable photos holding the camera against my scope’s eyepiece. (Don’t ever let glass touch glass!) Doing this with every large camera I’ve tested produces pictures that include a dark ring around the image (vignetting), the same one you see when you look through your scope. I get the best results when my camera isn’t zoomed at all. Then I do a significant amount of cropping and often end up with great images for emailing, posting on a blog, or illustrating a PowerPoint presentation.
Make the camera work for you
Point-and-shoot cameras do pose difficulties for nature photography; you’ll want to adjust the following settings right away: First, turn off the sound. (I’ve watched prairie-chickens fly away the moment a digital camera was turned on.) Turn off the digital zoom, too. Since it magnifies only the pixels, not the view, there’s little to be gained. Birds might appear larger, but your pictures won’t be any sharper than those taken using only the maximum optical zoom. Make sure your camera is set for large file sizes so you can enlarge photos later. Set the image-stabilizing feature to work just when you’re shooting — you’ll save battery life. And because nothing is more frustrating than having your camera turn off just when the bird you’ve been waiting for decides to pose, extend the time before automatic shutoff kicks in.
I always turn the automatic flash off. I also keep the “burst” function turned on so I can take several photos in rapid succession. This way, I often get images of the same bird facing different directions and doing different things. I simply delete the pictures that don’t turn out.
Most higher-end models have a manual focus override, but I seldom think to press the button to take advantage of that when a cool bird appears. Branches or other objects in front of it may make the camera focus on the wrong thing. To compensate, I look for something large to the side of my bird and the same distance away (often a nearby branch) and focus on it. Then, still holding the shutter halfway in, I move back and click.
To capture hovering hummingbirds, set the manual shutter-speed override for no slower than 1/100 of a second. Unfortunately, the cameras’ jack-of-all-trades lenses don’t transmit as much light as more specialized lenses, so you’ll need a bright, sunny day to get good results. And no matter what you’re shooting, on gloomy days or in deep shade, your photos will be grainier than they’d be with a high-quality SLR. Then again, you’ll have less weight to lug around and more money to spend on trips to see birds.
As soon as you’ve finished researching cameras and made your choice, start taking pictures! Work in your backyard under different light conditions. Become familiar with the features of your camera. And remember, every point-and-shoot zoom camera has limitations (as does every camera). Don’t second-guess your choice. The more pictures you take, the better your results will be. And the more time you spend outside photographing birds, the happier you’ll be.
Laura Erickson is staff ornithologist for binoculars.com and the author of the book 101 Ways to Help Birds (Stackpole Books, 2006). Her photos are also online at www.birderblog.com.