Last winter, at the tender age of 71, I underwent a procedure that would have a major impact on my life: a total knee replacement. My previously stiff and painful arthritic knee has improved substantially, and I’m pretty much back to my normal active lifestyle. But the healing process was slow and the physical therapy challenging, and I confess there were days when I despaired of ever again moving around easily with my photography gear.
That started me thinking about ways we bird photographers might update our equipment to take advantage of new technology and innovative products, as well as adapt our techniques and our own behavior to let us pursue our passion as we grow older and less mobile.
Bulky cameras and giant telephoto lenses are par for the course for any serious photographer. Two decades ago, I sometimes would carry around two entire systems. My primary bird gear was a Canon DSLR body fitted with a 500mm f/4 telephoto lens supported on a tripod. Slung over my shoulder was a second body with a 100-400mm zoom lens for birds in flight. As the years passed, though, lugging all that weight sapped my energy and motivation. Bird photography was no longer fun. The solution? Downsize!
Luckily, this is the perfect time to lighten that load. We now have mirrorless cameras that are more compact and lighter in weight than their DLSR predecessors. Three years ago, I switched to a mirrorless Sony a9, whose fast and accurate autofocus system made it the best option for bird photography at that time. Since then, all the camera manufacturers have jumped into the fray with a wide array of mirrorless bodies, including models in Canon’s R series and Nikon’s Z series, as well as Sony’s a1 and a9 II, OM System’s OM1, and others. (For detailed recommendations, see “Camera makers embrace mirrorless technology” by William Jobes, BirdWatching, July/August 2022 issue.)
Let’s not forget lenses. Downsizing doesn’t mean sacrificing the telephoto reach so vital to get a decent image size of our small and flighty subjects because there’s a new generation of lightweight, compact telephotos to pair with the mirrorless bodies. Among the various options, Nikon’s 500mm PF and Canon’s RF 100-500mm have proven themselves to be awesome bird lenses. Pro friends who use them report good results even when paired with a teleconverter. My current bird lens is Sony’s 200-600mm, a terrific zoom that covers almost the entire focal range of my two previous telephotos. How’s that for a weight-saving switch!
It’s true that these compact zooms are not as fast as the big prime lenses with their large, light-gathering front elements, meaning focus acquisition may be a little slower (particularly in low light and/or when used with a teleconverter). Despite that, for me, the mirrorless revolution has been a game-changer. Bird photography is fun again!
Take a load off
Gone are the days of lugging around a huge tripod-mounted rig resting on your shoulder! Many photographers find the new cameras and lenses to be easily hand-holdable. But neck strain and back fatigue still can be a problem during long hours in the field. Fortunately, a number of great products make it easier to carry gear and have it always at the ready.
One thing sure to lead to a pain in the neck is hanging your camera ’round your neck on the manufacturer-provided strap. Instead, switch to a cross-body camera sling strap, a design that angles the strap across your chest, redistributing the camera and lens weight away from your neck and shoulders. My strap of choice is from BlackRapid. Another recommended brand is Peak Design.
Or you can use a wearable camera support that holds the camera close to the body rather than dangling from a strap. Consider the waist belt made by Spider Inc. (spiderholster.com). It uses two metal plates: one attached to the camera that clips onto the other on the belt, holding the camera in place. One of my photographer friends swears by this system, finding it much more comfortable than a strap to carry her camera/telephoto combo. Or consider a camera harness such as those made by Cotton Inc. that holds the camera close to your chest. Hands-free designs such as these are a great option if you need to use hiking poles for stability while walking around.
Trudging along a beach through deep, soft sand carrying heavy gear can be particularly tiring. You might prefer a beach cart. Choose one with large wheels and/or fat tires with thick treads because these types tend to move most smoothly and easily over bumpy ground and across sand. The typical beach cart used for family outings has four wheels, but another suggestion is a two-wheeled “beach rolly” such as the Eckla Rolly Beach Trolley. It’s pricey but has been recommended by photographers.
The lowdown on low-angle shooting
The most compelling bird images are shot from the subject’s eye level. For ground-dwelling species, that requires getting down on the ground, something that becomes a lot more challenging as we get older. (Yes, getting vertical again is even harder!) Typically, you lie on your belly with the camera supported either on a ground pod, a tripod with flattened-out legs, or even directly on the ground, and then crane your neck upward to look through the viewfinder. Ouch! Luckily, there’s an easier way, thanks to new camera design. Rather than compose through the viewfinder, use the tilting rear screen found on many newer models. Now you can sit, rather than lie, on the ground, angle the screen out, and look down onto it. That should help you avoid neck strain. Composing via the rear screen does take practice, especially if the subject is moving around, but once you get used to the new method, it works well.
Some photographers might think a right-angle viewfinder attachment would achieve the same effect. But to see through the viewfinder requires leaning down lower than looking at an angled-out screen, leading to neck and/or back pain. Furthermore, these attachments are not available for most camera models, and in my experience, the one-size-fits-all types don’t fit anything very well.
Crawling around to approach birds can wreak havoc on sore, aging knees. Knee pads, such as those made for construction workers or for gardening, can help. It was many months before I dared put any weight on my new knee, and even a year post surgery, I still can’t tolerate the dense foam and/or hard shells of conventional knee pads. Instead, I purchased Total Comfort memory-foam knee pads, recommended by orthopedists. Now I can crawl around like a 2-year-old!
Use it or lose it
It’s important for bird photographers of any age to be in good physical shape, but staying fit is even more important for older folks. Having stamina, strength, good balance, and flexibility will keep you out in the field with the birds longer and help avoid injuries. So, renew that lapsed gym membership or sign up for a fitness class, ideally one that includes weight training and stretching, such as Jazzercise or Pilates.
While we photographers need to stay fit to best pursue our craft, the converse is also true: Bird photography itself provides health benefits, encouraging a healthy outdoor lifestyle that’s good for body AND soul! Think of it as a win-win situation — a positive outlook to keep in mind as we head into this new stage of life.
This article was published in the “Photographing Birds” column in the November/December 2022 issue of BirdWatching magazine.