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cameras for photography

cameras for photography

A Birder's First Camera

The advice often given to first time birding camera buyers is, “Get the best camera you can afford.” As with most simplistic answers, that one contains just enough truth to be dangerous. A more useful answer would be a return question like, “What do you intend to use the camera for?” Different situations benefit from different equipment. Birding covers so many diverse activities from sitting on a patio watching the backyard feeder to an Antarctic expedition observing penguins. What you intend to do with the camera will determine which is best for you. While cost is an indicator of quality, a more expensive camera might not be the most appropriate for a particular need.


Bird photography requirements


There are a couple of generic requirements that a good birding camera must fulfill. A birding camera needs a lens with strong magnification. Getting close to birds is difficult and you will need a lens capable of capturing a good image at a distance that won’t spook your subjects. Ignore the 3X or 5X rating on cameras. It is a relative measure that gives little objective basis for comparison. More useful is the focal length. On digital cameras that is normally stated as either effective focal length or 35 mm equivalent focal length. Those measurements compare the magnification to what a 35 mm camera would offer. As digital camera sensors essentially magnify the actual focal length of a camera anywhere from 1.5 yo 2 times, the effective or 35 mm focal length measurement gives a standard for comparison. Consumer camera lenses that offer 450 mm - 600 mm effective focal lengths are good choices.


Another feature that a birding camera needs is manual focus. Under normal conditions the automatic focus on digital cameras does a great job. Unfortunately, birds often hang out among branches and leaves. Your camera can’t know which of the many possible subjects to focus on. Therefor, you will sometime, or often, need to manually focus on the bird to get a good shot. If you primarily observe shore birds that many not be as important a consideration. Otherwise it’s essential.


Camera manufacturers often advertise the number of megapixels their cameras will capture. That’s mostly a marketing gimmick. For current consumer level cameras anything more than 10-12 megapixels, and perhaps less, provides no measurable advantage and some experts feel that larger megapixel sensors produce more image noise or graininess. 


All modern digital cameras that cost more than a couple hundred dollars are extremely capable and will produce excellent images under most conditions. A $300 camera that you have with you will do you more good than a $3000 one that got left behind because it was too heavy or complicated to take along. Yes, the more expensive camera will do a better job under difficult photo taking conditions. It will offer more controls. The photos it takes will provide more editing latitude. It will also, at a minimum, weigh and cost two to three times as much. For the casual or beginning photographer the disadvantages of cost, weight and complexity will often outweigh the technical advantages. For smaller or less fit individuals the weight alone can be the most important consideration.


Photography Intentions


That brings us to the question of intentions. If photography is the primary intent of for your birding outing then a digital single lens reflex camera (DSLR) offers more creative control and will give you better photos in poor light as well as more post processing options. Under average daytime lighting conditions the image quality advantage diminishes to minuscule for image printed around 11” X 17” or smaller. If you want to make posters, shoot in minimal very early morning or late evening light then get the DSLR camera.


If photography is a secondary goal to observation and identification then a point and shoot camera with a long zoom lens might be a better choice. These are classified as super zoom cameras and can take excellent images under adequate daytime lighting. The advantages of a super zoom are lighter weight, lower cost and lower complexity. Their single lens can can do the job of two or three DSLR lenses, meaning that you only need the camera not a whole bag or backpack full of equipment. Street prices run from $300 - $400 for models that offer manual zoom capability. They are a particularly good choice for people moving up from a pocket point and shoot camera. The provide enough manual controls to keep a dedicate learner busy for a couple of years and are not unreasonable to haul around along with a good pair of binoculars. Super zooms also include movie capture modes, which as of Jan 09, only two DSLR’s offer. While the movie mode isn’t a substitute for a good video camera, it is a nice bonus to grab an occasional movie clip.


A good super zoom camera can make a good bridge camera. If you think you want to get into photography but haven’t actually done a lot of it, then the lower cost is a big plus. If you later decide to upgrade to a DSLR you won’t have wasted your money. There will always be situations where the super-zoom’s lower weight and wide focal length capacity make it a good choice. It also makes a great camera to lend.


I you already have extensive photography experience then a DSLR would be the better choice. It is a more capable camera. It will give usable photos at a higher ISO setting (lower light). You won’t be intimidated by the extra controls and buttons. You may already own 35 mm camera lenses that will work with the camera. You’ll be used to dealing with multiple lenses. If you enjoy digital darkroom work then a DSLR shooting in raw mode will give you more information to work with. You will also be familiar with the high price tags that quality lenses carry and won’t suffer as much from sticker shock.


About the Author

Recovering psychotherapist and Mac geek, Michael lives in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. He enjoys birding, hiking and cooking.

My site is Mystic Cowboy

Canon EOS 450D Digital Rebel XSi Camera - New EOS 450 DSLR

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