Don’t Buy a Premium Telephoto Lens – What puts off most people from starting a hobby such as bird & wildlife photography? It’s simply the cost. A Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS USM Super Telephoto Lens will cost you USD 6,140 at Amazon. Apart from the price the other negative aspect is the weight. This beauty weighs in at 8.5 pounds! Imagine trekking through the forest or the jungle for several hours lugging this weight on top of your other photography gear.
Do Buy a Budget Telephoto Lens – a Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM telephoto lens will only cost you USD 1,200 at Amazon. This lens weighs in at only 2.8 pounds. Thus with this option you have an 80% saving in the cost and a 66% saving in the weight you have to carry around. The purist photographer may argue that this lens won’t have the clarity and allow the same amount of light into the camera, essential when taking shots in low light conditions. This is not true if you follow the techniques described below.
Do Buy a Premium Camera Body – you can compensate for any defficencies in the budget telephoto lens by using a state of the art digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera body. I bought the Canon EOS 50D 15.1 MP last year and have been amazed at the results. Current price at Amazon is USD 970. There are three features explained below, which make this an outstanding camera body for bird & wildlife photography.
Sensor Cleaning – Firstly whenever you switch the camera on or off, the automatic sensor cleaning kicks in. This removes any particles off the sensor, which might otherwise result in artifacts or grain in the final image – a serious weakness in the most of the early DSLR models. This allows you to use a much higher ISO setting without getting a grainy image.
High-Speed Exposure Burst – You have the option to shoot a burst of exposures at 5 frames per second. This is a real advantage when taking flight shots. Chances are that if you take a sequence of 15 shots in 3 seconds, at least a couple of the images will be usable or even outstanding.
Automatic Focusing via Servo Drive – You have automatic focusing using a servo drive. This means that as you track a bird in flight across the sky, the focus will be automatically and continuously adjusted right up to the point when you depress the shutter and capture your image.
Use a high ISO and Short Exposure Time – Most photographer purists would argue strongly against this tip but my experience will convince you of its validity. By selecting a high ISO you increase the sensitivity of the sensor thereby allowing you to optimize the exposure with less light and a shorter exposure time. I typically use an ISO of 1,000 with an exposure time 1/2,000 sec. This eliminates camera shake and gives you sharp, crisp images without having to use a heavy and cumbersome tripod. This is especially important when taking shots of birds in flight.
Eliminate Grain and Sharpen Your Image – Any grain which might show up in the sky area or on water surfaces can be easily eliminated by using a software programme such as NeatImage. Then sharpen your image using “Unsharp Mask.” Both steps together take only a few seconds when processing your images in your image processing software.
Crop Your Image, Optimise Contrast and Lightness – Finally it’s good to optimise the composition of your image by cropping and optimising the contract and lightness using image processing software such as Photoshop.
Stalk your Subject with Patience and Respect – When out in the field taking wildlife shots, it’s important to approach your subject with patience and not to get too close. Otherwise the subject will already have taken flight before you’re ready to take the first shot. My rule of thumb is to act so as to be able to leave the scene without having disturbed the subject.