As a photographer of birds, I am an unabashed, rank amateur. However, though a newbie, I’m enthusiastic and have a good measure of patience plus some expert friends who’ve been capturing bird images for many years. Following their advice, I’m having a blast and you can see the results so far in my recent posts entitled “Boca Grande,” “Birds of Prey,” “Backyard Birds” and “South Carolina Birds.” Links can be found on the main page of this site.
All of the Boca Grande pictures (such as the one above) were taken with a full-frame Sony A7II and Tamron 150-600mm lens. I wrestled this large, heavy rig (there’s a picture of it below) through several days of fairly intense shooting. In addition to delivering several thousand exposures, its weight and size also gave me sore shoulders and wrists. Since the Sony has very effective in-camera stabilization, I left the tripod behind and shot it and the long lens hand-held. This exacerbated the discomfort in my arms but was a heck of a lot less cumbersome.
As it happened, one of the shooters on the trip had an intriguing equipment alternative to big and heavy — a small and light Nikon 1 V3 and 70-300mm lens. Afterward, I acquired the same set-up and most of the rest of my bird shots have been made with it. Here is one of them …
… and below are the two camera/lens combos sitting side-by-side. Besides being smaller and lighter, the Nikon gear also is quieter (there’s a silent shutter option) and less-expensive. In my opinion, that’s win, win, win, win.
So what’s the catch? Why would anyone ever lug around the one on the top when the one on the bottom is so much easier to handle?
One of the answers involves sensor size. The Nikon’s is approximately a third the size of full-framer. Generally speaking, the smaller the sensor, the less resolution. Usually this means a given image may not appear as sharp or rich in detail. Consequently, conditions have to be ideal for the Nikon 1 exposures to approach the quality of a those produced by a full-frame camera. To perform well, the Nikon sensor needs lots of light to keep the ISO low (preferably 160 or so) and, at full telephoto, a high shutter speed. Otherwise, detail begins to fall apart.
In digital photography, I place high value on sharpness and resolution. Ordinarily, I want as much of both as possible, particularly if I’m forced to crop and enlarge a portion of an original file. High resolution and low “noise” (noise is visual degradation similar to “grain” in film but arguably much worse) mean my image should endure magnification without unacceptable deterioration. And that’s why I remain committed to full-frame (35mm format) cameras for most things.
But full-frame, big iron cameras like those manufactured by Nikon and Canon generally are large, heavy, loud and expensive. For birding, it seems to me that smaller, lighter, quieter and less expensive are desirable attributes. Emerging now are full-frame cameras that are somewhat smaller, lighter, quieter and less expensive such as the “mirrorless” Sony A7 series (one of which is in the comparison picture above). But even the Sonys, when equipped with long telephotos, lose much of the size and weight advantage they have over DSLRs. And long telephotos are a must when it comes to bird photography.
Enter the Nikon 1 V3 and its 70-30omm lens whose focal length is the equivalent of a whopping 810mm. That.
Take a look at this shot taken of an Eastern Kingbird on the grounds of The Center for Birds of Prey at Awendaw, South Carolina. The version you see here has been significantly compressed for blog display but it’s still pretty good. The original has even more resolution and sharpness. I’d argue that the background bokeh (a derivative from a Japanese word meaning “blur”) is pleasing, as well. Ordinarily, that’s difficult to achieve with smaller sensors but the focal length of the 70-300mm (equiv. 810mm) makes it possible. I was fortunate enough to get fairly close to the bird and fill the frame which means I didn’t have to crop much. The bird was in the sunlight and ISO was a low 160.
Now, compare it with the shot below.
This Cardinal spotted in my backyard north of Atlanta was in a shady spot. In addition, I couldn’t get very close so this version represents about a 150% crop from the original. It’s an OK image but it’s not as sharp and far more noisy (you can begin to see the pixels) than the Kingbird above. ISO was 4000, way too high (in my opinion) for the Nikon’s sensor. Had there been more light and no crop, this picture would have been as sharp and detailed as the one of the Kingbird.
Also, it should be said that maximizing image results might take a little practice. Well-lit, stationary subjects generally are no problem, particularly if you can get close. Birds in flight are far more challenging. Suffice it to say that it helps if the birds are large and providing more mass onto which the camera’s autofocus sensor points can lock. But with practice and the right focus area settings, even small flyers can be captured.
Plus, thanks to the extreme focal length, you can grab very nice macro (close-up) images such as this butterfly.
As a bonus, the Nikon rig has faster and more dependable autofocus than the Sony/Tamron when shooting fast moving birds — but not as fast and dependable as the Nikon D4. Plus, besides single shot, the Nikon can burst fire at from 10 to 60 frames-per-second and that will produce plenty of frames from which to choose.
For me, the Nikon 1 V3/100-300mm lens combo is a one-trick pony but that trick (the equivalent of 810mm telephoto reach) is a doozy. (UPDATE: The more I use this camera, the more I like it and calling it a “one trick pony” is doing it an injustice. To maximize quality, though, you need plenty of light, shoot at a low ISO and fill the frame so little cropping or enlargement is required.) It’s pricey, though, at approximately $2,200 for the pair. The Sony/Tamron combo mentioned above is only a few hundred dollars more and it’s full-frame but it’s much larger and heavier. And the Nikon or Canon DSLRs the big guys use with ultra-long telephotos have prices that make the eyes water. For example, a Nikon D4 (favored by some birders) is $6,000 and a Nikon 800mm f/5.6 lens is available on Amazon for $17,896.95. As I said earlier, the Nikon 1 V3 and its telephoto are smaller, lighter, quieter and can achieve surprisingly good results but at significantly less cost.
While I’m not about to abandon my full-frame cameras for most of my work, I can honestly say that I’ve had more fun with the little Nikon combo than most any camera I’ve owned. With lots of light and subjects filling its frame, results can be superb and one need not break the bank to get them. For shooting brightly lit subjects — like birds! — it is darn near miraculous.