“I must start off by saying that I am primarily a bird watcher rather than photographer. I have a busy professional life but birds and nature have been my passion for more than 35 years.
“I would like to start off by describing the different kinds of persons who might take pictures of birds, a simplistic overview. There are the bird scientist (ornithologists) who would like to document characteristics of the bird and behaviour. The bird photographer is the one who would like to get that ‘perfect’ image of a beautiful creature. Then there is the birdwatcher, an amateur ornithologist, but one who enjoys birds and has often a lifetime passion for this activity. I belong to the last group. I have published some scientific articles (and hope to do more in the future) as well as tried my hand at getting that ‘great image’. But I am primarily a bird friend who respects birds and other creatures as sentient beings. So I am writing this article from that perspective, not one to get the best image but using photography as a tool to support an interest. Hence the birds always come first and the image last. Hence, although good images are desired, no obtaining images is accepted as long as the birds are not harmed. Not so great images, that show interesting behaviour, are also welcome. I also expect that I will crop images I take and process them extensively with some imaging software; often merging images to give a better idea of the observation.
“I always consider what I am trying to achieve and why. If I am interested in really sharp/clear images, I will buy the best camera and long lens (good/high quality glass, minimum 500 mm with a good teleconvertor) my pocket will allow with a very good tripod. But for me this makes the equipment heavy and hard to use handheld. I prefer to watch birds using handheld camera gear. For me a static image has limited value – there will always be someone else who can take a better picture than me. I avoid tripod or monopods as birds dislike them and shy away. I almost never use flash as birds are disturbed by it. My primary objective is to try and make ‘friends’. I want to watch behaviour and want them to let me get close. Hence I have stayed with the lightest camera and lens that offers the longest reach.
My Equipment Journey
“I started out with a Nikon D50 SLR and a simple Nikon AF Zoom 70-300mm back in 2005. This was a cheap setup and allowed me to test if I wanted to move from just visual observations to also documenting bird behaviour. I was reasonably pleased. Initially with a tripod but quickly moving to the freedom and joy that handheld work offered. I knew I needed better glass and when the Nikon AF Zoom 70-300mm VR lens appeared I switched to that. Good lens and not too heavy but the reach was insufficient. By 2008 I moved to a Tamron AF Zoom 200-500mm, which I picked up 2nd hand, and a Nikon D90. This became my standard set up and was delightful. Heavier and required some adjustment but gave me the reach I was looking for. This kept me happy for 2 years but after a while the lens was getting ‘soft’ and I was looking for some VR support. In September 2010 I was on holiday in Australia to watch birds and picked up the Sigma AF OS Zoom 150-500mm (considerably cheaper than back home). The Sigma lens is a bit heavier and takes a little longer to focus than the Tamron but is sharper (I removed the tripod ring to lessen weight). In January 2011 my wife, seeing the quality of my work improve, approved my purchase of the Nikon 7000.
“I should say at this point that I am a single-equipment-person. In that I seldom keep old lenses once I am happy with the current set up as I am sure I will not use them. So I tend to give away to friends or sell off via my local camera dealer.
“The Nikon 7000 combination with the Sigma AF OS Zoom 150-500mm was a dream (I do not know much about cameras but have given more details about my preferred setting below when comparing with my considered alternative). I fix the settings (using the U1 & U2 presets) and set to Continuous high speed (CH), use the sports function, single point focus to track fast moving birds, set shutter speed and ISO on auto. I know aperture priority is considered the best shooting mode but I do not use that function at present. I usually take images at or close to the full zoom of 500mm. I have tried a number of teleconvertors to extend reach but the image quality with this set up is generally degraded.
Some images I have captured have been good enough to be accepted in a few local and international ornithology book publications and I have included some recent images here for consideration. I was surprised when I even got paid for some of my work. Made me consider quitting my job and going green (unlikely as I love children too much).
How do I use my Setup to do Handheld Bird Photography?
“I use the Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3 AF OS with the Nikon 7000. Many who carry my setup for the first time (when I loan it in the field) say it weighs a lot, but for me, it has become manageable after a while. Remember for me I am not worried if do not get pictures – birds first, pictures last. I usually go out in the field or jungle alone as I enjoy the solitude. I often visit the same locations so that I get familiar with the wildlife and the birds get used to me (I wear almost the same clothes each time). I carry nothing else with me to keep my weight down, no bag, no accessories except for my mobile (in case the hospital needs to reach me, on vibratory mode). I keep camera and lens as hidden as possible, held by my side. Of course handheld at 500 mm continue to remain a challenge in terms of shake/movement distortion. Hence I lie down, lean against trees, hold my breath, widen my stance, etc to reduce shake.
“On the average I make two trips weekly to watch birds and will also use the camera in the home garden intermittently. I often take between 200-300 images during a 3 hours trip and will discard the majority. I find that obtaining a variety of images, some not great quality as taken at short notice, allows a better understanding of bird behaviour. Much patience is required; no sudden moves and lots of patient watching and waiting. Not uncommonly birds will allow a close approach or come to scrutinise me when I choose to remain still for 30-40 minutes. I occasionally vocally imitate bird calls and some birds will approach to investigate. I think using call playback is unacceptable and feeding birds unethical and harmful. The set up I have is excellent for taking images of small, rapidly moving birds and those in flight. For flying birds I keep my zoom at 200mm and track birds to get focus. As I follow, in focus, I keep shooting while I extend zoom to 400-500mm to capture images.
“This style of bird photography is as much about bird watching as it is about the photography. I learned much from my ‘sifu’ Madoc (Guy Charles Madoc 1911-1999) LINK. I picked up a copy of his Malaysian bird book in 1975 and learned how to respect birds, and how to watch/understand behaviour. I recently wrote a tribute to him in the local nature society publication. I learned from him to take time, to sit quietly by a path or road side. To allow the bird to recognise that you are ‘safe’. It is probably important to mention that, unlike the industrialised world where they have taken the trouble to respect wildlife, much of my country and parts of Asia have some growing up to do.
My Continued Journey
“I salivate at some of the beautiful pictures produced by the Nikon 800mm lenses (and better Nikon cameras) and also the digiscopers but am pleasantly addicted to meeting nature and birds up close. The cost equipment is not major consideration for me but weight and shake factor are. I have experimented with the Nikon EDG scopes and Digiscoping. But the lack of autofocus with the EDG system is a deterrent and, like digiscoping, requires a tripod based approach.
“I believe mirrorless cameras are the future for hand held work. Hence recently I have begun to try out this option. In the past 1-2 months I have picked up a Nikon V1 with a FT1 adapter and mounted the new Nikon 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G VR DX. I am just beginning to experiment with this and suspect that in the future, once the camera improves, it will be an exciting modality. Sadly at present there is no autofocus for V1 with my Sigma 150-500mm OS. The extremely portability of the V1 system attracts me and its reach, with smaller zoom lenses, is similar to the larger set up. Some bird watchers are beginning to get some success LINK.
“I have listed below my setting in both my current set ups, with my personal take on advantages and disadvantages for handheld bird photography (remember my limitations as a photographer). As well as offered some images for comparison from both in similar settings.
“These have been some simple rambling on my part. I hope they have been useful to others and I welcome ideas. I am sure many are better bird watchers and photographers than me and they can offer good advice. I hope these comments will enrich our appreciation of birds and nature.
Dato’ Dr Amar-Singh HSS
Note: “I have published a book on birds “A Friendship with Birds (A Guide to the Identification & Appreciation of Common Birds in the Gardens & Cities of Peninsular Malaysia) to help others appreciate birds more and work towards developing a relationship, a friendship, with them and nature. I am a senior consultant paediatrician with the Malaysian National Health Service and run two large regional departments – a paediatric department and a research centre.
“I post many of my image observations at two main sites: LINK and Bird Ecology Study Group.
“Example of a publication using handheld images: Feeding habits and behaviour of the Ruby-cheeked Sunbird (Chalcoparia singalensis) in Perak, Malaysia LINK.