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Cameras For Documenting Birding and Hiking

Birding / Hiking / Adventuring Roadtrip Info


Apr 2018
We are enthusiasts, not experts - read disclaimer.

I'm 90% sure of what I'm saying here. I have a good amount of experience with a few cameras and I've read a great deal about the material below. Please feel free to message me differing views.

Just my phone...

To get started birding without a camera you can go out with no equipment but you'll miss at least half the birds. You'll say "Hey! there's a bird!" and that's where your adventure ends because you can't tell what it is. You need binoculars or something equivalent to make out any details on a lot of things.

If you use any random camera without an obvious zoom lens or a non-fancy phone - even some expensive cameras - you'll likely find you can zoom in less you could with your naked eyes.

Nice camera but no zoom...

If you use that standard black camera that's been around for 100+ years: 35mm it's maybe a little better than eyesight to make things out but it's close enough I'd call it the same. The high end phones are vaguely in this territory.

You probably need a special camera...

So you probably have to get hold of a camera meant for birding - or use binoculars only. There are two general routes to go. Hybrid/Super-zooms and interchangeable lens cameras (generally DLSRs, maybe u43, etc) with huge additional lenses.

First important step: What matters to you...

But before you get into that you have to know what is important to you. If you try asking questions online about this stuff you will get lots of hard core definite answers like "you're wasting your money if you don't get the XZY-10 class whatever". Or "You could do that but it would look horrifying". Or on the other side "you'll never get the shot with that thing" - you rarely hear that perspective. So I think this wraps up what you care about with photography:

* Ability to take true professional quality pictures
* Capturing a photo of a bird that stops for 2 seconds - so ability to get a shot FAST
* Portability
* Money

 Camera Types and what do I need to ID bird from photo?...

Then another thing you need to quantify is how far can you make out a bird. The only number that makes sense to me for that is "equivalent focal length". This stuff gets very complicated and I might be technically wrong but I'm giving you the general idea.

The human eye and standard cameras at least that good are like 20-35mm more or less. So remember that number.

A interchangeable DLSR lens for birding is probably 300-500mm and they are physically very large - you will notice it and it will be heavy. People routinely wear harnesses to manage to hold them. They do however take the highest quality photos. A complication I'll get into later is the ability to see better than 500mm at home by zooming in with software.

A super-zoom or hybrid camera uses trick and compromise to get high focal lengths - generally around 1200mm. Some go down to 600mm, a couple Nikons go to 2000mm or 3000mm. Obviously these are much longer focal lengths than DLSR. Here's a video of someone using a 1200mm camera getting shots of Jumpiter's moons. Here are shots of the space station with a 2000mm. And an XKCD comic about them. You can use them instead of binoculars well and in fact it's very usual to ID them at home from their photos when the binoculars couldn't make out enough detail.

There are trade offs with the two routes however - so knowing what you care about is what makes the "right" camera for you.

Tradeoffs - now we decide...

A huge DLSR lens is going to go with a camera that has a large sensor. Think of sensor size like a crisp high budget film vs a fuzzy art student one. Those incredibly sharp perfect photos you see in magazines or printed on the wall as art - they are from this class of camera. There are tricks to going cheap (used and old lenses) but you have to expect to spend thousands of dollars. Another trade-off that I have the biggest problem with is that if you want to get up close vs way far off you have to open a bag and swap out lenses. Hybrids have a pretty wide angle view up close which I need for this site for example and that might be still another lens. And every lens is costs at least as much as a new entire hyrbrid camera. So getting a shot of that last piglet running across a path at the wrong distance - no way you are getting that with this setup. Also you are carrying around a great deal of gear. If your priority is to capture what you're doing you will be unhappy because like it or not you're really more of a photographer than a hiker now. And you can see it on trails - the big-camera people stay around birding hot spots where they don't have to walk too far and can camp out and wait to get "the shot". Which is of course beautiful... just not what everyone wants to get out of birding.

My bias is that I want to go out birding and capture an image of what I saw. I like quality but I care more about getting the shot I experienced. On top of that is I don't like spending a lot of money and carrying around a lot of gear.

So - I've used hybrid cameras - both Panasonic Lumix though other makes are just as good. All the photos on this site are one of these two cameras plus a couple phones. I'd say we use both equally as often. One is the DMC-FZ28 - you can get it for $30 used on ebay, it has about 600mm focal length. The other is a DMC-FZ70 which has a 1200mm equivalent focal length and is about $300 new. The experience using them is that you just put it around your neck and go.The 600mm can ID 70% of what the 1200mm can but the 1200mm looks much better at distance shots. With the 1200mm you can go from very wide no zoom to a shot better than 7x binoculars in seconds. Both cameras weigh so little it's nothing to think about when hiking. They say hybrids are bad in low light but they see much better than the human eye - I get frustrated it won't switch to flash when I'd say it's more or less dark out. The shots get very ugly in low light however. They both take video that is very useful. The 1200mm is better quality but they both work. And as far as asking if you want the 2000-3000mm - where I landed is that one it weighs (and costs) more and it's rare that I want to ID a bird I can't see with my naked eyes and 1200mm gets pretty close to things from that range.

Now the negatives of hybrids - they get the shot great but unless the conditions are perfect you won't think it is professional and you can't zoom very well after the fact. As I said all the photos here are from hybrids (or phones). Some I think are good enough I'd print it up and put it on the wall, but it isn't at the level of professional. Many are just a noisy mess but the point that matters for me is that I did GET that shot far off near dusk in the 2 seconds I had. Also note that nearly every photo here is how I took the photo (I didn't crop it etc) but I did convert them from 5000x3000 pixels to 2000x1000 pixels and compressed them a lot with jpeg. So they get better but you still get a good idea of what a hybrid does.

Something that complicates things is that if you use a DLSR/large sensor camera - even though it is only say 600mm - you can zoom in after the fact at home on the computer. What I mean is that my hybrid 600mm vs a $2000 setup with a huge lens might be 400mm but if you zoom in really far that 400mm shot might look better than the 600mm one. But problems are 1) this is done at home - you don't see that while taking the photo 2)you can't go from close to far with one lens. There are probably ways around some of these things with the right camera and the right money but that's basically the issue. Plus I'm just very happy with what I get for $30 or $300.

Oddball topic: Panoramas...

Full sized cameras do panoramas but since you don't generally want to zoom in for one a phone works just as well and in fact the software for panoramas seems to work better. There are cameras meant to specifically do panoramas and video panoramas that seem interesting but I've never pursued it. It's a bit akward if you're in say a European cathedral or on top of a crowded forest observation tower slowly circling around to make that panorama.

Additional features to consider:

If you are trying to get a clear shot of a little warbler manically bouncing around a tree you often move to video - but even that is difficult. Most cameras (mine) can do FHD 1920x1080 video but much higher resolution still shots. My understanding of what "4k" video is, is that it takes closer to full resolution shots. So grabbing a frame of video might be as good as just taking the perfect photo. When you add in 60fps video that helps a great deal as well because when the birds bounce around you see it goes from left to right side of the tree in one frame and you can't see the identifying marks on it's back or it is blurry. In addition to that you can start to get some special features like post focus where it takes multiple photos over a couple seconds so you can decide how to focus afterwards - you need 4k to pull that off. The newer model of the Lumix I have so the FZ80 instead of the FZ70 - costs the same or less ($300) and has 4k among other things.



And about my photos and the OBNOXIOUS watermarks. I used to make fun of people that had them - and I think there's a page on here where I still do. But if follow that copyright link at the bottom of every page I mention it. I need to read more about this but my understanding is that people out there take photos, claim they are theirs and if they are bigger than you you have to prove it is your photo...so someone can stop you from using your photos. Watermarks make it less likely. So sorry =/

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