I started serious bird photography in 2003. At that time the digital SLR had recently been launched so I selected the Nikon D100 camera with a Sigma 100-300 f4 lens with X1.4 tele converter. As technology improved I continuously upgraded to Nikon’s D300, D700 and now I use two D800s. These ‘full frame’ 36MP cameras offer the ability to resolve even the smallest birds. However, in 2011 the real improvement in picture quality came with the acquisition of a Nikkor 300mm f2.8 VR telephoto lens with a x1.7 tele converter; this is reasonably portable but worth the effort giving me 520mm of telephoto. I found that a zoom lens is really not needed for most birding as I am always on maximum magnification. The only zoom I use is a 70-200mm f2.8, an outstanding lens, for low light and close quarter conditions such as mangroves or for fast action shots.
I added a Nikkor 600mm f4 VR to my tool kit for bird hides or from a vehicle. When mounted on a tripod with a gimbal it offers excellent positioning and balance. For precise bird location coordinates I use Nikon’s GPS adapters. Apart from patience and opportunity, bird photography especially requires maximum light and shutter speed. The fastest lens you can afford will give the best results. The minimum shutter speed for hand held long lens is 500th of a second even if with the vibration reduction (VR) facility. Depending on the ambient light I may go up to ISO800 or more but prefer ISO200.
I generally use spot focus and light metering for most pictures but for pure black or white birds (e.g. crows or egrets) I change the light metering to matrix so the camera does not over or under expose. I set Aperture priority and ISO but allow the Shutter speed float, if too slow I raise the ISO. An alternative approach is to set the camera on Manual, select Shutter to a minimum of 500th sec. and Aperture for depth of field to ensure the bird is in focus from bill to tail. Then set the ISO to Auto so it floats to the optimum of available light. This continuous adjustment saves time but I have found both the above approaches works equally well.
All pictures are taken in Nikon RAW on 14 or 16 bit resulting in file sizes as large as 75MB. The ‘masters’ are retained but JPEG versions are watermarked as well as copyright in the metadata. I use both Nikon Capture & Adobe Lightroom software for post processing.
I crop to 16×9.64 to fit a typical laptop screen and as mentioned editing is confined to cropping, contrast and occasional sharpening otherwise photos are not modified. Published photos are further cropped and compressed to <400kb.
When walking and stalking, I always use a monopod. Many bird photographers believe they can handhold and click but their arms are only steady for a short while. The monopod enables me to wait till I get the optimum bird pose and is essential when birds are high in trees. My Benro carbon fibre monopod closes to easily fit in a suitcase or ‘pull along’ but extends to over 2m so I can stand and look in the camera viewer without bending the knees!