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, D800 and in August 2018 I use two D850s. This is a ‘full frame’ 46MP cameras offer the ability to resolve even the smallest birds and in the darkest of rain forests with its supreme ISO range however I am finding the switching the camera to DX mode (70% frame) I use reduced image memory since all it does is crop the frame. In 2011 the biggest 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. In the past, depending on the ambient light I would go up to ISO800 or more but prefer ISO200 but with the D850 in dark jungles I am often using Auto ISO that sometimes goes to 26,000 ISO!
I generally use spot focus and spot 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.
My Nikon D850 operates either FX or DX mode; I have assigned a button to make this switch easily. I have found that using DX mode when the object is less than say 20% of the frame means it is pre cropped and thus a smaller file size. When taking multiple shots of flying birds the camera updates data faster due to the smaller file size.
I never use the flash, for night photography as it gives the bird’s eye blue/white and besides tends frightening them. Instead I use a powerful LED 4000 lumen torch where my wife assists. We do not shine direct on the bird (usually owls) but the softer spread of the beam. Sometimes I have used the torch during the day in the canopy or overgrown areas. I have obtained excellent pictures using this in challenging circumstances..
All pictures are taken in Nikon RAW on 14 or 16 bit resulting in file sizes as large as 75MB. The ‘masters’ are retained should professional publishing be required. The jpg pictures posted on this web site are compressed to around 500KB and are watermarked as well as copyright in the metadata. I use both Nikon Capture & Adobe Lightroom software for post processing.
I crop to 16×10 to fit a typical laptop screen and as mentioned, editing is confined to cropping, contrast and occasional sharpening otherwise photos are not modified.
When walking and stalking, I always use a monopod with my heavy equipment. 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!