Birdwatching with a camera

Canon PowerShot SX50 HS

The Canon PowerShot SX50 HS is popular with birders. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Jan. 3, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “New camera technology can help birders get perfect shot.”

By Barb Gorges

I have often wished the view through my binoculars could be a photograph of that colorful warbler high in the tree, the distant hawk or the swimming phalarope.

Then digiscoping was invented—a digital version of trying to take a photo through a scope. The idea is that you don’t need a camera with a big lens if you can use your scope instead.

But who wants to carry around the heavy tripod and scope, plus a camera to attach to it? Not me.

But a couple years ago the Cheyenne Audubon chapter had members Greg Johnson and Robin Kepple give a talk on their birding trip to Australia. The bird photos were fabulous. What camera was used? Canon PowerShot SX50 HS.

The PowerShot series of cameras is really a collection of point and shoots—I have an early one, but it doesn’t zoom like the SX50. They all have lots of manual and partially manual ways to adjust speed, aperture and color. You can do a surprising number of things, including macro and video. Some will even connect to your smart phone to transmit photos.

The SX50 (and now there is an SX60 and rumors of an SX70, not to mention Nikon’s cameras in this class) is moderately priced, between $300 and $600. That price might get you another lens for a digital single lens reflex camera, the type the professionals use.

And the SX50 weighs only 1 pound 6 ounces, whereas my Brunton 8 x 42 binocs weigh 4 ounces more. A recent publication of the American Birding Association, “Birder’s Guide to Gear,” features four men who did a photographic Big Day. They could only count bird species they photographed. All of them carried multiple camera bodies and lenses. Imagine the weight.

Among our birding friends, my husband, Mark, was the first to follow Greg and Robin’s lead by buying an SX50 in the fall of 2014. By spring of 2015, there were three or four people carrying these cameras on a local field trip. Even our friend, ABA magazine editor Ted Floyd, has one now. It makes his Facebook posts even more entertaining.

Ted mentioned that young birders seem to be forsaking binoculars for these “compact ultra-zooms” as they’ve been referred to. They have one big advantage over binocs. If you snap a photo of an unusual bird, you can then show it to your birding companions using the 2.8-inch screen on the back, beginning a good half hour or more’s discussion of the finer points of feathers.

And it is really handy to have a photo when you submit your field trip checklist to the eBird database, where the experts want proof of the rare bird you saw.

Are Mark and his friends practicing the art of photography? I’m not sure. They all seem to be using the camera on the automatic setting. Their goal is to get the bird. They don’t worry about whether the background contrasts nicely.

Often the camera’s automatic setting determination is matched by the location’s lighting for a really nice shot. Fixing the framing of the subject can be accomplished back on the computer with cropping. Putting the camera on a tripod would probably improve the number of well-focused shots. Though these cameras come with image stabilization technology, it is sorely tested by flighty birds.

Mark has taken 7,500 photos so far. I asked him if he thought about bringing just the camera on birding trips, since it zooms farther than our scope. It’s kind of a pain carrying camera, scope and binocs.

No, he said, the camera lacks a wide field of view. It makes it difficult to re-find that speck of distant movement you saw with your naked eye.

With the steady advancement of technology in my lifetime alone, computers have gone from room-sized to hand-sized. Cameras have gone from the wooden box my grandmother used in 1916 to who-knows-what in the next 10 years.

Equally amazing is how birders take the latest technology and use it for learning more about birds. We’ve learned so much from eBird, for instance–all those observations from birdwatchers being sent in via Internet from all over the world.

And how about geolocators? Attached to birds, they allow scientists to track them during migration.

But let’s not forget the thrill of photography itself. Like artist John James Audubon, you can see the bird you shot today displayed for posterity on your computer screen.