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A Visual Tour of Bird Portrait Photography


Before we begin this book, I wanted an easy way to show you what I mean by Bird Portrait Photography. I will show you seven photographs, detailing your step by step trip from your first sighting of a bird, then thru your 8X binoculars and then step by step to a extreme close up portrait. A cautionary note for birders ... the discussion that follows uses words like "mm equiv", "zoom factor". "resolution", These words were written for the photographers, you will soon come to know these words, but for now ignore them ... the photos explain themselves.

Each of these cropped photo shows the same area of the original photo. Examine each of the photos and read the descriptions below.













As I was photographing the above sequence, I noticed a bee was gathering nectar from one of the cactus flowers. I zoomed in and got another shot. Remember I am shooting from about 45 feet away, the flower is about 2 inches across and the bee is perhaps 1/2 long.



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FORWARD

Before we start you should know that I have 'scattered' about 30 bird and animal photos throughout this book. Additional photos can be viewed by using CHAPTER 8 - INDEX OF OVER 50 BIRD AND ANIMAL PHOTOS. There are over fifty photos of birds and animals from around the world. On each image is a 'back button' that will return you to the Index. The Index is arranged by common name in alphabetic order, listing the photo location. Enjoy the photos.

I want to share with you a personal story. Over 40 years ago, in 1972 I bought my first 'state-of-the-art' Single Lens Reflex Camera. It was a Minolta SRT-101. Single Lens Reflex cameras were wonderful, because as you looked through the view finder you saw the exact image that you would record on film when you pushed the shutter button. A mirror inside the camera would flip up out of the way, and let the image you saw reach the film. This fantastic camera would allow you to change lens. You could mount a close-up lens or a long lens for bird and nature shots. Why for enough money you get up to a 400 mm lens which would bring you 8 times closer to your subject. Same magnification as an 8X pair of binoculars. This technology, of a flip-up mirror, (SLR) has remained unchanged to the present.

Wow, 40 years ago this SLR technology was really 'high tech'. And it is still the 'standard' for today's DSLR technology. Do you know anything that you have today, that is the same technology as it was 40 years ago?

Fast forward to the present time and the bird and nature photographers are still using Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras. Still with the flip up mechanical mirrors and all. Sure they have replaced the film with digital sensors to record the incoming light. They changed the name from SLR to DSLR only because they have a digital sensor instead of film. The latest 'improvement' to the DSLR are new models that have REMOVED the very mirror that make SLR so wonderful. Go figure. Instead of a mirror system to show you the image you will photograph, they show you the image from the sensor instead. Well, that innovation was introduced 15 year ago! You know it if you use any cell phone or pad camera. Just look at what you will record .. no mirrors required.

But what about the advantage of being able to swap lenses?

What if you had a single camera lens that would let you get as 'close' as 4 inches away or would bring a distant bird 60 times 'closer'. A bird 50 feet from you would fill the whole photo area. You can get extreme close up portraits of bugs,animals and birds and everything in between, from inches to hundreds of feet away.

The camera that has this fantastic capability goes by many (somewhat disparaging) names. "Bridge", "Point and Shoot", "Pro-summer", "Zooming point and shot", etc. For this book I'll just call them "zoom cameras". These zoom cameras generally cost about 1/4 to 1/2 of what a "mainline" DSLR would cost. But the DSLR needs a lens which will cost as much or more than the DSLR camera body. The zoom camera has a built in zoom lens so there is no extra cost.

But a good question to ask "is the zoom camera as good as the DSLR ?". If you read and compare the specifications there are few differences. Feature for feature they match up very well. If your goal is to take stunning nature and bird photographs then the zooming lens is the way to go. The zoom camera has a lens that allows you to take extremely close up shots from long distances. The PROLOG that follows will demonstrate this with several photos. The true advantage of the zoom camera is that you can set it on program mode and it automatically adjusts the shutter speed, exposure, and focus without you thinking about it. Truly a "point and shot" that zooms 10 times closer than most DSLR cameras that cost three times as much.

This book will lead you step-by-step, through the selection of the camera, tripod and accessories required. My goal is the best equipment at the least cost. A 'mainline' DSLR camera and a suitable lens will cost upwards of 1000 dollars. I'll show you how to do better on less than half that amount. Also you'll end up getting better up close portraits of birds and nature.



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TABLE OF CONTENTS


PROLOG - VISUAL TOUR OF ZOOM PHOTOGRAPHY

FORWARD

INTRODUCTION

CHAPTER 1 - WHO THIS BOOK IS WRITTEN FOR

CHAPTER 2 - WHY I WROTE THIS BOOK

CHAPTER 3 - WHAT YOU WILL LEARN

CHAPTER 4 - REQUIRED EQUIPMENT
- About digital zoom cameras
- Alternate ideas for birders
- Survey of zoom lens cameras
- Tripods (and the like)

CHAPTER 5 - OPTIONAL EQUIPMENT
- Telephoto extension lenses
- Flashguns for fill-flash
- Backpacks

CHAPTER 6 - MY PERSONAL EQUIPMENT
- Cameras
- Tripods
- Telephoto extension lenses
- Flashgun for fill-flash


CHAPTER 7 - PHOTOGRAPHING IN THE FIELD
- Preparation for the field
- Walk and Stalk Techniques
- Plop and Shoot Techniques

CHAPTER 8 - INDEX OF 50 CLOSE UP BIRD AND ANIMAL PHOTOS

APPENDIX A - SAMPLE CHAPTER FROM BOOK #2 - "IMAGE EDITING FOR BIRDERS"

APPENDIX B - ABOUT THE AUTHOR/PHOTOGRAPHER





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Disclaimer

I want to declare that in no way am I beholding or indebted to, or employed by any of the companies that I mention in this book. All of the opinions I express are mine,and mine alone. These opinions were formed by the many years of trial and error. Any stated opinions are solely mine, and I alone am responsible for any mistakes or omissions.

Introduction

This book is a 'how-to' book on photographing birds and nature up close and personal. Specifically I want to teach you how to take fantastic close up portraits of birds and animals in nature. I am targeting this book for both bird/nature photographers and to birders that would like to explore adding photography to their birding experience. The idea is to provide step-by-step instructions. I will share my experience and knowledge, acquired over 15 years. It is my hope that by detailing how I did it what I did, that I can show you a path that will make it a little easier for you. You will learn the art and science of bird photography, but more specifically photographing stunning close up portraits of birds and animals, I'll point out the dead end paths I traveled, so that you have a smoother path to follow, What I will teach you is not the only way, but is the way I did it.

I want to share the pleasure and joy that I experience every morning while taking photos of those wonderful birds. It has kept my heart and mind young in an old body.

Let me assure you that I am not a writer. After all is said and done, I'm just a 'birder' and bird/nature photographer. What follows is not a book of prose but is a detailed accounting of what I have learned over many years of photographing birds and nature. I consider myself a 'birder' and more correctly a 'bird photographer'. Certainly not an author.

For over 15 years I've tried to capture the beauty and glory of birds (and animals) in digital form. I have no words to tell you a what a joy, pleasure and inspiration that this bird photography hobby has brought me. Lately I have gone from just photographing birds to trying to get more intimate by concentrating on portraits. By portraits I mean just the head and face of the bird. This required changing both equipment and tactics. This new challenge has made my birding more exciting and rewarding.

I live in southern Baja, Mexico. My home is but a few miles from the Tropic of Cancer, within walking distance is the Sea of Cortez. This is desert country, with little rainfall, high summer temperatures and a harsh habitat for birds and wildlife. Baja is NOT a 'birders paradise' only about 300 species of birds, many rare or uncommon. But I have found a good photo of a common bird is still a thing of beauty. I share my photos of birds each morning with several hundred friends via email as well as occasional postings to my website HERE




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Here is my morning routine:

Each morning I venture out 'birding', usually at dawn, setting up my three-legged stool and tripod and photographing whatever flies or perches in front of the lens. A typical morning starts about sunup or a little earlier and I spend about two hours in the field.

This starts one of the best two hours of my day. Birds come and go. I turn the camera on each, zooming close enough to get the whole body of the bird. I shot a burst or two then zoom in closer for a portrait, shooting in bursts of four or five frames, hoping for the best photo in the group. For each bird I will get about 10 or 12 photos. Always attempting to get their expressions. Searching for details and unusual behavior. The time passes so quickly. Then the birds are through with the morning feeding and retire to preen and rest. Well, that was fun and exciting, but all is now quiet and it's time to head home and see what I got for my first two hours.

Returning home, I start the second best two hours. I pull the image storage chip from the camera and download the several hundred digital photos. They are stored in a computer folder. After I verify that the download was successful, I delete the files from the SD chip. I also put the camera battery in the charger to be ready for tomorrow's birding trip. Then it is time to review the files in an image editing program. This is the start of my second fun two hours. I look at each photo and decide whether to save or not. Most images are not worth saving, and only about one in twenty is saved for further editing.

After selecting those images to edit, it is time to modify the images, If you are a photographer, you already have a favorite. editor program. For the birder not used to editing photos, I will give a step-by-step instructions in the second book. The photos are edited by cropping, light balancing, setting contrast and correction colors. The upcoming Image Editing Book will lead you step-by-step through this process. In that book we will discuss RAW vs. JPG file recording. We will provide step-by-step instructions on editing with several free software programs. Additionally we discuss uses for your images after editing.

Now that I have edited the photos I change the camera file name to a day code. My method of cataloging is a date code of year-month-day-sequence. ie: 140215-02 = second photo taken on Feb 15 2014, You may elect to use some other method. The idea is to catalog your photos to be able to find that same file at a later date. The free editing software that I'll detail in the Editing Book does this in a single operation.

Then the edited file is resized for use on the internet. I maintain the original master edited file, It has the highest resolution (number of pixels) for use in printed matter (300dpi standard) I then resize all of the files to 480 X 640 or 600 X 800 pixels for use on the internet.

All display screens whether TV or computer screens only have a display resolution of about 80 dpi. Altho many of the newer tablets can do 240 dpi. The reason to resize is to reduce the file size, and to speed up uploading and downloading of the file. Also to fit the image on the screen and not overrun the display limits. A 480 X 640 will provide a 6" X 8" image (at 80 dpi) and a 600 X 800 pixel would be about 8" X 10" on the 80 dpi screen. The smaller screens in tablets and smart phone will reduce the size to fit their screen area automatically. The newer tablets have much higher resolution screens and can provide sharper images

I then store that day's files inside a monthly folder witch is stored inside a yearly folder, which is stored in a folder called "birds". All neat and tidy. I back up "birds" folder every week to a separate storage device.

I'll detail all of the above in step-by-step instructions in the "Image Editing Book for Birders".

It is my hope that the joy and fun of close up portrait bird photography will grow in your heart, as it has in mine.



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Chapter 1 - Who this Book is Written For

How-to books, such as this, are written with an assumed audience in mind. Since this book is all about Bird/Nature Photography ... duh... it must be written for 'Birders', 'Nature lovers' and 'Photographers'. Of course there is a wide range in each of these groups. In addition each person will have their own idea of where they fit and what they expect. Some of you are beginners, others intermediate, and a some experienced. I have tried to include information to help all of you, but slanted the information to the Birder with little knowledge of photography.

For the 'Birder', 'Bird Watcher', 'Twicher' or just an unlabeled person that enjoys birds or nature, I'll guarantee that if you follow the instructions in this book, your birding will improve and be more enjoyable. The addition of a beautiful photos of the bird is a double reward. Who knows, you may take that fantastic photo that goes viral on the web, or perhaps ends up on a Nat Geo cover. Your chance is as good as mine.

Ok, you're a photographer. Maybe a 'snapper' using your cell phone camera to share your photos on facebook. At the other extreme you may be a professional. With top of the line DLSR and thousands invested in lenses . However bird photography is a very specialized art. Consider the fact that you are shooting a subject that is but inches in size from 30 to 100 feet away. Your need for very high magnification is paramount. Because you are shooting at high magnification IS (image stabilization) or OS (Optical stabilization) is also required. If you are sharing photos on the internet exclusively then high resolution is not a requirement but if shooting for photo quality the maximum number of pixels are required. OK, to summarize, high magnification, stabilization and high resolution are the basic requirements of your camera..

Can this book help both the beginner and experienced? .. Definitely it can, I'll guarantee it.

Notes for Birders

You are a birder or at least have a strong interest in birds and birding. Perhaps, like me, you are all to often frustrated that your bird sighting did not last long enough to mentally record all the details necessary to look up and identify the species.

As an example you are a good enough birder to know that what you see is a sparrow. Now comes the hard part ... in two or three seconds you must memorize enough characteristics that you can separate the thirty members of the sparrow family.

If your 'life list' is in the hundreds and you've birded for years, maybe the ID is easy. I envy your photographic memory. If that is your case then Bird Photograph will be simply a pleasant pass-time and the bird photo will serve to jog your memory back to that time and space.

Photographing the bird will assist you in identifying the species. Often you just do not have time for an identification in the field. The bird has flown and now you must trust your memory for details. But that bird has not really flown away, he now exists as a bunch of pixels. That bunch of pixels is your personal time machine

Your camera is really a time machine. By looking at your photograph, you are transported back in time to that instant when you saw that bird. Now time will 'stand still' forever. Time to examine the bird closely. Finding details not seen, or memorized in the short period of a second or two that the bird was present.

So our camera could now be called our personal time machine. Stopping time and letting us examine that instant forever.

Notes for Photographers

Or perhaps you are already a photographer wanting to explore the art and science of nature photography. Birds and animals are wonderful subjects for photography. Even if you could care less about which bird is which, you will come to know the birds as you look through the bird books to name your subject. The bird or animal is always a beautiful, appealing and challenging subject to photograph. Nature photographs are universally enjoyed. Your photos will appeal to a wide audience. The close up aspect of the photo adds drama and intimacy.

Gone are your days of composing just the right conditions, Waiting for just the right light. Adjusting for HDR. selecting different shutter and f-stops to control foreground and background focus, Adding filters or flash to get an exact and perfect photo.

Think of it this way: A photographer is like a competitive rifle target shooter vs. the wild west, shot from the hip, six gun slinger.

You have an almost infinite time to plan and take your shot. You can employ many tools to perfect your aim. You are the master of your own time and skills. The target is inert and you are the only actor on stage.

On the other hand the Bird Photographer has to be a quick draw gunslinger. Often you have but a second for your shot. You are not the only actor, that bird will sit for only so long. You window of opportunity is completely unknown so you must take your photo almost instantly. No second chances in this game.

Even more challenging are the obstacles you'll face; bad light, small lens openings because of high zoom, obstructions between you and the subject, need for constant stealth, the list can go on and on. You are taking on a real challenge.

While all of these challenges will present difficulties, they will make the rewards of that Nat Geo bird photo even greater.

Welcome to a new and fun game ... enjoy



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Chapter 2 - Why I wrote this Book

The reasons for me to write this book are many and varied. In order to explain my reasons, follow me through some personal history. After the history of camera selection, I'll share why I had to develop the "plop down and wait" type birding I now do,

A little history

Back in the 1960's, before digital equipment was common I bought my first SLR (single lens reflex) a Minolta SR-T101. But I wanted more that the 1X magnification (20 -55 mm) of the standard 55 mm lens. This lens was about the same thing that you see with a naked eye. In a search for more zoom, I tried adapters that increase to X2 or X3. Not good enough. I finally found an telescope adapter to connect to my Clestron C5 telescope.

Wonderful, the C5 telescope changed my X1 (55 mm) SLR camera to X60 (1250 mm.) Sounds like a winner. A camera that gets 60 times closer. But I never got a photo ....why? Because the zoom was so great, the amount of light restricted it's aperture to f10. That's a really tiny opening, so the shutter speed had to be very slow. The film speed in those days was fixed at ISO 100. With the film speed at 100 and the f-stop at f-10 the shutter speed dropped to 1/20 of a second. Shutter was open so long that everything was a blur. With this combination, I never got a decent photograph in over a year of trying. I wasted a lot of money as the film was 5 bucks and the processing was 5 bucks and I only got 36 exposures.

So for many years I ignored bird photography, Alto others stayed with it and the manufacturers improved the technologically year-by-year. Digital cameras started appearing in the market place during the mid 1980's. The technology improved year, after year. Hardly a day passed with a new major step. I have remained outside as these wonderful tools advanced. Not that I didn't want the newest and greatest, but the cost was way beyond my limited budget.

Fast forward to the year 1997. I have signed up to join a group on safari in Africa, A life-time bucket list adventure. I wanted a camera that was 'cutting edge', capable of close ups of the birds and animals of Africa. It was time for a new digital camera, but I was living on a fixed income and the African trip was eating up my savings. I found the most amazing machine, the Sony Mavica 1000. While expensive, this camera was a bridge into the digital world. Essentially it was a video recorder that shot analog freeze frames which were then digitized into .jpg files.

This fantastic camera had a 10X (500 mm) zoom able lens. Stored the 1.2 megapixel digital JPG file on a 3 inch CD disk. You could store almost 200 photos per disc. Fantastic technology for year 1997. Imagine holding a CD recorder in your hand. Cutting edge technology.

I used this workhorse for several years. It made a trips to all the National Parks, Costa Rica, and the Copper Canyon, Mexico. There were two major drawbacks to this camera. The first was it wrote the very compressed jpg file to the disc right after taking the image. 15 second delay between images. You better get the first one right. The second drawback was in order to review the image on a computer you have to 'finalized the disc and no more files could be added to that particular disc.

Fast forward again another five years and another 'bucket-list' item. I'm headed to the two weeks on the Amazon River in Peru. Five years of technology has produced my next camera. Technology was passing up the SLR concept by eliminating the mirror (single lens) and adding an eye view finder display. At that time, expensive DSLR cameras and a large zoom lens were way beyond my budget. The cost of the camera was more that what I'm spending on the total trip. The 'big boy' mainline DSLR were too rich for my blood. I need a new camera but can't afford the DSLR and lens.

I had to find another way. Research leads me to a "bridge' or 'pro-sumer' type camera. No mirror or shutter plane. But the 'bridge' has all the other 'whistles and bells'. The crowning feature is the built-in zoom able lens.

Panasonic was, and is still, the leader in zooming cameras. I choose the FZ50 at about 400 dollars. It featured a standard 10X (500 mm) zoom, ISO up to 1600, shutter to 1/2000. 12 megapixel sensor. A unique feature is that the camera will internally crop the center of the sensor to produce even greater magnification at a lower resolution ... for instance if "e-zoom" is selected you can double (X20) at 5 megapixels or triple (X30) at 3.5 megapixels. Wow, imagine photos closer that through a spotting scope.

Over the years from 2005 to 2013 I bought several upgrades .... not that I needed to but these wonderful camera kept getting better and better and the price stayed in the 300 to 400 dollar bracket, while mainstream DSLR bodies and the necessary lenses were in the thousands of dollars.

In 2011 I upgraded to the FZ 47. The two most important features are improved zoom now at an unbelievable 24X (600mm) and the resolution now increased to 12 megapixels. I bought a 2X telephoto lens. Now at 2 times 24X my zoom is 48 times. Bird photos are now zeroing in close enough for portraits. I enjoy the extreme close ups that let me take portraits of the bird. A little bird sitting on a little branch will show you the little bird but that does not compare with the impact of a full frame head shot. It's a much more dramatic photo. This has been my standard set up for several years. I make many photo trips to central America countries. The photos are used for calendars, photo books, t-shirts, etc. Printing at 300 dpi at 8" X 10". It can't get better than this.






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Ok, now we move the story to January 2014. Panasonic has come out with what I feel is the ultimate bird photograph camera. The FZ70 has specs that make it right now the best camera for birding. The most important qualities necessary are zoom and resolution. We'll discuss these aspects in more detail in later chapters, but know that the FZ70 can zoom up to 60X (1200 mm). This is two and a half times more that my FZ40. An incredible zoom range. Other zoom cameras come close, but the FZ70 is still ahead. And the resolution has increased from 12 to 16 megapixels. Shutter speeds now up to 1/2000, burst modes up to 9 photos per second, Custom modes can be preset so that a complete camera configuration can be set with a single button push.

Ok, the bottom line. I figured that any birder that can use a pair of binoculars can take good bird photos. using any of the super-zoom cameras.

I'll give you step-by=step instructions and information that will enable you to raise the camera (just as you do with your binoculars). Zoom until you get a good picture of the bird (the camera will focus for you, unlike the binoculars), push the shutter button. The camera has automatically focused, set shutter speed and aperture, film speed (ISO), compensated for light and shadow, all without any impute from you. You're just a birder with a piece of magic in your hand.

BINGO you are NOW a bird photographer with an image to share for fun or profit. Face book, Blog, E-mail you name it. You are now a photographer and can share you passion.



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Personal Mobility Problem

Several years ago I suffered a back injury that has left me somewhat handicapped. No longer can I roam through the jungles and forests looking for birds. I now use a cane and walker to help move about, A walk of more than 100 Ft. is a chore, and 200 a struggle. A football field is completely beyond my capabilities. Standing for more than 10 minutes causes unbelievable pain. Sitting is no problem. Since the time of mobility problems I have developed a different stratagem of birding. "Plop and Shoot"

Plop and shoot

Pick a good spot. Setup the tripod and stool Get comfortable and wait and wait... and ... then wait some more.
The bottom line is ... patience ...patience...patience .
Did I mention that you need patience?
By all means if walking is not a problem, it will soon become one if you are lugging the camera, tripod, stool, etc.
As my 'old mum' used to say "relax and smell the flowers".
Birding is not a competitive sport ... We are all winners



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Chapter 3 - What this book will teach you

This book started out to teach a birder about photographing birds. It expanded to introduce photographers to the specialized field of portrait bird photography. By bird portrait photography I mean whole frame photo of just the head as in human portrait photography. After starting this book I realized that many books would be needed to cover either task completely., after all it took me 15 years to get here, So if nothing else this will teach the basics. Learning is a life-long task and as you do, so will you learn.

I read someplace that the way to develop any skill is: "to jump off the cliff and grow our wings on the way down".

Notes for the birder

If you are a 'birder' that knows little about photography, then try to read all of the following chapters ... they may not be clear to you right now, but as you acquire new knowledge the light will turn on. The information is not in complete intricate detail. Goggle is my teaching aide. Don't understand something ... Wikipedia probable knows.

If you are right now thinking ... I don't need to read all that stuff. Just tell me what to get and how much. If that's the case, skip all this stuff and jump ahead to My Personal Photography Setup. I went on Amazon and in 2014 that basic kit of camera, tripod, spare batteries and SD card was less than 500 total. Starting from scratch you'll be using what I believe is the best setup for the money. Options can come later. So for the price of a mid-grade binocular you are a bird photographer with a camera capable of close ups of birds 100 Ft away.

Notes for the Photographer

Ok since you are already a photographer you have your own camera. You know your cameras operation. You have been downloading, editing photos so much of what follows is 'old-hat'. But do read the Equipment Sections to see how best to use your camera. However here we are talking about zoom ranges that start at 1000 mm and go up from there. Many of my photos have an EX IF file reading of 4200 mm (equiv). Test your camera and see if it can full frame a 6" X 6" area at 50 Ft. If it can't look at the super zooms in the next chapter.



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Chapter 4 - Required Equipment

For portrait bird photography there is only a minimum amount of equipment. Basically a super zoom camera and a tripod. Because these two items are so important they will be discussed in the next sections. I want to declare that in no way am I beholding or indebted or employed by any of the companies that I mention in this book. All of the opinions I express are mine. These opinions are my own and were formed by the many years of trial and error. They are completely mine and I am responsible for any mistakes.

But that is the bare minimum, for me a stool is required, since I'm a 'plop and wait' guy. Sometimes a window tripod (clamps on) if shooting from the car. There is much to recommend shooting from a car. Birds are less frightened of a car vs, a moving human. You can cover more territory with a car. I use my car daily as a bird blind.

In addition I always bring along my binoculars with a harness to hold them security at my chest. Also necessary are spare batteries (charged) and a spare SD storage card. Once I had a SD Card failure on an Costa Rica 8 day birding expedition 3 days out.

I also pack a hand held bracket or a gunstock shoulder mount. It's much easier way to hold the camera for fast moving birds and animals.




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About Digital Zoom Cameras

There are so many different camera types, makes and models that we will narrow the types to ultra-zoom, super-zoom and zoom cameras. We will restrict the discussion to only these types, not that there are other ways of zooming in on birds. Many people use bino-camera. A composite of building a camera inside a pair of binoculars. Another alternate is digi-scoping, coupling a camera to the eyepiece of a spotting scope. We survey these alternates later in this section.


Optical Zoom, Extended Zoom and Digital Zoom

Optical zoom: Any camera used for bird portrait photography has to have an optical zoom lens. The higher the zoom factor the 'closer' you get to your subject. Or stated another way the subject becomes larger in the image. To be considered a portrait the subject should occupy about 30% to 80 % of the image size.

As optical zoom in increased the stability of the camera becomes critical. Small movements of the camera will be magnified by the zoom setting. It is a critical feature that the camera be equipped with OS or IS systems to eliminate and camera movement. An optical zoom is a true zoom lens, like the zoom lens you'd use on a film camera. They produce much better-quality images.

Extended zoom: Offered by many of the models listed. This is a modified form of digital zoom that decreases the image area of the sensor and at the same time maintains the resolution but decreases image quality. In essences it is an internal crop of a limited area but does not artificially add additional pixels to increase resolution. Instead it sharpens and does addition process . If the size of the resolution is decreased the apparent zoom level is increased. Examples are shown below..

Digital zoom: All of these cameras offer a digital zoom, which is simply some in-camera image processing. When you use a digital zoom, the camera enlarges the image area at the center of the frame and trims away the outside edges of the picture. The result is the same as when you open an image in your photo-editing program, crop away the edges of the picture, and then enlarge the remaining portion of the photo. Image quality decreases as zoom factor increases.


Examples of zoom options for the Panasonic FZ70 Manual

When you want to take a picture that has a large image size and maintains sharp resolution to, for example, print a large picture. Set zoom lever to maximum. The image is magnified 60 times and is at 1200 mm at 16 mp.

When you want to take a picture that has a large image size and maintains sharp resolution while reducing picture quality, select Extended Zoom. The magnification is doubled with extended zoom and is now magnified 120 times. The image is now at 2400 mm still at 16 mp with some decrease in image quality.

When you want to make the subject larger as you are not going to print a particularly large picture. Decrease image size to less than 16 mp, and use extended zoom function. For instance if you select 5 mp image size (2560 x 1920 pixels) and use extended zoom, the image is mow magnified a whopping 216 times or 4500 mm.

When you want to make a distant subject as large as possible Turn on the Digital Zoom function. The digital zoom will multiply the above figures by X5 For instance in case one (optical zoom alone) the new zoom factor is 5 X 60 = 300 times. If we use digital zoom in case #2 (optical+extended) the new zoom is 5 X 120 = 600 times. In the last case (decrease resolution) the new zoom is 5 X 216 = 1080.

The categories of Ultra, Super, and zoom are in the eye of the marketer. I will arbitrarily divide them as follows: Ultra zoom is X50 (1000 mm equiv) or more. Super zoom is X20 (450 mm) or more, and finally a zoom of X20 to X 10 . But these zoom numbers contain a certain amount of ambiguous information. For instance Panasonic FZ70 says that they zoom X60 while Cannon claims X50 yet the max zoom in both cases is the same 1200 mm equiv. How come Panasonic says 60X while Cannon says X50 yet they have the end zoom point (1200mm), It's all in the definition Panasonic zoom is from 20mm to 1200 mm so they claim 60X. Cannon zoom range is from 25 mm to 1200 mm so they say X50. But for the bird photographer the max zoom is the important characteristic.

But what does all the "equiv 35 mm" mean in plain words? The 35 mm camera film camera was designed such that it was similar to what the human eye could see. They called that X1. The standard caught on and the binoculars that magnified or 'brought you closer' followed this pattern. X6 binoculars would magnify 6 times what a human eye would see. X10 would magnify ten times what your eye would see .. etc. The standard has undergone a change and instead of 35mm the eye is closer to 50mm. For our purposes the only important number is the max zoom expressed as (mm equiv).



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Alternate Ideas for the birder

There are a few ways the birder can do some serious bird photography. A novel approach is a holder for an iPhone(4 or 5)that couples or joins your iPhone to one of your binocular eyepieces. Then while watching the iPhone display you shot the photo. This adapter is about 15 bucks on Amazon. This has the inherent problem of hand shake, and is limited to the magnification of your binoculars. Alto I imagine on could 'finger spread' to a larger image. Interesting concept but I have not seen it in action. So the jury is out on that one.

Another idea is the 'Photo-Binocular" combination. These have been around for many years and if the Amazon reviews are any indication most have very low rating with users. In price they range from 50 bucks to 400 bucks. In optic power they range from X4 to X10. If we use 50mm = 1X then the X10 is 500 mm equiv. The lowest end of the zoom cameras. The problem with the X10 binocular is holding the binoculars steady enough for a sharp photo. Your eye is a lot more 'forgiving' that the digital photo. To combat this 'hand-shake' all the cameras have stabilizations system to eliminate this source of blurring. There is one model of camera-binocular that has built-in stabilization. Amazon lists the price at 375 bucks. Perhaps this is an alternate to consider. I once had a chance to field test a zoom (20X) gyro stabilized binoculars. When you depress the 'stab 'button the change was fantastically steady. But these were Pro-military and costs a Fort Knox. But it pays to keep checking these 'combos' they may improve.

The last alternate that we'll discuss is Digi-scoping. Basically you find the bird in a spotting scope. Focus and move you head away from the eyepiece. Place a fixed focus camera where your eye was and shot photos. Essentially you have coupled your spotting scope to a camera. There are many websites and blogs devoted to digiscoping and lots of information, and equipment available. However unless you already have a really good 'scope the cost is probably as high as buying a zoom camera. But if you already have a good spotting scope by all means research digiscoping on the net. It may be a viable alternative for you. On the other hand if you do nor have a spotting scope presently, a better option is sticking to a super zoom camera.


A survey of Zoom Lens Cameras

Data was researched in spring 2014, I caution that it may be out of date, so use this information only to start your own search. This listing is not complete but represents the bulk of the companies offering. I have no commercial interest in any manufacturer, vendor, Amazon or any outlets. What follows is my research on the net. Any errors and all mistakes are mine alone.

Most binoculars are less than X10, mostly because the human hand shakes so much that the image is blurred, altho the optics are good. All of these zoom cameras employ a technology of moving the optics or image gathering chip to eliminate this human hand shaking, But these Stabilizing systems are only so good, and can do only so much. An absolute requirement for bird portraits is a firm sturdy tripod. We'll discuss tripod selection later.

This is not a compete listing of all the zoom cameras on the market. This is from research that was conducted in mid-2014, the field is in constant flux and new cameras are appearing daily. Consider this just an overview. I have tried to list those features most important for long range bird portraits. I have listed these cameras in no particular order. In you evaluation bear in mind the most important characteristics are maximum zoom factor(get close), high resolution in megapixels (get clarity), high speed burst capability (birds move constantly) and if you expect to use flash-fill (low light conditions) a hot shot is required. I considered all of these factors for my own personal choices and will explain why in a later chapter.

Ultra Zoom (1000 mm or more) Cameras


PANASONIC FZ70 - X60 optical zoom (20-1200) - 16.1 Megapexels sensor - OIS - Movie HD 1080 - hot shoe - burst 9 fps - X2 digital zoom - Approx cost 300 USD. - Amazon review ratings 4.3 stars for 164 reviews,
SONY HX400 - X50 optical zoom (24-1200) - 20.1 Megapixls sensor - OIS - Movie 720 - hot shoe - burst 10 fps- 2X digital zoom - Approx cost 500 USD - Amazom review ratings 3.5 stars for 2 reviews - has built in WiFi
SONY MX300 - X50 optical zoom (25-1000) - 20.4 Megapixels sensor -OIS -Movie HD 1080 - no hot shoe - burst 10 fps - X2 digital zoom -Approx cost 400 USD, - Amazon review ratings 4.1 stars for 70 reviews,
FIJIFILM SI 1000 - X50 optical zoom (24 -1200) - 16.2 Megapixels sensor - OIS - Movie HD 1080 - hot shoe -burst 10 fps - X2 Digital zoom - Approx cost 260 USD Amazon review ratings 4.5 stars for 123 reviews,
NIKON P520 - X42 optical zoom (26-1000) - 16.1 Megapixels sensor - IS - Movie HD 1080 - no hot shoe - burst 7 fps - X2 digital zoom - has built in GPS - Approx cost 340 USD - Amazon review ratings 4.2 stars for 164 reviews,
CANNON SX50 -50X optical zoom (24-1200) - 12.1 Megapixels sensor - OIS - Movie 1080 - hot shoe - burst 10 fps - X2 digital zoom - Approx 400 USD - Amazon review ratings 4.5 stars for 479 reviews,

Super Zoom (500 to 1000mm ) Cameras


OLYMPUS SP 820 X40 (22- 896) - 14 Megapixels sensor - OIS - Movie 1080 - no hot shoe - burst 10 fps - X2 digital zoom - Approx cost 200 - Caution lacks eye view finder.
CANNON SX 40 - X35 (24-840) - 12 Megapixles sensor - IS - Movie 1080 - hot shoe - burst 8 fps X2 digital zoom - Approx cost 340 - Amazon revew rating 4.5 stars for 343 reviews.
NIKON L320 - X26 (23-585) - 16 Megapixels sensor - OIS - Movie 720 - no hot shoe - burst 10 fps - x2 digital zoom - Approx cost 140 Caution lacks eye view finder
PANASONIC FZ 200 - X24 (25-600) - 12 Megapixels sensor - OIS - Movie 1080 - hot shoe - burst 12 fps - 2X digital zoom -Approx cost 500 USD - Amazon review ratings 4.5 stars for 231 reviews.
PANASONIC FZ 40 - X24 (25-600) - 14.1 Megapixels sensor - OIS - Movie 720 - no hot shoe - burst 10fps - 2X digital zoom - Approx cost 400 USD - Amazon review rating 4.4 stars for 159 reviews.
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All of the camera listed above have the same basic capabilities. They all shot in many different modes and provide full manual operation that the expensive DSLR cameras do. The DSLR cameras do not have a super zoom lens built-in and require an expensive telephoto lens to be installed on the camera. For instance if the DSLR camera wanted to shoot at 1000 mm (ultra range) it would require a 6 lb lens and would cost many thousands of dollars. Which might be fine for the professional, but not for you and I. Many DSLR owners are shifting to these 'bridge' super zoom cameras because they are light and portable in the field.

While I didn't mention it in the discussion above you should look at the used market on Ebay. If, like me, you are on limited budget you can save a lot by buying good used equipment. Of course use caution in evaluating unseen cameras. Make sure of the vendor's rating and check out the return policy. Many camera dealers sell thru both Amazon and Ebay. So hunt for bargins. A big retail camera outfit is B&H Camera in New York check them out online.





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Tripods (and the like)

To assure sharp focus at the long distance that you'll be shooting, requires a stedy and sturdy platform. Normally the tripod provides this base. The choise of tripods are almost endless. If you are already a photographer then you probably have a favorite tripod. But for the beginner or birder there are too many to chose from. Amazon alone lists an amazing 570 ranging from 5 dollars to 1500 dollars. To assist in your selection, there are four very basic characteristics that should govern your selection. First is budget, plan on at about one hundred dollars and up to two hundred dollars. Search for the bargins, but a good tripod is necessary. The second basic to consider is the type of head on the tripod. The best type of head for our purposes is the "ball head' and 'quick release'. This is the type of head that allows the camera to move thru 360 degrees horizontally and about 90 degrees vertically. In essence you can cover any area in your view. If the head has a lever lock it is as easy as finding the bird and then locking the tripod to that exact spot. So, find something in your budget range, with a ball head and make sure it has a easy means of locking, The quick release plate allow the camera to be removed from the tripod very quickly. Often needed to follow a flying bird. The third consideration is weight and size. Try to find a tripod that will fit in a airline carry on . The tripods listed below all measure 16 inches or less when folded. The fourth consideration is adjustability. Often the leg joints get loose and any quality tripod has a way of adjusting or locking the angle of the legs. Necessary because you may be seated and the legs must spread widely to move the camera close to your eye. With those criterion in mind, I've researched three different tripods on Amazon.

Some tripods to consider


DOLICA - Model TX570 - folded length 12.5" - weight 2.5 lbs - Approx cost 80 USD - Amazon rating 4.2 stars for 71 reviews.
BENRO - 'Travel Angel' - folded 15" - weight 5 lbs - Approx 150 USD - Amazon rating 4.5 stars for 21 reviews,
MANAFROTTO - 'Be Free' - folded 15" - weight 5 lbs - Approx 200 USD - Amazon rating 4.5 stars for 231 reviews.

This list only scratches the surface ... hundreds of choices await you. Remember, small folded size for travel and a ball head. If you are mobile and will be carrying the tripod any distance the Light weight When ordering it is well to get a spare quick disconnect plate for insurance or for a second camera.



female House Sparrow
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Shoulder or Gun-stock Mount

Stedi-stock is one manufacturer of a plastic gun stocks on which you can mount a camera. It is similar in use to a rifle gunstock. Available online at prices from 30 to 80 dollars. I have found it a good, if seldom used, accessory. Particularly useful when walking and birding. The shoulder-stock allows you to sling your camera (and stock) over your shoulder, like a rifle. The camera can be on the target before you could set up a tripod or mono pod. For someone who does a lot of birds stalking and walking this may develop to be their favorite tool.

Mono-pods

In my experience a mono-pod (single legged tripod) is almost useless for bird photography. The reason is that one hand must always be devoted to holding the mono-pod upright. That leaves only a single hand free to adjust the ball head, then lock in place the ball joint and then move to the shutter release while holding the mono-pod very steady with the left hand, I think that if I had a third hand, it would be OK. But I was only issued two. It's use as a trekking pole is fine but it has draw backs for bird photography.

You see a lot of monopods used on the sidelines of football games. The reason is the DSLR telephoto lenses weight so much that they need a 'pod to support the lens. Also these guys are shooting photos all at eye level, unlike bird photography. However you should try it out, especially for shorebird photography.

Automobile window mounts

A very handy tool and one that I personally would not be without, is a clamp-on ball headed window mount. You simply raise the car window a couple of inches, slide the clamp over the upper edge of the window and tighten the clamp, then mount your camera. The car is now your shooting blind, while you sit comfortably in the driver's seat. A variation on this theme is a suction cup mount. Many suction cups are available but keep in mind the weight of your camera and lens. Several excellent models are built by Hammer.

Hand-held Brackets

One of the problems of holding these zoom cameras is that the zoom lens barrel moves in and out several inches as you zoom in and out. This means that you can only support that camera at the body. All the cameras have an 'adapter' available as an accessory. This is a simple tube that screws onto the camera. It's primary use is to mount a tele-extender lens. However I have one on the camera all the time, whether on not I mount a lens. This is because the tube gives you a better grip for hand holding. Well worth the 30 bucks or so.

There are several different types of hand-held attachments. One type is a pistol grip that screws into the tripod screw hole. They are fast and easy to use and are good for those 'draw-from-the-hip' surprises. I personally use a L-flash bracket. This allows you to mount the flashgun and camera together and hold the combination in one hand. Very handy when you need a fill-flash as the camera is off-set and the flash is not inline with the camera lens.

Poor man's 'pocket tripod'

If you spend a lot of time in the 'walking and stalking' mode of birding this little do-it-yourself gadget may be the ticket. The best way to name this would be a 'string tripod'. The idea is simple. If you lift up against the restraint of a fixed cord, the cord acts as a solid base for the camera. Here are some simple instructions to make one. Measure (or estimate)the distance from the ground to your eye. This is not critical, you can 'ballpark' it. Now get a fairly heavy piece of cord or line about 1/16 to 1/8 inch or so. nothing critical here either. Measure out about 2 and 1/2 times your eye height measurement. Tie the ends of the cord together so that it is one big loop.

Now we have to attach this loop solidly to the camera body. If you have a quick disconnect plate on your camera. See if it has a little flip up ring for tightening. The Benro has this feature. If the ring is present then slip a doubled-up cord loop thru the ring and then run the rest of the cord thru that loop. This attaches the cord to the camera. To use it as a tripod, step on the cord inside the loop with one foot. Bring the camera up to your eye and then step into the loop and onto the cord with the other foot. Now spread your feet apart until the cord is taut. This greatly improves stability as you pull up against the cord.

If your quick disconnect does not have a little ring, go to your local hardware store and ask for a "quarter inch - 20 thread per inch- eye bolt". This two-bit item will screw into your camera tripod mount and will give you the ring for the cord. This whole thing can stay out of the way in your pocket or purse until needed.




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Chapter 5 - Optional Equipment

Telephoto Extension Lens

The telephoto extension lens is also called a tele-converter, or tele-extender, by what ever name we mean a lens that mounts on front of the camera that provides magnification much as a magnifying glass. Normally these range from about 1.5 X to 2.5 X. If you have selected a zoom camera that is in the 10X or 12X range then this is a welcome improvement, however if you are in the 50X range they are not worth the additional cost. Agreed they will magnify your image but trying to push the overall magnification too high reduces photo quality too much. Better you try to just get closer to the subject.

Because these zoom cameras move the lens you can not just screw the tele-lens directly on the end of the cameras zooming lens. Instead you must also purchase and adapter and perhaps a adapter ring. For instance my FZ47 has a 52 mm tread on the camera, so I need a 52 mm adapter. This adapter is a 4.5 inch long tube with 52 mm threads on both ends. However my Raynox tele-lens has a 62 mm thread. So it is necessary to by a 5262adapter ring, 52 on camera side and 62 mm on the lens side.

I have found that my 'old' Panasonic 1.7 DWM-LT 55 has been a great addition. I purchased it several years ago and have adapted it for all my FZ series cameras. It features good glass, is small and light weight. It's for sale in many outlets. Amazon as of early 2014 sold this lens for about 200 dollars. Amazon customers have rated this lens 4.5stars for 23 reviews. This will increase a 12X zoom camera to 20X zoom. Not quite 2X increase.

Another lens that I can recommend from personal use, is the Raynox 2250 Pro. This lens while much bigger and heavier, magnifies 2.2 X. I've used this lens for seven years. It has stood up to all the knocks and banging for many birding trips. It has earned a good retirement now that I'm shooting the 60X FZ70. Altho I have used it to make an ID photo for birds more than 1/4 mile away. These birds could not be seen with the naked eye. I spotted them using binoculars and couldn't ID them. This tele-lens 'sucked them close' enough for an ID and web shot for ebird confirmation. Checking on Amazon this lens cost about 250 dollars and is rated 4.5 stars for 25 reviews. Would make a good addition to a 10X or 12X camera.

One word of caution: "In buying lenses you generally get what you pay for". If it's to good to be true, it is.

Flashguns for Fill-flash

The use of a flashgun will often be the difference between a well exposed photo and one that is dark and flat. Because we are photographing at long distances the built-in flash on your camera is useless. If you are more than 8 or 10 feet away forget about the built-in flash. What is needed is a very powerful flashgun. All the major DSLR manufacturers have their own models. These cost between 150 and 300 dollars. In additional requirement is a light concentrator, which is called a flash extender. One maker is Better Beamer. This is a external Fresnel lens system that will focus the flash beam to reach further. This flash extender is built by Better Beamer and costs around 40 dollars. Amazon rates it a 4.5 for 153 reviews. If you are going to use fill-flash (recommended) this extender is almost a requirement.

My personal recommendation is the Vivitar 285 HV. This is one of the most powerful (greatest light output) of all the Flashguns. In addition it has a built-in Fresnel that will focus the flash to reach further. The power can be selected from max power to 1/16 max power. The manual says that the flash in max power and zoom modes to provide light out to 70 feet. This particular model has been on the market for over 25 years. Amazon reviews are 4.1 stars for 135 reviews. Cost is about 80 dollars.

Camera Backpacks

The process of selecting a camera backpack can be almost overwhelming. There are hundreds, if not thousands of models to choose from. Personally I selected the AmazonBasic Camera Backpack for 30 Dollars. My reason were partly influenced by the number of good reviews. A 4.5 star rating for 1,864 reviews. It is large enough to hold 2 zoom cameras, plus all the lenses and accessories. Also external straps hold the tripod. But again, this is a very personal choise. Get online at Ebay, Amazon and B&H Photo.




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Chapter 6 - My Personal Equipment Choices - and why


I'll tell you of my present equipment and why I choose these items. These are my personal choices and they may not be the best choices for you. For the last 7 or 8 years I have birded almost daily. During this time I have upgraded/changed cameras every couple of years. I have tried many different accessory items, throwing away what doesn't work and cherish those that do work. I am somewhat of a minimalist so my selections are based on a limited budget and the ability to carry little weight.




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Cameras


I bought my first zoom camera in 2002 in preparation for my first safari in Africa. After researching cameras, my first choise of a DSLR required that I spend addition money for a telephoto lens. In those days almost a thousand dollars was way over budget. That camera was the Sony 1000 that burned file on mini cd discs. Two years later I was headed for the Amazon rain forest researched and found the Panasonic FZ8 came with a 10X zoom lens for a couple of hundred bucks. Well the cameras kept improving year by year. Every couple of years I bought the latest model. Since 2002 I have had (and still have) 6 different Panasonic cameras. During this time I have not had a single problem. In spite of the fact that I treat the cameras roughly. My FZ200 purchased in 2013 was stolen in Jan 2014 and I had to revert to my older model FZ47. Perfectly good camera but I had upgraded to the FZ200 and missed some of the newer features. But Panasonic had come out with a new model, the FZ70. After reading the reviews I decided to buy this rather than replace the FZ200. Now my "main" camera is the FZ70 which is "backed-up" with the FZ47. I have a whole suitcase of "old" Panasonic zoom cameras ... they just keep working and doing the job. So my personal recommendation is either the Panazonic FZ200 or the FZ70. Both are excellent cameras at a budget price. They have done everything I have asked of them.





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Tripods and such

I currently have two tripods. Both have ball heads for with quick disconnect mounts. I my opinion the ball head allows the greatest freedom of camera movement. Flip the lever, swivel the camera and lock in place by pressing the lever. The normal pan and tilt heads have a adjustment arm that is in the way of getting your eye close to the view finder. Maybe pan and tilt heads are good for general photography ... but not for birds and animals were speed is a priority.

My favorite Tripod is the Benro 'Travler'. It's light weight, sturdy and folds down to about 15 inches to fit in a backpack or carry-on. This tripod has given 6 years of service with no problems. Cost is about 150 dollars and has a 4.0 star rating with 5 reviews.

The second tripod is also great. It's a Dolich Proline it folds down to 12-1/2 inch package. It also has a ball head. Rated at 4.7 stars with 74 reviews. Price is about a hundred bucks.

My car window mount is a Hammer brand. Listed on Amazon for about 20 bucks. Rating is 5.0 stars for 5 reviews. It has seen daily use for 3 years with no problems. I modified this mount by buying a second Benro ball head and replacing the supplied head. This modification allows me to quickly change from tripod to window mount as now they have the same quick release plate configuration.




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Telephoto lens

The first tele-extended lens that I bought was a Raynox 2250 Pro. I have had and have used, this lens for over ten years. Most of the photos from Africa, Costa Rica and Belize were taken with an older Panasonic that had 10X. This 2.2 extender brought the zoom to 22X. Damn good for the year 2002. I used it right up to the loss of the FZ200 in 2013. The FZ200 had a 24X zoom and adding this lens increased it to 54X. Since I now shot the FZ70 at 60X zoom, I seldom use this lens. This lens will cost a couple of hundred, but has wonderful optical resolution. Highly recommended for lower level zoom cameras. Ratings are 4.5 stars for 25 reviews.

About the same time I also purchased the Panasonic DMW-LT55 for about 200 dollars. This is a small, light weight 1.7X extender. It increased my old FZ50 from 10X to 17X. This is a fine lens for lower zoom level cameras. Amazon rating is 4.5 stars for 23 reviews.

If you do decide to purchase an extended lens, remember in buying lenses you get what you pay for. Cheap lenses will probably disappoint you.


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Flashgun

The built-in pop-up flash on zoom cameras are worthless for nature photography, unless you are into insect photography and then they may provide too much light. The operating limits for that pop-up flash is about 8 feet. I use three different methods to provide additional light to fill in shadows. The primary tool is the Vivitar Model 285HV Flashgun. This flashgun has served me well for over ten years. It has been in production for over 25 years. The built-in Fresnel lens has three settings Wide, Normal and Zoom. The only drawback is that it 'goes through' a battery charge very rapidly. Specs say about 100 flashes/charge. It pays to carry 4 AA charged batteries into the field. This is a great tool for those just before dawn photos. Also useful as the primary light source for night photography. Mounting the flash on the camera's hot-shoe does not provide the best light. Because the light is in line with the camera lens, the light will cast no shadows and the photos are 'flat'. You need shadows to define dimensions. For that reason I purchased a little 20 dollar gadget. It is a small wireless transmitter and receiver. The tiny transmitter slides into the camera hot-shoe. The receiver slides into the flashgun hot-shoe connection. Now the camera and flashgun can be separated by up to 30 feet. I mount the flashgun on a hand-held bracket that separates the camera from the flash by about a foot.

I mentioned two other light sources. I have a shoulder rifle stock for 'walk and stalk' photography. I used duct tape to attach a powerful LED focusing flashlight to the rifle stock. It provides good fill-in light up to about 40 feet. I also have a powerful focusing LED headlamp. The kind you would use for camping. But this one can focus from wide angle to a spot. By wearing this headlamp I can quickly switch it on and it lights up where ever I'm looking. Like the flashlight it is good for up to 40 or 50 feet.





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Chapter 7 - Photographing in the field



The first requirement is to find the birds and animals to photograph. There are various search engines which are life savers. In ten minutes online, using key words like "birding hot spots (your location)" or "Audubon Chapter (your location)" or even "birding (your location)", or websites like "BirdingPal.com", or "Fatbirder.com". If you are more interested in big game think about a trip to our national parks. I have spent many years photographing the wide range of game in Yellowstone National Park and there are lots of game in Montana and Wyoming. Of course the ultimate is the Serengiti Plains in Tanzania, Africa. I have been lucky enough to have spent two different 14 day safaris there. Central America is fantastic for birds. Make out your "Bucket List" and just do it.

Close up shooting technique

I will outline the detail steps I use to get a close up of a bird or animal. Let's assume that you are in a Plop and Shoot Mode.

1. First turn the camera on and set the 'burst mode' setting to 5 frames/second. Next set the zoom lever to about X10 or so. This gives you little magnification but does give you a wide field of view. Train yourself that at the end of any series of close up shots you always return the zoom to this X10 (wide angle) setting. The reason is that when you first see a bird, you have to find and then align him to the center of the view finder for automatic focus and exposure settings. Keeping a wide view zoom helps to acquire the bird initially.

2. Next sight the camera in on the highest perch on the tallest tree. The reason is two fold, primary reason is to know where the camera is pointed before any bird appears. That way I know which way the camera will have to be moved even before I move it. Saved a full second of time. The other reason is that many birds select the highest perch as a lookout for flying insects also during mating they are more noticeable.

3. Now, comes the waiting game. Study the local habitat and try to memorize details of all the trees and shrubs. Stay alert and look in all directions.

4. When a bird finally flies into camera range. Take a 'mental photo' of EXACTLY where that bird landed. Since you know where the bird is in relation to where you camera presently pointed (top of the tallest tree) you should be able to point the camera to about where the bird landed. If you had a good mental image you should have the camera near the bird's location. Look closely until you find the bird. Ok you have the bird in the view finder. Time to start photographing.

5. Shot a burst of a second or so. Granted there is little zoom but you do now have a very small image to identify if you have no other shots. . Now zoom in until you have a full body image in the view finder. Get the tail and feet in the frame. Take a couple of bursts. Zoom even closer so that you have a 'half-body' shot. If the bird is still there zoom until his head fills about 30 to 60% of the image. We are now in portrait mode.

6. Now we are into the creative part of bird photography. We have the bird in focus, we have zoomed to portrait mode and it's time to pay attention to details. There are a couple of things that will change a photo into a 'stunning' photo. Concentrate on the eye. You need the 'eye highlight' (sun reflection). If he is feeding try to catch that action. If he's singing get that in a burst or two. Remember this 'digital film' costs nothing, keep those burst coming one after another. Stay concentrated on this bird, and only this bird, until he flies away. Don't bother to review the images now ... plenty of time for that later at home.

7. OK you have that 'film in the can' as the old timers would say .. on to the next bird. But before you do ...

8. Reset the zoom back to 10X and realign to the top of that tree and now wait for the next adventure.




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Preparation for the field

Your personal safety should be uppermost in your mind. Make sure your friends an/or family know where you are going and when you expect to return. Remember that when you do return notify them that you are back safe and sound. Accidents do happen and it pays to play safe. Carrying a cell phone is good insurance.

If traveling to another country keep a duplicate copy of your passport, driver's licence, visa, cash, etc. in a separate place, not on your person. Unless staying at a 'high-end' resort do not trust the local tap water. Be wary of raw foods and veggies. Cooking most often destroys harmful pathogens.

In my backpack I carry all my camera gear. The backpack keeps everything handy and together. You will establish your own list of equipment but as a example this is my listing:

1. Cameras I carry two cameras at all times, the zoom cameras weigh little and are small. The 'primary' camera is the 60X FZ70. The 'secondary' camera is the 24X FZ47. I have mounted the Raynox 2.2 tele-extender on the secondary camera to provide X48 zoom.

2. Batteries Nothing is worse than getting "No battery power left" when you are shooting. Each morning when I leave I verify that both camera have fully charged batteries installed. In addition I carry two extra fully charged camera batteries. I also carry 4 charged AA cells for the flashgun.

3. SD Card always carry at least one spare. They seldom go bad but they do occasionally. Use a 'fast' card if you are shoot high rate burst mode.

4.Tripods I carry my Benrow tripod strapped to the outside of the backpack. In addition, I carry the hand-held flash/camera L-bracket. The gunstock with flashlight is handy for quick shooting. The window clamp-on mount generally rides in the car instead of the pack.

5. Stool I have a small three-legged stool. This stool folds into a small bag that has an over the shoulder carrying strap. Since I'm a 'plop and shot' kind of birder I need this kind of seating. A quick trip to Amazon or eBay will lead you to hundreds of choices. Use your budget and ratings as a guide. If like me you are a Plop and Shot you will be sitting for hours so check out comfort as the primary consideration.

In addition to your photo equipment you should also carry: Water (a liter a day), Sunscreen (SP 50+), Insect Repellant (100% Deet is the best), hat (wide brim). All of these things take up but little room in your backpack.




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Walk and Stalk Techniques


If you are a birder then you have your own techniques. Your style fits you and you do not need these instructions. But perhaps you are just beginning birding or are a photographer just getting into the birding game. I have put together a little mnemonic to help you remember the easy steps to 'Walk and Stalk'. The mnemonic is SQUAW, like the Indian woman. Each letter in squaw is to remind you of a basic technique.

S the letter S is to remind you to move SLOWLY. Pause often to listen and use that pause to look and listen carefully. Any sudden or quick movements will frighten both birds and game. It is better to cover a small piece of habitat thoroughly than a large area haphazardly.

Q The letter Q stands for QUIET. If you are stalking game the snapping of a stepped on twig will set them fleeing. Any loud sound will startle birds into flight. Watch where you step and sneak through the woods like a the very game you want to photograph.

U as in the word UNDERSTANDING. Understand the reasons you are there and understand what you want to accomplish at this time and place. Understanding is to define the goals you have set and want to complete. Understand that you can do only so much in the given time. Understand that failure is a learning experience. Understand that you can't win them all. Understand your 'target' species (if you have one) and learn it's habits and habitat.

A The letter A is to remind you of AWARENESS. Pay attention to all that is going on. Constantly scan for birds and animals. Often they will 'freeze' at the sight of a human. If you are not constantly looking you'll miss photo opportunities. Constantly move your eyes and ears looking for and listening for everything in the area. Every few minutes close your eyes and mentally 'see' the habitat as completely as possible. Develop a 'feel' for the space you are in.

W The letter W stand for WIND. When you are stalking animals, the direction of wind is if paramount importance. Always move in the direction that puts the wind in you face. 'Face into the wind' is the rule. If you walk with the wind at your back, your scent will carry to the game before you are ever in sight. You have ruined your chances of even seeing game, let alone getting a photo.

However these rules change if you are birding. Birds have a preference to land and take-off facing into the wind. If the wind is strong they also point their heads into the wind. By putting the wind at your back, your chances of a better shot increase.

So remember the mnemonic SQUAW. Slow-Quiet-Understand-Aware-Wind.




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Plop and shoot


This is my name for finding a good birding area and waiting for the birds to come to you. Instead of covering a lot of ground as in 'Walk and Stalk' I sit quietly on a small stool, camera ready for the bird to appear. I adopted this mode because of a personal mobility problem. But even with this sit and wait there are several techniques that will enhance you chances of success.

Get Close This goes without saying. The closer you can get the better. When focusing use the camera's focusing spot on the eye. The eye MUST be in sharp focus and try to catch the high-light in the eye.

Light Make sure that the light is coming from behind you or off to one side. Seldom will you get good photos shooting into the light. But if you do shot into the light, consider fill-flash to illuminate the shadows.

Wind If possible try and face down wind. Birds usually land and take-off into the wind and they will be facing you. If the wind and light do not both favor you. Select the light direction over the wind direction.

concealment Try to hide your outline. Sit with your back against a tree or bushes. A very good accessory is the 'chair blind' This is a canvas cover over a built in chair. Also check out the a pop up blind. Hunting suppliers offer a wide array of inexpensive (starting around $30) and quick blinds that work just as well for photographers. I am particularly fond of the umbrella style blind that has two small cutouts in it for placing camera lenses through. I also like the one-man surrounding pop up blinds as they weigh under 10 lbs and I can place a chair inside it. With blinds you may have to arrive at your intended destination a bit earlier to set up before the birds arrive. Again Amazon offers many makes and models. Since I drive my car to and from birding sites, weight is no problem, so I have a large roomy blind. If you are setting up a blind, arrive as early as possible (before dawn) so as not to scare the birds. They will soon get used to your blind.

Chapter 8 - Index of over 50 Bird and Animal Close up Portraits


Bird Photos

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Acorn Woodpecker - USA

American Kestrel - USA

Black-headed Trogon - Belize

Blue Danic - Costa Rica

Blue Danic - young - Belize

Blue-gray Tanager - Belize

Cassin's Kingbird - Baja

Chestnut-billed Toucan - Belize

Collared Aricari - Belize

Collared Aricari - Costa Rica

Costa's Hummingbird - young male - Baja

Costa's Hummingbird - Baja

Gilded Flicker - male- Baja

Golden Hooded Tanager - Costa Rica

Great Blue Heron - Baja

Green Mango Hummingbird - Belize

Green Honeycreeper - Mexico

Hornbill - Africa

House Sparrow - USA

House Sparrow -Baja

House Sparrow - Belize

Jacobin Hummingbird - Costa Rica

Loggerhead Shrike - Baja

Mealy Parrot - body - Costa Rica

Mealy Parrot - portrait - Costa Rica

Northern Cardinal - male - Baja

Phainopepla- male - Baja

Redish Heron - Baja

Red-tail Hawk - USA

Saddle-billed Crane- Africa

Shiny Honeycreeper - Belize

Verdin - Baja

Western Scrub-jay - USA

White-wing Dove - Baja

White-wing Dove - Baja

Xantus' Hummingbird - Baja

Yellow Throated Euphonia - Costa Rica

Animal Photos

Antelope Ground Squirrel - USA

Babbon family - Africa

Chameleon - Africa

Cheetah - Africa

Cheetah - Africa

Elephant - baby - Africa

Giraffe - Africa

Giraffe - Africa

Green Lizard - Amazon

Hyena - Africa

Iguana - Costa Rica

Lion - male - on kill - Africa

Lion - adult male - Africa

Lion - young cub - Africa

Warthog - Africa



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APPENDIX A - SAMPLE CHAPTER IN BOOK #2 - "IMAGE EDITING FOR BIRDERS".


CHAPTER 6 - USING FILL-FLASH

Many times you will experience problems with the ambient light. Perhaps your subject is in deep shade or perhaps the sun is behind your subject and is in it's own shadow. Maybe it is very early or very late and there is insufficient light to make a photograph. These are some of the occasions when a flashgun is handy. It can mean the difference between a good photo and another 'throw-away'.In the first book 'ZOOMING INTO NATURE' we examined Flashguns as optional equipment. Perhaps you acquired one. If you didn't, this chapter may change your mind. I have taken a off-the-cuff shot of a Dove at about 50 to 60 feet away at 60X with the FZ70. The first shot was using early morning ambient light. I shot another photo with the Vivitar 258HV set to zoom lens and max power. Let's look at the results.



The original photo with insufficient light. But in 'CHAPTER 3 - ADJUSTING LIGHT LEVELS' we learned how to adjust the light. Practicing what we learned. We display the histogram to check light levels.



There is little white component the image, it is all is dark range. So we will balance the levels by adjusting the light end slider. The dark end is already into saturation.



We have moved the white slider to adjust. The Image is now 'balanced'. However it is still a throw-away because the entire body is in shadow.

In this next series of photos, we have used a fill-flash. Still the same bird in the same location. Only difference is that I used the flashgun.


Still way too dark but note that the whole light value has shifted toward the right (brighter) as the result of the flash. Now we can control both the black and the white level sliders to balance the image.



We have adjusted the sliders and the image has improved. The feathering on the back that was in deep shadow is now viable.



One last adjustment was to move the mid-tone (center) slider to increase the mid-tone brightness. The original 'throw-away' was saved by using the fill-flash




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APPENDIX B - ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Today, John Spencer lives a simple life in a small Mexican village in Baja, Mexico. After his second 'retirement' in 1991 he moved to this small piece of paradise with one foot in the Sea of Cortez and one foot on the Tropic of Cancer. Having photographed birds and animals for over 20 years using zoom cameras John is convinced that "if he can do it ... anybody can do it". This latest eBook "Zoom into Nature" leads the birder/bird watcher into Close up Bird Photography. This is his sixth book all written after he was in his eighties. John claims "writing books and learning new things will keep me young at heart and mind, even as my body falls apart"

Born in San Jose California in 1931. Raised by a single mother until 1948 when he enlisted in the US Army. Served three years in the Korean War. Discharged and married in 1952. Attended San Jose State under the GI Bill, before starting work as an electronic engineer. Joined Lockheed Missiles and Space Division in 1957. Left Lockheed to become an independent consultant and contractor in 1966. Divorced in 1974 after a twenty-one year marriage.

Now, a single man, he followed a life-long dream and bought a 30 foot wooden sailboat with the intention of a circumnavigation voyage, solo. This started his 'first retirement'. He sailed for 12 years until his money ran out. He did not complete the circumnavigation sailing only as far as Australia.

He then returned to the US and back into the aerospace profession in 1987. Four years followed at US Wind power, testing large wind turbines. He retired the 'second time' in 1991, and moved to Baja, Mexico. John now lives in a small dirt street, fishing village, on the east coast of Baja.

Creativity is, and has always been, part of his life. During the sailing years he practiced the art of Scrimshaw. Scratch drawing on bone and ivory which was an art form practiced by sailors on whale hunting voyages. After retiring to Mexico, John started Acrylic painting of animals and birds. He followed that by carving exact wooden replicas of birds and animals for several years.

In 2002 he purchased a Sony 1000, a 10X 'digital' camera for a safari to the Serengiti. Since then he has been a both a birder and a bird photographer. Renewing zoom cameras every year or two as the technology improved. He has made many trips to various contries photographing birds and animals. John plans a yearly trip in pursuit of birds and animals. Highlight trips since 2002 are two trips to Africa, four trips to Costa Rica, two trips to Belize, two trips to Ecuador, and a single trip to the Amazon Rain forest.

In 2010 his friends asked him to write down the sailing stories that he was recalling from memory. Instead he fished through years of correspondence and found letters that his mom had saved before she died. Letters he had written monthly to his mom and friends, during the 1970's and 1980's.

These saved letters became two Kindle eBooks. "Letters from a Sailor". Book one covers the period of John learning to sail and the first two trips up and down the California coast to Baja, Mexico. Then followed the writing of eBook two, the voyage across the Pacific alone. Available in Amazon Bookstore Book #1 Here and Book#2 Here.

After the success of the first books, John followed with Baja Bird Guides. This three volume set shows photos and information on the local Baja Birds. Available in Amazon Bookstore Small Bird Guide, Here Medium Bird Guide Here and The Large Bird Guide Here.

John welcomes corrections and comments. He can be emailed Here

A link to his blog site "Twenty Years of Nature Photography" is Here

If you wish to be added to his daily email BirdNotes email use "Subscribe" in the subject line Here.

John has started the follow-up volume to this book. The second book in this series is "Image Processing for Birders". The aim is to provide step-by-step instructions on how to process the photos that you have just taken in the field.




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