A lot of my friends are asking why I do bird photography. I have to qualify though that the birds I photograph are those in the wild, meaning they are not caged. I don’t really fancy myself with birds in captivity. So, why do I do wild bird photography? My ready answer is that they are fascinating creatures that God created and birds always reminds me of God’s faithfulness and grace in my life. A pretty “spiritual” answer but is it enough reason then to “justify” this madness and the reason to acquire expensive gears and accessories.
Here’s my situation. I work in a missionary organization receiving a meager salary that is just enough to support myself, my parents, siblings and nephew. With the unstoppable rising cost of living, supporting them with my salary seems to be not enough now to make ends meet. So why pursue a field of photography that is quite costly?
First, as I’ve mentioned earlier, this is some kind of madness. As Toto Gamboa wrote in his blog, “As one bird photographer friend said, wild bird photography is like being a toy or comics collector. You just want to have all of them. There is some kind of addiction that you will develop when you dip yourself into it. So beware.”
Second, I really love nature and the outdoors. I grew up watching Disney movies that portrays wild animals that can petted. I also remember growing up with the Tarzan series. I also imagine myself flying a lot of times. So birds in the wild are really appealing to me.
Third, wild birds also come with different plumage and behaviors. Thus they are graphically and visually appealing to the eyes. Honestly, I have this “fear” that I might end up like my father, who is now blind due to retinal detachment. So I have this urge to see as much of the beautiful things the Lord has created while I have my sight. Of course, I pray hard that I will not end up blind.
Fourth, wild bird photography is unlike other field. I think it is more challenging compared to doing portrait, landscape or food photography wherein the photographer can have the guarantee in controlling photographic situation. Unlike models whom you can direct to do a particular pose, birds do a lot of movements. “There is always an ingredient of unpredictability,” as Toto Gamboa puts it. Wild bird photography requires a lot of patience and study to achieve a good photograph.
Fifth, I believe that not everyone can do wild bird photography. There are more than 30,000 amateur and professionals photographers in the Philippines. But there are only a number of photographers who pursues wild bird photography. I can do other photography but I’m more passionate in developing my craft with wild birds.
But that passion comes with frustrating fact that I can’t afford expensive gears. I didn’t plan to do wild bird photography when I bought first DSLR. Now I’m quite stuck with my one and only Nikon D5000 DSLR camera. It only has 12.4 mega-pixels (MP) and can shoot up to 4 frames per second (FPS) [according to the manual]. However, 12.4 MP is fine but with very small birds, like sunbirds, gerygones or tailorbirds, I don’t have the liberty to crop to zoom in to the subject. Most, if not all, of my fellow bird photographers are using Canon. Even Canon entry level DSLRs have up to 18 MP to boast.
D5000 says that it can do 4 FPS but in my actual use for bird photography it can only do 2-3 FPS. D5000 has 11 focus points but only 1 cross-type AF point located in the middle. I just don’t know if the Canon equivalent of D5000 has more cross-type sensors.
In my experience, having 12.4 MP and 4 FPS is not enough because I don’t see a lot of feather details in my photographs. I have a number of good bird photos but majority of the time it seems that I just wasted a lot of shots. My verdict is that D5000 is not recommendable if you intend to do take great bird images.
Coupled with the camera should be a good telephoto lens. I initially bought a Nikkor 70-300mm G lens. It’s very cheap that is why I bought it. However, it doesn’t have its own motor and it doesn’t auto-focus with my camera. It was okay then because I was just testing if I will really like photographing subjects from afar. It was really, really hard doing manual focusing with bird photography. I think the only bird I shot with the 70-300mm that has good quality is the pygmy woodpecker.
My frustration with blurred images and missing a lot of photographic opportunities led me to seek a better functioning lens. At that time, I learned that my camera is a grey item and the rest of my Nikkor lenses are grey. Thus having Columbia Digital, Nikon’s authorized distributor in the Philippines, support was quite difficult and expensive. Bird photography becomes even more frustrating on my part. I learned that there are good a third-party lenses from Sigma. I leaned toward Sigma because the premier wild bird photographer Romy Ocon used Sigma before he became a Canon Ambassador.
I tried to find a lens that can auto-focus with my D5000, one that has optical stabilization system when handheld, one that I can carry for a long period time because I have slipped disk problem and one that I can purchase using my life savings. I ended up with the Sigma APO 150-500mm. It has good reviews and some fellow bird photographers have used it in the field.
In actual use, the Sigma APO 150-500mm is quite a good and sharp lens. The auto-focus is fast even in poor lighting condition. Plus I have a good experience with JT Photoworld in terms of after sales service.
The next crucial accessory is the tripod. I bought a P1,700 worth of China brand tripod before I even got into bird photography. When I acquired my Sigma lens, it can no longer support my system. I have a lot of wasted shots also because of poor ground support. That cheap tripod tends to wobble in acute angle positions. Then, I managed to acquire a Benro Travel Angel tripod and it’s a pretty good support system.
My bird photography has changed and improved quite well because of my current system. I tried to get more familiar with the features of my camera and lens. But the more I get to know my gear, the more I get to know its limitations.
I’m struggling how D5000 handles high ISO. Noise becomes quite evident even at ISO-800. It performs very poorly when I shoot under canopies, where small birds would often be found. The FPS is not sufficient. Since D5000 is an entry level DSLR, a lot of the settings are hidden in the Menu. In my experience, some shots are missed because adjustments that could have been done through separate buttons or dials but I would have to go through the Menu. D5000 exposure indicator tends to be misleading also resulting to undesired exposure.
I’m struggling now regarding the “future” of my bird photography. I’m thinking of, at least, getting a Nikon D7000. But that would mean breaking the bank or selling one of my kidneys. If I saved three years for my D5000, then imagine how long will I save for a D7000, which is almost twice the price of my D5000. I’m also thinking of shifting to Canon but I invested so much for a Nikon system, even if some of them are grey items. I envy fellow bird photographers who seem to be getting better bird images because of their Canon system. But then in my own perception, images taken using Nikon are quite better. I also have this personal goal to prove that Nikon can produce equally great, if not better images than that of Canon.
When will that happen? I don’t know. Unless I earn bigger (which is quite a remote possibility with my current employment)… or unless I steal (which is a sin), I don’t know. For the meantime, I’ll try to enjoy what I have, pray that I have a good shooting opportunity and pray that God will provide me my dream wild bird photography system.