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Photographic equipment

INTRODUCTION
This page gives information on the photographic equipment used to take the pictures on this website. As a boy, my photography was based on a second-hand Rolleicord medium format twin lens reflex camera, with guidance from my grandmother, Lettice Ramsey, a notable professional portrait photographer. I even took a few black & white pictures of distant garden birds on feeders using a home made hide in the mid 1960s!

The earliest pictures on this website (see scanned pics on sunsets page) were taken in the late 1970s, using a low-cost Praktica SLR (LTL3) - my first 35mm film camera. There was then a long gap when my photographic activity was almost zero. But with the advent of the digital age, this dormant interest re-surfaced with a vengeance, as it neatly combined three interests in one activity: birds, computers & photography.

I started digiscoping in 2003, and then in 2006 progressed to the DSLR & long lens combination. There then followed a major upgrade in DSLR gear in 2008, and a further (forced!) camera change in the summer of 2009. In March 2011, I upgraded again from an EOS 50D to an EOS 7D. Less than 4 years later, I couldn't resist the EOS 7D Mark II, but hung onto the original 7D as a backup/spare.

My DSLR and related gear now comprises:

Cameras

Telephoto lenses

Other

  • Jessop extension tubes (3 tube set up to 65 mm).
  • Canon RC-1 remote control
  • Various CF cards - latest being a 32Gb SanDisk Extreme Pro 160MB/s. Note this needed a firmware update (2.0.5) on my EOS 7D to achieve the desired fast write times. A full buffer of about 28-30 raw images was then cleared in about 7 sec which is pretty impressive (before the firmware update, a buffer of about 20 raw images took about 20sec to clear).

DLSRs

Top: Canon EF400mm f5.6 & EOS350D
Bottom: Canon EF400mm f4 DO & EOS40D

Now (January 2016), my current 'front-line' gear for bird photography is the EOS 7D mk II body with the EF400mmF4DO lens, almost always with a x1.4TC. This combination generally works well now, including the auto-focus even with the x1.4TC attached. Whenever possible I try to use this combination with my tripod. For bird in flight photography with this equipment, I will generally dispense with the tripod and usually remove the x1.4TC.

I still also find the lighter and more manoeuvrable EF 400mmf5.6 useful - it is an excellent lens for its price. This lens is also good for birds in flight (BIFs).

EOS 7D Mark II vs Mark I Review (January 2016)
Having had the excellent EOS 7D for almost three years, I was very interested in the Mark II which was launched in 2015, and before long found myself unable to resist the temptation to acquire it, especially given all the enthusiastic reviews it was generating.  With hindsight, my cynical side makes me wonder just how much hand Canon had in the generation of many of these initial reviews and also maybe those who had just forked out for one felt it necessary to justify the considerable outlay involved!

I am sure there are thousands of words and hundreds of comments about the 7D Mark II out there on the web, but just for the record here are some of my thoughts for those who are interested.

Here are some of key points as I see them.

Number of pixels
The Mark II has a few (10%) more pixels (20M versus 18M), but this isn't much - about a linear 5% increase in the number of pixels along each side of the image.

Noise levels
With the original 7D, Canon managed to appear to defy the laws of physics by obtaining lower noise levels than the 50D even with the 20% reduction in the area available for each 7D sensor element. One of the main reasons I was tempted to upgrade were the reports that they had done it again with the Mark II. However my own quantitative measurements of noise showed that, with no noise suppression at all on both cameras (level playing field), the Mark II gave similar noise levels to the original 7D, with only small apparent improvements for grey levels between about 100 and 200 for ISO 400 and 800.  At 1600 there was an even smaller difference.

On the other hand, the respected DXOMark website shows the Mark II to have a consistent advantage of about 2dB in their "SNR 18%" values over the original 7D for all ISO settings. This amounts to more than half a stop of improvement, as 1 stop should give a 20log10(√2) = 3dB change in noise level if photon counting statistics are the main source of noise.

These numbers are all very well, but how does my experience of the actual images obtained with these two cameras in the field compare?

As I always use NeatImage for suppressing noise, what is important to me is the level of noise left after NeatImage has worked its tricks. Subjectively at least (and of course exact side by side comparisons are impossible), the NeatImage processed images from the Mark II do compare favourably with those from the original 7D.

Broadly speaking, my feeling is that the difference is approaching one stop, so for example an ISO 1600 image from the Mark II is only slightly noisier, after NeatImage, than one at ISO 800 from the original 7D. This is a significant advantage and allows me to get reasonable results quite often with ISO 3200 on the Mark II whereas with the original 7D my maximum ISO was usually 1600. I have even got semi-reasonable results at ISO 6400 using the Mark II, see for example the White Bearded Manakins taken in dreadful light at the ASW Wright Centre in Trinidad in January 2015 (although these did require a fair amount of additional attention in PSE).

Auto-focus (AF) modes
The 7D Mark II  attracts much hype over its upgraded AF system and certainly the additional AF areas are very welcome. The Mark II has 65 AF areas, which cover a significantly greater percentage of the image, than the original 7D (and more even than on the EOS 1DX and EOS 5D Mark III). Hence even with a bird filling most of the frame, with the Mark II it is more likely that there will be an AF area available for the bird's eye which is usually where I aim to focus. Having said that, I have still found times when this isn't the case, and the eye is above the uppermost row of AF sensors!

For more information on the relative merits of the 7D Mark II AF system, there are many very thorough reviews available online, see for example this one from the Digital Picture.com.

The other main benefit of the 7D Mark II's AF system it is supposed to be its much improved capability for birds in flight (BIF), which I seem to remember was also a key selling point for the original 7D when it came out. I feel I don't have enough experience of BIF photography to be able to comment with any authority on this subject, but I do note that after some experimentation (but by no means exhaustive) I have ended up using the central AF point with "AF 4-point expansion" (which uses the 4 other areas above, below, left and right of the central one) - exactly the same as I used on the 7D! I have to confess to being somewhat confused by all the other parameters available, and generally use defaults of  0 for tracking sensitivity, 1 for accel/decel tracking and 1 for AF pt auto switching. These are the mid range values for each parameter and are based on a online article I read somewhere by somebody who sounded like they knew what they were doing! I have added these to the useful My Menu 1 so that I can, if required, readily change them but I don't really have any idea what would work better. On this topic, I really don't know if these options help (or hinder) BIF photography!

Another notable improvement in the Mark II's AF system is its ability to cope with lenses with a maximum aperture of f8. This would allow use of AF with a x1.4 TC on my 400f5.6 lens or even a x2 TC on my 400f4DO, but it is a pretty limited capability as only the central focusing area then works. As a result to date I have never tried it in the field.

Other Mark II advantages
The following are additional features on the 7D Mark II that I consider to be notable improvements over the original 7D:

  • Control dial lock - the main control dial has a lock on it, so it much less likely to have got rotated to the wrong setting (e.g. manual), just when the shot of a lifetime presents itself!
  • USB 2 readout - allows much faster downloading of all those raw files from the camera, with the card still on-board
  • Dual SD and CF card slots - I have just discovered it is possible to put a cheap 32 GB SD card into the Mark II as well as a fast 32 GB CF card, with automatic switching between the two. This means that when the CF card is full it will automatically switch over and start writing to the SD card. This could be very useful in an "emergency" if the CF card fills up and I've forgotten to have a spare with me - as has happened in the past, although generally only with smaller capacity CF cards. It is also possible to copy from the CF card to the SD card for backup purposes, which might also be useful.

Mark II disadvantages
The following are the only disadvantages I can think of for the Mark II over the original 7D:

Price - when purchased in December 2014 it was 1600 - much more than the 7D at the time, and substantially more the 7D when new. I am somewhat dismayed to see that now (January 2016) its price has fallen to a more reasonable c. 1200!

Variability in metering/exposure levels - I always use evaluative metering and aim for ETTR (expose to the right) to try to minimise the noise level on the image, given the ISO setting in use at the time. To achieve this, I nearly always end up using positive exposure compensation. With the 7D Mark II, I find that in some cases, especially very dull grey days (quite frequent in the UK!), a huge amount of compensation is needed to get the maximum exposure levels so that the images have with grey levels up to around the 255 maximum (8-bit images).

In these cases, I sometimes need to use as much as +2 eV exposure compensation and +1 2/3 or +1 1/3 are not uncommon. With the original 7D, I seldom had to use more than about +1 or +1 1/3. In different circumstances, when there is more contrast around, suddenly the amount of exposure compensation needed comes right down, nearer to zero. For images with strong highlights (e.g. a white part of a bird in strong sun), negative values can be needed, although this is rare and mostly I find myself using at least +2/3.

As a result of all this, there is a danger of using too much exposure compensation so that the brighter parts of the image are saturated or burnt out (full white). I know that when shooting in RAW, the exposure can be reduced afterwards in the Raw converter, but there is a limit to the extent this can be successful. When I first got the Mark II, I was concerned that that there was less scope for this than the original 7D, and that only about -0.5 eV exposure compensation in DPP was the maximum that could be used to bring saturated values back into range. However more recently, and following a firmware upgrade to 1.0.5, I haven't noticed this possible limitation so much, and -0.83 or -1eV reduction in exposure in DPP brings over-exposed areas back out of saturation. This is now very similar to the original 7D. So this may have been a fault fixed by Canon, or was it just my imagination?

Nevertheless, with such a wide range of exposure compensations needed for ETTR with the Mark II, I feel it is still easier to end up with highlights that are burnt-out than on the original 7D - mainly because it easy to end up using the usual high positive exposure compensation on images which turn out to have highlights in.  This is something that I need to remember to pay more attention to in future!

Strangely I've not seen this mentioned by anyone else, so maybe this is just down to the way I am using the Mark II!

7D Mark II Camera Settings
Apart from the AF settings, most of the settings I use on the Mark II tend to be very similar to their equivalents for the 50D (see below).

Overall
The Mark II is undoubtedly a better camera than the original 7D, but by how much is debatable, given the huge price differential and the 5 years or so of development that has gone into the Mark II. The differences are probably less than between the 7D and the 50D.

So was the 7D Mark II worth the upgrade from the 7D? After a year or so of use, my view on this is almost exactly the same as it was a year after I bought the original 7D as an upgrade for the 50D! "Probably" is about as far as I will go!

As described above, the Mark II is definitely slightly better than the original 7D in a number of respects, which do all tend to add up, so the cumulative effect is significant. It is the best camera I have owned, and I suspect it will be sometime before I am tempted into a further change. But this is exactly what I wrote for the original 7D, which I upgraded 3 years later! Only time will tell...

7D Mk II Camera Settings
Here is a summary of the main camera settings I usually use for bird pics on the EOS 7D Mk II & EF400mmf4 DO:

Setting Value Comment

AE program

Av

Aperture priority with lens on max aperture (f4, or f5.6 if the x1.4TC is on the lens) to ensure fastest shutter time. Sometimes it is worth stopping down to increase depth of focus.

Image Quality

Raw

See my page on Photoshop and beyond for pros & cons

ISO

400 - 3200

Value depends on the light level. I generally aim to go for a fast shutter time even if a high ISO setting is needed since something can be done afterwards about a noisy image, but one blurred due to camera shake or bird movement is impossible to correct substantially. I have even used ISO 6400 once or twice with semi-reasonable results.

White Balance

Auto

Tweak later in DPP if needed

Colour Space

sRGB

 
Picture Style Faithful This sets the various camera settings
Long exp, noise reduction Off  
High ISO speed NR Off  
AF parameters   For normal shooting of birds that are not flying, I use Case 1 - [Tracking sensitivity = 0, Accel./decel. tracking = 1, AF pt auto switching = 1]. For birds in flight I usually use the same apart from the AF pt auto switching which is 0; but all these different options are confusing! 

AF mode

AI Servo

To track moving targets.

AF Microadjustment ON It is important to set the AF microadjustments individually for every lens and teleconverter combination used on the camera. See my page on this subject for further info.

Metering mode

Evaluative

 

Exposure compensation

 

Variable, according to circumstances. I generally aim to get the brightest areas as close to saturation as possible. With the MkII, surprisingly high values up to +2 can be needed on dull days or with backlight shots. Normally I find it is necessary to use at least +1. But if there are bright sunlight areas this needs to come right down. For dragonflies I find negative values are often needed to avoid saturating the highlights.

Drive mode

H

Get the benefit of those 10 frames/sec!

White Balance

Auto

Tweak later when importing into DPP if needed

Colour Space

sRGB

 

EOS 7D Comments (written in 2012)
Having had the EOS 50D for a couple of years, I finally decided to upgrade from the EOS 50D in spring 2011. This was not an easy decision, given the considerable extra cost involved, even having managed to get a reasonable price for my 50D on Ebay! Below were my impressions in 2012, after having had the camera about a year. They did not change much thereafter!

On/off switch
An easy one first and a big benefit for the 7D, which has a much better, single action, well sized on/off switch, compared to the fiddly dual action "thing" on the 50D!

Noise levels
As described below, one of the drawbacks of the 50D was its relatively high noise level, due in part at least to its small pixel size. The 7D has even smaller pixels. However, my quantitative measurements of noise show that with no noise suppression at all on both cameras (level playing field), the 7D actually gives lower noise than the 50D, by a reasonable margin especially at the higher ISO settings (800 and 1600). These measurements do tend to confirm other reports - that Canon have improved the noise performance on the EOS 7D, compared with the 50D.

But in March, very soon after I had acquired the 7D, I wrote on my noise page:

"However, what really matters to me is the noise left after the noise reduction software I use on all images - NeatImage. Of course that is a whole new subject in its own right! All I will say on that subject at present is that I often found that quite noisy ISO 800 50D images cleaned up really well with NeatImage, provided they were well exposed (i.e. ETTR).

It is very early days yet, but I'm not convinced NeatImage is doing quite such a good job on the 7D images at ISO 800. These appear to have quite a number of "rogue" pixels, either singly or in small groups, which are largely unaffected by NeatImage. So could it be that after NeatImage, the 50D is "better" than the 7D, despite its higher raw noise levels? Surely not?!"

What do I think about this now? Well, I'm not really sure - it is impossible to do an exact side by side comparison as I no longer have the 50D! What I will add is that I do find the 7D's noise level at ISO 1600 quite impressive - visually often hardly any worse than at ISO 800, after NeatImage that is. Also, the odd shot at even higher ISO's (e.g. a "crazy" 6400) came out surprisingly well after NeatImage again.

So all in all this area does show some benefit for the 7D, compared with the 50D, although I do not think the differences are large.

Number of pixels
The 7D has a few (20%) more pixels than the 50D (18M versus 15M), but this really isn't much - about a linear 10% increase in the number of pixels along a side of the image.

Auto-focus (AF) modes
My main reason for upgrading to the 7D was its auto-focus system which was said to be a significant improvement on the 50D's, especially for birds in flight (BIF). It was even claimed by some to rival the newer Nikon's AF systems (e.g. D300).

However, almost as soon as the 7D arrived, I was disappointed that, despite all the different options, none seemed to do quite what I was expecting for BIFs. I thought it would allow one to start with one (or a few) active sensor areas which would then "track" or lock-on to a moving target as it moved within the field of view, even when it went in front of trees or other problematic backgrounds. Maybe I was expecting too much - cameras don't currently seem to be able to lock onto a target like a guided missile!

To date, I have mostly followed the advice of others - especially the excellent article by A Hazeghi. He essentially recommends the option of manual single AF point with 4-Point AF expansion. This seems to work reasonably well, but only if you can manage to keep these points, which are right in the centre of the field of view, on the moving bird. For some species, moving in a nice predictable way (e.g. raptors or other large birds) this can work out OK. A good example of this mode in successful action was a pic of a passing Crane, taken in Poland this spring. This turned out quite sharp, even at 1:1.

For smaller, fast moving erratic species like hirundines and Swifts, things are much more difficult. In these cases, the alternative mode of having all focus areas active may have something offer, provided the background is clear (e.g. sky). For example my Little Ringed Plover flight shot benefited from this mode, as did my recent Farmoor Swift. But this is by no means a fool-proof option, and it doesn't work very well in many cases, especially if the background is at all confusing.

All in all, I think the manual single AF point with 4-Point AF expansion, and the other settings from the article by A Hazeghi are probably the best for all round BIF work. Getting sharp BIF shots remains difficult though - it may well depend on the lens you are using as well. With the EF 400mmf4 DO, taking the x1.4 converter off is recommended for sharper BIFs - provided of course the subjects are coming close enough. The EF 300mm f2.8 has a great reputation for BIFs.

For non flight shots, I believe the spot AF mode is better than the normal single point mode. However, I suspect it depends on the subject and whether or not it is moving. Spot AF is definitely best for almost stationary, contrasty subjects, but for moving birds (e.g. birds on water), spot AF may not lock-on very effectively and the normal single point mode works better. Also spot-AF needs a fair amount of contrast on the subject and fine detail to "get to grips with", over its small area. The normal single point mode is more robust on this. After over a year of use, I find my default is always spot AF - with practice it seems to work well - but can take a bit of extra time to achieve. Only rarely do I go for the normal single point mode.

So in summary, with the 50D there was just one main AF option, but things with the 7D are much more complicated with 3 or 4 to chose from! There do appear to be some advantages in these, but only by careful choice, depending on the circumstances.

7D Camera Settings
Apart from the AF settings, these tend to be very similar to those for the 50D (see below).

Overall
So was the 7D worth the upgrade from the 50D? Even after a year or so of use, "maybe" is probably about as close as I can get! As an upgrade from an earlier Canon model (e.g. 40D), I'd say it would definitely be worthwhile in terms of the extra pixels and of course the micro AF capability, more of which in the 50D review below. It does of course depend on your willingness to pay extra for the best!

Overall the 7D is definitely slightly better than the 50D in a number of respects, which do all tend to add up, so the cumulative effect is significant. It is without doubt the best camera I have owned, and I suspect it will be sometime before I am tempted into a further change!

EOS 50D Review
The EOS 50D features a sensor with a comparatively large number of pixels (15 Mp) given its x1.6 crop factor size. This gives a potential advantage in detail resolution - the extra number of pixels should be capable of giving more detail on the subject. This should be useful for those all too common occasions when the bird is too far away, and substantial cropping of the image is needed. Conversely, the small pixel size (the pixel pitch is only 4.7 micron!) means each pixel collects less light than is the case for sensors with fewer pixels. This makes the 50D potentially more susceptible to higher noise levels, particularly at higher ISO settings.

I've made some careful measurements of the noise levels on raw images from various DSLR cameras including the 50D. I've also studied the resolution achievable with the 50D, when used with my two 400mm lenses. For a brief summary of the main points, see below.

50D Noise levels
From some systematic quantitative measurements, it seems the smaller sized pixels on the 50D sensor (15 Mp), are giving substantially higher noise levels than on the 350D or 40D. Indeed using Adobe's Camera Raw (ACR) to convert the raw images, the 50D had by far the highest noise levels of these 3 cameras - giving about 1 stop more noise than the EOS 350D and a dismal 1.5 stops more than the 40D.

However, it seems that Canon's Digital Photo Professional (DPP) gives somewhat lower noise level images than Adobe's Camera Raw (ACR), so I now use this all the time for 50D raw images.

Results with the 50D in the field generally show that, provided images are not under-exposed, noise levels at ISO 400 are tolerable, and using Neat Image (see page on processing camera images) effectively gets rid of nearly all visually apparent noise. Even at ISO 800, results after NeatImage are quite reasonable - better than might be expected, given the quantitative noise analysis measurements. A few well exposed exposures at ISO 1600 weren't too bad either, again after NeatImage.

50D pixels
The 50D has 15Mp, which is almost twice as many as the EOS 350D (8.0 Mp), and 50% up on the 40D (10.1 Mp). My resolution
measurements show that with both my 400mm lenses, this gives a useful improvement in image detail - the linear pixel resolution of the 50D is 40% up on the 350D, which, threoretically means the resolution with the 50D and a 400mm lens is comparable to a 350D with a 560 mm lens! I suspect in practice the benefit may not be quite as marked as this, as the resolution tests were made in 'ideal' conditions with bright sun, and fast shutter times. Nevertheless, this provides some significant benefit to counteract the higher noise levels on the 50D.

Micro AF adjustment capability
Micro AF adjustment is, for me, an essential feature which is present on the 50D, and not either of the earlier models (40D and 350D), for the following reason.

After a self-inflicted disaster with the EF 400mm f4 DO and EOS40D, in April 2009 I obtained a replacement DO lens (courtesy of my insurance company). However, this then led to some very soft pics, when used with the x1.4 TC and the 40D camera, but not with my older 350D camera. Also, without the x1.4TC, the lens gave sharp pics with both cameras!

After various investigations, including the fruitless purchase of a second x1.4TC, I eventually discovered this was due to a pronounced back-focus problem. The explanation for the back-focus error defied any logic though, as it could not be attributed to either the DO, the x1.4TC or the 40D. All of these used with other combinations of lenses or cameras did not show the error. Only the one combination of (second) f4 DO + x1.4TC + 40D camera gave the error and resulting soft images!

Fortunately, my insurance company agreed that the fault appeared to lie with the 40D camera (probably damaged in the same accident as the original f4 DO), and after a protracted and unsuccessful 'repair', they agreed to replace the 40D with a brand new 50D.

Imagine my surprise when the 50D initially showed very similar back focus problem with the f4 DO + x1.4TC! However, the micro AF adjustment on the 50D allows lens specific back/front focus errors to be corrected. Having put in a large correction, my shots with the f4 DO + x1.4TC + 50D do not show any noticeable back focus error, at all distances from the camera. The microAF adjustment on the DO without the x1.4TC is much smaller.

I'd be very interested to hear if anyone else has experienced anything like this, and/or can offer any sort of explanation!

Canon EOS 50D compared with Canon EOS 350D
As it should given its higher price and more modern design, the 50D camera has some noticeable advantages over my older 350D:

  • Significantly faster maximum frame rate - c. 6 frames/sec instead of c. 3 frames/sec on 350D. This can be a real benefit for getting plenty of shots, one of which might be sharp, or have the bird in just the right pose. Though more than often this tends to simply mean more pics to sort through to find the odd good one!
  • Much higher capacity memory buffer, allowing plenty of raw format shots before filling up (takes c. 24 shots to fill the buffer, whereas with the EOS 350D this often happened - after only 4 or so shots, which was rather annoying at times).
  • Faster maximum shutter speed (1/8000 sec instead of 1/4000).
  • More pixels (15 mega pixels, compared with 8.0 with the 350D). My resolution tests suggest this is a potentially significant benefit, as discussed above.
  • Larger and brighter LCD screen.
  • The custom function to prevent the focus going wild when attempting flight shots is sometimes useful.
  • A handy facility to create a list of 'favourite' menu options.
  • The sensor clean function may cut down the number of times the sensor needs to be cleaned. However, it is by no means perfect, and I find the sensor still need cleaning everty 6 months or so, depending to some extent on the number of lens changes made.

On the downside, I have the following grumbles about the 50D:

  • The two stage on/off switch - awkward and fiddly, especially with gloves on for example. I can't see the point of the two stages.
  • The mode select knob seems to rotate out of position too easily - a bit frustrating to suddenly find it has switched off Av just as the shot of a lifetime appears in the frame! I must remember to check the knob position regularly.
  • Heavier than the 350D, but it does feel more robust.
  • Significantly higher noise levels at all ISO settings. Compared with the 350D, the noise level on the 50D was about 1 stop more (see above and here for more details). But NeatImage does clean the 50D images up remarkably well.

50D Camera Settings
Here is a summary of the main camera settings I usually use for bird pics on the EOS 50D & EF400mmf4 DO:

Setting Value Comment

AE program

Av

Aperture priority with lens on max aperture (f4, or f5.6 if the x1.4TC is on the lens) to ensure fastest shutter time. Sometimes it is worth stopping down to increase depth of focus.

Quality

Raw

See my page on Photoshop and beyond for pros & cons

ISO

400

400 is default. 200 if bright enough (rare in UK). 800 for lower light - to be used with care due to comparatively high noise levels. ISO 1600 not used to date.

AF mode

AI Servo

To track moving targets. Generally use central auto focus region only.

Metering mode

Evaluative

Also sometimes centre weighted

Exposure compensation

 

Variable, according to circumstances. Generally aim to get the brightest areas as close to saturation as possible. Sometimes -2/3 or -1 or less if birds have very bright areas (e.g. white in sun). For flight and other backlit shots +1/3 or +2/3

Drive mode

H

Get the benefit of those 6 frames/sec!

White Balance

Auto

Tweak later when importing into DPP if needed

Colour Space

sRGB

 

Parameters:

   

Contrast

0

 

Sharpness

-2

Better to use USM in Photoshop than cruder on-camera sharpening

Saturation

0

 

Color tone

0

 

High ISO noise reduction
(C.Fn II-2)

3 (disable)

Turn off, on the grounds it is better to do this afterwards using the sophisticated noise reduction routines in NeatImage

Highlight tone priority
(C.Fn II-3)

0 (disable)

Better to sort this out in Photoshop afterwards

Auto lighting optimiser
(C.Fn II-4)

3 (disable)

Might give unpredictable results. Better to sort this out in Photoshop afterwards

Focus search
(C.Fn III-1)

1 (off)

For flight shots, switching focus search off can be useful to prevent the focus going haywire, either before lock is achieved or during tracking. For all other occasions best to leave focus search on, otherwise nothing may happen when you try to autofocus!

EF 400mm F4 DO Review
Initially when I acquired the EOS350D & EF 400f5.6 in summer 2006, I was amazed by the step up in quality that the DSLR provides compared with my earlier digiscoping efforts. Over the next two years, I managed to obtain some quite reasonable pics with this combination, especially when it was possible to get close enough to the subject!

However, by the summer of 2008, with bird photography becoming more & more of an interest, I began to think seriously about how to further improve upon my gear. One area of frustration was the lack of reach of the 400mm lens - so often I wished for a longer lens. One way of achieving this is was with a teleconverter (TC) or extender, but with the EF400mm f5.6, focussing with the x1.4 TC can be problematic. After some time, I wasn't sure that the x1.4 TC was worth using much with the f5.6 (as I believe some others have found).

As many will know, the problem is that there is a huge step up in price beyond the EF 400mm f5.6, with a limited number of alternatives, mainly the EF 300mm f2.8, the EF 400mm DO f4, and the monster EF500mm f4 or even the EF 600mm f4. What I didn't want was a lens much heavier than the 400 f5.6 - which ruled out the 500mm and 600mm lenses. The EF 300mm f2.8 has rave reviews, but that was shorter than the 400mm I had already, so only using it with a x2 TC would offer any reach improvement. I suspected quality with a x2 TC would be a problem, and also the lens was pretty heavy.

Hence after much deliberation, I eventually decided on the relatively unfashionable EF 400 DO f4. This lens is considerably lighter than all the other 'super' telephotos but has had some mixed reviews. However a number of users of this lens I contacted were very positive.

Weight wise, the combination with the 50D camera comes in at 3.1 kg, which compares (unfavourably) with the EOS 350D & EF 400 mm f5.6 at 1.8 kg without the tripod mounting ring and 2.0 kg with it. This extra 1.1 kg (or 50%) is surprisingly noticeable! The DO is not something you want to take on a walk of any length with an outside chance of finding something interesting. As Nic Hallam aptly said, the DO seems on the limit of a true walk-about lens. Certainly in comparison with the f5.6, the f4 DO is a "big beast", but presumably much less so that the EF 500 mm or even the shorter 300 mm F2.8. Walking relatively short distances with it is not a problem for the fit & able.

One surprising thing I have found is that, when used hand held, the DO is actually easier for me to keep reasonably steady than the much lighter f5.6. The IS may be helping here, but it doesn't explain this curious effect completely - perhaps it is just my strange arms!

One of my main reasons for investing in the DO was that it should work well with the x1.4 TC - this would give an effective 560mm f5.6 lens. As expected, having removed the tape (needed for the f5.6 - see below) from the 3 pins on the x1.4 TC, the auto-focus is almost as quick as for the lens on its own.

I compare my main features of this lens with the Canon EF 400mm f5.6 lens, which I have had since 2006, in the table below:

Comparison between the EF400mmf5.6 and the EF400mmf4 DO Canon lenses

Parameter 400f5.6 400f4 DO Verdict
Focal length 400 mm 400 mm The same
Maximum aperture f5.6 f4 DO wins. An important benefit.
Weight 1.25 kg 1.94 kg That extra 0.7kg on the DO is very noticeable!
Sharpness     My measurements cannot separate the two, even with the 15Mp EOS50D, using a test chart in ideal conditions on a tripod
Image Stabilisation No Yes DO wins, but IS doesn't make very much difference in my experience!
Auto focus (AF) with x1.4 TC Needs TC pins taping Yes One of the key benefits of the DO. AF can hunt badly with the f5.6
Environmental protection No problems to date Suspect! The DO is not waterproof at all*, and after one visit to a sandy beach, the focus ring on my now replaced first lens became gritty, even though I was trying my best to keep the sand off.
Price 1100 5400 A huge difference in favour of the f5.6 with current prices (Nov 2009)

Table footnote
* A very brief encounter with water (not even fully submerged) resulted in my first DO becoming fogged inside, and an insurance write-off!

Summary
In summary, what do I think of these two lenses? Well, I would have no hesitation in recommending the EF400mmf5.6 USM lens. It is cost effective, as sharp as the DO and very light and portable. Excellent for hand holding for flight shots. The lack of IS is probably hardly a significant drawback. On the downside, it will AF with a taped x1.4.TC, but the hunting makes this problematic, and the resulting aperture of f8 can lead to longish exposures so that sharpness suffers.

Having said all that in favour of the f5.6, for bird photography, I definitely prefer the EF 400f4 DO, and now rarely use the f5.6. The extra stop of aperture, the better performance with the x1.4TC and the IS all contribute their own advantages over the f5.6. Together they combine to give tangible benefits over the f5.6. However, for dragonflies, for the 400f5.6 none of the disadvantages given above are very significant, and it is my lens of preference if these insects are my only quarry!

Are the advantages of the DO worth the additional weight and large difference in price? That depends on your viewpoint. When I purchased the DO it was under 4k. At its current price, I would think very long and hard about buying one. But I'm still not tempted by a 500mmf4 - too heavy and bulky for me!

DSLR - EOS 350D & EF 400mm F5.6 (May 2006 onwards)

In May 2006, I entered the DSLR market, selecting the entry-level lightweight Canon EOS 350D in preference to the more expensive and substantially heavier 20D or 30D, the prime EF 400 mm F5.6 lens, and a 1.4 X Canon converter.

The DSLR & long lens combination is much easier to use than digiscoping. There is no fiddling around with cable releases and adaptor tubes, by which time the bird has probably gone. With a DSLR you just point and fire, and finding the bird in the first place is much easier too. Also, the DSLR auto-focus usually works very well and quickly. And of course with a DSLR, there are no annoying delays after pressing the shutter - it takes straight away.

Experience to date shows the EOS 350/EF400 mm combination is capable of getting superb pictures (higher quality than the very best digiscoping results), but only in favourable circumstances when you can get VERY close to the bird. Sunlight also helps a lot, and is pretty much essential for any hand held shots. In cases when it is not possible to get close enough, digiscoping can win hands down, which can create the need to carry loads of gear around all the time, if you want to maximise your chances of success!

Flight shots are where the DSLR/400 mm hand held combination really comes into its own, as these are a virtual impossibility with digiscoping. Even so, tracking fast, erratically moving small flying birds close up is a difficult trick to master. The closer they are the more difficult it is - auto-focus seems hopeless in the cases. You seem to have to just use manual focus, hope for the best, and expect >95% reject rate! Larger birds, such as sea birds, which are tend to be further away, and are moving more predictably are easier, if you can get close enough (e.g. boat trips).

For more static targets, I prefer to still use a tripod for extra stability. On my Scottish day trip in spring 2006, using the car as a hide worked well in a couple of places, but this has limited potential generally in the UK. Overseas it can be more useful though.

All in all, I would currently agree with those who say that digiscoping is an excellent medium for the person who considers themself to be primarily a birder, with photography as an interesting extra. With a DSLR, things get more serious, and it is more suitable for those whose main interest is bird photography, and are prepared to go to considerable efforts to get close enough their subjects.

350D Camera Settings
Here is a summary of the main camera settings I usually use for bird pics on the EOS350D:

Setting Value Comment
AE program Av Aperture priority with lens on max aperture (f5.6 with EF 400) to ensure fastest shutter time. Sometimes shutter priority in bright conditions, to avoid hitting the exposure limit (<1/4000 sec on f5.6)
Quality Raw See my page on Photoshop and beyond for pros & cons
ISO 400 400 is default. 200 if bright enough (rare in UK). 800 for low light. 1600 last resort in dark!
AF mode AI Servo To track moving targets. Generally use central auto focus region only.
Metering mode Evaluative Also sometimes centre weighted
Exposure compensation -2/3 To avoid saturated areas in image. Sometimes even -1 or less if birds have very bright areas (e.g. white in sun). For flight and other backlit shots +1/3 or +2/3
Drive mode Continuous Sometimes single-shot and focus lock if key area (e.g. the bird's eye) doesn't coincide with an auto-focus area - as happens all too often!
White Balance Auto Tweak later when importing into Photoshop if needed
Colour Space sRGB  
Parameters:    
Contrast 0  
Sharpness -2 Better to use USM in Photoshop than cruder on-camera sharpening
Saturation 0  
Color tone 0  

Canon 1.4x converter or extender with the EF400mm f5.6
I purchased the x1.4 converter at the same time as the EF400mmf5.6 lens, and when used together the result is a 560 mm focal length lens with a max aperture of about f8. The upside is clearly the increase in magnification, but the downside is the loss of a stop of aperture, which doubles the required exposure times. Also, even having done the
pin taping trick, the auto-focus often 'hunts' and takes a long time to get to the right focus.

There can be occasions when the converter is useful (e.g. small birds), but I'm generally of the opinion it is often more trouble than its worth. If only you can get a bit closer, then the results with EF 400 on its own will be of better quality than putting on the converter.

Other DSLR bits & pieces

Jobo GIGAone portable hard drive
I purchased one of these in summer 2007, ahead of my Algarve and Texas trips, to free up my 4 Gb of memory cards for more pics, when away from a computer for more than a day or so. The GIGAone is so small and light, that it can also easily be used in the field or car as well, but I've yet to need more than 4 Gb of memory card capacity in a single day! It is also useful as a backup, when on trips with access to a computer (e.g. my visit to Texas in Nov 2007).

This unit worked well in its limited way, and was simple and easy to use. The main drawback was that when used on its own, without a computer, there was no verification that, once the transfer completed, the memory card's contents were actually present on the hard drive. I had no problems in that respect, although this unit was not used very often.

ASUS Netbook
Now (2011) the Jobo GIGAone is obsolete, since it won't read my current 16Gb CF cards. For travelling, I've now purchased an ASUS Netbook with a 250 Gb drive. I'm very pleased with this - it is amazingly light and portable compared with my work laptop. It provides a very good back-up capability but with much more capacity than the Jobo. It also allows me to review the photos I have taken during the day, and even make a start on sorting out a short list for closer scrutiny. I also like its matt screen - no distracting reflections.

It also allows me to take another USB hard drive, if needed, to make two backup copies - advisable if I have to start clearing out the memory cards taken earlier in the trip, in my view. Never rely on just one copy of irreplaceable data!


Digiscoping (since 2003)

Now little used, but for the record, my digiscoping equipment was/is as follows:

  • Nikon Coolpix 995 (summer 2003 to March 2005).
  • Nikon Coolpix 4500 (March 2005 onwards).
  • Swarovski AT 80HD 'scope with 20-60 zoom eyepiece
  • London Camera Exchange camera adaptor
  • Manual cable release and pillar which connects to camera mounting thread (from Jessops, I think).
  • Manfrotto Carbon 443 Tripod with 128RC head
  • "Slider bar" from Focus Optics between the scope and the tripod
  • Home made sighting aids on 'scope and camera body - see below for more info.

Mechanical
I find the "slider bar" (see above list) useful to enable the 'scope balance point to be adjusted, so that with the camera and cable etc attached, the whole assembly is balanced, and doesn't tilt wildly upwards when the tripod head bolt is loosened. Keeping the head bolts untightened greatly helps in the fine adjustments needed to centre the bird in the field of view, especially if the bird is moving.

I find the cable release essential, as my fingers are far too shaky to make contact with the camera when the shutter is pressed. At high magnifications, remember that any slightest movement is amplified. How others manage without this, I don't understand! There are much more expensive electronic cable releases, but they don't seem worth the extra 100 or so to me.

Camera Options
There are numerous camera options, and for those interested in this subject, I always use the camera on the aperture priority setting, so I can get the fastest shutter time which is always a critical factor. I used to use the ISO 200 setting to get that extra factor of two on shutter speed, but I am now doubtful its worth the resulting slight but definite loss of picture quality. Hence I now usually stick to ISO 100.

I always use the camera on manual, not auto, as the extra flexibility is important in two main areas. Firstly, focus where I use the manual AF option which allows you to select which of 5 areas is used for focussing. This can be used to advantage to focus on exactly the point in the picture you are most interested in (ideally the bird's head), but of course in practice it doesnt always work out like that, and the head often won't coincide with any of the 5 focus areas. Secondly, on exposure, I like to use the manual override which allows up to 2 stops either way adjustment on the auto shutter speed (most useful for effectively dark birds against a light background, or very bright birds such as white gulls/herons in sunlight).

Increasingly, I use the shutter on continuous, to get as many shots as possible in a short space of time. Having recently purchased a 1 Gb memory card, there is no real downside to taking as many pictures as possible. I just download them all, and then delete the ones that are not worth keeping. I can sometimes take over 100 exposures of a bird to try to get one or two reasonable ones! In one morning, I filled a 512 Mb card with over 400 shots of just 2 or 3 subjects. Using a program that shows the pictures in slide show mode is then useful to look though them to find the best ones.

(No so) fast memory card
I paid extra for the 1 Gb memory card to get a super fast one, hoping that the continuous shutter mode would work better, and keep going for longer before filling up the memory buffer. I was disappointed that the new card seems no better than my old "standard" speed one. The limitation must be in the camera, not the card. Note that these fast cards do work well in DSLR's though.

Comments on the Nikon 4500: I purchased this in haste in April 2005 when I heard that the model was no longer being made by Nikon. At the time, there didn't appear to be a direct replacement which seemed to leave a big hole in the available cameras for digiscoping. However, I'm now told there are various current models which work well.

My first impressions of the CP4500 were that it was certainly smaller and lighter than my trusty 995, and slightly more "user friendly" to operate. There is also a slight increase in the number of pixels, but not enough to be very significant. Performance wise it is a bit early to tell, but focusing and getting pin sharp images continue to be the main area of difficulty. Also, the small size of the viewing screen is a drawback.

Having used the CP4500 for some time, I now definitely believe it has an edge over the old CP 995, especially in terms of size and weight. It is easier to use, apart from the smaller viewing screen, and may produce slightly better results in general.

Pointing aids
Another matter I have been thinking about is some form of sighting/pointing aid. As I generally keep the camera on the 'scope, it can be very difficult to find the bird, given the limited field of view of the scope/camera combination.

I have tried something made with my sons Meccano kit - at the front of the 'scope - stuck on with Bluetack and a piece of Bluetack on the camera at the other end! See pics below. This can produce surprisingly good results - much quicker to get on the birds! But there is extra hassle taking it off and then putting it back on everytime I move on, so it is only worthwhile if the bird is difficult to locate (e.g. in the middle of a hedge, bush or tree). A more permanent attachment would be useful, but I will be making do with this for the time being!

Front sight - made from Meccano & attached using Bluetack!

Rear sight - piece of Bluetack on camera body!


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