Stephen Burch's Birding & Dragonfly Website
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:
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).
vs Mark I Review (January 2016)
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
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
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
Mark II disadvantages
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
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
Comments (written in 2012)
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
Auto-focus (AF) modes
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
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!
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
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.
Micro AF adjustment
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!
On the downside, I have the following grumbles about the 50D:
50D Camera Settings
400mm F4 DO Review
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:
between the EF400mmf5.6 and the EF400mmf4 DO Canon lenses
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!
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
1.4x converter or extender with the EF400mm f5.6
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
GIGAone portable hard drive
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.
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!
Now little used, but for the record, my digiscoping equipment was/is as follows:
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.
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
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.
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!