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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Wildlife D-SLRs

Choose your ideal camera for photographing birds and other wildlife

Labels: CamerasD-SLRs

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While you can photograph wildlife with any camera, some models are better suited for it than others. Digital SLRs with smaller-than-full-frame sensors are ideal because they’re easy to carry in the field, offer excellent autofocusing capabilities for still and action situations, and their smaller sensors provide a focal-length “boost” compared to using the same lens on a 35mm or full-frame digital SLR. Of course, if a full-frame D-SLR has enough pixels, you can crop into an image to zero in on a distant animal and still have ample resolution for a decent-sized print. But such D-SLRs are very expensive.

Lenses of at least 600mm (35mm-camera equivalent) are available for all current D-SLRs, so all will let you get close to those shy beasties. Pro wildlife photographers prefer the fastest lenses—300mm ƒ/2.8, 400mm ƒ/2.8 and 600mm ƒ/4 are popular with pros—because these lenses offer the best image quality and ruggedness, allow them to shoot at slower ISO settings for better image quality or faster shutter speeds for sharper images of moving subjects, and provide a brighter viewfinder image for easy composing and manual focusing, especially in dim light. But faster lenses cost a lot more than slower ones, and they’re much bulkier, so the slower, lower-cost telephotos, especially tele-zooms, are popular with those on a tighter budget and still capable of delivering great wildlife shots.

Both pro and amateur wildlife shooters use teleconverters to get more out of their lenses: A 1.4x converter turns a 300mm focal length into 420mm; a 2x converter turns it into 600mm. There’s a penalty in lens speed, though—a 1.4x converter reduces light transmission by one stop, a 2x by two stops—but it’s a way to get lots more focal length for a little more money. Converters reduce image quality a bit, but if you use a converter designed for the lens (or focal-length range) you’re using, results can be excellent.

Another accessory frequently employed by wildlife pros is an extension tube. This mounts between the camera body and lens, and allows the lens to focus closer than it could otherwise, handy when using a 600mm ƒ/4 (normal minimum focusing distance around 18 feet) from a blind to photograph nearby birds and other smaller animals. Like teleconverters, extension tubes reduce the light transmitted to the sensor, but TTL metering automatically compensates for this.

Useful Wildlife Camera Features
Sub-Full-Frame Format. Full-frame sensors offer a number of advantages, but for wildlife, smaller sensors are better because they “see” a smaller angle of view than full-frame sensors. This effectively increases the focal length of any lens by a factor of 1.5x or 1.6x for the popular “APS-C” sensors and by a factor of 2x for Four Thirds System sensors. Put a 300mm telephoto on an APS-C camera, and it frames like a 450mm on a 35mm camera or full-frame D-SLR; put a 300mm on a Four Thirds System camera, and it frames like a 600mm on a full-frame D-SLR.

Lots Of Pixels.
It’s difficult to get close enough to wildlife, even when using super-telephotos. A camera with a high megapixel count lets you crop in on your images while still retaining good detail (assuming the original image is sharp, of course).

First-Rate AF Performance. While it’s easy enough to focus manually on a stationary subject with a tripod-mounted camera, quick wildlife action requires excellent autofocusing performance. The top-of-the-line D-SLRs have better AF performance than the lower-end models, but even today’s lower-end models can handle birds in flight.

Quick Operation. Wildlife moments can be fleeting, especially those involving small, quick-moving subjects. You want a camera that starts up (and wakes up from sleep mode) quickly, reacts quickly when you press the shutter button and can shoot successive images in rapid sequence.

Good High-ISO Performance. Some of the best wildlife opportunities occur at dawn and dusk when the light is dim. A camera that provides good image quality and reduced noise at higher ISOs is a plus. Higher ISOs also are useful for action shots, permitting use of faster shutter speeds in lower light or at smaller apertures.

It’s best to use longer focal lengths with a tripod, but sometimes you have to work handheld. Canon, Nikon, Sigma and Tamron offer lenses with built-in image stabilizers that counter the effects of camera (but not subject) movement. Olympus, Pentax, Samsung and Sony offer D-SLRs with built-in sensor-shift stabilization, which works with any lens you attach to the camera, but stabilizes only the recorded image, not what you see in the viewfinder.

Sensor-Dust Remover.
Each time you change a lens, or add a teleconverter or extension tube, dust can enter the camera and settle on the sensor assembly—after which it will appear in every shot you make. Many of today’s D-SLRs incorporate anti-dust measures, the most effective of which is a super-high-frequency vibration mechanism that shakes dust off the sensor assembly—vital to anyone who shoots in field conditions.


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