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Lumix FZ18

My first attempts at bird photography used the Panasonics 'bridge' camera, the Lumix FZ18. This is an extraordinary bit of kit which features a Leica x18 zoom lens covering the range from 28mm to 500mm (35mm equivalent) and an 8 mega-pixel sensor. In macro mode it will focus down to around 1cm, the image stabilization is claimed to offer between 3 and 4 stops improvement (and seems to do just that), and the final icing on the cake is an aperture of f4.2 at the 500mm end of the zoom range! Anyone doubting the value that this represents could spend a few idle moments Googling 500mm f4. In short, for an outlay of around £250 you get a camera that is capable of taking almost any photograph that one might want including, of course, pictures of birds. This particular model has subsedquently been superceded by the very similar FZ28 and then FZ38 models which claim to be even better. For anyone thinking of trying a bit of bird photography with a minimum of hassle and on a sensible budget, these cameras are a reasonable place to start.
However, there is no such thing as a free lunch and  the lens, remarkable though it is, cannot deliver the crispness that you so desperately need with heavily cropped pictures. Also, the auto-focus is very slow and the manual focus almost impossible to use for subjects that won't stay still. Finally, with such a small sensor, the noise becomes obtrusive at the higher ISO values.

Canon DSLR kit.

There are some quite astonishing bird photo sites on the web, and the majority of photographers use Canon DSLRs. I don't doubt that Nikon offer very competetive products, but the Canon long lenses have a stellar reputation and there is a wide range to chose from. Therefore I decided to go the same route, and purchased the following:

Body: EOS 40D.
This is the semi-pro body (since superceded by the D50) and cost around £600. Initially I was intending to buy the entry-level 450D, but was persuaded by the man in the shop to spend more (no surprises there, then!).  I have no regrets. What you get for your money is a metal body which, although heavier than the 450 plastic one, 'feels' right when attached to the realtively massive telephoto lenses. Considering the leverage applied to the lense mount, the strength of the body is very reassuring. Also, you get much faster motor-drive with 6.5 frames per second. The sensor size in these cameras is 1.6 times smaller than a full frame 35mm, and so the focal length of the lens needs to be multiplied by this factor to arrive at a '35mm equivalent' focal length.

Lens: Canon 100-400 f4.5-5.6.
In this price range, Canon offer three possible choices, the 300 f4, 400 f5.6 and 100-400 zoom. My head told me that one of the prime lenses would be better, but the added versatility of the zoom coupled with some excellent reviews won the day. Another benefit is that the closest focus is 1.8m, better than either of the primes. All these lenses incorporate image stabilization and ultrasonic motors for the autofocus which is both accurate and exc
eptionally fast, a really important factor for bird photography.

The Canon x1.4 converter is compatible with the 100-400, although autofocus doesn't work on the 40D body unless you fiddle with the kit by putting tape over the first three electrical contacts. This restores autofocus, but it's much slower and less reliable than without the converter. Recently I've decided that this 'fix' creates more problems than it solves and so I've taken the tape off and now only use the convertor with manual focus.  In good light and with realtively stationary birds, the convertor gives welcome extra 'reach' and is capable of very crisp results. (I've done some resolution tests which demonstrate that you do indeed resolve more detail with the convertor in place). On the other hand, the loss of autofocus is a real drawback, particularly for flying birds, so there is a significant risk that shots will be missed if you leave the convertor in place. The solution is, of course, to spend more money, lots more in fact! An f4 prime lense keeps the autofocus. One unsung benefit of the lense/convertor c
ombination that I use is that, with the close focus of 1.8m and the convertor in place, you get a near-macro magnification which works very well for eg dragonfly and butterfly shots.

Overal, I'm delighted with the kit which seems to mirror the choice of many amateur bird photographers. Virtually all my photographs have been taken without a tripod as I much prefer the sponteneity of walking around and being ready for any photo opportunity that might arise. The camera/lens combination is not light, but portable enough for this purpose.

Spring 2010 - upgraded to the 7D body.
Canon introduced the 7D body during 2009. The features which make it attractive for bird photography are more autofocus points (with several grouping options), more powerful autofocus firmware, 18Megapixel sensor and 8 frames per second. Although the 40D is a splendid camera, I was having difficulty getting an acceptable 'keep' rate for flying birds and it was the promise of better autofocus which persuaded me to upgrade. And I haven't been disapointed! Of course you are never going to get 100% success with birds in flight, but the improvement over the 40D is substantial. As for the increased pixel count, this wasn't my prime consideration, but has been a somewhat unexpected bonus. The angular resolution is proportional to the focal length of the lens x sensor factor x the square root of the pixel number. So going from 10 to 18 Mpixels (40D - 7D) gives an increase of sqrt(1.8) = 1.34. It's a bit like adding a 1.4x convertor without loosing a stop and,
of course, keeping autofocus! This assumes, however, that your lense is good enough to keep up with the smaller pixel size. I've tested my 100-400 and, much to my delight, found that it does indeed maintain resolution with the new sensor. Even more surprising is that even when you add the x1.4 convertor, you still get a decent additional improvement. These are amazing bits of optics! But is there a downside? Well yes, the smaller pixel size does result in more noise although not as much as one might fear. At high ISO, you need to take care with the noise reduction algorithms to achieve the best balance between noise and resolution.
In summary, this camera could have been designed specifically for bird photography. The combination of sensor size, pixel count, speed and autofocus is exactly what one wants. Value for money? Most certainly in my opinion.

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