Cameras and Lenses
Personal preferrance and budget play a large role in the selection of a telephoto lens. Canon and Nikon are the most popular with professionals, but other less expensive cameras and lenses can also produce very nice quality.
The information that follows was provided by two different photographers that spend a lot of time taking photographs. They are both very familiar with the equipment they have elected to use and their different perspectives may help if you are considering the purchase of a new camera or lens.
Cindy is a recent Featured Photographer and might be best described as a semi-pro. She works with a Nikon D70 with Sigma 170-500mm lens. While not inexpensive at about $2000.00 for the camera and lens, the combination is well under the cost of the top of the line Canon products described by Arthur Morris (below).
Her comments include information on the selection process she went through in selecting this particular combination, along with a few tips for using the combination effectively.
Arthur is a very well-known bird and nature photographer. He is a Canon contract photographer and is very knowledgeable about the entire Canon line. His comments cover the most popular Canon camera bodies and lenses, as well as a few comments on Nikon products.
Surfbird, taken from the deck of a bumpy ship.
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS L Zoom Lens
This lens, introduced late in 1998, is famed, and rightly so, for its versatility. With a 1.3X digital camera, the focal length range is 130-520mm, and it is 160 to 640mm with a 1.6X multiplier effect digital camera. With its relatively close focus, it can be used effectively for photographing medium-sized or large flowers, frogs, toads, and large insects like dragonflies and butterflies. It is a superb safari lens: being able to zoom wide for nearby animals or to 400mm for distant subjects is a huge plus. It is, for similar reasons, a superb general wildlife lens.
Canon 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens
This lens replaced the 28-105mm as my wide-angle zoom grab-shot lens. On the rare occasions that I venture afield without remembering to put this lens in a vest pocket, I usually come to regret it quickly. I use this lens to photograph birders, photographers, and, of course, flocks of birds in their surroundings; to create purely scenic images; to photograph all manner of medium-sized to large natural history subjects; and at times, to photograph patterns.
Canon 400mm f/4 DO IS Lens
Canon introduced this lens, their first diffractive optical (DO) elements lens, in late 2001. The new lens technology allows for lenses that are shorter and lighter with less chromatic aberration (color distortion) than standard lenses. understanding is that some of the lens elements are constructed of calcium fluorite rather than glass. Canon used multi-layer diffractive elements and shortened the lens barrel to greatly reduce weight.
Canon 300mm f/4L IS Lens
This, Canon's first professional L series image stabilized telephoto lens, was introduced in March 1997, and I purchased one soon thereafter. It is an excellent flight lens especially in low light or when the birds are flying by at close range. And it was the first to offer two IS modes, IS 1 for static subjects, and IS 2 for horizontal or vertical panning.
Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS Lens
Once I began using this lens regularly in 2005, it was a case of "Where have you been all my life, honey?" I originally purchased this lens in late 2004 primarily to use on my first trip to Homer, Alaska, in February 2005, to photograph Bald Eagles. In Homer, where the eagles responded eagerly to our tossed frozen herring, the lens was invaluable.
Canon EOS 10D
This 6.3 megapixel camera was introduced in February 2003. It is safe to say that the 10D and its successor the 20D (with their 1.6X multiplier effects) opened up new worlds for countless numbers of bird photographers. And while some deride the multiplier effect as voodoo or myth, the simple fact is that you are working with a given effective focal length (the focal length of the lens times the multiplier effect) and a given number of pixels: the multiplier effect is real.
The Canon EOS-1Ds
Upon its introduction in 2002, the 1Ds was Canon's flagship professional digital camera body. Many felt that its high quality 11.2 megapixel files far surpassed 35mm film in terms of color rendition, contrast, and resolution. The sensor on this camera is the same size as a piece of 35mm film, thus there is no multiplier effect. A 16-35mm zoom lens will give you true 16-35mm coverage. Thus, the 1Ds was a favorite with landscape photographers.
The Canon EOS-1D Mark II
The EOS-1D Mark II was introduced in late January 2004. I purchased two right off the bat and have absolutely loved them ever since. I used them almost exclusively until late 2005. Their 8 frames per second frame rate and 20 raw-image buffer allow photographers to maximize their chances when photographing birds in flight and in action. Their 8.2 megapixel files met the needs and requirements of most publishers and stock agencies. The body and controls are virtually identical to the 1D and the 1Ds and the rugged professional feel of those cameras is maintained as well. Like the EOS-1D, the 1D Mark IIs offer a 1.3 multiplier effect that is a boon for bird photographers.
The Canon EOS 20D
The EOS 20D, which was introduced in August 2004, is simply an improved 10D (see above) with an 8.2 megapixel sensor, double the buffer space (of the 10D), and a greatly improved autofocus system. With an initial street price about $500 less than that of its predecessor, it proved to be an immensely popular camera.
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II
When the EOS-1Ds Mark II was introduced in September 2004, I was not first on line to purchase one. I was so in love with my 1D Mark IIs, their speed, and their 1.3 crop factors that I kept my head stuck in the sand. I was not interested in the huge files with their accompanying storage problems and I was not interested in another full-frame-sensor digital camera (with no multiplier effect). On my two bear trips during September 2005, however, it was Robert O'Toole who opened my eyes to the amazing image quality provided by the incredible 16.7 megapixel 1Ds MII files. When a 1Ds MII image is enlarged to actual pixels in Photoshop, the images are unlike anything you have ever seen before. The quality is simply amazing, the images so smooth in appearance as to resemble the subject in life. And the detail revealed in a sharp 1Ds MII image is simply astounding. The images from this camera simply blow away 35mm film images and in the opinion of many more knowledgeable than I, rival or surpass medium format film images.
Canon EOS-1D Mark II N
The 1D Mark IIN, which was released in August 2005, is basically identical to the EOS- 1D Mark II camera that I love so dearly. The N has a 2-inch wide LCD on the rear of the camera, much larger than on the 1D MII or any other Canon digital body. The larger LCD is a big improvement and a godsend for those with poor vision. In addition, it has a larger buffer (22 raw images) than its predecessor.
Nikkor 600mm f/4 AF-S lens
Nikkor 500 & 600mm f/4D IF-ED AF-S II Lenses
As one would expect, Nikon's two prime super-telephoto lenses produce sharp images. Both feature the Nikon Silent Wave Motor for fast, quiet AF operation. With their die-cast magnesium construction these lenses, at 7.6 and 10.7 pounds respectively, weigh considerably less than their Canon counterparts. This was the first Nikon lens to feature Vibration Reduction technology, which like Canon's IS technology enables competent photographers to create sharp images handheld at shutter speeds two to three stops slower than would normally be expected.