Our birdwatching gear, Part 5 : the camera

The series on birdwatching gear is still lacking a post about the camera. I guess this is because of my frustration with the camera that I am using. In fact, I think I made a bad choice. That is, I doubted whether to buy a camera or to bet on the combination of a telescope with a clip-on and a phone. (See part 3 and part 4 of this series.) I choose the latter, but I should have gone for the former. The camera that I did bring, I also used on the vacation in Southern Africa almost two years ago. It went alright then, but I was unhappy with how it worked and that remains the same, or even more so now. I will explain al this below and end with what my ultimate photo-safari camera would look like.

A recent model camera versus the telescope with a clip-on

Why I regret having bought a telescope instead of a camera, it boils down to two things. First is that compared to carrying a telescope and setting it up, a camera is a lot easier and faster to handle – even taken into account that one can do a lot of fiddling with a camera. The telescope with a tripod and a clipon is a lot of stuff to handle before you can actually look through it at the bird. The bird may have easily left by the time I have taken the tripod from my shoulder and put it on the ground. Not always, but often.

Another thing to consider here is also that the telescope with tripod is heavy and clumsy compared to a camera – I guess provided you do not have one of these enormous lenses on your camera. So it is not particularly handy to bring into the forest, compared to the camera. After having used the telescope in Monteverde, we have not used it ever since.

Secondly, it turns out that with the telescope and phone that I am using the image quality can be called acceptable at best because of the color shift and the 2 Megapixel camera of my old phone. As I explained in the earlier parts of this series, the telescope magnifies a lot more than a camera with a say 500mm lens, but seeing the pictures that Cristina takes, the insane amount of pixels that fit in one picture (48 Mega pixels) on her camera easily compensates for that. So, in the pictures that she takes, the bird ends up being rather small. However, when she digitally zooms in, the bird still gets a very reasonable amount of pixels.

Perhaps I should give it another try with my Fairphone, which has an 11 Megapixel camera, or perhaps I should try to find software that takes care of the color shift, as Susana suggested in her comment. But even if that helps, the telescope/tripod/clipon combination is still clumsy compared to the camera.

My ultimate photo-safari camera

My camera (actually, it is Cristina’s old camera, but for shortness sake, I will ‘adopt’ it) is a digital compact camera with a zoom lens and shaped as a single-lens reflex camera. The magnification is good enough and the pixelcount acceptable but it has two big downsides that make it impossible for taking pictures of birds in the wild.

First of all, it is too slow. Too slow to switch on, too slow extending the zoom lens and way too slow to focus and determine the shutter time, ISO value and diaphragm. I might as well set up the tripod. The camera can not help it. It is simply old, with old chips and perhaps with design choices focusing on more daily use rather than birdwatching. In Africa this was not such a big deal because the animals in the savannas usually do not move fast. In fact, many hardly move at all. But some do, like birds, and I was simply out of business with those situations. And now, we mostly see birds rather than slow moving animals.

Secondly, auto-focus is your ultimate piece of crap technology when you want to take pictures on photo safaris. Whether you like it or not, most of the time the animal of your attention is behind something, some leaves, bushes or some twigs. And this particular camera, but I assume all auto-focus cameras, do not get that. They assume that you want to take a picture of the foremost thing.

I ‘sell’ this picture to myself as ‘arty’, but I really wanted the camera to focus on the lion cub, not the bloody grass

So I need manual focus. My camera has that, but it takes quite some clicking to get to the right menu item and then it is very crude. An actually, it is not a manual focus because you need to click some buttons in order for a little engine to set the focus. Overall, it seems they added the feature as an afterthought. I tried it a couple of times in Costa Rica, but what I get is sharp pictures of leaves and twigs.

So here comes my wish list – in arbitrary order – for the ultimate photo-safari camera:

• It has to be a digital camera

Not to forget the obvious, but I don’t want to be carrying a ton of films on a safari and worry about them getting exposed in the harsh tropical sunlight. Also, I do not want to have to wait for the films to be developed and printed. In fact, I prefer my photos non-printed because I believe that that is better for nature,

• The camera has an optical view finder

A view finder (the opening where you put your eye to see the image that the camera sees) takes less battery power than a screen, so longer battery life. Cristina’s camera has one, but one sees a tiny LCD display. I don’t want that because it is not good enough for manual focus. So, the image should be directly made by the light that comes through the lens. I think that means the camera has to be an SLR.

• The camera should have a display at the back

This may sound weird after the previous item but in Africa, I regularly wanted to make a picture while our car was moving over a gravel road. The bouncing of the car made it impossible to keep the eye well in front of the view finder.

Doesn’t the car stop to have a decent look. Yes, but sometimes it is simply too late. Our guide tried to get as close as possible or give all of us in the car an optimal angle. Which is really good, but in a few occasions that lost just the couple of seconds before the animal moved away.

Not to forget, a display also comes in damn handy for checking the result of your work while in the field. Duh.

• The camera has to have a smooth manual focus

See above. In addition, manual focus can be faster than auto-focus. It takes training, but I used to be very fast with focus on my old film-based SLR.

If it has auto-focus, that is no objection, as long as the auto-focus mechanism is not hindering the working of the manual focus. Another problem of auto-focus is that it takes energy to run the tiny electrical motors. The same for the engine that runs the zooming. Before you know it, you have a ton of batteries in your hand.

• The camera has to have a smooth manual zoom

Manual zoom is simply faster and more precise if you ask me. In particular compared to ‘my’ current camera. I need to push a lever which has a slight delay – probably because of the engines that need to get going – and then there also is a delay when I want to stop zooming. The latter means that the camera zooms in too much. Obviously, I did get used to that and could compensate for it, but I am here talking about what would be my ultimate safari camera.

I still have a 60 to 200 mm zoomlens that goes with my old SLR camera. It had a manual focus and manual zoom. Twist a ring to focus and push it outward or pull it inward to set the zoom-level. I would love to have one like that again on a digital SLR.

• It has to be nature proof, i.e. water resistant and tropics, dust and sand proof, and more.

This is a list for a photo-safari camera, so it has to be robust enough for all sorts of nature. With tropics-proof I mean that it should be able to resist the damp air of the tropics. No corrosion on the outside and none on the inside.

It also means that it should work with all temperatures that we encounter in nature. From -50 to +60 ideally speaking. For me practically speaking, from -20 to +45 would do it.

It would be awesome, but really awesome, if the camera could be taken down to 40 meters under water without having to put it in an under-water box.

• Better higher maximum aperture than digital vibration correction

With many photos that I took in Africa, I thought that they were not entirely focused. Then others were. My guess is that the difference was the digital vibration correction. It takes away the vibration but replaces it with this odd just-not-sharp image. Perhaps nowadays the software has improved, but if I may choose, I would prefer that producers invest in bigger apertures or faster sensors that would allow faster shutter times, than in vibration correction.

• No lens switching

Switching lenses is not practical. End of discussion as far as I am concerned. So, my ultimate camera would have a zoomlens that goes from 28 mm ( or less) to 500 mm or more. That way, it would be ready for everything that I would like to take pictures of. From landscape to elephants, to birds and small animals, to the details on the wings of a dragonfly. If the price is that the lens is fixed to the camera then that would be fine because I do not want to be busy switching lenses.

• Yes to automatic setting of ISO value, exposure time and diaphragm

I prefer to focus on composition and focus than on exposure settings. On my smart phone I do some work on that by pointing to a particular spot in the image that should be the basis for the settings. But that is more or less it. The camera should have a physical button – not some menu or sub-menu – to quickly select between different priorities or photo situations. Many cameras have this already and that is perfect.

It has to be a physical button so that you can change the priorities without having to look at something. I will have to learn the sequence of priorities, but that is fine. Speed is often of the essence while on photo safari.

• The camera has to respond instantaneously and process within the blink of an eye

When I press the shutter button the camera has to immediately take a picture. Sounds like a no-brainer, but try my camera. Yes, it is saying to me, you pressed the button, but let me fiddle first with the auto-focus and then think a little about the exposure settings. It will only take a second. NO, I am shouting at it, that is too damn long. Take it now and be ready for another two shots in the same second.

This requirement is not just a demand on the camera, but also on the memory cards. They have to be lightning fast, even if they need to process many Mega pixels.

• The camera has to work on rechargeable AA batteries

The excuse for not working on rechargeable AA batteries seems to be that dedicated rechargeable batteries are better in some sense. The problem with these dedicated ones is that they need to be replaced once in a while. That is fine in itself, except that the lifetime of the camera may easily outlast the production of the dedicated battery.

If the camera does not have to have auto-focus and no engine-driven zoom lens, then it shouldn’t be too demanding on the batteries and rechargeable AA’s should be good enough.

• Replaceable parts

The ultimate safari camera should be repairable in the field. For example it should be made out of exchangeable modules. Fairphone has shown that it is doable with smartphones. Why would that be impossible with cameras?

• No need for a built-in flash

So far, I have not used flash light very often. I simply like natural light, or the given light conditions. For nature photography, I take it as a challenge to make a good picture with the light at hand rather than improve them with artificial light. Besides, I am not sure all the animals will appreciate the flash.

• What else?

I am probably overlooking some obvious stuff like, it should not be too big or clumsy.

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