These accessories can help you capture your feathered friends—photographically, of course—whether you’re far afield or in your own backyard.
Why is National Bird Day—typically in early January—smack in the middle of Winter? Our guess is that it’s because, of all seasons, Winter is really the best time to get a clear view of the birds in your own backyard. Winter is also the best time to photograph birds, at least for those of us who have to bundle up to venture out. Birds that stay put in colder regions are much easier to spot because of the lack of leaves, and the ones that fly South add to the avian abundance in warmer climes.
If you want to try your hand at backyard bird photography, cold-weather birds in particular are easy to attract with a bird feeder, which provides a sure source of food when it’s scarcest. Adorama doesn’t sell feeders or bird seed (though my suggestion would be safflower, since squirrels don’t like it and most birds do), but Adorama does sell all the gear you could possibly need for backyard bird photography. Well, except for a warm coat for your stakeout, which you’ll want unless you’re shooting from a window.
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Waiting for birds to alight on a backyard feeder may sound like an easy shot, but it takes a little planning and practice. To get pictures without grills, tubes, and pegs in them, consider attaching some broken branches to your feeder to give birds a more natural-looking place to perch as they swoop in and out. And keep in mind that the songbirds visiting your feeder are small. This means that even though they’re in your own backyard, literally and figuratively, you still need lots of magnification to make them fill the frame—a super-telephoto lens of at least 300mm (with full-frame DSLRs) or its equivalent (200mm for APS-C models, 150mm for Four Thirds Format models). You’ll also probably want a good teleconverter, an optical add-on that fits between the lens and camera, to further increase magnification. Despite that increase, a teleconverter maintains a lens’s close-focusing capability, important given typical backyard distances.
Whether you’re shooting songbirds in your backyard or Great Blue Herons on a trip to South Florida, you’ll need a good monopod, tripod, or other camera support along with your optical arsenal. And there are plenty of other affordable accessories that can make your bird photography more successful. Here is a sampling of these valuable tools. (Note: Prices are accurate as of November 12, 2012)
Flashpoint Carbon Fiber Monopod
Adorama price: $84.95
Sometimes one leg is better than three. Basically a single tripod leg, a monopod provides some of the support and steadiness of a tripod but offers more freedom of movement and faster camera repositioning, not to mention reduced arm and shoulder fatigue. You can’t shoot at the really long shutter speeds a tripod permits, but a monopod definitely lets you go slower than the old one-over-the-focal-length rule associated with handheld photography.
And if you’re photographing birds, you’re usually going to set higher shutter speeds anyway in order to freeze their movement. So probably the most important thing the monopod does is to let you keep your main subject composed the way you want—preventing it from jumping around the frame as it would if you were just hand-holding a high-magnification telephoto. Remember that you aren’t just “shooting” your avian subject, you’re creating a composed image of it, easy to forget when you’re preoccupied with technical matters.
Flashpoint Tripod Foam Leg Wraps
Adorama price: $19.95
Touching an aluminum tripod that’s been out in the cold with your bare hand feels like getting burned or shocked—it instantly sucks all the heat from your skin. These wraps—which come in sets of three, of course—slip over your tripod’s legs and stay in place on the thickest, top section of each leg. (They’re available for one-inch and 1.5-inch leg diameters.) The leg wraps’ non-conductive foam lets you painlessly shift a tripod with bare hands to adjust your shot. They also let you comfortably carry a tripod with your bare hands—though it might be a better idea to wear a pair of Adorama Finger Shooting Gloves for that.
Kata Pro-light TLB-600 Telephoto Lens Backpack
Adorama price: $249.99
Aside from making it easier to negotiate a slot canyon, the narrow design of this backpack provides the space and protection needed to carry a 600mm lens mounted on a pro-level DSLR. You access the lens from the back, by unzipping a full-length flap. The pack’s double-decked design leaves a compartment at bottom for other lenses and accessories; the height of the compartment divider is adjustable. A special snuggie keeps the front end of the lens in place and protected. Protection is a point of pride with Kata, so the Pro-light 600 has a host of design features to make sure your gear can take a lickin’ but keep on clickin’.
Flashpoint Gimbal Head
Adorama price: $239
Heavy telephoto lenses can be cumbersome when mounted on a ball head or three-way tripod head. Even when you carefully balance them, they can feel as if they’re going to flop over when you adjust the head. The Flashpoint Gimbal Head puts an end to that anxiety and ungainliness with a more secure, versatile design. You mount your lens onto a swinging, L-shaped element that’s attached to an upright support; the joint where the two pieces meet can be adjusted so that you get the precise amount of free movement and inertia needed to smoothly point your camera up, down, or sideways. Meanwhile, the upright support, which attaches to the tripod, is designed to rotate, but also with adjustable resistance.
The whole gimbal rig lets you move your camera and lens freely around their center of gravity. This means you can quickly frame the subject (bird or bigger) the way you want, and follow it smoothly if it moves, without having to loosen and retighten tripod controls. Given the unpredictability of small birds, the Flashpoint Gimbal Head can give you a huge advantage in your backyard shooting. And it’s far less expensive than competing gimbal heads, which often cost more than the solid tripods needed to mount them on.
NatureScapes Skimmer Ground Pod II
Adorama price: $99.95
This clever, rugged mount for ground-level shooting is the perfect companion to a gimbal head, whether you’re shooting backyard birds (like cardinals and slow-moving mourning doves, which feed on the ground at the mercy of cats) or larger wildlife. Its circular, molded-plastic design is rugged yet less than 15 ounces in weight.
A smooth bottom allows the 10-inch-diameter Skimmer to be slid across any fairly even surface—grass, dirt, or sand—and its outer circumference has 1.5-inch upturned edges to keep debris from entering the interior compartments as you slide it. In fact, you can safely keep teleconverters and other small accessories inside, at the ready. The Skimmer accepts any standard tripod head you want to mount on it, and can support lenses up to 600mm full-frame telephotos. A 3/8-inch stainless-steel “captive” bolt keeps heads in place. Get a quick-release plate and you can quickly swap out bodies and lenses.
LensCoat Kwick Camo Photography Blind (Realtree Max4 pattern)
Adorama price: $99.99
If you’re far enough away from a bird, you may be outside its “fear circle”—the radius within which it will be scared off by the movements involved in photographing it. (Backyard woodpeckers seem practically fearless.) But sometimes you may want to get physically closer, especially with smaller birds. A blind can help. It’s a small, tent-like covering for you and your tripod, camera, and other gear. (Bring a small stool too.) Your skittish subjects will accept a blind as part of the environment because it doesn’t move.
Lens Coat’s Kwick Camo blind adds camouflage to the deception, breaking up the blind’s shape so that it blends into the scenery. Its lightweight poly/cotton fabric—the 2.5-ounce blind fits in a small supplied pouch—is translucent and allows some air to flow through. A mesh window unzips for shooting and/or viewing with binoculars and spotting scopes, while long slits on either side of the blind allow easy access. There’s even a slot on top for external flash units, though given the distance you’ll probably need a flash-focusing attachment—and the flash burst itself may send your subjects flying, if only temporarily!
Manfrotto Telephoto Lens Support
Adorama price: $63.87
Long lenses can put a strain on conventional tripod heads, even when they’re attached by integral collars and properly balanced. The problem is single-point support, which can also cause unsteadiness. Manfrotto’s affordable device adds stability and security to long-lens photography, a plus whether you’re shooting in the backyard or the wilderness.
Your camera body attaches to the Manfrotto’s tilting head, while the end of the lens barrel rests on a curved support at the opposite end of the bracket, held down by a strap. Sliding brackets can be adjusted so that the device measures anywhere from eight to 12 inches in length; this allows you to change the position of the barrel support so that it suits the lens’s physical length and doesn’t affect the operation of zooming or focusing collars. And the design works with lenses lacking tripod collars—thwarting the bad practice, with long lenses, of attaching the camera body directly to the tripod.
Flashpoint Tripod Weight Bag
Adorama price: $10.95
Velcro-strapped between your open tripod’s legs, this inexpensive, hammock-like accessory is great for steadying your tripod without having to carry sandbags or weights around. You just fill it with whatever weighty material is available—sand, pebbles, or rocks. Used this way it can even compensate for a lighter tripod’s greater susceptibility to vibrations, or to any tripod’s susceptibility to wind. Not a problem? Use the Tripod Weight Bag to keep paraphernalia off the ground, whether extra lenses, meters, filters, etc. when you’re adjusting the tripod and shooting.
Adorama Slinger Single-Strap Camouflage Backpack/Shoulder Bag
Adorama price: $25
Reduce your gear’s visibility to birds and the enemy with this camouflage-patterned pro bag. An internal cradle design within its 10x10x4-inch interior lets you keep a 300mm lens mounted on your camera, ready for avian action. The partitions are adjustable, though, should you want to carry a normal complement of gear—and you just happen to like the camo look and the bag’s ridiculously low pricing.
The Slinger has a water-resistant exterior with mesh pockets that are backed with Neoprene, which keeps wet items from soaking through. A zippered security pocket on the back is just the ticket for tickets and passports. Other features include Quick-Snap buckles and an extra-wide, padded shoulder strap.
Sigma 120-400mm f/4.5-5.6 DG APO OS HSM
Adorama price: $999
We’re always saying to compose with your feet, but it’s hard to move back and forth fast enough to change framing when a subject is as fleeting as a songbird. (Plus the longer the focal length, the more you have to move to make a difference.) Hence the advantages of a supertele zoom such as this Sigma, which lets you frame the subject to your liking—tight, loose, or in-between—simply by rotating the zoom collar.
The lens’s range is perfect for backyard bird photography, long enough for tight shots but short enough to pull back when a bird comes closer. Closest focusing distance is under five feet, which is exceptional, giving you a maximum reproduction ratio of almost 1:4. And with DSLRs that have an APS-C size image sensor (meaning most), the new Sigma offers the equivalent, in 35mm, of a 180-600mm range. Optical image stabilization helps keep things crisp at the high magnifications at which shake can compromise sharpness.
The price of zooming in a lens this long is a smaller maximum aperture, of course, but you can compensate for that by increasing ISO, only a minor penalty with today’s DSLRs. And at the close distances at which this lens can focus, even a smaller maximum aperture gets you a soft, defocused background in your bird photos. The lens comes in mounts for Nikon, Canon, Pentax, and Sony, plus Sigma of course. Too pricey? Consider the affordable Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 DG OS, the equivalent on digital SLRs with APS-C-sized sensors of about 105-450mm.
Nikon 8x42mm Monarch 3 Binoculars
Adorama price: $179.95
It seems natural that Nikon binoculars would be optically superb, given the company’s legendary DSLR optics. Indeed, this pair delivers an image that’s bright, contrasty, and sharp as it can be. The binoculars are also rubber-coated for a better grip—and waterproof, so there’s no harm in taking them out into conditions that would require a raincoat for your camera.
The Monarch 3’s 8X power is perfect for observation of backyard birds, whether you just like to watch or are scoping out photographic potential. It’s good magnification that still keeps jiggle to a minimum. Roof-prism design makes these binoculars more sleek and compact than the traditional, bulky porro prism style we all know. Click-stop eyecups and a high eyepoint also make them easy to see through, whether you wear glasses or not. And focusing is smooth, with a quick-changing range that’s ideal for the constant changes in focus that avian subjects require.
Swarovski DCA Digital Camera Adapter
Adorama price: $269
Spotting scopes are for the birds, too—and not just for viewing them. This device allows you to attach these monocular optics (Swarovski brand) to a camera with a threaded lens front, including non-interchangeable-lens compacts and DSLRs (50mm lens preferred). The effective maximum aperture is likely to be on the small side, but the magnification is spectacular—how does 20X to 60X sound? That’s something on the order of a focal-length range (in 35mm) of 750-2250mm, according to our crude math. You can probably just set your camera to aperture priority and fire away. Off the shelf, the Swarovski DCA adapter fits 30mm, 37mm, 52mm, or 58mm threads; if you have a different-sized thread, just get a step-up or step-down ring.
Zeiss Digital Camera Quick Adapter
Adorama price: $399.95
Here’s another device that adapts spotting scopes for still photography. Though completely different in approach, it lets you take advantage of the high magnification that comes with the former. You simply mount your scope on its swiveling bed and your DSLR on the camera mount, then align the two. This strictly mechanical Zeiss device works with both straight and angled spotting scopes.
Pro Optic 2X Teleconverters
Adorama price: $22-109.95
If you’re reluctant to invest in a lens long enough for backyard bird photography, consider a Pro Optic teleconverter. Teleconverters give you extra magnification with your existing lenses, which should work for birds provided they’re long enough to start with. For example, a 2X teleconverter turns a 135mm lens into a 270mm lens, or the long end of a 70-200mm zoom into 400mm. Just keep in mind that you’ll be sacrificing two stops of speed—an f/2.8 maximum aperture becomes an f/5.6, for which you’ll probably need to compensate with changes in ISO. (With a 1.4X teleconverter you lose just one stop, but magnification is increased only 40 percent.) Pro Optic teleconverters are available for Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Sony, or T-mount lenses.
Flashpoint F-9 Magnesium Alloy Tripod Ball Head
Adorama price: $54.95
Flashpoint’s ballheads offer top-notch construction and performance at a fraction of competitors’ prices—not a bad thing when you’ve already spent a goodly sum on the tripod itself. The F-9, which weighs about a pound itself thanks to magnesium alloy construction, can support a camera and lens combination weighing up to 40 pounds, which makes this tripod head ideal for holding a heavy, fast telephoto lens. If your rig is lighter, consider the F-1, which supports up to 8.8 pounds. All the Flashpoint ballheads have built-in quick releases.
Gitzo GH1720QR Series 1 Birdwatching Fluid Head
Adorama price: $259.89
This is the only tripod head we know of that’s been specifically designed for birdwatching, as opposed to bird photography. It’s a two-way fluid design with a quick release, but has been pared down to eliminate some of the controls needed for photography, which would otherwise add to its weight and bulk. Magnesium-alloy construction also helps. The head’s pan and tilt axes both feature differential inertia—meaning that the faster your adjustments, the lower the resistance. Adding to the speed of operation is that (unlike a photo tripod) a single large knob locks both tilting and panning.