Kingfisher in Late Sun, and other window shots.

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One of the advantages of today’s long zoom Point & Shoot cameras is their relative speed and ease of use, when compared to either a digiscoping rig, or a conventional DSLR long lens combo. The Canon SX40HS I use is tiny compared to either, and rides securely in the passenger seat while driving loops at places like Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Bosque del Apache, or even Viera Wetlands (a municipal wetlands…settlement ponds…designed for birding). It is up and in my hand and pointed out the window of the car quicker than I can write this sentence.

And, with the useful digital tel-extender function putting you out at 1240-1680mm equivalent fields of view, you have the reach to capture many birds without getting out of the car.

That is the only way (in my experience) to catch at Kingfisher at any reasonable distance at Merritt Island. Kingfishers on Black Point Wildlife Drive are skittish to say the least. Only once have I ever successfully gotten out of the car to set up my digiscoping rig before the bird was off down the channel, or up over the mangroves and out of site.

This bird was perched on the far side of the water channel next to the road just beyond the eagle nest station. I pulled up beside it, rolled down the window on the passenger side (thank you for electric windows!) got the Canon SX40HS up and got off a burst of 6 shots before she took flight. The light was amazing. The distance was reasonable. I could not have done it with either a digiscoping rig or a long lens (unless I had the long lens mounted on a window mount and ready to go).

This is another out-the-window shot, this time on the driver’s side. The bird was right below the car, at the edge of pond, up against the dyke. As you see if you look closely I was shooting down through grasses, reeds, and even a small mangrove bush. The bird was feeding actively, never still. It got so close I backed off on the 1240mm equivalent full optical zoom and 1.5x digital tel-extender would have given me to shoot at about 1000mm equivalent.

This Great Egret was at the foot of the dyke at Viera Wetlands on the driver’s side. Again, I pulled up, pointed the Canon SX40HS at full optical (840mm equivalent), and shot point blank. It does not get any better than that.

Same drill on these White Ibis (2nd shot is an immature) a bit further around the loop.

Finally here is a comparison shot of the view out the passenger window at Merritt Island. The first is at 42mm equivalent, so it is about what the naked eye would see. The second is at 230mm equivalent. They were taken within seconds of each other. Not possible with any other kind of camera. Superzooms rule!

At least they rule the window shot.

White Ibis Feeding. What P&S4Wildlife is all about.

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Looking through my images from the Space Coast Birding Festival, I don’t have many shots of White Ibis. In fact, in retrospect, I didn’t see a lot of White Ibis: maybe a half a dozen birds total, scattered widely in the ponds at Black Point Drive. Other years they have been more abundant…but they are never present in the numbers of say, the Great and Snowy Egrets.

This mostly backlit shot is a good example of how implicitly I have come to rely on the exposure systems and dynamic range (enhanced as it often is, an is here, by special in-camera processing)  in today’s digital cameras…cuppled, of course, with the post processing available in programs like PhotoShop and Lightroom. Not so long ago, and certainly back in the days of slide film, this would have been a very tricky exposure, especially with the birds in constant motion. Today I just frame and shoot. To me that is the essence of the Point and Shoot method. Let the camera do what it is good at…exposure…focus…white-balance…and stay concentrated on the behavior of the subject, or the changing light on the landscape, and make full use of the zoom framing tools today’s cameras provide.

The other thing that pops out here it the forgiving depth of field of today’s superzoom cameras. We have here the framing of a 1240mm lens on a full frame DSLR (840mm optical zoom, plus the Canon’s unique 1.5x digital tel-extender), yet the depth of field of 150mm lens. The extended depth of field of a superzoom can be a problem with macro and close up shots…but at the telephoto end it is a real blessing. To achieve this effect with a conventional DSLR and a long lens, you would probably need focus stacking…multiple images taken with different focus points and digitally combined for greater depth of field…which of course would be pretty difficulty with subjects moving rapidly across the field, like the Ibi.

Canon SX40HS as above. f5.8 @ 1/1250th @ ISO 125. Program with iContrast (for the dynamic range enhancement I was talking about) and –1/3EV exposure compensation (my standard setting for this camera).

Processed for intensity, clarity, and sharpness, with some fill light to further open shadows, in Lightroom.

1680mm handheld? Canon SX40HS makes it possible!

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I have covered the use of superzoom Point and Shoots for wildlife, and birds in particular, in some detail not too long ago, in a two part article…the second part of which focused on small birds…warblers in particular. (See…Wicked Warblers.) Warblers, kinglets, sparrows and the other small passerines are not easy to photograph at the best of times. I have had some success with my digiscoping rig when birds are resting or feeding in a predictable pattern, but for most small birds you need something faster. Most people carry a DSLR with 300mm f2.8 or one of the 100-300mm or 100-400mm zooms…and then crop heavily to get image scale and fill (what is left of) the frame. I carry an advanced P&S with a long zoom.

Over on my Point and Shoot 4 Landscape site, I have detailed my latest superzoom, the Canon SX40HS (in comparison to my previous superzoom, the Nikon P500). The Canon is a clear advance in image quality over any other existing superzoom (with the possible exception of the Panasonic FZ150 which is also getting good reviews) and I am loving it for general photography. This weekend I had a chance to give it a workout as a Point and Shoot 4 Wildlife camera.

The shot above was taken at full zoom on the SX40HS. That is 840mm optical. But Canon has built in a digital tel-extender…not to be confused with any incarnation of digital zoom you have experienced in the past. The Canon DTE is not continuous…it can only be set to 1.5x or 2x, but, through the magic of the new Digic 5 processor and the super fast Back-Illuminated CMOS sensor, Canon has managed to nurse pretty amazing image quality out of the system. As you see above the DTE goes well beyond simply blowing up the pixels.

So, the shot was taken with 2x DTE on, which gives it the equivalent field of view of a 1680mm lens! Here is another shot, taken when the bird was a foot closer.

At any normal display or print size this shot looks pretty fine. At full resolution, viewed 1 to 1 pixels on the screen you can easily see the digital artifacts. What is interesting is that they disappear totally in normal viewing. Canon has calculated very well for human perception and matched the output at reasonable sizes to what we want to see.

Now, consider that the top image is at ISO 320, and the bottom image, which is more bird and less background, is at ISO 640. And, further, consider that both are handheld…at 1680mm, the first at 1/200th and the second at 1/400th. Between the super efficient image processing in the Digic 5 engine, and the amazing hybrid image stabilization system in the Canon lens, you can achieve some amazing results.

Here is a House Wren at 1.5x DTE plus full optical.

and a Catbird at the same settings.

All these shots are in Programmed Auto, with iContrast and auto focus. I keep continuous auto focus on and set the focus frame to the smallest rectangle in the Flexfocus setting. The SX40HS will lock on focus very quickly almost every time. Though I have not had much chance to try it…it will even lock on flying birds. This Osprey was at regular 840mm optical zoom, and then cropped slightly for image scale.

And of course the Canon SX40HS works on non-feathered wildlife too.

1.5x DTE.

2x DTE.

Yes, you might say I am having fun with the SX40HS. Great camera for landscpes. Great camera for macro. Great camera for wildlife and birds.

From Pic 4 Today. A P&S 4 Wildlife phoebeality study

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See Pic 4 Today for more.

That time again: new P&S for Wildlife camera.

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I recently spent 3 days talking digiscoping, spotting scopes, and binoculars with patrons at the ZEISS Stand at the Great British Bird Fair at Rutland Water in the UK. In real, verifiable numbers, upwards of 11,000 people visit the fair over the three days, and it sometimes feels like at least half of them come to the Optics Marque and visit our booth. And of those 5100, I, personally, talk to at least half…that’s 2550 people over 3 days. Of course that’s only what it feels like. In reality I probably don’t talk to more than a thousand people :), and only about 2 out of 3 of them want to talk about capturing images of wildlife with a spotting scope. Still that is a lot of people to tell “well, honestly, the camera I use is discontinued. You can’t get it anymore.” I can read their faces (even their British faces): “Fat lot of help you are!”

{Note: though I was assured it was discontinued several months ago by people at Canon who should know, and though it disappeared from retailers and Canon’s web site, it looks like the Canon SD4000IS might be “back by popular demand.” Canon must have made another production run, since it is, as of 8/30/11, readily available on on-line retailers. And it is still one of the best cameras behind the scope eyepiece I have ever used. Get one while they last! Or read on…}

So, I came home, did a bit of poking around on the internet, and ordered the camera I’d actually been recommending for 3 days, as one of the few current models I had reason to believe would work: the Nikon Coolpix P300. (I use the long zoom Nikon Coolpix p500 for the other half of my P&S for Wildlife rig, as well as for general photography. It has the same sensor as the P300, and I have been very pleased with it.)

The P300, like my retired Canon SD4000IS, or my P500, uses a back-illuminated CMOS senor, instead of the more conventional CCD sensor. I have been impressed with the speed of the BiCMOS sensors. They capture a rapid burst of images (between 4 and 8 frames per second) and they do, these days, full HD video (1080p).They also have very good high-ISO noise performance. Rapid burst (8 frames per second for 7 frames on the P300) and high ISO capability make them ideal for capturing images of wildlife through the eyepiece of a spotting scope. Full HD video just makes them that much more fun. The kind of close up video of wildlife in action that today’s P&S can capture through a spotting scope is simply addictive! Too much fun.

The P300 is also similar to the Canon SD4000is in having a faster than average zoom (in the fast lens sense of fast). The Canon was among the fastest on the market when I bought it at f2.8…the P300 is an f1.8. While this might not help a lot with digiscoping exposure, where the scope most often limits the f-stop, it does mean that extra effort has gone into lens design…something which, in my experience, does pay a dividend behind the eyepiece. The sharper the camera lens, the more detail you will see in your images.

Keeping with the theme, the P300, like the Canon before it, has a big bright LCD for viewing the image you are about to take, or the one you just took. In this case, as with the lens, the newer model goes the older one better, with a significantly bigger LCD. Initial trials show it to be plenty bright enough for use in full sun, for both viewing and touch-up focus.

Of course, the major consideration when purchasing a Point & Shoot to use behind the eyepiece is how the zoom interacts with the scope optics. Some of the finest P&Ss for general photography simply do not work behind the eyepiece of a scope…there is either no zoom setting where you can get a full frame image, or the only zoom setting that gives a full frame is the highest power setting…neither the sharpest position of the zoom, nor the most useful since the slightest vibration at such high power will destroy image quality. Many P&S zooms also lengthen as you zoom them, so that you have to reposition the camera behind the eyepiece every time you zoom. I like to find a P&S zoom that gives me a full frame image over at least half the zoom range, with the eyepiece of the scope at its lowest power, and without repositioning the camera. The Canon SD4000IS was exceptional in that it gave me the upper 2/3s of the range. The P300 gives me the upper half…but, since it is considerably wider at the wide end (24mm equivalent vs. 28mm equivalent), it amounts to about the same usable range of equivalent focal lengths once behind the scope. I can live with it.

One issue with BiCMOS sensors is always image quality. The inner structure…the granular structure…which shows up when you enlarge the image to full size (sometimes referred to as 1 to 1, or 1 image pixel to 1 display pixel) is very different in an BiCMOS sensor than it is in a conventional CCD sensor. In a BiCMOS image you can see a somewhat pebbly structure, and lines and edges in the image are not as well defined. CCD sensors of equal pixel density tend to produce a smoother inner structure, with better definition. I am not talking about noise…this effect is more like grain structure in film. No BiCMOS sensor I have seen equals the fine grained look of CCD sensors.

On the other hand, given the high pixel counts of today’s BiCMOS sensors, you will rarely be looking at, and certainly not printing, your images at 1 to 1. The 12.1mp BiCMOS senor on the Coolpix P300 produces incredible detail at normal viewing and printing sizes…even at somewhat abnormal sizes. And certainly the other advantages of the the modern BiCMOS sensor…rapid capture, high ISO performance, access to creative modes based on rapid capture, full HD video, etc, etc…more than make up for any shortcomings. You will notice that almost all of the pro-level DSLRs today feature BiCMOS.

I continue to use the ZEISS DiaScope 65FL as my primary optic, with the 15-56x Vario eyepiece. I mount the camera on the ZEISS Quick Camera Adapter. The Nikon mounts, if anything, even better than the Canon. It is a solid feeling camera, slightly bigger than the Canon, with a good sized flat bottom and a well placed tripod socket so that it snugs down on the adapter plate very solidly. It is easy to set up. It needs, in my first experiments, to be just inside the distance from the eyepiece where you get a sharply defined circular image at wide on both zooms. Once centered and in place there, zooming up to about half zoom eliminates vignetting, and you have the rest of the zoom range with a full frame. You can also use the the full range of the scope zoom. That is about as good as it gets.

The SRB-Griturn Universal Cable Release mount works very well with the large flat shutter button on the P300. Many shutter release buttons, including the Canon SD4000IS, are domed, which tends to throw a cable release adapter off to one side or the other over time. The P300 is ideal.

In use, the Nikon P300 focuses rapidly and fairly accurately through the eyepiece of the scope. As always, a half-press is mandatory. You need to give the camera time to lock on focus, observe the focus indicator light, and check to make sure it has focused on some part of the bird you value and not, in a worst case, on the vegetation behind the bird. The P300 has several focus modes I am experimenting with. Center focus seems fairly accurate so far. There is a follow focus mode which is supposed to lock on a moving subject and follow. I mean to try that more fully when I can find a cooperative bird. And there is a manual focus mode (not that kind of manual…this lets you select the position of the focus square within the frame using the control wheel). For stationary birds there is also a best shot mode, which takes a series of high speed exposures and selects the sharpest of them. I need to try that too.

My general impression is that it is easier to restore focus when a bird moves out of range with the P300 than it was on the Canon. It is very possible to touch up focus on the LDC, without swinging the camera out. I never got so I could do that with the Canon.

I have been out twice with the camera looking for birds to test image quality. So far I am impressed. The exposures are spot on, and in good light, at reasonable distances and powers, the image detail is everything I could hope for. In most situations chromatic aberration (color fringes around high contrast edges, a lens problem) and purple fringing (a purple halo around bright objects, a sensor problem) seems well controlled. The Canon always showed false color in the eye-point (sun reflection) of any bird that showed one. The Nikon P300 is remarkably free of any color under identical circumstances.

I have included a few of my best shots so far for your review. All are linked back to my Wide Eyed in Wonder galleries where you can blow them up to your hearts content using the image size controls across the top of the lightbox window. These should be taken as first efforts. I never fully judge a digiscoping camera until I use it in Florida or Texas, where the light is digiscoping perfect and the birds are close! I will be posting more as I catch them.

Things I miss: with the Canon I could just hold the shutter button down and take a burst of images at 4 fps for as long as I wanted. With the Nikon on continuous, a single press of the shutter takes 7 shots at 8 fps. In the long run this could be better…as I used to come back with 30 shot sequences from which I would save one image. 7 is likely enough. Still…

It took me three months to come to grips with the way the Canon focused. I am hoping it won’t take the same to come to grips with the P300.

Now…I am really hoping Nikon will keep the P300 in the line for at least a year. I don’t like that “Fat lot of help you are” look.

Point & Shoot 4 Wildlife does Bugs!

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One of the primary advantages of today’s P&S super-zooms is that most of them have a great macro setting. Some cameras will capture an image of an object that is actually touching the surface of the lens. That is close. Better yet, most P&S super-zooms have a macro that reaches well out into the telephoto range, allowing you to capture tricky little things…like bugs…with relative ease. If your camera also has a articulated LCD…one that swivels or rotates for easy viewing, bug shots are that much easier.

The Nikon Coolpix P500, which is my current P&S, has a Close Up scene mode. Choosing it sets the zoom to 32mm equivalent field of view (the largest possible image scale, focusing at 2cm), focus to continuous with a movable focus point, and Optimization to Vivid. This is a great setting for flowers, but not much use for bugs…which are very likely to be off and away by the time you get that close. Fortunately you can override the zoom setting and use Close Up at more reasonable distances. The shot above, of a well worn Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, was at the full 810mm reach.

This Hover Fly on Queen Ann’s Lace was at 263mm equivalent field of view, still using the Close Up mode. With an aperture of f6.3, on a small a sensor camera, you would expect less focus separation between the subject and background. That is one advantage of the articulated LCD. It allows you to get down to bug level and often place the subject against a more distant background. However, I suspect that Nikon is doing a bit of digital trickery with the backgrounds in Close Up mode, as this degree of separation is still unexpected…and I know for a fact that some other P&S super-zooms create the separation effect in macros in software. This is good.

 

This Northern Pearly-eye Butterfly is at 403mm equivalent field of view. In addition to the fact that closer approach would likely have sent the butterfly on its way (sometimes it seems as though the very act of pointing a lens at a bug is enough to move it on), there was no way I could have gotten closer without stepping off the boardwalk (at Laudholm Farm in Wells ME), which is something I simply do not do.

The image is cropped from the full frame, but only by about 1/3…still leaving about 9 mp of solid detail. Clicking the image will open it in SmugMug’s lightbox where you can view it as large as your monitor will allow. Here, again due to the articulated LCD, I was able to easily shoot from hip height to put the bug against a darker background.

Dragonflies and their like are a whole different matter. The issue with dragonflies is focus. Well, and the fact that they don’t sit. This is one of several Twelve-spotted Skimmers that I caught at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens on a recent visit. This bug is among the easier to for auto focus to lock on to, as the wings are well patterned. It helps, though, to catch the bug on a prominent feature, like this purple flower, or against a background that is so distant all features are lost, like the following image. It the first case, at 499mm equivalent, the flower gave auto focus a separated object to lock on to for basic distance, so the camera was not driven to focus on the background. In the second case, at 435mm equivalent, the subject is so well separated from the background that focus found it easily.

Smaller dragonfly types, especially ones with completely clear wings, pose a more difficult focus problem.

I have lots of out of focus shots of this bug (a Female Blue Dasher as near as I can tell)…and it moved many times before the camera could find focus, before it finally settled on this bow of reed several inches in front of the reeds behind. Suddenly, at 499mm equivalent, it was easy. I actually started taking shots at about 250mm equivalent, and zoomed in by stages to reach this close shot. That is another technique to try. Don’t start at your full reach. Shoot shorter, with smaller image scale, and work your way in, advancing the zoom between shots. Often the camera will hold focus past where you expect it to fail, as it did here. The shot is slightly for composition and scale.

Working my way up to 435mm equivalent is the only way I got images of this smaller Blue Dasher)  sitting on the head of a stalk of Timothy.

I was able to work up to 620mm equivalent on this female Blue Dasher resting in the sun along the boardwalk at Laudholm Farms. This is another case where the long zoom-macro was the only option, as I could not have reached the bug any other way.

Butterflies and Dragonflies are the obvious bugs, but any bug caught close up is interesting.

These two wasp like specimens, which I have not yet identified, were shot at 340mm equivalent. The lesson hear is “do not be afraid to crop”. With 12-14-16mp these days, you can always increase the image scale by cropping to 9mp and still have lots of detail…easily enough for any web application, and for most printing.

This Honey Bee was at only 100mm equivalent, and cropped again to about 9mp.

While this bee (of some kind?) was at 372mm equivalent. Again it is cropped from the full frame.

Finally, don’t forget video. All the current P&S super-zooms do at least 720p HD video, and most of them do 1080p or 1080i (full HD). This video was shot in poor light…so poor that still shots were marginal at best…and had to be processed in Sony Vegas for brightness and contrast…but it is a record of what, for me at least, was a unique event…the massing of Wood Nymph Butterflies on a tree trunk at Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge.

Wood Nymph Butterflies at Rachel Carson NWR, Wells ME

While all these shots were taken with a super-zoom at longer focal lengths, that does not mean you should not attempt bugs. Most P&S with macro reach at least 100mm equivalent…and that can be enough to give you a decent 5-7mp crop of even the smallest bugs.

So, when next out with camera in hand, look down, look close, and do the bugs.

Should I invest in a digiscoping rig or a long lens?

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I get asked this question often enough so that I have developed a standard answer:

yrwbYou don’t buy a scope to take pictures of birds. You buy a scope to look at birds. That is what it was made for. You carry it the field while birding to look at birds. If you have an interest in photography as well, you can attach a camera to the scope to take pictures of birds. It is a lot of fun, will produce some amazingly satisfying images, and adds very little weight or expense beyond what you are already carrying. And, you can take photos of the birds you see from fairly long distances, casually, without much special effort beyond attaching the camera. That’s digiscoping. This image was digiscoped at about 45 feet.

You don’t buy a lens to look at birds. You buy a lens to take pictures of birds. That is what was made for. You carry it in the field while photographing birds. That involves a whole set of skills, mostly centered on getting close enough to the bird to fill the frame. If you want to also look at birds, you carry binoculars and use them when you get close enough (because you certainly are NOT carrying both a spotting scope and a long lens, and you are not getting very satisfying looks at birds through your long lens). With experience and skill your images of birds will be beyond satisfying…they will be stunningly detailed studies of the living creature. That’s bird photography. The Kinglet here is a good example from master wildlife photographer, Steve Creek. For more examples visit his blog, or take a look at the stunning work of UK bird photographer Nigel Blake on flickr.

There are three reasons a photographer might buy a spotting scope and small camera instead of a lens. To even consider digiscoping the photographer has to be willing to accept the level of image quality possible with a camera working behind a scope. Working from a distance, digiscoped image quality will be as good as and sometimes considerably better than a long lens working much beyond frame filling distance (arguably, but that is my experience), but it will never equal the quality of a frame filling bird taken at 12 feet with 600mm lens, or even at 24 feet with a 2X extender. Still, the three reasons a photographer might consider digiscoping: 1) to work from greater distances than a long lens allows, 2) to limit the weight and bulk of the equipment carried (a scope and camera is always going to be lighter and easier to carry than a long lens), and 3) to control expense (even the best digiscoping rig will cost half what a 600mm IS lens does).

There are no reasons why a birder would buy long lens instead of a spotting scope. :)

Where you see yourself and your desires and needs in all that will answer your question.

Point & Shoot 4 Wildlife for LBJs. Gotta have the reach!

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The smaller the bird, the more reach you need to fill the frame effectively. Simple. You can take convincing (and satisfying) shots of Herons at close range (under 50 feet) with the 800mm end of a super-zoom P&S camera…but shots of sparrows and other Little Brown Jobs at that same range are not very satisfying. Sometimes, of course, you don’t have a choice. I would not take a digiscoping rig with tripod out on the boardwalk at Magee Marsh…just would not do it…so there the P&S super-zoom has to work…and does…see P&S 4 Wildlife. Part 2. Wicked Warblers. The saving grace at Magee is that the birds are close…sometimes within 12 feet…rarely over 20…and the birds are bright…so any reasonable capture is going to be satisfying…even if you can’t see the inner details of the individual feathers.

Still, given the choice, for sparrows and other LBJs, I would always choose a digiscoping rig.

This is a shot of a Song Sparrow at 45 feet with the Nikon Coolpix P500 at full (810mm equivalent field of view) zoom…and cropped down from full frame at that!

If you run the zoom up into the digital range, at 1600 mm this is what you get, again, cropped from full frame. Not bad for digital zoom, at that.

This is the same bird as the first image, from the same spot, using the Canon SD4000IS behind the 20-75x Vario eyepiece on the ZEISS DiaScope 85FL, first at just over 2200mm equivalent, and then at about 3500mm equivalent…full frame…uncropped…10 mp images.

Clearly, there is no comparison between the level of detail captured by the P&S and the digiscoping rig from the same distance, nor should anyone expect there to be. That reach is one of the primary advantages of digiscoping after all…and it is why we are carrying the scope in the first place.

Now, of course, if you live on the west coast, where some of the Song Sparrows are the size of Robins, you could probably get away with just the super-zoom most days :)

Point and Shoot for Wildlife Takes a Tern at Bolsa Chica

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On a recent birding, digiscoping, and photography expedition to Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Huntington Beach California I captured a series of images of a Forster’s Tern that dramatically demonstrate the range possible with two Point and Shoot cameras and a spotting scope. Equipment: 1) Nikon Coolpix P500, with a 36x zoom, 23mm to 810mm equivalent fields of view, 2) Canon PowerShot SD4000IS  behind the 20-75x Vario eyepiece on a ZEISS DiaScope 85FL spotting scope, for equivalent fields of view in the 1000-5000mm range. I have also included an HD video shot with the Canon SD4000IS and ZEISS DiaScope, and a few flight shots of the Terns, taken with the Coolpix…just to demonstrate further possibilities.

23mm equivalent field of view, Nikon Coolpix P500, notice the Forster’s Tern on the post.

Same Tern, 810mm equivalent, Nikon Coolpix P500, pretty amazing range in a compact P&S

Preening action, 1300mm equivalent, Canon SD4000IS at 65mm equivalent and ZEISS DiaScope at 20x

3650mm equivalent, Canon SD4000IS at 91mm equivalent, ZEISS DiaScope at 40x

As you can see, these four shots, taken from exactly the same position within moments of each other show off the advantages of a two camera Point and Shoot / Spotting Scope rig for wildlife.

To add spice to the mix, the video below was as easy as flicking the capture switch on the Canon SD4000IS from still to video. All these shots, by the way, were taken in pretty poor light, from a boardwalk with lots of traffic. I had to run the video through the image stabilization in Sony Vegas HD to remove the boardwalk bounces…and I am sure the process degrades resolution somewhat.

Forster’s Tern Preening, Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, CA: Canon SD4000IS and ZEISS DiaScope 85FL

Finally, I set up on the boardwalk with the Nikon Coolpix at about 160mm equivalent to attempt to capture some Terns in flight. I used my self programmed Flight and Action scene mode (saved to the User mode on the Coolpix), but the birds were moving so fast I had to back well off on the 810mm reach. These are cropped from full frame.

All the still shots were processed in Lightroom for Clarity and Sharpness.

I am not attempting to convert conventional long lens photographers with posts like this. I am well aware that with an investment of $20,000 or more in an outfit weighing something close to 20 pounds, I could get, perhaps, better image quality over this same range. What this series does for me is to confirm that the equipment I can afford (total, including tripod, around $4500) and am willing to carry (total weight, again including tripod, in the 9 pound range) will produce satisfying results with most any wildlife challenge I am faced with.

If you are like me, you might also be inspired to consider the Point and Shoot for Wildlife solution.

Point & Shoot for Wildlife: Superzooms, Part 2: Wicked Warblers

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I don’t think there is anything harder than photographing warblers during migration, when they are generally feeding frantically to fuel for the next hop, and always, it sometimes seems, at least partially obscured by foliage and branches.

Magee Marsh/Crane Creek, along the Ohio shore of Lake Erie, is a good place, in some ways, to try. The birds are certainly there. In a few hours you can see 30 or more species of warblers every spring, staging for a day or sometimes two, along with Tanagers, Orioles, Thrushes, Grosbeaks, Sparrows, etc., nesting Screech Owls, and resident Rails and Herons. And the warblers are there in good numbers. You can see a dozen Prothonotarys, 20 Blackburnian, 50 Black-throated Green or American Redstarts in the space of an hour. Then too, the persistent will encounter the occasional rare Connecticut, Morning, or Golden-wing. Lots of birds, for sure.

But with that comes lots of birders. And photographers. Hence the “some ways” above. The past two years the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, Ottawa NWR, and Tropical Birding Tours, have organized an event around the phenomenon of Magee Marsh and migration. The boardwalk is often so jammed with binocular and camera wielding humanity that it is literally impossible to move. Little old ladies (and big strong men) get stranded for hours a few yards short of where everyone else is seeing the Connecticut. Even when the press is less, it is not uncommon to find 200 birders and photographers in 100 yards of boardwalk. And tripods supporting 600mm lenses? Don’t get me started on that! While I understand the impulse to drag a 6 foot tall tripod, 14 pounds and 24 inches of lens, and a foot long flash hood out on to a boardwalk with hundreds of birders trying to see warblers (and all the little folk with their 300mm zooms), I can not say that I fully approve. Nothing stops traffic like a tripod blocking half the boardwalk.

It is a unique experience, however you look at it. And, despite my quibbles, one I would not personally miss for anything! In fact I am thankful for The Biggest Week in American Birding…without which I might never have heard of Magee Marsh.

But back to P&S for Wildlife. Given the abundance, but also the the difficulty, of the subjects, along with the press of humanity, the Magee Marsh boardwalk provides the ideal torture test for Point & Shoot for Wildlife. “Wicked warblers” as they would say in my part of Maine. Wicked hard on a P&S. If a superzoom can manage to get satisfying warbler images under Magee Marsh and The Biggest Week in American Birding conditions, it can manage anywhere, any time.

Prothonotary Warbler: 810mm, f5.7 @ 1/1000th @ ISO 160

Full disclosure here: the images that illustrate this post are among the 211 that I processed out of 1650 exposures that I took while in Ohio. That is a keeper rate of about 13%. Some of those 211, certainly, are only good “for the record”…saved only because they are the only decent image I got of a particular species. I used my User selected flight and action mode on the Nikon Coolpix P500, which means that I shot 5 images at 8 frames per second with every press of the shutter release. That accounts, in part, for the large number of exposures…but it also accounts, in part, for the relatively high percentage of keepers. “Wait,” you say, “how is 13% high?” In my opinion, and my experience, anything better than 1 in 10 is a high keeper rate when shooting long lens…even if the long lens is the long end of a P&S zoom…maybe especially if the long lens is the long end of a P&S zoom…and certainly when shooting warblers in the woods…with any camera!

User Flight and Action mode:
full size (12mp)
fine image quality
8 fps for 5 frames
center and continuous focus
center metering
auto ISO and a minimum shutter speed of 1/125 second
hybrid Vibration Reduction
LCD off
zoom fully extended (810mm equivalent)

Even at longest zoom, many of these images were cropped from the full frame.

American Redstart: 668mm, f5.7 @ 1/125th @ ISO 160

Scarlet Tanager: 500mm, f5.7 @ 1/640th @ ISO 160

Rose-breasted Grosbeak: 810mm, f5.7 @ 1/400th @ ISO 160

Chestnut Sided Warbler: 500mm, f5.7 @ 1/200th @ ISO 160

Catbird: 810mm, f5.7 @ 1/125th @ ISO 160

Blackburnian Warbler: 668mm, f5.7 @ 1/500th @ ISO 160

Gray-cheeked Thrush: 668mm, f5.7 @ 1/125 @ ISO 500

The Thrush was taken in very poor light, sprinkling in fact, and the minimum 1/125th setting I use as part of my Flight and Action program caught and pushed the ISO up to 500. Not bad at all! The Black and White that follows is also an higher ISO shot, due to subdued light, but most of the time the P500 managed to hold the base 160 ISO.

Black and White Warbler, 668mm, f5.7 @ 1/125th @ ISO 180

Prothonotary Warbler, 810mm, f5.7 @ 1/640th @ ISO 160

Wood Thrush: 668mm, f5.7 @ 1/125th @ ISO 280

Yellow-rumped Warbler: 668mm, f5.7 @ 1/125th @ ISO 500

Magnolia Warbler: 668mm, f5.7 @ 1/320th @ ISO 160

And three shots of a Golden-winged Warbler…none of which capture more than a piece of the bird, but which you can assemble like a puzzle to see it.

And we will finish (almost) with the obligatory Screech Owl shot.

810mm, f5.7 @ 1/160th @ ISO 160

Just for fun, one last shot of half-dollar sized infant Painted Turtle on the boardwalk at Ottawa NWR. Taken with the macro setting at 500mm. Full frame, uncropped.

500mm and macro, f5.7 @ 1/400th @ ISO 160

I am more than happy with the results of the Magee Marsh Point & Shoot for Wildlife torture test. Certainly I might have bettered these with a DSLR and longish lens, but it would have been much more unwieldy on the boardwalk, and much less flexible (no zoom for one thing). Wicked warblers. Bring them on!