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Contents: Lenses | Teleconverter (TC) or Tele Extender | Tripods | Heads | Some NJ Photographers

Wildlife photography whether it be big game in Africa or photographing birds in your back yard generally requires special equipment.

What you need:
A good lens - ≥400 mm $1,000-$6,000+
A good tripod and head $500-$1,200+
See tripods below

Lenses:
The cost of going beyond 400mm (and retaining good image quality) is high, but a longer-than-400mm lens is usually desired for wildlife photography.
Note: APS-C DSLRs have a 1.6x narrower angle of view, making a 400mm lens frame like a 640mm lens.

An option to save cost and size, making it easier to manipulate and transport is to use a teleconverter (TC) (see below), which goes between the lens and camera body. The disadvantage is that you will loose 1-2 f stops and could loose autofocus at smaller apertures.
Some options from the list below.
Configuration cost Equivalent length weight
lbs
fl (mm) aperture
Canon EF 200mm f/2.8 with 1.4 TC $1,044 280 f/4 6 in 2
Canon 300 mm f/4 $1,449 300 f/4 8.7 in 2.6
Canon 100-400 mm $1,700 100-400 f/4.5-f/5.6 7.4 in 3.0
Sigma 150-500 mm $969 150-500 f/5-6.3 9.9 in 4.2
Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM $2,499 70-200 f/2.8 7.8 in 3.3
Canon EF-S 18-200 f/3.5-5.6 IS $699 18-200 f/3.5-5.6 4.0 in 1.3
With an APS-C sensor you will get the equivalent of 448 and 480mm

At Golden Gate Audubon Society they say,
"I think for starting out, the 100-400 zoom lens is very versatile and gives some quite good images, especially when paired with the 7D body. That's all you need - that, and lots of practice!

If the objective is birds in flight, I will also take along a 400mm f4 lens to hand hold. Note that Nikon also offers similar equipment of similar quality. But you have to choose one manufacturer."

A 200-300mm lens is OK for backyard bird photography.

Teleconverter (TC) or Tele Extender
A teleconverter goes between the lens and camera body and multiplies the focal length. Common factors are 1.4x, 1.7x and 2x. Unfortunately they reduce the aperture; 1 stop for a 1.4x and 2 stops for a 2x. An f/4 lens becomes an f/5.6 lens with a 1.4x mounted.
If the resulting aperture is smaller (higher number) than f/5.6 autofocus will not work on consumer cameras. A 400mm f/5.6 lens fitted with a 1.4x TC will behave like a 560mm f/8 lens.
1.4x $225-$500
See Tele Converter in photography

Some lenses which were recommended for Cannon cameras. Nikon has similar choices:
Type price len diam wt
lbs
Notes/Reviews*
B&H - Amazon
Canon 1.4x EF Extender III (Teleconverter) $449 1.1" 2.8" 4.7 (228)
Tamron 1.4x SP AF Pro Teleconverter
For lens with aperture off/2.8 or larger
$224 0.7" 2.7" 0.3 4.6 (19)
Kenko Teleplus PRO 300 DGX 1.4x AF TC $194 1.1" 0.3 4.4 (49)
Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM Lens $650 5.6" 3.0" 1.4 4.5 (799)
Canon EF 200mm f/2.8L II USM Lens $820 5.4" 3.3" 1.7 4.9 (136)
Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM Lens $1,449 8.7" 3.5" 2.6 Older IS
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM Lens $1,700 7.4" 3.6" 3.0 4.7 (1,028)
Canon Telephoto EF 400mm f/4.0 DO IS USM Autofocus $6,000 9.1" 5.0" 4.3 4.7 (31)
Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM Lens $12,800 17.6" 6.6" 8.6 4.8 (13)
Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM APO $969 9.9" 3.7" 4.2 4.4 (145) - 4.5 (213)
Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM $2,499 7.8" 3.5" 3.3 4.9 (2,142)
Tamron SP 70-200 f/2.8 $1,499 7.4" 3.4" 4.8 (24) 4.2 (217)
Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM $1,249 " " 4.7 (100)
Sigma 18-250 f/3.5-6.3 $349 3.5" 2.9" CR, 4.3 (95)
Canon EF-S 18-200 f/3.5-5.6 IS $699 4.0" 3.1" CR, 4.6 (419)
CR - Interchangeable & SLR lenses Ratings - ConsumerReports Nov. 2013 * Reviews 4.5 (799) - 799 reviewers with average of 4.5 out of 5
See:
Canon DSLR Tips: What's the best telephoto zoom? | PhotoPlusMag.com
Lens recommendations from Phil Witt.
Terminology - What do the lens parameter abbreviations mean? - Photography Stack Exchange
Glossary of terms

Digiscoping - Spotting scope with digital camera adapter.
If you're a birder you probably already own a $1,500 spotting scope by Swarovski, Nikon or Zeiss. If you do, you have a basis for getting good shots with an adaptor.
These are about $150

See All Digital Camera Adapters Sorted by Best Selling from Eagle Optics,
Nikon | Sport Optics | Digiscoping System,
Zeiss SLR Camera Adapter B&H Photo


Tripods & heads:
The high magnification amplifies every vibration so a tripod is important. They also reduce muscular fatigue during long sessions with a heavy lens.
Image to the right of a cheap aluminum tripod which broke with a $8,000 camera.

For handheld photos with a 300 mm lens you need to use at least 1/300 of a second for sharp results. Image Stabilization (IS/VR) will allow you to gain 2 stops. I.e. shoot at 1/75 with a 300 mm lens.
But in low light or for longer lenses you will need a tripod.
A good tripod for heavy lenses will cost from $300-$750
A monopod may work in some cases to at least reduce muscle fatigue.
Carbon fiber tripods are recommended over aluminum for lower weight and the greater absorption of vibrations.
Always make sure that the tripod you want to buy can support at least 1.5 times more than the total weight of your camera and your heaviest lens.
A Canon EOS 70D DSLR is 1.7 lb (body only), so with a 4.2 lb lens you would want a tripod rated at 8.8 lbs.
Type price Height Folded* Weight Supports Material1 - Notes
Manfrotto Befree $200 56" 16" 3.0 lb 8.8 lb Alum. - compact, lightweight
Manfrotto 294 Aluminum 3-Section Tripod W/QR Ballhead $170 68" 28" 5.0 lb 11   lb Alum -includes ballhead
Manfrotto 055CXPRO3 Carbon Fiber Tripod Legs $330 70" 26" 3.6 lb 17   lb Comp
Gitzo GT-2531 Mountaineer $470 63" 26" 3.0 lb 26   lb Comp
Milano M1-CF4SQR $400 60" 4.3 lb 24   lb Comp - includes ballhead
* A carry-on suitcase is 20" long
1. Comp = Composite Carbon Fiber

See Tripods at Digital Bird Photography
and An Overview of the Best Tripods and Heads - The Canadian Nature Photorapher -
Some of my tripods, my favorite 1) includes a Gitzo GT3530LS Systematic Carbon Fiber tripod ($775) with a Really right stuff ballhead ($355) and Optech insulated leg covers, total cost over $1000. 2) Milano M1-CF4SQR tripod with Milano B-2 Ball head total cost about $400 3) I use an Ergo rest with Acratech ballhead for shooting from my car window, the acratech ballhead also works well on
Midrange prices for an aluminium or even a carbon fiber tripods range between $200 to $400 e.g. the Milano carbon fiber from London drugs or a wide range of Manfrotto tripods. The high range usually includes tripods over $500 to about $1000 and that includes most carbon fiber tripods from Manfrotto, Feisol and the most expensive photographic tripods are from Gitzo.

See Tripods & Telephotos - How To Lessons | Manfrotto


Heads:
Any bird actively foraging in a tree or on the ground will require constant tracking, and the particular head you choose for your tripod can make that task of tracking the bird either manageable or onerous.

A gimbal head works like a see-saw: it maintains a fine balance on the lens, so that very moderate forces applied to one end (the camera end) are able to precisely control movement of the other end (the objective lens end).
A Wimberly head ($250-$600) is the most popular, but some say the Induro.

Best tripod for a heavy telephoto lens? - PentaxForums.com says,
"I would normally get a pan head, but I am mostly going to be working outdoors on uneven ground, so I don't want to adjust horiz/vert pan AND tilt the whole time, as it would take too much time trying to photograph birds and wildlife. I think a ballhead is better for my needs (but, sadly, more expensvie.)"

Ball heads are not good for large lenses. A ball head effectively allows the lens to tilt in any direction, and this makes it very difficult to keep a large, heavy lens stable.
However at The Canadian Nature Photorapher Dr. Robert Berdan shows a friend using a Really right stuff (RRS) ball head ($355) with a 600 mm F/4 lens.

See Heads at Digital Bird Photography
and Tripod & Monopod Heads Why A Ballhead? | Really Right Stuff-Why
Type price weight capacity
WH-200-S Sidemount Wimberley Head $495 2.3 lb ?
SK-100 Wimberley Sidekick® adapter
Converts ball head to gimbal head 1
$250 1.3 lb ?
WH-200 Wimberley Head® - Version II $595 3.2 lb 150 lb
Induro GHB2 Gimbal Head $489 3.2 lb tripod
BH-30 no clamp: Compact ballhead $195 8 oz 15 lb
Really Right Stuff BH-40 no clamp: Mid-sized ballhead $295 13 oz 18 lb
Really right stuff (RRS) BH-55 no clamp: Full-sized ballhead $355 1.6 lb 50 lb
Manfrotto 808RC4 3-Way Pan/Tilt Head
with RC4 Quick Release
$170 3 lb 17 lb
Manfrotto 808RC4 3-Way Pan/Tilt Head
with RC4 Quick Release
$170 3 lb 17 lb
1. The Wimberly Sidekick will safely carry the weight of a very big lens provided it is mated with a ball head that will hold the weight of the lens.
Generally, 400 f/5.6 and 300 f/4 fixed or zoom lenses with medium-weight camera bodies work well. Heavier camera bodies on theses lenses can be problematic (even more so on 70-200 f/2.8 and smaller lenses).

Tripod Heads sorted by rating | B&H Photo Video
Roman Kurywczak reviews: Induro GHB2 gimbal head.
Ball Heads | Buy, Compare & Review | Adorama


Photographers who have given me advice.

Phil Witt (www.flickr.com/people/philwitt/) is an avid bird photographer who travels the world with a suitcase (or two) full of photography equipment. Phil Witt and Dave DesRochers run a series of Digital Photography Workshops at the NJ Audubon center in Bernardsville, NJ.
See his "How to reach ≥ 400 mm for photographing birds".

Tom McBride www.flickr.com/photos/tomm_dogg

Gary Westerhoff Westerhoff Nature Photography (www.westerhoffnaturephotography.com)

Portrait:
Thomas F. Marshall www.imagesbyTFM.com

Arik Gorban www.agphotoworks.com

Links:
DSLR Reviews on the products page.
Glossary of terms
Canon Wildlife Lens (the-digital-picture.com)
Nikon Zoom Lens Reviews (the-digital-picture.com)
How to Photograph Birds | Ken Rockwell
All About Birds : Bird Photography | birds.cornell.edu
Secrets of Digital Bird Photography | DigitalBirdPhotography.com
Bird Photography | NaturePhotographers.net
Learning to be a bird photographer | Golden Gate Audubon Society


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last updated 1 Feb 2014