Birders are crazy.

The hawk down the street from my house

My wife came to me the other day with an interesting challenge. “Honey, I cannot see far enough to identify the sea birds!”.

All images in the this article are available full resolution at: https://allangraves.myportfolio.com/bird-scoping. I encourage you to look at the larger versions for comparisons.

For the record, my wife is using a 30x Superzoom, the Panasonic Lumix FZ80 camera. For $279, it’s a fantastic value — allowing you to take reasonable pictures of birds (or your neighbors) from down the street. At 18MP, with a tiny sensor, it won’t get you many career keepers though. (Although, you can frame almost anything under a mile away as the entire image, so you do get a lot of detail — but the sensor shows its weakness.)

For a birder, there are 2 ways to get a bird identification:

  1. Ninjitsu — get as close as possible without scaring the bird. This is especially difficult for birds that are on water unless you can walk on water (high level ninjas). For birds on federal or restricted land, you may risk jail time, so again, only high level ninjas need apply.

That’s really all you can do.

There’s no magic to this.

Bigger Lens come in 2 varieties:

  1. Cameras — these are the people that you see walking around with giant lens, sometimes carried by several highly paid helpers whose only responsibility is to handle the lens, so the primary button pusher (photographer) doesn’t throw their delicate back out. Football players use these for training in the offseason sometimes, competing to see how big a lens they can lift. These lenses start at $1,000 and go up from there, reaching $80,000 and higher.

Both of these require a tripod — there is little call for trying to handle one of these by yourself like binoculars. (Barring a tripod, a team of high school football players to hold it works.)

In recent years, a new iteration has come onto the scene, the digital superzoom. Cameras such as the FZ80 my wife uses can go 0–25x or more. Nikon threw down the bar with it’s P900, P950, and P1000 cameras, resulting in cameras that go 60x, 85x, and 125x. All while living in your hand. Most of these superzooms weigh less than 3 lbs (the majority around 1.5lbs) so require only your weak noodle arms to hold, not a football team. Some of them will fit in your pocket.

To illustrate this, I will show a shot I took in my backyard, of the moon itself, just to see the craters. While holding the P1000 in my hand. While being attacked by my small children.

3000mm, f/8, handheld, while being hit by children.

The P1000 weighs 3.1lbs or so.

Any questions regarding the insanity of the scenario?

These Superzoom cameras usually retail for under $1000.

In order to do the zoom, the cameras employ something called the crop ratio — that is, when you have a full lens, and a small sensor, the lens magnifies the object, but the sensor only takes a picture of a small part of what the lens is seeing. This gives additional magnification of the image seen. The tradeoff is a smaller field of view — so you get just a small part of the scene.

My wife had 3 requirements:

  1. Get reasonable pictures. “I don’t want to publish, but I would like to share them and sometimes get help identifying them.” So some of the pictures must be good enough for viewing.

I added the following requirements based on her usage as well:

  1. Mobility — must be able to hike around for hours in dense forests.

I checked with the James Webb Space Station, and it was booked for a while, so I moved on to other possible solutions.

For those of you in the camera world, there are 2 other sensor types that employ this magnification trick, although not to the same extent as the superzoom.

  • APS-C sensor — 1.6 and 1.5x magnification

Both of these sensors are smaller than a full-frame (35mm) sensor, and thus magnify the image somewhat. (This is known as the crop factor.)

They also have much, much better sensors than the SuperZooms.

So at this point, I had 3 contenders for my wife’s next birding setup:

  1. Scope

Setting the stage. Here are 2 areas my wife birds at — the shore, usually at sunrise and daytime, and an airport, usually at sunset (raptors and owls).

See those buildings in the distance? They will be important.
Somewhere on this lake and other bodies of water, birds will taunt you!

My first question was to go looking for the longest zooms:

  • P1000–3000mm optical zoom, 6000mm digital zoom (0–125x)

Many of you astute readers will of course chime up — but what about teleconverters? That’s a good call — these are little devices that sit after the lens and magnify the image, making it larger. They are usually available in 2x and 1.4x modules. They also prevent some light from passing through, making the lens slightly darker. In addition, they can introduce aberrations, so let keep these to minimum.

As an aside, a short discussion on optics, which will set the stage for some of these tradeoffs. Optics are the same, no matter if you use a telescope, a camera lens, a spotting scope, zoomable contact lenses, or your smartphone.

Each optic has a rating for how it gathers light. This is generally referred to as an f-stop, and is a function of the aperture and other factors. https://photographylife.com/f-stop

This affects how much light can be gathered.

To take a photo, a certain amount of light has to be gathered. The more light that is gathered, the brighter (more exposed) the picture will be.

You can change the amount of light in 3 ways:

  • Shutter Speed — longer photos hold the shutter open longer, so more light arrives at the sensor.

In general, the more lens area you have available, the more light is gathered. This is why zoom lenses with large apertures are the size of a satellite dish. They also cost more and are heavier to lug around, unless you have a football team handy.

Good optics also cost more — to prevent other issues from occurring mirrors and lenses must be made to exacting specifications. Seriously — check out this big telescope mirror: https://jwst.nasa.gov/content/observatory/ote/index.html

These are all important at long distances. Every tiny imperfection is magnified when you are looking 1000 yards away, and blowing your photo up to massive sizes. At small sizes (ie your smartphone), this doesn’t matter so much, since you really can’t see it at all.

With that said, I started with a scope, the classic.. Let’s see what I can get, and how we can take pictures.

Looks like scopes are all over the map — 25–60x at $500 — $2500. With varying degrees of complexity — picking eye pieces, lenses, tripod or just buying a prebuilt kit. None of these have image stabilization built in, but some are totally waterproof and fog proof. All in all, they are rather nice, and clearly made for sitting outside — no electronics.

The one thing that is consistent is that they are heavy — 4–6lbs for the scope, another 3–6lbs for the tripod.

To be fair though, most cameras are about this weight, so let’s not throw out the scope yet. We do have a requirement to take a picture of the bird — which implies some way to use the scope or a camera with the same magnification as the camera.

This is known as… wait for it… digiscoping… digi — digital and scoping… you’re using a scope! Get it?

In this model, you use a scope + eyepiece + adapter + camera. This allows you to attach your phone\camera to the scope, and take a picture of what you see through the scope. Check out B&H for more on this: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/guide-birding-and-digiscoping

Digiscoping can bring fantastic pictures. For instance, check out http://www.birdchick.com/blog/2010/09/digiscoping-duel-results.

However, it contains a level of complexity:

  1. You must be absolutely sure to not shake or bump the scope while filming or the picture will blur. Best is to use a remote or electronic shutter release.

Estimated Price: $1000 for decent long range scope, $500 for eyepiece, $300 for tripod + $$ for camera if not using smartphone

Estimated Weight: 3.3lb + 3lb = 6lb (plus additional weight for camera if not using smart phone) — most camera shells are 1.5–2.5lb, so call it 8lb.

Benefits:

  • Potential for good quality images

Drawbacks:

  • Heavy, not very mobile

Requirements:

  • Meets the picture requirements — can id birds, and can take reasonable quality pictures to share

Now, I do not want to put down spotting scopes — these things are basically handheld telescopes. They do their job admirably well. They have many uses — but I do not find them meeting my requirements here.

Spotting Scope Conclusion: Probably not the right option for my wife.

So, I moved on. To a different place.

Next up, I considered the P1000 as an all around spotting scope and camera replacement.

  • a small 16MP sensor, a 1/2.3" sensor. This gives it a huge magnification factor — 5.6x to be exact.

This is a reasonably light camera, although not as light as my wife’s current FZ80–1.5lbs. Still, it can be carried easily all day. (More importantly, it can be aimed overhead easily for long periods of time.)

The P1000 in perspective. It’s light, and palmable — although it gets about double the size when the lens goes to 3000mm… but doesn’t feel front heavy.

The digital zoom is almost unusable, at that focal length, a tiny movement equates to huge jumps in where you are looking, and the resolution is much reduced. Even with the optical only zoom, you can easily see a mile away, but with a tiny field of view, you really have to be sure that you are pointing where you want.

First, let’s start with the starry sky mode — this mode is useful, but no substitute for a true telescope or spotting scope. :) I have seen pictures of Saturn taken through the P1000, and they are okay. But not nearly as nice as a stabilized scope with extra magnification power, designed for the universe.

Benefits:

  • Does not require a football team to carry it around. Seriously, my wife can use this all day. (In a pinch, you might be able to use it as a football — it’s about that size and weight.)

Drawbacks:

  • AutoFocus — it’s decent at shorter lengths — but at long focal lengths, it is really slow. You will not generally be capturing birds in flight with this. In challenging conditions, such as bright sun and sparkling water, it can get very confused. That said, it mostly works — although can take a half second at 3000mm.

Pictures:

This was somewhere about a mile away — and it was blurry. But, with a few other slightly blurry shots, my wife got a new bird for her bird list — the colors and features were available for id.
Not a great in focus shot — and the water is missing a lot of different colors — but she got the ID. This was several hundred feet away.
Less challenging conditions — 3000mm focal length, and quite a nice picture.

Requirements:

  • Meets the picture requirements — can id birds, and can take reasonable quality pictures to share

P1000 Conclusion:

While the picture quality and autofocus in some scenarios (low light, birds in flight) might be lacking, in general the P1000 is an amazing performer. It can absolutely replace the digiscope and spotting scope setup for my wife, and, after doing internet searches, for many other birders as well. It is less complex, lighter, easier to use, and allows for reasonable to good picture quality in a small lightweight package.

It’s only con is the small and old sensor — and let’s just say, the picture you take because you are there is better than the picture you don’t take because you aren’t there. There aren’t many pictures you will miss with this camera and a monopod.

Lastly, let’s talk the micro 4/3s cameras.

In terms of picture quality, these are very good — possibly not as good in some scenarios as the latest full frame cameras… possibly just as good. At this level, there’s no magic — it’s about HOW YOU USE YOUR EQUIPMENT.

I started with https://mirrorlesscomparison.com/best/mirrorless-cameras-for-birds-in-flight/?fbclid=IwAR2JsXlxob9kYSSUyoJ5tQzHiTn7e-3n_q_jl-zfEZyUDn8nYvkt2yY7Tm4.

3 Cameras immediately stood out:

  1. Sony A9 II — for its amazing AutoFocus score

I ruled out the A9 because it had no crop factor, having a full frame sensor, which means I would have to string adapters onto it to get a long enough lens.

I ruled out the X-T4 for about the same reason, although I would love to get a chance to play with it in the future. Perhaps 1200mm is good enough for me, although not for my wife. :)

After looking into it, I found that the Olympus OM-D E-M1X had a sibling — the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark iii — and it included most of the features of the M1X, and some the M1X didn’t have. It was also smaller and lighter, although lacking a second UHS-II slot. https://mirrorlesscomparison.com/preview/olympus-omd-em1-iii-vs-em1x/

I then looked into lenses, and I found 2:

The Sigma has Canon, Nikon, and Sigma mounts. This means an adapter is needed — I used the Metabones ULTRA: https://www.metabones.com/products/details/MB_SPEF-m43-BT5. This adapter supports autofocus, including the Phase-detect autofocus of the Olympus. It has a magnification modifier of .71x, but (somehow?) adds a full stop of light gathering — they have papers to prove it!

Effective Range:

  • Sigma — .71 * 600 = 426mm after adapter * 2 crop factor = 852 mm full range

Weight and Length:

  • Sigma: 5.95lbs and 10.6 inches.

That’s a big difference…

Both of these lenses have the same light gathering capability, and they both lose the same amount of light gathering capability when you add a magnifier (telecompensator or TC) to them. Thus, they should perform fairly identically, optics aside. And it’s true — I could not see any optical difference or performance difference, except in Image Stabilization, where the Olympus 400mm had the edge.

The Olympus in my hand
The Sigma in my hand. I was … not prepared for how big and heavy this thing was.

Add another 1.5lbs for the camera body, and that brings the weight to:

  • Sigma: 7.5lbs

That 4lbs for the Olympus is not much more than the P1000 weighed — although the Olympus + 400mm feels like it has more of its weight in the front than the P1000. The Sigma was manageable, but definitely front heavy and hard to manage for long periods.

Olympus and Sigma both make Range Extenders — 1.4x and 2x that work with these lenses, although they will drop the aperture by another stop or two. That means that your Autofocus time, shutter speed, ISO, and Aperture will be affected. See previous discussion about these items. Autofocus time is affected because the target is further away and the camera has to wait a bit longer to get enough light to process the image to focus. (Most autofocus systems rely on images they take through the sensor to determine how to change the focus. They are constantly sampling, even if you don’t know it.) I did not notice any issues with autofocus — although it took about a quarter of a second with the Sigma at full range, still faster than the P1000. The Olympus M1 handled any additional shake with no issues, even if we had to bump the shutter speed to compensate for the drop in Aperture.

I tested the Sigma both with and without the 1.4x TC.

So — let’s go through a few things:

  • AutoFocus — for the most part, AutoFocus was just fine. With the 1.4xTC, the Sigma took a bit longer to focus, but with decent light, it was still faster than the P1000. This is helped by PDAF vs ContrastAF. Overall, the comment my wife made was “Wow — the AutoFocus is FAST”

Pictures:

Morning time
Swamp down our road, at morning time
A tough scenario — the pond from the airport at sundown, several hundred feet away.
Almost dark, yet a single shot at hundreds of feet captured this duck.
With the Olympus, we can’t get as close. But, it’s still good enough to ID this raptor — and, if you are quick enough on the autofocus, your possibility of getting an in focus image goes way up with the Olympus.
A high contrast section of the lake from maybe half a mile away — the Olympus handles the water colors much better than the P1000.

Sensor Comparison — check out the same area, but 2 different sensors.

It is clear that the Olympus has a better sensor and optics — but the P1000 is still extremely versatile.

The sparkles show as stars, the contrast overwhelming the P1000 and its sensor.
With the Olympus, it was much close to what we see, and the colors are more nuanced.

Requirements:

  • Blows the picture requirements out of the water — can id birds, and can take reasonable quality pictures to share. BUT — this is only true if you can reach the bird with the zoom.

Conclusion

After doing all this research, I came to the conclusion that:

  1. My wife was blown away by what she could now shoot with the Olympus setup, and wanted to do more photos like that.

So, bottom line — we’ll be getting the Olympus and the P1000. This is a fantastic combination. I hope that my research helps you out.

For Full resolution pics, check out: https://allangraves.myportfolio.com/bird-scoping

LINKS:

Years of technology experience have given me a unique perspective on many things, including parenting, climate change, etc. Or maybe I’m just opinionated.