Birding Long Range

The hawk down the street from my house
  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.
  2. Bigger Lens — the size of your lens, and thus your available light gathering and magnification grows and grows until you are carting around something like the James Webb Space Station.
  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.
  2. Spotting Scopes — not quite as expensive as cameras, these are big, heavy (being very similar to the camera lens part) and essentially a giant monocle. Generally, these have no image stabilization, and using them handheld is… not for the faint hearted.
3000mm, f/8, handheld, while being hit by children.
  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.
  2. Identify birds: Even blurry pictures are useful if the show the features\colors of the bird — seeing every feather is not necessary. Priority here is being able to see the bird.
  3. Be able to reach the far reaches of space to identify the next space bird she sees. So the longer the zoom the better. (Sadly, she is still working on her Ninjitsu. And yes — I know it’s actually taijitsu.)
  1. Mobility — must be able to hike around for hours in dense forests.
  2. Versatility — must be able to take pictures of shiny things, bugs, flower, etc while out and about.
  • APS-C sensor — 1.6 and 1.5x magnification
  • Micro 4\3s — 2x magnification
  1. Scope
  2. Superzoom
  3. APS-C or Micro 4\3s with long lens.
See those buildings in the distance? They will be important.
Somewhere on this lake and other bodies of water, birds will taunt you!
  • P1000–3000mm optical zoom, 6000mm digital zoom (0–125x)
  • Scope — 0–100x magnification
  • Camera.. hm… oh — $1 million USD? Sure, I’ll take 1 plus a backup. I was forced to reign in my search a bit here, and add “affordable” to this, which means I’m now in a tradeoff between light gathering and zoom. Reasonably, it seems like most camera types have a 600mm f/6.3 as a $2000 option, which is… somewhat affordable for something that will last multiple years. f/6.3 will be important later — but for now, that’s a reasonable amount of light.
  • Shutter Speed — longer photos hold the shutter open longer, so more light arrives at the sensor.
  • Aperture — more light is gathered at the same time with a larger fstop. (smaller values of f/ — ie f/2.8 is more light than f/11.)
  • ISO — Higher numbers represent more light, but also more grain in the picture.
  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.
  2. Like any large lens, chromatic aberrations and vignetting can occur, especially at larger focal lengths. This makes choice of lens and eyepiece, as well as the adapter to hold your camera critical. In addition, at long ranges, available light, optics, coatings, all matter — which leaves you looking for a more expensive spotting scope.
  3. Your tripod must be rock-solid.
  • Potential for good quality images
  • Scopes are proven for long range birding
  • Can accept telescope eyepieces, providing magnification into the 300x and higher range.
  • Heavy, not very mobile
  • Large Setup
  • No image stabilization
  • Finicky — lots of little things must be accounted for
  • Most telescope eyepieces are fixed zoom, thus finding birds means changing eyepieces progressively, not just moving a zoom ring.
  • Meets the picture requirements — can id birds, and can take reasonable quality pictures to share
  • Meets the zoom requirements — can spot the next moon bird. Saturn might be a bit far out.
  • Mobility — utter fail at the mobility test
  • Ease of Use — Fail. No electronic features + setup that must be accounted for on every shot means that this is not an easy solution.
  • Versatility — Fail. My wife often takes pictures of other things while birding, and this would mean needing to have yet another camera setup on hand for those pictures.
  • a small 16MP sensor, a 1/2.3" sensor. This gives it a huge magnification factor — 5.6x to be exact.
  • lens — 4.3–539mm lens — f/2.8–f/8. Effective range, after crop factor, 24–3,000mm
  • digital zoom — up to 12,000mm.
  • Manual Focus
  • Snapback — a button to bring the lens back to 1000mm and when released immediately zoom back into your previous focal length
  • birding mode (among others)
  • Contrast-detect AF
  • about 7.2 in long, without being extended
  • about 3.5lbs
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.
  • 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.)
  • Versatile — can shoot from 1cm at its smallest focal length and 7m at its 3000mm focus length. That’s a very, very versatile camera, and might be the only one you carry all day.
  • Manual focus — just like a spotting scope, you can zoom and focus manually. This really helps out, so you don’t have to wait on the AutoFocus to catch up.
  • Snapback — when you’ve lost your target, you can quickly back out and find it again, then jump right back in. This requires a single button push to handle.
  • Bird Fill — when you have acquired your target, you can press one button and the camera will zoom in till the target is framed in your image.
  • Sensor — it’s an older sensor, but for the most part, it picks up a reasonable amount of detail.
  • The lens — There is NO substitute for a true optical zoom — there is nothing like being there. Nikon made a really good lens for this.
  • 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.
  • Image Quality — by itself, they look pretty good. But, when you compare them with a modern image sensor… the difference in Wow and Pop is there. This image misses some gradients during challenging conditions like sunset, and gets overwhelmed in other scenarios.
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.
  • Meets the picture requirements — can id birds, and can take reasonable quality pictures to share
  • Meets the zoom requirements — can spot the next moon bird. Saturn might be a bit far out.
  • Mobility — absolute pass
  • Ease of Use — absolute pass. The image stabilization and other features make this a no brainer to operate.
  • Versatility — Absolute pass. Only one camera would be needed in the field. No spotting scope. Easy to travel with, even around the world.
  1. Sony A9 II — for its amazing AutoFocus score
  2. Fuji X-T4 — for its awesome large sensor that still provided a crop factor of 1.5x
  3. Olympus OM-D E-M1X — for its 2x crop factor (Micro 4\3 sensor) and amazing image stabilization.
  • Sigma — .71 * 600 = 426mm after adapter * 2 crop factor = 852 mm full range
  • Olympus — 400mm * 2 crop factor = 800mm full range
  • Sigma: 5.95lbs and 10.6 inches.
  • Olympus: 2.46lbs and 8 inches
The Olympus in my hand
The Sigma in my hand. I was … not prepared for how big and heavy this thing was.
  • Sigma: 7.5lbs
  • Olympus: 4lbs
  • 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”
  • Range — the Sigma + 1.4x TC got us out to 1192mm — or about a 24x magnification. This isn’t as far as the old FZ80 my wife used, and nowhere near that P1000 at 125x. However, with the increased sensor image resolution and information, this was workable for maybe 75% of the scenarios my wife wanted to identify birds in.
  • Weight — The Sigma was *barely* doable but not for long. After a day of moving it around, even on a tripod, the weight showed up and pictures got shakier and shakier. The Olympus was usable ALL day long, especially if you had a tripod around. It was faster to track a bird in flight with the Olympus lens.
  • Versatility — Unfortunately, with either of these lenses, especially with the TC, the M1 was not as versatile as the P1000. If something was under a few meters away, you would need to switch lenses — although that’s… not that hard to do, and the lenses are very, very light.
  • Pictures — WOW. So many details were shown, gradients were picked up, feathers, saturation, small colors, reflections, sparkles, you name it. So much so — that after viewing one of the pictures, my wife stated “I didn’t know I could take pictures like this. Now I want to take more like this.” Note, of course, that the Olympus 400mm lens will not give you the shiny clean “wildlife” look background that really highlights the subject.
  • Image Stabilization — even at a 2s shutter, I was able produce amazing shots of low light scenarios. The IS in this thing is crazy. It contains a High Res mode in handheld mode (no tripod needed) where it stitches 16 photos together to make an 80MP photo! I never felt a need to reduce the range or shutter speed during low light conditions, even with the long reach of these lenses. This was really impressive.
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.
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.
  • 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.
  • Meets the zoom requirements — can spot the next moon bird. Saturn might be a bit far out. With the Olympus 400mm and a 2.0xTC, you can get 1600mm, 32x zoom, with amazing sharpness. That’s enough for 75–95% of the scenarios. I actually took pics of the moon, and while not as full frame as the P1000, you can make out craters and the seas easily.
  • Mobility — pass. 4 lbs is extremely light for kit of this nature.
  • Ease of Use — pass. The image stabilization and other features make this a no brainer to operate. However, this is an advanced tool — it has many features, like exposure bracketing, that will make your life better, bringing out bird colors, etc but that take time to learn. Even getting the most out of the autofocus system takes a bit of time.
  • Versatility — Pass. You could easily get by with 1 camera in the field, although you might miss some birds at extreme (1 mile or more) ranges. However, this setup is light enough you could carry a P1000 with you for those times. The lens would require a change to shoot close ups, unlike the P1000.
  • Durability — one new requirement here — both the camera and the Olympus 400mm lens are fully weather proofed and IPX1 water resistant, which, if you’ve ever gone birding, means that they will survive plenty well.
  1. My wife was blown away by what she could now shoot with the Olympus setup, and wanted to do more photos like that.
  2. The P1000 absolutely worked as a spotting scope, camera, and more, producing reasonable images. There is no substitute for the optics to center your subject in the frame — even if that subject is a mile away. It can even be manually focused as you zoom in, so you don’t have to wait for the autofocus.
  3. The Olympus was light enough that she could easily carry it and the P1000.
  4. Both are light enough to travel with together. Even on a plane.
  5. The Olympus was amazing, and the pictures were awesome. It did not weigh much more than the P1000, and had full weatherproofing. It’s reach with the 400mm lens was good enough for many scenarios, and the extra detail means you can further blow up the subject in post-processing.
  6. The spotter scope just felt extremely specialized — only good for certain situations, and not something my wife would want right now.
  7. The P1000 is a tool — a lens with some electronics attached, much like a digiscope. As long as you recognize that, you will get what you want out of it.

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Allan Graves

Allan Graves

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