Birding Long Range
Birders are crazy.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
That’s really all you can do.
There’s no magic to this.
Bigger Lens come in 2 varieties:
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
I added the following requirements based on her usage as well:
- Mobility — must be able to hike around for hours in dense forests.
- Versatility — must be able to take pictures of shiny things, bugs, flower, etc while out and about.
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
- Micro 4\3s — 2x 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:
- APS-C or Micro 4\3s with long lens.
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).
My first question was to go looking for the longest zooms:
- 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.
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.
- 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.
Understanding ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture - A Beginner's Guide
It is difficult to take good pictures without having a solid understanding of ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture - the…
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Your tripod must be rock-solid.
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.
- 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.
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.
- 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
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 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
3 Cameras immediately stood out:
- Sony A9 II — for its amazing AutoFocus score
- Fuji X-T4 — for its awesome large sensor that still provided a crop factor of 1.5x
- Olympus OM-D E-M1X — for its 2x crop factor (Micro 4\3 sensor) and amazing image stabilization.
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:
- Sigma 150–600mm: https://www.sigmaphoto.com/lenses/os-lenses/60-600mm-f45-63-dg-os-hsm-s
- Olympus 100–400mm: https://www.getolympus.com/us/en/m-zuiko-digital-ed-100-400mm-f5-0-6-3-is.html
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!
- Sigma — .71 * 600 = 426mm after adapter * 2 crop factor = 852 mm full range
- Olympus — 400mm * 2 crop factor = 800mm full range
Weight and Length:
- Sigma: 5.95lbs and 10.6 inches.
- Olympus: 2.46lbs and 8 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.
Add another 1.5lbs for the camera body, and that brings the weight to:
- Sigma: 7.5lbs
- Olympus: 4lbs
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”
- 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.
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.
- 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.
After doing all this research, I came to the conclusion that:
- My wife was blown away by what she could now shoot with the Olympus setup, and wanted to do more photos like that.
- 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.
- The Olympus was light enough that she could easily carry it and the P1000.
- Both are light enough to travel with together. Even on a plane.
- 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.
- The spotter scope just felt extremely specialized — only good for certain situations, and not something my wife would want right now.
- 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.
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
- All photos in this article: https://allangraves.myportfolio.com/bird-scoping
- P1000: https://www.nikonusa.com/en/nikon-products/product/compact-digital-cameras/coolpix-p1000.html
- P950: https://www.nikonusa.com/en/nikon-products/product/compact-digital-cameras/coolpix-p950.html
- p900: https://www.nikonusa.com/en/nikon-products/product/compact-digital-cameras/coolpix-p900.html
- Superzooms explained: https://www.learningwithexperts.com/photography/blog/superzoom-bridge-cameras-explained
- Crop Factor and Magnification: https://www.cambridgeincolour.com/tutorials/digital-camera-sensor-size.htm
- Longest Zoom Lenses: https://lightartacademy.com/gear/biggest-zoom-lenses-ever/
- Long Range Birding: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/guide-birding-long-lenses
- Scopes: https://www.audubon.org/gear/scope-guide
- Scopes: https://opticsmag.com/best-long-range-spotting-scopes-for-1000-yards/
- Scopes: https://www.worldbirds.org/best-spotting-scope-for-1000-yards/
- Digiscoping Bird Pictures: http://www.birdchick.com/blog/2010/09/digiscoping-duel-results
- Digiscoping Bird Pictures: https://m.facebook.com/groups/42007195676?bac=MTYwNDM5NzUwMjoxMDE1NzY4Mjk5MzQyNTY3NzoxMDE1NzY4Mjk5MzQyNTY3NywwLDE6MjA6S3c9PQ%3D%3D&multi_permalinks
- Vignetting: https://photographylife.com/what-is-vignetting
- Digiscoping Problems and Fixes: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/basics-of-digiscoping/
- Celestron Telescope + Spotting Scope Table: https://www.celestron.com/blogs/knowledgebase/does-my-spotting-scope-accept-astronomical-eyepiece-and-filters
- Sensor Crop Factors: https://shuttermuse.com/calculate-cameras-crop-factor/
- P1000 — https://www.nikonusa.com/en/nikon-products/product/compact-digital-cameras/coolpix-p1000.html
- Fstops and Apertures: https://photographylife.com/f-stop
- Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark iii: https://www.getolympus.com/us/en/om-d-e-m1-mark-iii.html
- Aperture, ISO, Shutter Speed: https://photographylife.com/iso-shutter-speed-and-aperture-for-beginners
- James Webb Space Telescope: https://jwst.nasa.gov/content/observatory/ote/index.html
- The Best Mirrorless Camera for Birds in Flight: https://mirrorlesscomparison.com/best/mirrorless-cameras-for-birds-in-flight/?fbclid=IwAR2JsXlxob9kYSSUyoJ5tQzHiTn7e-3n_q_jl-zfEZyUDn8nYvkt2yY7Tm4
- Olympus M1X vs M1 Mark iii : https://mirrorlesscomparison.com/preview/olympus-omd-em1-iii-vs-em1x/
- Sigma 150–600mm: https://www.sigmaphoto.com/150-600mm-f5-63-dg-os-hsm-c
- Olympus 100–400mm: https://www.getolympus.com/us/en/m-zuiko-digital-ed-100-400mm-f5-0-6-3-is.html (Note, Olympus also makes a $7.7k pro lens with a constant f/4.5 and built in 1.2xTC.)
- Metabones Canon MTF Adapter: https://www.metabones.com/products/details/MB_SPEF-m43-BT5
- Olympus M1 Mark iii review: https://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/olympus-e-m1-iii/olympus-e-m1-iiiA.HTM
- Sigma review: https://www.the-digital-picture.com/Reviews/Sigma-150-600mm-f-5-6.3-DG-OS-HSM-Sports-Lens.aspx
- Olympus 400mm review: https://www.imaging-resource.com/lenses/olympus/100-400mm-f5-6.3-is-m.zuiko-digital-ed/review/