Wild Bird Photography – Dollarbird

In wild bird photography, gears and skills do really matter. Both needs to go hand in hand to produce the best snapshot of a beautiful avian subject. In the Philippines, it is often that you and your gears will be tested. For decades, our subjects here are hunted everywhere that birds here often avoid human encounters as much as possible. This cautiousness adds to the fun and challenge to wild bird photography in the country. Because of this, 400mm lenses are considered short. You have to exert more effort in terms of executing the shot to produce decent photographic captures at par with those that have bigger, longer and generally better equipment. However, one cannot fret with what he has. Working a bit more with what you have does the trick and solve some of the problems.

Compensate

Having known that I have a short lens at only 400mm (Canon EF 400mm f5.6L) with a fairly slow speed (f5.6) and a camera that is known to produce noisy images at high ISOs, I need to do a lot more to compensate on the limitations I have. In this article, I would detail how using a 2X teleconverter on a 400/f5.6 lens mounted on a Canon EOS 50D to shoot a very difficult scene can still be accomplished with satisfactory results. Here is how:

Below is a photo of an uncropped 800mm shot of a Dollarbird (Eurystomus orientalis) from more than 30 meters. I dont normally use a 2X teleconverter but I was tempted to because the bird perched motionless for minutes after I got several shots with just the bare 400mm lens mounted on my cam and the sheer distance between me and the bird. Getting nearer is also impossible.

Here is a cropped version of the same image. I cropped the photo down to 2.8 megapixel.

Shooting Disclosure

  • Gears:
    Canon 50D, EF 400mm f5.6L, Kenko Pro-DG 2X, Manfrotto 755X + Gimbal Head, 2-Pound Rice Bag, Remote Shutter
  • Settings:
    Shot @ 800mm, f16, 1/40″, ISO320, Evaluative Metering, Auto White Balance, Full Manual, Cropped 16:9 to 2.8MP, RAW, Liveview, Remote Shutter
  • Lighting
    8:42am Light, Overcast
  • Others:
    Some very minimal sharpening and color vibrancy adjustments in Photoshop

Often, we hear discouraging comments on the use of 2X teleconverters. It definitely degrades image quality even when use with large aperture wildlife lenses such as those with f2.8’s and f4’s. Using a 2X on an f5.6 lens would surely raise eyebrowes. But when you are limited to shoot with what you got, and in my case, I only have a Canon EF-400mm f5.6L, one needs to do a lot of compensating to get decent output from lowly setup with a 2X. And a couple of requirements to effectively know how to compensate is you need to know how a photograph is made and you know very well your gears’ capability and limitation.

In the above photo of the Dollarbird, despite the constraints I had during the time of the shoot, I still managed to get a decent shot. Here are the key ingredients in executing this shot:

  • LiveView. Knowing that using a 2X on an f5.6 will force you to go full manual, using LiveView is one very effective technique. But of course this can only apply since the Dollarbird lingered long enough for me to set things up. Using LiveView in this scenario, one would get AUTOFOCUS using contrast detection method. My Canon EOS 50D allowed me to do this. Some cameras would probably do the same. Using LiveView in this scenario, it also allows you to visually zoom in to 10X using your LCD to get better confirmation if you have focused well on the subject. In the 50D, you can have these features work for you. You get to zoom in to your subject and get aufo-focus.
  • 2-Pound Rice Bag. At 800mm, very minute shaking is very visible. By increasing your LCD view to 10X (via LiveView), not only is the shake visible, it can make you dizzy :P. Putting weight on your rig would dampen the effects of this shake. It also speeds up in stabilizing your rig so you get to shoot in the soonest possible time. In my case, I have this useful 2 pound weight functioning as a poor man’s image stabilizer. All I have to do is place the weights on top of the lens where its center of balance is.
  • Remote Shutter. Without a remote shutter. This scene is hard to execute. One can use the cam’s timer though but that is cumbersome.

The above key ingredients helped in allowing me to capture this scene. Though it won’t surpass the quality of a shot using a bare lens at the same focal lenght, the result is decent enough to merit a space on my harddrive. Without any one of the three, it would be very hard to get a decent output from this scene. Compensating can do wonders especially for photographers that don’t have those desirable longer and faster lenses and better camera bodies. The same techniques used here can be applied using better gears of course. 🙂

Check out my Philippine birds photos @ Facebook!

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4 thoughts on “Wild Bird Photography – Dollarbird

  1. thanks for the very detailed explanation to maximize 400mm F5.6L capability. im saving up for this lens, hope to achieve photos like yours.

    regards,
    charlie

  2. Good day! Great tips you got there about bird photography. Im also into this although I’m limited by my 300mm lens reach.

    Anyway, I’m Filipino but currently here in Japan studying. We are currently doing a study on the migration routes and identifying subspecies of the dollarbird. We have data for this bird when they’re in Japan for the summer to breed but we would like to get data from the Philippines too. As an avid wild bird photographer, I would like to ask:
    1. Where do you usually find them there?
    2. Are they abundant or rare? And in what months?

    We are looking for research partners in pinas so if you would be interested, or you know someone who would be, please send me a message through my email. Thanks in advance man.

    Jonathan.

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