Fig. 2.4.1: Canon and Nikon birding lenses, as of 2013. The 400mm f/2.8
lenses of both brands are of questionable utility for birds, due to large size
and low magnification. Canon has a slightly more complete range
of useful birding glass, though the lenses from both brands are of
exceptional quality, and always preferable over third-party lenses.
Nikon’s current lens line is slightly less extensive, at least within the useful range of birding focal lengths. Of the really serious, hardcore Nikon birders I’ve seen in the field, the most popular lens has been the Nikkor 200mm-400mm f/4 lens (though the 500mm f/4 is very popular too). This lens has a reputation for being extremely sharp, and though it weighs about 8 lbs., some people actually hand-hold it (though it’s not easy to do so). Like Canon, Nikon also has 400mm lenses at f/5.6 and f/2.8 apertures. Unfortunately, for bird photography the 400mm focal length is most useful for hand-held applications such as BIF (“birds in flight”), and neither Canon’s nor Nikon’s 400mm f/2.8 is at all hand-holdable for extended periods, unless you’re the Incredible Hulk. Though Nikon’s 80-400mm f/5.6 VR zoom is easily hand-holdable, the older version of this lens can be truly painful to use for birds in flight, since its autofocus mechanism is extremely slow. However, in the spring of 2013 Nikon finally upgraded this lens and it is now reported to be excellent (though expensive); just make sure if you buy it that you are getting the "G" version, which is the newer one. Nikon does produce excellent 500mm f/4 and 600mm f/4 lenses. To my knowledge, they do not offer an 800mm lens, though the Sigma 800mm f/5.6 is available in both Canon and Nikon mounts.
In summary, given that both companies offer equally great cameras and equally great lenses at very comparable prices, either brand should be considered excellent for bird photography. I personally prefer Canon because of their two other 400mm lenses (the fixed-aperture f/5.6 and the lightweight f/4 with Diffractive Optics), which Nikon doesn’t currently offer. But otherwise Nikon is fully as good as Canon in the quality of their cameras and lenses, and in some cases may be better (though the two companies tend to leap-frog each other every few years).
Among the other brands of DSLR available today, only a few others even warrant mention here. Besides Canon and Nikon, the only other brand I think I’ve seen actually used in the field by really serious bird photographers is Olympus—in fact a friend of mine uses this brand, and he uses a Sigma 500mm lens for small birds since Olympus doesn’t currently make anything longer than 300mm. Current Olympus cameras use the four thirds sensor form factor, which has a 4:3 aspect ratio (meaning that the ratio of the width of the resulting image to the height is 4/3—the same as for a television or standard computer monitor) and a 2x crop factor. One advantage of Olympus cameras is that many have in-camera image stabilization (IS); whereas other manufacturers put the image stabilization functionality in the lens, requiring you to pay for IS every time you buy a lens, with Olympus you get IS with every lens you use, since it’s in the camera body rather than the lens. Whether such in-body IS implementations are as effective at stabilizing the image as are the in-lens IS techniques used by Canon and Nikon has been questioned, though I’m not aware of any objective comparisons that have been carried out. One notable disadvantage of Olympus cameras is that (so I’ve heard) they have fairly poor noise characteristics (which is hardly surprising, given the pixel sizes required for a 2x crop factor), resulting in a fairly limited range of usable ISO settings, though the newer Olympus bodies appear to have significantly improved on this latter aspect. But just as with most of the other non-Canikon bodies, birders using Olympus lenses are largely forced to resort to using third-party lenses, such as the popular Sigma zooms in the 500mm range, which are reputed to be very good relative to their low price tag. The enormous Sigma 800mm zoom (“Sigmonster”), though by no means cheap, is available in Olympus mount, so higher magnifications are certainly available for those choosing this brand.
Three other brands that warrant a brief mention at this time are Sigma, Sony, and Leica. Sigma now utilizes the Foveon sensor, which differs somewhat from other DSLR sensors in that it employs three layers of photosites stacked upon one another, corresponding to the three primary colors used for digital imaging (red, green, and blue). This permits a denser arrangement of photosites on the sensor surface, but also seems to limit light sensitivity, since for the deepest level many photons will fail to reach their corresponding photosite, due to intervening circuitry. Sigma does, however, offer what is very probably the very best line of third-party birding lenses available at this time, ranging from 300mm up to the 800mm “Sigmonster” mentioned above. Though their lenses appear to be slightly inferior to those of Canon and Nikon (see section 3.6 for an actual comparison), the difference in price is sometimes worth taking into consideration. Since most of their lenses are available in Canon and Nikon mount, however, this provides little justification for choosing a Sigma camera (at this time).
Sony is worthy of mention simply because they have recently released a relatively affordable, 24 MP full-frame camera, which has drawn quite a lot of attention, at least on internet forums. Initial reviews suggested that the camera, despite its high MP rating, lacked detail, though this may have been due to sub-optimal RAW image converters being used by early reviewers. In any case, Sony is worth watching if only because it is an extremely large company with significant resources. Without a product line of useful birding lenses, however, Sony fails to qualify as a contender, as of yet.
Finally, we come to Leica (originally known as Leitz). As a longtime birdwatcher, I have a special place in my heart for Leica’s Trinovid/Ultravid binoculars and Televid spotting scopes. Despite also having plenty of Swarovski gear, I’ve found that I somehow prefer the unique “Leica view” provided by their exemplary optics. Indeed, despite upgrading my old Trinovids to the clearly superior Ultravids, I’ve found that I have such an emotional attachment to my old 8x Trinovids that I simply cannot trade them in. Leica optics are definitely very special (as are those of Swarovski). But their cameras and lenses are extremely expensive, and I’ve never once seen a Leica camera in the field, nor read of a bird photographer using a Leica camera. Leica came late to the DSLR party, and apparently their early attempts were lacking in some areas. What I’ve heard of their long telephoto lenses is that they’re obscenely sharp, and murderously expensive.
No matter which brand you end up going with, know this: Whatever model of camera you buy from that company, there is a very real possibility that the individual unit you get is defective. This is just as true for Canon and Nikon as the others. Two consumer-grade Canon bodies that I purchased had defective autofocus modules, and even after sending them back to Canon for re-calibration (one of which was sent back twice), I felt they were not up to my standards, and returned them for a refund. Those were, as I said, cheap consumer-grade models (just slightly over $1000 US). The case of the infamous Canon EOS 1D Mark III is now well-known: a $4500 camera with a defective autofocus module, which the manufacturer initially denied until Rob Galbraith, a prominent sports photographer, irrefutably demonstrated the defects publicly and forced the company to issue a massive recall of its flagship product. Over a year after the initial recall, the company is now announcing yet another “fix” for these “professional” grade bodies. Make no mistake: I love my Canon EOS 1D Mark III bodies (both of them), and often sleep with one or both under my pillow, but newer photographers have to realize that any camera from any manufacturer, even the top-tier manufacturers, can turn out to be defective.
I’ve heard it said that the reason Leica (or is it Zeiss?) lenses are so insanely expensive is that the manufacturer tests each and every lens before it leaves the factory, rejecting any lens that doesn’t meet its rigorous testing regimen. The story goes that Canon and Nikon, in order to cut costs, don’t test their lenses until after a lens is returned by a customer complaining of a defect. Because many customers are too inept to notice any defects in their lenses, this saves the company many thousands of dollars by not having to pay workers to test every single lens that leaves the factory. The residual cost is, of course, borne by those discerning photographers who find that they have purchased a defective lens which needs to be returned to the factory for a week or more for re-calibration.
The moral of the story is: don’t assume that your brand-new camera (or lens) is defect-free, even if it’s the most expensive model offered by the most prestigious brand. Spend the 14-day return period aggressively testing the unit, so that you can return it for a refund if it turns out to be defective. If you can’t afford to spend the time testing the camera right away, then wait to buy the unit until you know you’ll have some time to test it during the return period.
Fig. 2.4.2: Service Report for a Brand New, Defective Item.
The item, a 1.4x teleconverter, was brand-new. After comparing images taken
with this unit to those taken with another brand-new unit of the same exact model,
it was apparent that the first unit was defective. The manufacturer tested the unit
and agreed it had not been properly calibrated at the factory, and performed the
calibration free of charge. It now works flawlessly. Don’t assume a brand-new
camera or lens has been properly calibrated by the manufacturer.
In addition to being careful as to which brand of camera you buy, you should be careful in choosing the merchant you buy that camera from. Make sure the merchant accepts returns due to defects. Check that the merchant doesn’t charge a restocking fee. Some merchants have a maximum actuations policy: if you take too many photos with the unit and try to return it, they may say that the actuations are too high for the unit to be re-sold, and won’t accept the return. Check the merchant’s return period; it should be at least 14 days. Amazon.com has (last time I checked) a 30-day return period for cameras, and to my knowledge they don’t check actuations on returned cameras.
If you miss the return period deadline, you’ll have no choice but to try to resolve your issue directly with the manufacturer. So far I’ve dealt with two manufacturers regarding product defects: Canon and Sigma. On the positive side, both companies were immediately willing to examine the unit for defects, and in several cases they even paid for shipping both ways. On the negative side, I’ve found that Canon repair technicians don’t always fix the problem, though they’ll claim that they made some adjustments and have “returned the product to factory specifications”. Others have reported the same issues, both with Canon and Nikon. The problem seems to be hit-or-miss, possibly depending on which technician ends up working on your unit. Just keep in mind when buying new cameras (or lenses) that it’s best to find any defects during the return period so you can return the product to the merchant, rather than having to deal with the (sometimes lengthy) repair process involved in dealing directly with the manufacturer.
If you’re buying used (which I don’t recommend), you should first check to see if Adorama or B&H have the item in stock in their “used department”, and at the price you’re looking for. Returning a defective used item to these companies is generally hassle-free, in my experience. I once returned a 400mm f/2.8 lens that I bought used from Adorama. It wasn’t sharp enough, in my opinion, and they accepted it for a full refund, even paying the return shipping. You can also sometimes find refurbished items at these shops. Factory reconditioned items typically come with a fairly reasonable warranty from either the manufacturer or the merchant, which you won’t get if you buy from some bozo on eBay.
If the reputable camera shops don’t have your item in their used department, and if you really have to buy used, then there are other options besides eBay. Although I’ve never bought a camera on eBay, and have never been scammed by a seller when buying other items on eBay, I have been (almost) scammed by buyers on that site, especially by Nigerians. I recommend steering clear of eBay altogether, either for buying or selling (at least for photography gear). If you’re a member of any internet photography forums, check whether any of them have a Buy-and-Sell board. I’ve heard that buying items on reputable forums such as Fred Miranda’s Buy/Sell forum can be relatively safe, as long as you do your homework and check the seller’s post history to see what kind of character you’re dealing with. There’s also Craig’s List, though I’ve heard of people getting scammed on there as well. I personally don’t buy used equipment anymore, because I view buying used equipment as “buying somebody else’s problems.”
If you do have to buy used, then consider sending the used item you’ve purchased in to the manufacturer’s service center to be calibrated. Calibrations of out-of-warranty equipment generally aren’t free, but I highly recommend having this done, given all the new equipment that I’ve seen that needed calibration. Indeed, I’ve heard that some pros automatically send every piece of gear they buy (even brand-new cameras and lenses, fresh from the factory) in to the manufacturer’s service center for calibration as soon as they receive it from their supplier. If the cost of calibration is an issue, there are some things, like autofocus accuracy, that you can test yourself, to see if calibration is needed. In section 3.11 you’ll learn how to check the calibration of your cameras and lenses, and in section 2.7.3 we’ll discuss autofocus “microadjust”, for those cameras that support this feature.