In August of 2016 I had the privilege of being the official ZEISS host for a ZEISS/Eagle Optics trip to Tranquilo Bay Lodge in Bocas del Toro, Panama. While it was a birding trip, not a photography trip (and there is a difference), I took along my Sony RX10iii (and two back-up cameras) for those inevitable (at least for me) photo opportunities.
I have said here before that in my opinion, Tranquilo Bay Lodge and the surrounding area in the islands of Bocas del Toro, and the lowlands, foothills, and mountains of the ajoining mainland, are one of the best spots in Central American for bird and wildlife photography, especially during migration season. Our August trip proved that it is also excellent even at slower times of the year.
I am posting several slide shows of images. All were taken with the Sony RX10iii in Program Mode, In-camera HDR, or my customized Birds-in-flight mode (based on the built in Sports Mode, see here) and processed in Lightroom.
This firsts set is from Day One. You have to overnight in Panama City to get to Bocas del Toro at any reasonable time on your first day. The Lodge books the dawn flight from the domestic airport in Panama City, so you are in Bocas early enough for a full day of exploring or birding. The Lodge picks you up at the airport and transports you to their boats at a dock in Bocas Town, and you motor out to Bastimento Island were Tranquilo Bay Lodge is located. We were met, half way up the boardwalk between the dock and the foot of the stairs leading up to the Lodge by what appeared to be the official Tranquilo Bay greeter for the day…a Three-toed Sloth in the canopy above us. That set the tone for the whole trip. After check in and island breakfast with your hosts at the Lodge, you head out to explore the trails around the island before lunch. After a siesta, which gives you a chance to unpack and even shower, you are off again on new trails, ending your exploration on the Canopy Tower on the hill above the cabins, watching flights of parrots returning to their roosts for the night.
On day two, we were up early to travel to the mainland for a day in the lowlands, foothills, and mountains. You can drive from the dock, right up to and over the continental divide, on good paved roads. The first section is lowland grass and swamp, then the foothills with rainforest, and eventually the mountains right up to the edge of cloudforest. Spectacular birding and photography all the way. We got rained out on our first approach to the divide, and went back down to the Ranger Station where we had lunch under their thatched shelter. By the end of lunch it has stopped raining and we went back to the divide to bird, then retuned to the foothills to end the day. There were many interesting dragonflies along the road were we birded on the way back.
Day three took us the Green Acres Chocolate Farm for morning birding, adn then back to Tranquilo Bay for the afternoon. The Chocolate Farm is near the mainland and has different species than Bastimento…including a totally different species of Poison Dart Frog.
On day four we traveled to the mainland again to explore the lowlands and ridges of the Changuinola region on the north edge of Bocas del Toro. Besides interesting birds, we encountered a number of butterflies, most of which I can not identify yet.
Day five was our day to visit Isle de Popo, a close neighbor of Bastimento and Tranquilo Bay. There are two major attractions at Popo. One is a population of Snowy Contingas, and the other is the unique phenomenon of a mix of color variations of Poison Dart Frog in a single location. Generally Poison Dart Frog variations are restricted to small ranges on individual islands or individual drainages. On Popo, in an area the size of a heavily forested football field you can find at least 5 different color variations of Poison Dart Frogs, plus two separate species. Though I was with some hard-core birders, I persuaded them to visit the frog spot, and most seemed to really enjoy chasing the elusive critters around the forest floor, trying to find new color variations. We had just about given up on finding the rarer second species and were actually headed back before Ramone, our guide, found one. One of the birders jokingly asked for a Tourquoise frog. We found her one of those too. We did not, however, find the Snowy Cotinga, though we came back to Popo after our afternoon rest period, and again on our last morning at Tranquilo Bay. Not for want of trying.
Between trips to Popo on Day five, we had some free time. Some went on another hike around the lodge in search of the Three-wattled Bell Bird. I elected to hike back to the Golden-collared Manakin lecks to see if I could photograph these elusive but brilliant birds. Tranquilo Bay Lodge has to be one of the best places for Golden-collared Manakin. After a long hot wait in the humidity and mosquitoes, I was rewarded with two male Manakins coming into the lecks. August is late for any lecking activity so I felt particularly privileged. They did not actually get down and display, probably because there were no females in the area, but I got some keepers of the males.
Day 6 was our day for the Snyder Canal and Swan Island. The Snyder Canal was built at the turn of the century by the United Fruit Company to transport bananas from the plantations to the ships in a deep channel in northern Bocas del Toro, near the mouth of the Changuinola River. It was only in active service for about five years before the railway put it out of business, but it is still there, winding its way parallel to the coast through some prime swamp and lowlands. It provides easy access to some of the best birding in Bocas del Toro.
Swan Island is a volcanic plug about 40 minutes off-shore out in the Caribbean. It is home to a nesting colonies of Red-billed Tropicbirds, Brown Boobies, and Frigatebirds…and is one of unique attractions of Tranquilo Bay and Bocas del Toro.
After finishing in the Snyder Canal and Chinguinola River, we headed to Swan Island. All images here are taken in my custom birds-in-flight mode.
On our last day, the day we traveled back to Panama City to spend another night before our flights home, we made, as I mentioned, one last try for the Snowy Cotinga, without success. Just before we left for Panama City, I took some time to shoot fish off the dock, and then we were back in the boats and on our way to Bocas Town and the airport.
So, my conclusion. Tranquilo Bay is still one of the best places in Central America for bird and wildlife photography…no matter the season. I can’t wait to go back again. (And maybe you will join me. Keep an eye on the Workshops and Tours page.)
Well it actually happened! The first Point and Shoot Nature Photography adventure in the tropics…at the Lodge at Pico Bonito, Honduras, was, imho, a solid success. My wife, Carol, came along, as well as my oldest daughter Sally (as my assistant), and we had three participating adventurers: Ev, Barbara, and Greg.
It was a Point and Shoot trip, and between us we had a Nikon P610, a Nikon P900, a Canon SX60HS, and a Canon SX50HS. I brought both the Nikon P900 and my new(er) Sony RX10iii, but I shot most of the time with the Sony.
The goal was to provide as many photo ops as possible over 5 full days. The Lodge at Pico Bonito is somewhat unique in providing first class accommodations and gourmet food, excellent guides, and a totally new adventure each day.
We only got to spend one full morning in and around the actual grounds of the Lodge, which is beautifully landscaped with native plants and surrounded on one side by an overgrown coco plantation, and on the other by untouched rainforest. We also had a few afternoon hours (when some of us processed pics and others explored) and we did a night hike in the coco plantation and the edge of the rainforest for nocturnal birds, reptiles, and frogs,
We could easily have never left the grounds and trails of the Lodge and still have had plenty to photograph. You can sit and watch and photograph several species of hummingbirds coming to the feeders all along the edge of the roof over the open porch, or veranda, of the Lodge and restaurant, and perching in the trees and bushes within a few feet. We saw mostly White-necked Jacobins, but there were also Crowned Wood Nymph, Brown Violet-ear, Violet Saberwing, and a few Long-billed Hermits and White-breasted Emeralds. There was a family of Black-cheeked Woodpeckers raising
young in a dead palm only a dozed feet from the deck between the Lodge and Conference Center, and under bushes near the base of the palm an Agouti was raising young. On the trails around the lodge we had good views of Blue-crowned Motmot and Black-headed Trogon, and glimpses and quick photo ops of Red-legged Honeycreeper and Masked Tytira. Some of us had good photo ops with Collared Aracari. (Between our seeing it and writing this, the AOU has split Blue-crowned Motmot into several species. I am not sure which of the new splits the ones we saw fall under.)
Elmer (Elmer Escoto our expert guide) lead us off the trail to find a mother Great Pooto with a well grown chick sitting out in plain view. Perhaps the highlight of our day on the grounds was when Elmer tempted a Little Tinamou out into the open where we could all see it, and at least a few of us got shots. The Lodge maintains a butterfly garden and butterfly house, and between them we saw a dozen species of tropical butterflies: including the amazing Red Cracker (a blue butterfly despite its name…with a wing pattern that reminds me of a dutch dinner plate). There were at least 5 different Heliconians (Long-wings), and, in the butterfly house, several of the giant Blue Morphos that are pretty much the butterfly emblem of the tropics.
I asked Elmer to find us a waterfall we could photograph and he suggested a run out to the Cangrejal river where they take adventuresome guests for white-water rafting. Though it was not on our schedule, we made time for it, and the lodge provided a van, on the afternoon of our day around the grounds. The waterfall turned out to be somewhat distant and shrouded in mist from intermittent rain, but the scenery going up the river and then across a
suspension foot bridge high over rushing water and house-sized boulders, was spectacular. Along the way we had great views of Amazon Kingfisher…though at the limits for photography, and on the other side of the river we encountered the Helicopter Damselfly…the largest damselfly in the world, with a wingspan larger than even the largest dragonfly. We tracked it into the deep shade of the rainforest where we were able to get some decent flash shots. We got to see some unscheduled landscape, and a part of Pico Bonito National Park that most who go to the Lodge for birding and photography do not see.
The next morning was our first real day in the field. We visited the mangrove channels of the Cuero y Salado estuary, riding a century old banana train into the refuge at the mouth of the rivers, and then taking a small motor boat up the channels into the mangroves as far as we could go.
My hopes for the boat adventure are always Pygmy Kingfisher (since I really like Kingfishers), Bare-throated Tiger-heron, Boat-billed Heron, and monkeys…both Howler and White-faced Capuchin. There is always a remote hope for Agami Heron and Sungrebe. On our day on the rivers, we had good looks at all but the last two, plus Long-nosed Bats, many Northern Jacana, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Black-headed Trogon, and more Green Herons than I could count. And I mean really good looks at everything but the Boat-billed Heron, which flew off before everyone could get pics, and the monkeys, which played hard to get in the dense foliage.
This is a gallery of images from the group of the same very cooperative Pygmy Kingfisher. We had some trouble finding it in the first place and had actually given up and were headed back out of the channel where it is known to nest, when Elmer’s sharp eye caught it. We were able to drift close in with the boat, but these are still shots are taken from a moving boat of a very small bird. Great results for everyone.
Steve, Sony RX10iii
Ev. Nikon P900
Greg, Canon SX50HS
Sally, Nikon P610
Barbara, Canon SX60HS
We had a similar opportunity with the Bare-throated Tiger-heron. Sally spotted it as we motored down the open river toward another channel (earning her supper that day), and we were able to drift in within a dozen feet of it before it flew up to perch practically right over our heads.
As I mentioned, the monkeys were elusive, and especially hard to photograph from a moving boat. I managed a quick shot of the Howler we spotted, and even more distant shots of the White-faced Capuchins. The Capuchins came just close enough to keep an eye on what we were doing…but not really close enough for photography.
Howler Monkey, Steve. Sony RX10iii
White-faced Capuchin, Steve. Sony RX10iii
Once back at the boat dock near the Visitor Center for Cuero y Salado, we enjoyed some chilled fruit and cookies, courtesy of the Lodge, and then hiked about 300 yards out to the beach at the mouth of the rivers. It was typical June Honduran day on the Caribbean coast…sunny with towering clouds over the mountains and a storm coming in off the sea.
When we got back to the lodge, after lunch on the veranda, some went exploring around the grounds, while others rested until we met again at 3 pm to go to the first Tower in search of the signature bird of the Lodge at Pico Bonito…the Lovely Cotinga (and whatever else we could find). The Cotingas put in an appearance, though beyond the range of practical photography, but we had good views of a White Hawk out across the valley, some Keel-billed Toucans feeding on fruit, and our third primate of the day: Spider Monkeys (way over on the far side of the valley).
On our night hike, we went in search of Vermiculated Screech Owl in the Coco plantation. Though we were within a few feet of and heard it calling right above us, we never could find it in the dense overstory foliage. As compensation Elmer found us a Kinkajou within flash range, and the Great Pooto (which was hand-raised at the Lodge a few years ago before release) put in an appearance on its favorite corner of the first tower. The Red-eyed Tree Frogs were calling around the Frog Ponds beyond the tower, and Elmer found us two to photograph. Along the way we picked up both Rainforest and Marine Toads (Marine Toads have to be seen to be believed…they are huge!) and various Anoles and bugs. It was such a rewarding hike that a few of us headed out for an encore the next night.
We were up early the next morning for breakfast again, and on the bus for Rio Santiago Nature Resort, a justly famous destination for Honduran Hummingbirds. As a close neighbor to the Lodge at Pico Bonito, Rio Santiago is a favorite day trip. The lodge and brand new cabins are, it
seems, half way up the slopes of the mountains surrounding Pico Bonito, at the end of a rough and sometimes steep, but passable, dirt track. (The elevation is actually only about 600 feet above sea-level.)
Along the road on the way up we got out and walked, exploring the fields on either side. We found Boat-billed Kingbirds, Blue-black Grassquits, Rose-breasted Bicards, Passerini’s and Blue-grey Tanager, Scrub Euphonia, Starry Cracker Butterfly, and a nesting Green-breasted Mango Hummingbird.
Starry Cracker Butterfly, Steve. Sony RX10iii
Green-breasted Mango, Ev, Nikon P900
Scrub Euphonia, Greg, Canon SX50HS
Blue-black Grassquit. Greg. Canon SX50HS
Rio Santiago Nature Resort maintains about 200 hand-crafted tube hummingbird feeders year round, which, along with the richly landscaped grounds, regularly attract over a dozen species of hummingbirds. And the hummers are close. You can sit on either of two covered verandas and have hummingbirds literally buzzing around your head. You can stand on the lawn and watch constant activity as the various species compete for space at the feeders less than 8 feet away. It is an experience not to be missed.
On the day we visited the Brown Violet-ear Hummingbirds were dominating the feeders in such numbers that it kept many of the regular visitors away, but it was still a great experience.
White-necked Jacobin, Steve. Sony RX10iii Sports Mode.
Brown Violet-ear Hummingbird, Steve. Sony RX10iii
Standing less then 3 feet away. Steve. Sony RX10iii
Brown Violet-ear. Ev. Nikon P900
Brown Violet-ear. Ev. Nikon P900
Greg worked hard to get this shot of the White-necked Jacobiin with its tail spread. Canon SX50HS
Hummingbirds are not the only attraction at Rio Santiago. It is also one of the most reliable places to see the Keel-billed Motmot. Gartered Trogons are regular there. They have snakes and lizards, dragonflies along the streams, interesting butterflies, a resident pair of Specticaled Owls, and, this year, an abandoned Margey kitten that they are attempting to raise for release. And if you enjoy scenery they have one of the most attractive small waterfalls in the foothills of Pico Bonito National Park, right there on the grounds.
Elmer worked hard to find us a Keel-billed Motmot, and it was there, calling above the waterfall, but it stayed high in the canopy. We got the shots we could under very difficult conditions.
Steve. Sony RX10iii
Ev. Nikon P900
Sally. Nikon P610
Greg. Canon SX50HS
Stop-light Butterfly. Greg. Canon SX50HS
Margay cub, Steve. Sony RX10iii
Elmer with a small brown racer that bit three of us. Not venomous! 🙂
Gartered Trogon, Steve. Sony RX10iii
The Specticaled Owls were also playing hard to get during our visit, but several of us managed decent shots.
Ev. Nikon P900
Greg. Canon SX50HS
Sally. Nikon P610
Day four found us headed for a totally different experience. We took the van early to Sambo Creek east of La Ceiba on the coast, where we donned life preservers and boarded a twin engined, 14 foot powerboat to visit Cayo Cochino, islands 17 miles off-shore. Cayo Cochino encompasses 2 volcanic and coral islands and 13 small sand cays clustered in the clear waters of the Caribbean. White sand beaches, palm trees, water ranging in color from transparent aqua to translucent
turquoise: The Caribbean at its best. Parts of Cayo Cochino are protected habitat, and our first stop was the Visitor Center on Cayo Cochino Minor, operated by the Smithsonian Institute. Around the Visitor Center we found Yucatan Vireos, Allison’s Anole, and lots of Spiny-tailed Iguanas (the native Iguana of Honduras). The Yucatan Vireos on the islands of Cayo Cochino are the only ones you will find in Honduras.
From Cayo Cochino Minor (or Turtle Island as the locals call it), we crossed the straight to Cayo Cochino Major, where we landed on a private beach to explore inland for the Rosey (or Island Hog-nosed) Boa. These snakes are sometimes abundant, draped in trees, back a few hundred yards from the beach. Though it was a hot day and the snakes were mostly higher in the canopy, Elmer located one for us, curled up on a branch just above eye-level. We eventually found our way back to the beach for morning snacks, water, and wading (this beach is near the spot were we would have gone snorkeling if any of us had wanted to.) The beach sloped gently out into Turtle Bay, and it was a real treat to wade out into the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean.
Steve. Sony RX10iii
Greg. Canon SX50HS
Ev. Nikon P900
We were back in the boat again then, for a short run to Cayo Chachahaute #2 (or Twin Island #2 if you translate from the native dialect). The two Chachahaute Islands are only separated by a shallow straight and sand bar…often exposed in the winter months. Both islands are home to a population of Caribbean fishermen, and Cayo Chacahhaute #2 specializes in serving a daily lunch and dinner of fresh caught, wood grilled Yellow-
tailed Snapper, rice and beans, and fried plantains. That is the whole menu, and all meals are served on paper plates right on the beach under a thatched shelter at rough picnic style tables, but it just might be the best fish you will ever eat. While you eat you can watch the Frigatebirds and Pelicans soaring in the updraft at the head of the island. Except for the open beach on one side, the whole island, which is maybe the size of half a football field, is covered with the shanty homes of the fishermen. Their meals are so famous that boats come daily at noon and in late afternoon and early evening from the mainland and from the bay islands 25 miles away. (And of course fire-wood, rice, beans, plantains, and ice…lots of ice…have to be brought out to the island in dugout canoes daily.) After lunch, we spent about 45 minutes, mostly trying flight shots of the soaring Frigatebirds and Pelicans. There are only a few places I can think of that are this good for practicing flight shots.
Steve. Sony RX10iii Sports Mode
Steve. Sony RX10iii Sports Mode
Steve. Sony RX10iii Sports Mode
Ev. Nikon P900
On the way back through La Ceiba on our way to the Lodge, we stopped at a small park where Black and White Owls are known to nest and roost. Again, Elmer managed the impossible and located one of the young B&W Owls on branch high in the canopy of one of the huge Mangostein trees. While we were photographing the young owl, Elmer’s friend, who used to work at the park, located one of the adults, and we moved the group over. Both owls were in the deep shade of the foliage, high in the trees, and, though they were in plain sight, they were not easy photographic targets. We were looking almost straight up at the them in the shadows. The situation was really at the limits of what any camera can do…the light was not good, and focus was difficult…and we were at the limits of what our bodies could do as well, as we tried for awkward vertical shots at slower than optimum shutter speeds. The situation called for a tripod, but for the kind of 8 foot tall tripod no one would ever carry into the field anyway. Still, everyone in the group came away with at least one satisfying shot of the Black and White Owls.
Steve. Sony RX10iii
Ev. Nikon P900
Sally. Nikon P610
Greg. Canon SX50HS
Barbara. Canon SX60HS
Our last full day in Honduras found us on the bus early again for the drive to Lancetilla Botanical Gardens, the turn of the century Botanical Research Station founded by the United Fruit Company to experiment with tropical hardwoods and fruit trees for growing in their Honduran holdings. Lancetilla has the longest bird list of any single location in Honduras. It is also a great place for butterflies and dragonflies, and the occasional mammal.
A day at Lancetilla begins with a walk along the entrance road and one side road in search of mostly understory birds. We had not progressed far long the road when Greg spotted a Mexican Hairy Dwarf Porcupine on the branch of a tree just at the edge of the rainforest. (Also, apparently, known as a Prehensile-tailed Porcupine or Tree Porcupine.) Like most Porcupines its body is covered in spines, but in the Hairy Dwarf, its fur is long enough to completely cover the spines on much of its body, leaving spines exposed mostly on the face, lower legs, and spine. We had as much time with it as we wanted…since it was not at all disturbed by our presence on the road. Our pictures are remarkably similar as it did not move much beyond an occasional scratch for fleas.
Steve. Sony RX10iii
Ev. Nikon P900
Sally. Nikon P610
Barbara. Canon SX60HS
Greg. Canon SX50HS
Early on we also encountered Groove-billed Ani, Blue-black Grassquit, Thick-billed Seed-finch, Olivacious Piculet (the smallest woodpecker of the tropics), Passerini’s Tanager, many dragonflies and few butterflies.
The second stop on the way in is a giant hardwood tree that hosts upwards of 100 active Montazuma’s Oropendola nests. The Oropendolas are the largest of the oriole family, and construct huge hanging woven basket nests.
Just beyond the Oropendola tree there is a trail down to the river, which is always worth checking for Jacamars and Ruddy Crake. Neither turned up, but I photographed some interesting butterflies, the first of many that day, while we were waiting. Several of these are from later in the day, around the Visitor Center, which was our next stop.
Giant and ? Swallowtails
Green Malacite Butterfly
Looks like a Crecent.
Though Elmer set up and played his recording for the Ruddy Crake we heard calling in the tall reeds along the trail, it did not make an appearance. Ruddy Crake is not uncommon, especially at Lancetilla, but it is very difficult to see.
At the Visitor Center we spent some time with the natural history displays on the second floor, and then retired to the deep shade of the bamboo grove. Many different varieties of bamboo from around the tropics grow along a little stream that runs through a hollow. There is an amphitheater with a small stage there for presentations, but the main attraction is still the massive clusters of the largest grass in the world. I generally get the group together in the grove for a photo.
While in the bamboo grove we came across a toad, and the whole group gathered to try toad shots.
Before getting on the bus to head to Tela, a beach resort town near the gardens, for lunch, we made one last try of the Ruddy Crake. There are a series of small lily ponds along one side of the Visitor Center, and a Crake responded to Elmer’s recording almost at once. The rest of the group went around to the far side of the ponds where the Crakes were calling (there were at least two) but I got distracted by some shade and butterflies along the other side and headed that way. Consequently I was in exactly the right spot to see both Crakes cross a small open patch in the dense growth covering the pond. Most of the group got glimpses of the Crakes, but I got photos!
Of course I could not resist the dragonflies around the ponds either. I do not know enough about Central American Odonata to id these.
Roseate Skimmer, The Lodge at Pico Bonito, Honduras
Damselfly, Lancetilla Botanical Gardens, Tela Honduras
dragonfly, Lancetilla Botanical Gardens, Tela Honduras
Mexican Amberwing, Lancetilla Botanical Gardens, Tela Honduras
dragonfly, Lancetilla Botanical Gardens, Tela Honduras
dragonfly, Lancetilla Botanical Gardens, Tela Honduras
After the Crakes and Odonata we were back in the van for the short drive to Tela, where had a delicious lunch at a sea-side hotel. Tela was the resort town back in the days of the United Fruit Company, and still maintains its charm for Honduras today.
That left only the morning of our departure at the Lodge. Just as we finished eating breakfast a Keel-billed Toucan flew in over the Conference Center. Greg had the persistence to wait it out until it posed on an open branch.
It was an amazing satisfying trip. We had time (mostly in the van on the way to shooting sites) for some discussion and photographic instruction. We had abundant opportunities for tropical photography. We had great times around the tables at the restaurant on the veranda at the Lodge (not to mention great food). And we had great weather. Though it rained every day, it never rained on us in the field. For the most part we had sunny skies and good photographic light when it mattered. The tropics are always a challenge for any photographer, but our group proved that today’s advanced superzoom Point and Shoot cameras are up to the task.
I am already planning another trip to the Lodge at Pico Bonito for next June (the 16th to the 22nd) …and I have a trip to Tranquilo Bay, Panama (another great destination) in the works for 2017. I am thinking of South Africa for 2018. Watch the tours and workshops page on this site for details.
When considering the Sony RX10iii, and trying to justify the price to myself, I wondered how it would work for Birds in Flight. The Sony HX400V I used to own had an excellent Sports Mode, that made Birds in Flight relatively painless…or as painless as BIFs can be (with is not very…BIFs are among the most frustrating of targets). I had been disappointed in the Sports Mode on the Nikon P series cameras…since the engineers at Nikon forgot to bias it toward the higher shutter speeds necessary for action. 🙁 I ended up creating my own fairly effective BIF mode, detailed here, and got some excellent results with both the P900 and the P610.
Still, I was looking forward to testing Sports Mode on the RX10iii. 600mm is a good “starting point” for bird photography, and, with big birds, will produce satisfying images.
The key to BIFs is finding the right location to practice. My best shots come from Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico (Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese) and the wild bird rookery at St. Augustine Alligator Farm in Florida (Wood Storks and Egrets)…both places where there are constantly birds in the air, and where you can learn to predict flight paths well enough to be ready for action. And that is the key to successful BIFs. Lots of birds flying, and lots of practice.
I will not be in New Mexico until November, and not in St. Augustine until next April, so two days this week I decided to hike 2 miles in and 2 miles out to the only place around home that offers lots of birds in the air…a Least Tern nesting site up the far end of one of our local beaches, on both sides of the Little River where it reaches the sea.
Not ideal for a first practice. Least Terns are tiny, fast, and unpredictable compared to Wood Storks, egrets, cranes, and geese…but needs must.
The first day was mostly practice and I had not completely figured out Sports Mode yet. By default, the RX10iii’s Sports Mode uses Wide Area Focus and Continuous Shooting, and locks the focus on the first half press of the shutter. If you shift to Speed Priority Continuous, the locking on the first frame behavior continues (though the frames per second goes way up!). Therefore I got a lot of shots that were focused where the bird was when I half pressed…but not where the bird was in subsequent shots.
A bit of study of the Function Menu options and the manual turned up other options. If you switch to Continuous Focus using the focus mode switch on the front of the camera, and keep it in regular speed Continuous Shooting, then the camera will focus between frames. You also have the option, when in Continuous Focus, to switch the Focus Mode to Wide Area Lock on Auto-focus, which, in theory, might, track your target between frames??? (I have yet to determine if that is really the way it works.)
The second day, the birds were much less active, but I got a chance to try Continuous Focus and Wide Area Lock on Auto Focus.
You must remember I was shooting Least Turns…among the most difficult BIF subjects you could possibly find. I will be happy to revise this when I have been to Bosque or St. Augustine and had bigger and slower birds to work with 🙂
With terns I had the most success with the Wide-Area Focus and Continuous Focus combination. If I could see the bird in the viewfinder, even if fuzzy, the camera would lock on focus and I could shoot a burst of at least 3 or 4 shots while the camera kept focus between frames. After 3 or 4 shots, generally the camera needed to hunt for focus and shooting paused, but then picked up again when focus was reestablished. The whole burst of shots would be sharply focused. Very good!
With Wide Area Lock on Focus, the camera had more trouble picking up the tiny terns against the background of sky and clouds.
In both modes, the major frustration was that the camera wanted to pop out to infinity focus between bursts, largely I think, because the terns took up such a small portion of the frame that the system just could not find the target. When this happened the camera was so far out of focus that I could not even see the birds in the finder. If I swung down and focused momentarily on the middle distance, then swung back up, I could again see the birds, though not in focus…but then half pressing the shutter would lock focus on the bird and all was good for a burst. I think with larger birds this would have been much less of an issue. (When a Cormorant flew over, the camera easily “found” it against the sky and clouds without any intervention on my part.)
600mm is not a lot of reach for small birds like terns. All my shots needed cropping for a decent image scale. While you can not use Clear Image Zoom in Sports Mode to extend the reach of the RX10iii, you can use the Smart Digital Tel-converter. For larger, easier to find and keep in the finder, birds than terns, I think the 10mp, 840mm option will be excellent. I got a few shots with that setting that showed real promise.
My conclusion: Even with difficult subjects, I got enough keepers to be really happy with the performance of the RX10iii for BIFs. I am very eager to give it a try where the birds are big and slow, relatively speaking.
Those of you who follow my daily photo posts on Pic for Today, Facebook, or Google+ will have noticed that I have a new camera. Sony recently announced and released the RX10iii (or RX10M3, or RX10 Mk 3…it has been called all three. Even Sony is confused about the name. It is the RX10iii on the front plate of the camera itself and on the box, but it is the RX10M3 in the exif data recorded with jpegs??)
The big features on this new offering in the RX line are the sensor: the newest 20mp, 1 inch sensor with the digital signal processor right on the back of the chip…and the zoom: a 24-600mm, f2.4-f4, ZEISS VarioSonnar design.
The sensor gives the camera better image quality (by far) than any P&S sensor camera to date, fast and sophisticated jpeg processing, and exceptional video features, including well implemented 4K and ultra slow-motion recording. The increased IQ is not surprising considering that the sensor area is 4 times that of the Nikon P900 and its like, and the individual light receptors (all 20mp of them) are also 4 times bigger. And it is absolutely the latest technology from the undisputed leader in sensor design (many DSLRs (not to mention P&S and phones) have Sony sensors inside, no matter what the brand name on the outside), which means that Sony is able to nurse near APS-C image quality out a sensor 1/3 the size.
(Any of the images here can be viewed at any size up to original by clicking the image, which will take you to my WideEyedInWonder site. Size controls are at the bottom right.)
The lens, in theory, provides the reach to put this camera in the super-zoom category…though it is pitifully short by today’s Point and Shoot super-zoom standards where 1200mm is the norm, 1440mm is becoming common, and the Nikon P900 reaches 2000mm. Still 600mm on a DSLR is considered a super-long lens, and it is the most common lens used in bird and wildlife photography. And the ZEISS lens is an f2.4 to f4: a fast lens by any standard, and super fast for a super-telephoto zoom.
The only other camera with a 1 inch sensor and a zoom that reaches 600mm equivalent is the Canon G3X, which requires an add-on Eye Level Viewfinder (EVF) for practical bird and wildlife use. Performance of the Canon lens is generally rated somewhat mediocre, and its jpeg processing features (in-camera HDR, sweep panorama, etc.) are very weak when compared with the Sony.
The third 1 inch sensor “super-zoom” offering is the Panasonic Lumix FZ1000 (or Leica Typ 114 which is practically identical). The FZ1000 has a Leica designed 25-400mm zoom, which is generally rated above the Canon zoom for performance, but is considered somewhat soft at both ends of its zoom range…and it lacks, imho, the reach to really be in the super-zoom class.
(Nikon has announced, but not delivered, a DL 24-500 1 inch sensor camera. Originally intended for June of this year, it is now delayed until at least November…and may, honestly, never see the light of day.)
I like Sony cameras. I carry the Sony HX90V as my landscape, occasional macro, and people shots camera along-side the Nikon P900, since it does both in-camera HDR, and tel-macro, better, and is less obtrusive at parties. And it is small enough to fit in a pocket. Prior to my Nikon P900 my superzoom was the Sony HX400V. Landscapes, especially HDR landscapes, have become a large part of my work over the past two years, and, while I like the HX90V for its images and size, I know that that the P&S sensor is limiting the detail that can be rendered in those big expansive views. And, while the HX90V is better at tel-macro than the P900 (close focus 7.5 feet vs. 16.5 feet) it is still not the ideal butterfly and dragonfly shooter. So, when the RX10iii was announced, and when I read that it also has excellent macro focus at 600mm (28 inches), I was very interested.
In the time between announcement and delivery of the Sony RX10iii I had an opportunity to play with, and shoot with, both the Canon and Leica 1 inch zoom offerings for long enough to know that the Canon was out of the running, and that I could certainly learn to love the Leica/Lumix, despite its short zoom.
As it happened I also had a chance to field test the Sony RX10iii before making the decision. I called in a favor from the excellent folks at Hunts Camera and they brought me one to try at Magee Marsh two days after the camera’s release, during the Biggest Week in American Birding where they have a booth in the Optics Alley tent (TBWIAB is also colloquially known as warblersock, and there is no place better to put a new camera through it paces…though I had to keep reminding myself that I would not be buying camera for birds…landscape and macro…remember!) After a day of using the RX10iii I got out my credit card, took a deep breath, and bought it. 🙂
The deep breath was necessary because the camera is expensive: at $1500 almost twice as expensive as the Lumix or Canon, and three times the cost of even an expensive P&S super-zoom. And it is big: considerably bigger than the Canon 3GX, the same size but heavier than the Lumix FZ1000, and both slightly bigger and quite a bit heaver than my Nikon P900…the biggest P&S super-zoom to date.
Still…once I had handled the RX10iii, run through the menus and explored the features, and especially once I had processed a few of the images, my fate was sealed!
Handling, controls, etc.
As I mentioned, I like Sony cameras, mainly because of the range of control provided over features like Dynamic Range Optimization, in-camera HDR, Creative Styles (jpeg processing profiles that can be fine tuned for saturation, contrast, and sharpness), and special features like Anti-motion blur for party shooting. Sony provides enough control over the jpeg processing so that I feel no need of RAW. (The RX10iii does record RAW and RAW plus jpeg, but I prefer to use the features built into the jpeg process…DRO, HDR, Anti-motion blur, etc….I am a Point and Shoot photographer at heart, and it fits my workflow in post processing better.) The RX10iii has all the Sony features, and since they are essentially in the same place in the main menu and function menu as they are in the HX line, I quickly felt right at home.
One of the benefits of the big body on the RX10iii is the range of physical controls provided. You have 3 Custom Buttons, a big button on the lens, two control rings on the lens, a control thumb-wheel upper right on the back, a dedicated Exposure Compensation wheel far right top, and a four position switch for focus modes. This is in addition to the normal Auto/PSAM etc. control dial on the top left, and the 4 way rocker switch surrounding the multi-function button on the back. And it is all totally customizable. Do you prefer the wider lens ring for focus (as I do)? Or you prefer right to left for close and far focus? Just set it so. Do you want easy access to the metering or focus area settings? Assign them to Custom Buttons. Are you used to having ISO on the right rocker switch (it is there on a lot of cameras). Assign it! You find yourself using the built in Smart Digital Tel-converter a lot? Put it on the lens button. Don’t like the arrangement of the functions in the function menu? Change it. It takes some time, and some experience with the camera, but you can set the Sony RX10iii up to match exactly your shooting style and needs.
And the camera, in your hands, just feels solid and serious. Heavy, yes, but well balanced (and light compared to any other rig with a 600mm f4 attached). Sony says the body is dust and moisture resistant, and I can believe it. This feels like a finely crafted machine. Picking up my P900 or P610 after…well, I love them, but they feel like toys. It is just that the RX10iii is so clearly a cut above them in build quality. It would have to be, of course, at least in part, to justify the price!
And that brings us to image quality. Again, there are two contributing factors: the sensor/image processing engine (since I shoot jpeg), and the lens.
The image quality is simply outstanding. Compared to my Nikon P900, the images feature smooth, artifact free, backgrounds at almost any ISO; vivid, but not oversaturated colors; great dynamic range; and very fine detail. P900 images, while they render amazing feather detail at 2000mm and capture accurate (for the most part) color, look flat and 2 dimensional, with much less subtly in the color rendition, when compared to the images from the RX10iii. The images from the Nikon P900 are wonderful, technically amazing. The images from the RX10iii are beautiful. They have an eye appeal that is just not there in the images from any P&S super-zoom I have used to date. (The Sony HX400V comes closest…but the almost total lack of artifacts…and the finer detail of the RX10iii put its images in another class from even its close sibling.)
The follow two pics show both the P900 and RX10iii at their best…at least for wildlife. The P900 fills the frame with a warbler at 20 feet, and shows exceptional feather detail. The RX10iii captures the beauty of the bird and its surroundings in a natural, attractive image.
The RX10iii simple beauty
The P900 at its best, 2000mm
Then the lens…and the RX10iii is really all about the lens. This is, quite simply, as good a wide angle lens as I have ever used (and that includes the ZEISS Touit 12mm for the Sony Alpha APS-C series) and a totally amazing lens at 600mm and f4. Totally amazing! The resolution and sharpness are wonderful. The brightness and contrast are totally realistic. In in-camera processed jpegs, there is NO color fringing. The image stabilization (like that of the Nikon P series) is totally up to the task. You can hand-hold at 600mm…even 1200mm with digital enhancement or in-camera cropping (more on that later). ZEISS and Sony have really stepped it up on this design, and, imho, set a new standard for lens quality, certainly in the super-zoom class, and, I think, quite possibly in zoom lenses in general. Well done ZEISS and Sony!
Combine this lens with this sensor and image processing engine, and, as DP Review perhaps somewhat over enthusiastically said, it simply destroys the competition. 🙂
But I come back to the beauty of the images…that indefinable something that makes them a pleasure to look at. It is addictive, and the more I shoot with the camera, the better I like it.
Of course, being me, I have run some actual side by side tests with the HX90V for landscapes, and with the P610 and P900 for birds and wildlife (though finding a bird that would sit for me while I switched cameras proved to be a bit tricky…and I have not found one in and ideal situation yet.) I also tested the RX10iii using both Clear Image Zoom (digitally enhanced to reach 1200mm), and the Smart Digital Tel-converter function (in-camera cropping to achieve the same 1200mm field of view and image scale but in a 5mp image) to see if it could come close to…or even, maybe, equal…the resolution of the P610 at 1440mm and the P900 at 2000mm. Well I had to try, didn’t I?
I have been missing a great macro camera since I moved on from the Canon SX50HS a few years ago. I like to shoot flowers, plant detail, and bugs…mostly dragonflies and butterflies, and the Canon, which focused to 4 feet at 1200mm equivalent, was the ideal tool. Then too the Canon had a digital tel-converter that you could kick in at any focal length…which made wide angle macro practical, since you could get the macro focus of the 24mm position, and the image scale and working distance of a 48mm equivalent. The RX10iii focuses to 28 inches at 600mm, and therefor offers almost the same image scale as the Canon at its closest. The Smart Digital Tel-converter will give you 5mp close-ups at twice that scale. Or, especially for macros where most of the image is taken up by the subject, you can use Clear Image Zoom for 20mp images, though with some added artifacts, at that same scale. (If you need 20mp, you can also use a program or plug-in in post-processing, like On1’s Resize 10, to enlarge the 5mp image back to 20mp, with very good results.) By the way, macro is a good place to use Direct Manual Focus (see below for more). If you look back at the shot of the Aurora Damselfly above, you will see that the focus is precise on the head of the bug…sharp because I used DMF to focus exactly there.
Sony has the best implementation of in-camera HDR in the business. You can use Auto HDR, or you can choose 1 to 6 EV differences between the 3 images used to create the final HDR file. You can also set Creative Styles to suit you, and use Exposure Compensation to shift the mid-point of your three exposures. Look back at the waterfall shot above and note the caption. Then too, the in-camera program that aligns images is nothing short of amazing. In most cases it will be able to sort out some movement in the image…like reeds blowing in the wind, or water moving along the shoreline…without any “ghosting”. (Ghosting is what happens when the same object appears in the finished image twice, but slightly out of alignment, because it moved between exposures.) The three exposures have been taken fast enough for several Sony camera generations so that you do not need a tripod…but with the new sensor with the digital signal processor built in…the RX10iii is super fast. The HDR files from the RX10iii look good right out of the camera…and, with a bit of adjustment of levels in Lightroom (or similar) can be made to look completely natural…as close to the naked eye view as you are going to get with a digital camera.
I tested the HDR capability of the RX10iii against the HX90V. In every shot, the RX10iii shows finer detail and detail better rendered. (Previous tests showed that the HX90V did way better at HDR than the Nikon P610 and P900…which have only one level (auto) of HDR. Previous testing also showed that the HX90V was very close in image quality for HDRs to the Sony Nex 5t, with its APS-C sensor and its 16-50mm kit zoom. Too close to call. The combination of the new sensor in the RX10iii and the exceptional ZEISS VarioSonnar zoom yield HDR landscapes that are noticeably better than the Nex 5t. I don’t have a more recent Sony APS-C body to test against, but my feeling is that the RX10iii is producing in-camera HDRs that are about as good as you are going to get from any camera.)
Here is a comparison crop from the HX90V and the RX10iii. Two in-camera HDRs taken seconds apart.
Telephoto: Wildlife and Birds
My original thinking was that the RX10iii would not have to compete with the Nikon P610 and P900 for birds and wildlife. It was replacing my HX90V…and perhaps my P610 for butterflies and dragonflies…but not my P900 for birds and wildlife.
That, of course, was before I discovered how much fun the RX10iii is to shoot with…and how good the images look.
Fun: The EVF on the RX10iii makes the EVF on the Nikon Ps look, well, dingy…and the EVF on the Ps is among the best of any P&S superzoom currently on the market. The Sony EVF is not like using and EVF at all. It is very close, in my opinion, to using an optical view finder. The image is so crisp and detailed, so bright and contrasty, that it is easy to find birds, even in a confusing background…way easier that in either Nikon P model. That means you are on birds faster and enjoy looking at them more. Fun.
The RX10iii is also fast…13 frames per second…and the buffer clears within a second. High speed on the Nikons is 10 fps, and it takes 7 to 8 seconds for the buffer to clear. That is so annoying that I only use Low Speed Continuous on the Nikons, 2 fps. I had learned to live with it…but the Sony is just more fun.
Sony’s implementation of Direct Manual Focus and the placement of the focus ring on the lens barrel is simply brilliant. (Not perfect, focus by wire using the electronic focus ring is not the same as mechanical focus, but brilliant all the same.) Setting the camera to DMF means that you still have auto focus, but you can override it at any time by just turning the focus ring. This means that, if the camera can’t find focus quickly, you can get it in the right ball-park using DMF, and then let Auto finish (in which case Auto will lock on almost instantly), or you can let Auto get you close, and then fine tune focus with the ring. In that case, when you have the shutter button half-pressed for focus, turning the focus ring also magnifies the image by an amount which you specify so you can really see what you are doing. (See the caption up above under Macro for how much help this is in shooting Macros.) Again, DMF adds to the fun factor.
Images: I have enthused before already about the beauty of the RX10iii images when compared to the Nikon P series. Maybe it is just my eye…but I really, really like the why this Sony renders an image.
That said, I have been experimenting with the RX10iii for birds and wildlife. DMF is great, and the focus on the Sony is faster than the Nikon P900, but the P900 has a kind of magic built in that allows it to focus on the bird, even when the bird is mostly hidden by foreground foliage and twigs. In a similar case with the Sony, you have to resort of DMF. The time difference is not significant, since it often takes the Nikon P several tries, several shutter button half presses, to do its magic and you can get there with a twist of the focus ring and a single press on the Sony…but it is different. It is not magic!
And of course there is a significant difference in the reach between any current P&S superzoom and the RX10iii’s paltry 600mm. There is nothing like reaching out with the P900 at 2000mm equivalent and absolutely filling the frame with a warbler at 20 feet! And the feather detail that the Nikon captures is simply amazing. (Or fur detail if not shooting birds.) The background of the photo might not look very appealing…it might be full of noise and sharpening artifacts, but who is going to notice that when the bird takes up most of the frame?
To come even close to the P900’s reach, you have to resort to either Clear Image Zoom or to the Smart Digital Tel-converter on the Sony. Clear Image Zoom is similar to Perfect Image Zoom on the Nikons. It applies special processing to a crop from the center of the senor to provide the appearance of a longer focal length, and a full size image. On the Nikons it can push the zoom out to 2880mm on the P610, and 4000mm on the P900, with decent results. On the Sony CIZ pushes the zoom out to 1200mm, again, with quite good results. The Sony, however, will also just save that cropped portion of the sensor as a file…that is what Smart Digital Tel-converter does. You get a 5mp image, with no added digital artifacts, at 1200mm equivalent.
I have experimented with both on the RX10iii to determine how close I can come to the detail offered by the P610 or P900. And the answer is, pretty close. 🙂 Due to the bigger sensor, and perhaps the better jpeg processing engine, CIZ at 1200mm comes very close to the level of detail that you get with the P610 at and optical zoom of 1440mm, and pretty much matches it a 1200mm, when you use the P610 (or P900 for that matter) at that optical focal lengh. At 600mm equivalent, full zoom on the Sony, or set to 600mm on the Nikons, the Sony wins hands down.
At 2000mm the Nikon P900 offers considerably more image scale than the Sony, even stretched to 1200mm (fills more of the frame with your subject), and pretty amazing feather and fur detail. However, using the Smart Digital Tel-converter for a cropped 5mp image on the Sony, while it does not equal the scale, yields very similar feather and fur detail. It also produces a much cleaner image…with far fewer digital artifacts, especially in the background of the image. And there is the beauty factor.
Finally I experimented with upscaling the 5mp image back to 20mp using On1’s Resize 10 plug-in for Lightroom, which I downloaded as a trial. Upscaling is essentially what the camera does when using CIZ, but the scaling in Resize 10 uses “true fractal technology” and is just more sophisticated than in-camera scaling, and the results are very impressive. (see the image immediately above)
The following gallery shows the results of comparison shots of the only really cooperative bird I could find…at ISO 100. Clicking the image will open the attachment page where there is a link to the full sized image at the bottom of the page (next to the magnifying glass). Left click the link to choose Open in a new tab, to compare two images by flipping back and forth between them.
P900 600mm optical
P900 1200mm optical
P900 2000mm optical
RX10iii 600mm optical
RX10iii 1200mm 4 feet closer
RX10iii 1200mm 5mp in-camera crop
The next gallery shows the results of comparison shots of the same species…in subdued light…at ISOs of 400 and 500. The RX10iii 1200mm, 20mp shot is the 5mp shot upscaled in On1 Resize 10. The final shot is the RX10iii at 1200mm, but I moved closer to the bird by 4 feet, to achieve the same image scale as the P900 from it’s minimum focus distance of 16.5 feet.
RX10iii 1200mm 20mp
RX10iii 1200mm 5mp
My conclusion is that the P900, overall, still does the best job for wildlife and birds, but considering everything I shoot, and everything else the RX10iii does so well, I could easily get away with just carrying the RX10iii. I can live with the 5mp cropped 1200mm equivalent, given the beauty of the images, and the fact that most of my images are posted to the web at 3mp anyway. And the On1 Resize 10 plug-in (which is so good that I actually purchased it) will, in fact, produce a full-sized, 20mp image, if and when I need it.
I have been carrying two cameras for a while now…both the Nikon P900 and the Sony HX90V…to cover the range of my nature photography interests…from macros, to HDR lanscapes, to sweep panoramas, to tight shots of wildlife and birds. The RX10iii comes as close as any camera can to a one-camera-does-it-all solution for my needs. For macro and landscape it is simply wonderful…providing as much detail in beautiful, appealing images as I will ever need, and stretching out to 1200mm equivalent with excellent detail, and that same beauty of image, for wildlife and birds.
All well and good, the Sony RX10iii may be a great camera, but, harkening back to the title of this review, is it really a Point and Shoot Superzoom?
I always say Point and Shoot is an attitude not a class of equipment…and the way I will use the RX10iii is the same way I use any Point and Shoot superzoom. I will let the camera do as much as it reasonably can, using all the automation and all the jpeg processing features that Sony engineers have built in, and I will concentrate on finding the images worth capturing, and capturing them. Let the camera do all it can do, see, point, shoot, share. That is the Point and Shoot nature photographer’s mantra.
And that leaves us with the question of whether a $1500 camera can be classed as a Point and Shoot? I could buy 3 Nikon P610s for that and have money left over for extra batteries, a charger, and as many SD cards as I might want. Part of my attraction to Point and Shoot is that it makes quality nature photography available to almost anyone who wants to give it a serious try. The $1500 price tag on the RX10iii puts it out of consideration for many beginning nature photographers, and many who are well beyond beginner.
At the same time, $1500 is still only about 1/10 the price of a pro DSLR body and a 600mm f4 image stabilized lens…and that does not count the cost of all the other lenses you would need to fill the gap down to 24mm at the wide end. Even an entry-level DSLR and the least expensive 150-600mm zoom would set you back about the same as the RX10iii…and again, you would need at least 2 more lenses to cover the 24-150mm range and macro. So, while the RX10iii is not as affordable as a standard Point and Shoot superzoom, it is still what we might call a bargain in a full service outfit for serious nature photography. (And that is not to mention the differences is size and weight!)
If your primary interest is bird photography, and occasional wildlife, you might still be better served by something like the Nikon P900. My P900 will be coming with me on any future nature photography trips. And if your budget, or your sense of thrift, will not stretch beyond $600, you can still be a successful and happy Point and Shoot nature photographer with any of several current superzoom offerings, in the $400-$600 range. Just let the camera do all it can, see, point, shoot, share, and enjoy.
If your interests are wider, with a serious interest in everything from macro, through dramatic landscapes, to wildlife and birds: if you value a kind of ineffable beauty in the images you take; and if $1500 does not seem unreasonable to you, then I can safely predict that you are going to be just as over-the-top delighted with the RX10iii as I am.
In fact, if I did not know better, I would think the engineers at ZEISS and Sony had me in mind when they designed the RX10iii. This is, in so many ways, my ideal camera.
But, honestly, is it a Point and Shoot superzoom? It is if you want it to be. 🙂
When teaching my Point and Shoot Nature Photography workshops I spend a few hours on the basic set-up of a camera for wildlife, bird, and macro shots, running through the menus on several different cameras, depending on what the participants have. I have had many requests to condense this information into an article here. The problem is, of course, that different cameras have different settings, and even if they have the same feature, it might well be called something different…and it will certainly be found in some other section of the menu, functions, or controls. The best I can do is to run down through the Nikon P series menu, with hints on where to find the feature or function on other makes where and when I know. 🙂
Set the control dial to P (Programmed Auto)
Program works exactly the same way as Auto, selecting the balance of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO for correct exposure. It does, however, allow you a bit more control over things like where the scene is metered for exposure, where the camera is going to focus, and light values when the scene is not well balanced in itself. (To be fair, modern Auto Programs do an excellent job with a wide range of scenes, but almost all of them use “wide area” or “multi-spot” focus…the camera decides what you might be thinking of focusing on…and that is death for wildlife photography. Reason enough to use Program.)
Open the menu system (generally with a Menu button. On Canon cameras, some of these features are in the Function Menu, not the main menu, and on Nikon and Sony cameras they may be more easily accessed through the Function button than in the main menu.)
Set Image Quality to Fine (or whatever the highest setting is). This will improve your image quality, but at the cost of writing larger files to the SD card. It is still a good trade. (For Canon cameras, this is in the Function menu, not the main menu. Press the center button of the control wheel on the back, and scroll down to Image Quality. )
Set Image size to “full size” or “large” (also in the Function Menu on Canons)
Nikon has several Picture Control programs which determine how your jpeg is processed in the camera. Set Picture Control to “Standard”. Sony calls this feature “Creative Style” (Again, a similar setting in the Function menu on Canons).
Leave White balance on Auto (Function menu on Canons)
Exposure area/mode (might be called Metering). On Nikons it is in center by default in Program, and you can not change it. On Canons, it is in function menu, and you want “center”. This biases the exposure for you subject, which for wildlife is generally near the center of the frame. Even when it is not, shift your aim and half press the shutter release to lock both focus and exposure on your subject, then while still holding the shutter release half way down, move the subject to where you want it in the frame.
Continuous (or Continuous Shooting). I find that for birds and other active wildlife you do not need more than 2-6 frames per second. Set it to Low Speed Continuous. (again in the Function Menu on Canons).
ISO. Leave it on auto. That will ensure that you get the highest shutter speed and the widest aperture at the lowest ISO possible for each shot.
Auto-focus Area (or something similar). This is where you set the area on which the camera will focus. Choose the smallest, or next to smallest area in the center of the frame. Smallest will give you the most control, but next to smallest will focus faster in most situations. (Main menu on Canons. It is set to Flexispot by default, which is a small movable square in the center of the frame. Once selected, you can make the square smaller by hitting the Focus button (upper right corner of the back of the camera with 4 arrows pointing to the four corners of the button on it) This will wake up the movable spot. While it is showing, press the Display button to change the square to its smaller size).
Autofocus mode. You can generally choose either single shot, or full time. Full time uses more battery, but ensures that the camera will begin to focus as it comes up to your eye and will find focus faster. For wildlife it is well worth the extra battery drain (buy spares and keep them charged in your day bag).
Noise Reduction Filter. Nikon gives you three choices. You will get the most detail if you set it to Low. Canon and Sony only allow you to control High ISO Noise Reduction, but again, to preserve detail, set it to Low.
Active Dynamic Lighting (or Dynamic Range Optimization on the Sonys). This is function that analyzes the image before you take it to determine if the shadows are going to go black or if you are going to lose detail in the whites and brights. It automatically tones down the brights, and pumps up the shadows as the image in is processed in the camera, and removes almost all need for you to worry about exposure. Set to at least the Normal setting (or mid, or Auto, depending on the brand). On some Canon cameras this is called iContrast or Contrast Control, and it is found, again, in the function menu. On the newest Canon P&Ss it is split into Highlight Control and Shadow Control. Set both to Auto.
If I have not mentioned a setting that you see in your menu, leave it on the default setting, as it came from the factory.
Set your EV Exposure Compensation (generally accessed by one of the wheel sides on the Multi-function control wheel on the back of the camera…it has a +/- in a square box, black on white and white on black) to -.3 or negative 1/3. This will tone down the highlights in every image, saving detail in bright areas.
On some cameras there is a separate setting for macro shots or macro focus. It might be in the scene modes, or it might be accessed through a button on the camera, or by pressing one edge of the multi-function control wheel on the back. The button or control will generally have a flower on it. Once pressed you should have to option of Auto Focus, Infinity Focus (a mountain symbol) or Macro (the flower). The Sonys feature continuous macro focus. Do not leave your focus set to macro. On some cameras this will limit the distance you can be from your subject, and on others it will just make the focus motor work harder. Again, on the Sonys it does not matter as there is on separate macro setting.
Your camera will remember these Program settings, even if you turn the camera off, or switch the control dial to some other setting than Program. As soon as you come back to Program, these settings will be in effect until you change them in the Menu or Function Menu.
Many cameras, however, have a User Memory, or Custom Setting. It is the U on the Nikon Control Dial, or C1 or C2 on Canon, or MR on Sony. For wildlife shooting, I set all the settings above, then zoom my zoom to full zoom (telephoto), open the Menu once more and find Save User Settings (or something similar…Sony calls it Memory, Canon Custom Settings). On Nikons you have only one user memory. Choosing Save User Settings will store all your current settings, plus zoom position, so that when you are in another mode and want to quickly reset for camera for wildlife, all you have to do is rotate the Control Dial to U. When saving settings in Canon or Sony, you have 2 memories in Canon, and 3 in Sony. You get to choose where you save the settings above, and then you can access them…on Canons, by choosing C1 or C2 on the Control Dial, in Sonys, by choosing MR on the Control Dial, and then selecting the correct memory in the screen that comes up. On Sonys you can also get to the Memory settings, when the Control Dial is in MR, through the Function button.
So that’s it. Quick settings for wildlife, birds, and macro.
I have been a faithful (mostly) Lightroom user since the program was in public beta. It was the first image processing, or post-processing, software that I really liked…not the first I used…but definitely the first I can honestly say I enjoyed. I had used PhotoShop (since it was a Mac only program), GIMP, PhotoShop Elements, Corel, PaintShop, Freestone…to mention a few, but once I discovered Lightroom, I never really looked back. (There was one year in there when I only carried a high end Android tablet and did all my processing in Snapseed and Photo Editor, but eventually the allure of Lightroom was just too powerful and I had to return to the fold and buy a Windows Surface Pro tablet so I could have the best of both worlds.)
To me, Lightroom is simply intuitive…it works in a way that matches the way I think about images…so post processing is about as natural as it can get. I like the cataloging features, which help me keep track of where my images are, and easily keep my home files in sync with my social media and cloud-based archival sites. And I especially like the ability to develop and easily apply presets…saved processing settings across the whole spectrum of possible edits…to a single image, or to a whole set. Then too, Lightroom has at least semi-embraced the world of tablet computing. The Edit module has a tablet interface that makes excellent use of the Surface Pro touch-screen to further ease the processing chores. Finally, the edits in Lightroom are the smoothest and least destructive of any program I have used…and that is saying a lot, since I shoot only jpeg, and do all my processing on jpegs.
All in all I can’t see myself giving up Lightroom any time soon. I even bought into the Adobe subscription model, much as it pained me, so that I can continue to use the latest features of the program.
In this piece, I am going to walk you through the creation of a preset. The first thing I do when I get a new camera is create a small set of presets for different processing needs. Generally I do one for 1) “standard images”…images that just require a bit of sharpening and enhancement to realize the full potential of the file. 2) HDR images…images which are produced by the camera’s built in HDR mode, or in some cases by the camera’s Landscape mode. I use the camera’s HDR or Landscape modes for…well, as you might expect…landscapes…especially dramatic landscapes with lots of light and shadow and interesting cloud effects. These images generally require a bit more lift to reach full potential. And then maybe 3) an HDR preset with a bit of added umph, and some extra brightness, for those cases were the scene was really beyond the ability of the camera to catch it. I might also develop a preset specifically for macro shots for some cameras, if one of the others does not already cover those images.
So, lets look at a “standard image” and its preset.
This image, like most well exposed digital images, only requires some added pop and sharpening to go from a good image to a really satisfying one. I begin my opening the image in the Develop module in Lightroom. Near the top of the editing controls are some basic settings.
I intentionally underexpose my digital images by 1/3 EV by setting the exposure compensation to -1/3 on the camera. This maintains more of the highlight information in the original file. Therefore most of my images need a little boost in the brightness of the shadows. If you are doing this at home, just grab the Shadows slider and slide it to the right until you get the effect you want. Watch the image. Note what the slider does as you move it. Move it just enough to the right to achieve the degree of shadow lightening that you like.
Images from the Nikon Point and Shoot superzooms that I use are just a bit flat out of the camera. They lack pop. I could add pop by adjusting the contrast, but that would also whiten the whites and lights in the image and burn out whatever detail is there. Instead, I use the Blacks slider to make the blacks (and very dark colors) blacker. Slide the Blacks slider to the left until you get the effect you want.
Clarity is something like “local contrast”…it effects the way colors grade into one another when they are next to each other. Move the Clarity slider to the right to add Clarity until you get the effect you want. This also adds pop to the image.
Vibrance controls the saturation of the weakest colors in your image…and only the weakest. Moving it to the right adds vividness to the image. Be careful. Too much added Vibrance will make the bright colors “block up”…or lose detail and produce an unnatural, poster-like effect. Add just a bit of Vibrance.
Generally you do not want to, or need to, touch the other controls in this section. Remember you are creating a preset that will be applied to many images as you process. You can go back to the develop module after applying the preset and tweak other settings as needed…but you just want this preset of do the basic work.
Next, for most images I use the existing Sharpen Scenic preset built into Lightroom. You can find it in the develop module in the left hand panel. When I apply it, it sets the sharpening controls as you see them here. You can achieve the same thing by sliding the controls to these positions yourself. All digital images require some sharpening. I actually turn down in-camera sharpening when I can, because generally sharpening in post does less damage to other parts of the image than the camera does. I do not recommend much more aggressive sharpening settings than you see here. You will not like the effects on overall image quality.
Just as all digital images can benefit from some sharpening, most digital images will benefit from Lightroom’s “Chromatic Aberration” filter. Chromatic Aberration is the little (or not so little) lines of green or pink (or blue and yellow) light that appear at the edges of things in your image, especially near the outer edges of the image, especially when the edge is against a white, light, or black background. It is a lens fault. Many cameras will already process it out when they create the jpeg…but turning on Lightroom’s filter can only help.
Finally, the latest version of Lightroom has a new filter called Dehaze. It works something like the Clarity filter above, but with the emphasis on the blue end of the spectrum. Blue light is the most likely to get scattered over the surface of the image, both from atmospheric haze, and from light scatter inside the lens of the camera. Therefore a filter that looks for the scattered blue light and removes it from the image improves both the clarity and the vividness of the image. Be careful here, as too much Dehaze will darken your whole image, and turn the blues toward black.
Here is a comparison of the edited (right) and unedited images.
The difference is not dramatic, but it is enough to turn an okay image into one that is more satisfying.
Here is the edited image at a larger size. Compare to the unedited image above.
Edit several images from your camera in this way…if your camera exposure system is working right, and you are using it right, you should notice that you are making just about the same edits on each photo. (A word about using the camera’s exposure system correctly. Use it! Do not mess with manual controls. Let the camera do the exposure. Today’s camera exposure systems are so accurate and so flexible that they will get the exposure correct about 95% of the time if you let them. That is one reason you can create presets in Lightroom. The files you will be working with will be consistently exposed.)
To create your first preset, open the best of the files you just edited in the Develop module. Look for the Presets section on the left hand develop panel. Click the little plus sign next to the Presets title. This will open a window displaying all your current settings, and providing a field at the top to name the preset. Name it “Standard” or give it the name of the camera or whatever.
The settings you have changed, and the settings that are necessary for every image, will already be checked in the list of settings. Just name your preset and click “Create”. It will be saved to your “user presets” folder, where Lightroom can find it when needed.
Now that you have a preset created, you can apply it easily to either single files or multiple files.
You don’t even have to open the Develop Module. In the Library Module, in the right hand panel, you will find a section near the top called “Quick Develop” and within that section a drop-down menu called “Saved Preset”. When you click the menu you should see your newly created preset in the list, under User Presets, in a sub-menu at the bottom. Select the image (or images) you want to apply the preset to, and then just select the preset from the menu. In seconds you will see your thumbnails update to the edited form of the image…or, if you only have one image open in Library, that image will update to show the finished edits. One click…that is all most of your images will need for processing, once you have your presets created. 🙂
The following illustrations show the difference in settings between my “standard” Nikon preset, and my Sony HDR preset. The Sony in-camera HDR files can handle some extra pop and some extra sharpening. I have applied a sharpening mask to keep the HDR artifacts from showing up in open sky.
Chromatic Aberration and Dehaze settings are the same as for my basic Nikon preset.
Here is a comparison shot of the unedited HDR file and the file with the Sony HDR preset applied.
Note that the difference here is not so subtle. The Camera produced a file using the HDR technique that has enough information in it so that it can be processed into a very satisfying extended range image.
And the image was processed with a single click in Lightroom!
Again, you don’t need a lot of presets. 2-3 per camera you use. Once a preset is applied, if you still think you can improve the image using other editing controls in Lightroom, you can always open the Develop Module and make whatever changes you like. The great thing about Lightroom is that any changes you make will be added to the changes, or override the changes, you originally made with the preset…and any changes you make with either can undone instantly. The program does not actually make the changes you see on the monitor until you save or share the image. Your file is always preserved as the digital negative and you can start over with your edits any time you want.
The major complaint I hear about Lightroom is that it is too hard. It is actually the easiest program for image editing I have every used. I hope this article gives you the courage to dig out your copy, and to give it another try…or at least encourages you to create your first presets to release the power of Lightroom.
A while back I posted my original BIF (Birds in Flight) article, which pretty much covered BIF with the Canon SX50/60 (and hopefully 70) models and the Sony HX400V. (See here.)
This post expands BIF coverage to embrace the Nikon P series…the P610 and P900 in particular.
With the Canons and the Sony, the built in Sports Mode did and excellent job with BIF. On the Nikons…not so much. The default (and unchangeable) focus mode for Sports is the medium spot focus square…which makes getting on a BIF very difficult. And should you get the bird in focus when you press the shutter release, the camera does NOT follow focus. Focus is established by the first lock, and does not change as the bird moves…so, even if you pan with the bird as the camera takes its burst of 10 high speed continuous shots (also default and unchangeable) chances are pretty good that only the first shot will be in focus (if any are). Worse yet, even though this is Sports Mode and supposedly designed for action, Nikon did not bias the exposure system for high shutter speeds, so most often you will have motion blur as well as focus issues. Nikon does not seem to understand what a Sports Mode is supposed to do…but then Nikon’s control software has a lot of short-comings. Sports Mode is a particularly bad example.
I have gotten some great BIF with the Nikon Sports Mode, and it is worth a try in really good light, with cooperative birds.
I recently spent a week at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in Socorro New Mexico. As noted in the previous BIF post, the Bosque is certainly one of the best places in North America to practice BIF. In my week there I took hundreds of BIF exposures and developed a technique that works pretty well…almost as well as Sony’s Sports Mode.
What you need for BIF is an auto focus mode that will quickly and reliably lock on to birds in motion against a blue sky…or against a landscape background. And, you need high enough shutter speeds to freeze motion.
On the Nikons, setting the control dial to “S” for shutter preferred allows you to control the shutter speed. Leave everything else on Auto (ISO, etc.). I find that in good light, 1/640th is enough to freeze the wing motion of most BIF, while still giving you a reasonably low ISO for fine detail. In low light…dawn or dusk…1/250th does a good job with all but the wing-tips. Your ISO will be 400-800 (or even higher) but you will get some decent shots.
For the most efficient focus, set the camera to Target finding auto focus. Target finding auto focus is the default in Auto and Program modes, and is your traditional wide angle focus where the camera decides what your might be trying to focus on. I do not generally recommend letting the camera make that decision, but for BIF on the Nikons, Target finding auto focus proved to be fast and accurate more often than any other mode. I was getting 70% or better quick accurate focus on BIF against a blue or clouded sky, and better than 50% against a landscape background. That is actually very good performance.
I found that in following fast moving birds, high speed continuous was easier than low speed…since the black out between images is long enough on low speed so that I would loose my pan and the bird would go out of frame.
General BIF advice: 1) don’t try to shoot at the long end of the zoom, especially as you are developing your technique. Finding focus and keeping the bird in frame are both easier at 600-1000mm equivalent fields of view, than they are at 1200-2000mm. Remember, the DSLR/long lens crowd are shooting at 400-600mm and cropping. 2) Pan with the birds before pressing the shutter for focus. Pick the birds up as soon as possible, and pan with them until they are close enough for a satisfying image. Then half press the shutter for focus. If you get focus lock, then shoot off a burst.
As always, take a lot of exposures! Try, try, and try again. And don’t worry about the misses. Celebrate the hits!
I really like the Nikon P900, which I am using for the majority of my bird and wildlife photography these days, and which does a good job on nature photography of all kinds (it is hard to argue with the excellent 83x zoom and amazing image stabilization), but since I switched to it from the Sony HX400V, there are several things the Sony did well that I find myself missing. The main ones are: fully adjustable in-camera HDR and more robust Dynamic Range Optimization options, reliable macro, and Anti-motion Blur mode for inside shots. The Nikon does all these things, after a fashion, but it does not do them as well as the Sony HX or RX series.
Then too, I have now passed both the Sony HX400V and the Canon SX50HS, my previous “back up cameras”, on to others. That left me with just one camera for trips, and it is never safe to travel for more than a few days with only one camera. What if something bad happens? Imagine it: stuck in Panama for a week without a working camera. Never!
Which is why the Sony HX90V, when it was first announced, appealed to me. It has the pop-up electronic view finder from the RX 100 iii and iv; the control ring around the lens from the whole RX series (see above); the finger grip from the RX 100 iv (also in the pic above); a flip up 180 degree, selfie ready, LCD like the Alpha 5000 and 6000; and the world’s smallest 30x zoom …24 to 720mm equivalent field of view (and a ZEISS Sonnar at that). Given past experience with Sony’s souped up digital Clear Image Zoom, that means possible pics out to 1440mm in a pinch.
And it is small enough to carry along with the Nikon P900 without even thinking about it.
It also has the truly inspired Function button and menu I had loved on the HX400V…which gives you easy access to anything you are likely to want to set…and three fully programmable memory locations for settings you use often. And, of course, the traditional Sony Creative Styles options, which allow you to fine tune how the jpeg images are processed and encoded in the camera before they are written to the card. (Sony’s answer to RAW.) All in all, the level of control possible with the Sony simply puts the Nikon in the shade…it is a good thing the Nikon lens and IS are so good!
Of course, no amount of control matters if the images are unsatisfying. Like all Sony cameras, especially the P&Ss, the images from the HX90V will not stand a lot of pixel peeping…they are not as clean at the pixel level as Nikon or Canon images. However, at normal viewing and printing sizes, they are simply excellent…sharp, vibrant, and lively.
Since it is a primary interest of mine, we will begin with a few in-camera HDRs: you can set in-camera HDR for anything from 1 EV differences in exposure, for a very subtle effect, to 6 EV differences, to capture deepest shade and boldest highlights. There is also an Auto setting which does an excellent job in all but the most extreme conditions.
Then you have macro effects down to 5 cm (2 inches). I find that about 35-40mm equivalent works really well, along with DRO level 5 or Auto. You actually get an excellent macro effect.
The long end of the zoom is useful, with or without some Clear Image zoom, for close-ups of bugs, and the occasional grab shot of a cooperative bird. This (along with super-bright sunny days) is where the pop-up EVF comes into play! It is much easier to hold the camera still when it is up to your eye.
The flip up selfie mode on the LCD panel does a good job.
Panorama shots are as easy as they are with any Sony. You have your choice of “standard”, “wide”, or “360 degree.”
Some of the Picture Effects are also interesting. I have enjoyed playing with HDR Painting, which can be adusted to one of three levels, and produces a nice “slightly over the top”, tone-mapped HDR look.
Sunsets are always a good test of a Point and Shoot. I tried both the Multiple Frame Noise Reduction Mode and in-camera HDR. I like the results from HDR better. Pleasing rendition of colors, and very little noise in the image.
I went to Strawberry Banke, a local historical district in Portsmouth NH, today, and had a chance to try out several modes for indoor use. I tried straight in-camera HDR, Anti-Motion-Blur Mode, and Multi Frame Noise Reduction (with is actually an auto ISO setting). All three worked well, and provided higher ISO equivalent images in low light that showed much less noise than you would expect. Anti-Motion Blur tended to have the most noise, as it consistently selected higher ISOs suitable for moving subjects. In-camera HDR was relatively clean, and, as expected had the most extended range…usable highlights and open shadows. Multi Frame Noise Reduction ISO mode produced the cleanest looking images, amazing clean for hand-held indoor shots in very dim natural lighting, but would not be suitable for indoor action. This is a hand-held Multi Frame NR shot in a historical kitchen with only window and fire light. I think it is pretty amazing.
So…all in all the Sony HX90V is a great second camera. It does everything I had hoped, and almost everything the Nikon P900 does not do well. It is even a great first camera. The degree of control offered, the viewing options, the excellent long zoom, the advanced multi-frame features, etc. put it right there in the top choices for a P&S superzoom for nature and creative photography…as long as you don’t need more than 720mm of reach (1440mm with Clear Image zoom).
And finally, of course, the Sony HX90V was conceived as a travel zoom…and as that I can not imagine a better choice! It does it all and it does it all well…fits in a large pocket…and is the ideal camera to carry absolutely everywhere you travel. Good job Sony!
At the recent Biggest Week in Birding on the shores of Lake Erie in Ohio, I had the opportunity to teach two sessions of Point and Shoot for Warblers. Most photographers would agree that there are no more difficult birds to shoot than our wood warblers. They are fast. They are active. And they feed, during migration, deep in the spring foliage, from eye-level to canopy top. If they were not so bright and beautiful they might no be worth the effort. But they are…bright and beautiful, and though they might present a challenge…definitely worth the effort.
On the other hand, there is no better place to practice warbler photography than the boardwalk at Magee Marsh, in the Crane Creek Recreation Area along the Erie shore. The boardwalk provides easy access to many acres of wet forest and marsh, ideal habitat for migrating warblers as they feed up before crossing Lake Erie on the way north. The warblers so busy feeding that they are relatively oblivious to the humans on the boardwalk, even humans with tripods and long lenses. Then too, since there are literally thousands of pairs of birder’s eyes on the boardwalk each day, it seems unlikely that any warbler gets through Magee without being seen, and pointed out to others. That makes the photographer’s job easier. You just have to point your camera where everyone else is looking. 🙂
For those of us who have chosen Point and Shoot superzooms, the challenge might seem greater due to the supposed “limitations” of our cameras. However, I suspect, based on my own and others’ experiences, that a proficient Point and Shooter, using a light weight, portable, flexible superzoom, can bring back as many satisfying images of warblers as anyone, if not more. And the best Point and Shoot warbler shots are every bit as good as the best shots from a full-sized DSLR and long lens. Every bit!
I had two sessions to refine the set of points, based on my own experience at Magee Marsh over the past 6 years, that might help the Point and Shooter to catch warblers. This is the distillation:
1) Finding the Bird. Use your eye-level electronic viewfinder, not the LCD on the back of the camera. This gives you a better chance of finding and keeping the bird in view as it moves thorough the foliage, and, since the camera is braced on your face, and a natural extension of your head, it gives you a steadier shot when you do shoot. While EVFs on Superzooms still are not great, the most recent Superzooms (Nikon P series and Canon SX60HS) have the best EVFs, and getting pretty good…I was generally able to easily find and track a warbler with the EVF on the Nikon P900, even in dense foliage…something that was not true a superzoom generation ago.
2) Holding the camera. Hold the camera with your left hand under, and loosely cradling, the barrel around the zoom. Your left elbow should be directly under the camera. Raise your right arm high enough to reach the grip on the right side of the camera. Wrap your fingers loosely around the grip…do not pinch it between fingers…really wrap it with four fingers of your right hand…with your shutter finger extended up over the shutter button and resting lightly on it. Now turn one third, left shoulder forward, toward the bird, with your left elbow tucked in to your body. You are not facing the bird head on, you are turned so your left shoulder is pointed almost at the bird, and that elbow is supported by your body. (It is the same stance a rifle shooter users.) Your eye is at the EVF, ideally with the camera contacting both your brow and your nose. Your left arm supports the camera. Your right arm and hand simply steady the camera, and operate controls. Everything should be relaxed. Note how the hat brim shades the EVF in the photos above. I highly recommend a broad-brimmed hat for warbler or any other kind of shooting that involves the EVD (Do not rest your hand or fingers on the part of the zoom that moves. Eventually the zoom will retract unexpectedly when the “power down” limit is reached, and you will get the flesh of your fingers caught between the zoom barrel and its housing. Not good for fingers or the motor that powers your zoom!)
3) Focus and shooting. When you find the bird, you will half press the shutter to establish focus and exposure. Yes you will! You will not jam the shutter button down and hope for the best…you will half press the shutter. And then, if the bird allows, you will wait for the moment of stillness between breaths to shoot. Yes I know, we are talking about warblers, and wait is not a word warblers understand…but believe me, your keeper rate will improve if you can learn to only press the shutter when the camera is already focused and the bird is in sight. You can jam the shutter down 1000 times and get 1000 blurry images of departing warbler butts, or you can develop your skill and patience, wait for the camera to focus, and only take an image when everything is right…and you will still take 400 images…and 50-100 of them will be sharp and satisfying.
4) Steadying the shot. Remember you are not a tripod! You will never keep the camera perfectly still. You are an extension of the cameras image stabilization system. The best you can do is to develop a sense for the still spot, when everything is lined up, and it is time to shoot.
5) Focus your EVF. Even after sharing that with both groups at the beginning of our field sessions, I caught many folks in the workshops still using the LCD…holding the cameras out away from their face and body. When I quizzed them, they admitted that they found the EVF difficult to impossible to use. It soon became apparent that most of them had never adjusted the diopter setting on the EVF. Somewhere, on or near the housing for the EVF, there will be a little wheel or slider that allows you to focus the EVF for your eyes. This is critical for those who wear glasses, and important for those who do not. With your eye to the EVF, turn the wheel or slide the slider until the letters and numbers and lines in the EVF are as sharp as you can get them. Pay no attention to the scene itself. Just to the display features. Once the display is in sharp focus, half press the shutter so the camera auto-focuses, and now your scene should be sharp. You should only have to see the focus wheel once, then just let the camera do the focusing. And you should now find the EVF much more fun to use. 🙂
6) Focus Area. When Superzooms come from the maker they are preset to use “wide area” or “multi-spot” focus. Some are set for “target finding focus.” That means that the camera tries to determine what is important in the scene and focus on that. Most superzooms are programmed to look for, in order of preference, a) a face, b) the closest high contrast object or subject, and c) the closest bright/colorful high contrast object or subject. In all superzooms this is the default focus setting in Auto Mode. And it works pretty well, getting focus right about 70% of the time.
However, we are shooting birds and wildlife…or warblers in this case…and, without resorting to manual focus, we want more control over what the camera chooses to focus on.
If we set the camera to Program Mode instead of Auto, we can change the setting for the “focus area”, and force the camera to focus where we want it to. (By the way, Program Mode does all the auto settings that Auto does, but gives you the option of setting some of them yourself, while the camera still takes care of the rest…it is the mode you should be using for birds and wildlife.) Go to your menu and find “focus area” (or something similar). Generally there are several choices for focus area. It might be as simple as “face priority” vs. “standard” or there might be additional choices like Manual (spot), Manual (normal), Manual (wide), Subject Tracking, Target Finding, etc. In general, for warblers, you are looking for the smallest area setting. When the camera is not in multi or face priority, it is generally possible to move the focus area you set around the screen with the “up, down, right, left” push areas on the control wheel on the back of the camera. You will be keeping it in the center of the field, but making it small enough to put it on the bird and no where else. On Canon and Sony cameras there is a second setting to change the size of the focus area, once you choose the movable area option. Consult your manual. On Nikon cameras you make the size choice right in the “focus area” menu. (Note: you may find that the next to smallest focus area works better than “spot” focus for birds. Sometimes the smallest area does not contain enough information at high zoom settings to establish reliable focus.)
The following shots demonstrate the all but miraculous ability of today’s superzooms to auto focus in super difficult situations.
Magnolia Warbler, Magee Marsh, OH
Magnolia Warbler, Magee Marsh, OH
Warbling Vireo, Magee Marsh, OH
American Redstart (fm), Magee Marsh, OH
Northern Perula, Magee Marsh, OH
7) Focus technique. Once you focus area setting is set to small, you will attempt to put the little square on the bird, not on some element of the foreground or background. It does not matter much which part of the bird, as long as you include some portion of the body. In my experience, there is still a lot of intelligence built into the auto focus of a superzoom, even when you have it set to a small area. The camera will focus through low contrast foreground foliage and even twigs, if the bird is bright or high contrast enough, and takes up enough of the frame. This is especially true if an eye is showing. The auto focus of Point and Shoot cameras is keyed very tightly to the presence of an eye in the frame. The hardest thing to focus on is a low contrast, or totally backlit bird…like a Grey Catbird sitting against the sky, for instance.
Never give up on your focus after a single half-press. If it does not catch focus, or focuses on something other than the bird, release the shutter button and half press again. And again. And again. Eventually it might catch. Then too, with low contrast birds, it might be necessary to give the camera a hint as to the distance, so it does not have to hunt through its whole focus range. Swing the camera and find a high contrast object at about the same distance as the bird. Half press to establish focus. Release and swing back to the bird. The next half press should lock focus. 🙂
8) Exposure. Just as you can change the focus area in Program Mode, you can also change the area the camera uses to establish the exposure. The default is Multi-Area Metering, where the camera takes exposure readings from many areas of the scene and then computes the best exposure it can. With birds and wildlife, we often do not care about the background or foreground as long as the critter is correctly exposed. Therefore, open your menu and find the setting for Exposure Mode. For feeding warblers in foliage, either “center” or “spot” generally works best. Spot will be more accurate on the bird itself, but center may give you the best overall exposure.
Let the camera determine exposure. As I have often pointed out, the exposure systems in these modern Point and Shoot Superzooms are amazingly accurate, and generally keep exposures within the bounds set by the camera’s abilities. Use Auto ISO, Auto White Balance, etc, and let the camera set both shutter speed and aperture. The only exception is if your camera consistently gives you lower shutter speeds than the image stabilization can handle…resulting in a lot of blurry images due to camera motion. In that case you may have to switch to shutter preferred and set the minimum shutter speed you are comfortable hand holding. You will still let the camera set everything else 🙂
9) Finding the bird, part 2. The problem with warblers, as mentioned above, is that they move and they bury themselves in foliage. That makes it very difficult to find them at the high magnifications available with today’s superzooms. There are two solutions.
a) especially on your first attempts, you may have more success if you do not use the long end of the zoom. 🙂 Keep to 600-1000mm or so, and the warblers will be much easier to find and keep in view. You may have to crop the images after to get the scale you want, but that is better than not getting the images at all. With feeding warbles, especially in places like Magee Marsh, 1000mm is often plenty anyway, as the birds are feeding within 20 feet of your face.
b) if you camera has it, use the “framing assist” button or function. This is generally a button on the zoom barrel that, when pressed, auto zooms to zoom out to a wider view, while indicating in the finder what area your zoomed in view will cover. Releasing the button automatically returns your zoom to the longer setting. “Frame assist”, find the bird, get it in the indicated smaller area, release button, shoot.
Even if your camera does not have a framing assist function (sometimes called the “zoom back” button), you can accomplish much the same thing by manually zooming back to find the bird, centering it, and then zooming in for the shot.
Finally, when the bird moves out of the frame…do not try to find it by swinging the camera around at high zoom. Take the camera away from your eye. Locate the bird. Then reframe, using framing assist again if necessary.
10) Continuous Shooting. You will have much more success with warblers, or any other active subject, if you take bursts of 3-5 images rather than single shots. Bursts simply improve the odds of getting a sharp image…and they give the bird a chance to rearrange itself into a more attractive pose. You would be surprised how often that happens as you shoot your burst. Most Superzooms have at least two continuous shooting modes: high speed burst, and standard or low speed continuous. High Speed burst is the one they advertise, as it takes 7 to 10 images at 10 frames per second or more with a single press of the shutter button. Impressive! And practically useless for the bird or wildlife photographer. What you end up with is too often 7 to 10 identical images. There is not enough time for the subject to do anything between shots. Then too, the camera takes all the shots and stores them to a “buffer” (special memory location). It then stops everything else and processes and writers those images to the card before you can continue to shoot. Awkward. It can take from 30 seconds to 7 seconds to write to card…and that is 7 to 30 seconds when your camera is essentially a brick.
Slow speed continuous, on the other hand, on most cameras, takes between 2 and 3 frames per second, and stores many more images in the buffer before it has to dump to card. The slower speed gives the bird (or bear) time to rearrange itself, so you get unique shots, and you can generally shoot off several bursts of 3-5 images before the camera takes a processing and writing break. Most of the time you will not be aware of the pause since it happens when you are not shooting anyway.
The Canon SX60HS is an exception. It shoots 6 fps, continuously, without pausing for writing to the the card…though it does slow down significantly if you overwork the shutter button.
You can generally find the Continuous shooting settings in the regular camera menu…though High Speed Burst is sometimes hidden in the Scene Modes.
11) Keep trying. (And yes, it does go to 11 🙂 It always takes me several days at Magee Marsh to get my warbler eye in, and retrain my body for the challenge. Do not give up the first day you attempt warblers. Keep at it. Shoot a lot. If you keep 300 out of 3000 warbler shots, you will be doing very well indeed. Do not worry about the shots you missed…even of the best birds. The missed shots are gone. Just keep shooting and be really, really happy with the shots you do get. The more you shoot, the better you will get at it and the more keepers you will take home. Remember, having worked with all kinds of photographers, and having seen the work of many others, I can honestly tell you that your best Point and Shoot Superzoom warblers and their best long-lens warblers will be very similar…in most cases, not distinguishable at all…and you are likely, due to the compact size, portability, and flexibility of the the superzoom, to come back with way more satisfying images than the long lens crowd.
Be happy! Be a happy Point and Shooter. Be warbler happy!