Mike Atkinson Bird Photography



Bird Photography Tutorial 3: Equipment


Bird photography equipment

I am often asked what equipment is needed for bird photography. This is a difficult question to answer because it depends on so many factors:

For this tutorial, I'll start by describing the choices I made, the reasons for these and the lessons I learned, and then make some recommendations for anyone just starting out now.  Since this has now become a long page, you can jump to the individual sections using the following links:

Firstly, though, I should say that although equipment is important, it's only one of many factors involved in producing good bird images, so don't get too hung up on this. (If you're anything like me, I'm sure you'll ignore this advice!)

My experience so far

Phase 1: Film photography

As part of my general interest in photography, I've had a variety of film cameras for over thirty years, from basic compacts up to SLR (Single Lens Reflex camera) outfits. Since my other main interest was in birds, I tried on numerous occasions to capture their beauty and variety on both print and slide film. I failed miserably and, due to the prohibitive cost of the film itself, plus the almost total absence of feedback (waiting a week to see the results), I just didn't make any progress on improving my abilities.  Thankfully, film is now a thing of the past in bird photography.

Lesson: Forget film!

Phase 2: Digiscoping

I finally managed to get hold of a decent compact digital camera (a Nikon Coolpix 4300) in 2003, mainly for taking family photos. I later heard about the technique of using cameras like this to take photos through spotting scopes, i.e. digiscoping, and got very excited at the opportunity to combine my interests in birds and photography once more.

I spent a few months fiddling with different settings and making minor improvements, but realized I'd need to invest quite a bit more to get any worthwhile results: better scope, better tripod and better camera (with adapter, cable release and other bits of kit).

At the same time, I was reading widely about bird photography and looking at the photos being posted to websites such as BirdGuides. This really got me hooked and I realized that I was getting more of a buzz looking at high-quality images of even common birds than distant shots of rarities. Given my limited budget, I knew I had to decide between upgrading my digiscoping kit and investing in the Digital SLR (DSLR) route.

The deciding factor for me was a day spent trying to photograph a Red-throated Diver in late 2004. On a small country park lake, this bird was surfacing anywhere from 20 to 200 feet away but, try as I might, every time I got my scope and camera set up on the bird, it submerged again. At that rate, I could have spent a week there without a single worthwhile image. I felt as though my equipment was working against me, not with me, and that taking the digiscoping route would have me battling against something that wasn't meant to be. That same evening, I ordered a DSLR with the longest lens I could afford.

Lesson: Understand the type of photos you want to take and then choose the technique accordingly. I know only one photographer who has mastered both Digiscoping and DSLR bird photography, so you should concentrate on just one of these techniques.

Phase 3: Digital SLR and cheap lens

At the time, the entry-level DSLR getting the best reviews was the Nikon D70. Having bought this (body only), my budget had virtually gone and I could only afford an 89 Nikon 70-300mm G zoom lens. It didn't matter: I was in heaven, blasting away at every bird I saw, then transferring the images to my computer and learning how to get the most out of them with an early version of Photoshop.

Over the following few months, though, I came up against three problems. I'd expected the first two: the quality of the lens was poor and, at only 300mm, I was struggling to get big enough images of the birds, especially smaller and shyer birds. The third problem was more of a surprise: the light levels through the British winter drop so much that bird photography becomes very difficult. If you open your lens to the maximum aperture, you get the poorest quality; if you turn up your ISO sensitivity, you get too much digital noise; if you choose a longer shutter speed, you get blur due to 'camera shake' and subject movement. I felt as though I would have to hang up my camera for six months of every year.

Lesson: Getting hold of any DSLR gear will help you to find out whether bird photography pushes your buttons. If it doesn't, you can either use your DSLR for general photography or sell it without much of a loss. If it does, you will learn very rapidly what works and what doesn't, and will have a lot of fun in the process.

Phase 4: Digital SLR and mid-range lens

To overcome the three limiting factors, I'd identified a solution. If I could afford Nikon's (1000+) 80-400mm VR lens, the Vibration Reduction technology would enable me to shoot at lower shutter speeds and the improved optical quality would let me shoot at wide aperture, so I wouldn't need to raise the ISO sensitivity. Also, the longer focal length of 400mm would increase the size of the birds in my images.

By the end of the year, I'd sold some stuff and agreed with my family that I could pool the year's Christmas, Birthday and Father's Day presents and splash out on the VR lens.

Once again, I was making progress and having fun. I finally felt as though I had some photos worth sharing. I started uploading images to BirdGuides and set up my own website. People even started buying photos from me, which came as a great surprise. At this point, I had everything I needed to build up a perfectly good collection of bird images.

Unfortunately, my obsessive nature being what it is, I started looking at what would be the ultimate gear for bird photography. I noticed that the leading photographers seemed to be using the Image Stabilized (IS) 500mm or 600mm lenses made by Canon. Not only did these have greater magnification, but their wide (f/4) apertures and superb optics meant they could use teleconverters to gain even more 'reach', whilst still making it possible to shoot hand-held.

I'd tried using a 1.4x teleconverter with my Nikon zoom lens, but the loss of image quality and autofocus speed/accuracy was just too great.

At this point, I realized that Nikon didn't have a longer lens with VR/IS technology, even though their 500mm and 600mm lenses cost more than the Canon equivalents. At the time, I couldn't afford any of these lenses anyway but, a year or so later, I had an unexpected bonus that meant I could finally order one of the ultimate bird photography lenses.

My research suggested that a 500mm lens would be on the limit of what I could hand-hold, so my preference was to go for one of these, rather than the 600mm. Since there was no prospect of Nikon launching a VR version of their 500mm lens (I asked them), I bit the bullet and switched to Canon. In April 2006, I bought a 30D body and 500mm lens, plus 1.4x and 2x extenders, costing a total of 5500.

Lessons: If it's something you really want to do, it's surprising how you can find ways to make it happen. If you really get hooked, you could end up being prepared to spend vastly more than you planned, so don't ignore your upgrade path. Contrary to what camera magazines would have you believe, you should select your equipment based on the entire system, especially the lenses, not the camera bodies. In fact, camera bodies change every year, whereas the key lenses change only every decade or so.

Equipment I've used for bird photography: Nikon D70 with 80-400mm zoom lens (bottom), which I upgraded to the Canon 30D with 500mm f/4 IS lens with 1.4x converter (top). I've since upgraded my camera body first to a Canon 40D then to a Canon 5D Mk II.

Phase 5: Digital SLR and 'Pro' lens

Having spent such a huge amount of money on my gear, I then spent a month losing sleep wondering what I'd been thinking of. I also became aware of some of the difficulties involved in using this gear:

Gradually, though, I realized that the results I'd been getting were greatly improved and that many of the birds I was photographing would have been beyond the range of my previous gear. Importantly, I found that the extra reach meant that I could photograph birds from outside their 'circle of fear'. Previously, a typical situation would be that I'd see a bird and start moving closer to it, but not so close that it would be disturbed by my presence. In most cases, this would be too far away to get a decent-sized image of the bird. With the new gear, though, I was able to take shots of the bird happily preening, feeding and generally behaving naturally, which makes for much better photographs.

I found that I could use the 1.4x teleconverter to turn my 500mm lens into a 700mm lens, whilst retaining good image quality and autofocus/IS operation. With the 2x converter, though, I lost autofocus operation, so have never used it.  [Note that, since the beginning of 2009, I have been trying not to use teleconverters at all to make sure I'm getting the best possible image quality out of my lenses.]

Incidentally, I also found I needed a backpack to carry around my gear. The only one I could find that would take my camera body plus lens and converter was the Lowepro Lens Trekker 600AW. Although I do have to remove the lens hood to fit this in, it works very well and even makes it possible for me to go out on my mountain bike with it on my back, giving me even greater mobility.  The Mark II version of this backpack currently available is taller, and so can fit the lens without removing the hood.

One of the key steps forward I took at the point when I bought my Canon gear was to start shooting in RAW format and using the bundled Canon Digital Photo Professional (DPP) software to convert images to TIFF format before final processing in Photoshop. This gives a major boost to control and flexibility during processing. I also started to use the NeatImage tool to reduce the amount of digital noise in my processed images. One of the things I didn't anticipate was the amount of time I'd spend on learning how to use image processing tools effectively.

Lessons: You don't need a pro supertelephoto lens to photograph birds but, if you can afford one, these do have major advantages that outweigh their drawbacks. You can have a lot of fun using the cheapest of DSLR gear and can take high-quality photos with mid-range gear. In the end, though, having even the best equipment will not make you a good bird photographer any more than having a good set of paintbrushes would make you a good artist!

Phase 6: Diminishing returns

In truth, I haven't felt any great need to buy more equipment since my big blowout in early 2006.  I've bought several significant equipment items since then, but these were in no way essential and haven't really made much difference to my bird photography.

In February 2008, I upgraded my camera body from a Canon 30D to a 40D to get improvements in a number of areas (higher resolution sensor, better high-ISO noise performance, improved autofocus accuracy and a bigger LCD screen), even though I knew each of these would be only slight improvements.  I toyed with the idea of buying a Canon 1D Mk III body, which would give even better noise and autofocus performance, plus better handling of tonal detail, but I felt it was too expensive for a 10-megapixel body, so I decided to wait a while before upgrading.

In June 2008, I bought a Canon 300mm f/4 IS lens to use alongside my 500mm, for two reasons: firstly, its greater portability would mean I could take it with me more of the time and use it more easily from hides; second, with a minimum focal distance of 1.5m, it would be better for close-up work.  It could also deliver pretty good results with a 1.4x teleconverter attached.  In practice, I've had very little use out of this lens.  There's nothing wrong with the lens at all and, in many situations, it would deliver images that few people would know weren't taken with my 500mm lens.  However, I always want to know that I'm getting the best possible results in any given situation, so tend to use the 500mm wherever possible.

In July 2009, I bought a Gitzo 3541LS Systematic Studex tripod and Wimberley Mk II gimbal head.  I still prefer the mobility of purely hand-held shooting, but there are situations where it's better to have solid, maneuverable support for your gear, especially where it would be beneficial to keep your camera pointed at a bird for longer than your muscles will allow (e.g. waiting for a bird to take flight).  In fact, I've barely used the tripod since I bought it, so I'm still not convinced about its value.  The jury's still out on this one!

In September 2010, I upgraded my camera body from a Canon 40D to a 5D Mk II.  I chose this body because my primary interest is image quality.  Had I been primarily interested in reach or speed, I'd have chosen the 7D or 1D Mk IV, respectively.  I've found the 5D Mk II to be very similar to the 40D, which has made the transition easy and which has re-confirmed how good the 40D was.  However, my biggest issues with the 40D have all been improved upon, namely autofocus and high-ISO noise performance, plus handling of tones and colours.  Also, the full-frame sensor gives benefits both when  shooting in the field and when cropping on the computer.  Apart from the expected shortcomings for flight shooting compared with the 7D/1D Mk IV, I've been very happy with the 5D Mk II.  Once again, though, this body upgrade has confirmed to me that lens quality is more important than body quality in determining your final results.

In May 2011, I bought a used Canon 300mm f/2.8 IS lens to use alongside my 500mm, especially for use during Birds in Flight (BIF) shooting.  I used both lenses during my trip to the Farne Islands in Northumberland and both lenses proved their worth.  I still prefer the bokeh and overall look of the images taken with the 500mm, but the reduced weight/bulk of the 300mm was appreciated for BIF work, especially from a rocking boat!  In the end, although the advantages aren't as obvious as I'd hoped, some of the best flight shots of my trip were taken with the 300mm lens, so I'm looking forward to further trials.

Lesson: As with most product purchases in life, there are advantages to spending more than the minimum, but there comes a point at which further spending doesn't really gain you very much.  Personally, I'm quite relieved about this!

Phase 7: The future

Having been fortunate enough to acquire such a collection of top-quality camera gear, it's been wonderful to be able to concentrate on my photography itself, rather than equipment.  I've mentioned that the AF capability of my 5D Mk II body lies somewhere between my 40D and the 1D series bodies (or the 7D), so it would be tempting to try out a body with improved AF (and burst rate) at some point.  I'm not in any rush though.

Lesson: No matter how much equipment you get, there will always be other goodies to tempt you so, at some point, you just need to switch your attention from your equipment to your images.  Once you do so, your photography will really take off!

Recommendations for new bird photographers - November 2014

Based on my personal experience and keeping in touch with equipment reviews, my recommendations for people just starting out are as follows. I've specified the time of writing here because products - especially camera bodies - are replaced frequently, and prices change every month.

If you're interested in monthly blog-style news updates on bird photography equipment, you can jump to my Latest News section further down this page.

[A note on independence/impartiality: I have never received any form of payment from any camera equipment manufacturer or seller.  I recommend mostly Canon products but that is based on my personal conclusion about which system is best for bird photography.  If you read my Latest News section, you will see I am frequently critical of Canon and their products.]

Ideal starter kit

Until you know that bird photography is something you'll take to, start with some reasonably priced gear that you can upgrade or sell later.

Although Nikon now has VR (Vibration Reduction) versions of its long lenses and some highly capable camera bodies, I still believe the Canon system provides the best upgrade path for bird photographers, and is the system used by the great majority of serious bird photographers.

If you're determined to buy new equipment, Canon's best value entry-level DSLR at the moment is the 700D, which costs around 480 body only. If you can afford more than that, you are better putting the extra money into your lens, rather than a higher-spec body such as the 70D or 7D. Similarly, buy the camera in body-only form, rather than as a kit, so you can put the extra money into a better lens, and don't be tempted by any other gear at this stage.  If you're prepared to buy used equipment, you could get a much better camera for your money, or a similar-spec camera for a lot less money (see my advice on Buying used DSLR cameras below).

If the camera body has used up most of your starter kit budget, you'll find there are a range of zoom lenses that go up to 300mm focal length from around 100. Have a look at the ones from Canon, Sigma and Tamron: they're not great lenses, but they'll give you a good taste of what's involved. Avoid anything with less than a 300mm maximum focal length.

If your budget allows, the cheapest really sharp lens is the Canon 400mm f/5.6 at around 1000. There are several zoom lenses that go up to 400mm, 500mm or 600mm at just below this price point, but these would be inferior optically.  If you can't resist buying one of these lenses, I would suggest you opt for the 950 Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3 VC lens, which can turn in a good performance provided it is kept at or below the 500mm zoom setting.  Avoid the 700 Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3 and 1000 Sigma 50-500mm f/4-6.3 lenses, which give poor performance-for-price compared to the Tamron 150-600mm and Canon 400mm f/5.6 lenses.

Many people can't resist going for the 1200 Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS zoom, rather than the 400mm f/5.6, because of the perceived flexibility of the variable focal length and the attraction of image stabilisation.  However, in practice, you'd use this lens at the 400mm setting virtually all the time and the IS facility is only a benefit in certain types of low-light shooting.  The greatly superior optics and focusing speed of the 400mm f/5.6 would definitely give you a better collection of bird images in practice.

Finally, it's a similar story with the 1100 Canon 300mm f/4 IS lens. This is a fairly sharp lens which can be converted to a 420mm f/5.6 by the addition of a 1.4x converter, whilst retaining image stabilisation and autofocus functions. With the converter, however, it will not be anywhere near as sharp as the 400mm f/5.6 lens and, without it, the 300mm focal length will leave you struggling for reach on any birds you can't approach very closely.

Make no mistake, if you're spending around 1100 on a bird photography lens and you don't buy the Canon 400mm f/5.6, you will regret it!

Budget starter kit

The prices listed above are from reputable UK-based mail order companies (I mainly use Mifsuds and Warehouse Express). Prices in high-street camera shops would normally be higher, although some will do price matching.

If these prices are too high for your budget, it is possible to buy similar equipment, either new or used, at considerably lower prices, e.g. on eBay. A used DSLR plus 300mm zoom lens can be purchased for as little as 150.  See below for my guide to buying used DSLRs.

Don't be swayed into thinking that a compact or 'bridge' digital camera with a high zoom ratio and megapixel count will give you comparable results to a DSLR.  These cameras have tiny sensors (typically less than a tenth the size of DSLR sensors!) that generate images with high digital noise and little latitude for effective post-processing.  They also have poor autofocus and handling for bird photography.  I'm not convinced that even the best non-DSLR camera can compete with the cheapest used DSLR gear, so don't waste your money.

If used DSLR gear is still above your budget (i.e. if your budget is below 150), the best thing I could recommend would be to pick up a cheap digital compact for anything from 50 upwards (5 on eBay) and just have a go at photographing birds that you can get close to, such as wildfowl at your local lake or captive birds. As long as you accept that the results won't be great, this can still be fun and will certainly make you appreciate it if you later manage to upgrade to a DSLR outfit. If you have a spotting scope, you can, of course, use any digital compact (or even a camera phone) to have a go at digiscoping.

Upgraded kit

If you've practiced with equipment like the ideal starter kit above and are now looking for an upgrade, you'll soon realize that there is a big gulf in the available lenses of at least 400mm focal length, stretching from the 1000 level right up to 4000 or more.  This gulf is incredibly frustrating for many bird photographers, who are forced to stick with their 1000 lenses until or unless they can afford to spend a huge amount of money on a Pro lens.

Worse still, Canon have recently announced new versions of their most popular bird photography lenses, but have been unable to get these into production before stocks of the outgoing versions ran out.  The new versions can be pre-ordered and delivery of some models may commence imminently, but the current prices are greatly inflated.  On the plus side, though, the new models incorporate a number of enhancements, including improved IS, AF and sharpness, plus reduced weight.  The improvements have not yet been confirmed in practice but, on paper, the new products represent the biggest advancement in bird photography optics in over a decade.

I'll go through the lenses in order of increasing cost:

In the past, I've always recommended the Canon 500mm f/4 as the ultimate bird photography lens because of its combination of reach and portability.  The new 600mm, though, has roughly the same weight as the old 500mm, so the choice between these two lenses will depend on the type of shooting you do and what other lenses you have.  For example, if you already have a 300mm lens, the 600mm may be preferable, whereas if you already have an 800mm lens, I would go for the 500mm.  Obviously, not many people will be in such an enviable position!

If you're lucky enough to be able to buy any of the Canon Pro lenses, a 1.4x extender (teleconverter) is a useful addition. The f/2.8 models can also take the 2x extender without loss of autofocus, although with significant loss of image quality. If you have a high-spec. camera body, you may be able to get autofocus with the 2x extender on f/4 lenses, although this may be limited (e.g. to the centre AF point only and with reduced focusing speed).  The Series III 1.4x and 2x extenders cost around 330.

In terms of camera bodies, the 800 Canon 70D and the 700 Canon 7D are significantly better than the entry-level models in almost all respects, including autofocus capability and continuous shooting speed.  The choice between a 70D or 7D is a close one, since the image quality of the two is very similar.  For those who need more rugged build quality, the 7D may be the better option.

Until recently, most bird photographers have ignored the bodies with full-frame sensors because they don't have the 'apparent' (see below) magnification increase resulting from bodies with smaller sensors and are also relatively expensive.  These cameras have tended to be aimed at landscape or studio/commercial photographers and so haven't had the fast shooting speeds associated with action photography (e.g. sports or wildlife).  For situations where reach and speed are less critical, full-frame (FF) DSLRs definitely deliver higher image quality, but few bird photographers have been prepared to live with these limitations.  That said, those who persevered have benefited from the advantages of FF sensors, including easier subject acquisition, improved cropping options and, for frame-filling subjects, ultimate image quality.  Also, a newer breed of FF bodies, such as the 2300 5D Mk III and the 4800 1D X, now have the AF performance and shooting speed to rival the best crop sensor models, albeit at a price.  Canon's entry-level FF camera, the 1300 6D, also has good image quality, but doesn't have the AF performance or shooting speed of the 5D Mk III or 1D X.

Just an aside on the 'apparent' magnification of crop sensors.  Actually, the theoretical resolution or 'reach' of a camera fitted with a given focal length lens has nothing to do with its sensor crop factor: it is determined by the spacing of the sensor's photosites (often referred to as its 'pixel pitch'). In practice, this is normally reduced by limiting factors such as lens sharpness and digital noise.

That brings us to the '1D' series of camera bodies, which are very much aimed at action photography professionals.  An earlier model from this series - the 1D Mk IIn - established itself as the ideal camera for bird photography, especially flight photography, due to its superb autofocus capability and shooting speed.  An intermediate-size sensor with a 1.3x 'crop factor' provided a good compromise between effective magnification and image quality.  Its replacement, the 1D Mk III, was an improvement in most respects, but was plagued by autofocus problems.  When it was launched in late 2009, the 16-megapixel Canon 1D Mk IV improved on the Mk III in many key areas, such as resolution, AF capability and high-ISO image quality, whilst retaining its 10fps shooting speed, making it the best all-round camera for bird photography.  This model is now discontinued but, if you can find one, a good used 1D Mk IV is still an excellent proposition.  Also, good used 1D Mk IIn and 1D Mk III bodies are still an excellent alternative to (similarly-priced) new 60D and 7D bodies.  It's true to say that the 8-megapixel 1D Mk IIn and 10-megapixel 1D MkIII lose some resolution compared to the 18-megapixel 60D and 7D, but nowhere near as much as the megapixel counts would suggest, so don't let this put you off.

The 1D Mk IV's successor, the full-frame 4800 Canon 1D X, gives further small improvements in AF capability, noise performance and shooting speed, but at the expense of sensor resolution, which is a serious issue for bird photographers, forcing many to consider trading their 500mm workhorses in for a new 600mm lens.  The 1D X-plus-600mm Series II combination costs nearly 14,000 and even the trade-up from a 1D MkIV-plus-500mm Series I combination would cost around 8000, for which you would get no more reach whatsoever.  If money is no object, go for it.  Otherwise, my recommendation would be to wait another year for price reductions and new body launches.  In the meantime, there are some good used 1D MkIV bodies and 500mm lenses available from those who couldn't resist the trade-up.

Use of flash

Another question I'm sometimes asked is whether flash can be used to overcome the problems of low light in bird photography. In general, I believe the answer to this is 'no'. Flash units, especially with a beam focuser, can be used to provide a 'lift' to poorly lit shots, but only at a lower intensity than the ambient light, otherwise the images have an ugly, unnatural look. It is possible, under controlled conditions, to simulate daylight through complex, multi-flash setups, but this is not something to tackle until you are able to take good photos under natural lighting conditions.

Equipment for image processing

You don't need special computer equipment to process bird images. I've only just replaced my six-year-old PC and even older 19" CRT monitor, which were used to process almost all of my published images. Current budget desktop packages, which you can buy for around 300, are perfectly adequate for the job, as are any current models from the Apple Mac range.

I strongly recommend that you get a broadband Internet connection so that you can make the most of the Internet as a learning resource and publishing mechanism.

I also recommend that you take regular backups of your work, for which I use a combination of DVDs and Seagate external hard drives (I've now moved away from Western Digital drives due to reliability and support problems).  For under 100, you can now buy a 1-Terabyte hard drive that just plugs into your PC's USB socket.  This would probably hold all your images for the foreseeable future.  I back up my images to at least two external hard drives in case one fails.

I've found the most valuable PC component is a decent monitor with a good range of adjustments. To get accurate colours, I use a 140 Monaco monitor calibrator, but this does need you to be able to change the monitor's colour and other settings.  I now use a LaCie 324 monitor, which I rate very highly.

For image editing, I use a graphics tablet. This is not essential but, if you're doing a lot of selective editing in Photoshop, the 230 Wacom Intuos5 Medium tablet is excellent.

Software

Eventually, you'll want to use the latest version of Adobe Photoshop for image editing. This costs a few hundred pounds but, fortunately, a cut-down version - Photoshop Elements - is available for 60 or less to get you started. Importantly, this works the same way as the full version, so upgrading is a relatively easy process.

To start with, I recommend you use as few software tools as possible. Each one of these takes a lot of time to learn, so you need to keep things as simple as possible.

I strongly recommend that you shoot in RAW format, in which case you will need to convert your images to TIFF or JPEG format before processing them in Photoshop. For this conversion, I use the Canon Digital Photo Professional (DPP) software that comes free with Canon DSLRs, but you can alternatively do this in Photoshop itself, or in other independent RAW conversion tools.

For noise reduction, I use the NeatImage Pro+ tool (which integrates with Photoshop and costs around 50) but, again, you can alternatively do this in Photoshop itself. Once you've familiarized yourself with your image-editing software, you'll develop a 'workflow' for processing your images: cropping, resizing, adjusting brightness, sharpening, etc. This can be very basic to start with, but can be optimised later to give better results and faster operation.

I recommend getting as much help as you can to learn about image processing. I learnt this the hard way, but could have saved a huge amount of time by getting someone to teach me.  Contact me if you're interested in getting some help with image processing.

Printing

If you want to print your images, you can get fantastic results from some of the current A4 or A3 inkjet printers from the likes of Canon and Epson (I now use a Canon printer because I've had print head clogging problems with Epson models). Avoid the cheapest printer models, because these are false economy in the long run: go for a photo-optimised printer with at least eight inks for best results.

Make sure you use the manufacturers' own inks and the best possible photo paper and, after a bit of experimentation, you will be getting great prints that will last for decades.

Buying used DSLR cameras - June 2014

I don't currently plan to update this information every month but, on an occasional basis, I'll review the latest prices of used DSLRs and offer recommendations based on these.

DSLRs have now been around for so long that it's possible to pick up early models for very little money, e.g. on eBay.  Although this may sound risky, it now seems to be accepted practice that, if you buy something on eBay that isn't what you want, you can just sell it on without losing money.  In most cases, though, if you use the various eBay facilities (e.g. feedback ratings) to check out the seller and the items for sale, you shouldn't have problems.

So, what I've done is to look at eBay's UK listings of the various Canon DSLR bodies to assess their 'going rate'.  I've looked at recent completed listings to see what items actually sold for, not what people are asking for or current bid prices.  I've ignored cameras with lenses and other accessories, so that I can assess body-only prices.  I've also ignored new and refurbished items and overseas sellers, so I can assess typical prices for used equipment.

My conclusions were as follows:

Camera Body

eBay Used Price

 

 

Canon 300D

30

Canon 350D

40

Canon 20D

50

Canon 400D

70

Canon 450D

80

Canon 30D

80

Canon 500D

120

Canon 40D

120

Canon 550D

140

Canon 600D

160

Canon 50D

170

Canon 5D

270

Canon 60D

280

Canon 650D

290

Canon 1D MkIIN

320

Canon 700D

370

Canon 7D

480

Canon 70D

600

Canon 5D MkII

600

Canon 1D MkIII

600

Canon 6D

900

Canon 1Ds MkIII

1200

Canon 5D MkIII

1600

Canon 1D MkIV

1800

Canon 1D X

3500

As you can see, I've listed the various camera bodies in order of increasing price, and have highlighted some of them in yellow.  These are my recommendations at the various price points.

In general, the quality of cameras will be determined by the model ranges, i.e. 1D > xD > xxD > xxxD > xxxxD.  For example, 1D Mk IV would be better than a 7D, which would be better than a 60D, which would be better than a 650D.  However, since these product ranges are continually improving, the picture becomes more complicated.  The cameras I've recommended, though, are all good value for money.

When I get the chance, I'll add information about buying used lenses.

News Updates

11 November 2014 Update

This 100-400mm II lens has now been officially announced by Canon, with reported availability from December.  Although the US launch price is 30% higher than the US price of the outgoing model, as expected, the UK launch price is 60% more than the UK price of the outgoing model.  I'd love to hear how Canon justify that one, since it takes all local factors out of the equation.

Anyway, the UK pre-order price is currently 2000 so, if you're thinking of buying one in the UK, bear in mind that you could probably have a weekend Christmas shopping in New York, picking one up whilst you're over there, and still have change left over.  Best of all, Canon lenses (unlike Canon bodies) have international warranties, so you'd have no problems getting it serviced in the UK.

Alternatively, you could wait for the price to drop to a more reasonable level or pick up a Canon 400mm f/5.6 prime lens for less than half the price and put your (four-figure) savings towards something more useful.  Remember, the more you buy overpriced products, the more you and everyone else will have to pay for all new products in the future.

9 November 2014 Update

Although I don't like to comment on rumours, Canon look set to announce a replacement for their 100-400mm zoom lens in the next couple of days.  The details now circulating online are as follows:

Launch price is rumoured at 2200 US Dollars, which is around 30% higher than the street price of the existing model.  UK buyers would therefore expect to pay in the region of 1600.

Given the 400mm maximum focal length of this lens and its relatively affordable price tag (remember the 200-400mm zoom costs nearly 9000!), this is a very significant announcement for bird photographers.  The existing 100-400mm has been around since 1998 and has been the lens chosen by the majority of birders upgrading from entry level zooms.  Unfortunately, the lens achieved notoriety for having hugely variable quality between copies.  The lucky people who got hold of a good copy swore by them, but most owners remained frustrated until finally trading in for a sharper lens.  Over the last ten years, I've had dozens of owners write to me asking how they can get better image quality and my advice has always been to try the Canon 400mm f/5.6 prime lens instead.  Invariably, the feedback from people who tried this alternative has been positive.  The sacrifice of the IS facility when switching to the prime can be countered by better support and there's no substitute for raw image quality.  Also, the perceived advantage of being able to zoom out from 400mm is a fallacy for (non-Florida-based) bird photographers.  If you need shorter focal lengths than 400mm for general photography, get a 70-200 or 70-300mm zoom to complement your bird lens - don't compromise your primary tool.

So, will I change the recommendation I've given to all new bird photographers for years and advise them to go with the 100-400mm zoom instead of the 400mm prime? Well, anyone who knows me will know that I would never do that based on paper specs or Internet chatter. Only concrete evidence would change my recommendation. In particular, some of the most important attributes of lenses, such as AF speed and bokeh, can never be assessed on paper.  What I would say, though, is that Canon's recent longer lenses have had excellent optical and build quality and greatly improved image stabilisation, as well as working very well with the Series III teleconverters.  I am therefore very keen to see how this new lens shapes up.

[As an aside, and following my complimentary comments about Canon's recent long lenses (plus a recent email I received that started with the words "Obviously, you're paid by Canon, but..."), I'd just like to clarify the basis of my equipment recommendations.  I have never received any form of payment from any camera equipment manufacturer or seller.  I recommend mostly Canon products but that is based on my personal conclusion about which system is best for bird photography.  If you read my monthly updates below, you will see I am frequently critical of Canon and their products.]

November 2014

After last month's excitement, it's no surprise that there were no further product announcements this month.

The main development has been that the new Canon 7D Mk II body is now shipping, although UK stocks are still low.  Early feedback from new owners seems to be positive, especially in the critically important areas of image quality and AF capability.  Handling of noise in high-ISO images seems to be much better than the original 7D and the AF speed and accuracy are reported to be in the same league as the more expensive 5D Mk III and 1D X models.  Sample images from capable bird photographers certainly look promising, although they lack the 'look' of full-frame images and early comparison shots don't show as much of a resolution advantage as may be expected.

Pricewise, the original 7D body has dropped by a further 13% as final stocks are cleared.  Unfortunately, last month's reductions in the prices of the 70D, 6D and 5D Mk III bodies have now been reversed, so it looks as though that was a temporary offer.  Finally, the preorder price of the Sigma 150-600mm Sport zoom has dropped 6% to 1500, bringing it closer to the grouping of bird photography lenses around the 1000-1200 level.  No further details of the Contemporary version of this lens have yet appeared, but most people think it will be priced to compete with the 950 Tamron equivalent.

October 2014

Just as I was starting to think I'd never say this again, this has been a bumper month for announcements of new equipment relevant to bird photographers, with Canon and Sigma taking the opportunity of the Photokina trade fair to launch new products.

One of the most anticipated upgrades in DSLR history has been the replacement of the Canon 7D body.  The Canon 7D Mk II is now launched and available to pre-order at 1600, which is actually 100 cheaper than the original 7D launch price back in 2009.  Back then, the price dropped by 400 after only a couple of months, so anyone thinking about a 7D Mk II purchase may be better to think in terms of a Christmas present rather than a pre-order.

So, the big question is whether it's been worth the five year wait.  I have to say that, on paper, there's little to suggest it has.  Bird photographers who buy DSLRs with APS-C size sensors are interested in reach and speed.  The headline specification changes in these areas are a megapixel increase from 18 to 20, a frames-per-second increase from 8 to 10, and a buffer depth increase from 25 to 31 RAWs.  Is that really all we can expect in five years?  When the original 7D was launched, most people would have confidently predicted that these measures would roughly double over a 5-year horizon.  At this rate, Canon will take 25 years to reach the 30 megapixel level with an APS-C sized sensor and 10 years to get to the level Nikon reached over two years ago.  Hugely disappointing.

Of course, there have been other spec changes, such as a 65-point AF system (with centre-point AF at f/8) and a higher maximum ISO setting, but we will have to wait for field tests to see whether these deliver significantly better 'keeper rates' and image quality than the outgoing model.  If they do, then this will be a capable camera that will satisfy the masses of enthusiast bird photographers who want the features of the latest pro bodies but with more reach and a more affordable price tag.

As mentioned in the September update, Sigma has now launched its response to the 950 Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3 zoom, which has been so popular worldwide that Tamron have been unable to keep up with demand.  In fact, Sigma has long dominated the telephoto zoom market and has a wide range of current models including the 50-500mm, 150-500mm and 300-800mm zooms.  Not surprisingly, then, its response to the Tamron model has been decisive, with not one but two lenses having exactly the same basic specs (full-frame, image stabilised zooms with the same focal length and maximum aperture range).  The full names of the new lenses are the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary and the 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sport.  The Sport version is aimed at professional use and is bigger and heavier than the Contemporary model.  It can now be pre-ordered at the launch price of 1600: the price of the Contemporary model has not yet been announced.

The Contemporary model is almost exactly the same size as the Tamron and, although not yet announced, it is expected to weigh around the same (approx. 2kg) and to be priced competitively.  The Sport model is around 20% bigger and weighs almost 3kg, as well as having a 70% higher price tag than the Tamron.  Despite its higher price, though, if the Sport model proves to have significantly better image quality and focus speed, it may prove to be the lens many bird photographers have been waiting for.  The Tamron zoom created huge excitement but, ultimately, its performance at the 600mm end in terms of both image quality and AF capability leaves a lot to be desired.  Many photographers would happily have paid a premium for extra performance: there is still a huge gulf between the 1000-ish enthusiast lenses and the 4000+ pro lenses.  We will have to see whether the Sigma Sport model can start to plug that gap.  I have to admit to a long-term frustration that no-one has produced a 600mm f/5.6 IS prime lens to a price point around the 2000-2500 level.  I can see why Canon wouldn't do this, because it would undercut sales of its megabucks pro models, but this seems to be an easy win for the likes of Sigma and Tamron.  Unfortunately, though, they remain obsessed with wide-range zooms (4x in the case of the new models), which make it impossible to hit that sweet spot of reach/quality/speed/size/price.  For now, though, anything that brings 600mm reach and decent quality to a wider range of photographers has to be big news.

Sometimes, significance comes not from a single new product, but from a combination of developments.  Although I haven't been overly enthusiastic about the above Canon and Sigma announcements, let me present a more positive scenario...

Bird photographers desperately need as much reach as they can get.  A Canon 5D Mk III and 600mm lens with 1.4x extender is now a common, capable set-up.  Unfortunately, it costs nearly 12,000.  A Canon 7D plus zoom lens up to 500mm or 600mm would have a similar number of pixels-per-bird at only 2000, but obviously with reduced image quality.  However, put together the improvements in the 7D Mk II and the Sigma 150-600mm Sport and the gap closes.  Now consider that, whereas teleconverters were not a realistic option for the cheaper setup in the past due to poor image quality and the loss of autofocus, the improved AF (with f/8 shooting) of the 7D Mk II together with the improved quality of the Sigma zoom and the new high-end Sigma teleconverters that have been launched alongside it (sorry, I didn't mention those), and the competition starts to look quite different.  This is all subject to field testing of course, but we can be optimistic for now.

For bird photographers who can't afford or justify the ludicrous pricetags of a pro setup (and, yes, having lenses that cost more than cars is ludicrous), this is a very interesting time.

There are also some interesting developments for bird photographers whose primary interest is in having small, light equipment.  For a number of years, I've been recommending the Canon 400mm f/5.6 lens as a great lens for bird photography enthusiasts.  This sharp, fast-focusing lens coupled with a high-resolution body like the 7D, has enabled many photographers to build an excellent collection of bird images without the cost, size or weight of the 'big white' superteles.  Some have tried using this lens with a 1.4x teleconverter but, on all but pro bodies, this has led to loss of autofocus ability.  The ability of the 7D Mk II to AF at f/8 means this combination can be used whilst retaining AF, providing a small and light set-up with plenty of reach.

For those who want a light-ish telephoto, there is also another new option: Canon announced at Photokina an upgrade to its 400mm f/4 IS DO lens, which can be preordered for 7000!.  This lens is shorter and fatter than the 1000 400mm f/5.6, but weighs nearly twice as much as the latter, meaning it's nowhere near as portable or manouverable.  In fact, it's only slightly lighter than the similarly-sized 300mm f/2.8 II, which is an excellent lens with a price tag 30% less.  For the same price as the new 400mm f/4 DO IS II, you could alternatively buy the truly excellent 500mm f/4 II.  So, you may be asking, why would anyone buy this new DO (diffractive optics) lens?  Well, I've asked the same question about the original version of this lens for years, because I just don't understand why anyone would, not least because its image quality was distinctly average.  Canon don't even use the 'L' quality designation for this lens.  According to Canon, the new version uses a different design to overcome the optical limitations of the original, including putting the DO element at the rear of the lens instead of the front.  For me, though, even if this redesign delivers excellent performance, I would find it very difficult to recommend over the alternatives mentioned above.

Finally, as if the excitement of all these product launches is not enough, there have been some decent reductions on the Canon 5D Mk III, 6D and 70D bodies, their prices dropping 4%, 5% and 9%, respectively.  The most modest of these - 4% off a 5D Mk III - may not seem significant, but this excellent body has barely dropped in price for almost two years now, so this may signify the beginning of its wind down.

September 2014 Update

After the excitement of Canon's lens price drops last month, I am pleased to see that the lenses in question have remained at the lower prices and there are no reports of the reductions being for a limited time.

This month, there have also been price drops of the Canon 1200D and 6D bodies (10% and 6%, respectively) as these settle towards their 'mid-life plateau' levels.  For the 7D body, there has also been an 11% drop this month, but that is for a different reason: this is the end-of-life clearance price in preparation for the replacement model expected to be launched at the 16-21 September Photokina trade fair.  There has been huge speculation about the specs of this new model and about what lens announcements may or may not accompany its launch.  I will not comment on any of this unless or until it has been announced by Canon.

Also at Photokina, Sigma is expected to announce a new 150-600mm f/5-6.3 OS zoom, which would appear to compete with the Tamron equivalent.  However, pre-release details seem to suggest this will be a bigger, heavier, more pro-specced and, of course, more expensive version than the Tamron zoom.  In any case, it's interesting that the existing Sigma 150-500mm zoom dropped 4% in price this month and has a UK cashback offer taking that reduction to 11%.  Let's see what further announcements are made.

This could well be a very interesting few weeks, so I'll be on standby to perform a mid-month update to this page if reliable announcements are made.

August 2014 Update

As I came to write this month's update, having been aware that the last month had seen no significant product announcements, I expected there to be little to comment on.  I then started my usual check on equipment prices, starting off by adding new camera body prices to my tracking spreadsheet, only to note that they were all exactly the same as last month's prices.  Next came my checks on the prices of independent lenses from Sigma and Tamron.  Again, all the same as last month.  All that remained was to check Canon lens prices and, given how rarely those change these days, I started to wonder what on earth I was going to be able to write about.

On checking the Canon 'bird lens' prices, though, I was utterly shocked to see the biggest swathe of price cuts I can remember!  A couple of the older lenses - the 100-400mm and 800mm f/5.6 - had dropped by only 1%, but all the other Canon lenses I track had dropped by 4% to 14%!  In order of increasing percentage reductions, the full list is: 400mm f/2.8 II (4%), 500mm f/4 II (5%), 300mm f/4 (6%), 300mm f/2.8 II (7%), 400mm f/5.6 (11%), 600mm f/4 II (11%) and 200-400mm (14%).  Even the 1.4x and 2x Series III extenders (teleconverters) had dropped by 12%.

I was so shocked, in fact, that I checked whether these reductions were across all major UK retailers (they are) and even telephoned some of them to ask for more details, especially whether this was a 'limited time offer'.  The new prices have obviously come from Canon but, other than that, the retailers I spoke to had little information about the changes, although they did say that no time limits had been specified.

In any case, this is excellent news for anyone who has been saving up for a lens upgrade.  Enjoy!

July 2014 Update

As we've come to expect, there have been no new product announcements this month for bird photographers using Canon bodies.  However, speculation of an imminent replacement of the ancient 7D body is now building and a 13% price drop on this model in a month when all my other tracked equipment prices remained static adds weight to this.

I've mentioned on several occasions that I believe Canon generally leads its arch-rival Nikon in bird photography equipment, especially in the all-important supertelephoto lens area.  However, in one area Canon has seriously fallen behind Nikon, namely the option of high-megapixel camera bodies.  Over two years ago, Nikon launched the 36-megapixel D800 to meet this demand for full-frame shooters and, this month, they have launched an upgraded model, the D810.  Canon's highest-megapixel FF body is the 5D Mk III, with only 22 MP and the 4800 flagship 1D X has only 18 MP.

In the crop body market, Canon's highest pixel density is provided by the new 20 MP 70D body, but this is beaten by Nikon's 24 MP models such as the D3300 and D7100.

At this point, all serious photographers will jump in and say that higher megapixels means lower image quality and the best bird images come from these large-pixel FF bodies.  This is absolutely true, but these bodies cater for a specific type of bird photography in which the birds are large and/or close.  Typically, these bodies will be paired with a huge and expensive supertele lens such as a 600mm f/4 and shot from a static position in a hide or other 'managed setup'.  For every bird photographer who works in this way, there are dozens more who photograph in a roaming style or who shoot rarities, and hence are permanently dealing with images in which the bird is very small in the frame.  For such shooters, crop sensors can give much better results simply because they normally have higher pixel densities and so capture more 'pixels per bird'.  You can see these values in the following table which shows how many pixels you'd capture per bird for every 1000 delivered by Nikon's smallest pixel pitch models.

Camera

Pixel Pitch

Megapixels

Format

Relative Pixels per Bird

 

 

 

 

 

Nikon D3300 / D7100

3.9

24

APS-C

1000

Canon 70D

4.1

20

APS-C

900

Canon 7D

4.3

18

APS-C

820

Nikon D810

4.8

36

FF

660

Canon 1D Mk IV

5.6

16

APS-H

480

Canon 5D Mk III

6.25

22

FF

390

Canon 6D

6.5

20

FF

360

Canon 1D X

6.9

18

FF

320

Nikon D4s

7.3

16

FF

290

Canon 1D Mk III

7.4

10

APS-H

280

Again, serious photographers would correctly point out that real-world resolution differences would be smaller due to a variety of limiting factors such as lens quality, sensor quality, equipment/subject movement, air quality, etc., but imagine this scenario: you have a small/distant bird and two photographers, one using a 4800 Canon 1D X and one using a 300 Nikon D3300 that gives three times as many pixels per bird.  Who do you think is going to get the clearest image?  Now let's say the 1D X shooter has a 10,000 600mm f/4 II lens with a 2x converter on a top-quality (2000) tripod, but the D3300 shooter has only a sub-1000 Tamron or Sigma zoom lens.  That would probably even up the odds, but then imagine the bird is highly mobile, moving from bush to bush so mobility becomes the dominant factor in who gets the best shot.  Rarity images posted to birding websites show this is very often those with high megapixel crop bodies, especially if they have halfway decent lenses.

Enthusiast bird photography is a large market that camera manufacturers have not fully satisfied.  The 7D was a leader in this area when it was released almost five years ago, but has now been left behind.  It will be interesting to see if the '7D Mk II' returns Canon to pole position when it eventually hits the streets - or should I say the field?

June 2014 Update

No new product announcements again this month, but at least there have been a few price changes to note.

First, at the budget end of the camera body range, the Canon 1200D and 100D bodies have dropped by 7% and 6%.  For the 100D, this takes the price down to two-thirds of its launch price, so most of its expected fall-off has now happened.  For the 1200D, though, this is the first move from its inflated launch price, so a further 30% drop would be expected before this model is replaced.

On the lens front, a really welcome price drop of 4% on the Canon 500mm f/4 II is the first significant drop for this lens since just after its launch a year and a half ago.  Other drops of 1% to 2% in the Canon 600mm f/4 II, 400mm f/2.8 II and 800mm f/5.6 add up to a broad fall in Canon supertele lens prices.  These are not big drops but, given the lack of any reductions at this end of the lens market in the last year, they will build hopes of further reductions in the coming months.  Despite these encouraging signs, my advice remains to go ahead with any planned purchases in this sector as further reductions are likely to be small and gradual.

A final reduction was a 2% drop for the Canon 100-400mm zoom.  There has once again been speculation recently about the imminent replacement of this aged model.  The replacement model is likely to be better, but at a huge price premium, so don't get too excited at this stage.

Given the lack of much of substance to report in new equipment, this month I finally got around to updating my Buying Guide for Used DSLRs above.  This showed some huge changes since my last update two years ago and I will comment fully on these changes next month.  For now, the take-away message is clear: don't buy a brand new camera body without giving serious consideration to the used models you could buy for the same money.

May 2014 Update

Again no new product announcements or price changes this month.

Last month, I took the opportunity of a news lull to review the accumulated changes of the past year.  This month, to mark my first whole decade as a digital bird photographer, I'll take a look at what's changed in the last ten years in the equipment field.

In 2004, as now, the leading camera systems for bird photography were those of Canon and Nikon.  These systems were - and still are - almost inseparable for general photography, but with Nikon having the edge for wide-angle shooters and Canon having the edge for long telephoto users.  Back then, for example, both Canon and Nikon had 500mm and 600mm superteles, but the Canon versions had Image Stabilisation (IS), where the Nikon ones did not.  Nikon added Vibration Reduction to their superteles in 2007 (8 years after Canon) but, today, the latest versions of these lenses from Canon are still the best that money can buy.  The point of this round-up, though, is not to compare one brand with another: it is to compare the equipment of a decade ago with that available today.

I will stick with lenses for now, because these are, in my opinion, more important than camera bodies.  Staying with the leading-edge superteles, Nikon and Canon made only one upgrade to their 500mm and 600mm lenses in the last decade, Nikon's in 2007 and Canon's in 2012.  The new Canon lenses are sharper, lighter and have better IS, plus greatly improved performance when used with the latest extenders (teleconverters).  800mm lenses were also introduced by Canon in 2008 and Nikon in 2013.  There have therefore been significant improvements to professional bird photography lenses, but what about at the 1000-or-so level?  Well, my opinion is that, throughout the last decade, the best available bird photography lens in this price range has been the Canon 400mm f/5.6 that was introduced in 1993 and which still doesn't have an equivalent in the Nikon range.  In this period, new stabilised zoom lenses were introduced by independent lens manufacturers (Sigma 150-500mm in 2008, Sigma 50-500mm in 2010 and Tamron 150-600mm in 2014), but these still don't topple the Canon 400mm prime in my view.

Moving on to camera bodies, the Canon range at the start of the decade comprised the 300D and 10D models (6 megapixels, 7 AF points, 2.5/3 frames per second) and the professional 1D Mk II and 1Ds models (8/11 MP, 45 AF points and 8.5/3 FPS).  The Nikon range comprised the D70 model that was my first DSLR (6 MP, 5 AF points, 3 FPS) and the professional D1X and D2H models (3/4 MP, 5/11 AF points and 4.5/8 FPS).  All models from both ranges had maximum ISO settings of around ISO1600.  All models had APS-C sized crop sensors, except the two Canon pro bodies, which had APS-H and Full Frame sensors).

Today, the Canon line-up comprises five APS-C models, the 100D, 1200D, 700D, 70D and 7D (18-20 MP, 9-19 AF points and 3-8 FPS) and three Full Frame models, the 6D 5D Mk III and 1D X (19-23 MP, 11-61 AF points and 5-14 FPS).  The APS-H (1.3x) crop sensor has been abandoned.  The most recent Nikon bodies include the APS-C sized D3300, D5300 and D7100 models (25 MP, 11-51 AF points and 5-6 FPS) and the Full Frame D610, D800, D4s and DF models (16-36 MP, 39-51 AF points and 4-11 FPS).  Almost all models from both ranges have maximum unboosted ISO settings of ISO6400-25,600.

In summary, then, megapixel counts have gone up from 3-11 MP ten years ago to 18-36 now; AF points have gone up from 5-11 to 9-61; frame rates have gone up from 2.5-8.5 to 3-14 FPS; and maximum sensitivity settings have gone up from 1600 to 51,200.  On average, this means that megapixel counts and AF points have roughly quadrupled, frame rates have increased by a half and maximum ISO settings have increased 16-fold (take this last measure with a pinch of salt, because it reflects marketing hype as much as genuine high-ISO image quality improvement).  There has also been a shift towards more Full Frame sensors.

Whichever measure you take, therefore, the technological innovation of the two camera giants (and the competition between them) have resulted in some major benefits being delivered to bird photographers and, of course, to photographers in general.  The capabilities of low-end DSLRs now exceed those of cutting-edge pro bodies from ten years ago, bringing excellent bird imaging capability to the masses.  Many professional photographers hate this fact and it is understandable given the flooding of the market with high quality bird images that can be bought for peanuts or even used for free.  The pro bird photographers of today, though, have had to employ considerable creativity to remain in business and, as a result, the standard of bird images has been pushed ever higher.

A decade ago, debates were raging about whether digital photography was better than film and the arguments in its favour were more about immediacy, convenience and cost than about image quality.  Today, ten years after film photography pretty much reached its limit, digital photography has taken imaging capability far beyond anything seen in the film era.  Challenging branches of photography - such as bird photography - can now be enjoyed by anyone.  I believe that's something to be celebrated!

April 2014 Update

The last month has been the quietest ever, with no new product announcements relevant to bird photographers and no changes in the prices of the 30-or-so cameras and lenses I track.

It's therefore a good opportunity to take stock of what's happened over the last year or, actually, the eleven months since I last did an annual round-up last May.

Starting as usual with the 'deaths and births', we lost the 1100D, 600D, 650D and 60D and gained the 70D.  Yes, that's it.  When I did my review last May, it included six new Canon DSLR models and yet this year we have only one.  Even the ancient 7D didn't get an upgrade.  The DSLRs that had been recently introduced last time - the 100D, 700D and 6D - had the expected price falls of 23%, 12% and 14% respectively.  The 70D also fell by 20% from its launch price, but the remaining models - the 7D, 5D Mk III and 1D X - have remained at almost exactly the same price for the whole year.

With the clear out of old models, the range of new Canon DSLRs for those interested in bird photography is now very clear: budget 1200D and 100D models around the 400 level (not great for bird photography and definitely poorer value than used bodies from higher model ranges); the 500 700D and 900 70D bodies (not cheap but decent, especially the 70D); the 1000 7D and 1400 6D (a clear choice between reach/speed and image quality); and finally the 2300 5D Mk III and 4800 1D X (great bird photography cameras with the latter giving a performance and build quality edge at a huge price premium).

On the lens front, the much talked about Canon 200-400mm zoom with built-in 1.4x extender came out just after my last round-up, at the astronomical price of 12,000.  It has since dropped by 14%, but is still well over the 10,000 mark.  I would not like to mention this lens without my usual warning that this lens is not optimal for bird photography.  If you are a bird photographer and are considering this lens, get the latest 600mm or 500mm lens instead: your longest lens should always be a prime.  If you think you need 'the flexibility of a zoom', you are almost certainly wrong but, even if you're right, you should get this flexibility by having a mid-range zoom alongside a long prime.  If you own the Canon 200-400mm zoom, you are not a bird photographer: at best, you are a general wildlife photographer or other non-wildlife photographer; at worst, you're the type of person who must have the most expensive lens in the line-up, just for the sake of it.  Sorry for my frustration with these 'all the gear, but no idea' types, but their ravings are persuading some aspiring bird photographers to waste their savings on a jack-of-all-trades lens.

The only other new lens on the bird photography scene this year has been the Tamron 150-600mm zoom.  To recommend this lens would seem to be a contradiction of my last paragraph.  However, its launch into the sub-1000 sector makes this a completely different comparison.  Yes, this lens is also a jack-of-all-trades lens, but it sits at a price point at which there are no prime alternatives and the only real competitors are the inferior Sigma 150-500mm and 50-500mm zooms.  There are undoubtedly issues with this lens when used at its full 600mm setting, but anyone with the self-discipline never to exceed the 500mm setting would, I'm sure, be delighted with its 'bang per buck'.  If it wouldn't impact resale values, I'd suggest simply fixing the lens at the 500mm setting using superglue!  For me, though, the big question has been whether to change the advice I've been giving for years and recommend the new Tamron over the Canon 400mm f/5.6 prime.  From looking at huge numbers of reviews and sample images, I've finally reached the conclusion that, given the choice, I'd take the Canon prime instead.  True, it costs almost 20% more than the Tamron, so it's not at the same price point, but I'd buy a used copy or grey import or sell something or just save up longer to get the Canon prime every time.  Even with considerably less reach and a lack of image stabilisation, I'm confident that I could create a much better portfolio of bird images with the Canon prime than the Tammy zoom, due to the sharpness, maneuverability and AF speed of this mini-marvel.  I still get emails almost every week from people thanking me for pointing them in the direction of this lens and raving about its impact on their bird photography.  Maybe if Tamron or Sigma made a 500mm f/5.6 VC/OS prime they may be able to topple this unique lens but, otherwise, my advice stands firm.

Looking more generally at lens prices, many people hoped some of the key lenses would drop in price this year but, unfortunately, the opposite has happened in almost every case.  The Canon 300mm f/4, 300mm f/2.8 II, 100-400mm zoom, 400mm f/5.6, 400mm f/4 and 800mm f/5.6 have gone up by 6%, 4%, 9%, 9%, 8% and 5% respectively (all much more than inflation).  The Series II 400mm f/2.8 and 500mm f/4 stayed about the same and, thankfully, the 600mm f/4 dropped 3%.  For the next year, the conclusion has to be that there's no point waiting for further lens price reductions: just go ahead and buy the best you can afford.

The real opportunity in the equipment area this year is the availability of used gear at unprecedented price/performance points.  A Canon 1D MkIV body for 1700, 5D Mk II for 1000 or 50D for 300 are real bargains, whilst a Series I 500mm f/4 IS for 3000 makes top-notch bird photography accessible to more people than ever before.

In summary, after the bar-raising launches of top-end bodies and lenses the previous year, albeit at a price, the last year has given bird photographers nothing new of use and nothing in the way of cost savings on new gear.  Once again, the comforting conclusion is that the emotional energies of bird photographers are better spent on the search for the best images of the best birds, not the best gear with which to capture them.

March 2014 Update

Despite eager anticipation of new Canon DSLRs, including the long-overdue 7D Mark II, Canon haven't launched any new models for nine months now.  The only exception has been the announcement this month of a new 1200D at the entry level, which can now be pre-ordered for 350, almost 50% more than the current street price of the outgoing 1100D model.  At least in this case, the megapixel count has increased from 12 to 18, giving at least something of value to bird photographers amongst the inevitable video feature enhancements.  At present, though, one of the last remaining 600D bodies (that can still be picked up for the same price as a 1200D pre-order) would be better value.

Pricewise, a 2% increase in the Canon 6D body and a 3% increase in the Sigma 150-500mm lens are the only significant changes.

Hopefully next month will see the launch of something of note.

February 2014 Update

In the complete absence of any other product news relevant to bird photographers, all attention continues to focus on the Tamron 150-600mm zoom, which is now available in the UK at only 950.

Numerous reviews of this lens are now posted on the Web and these include many sample images of birds.  However, I have yet to see bird images taken by a bird photographer - professional or amateur - so it is too early to reach solid conclusions.  The reviews identify some minor shortcomings with the autofocus and image stabilisation abilities, plus a fall-off of sharpness and AF speed at the 600mm end but, on the whole, both optical and mechanical performance appear to be very good.  Actually, any photographers who can discipline themselves to shoot with this lens at 500mm would almost certainly find it even better (equivalent to resisting adding a teleconverter).

Again, in a quality/performance comparison with the Canon megabucks superteles, the Tamron will always lose out.  In terms of value for money, though, the comparison is reversed: the Tamron delivers the reach of the big guns with most of the image quality at a tenth of the price.  Tamron could easily have launched this lens at double the price.  By pitching below the 1000 mark, though, they have set this segment of the market alight.

In other price news, there have been small (1-2%) reductions in the prices of the Canon 6D body, 100-400mm and 600mm f/4 lenses, plus the 1.4x and 2x extenders, and a 6% drop in the price of the Canon 200-400mm zoom.  A 4% rise for the Sigma 150-500mm zoom further seals its fate.

January 2014 Update

To Tamron's credit, their new 150-600mm f/5-6.3 zoom lens went on sale in Japan in mid-December, only a few weeks after the product was announced.  US shipping starts mid-January and UK shipping shouldn't be too far behind.  This lens is a replacement for Tamron's 870 200-500mm f/5-6.3 zoom and, in the US, costs around 13% more than the outgoing model.  That would suggest UK pricing just around the 1000 mark.  Given the increased zoom range and the addition of vibration control (image stabilisation), the launch price seems reasonable and may well fall in any case.

The outgoing 200-500mm model is not one I've ever recommended, as it costs more than the Sigma 150-500mm and lacks image stabilisation.  The new model will certainly shake up this part of the market.  Interestingly, the only significant price changes this month in the products I track have been 7% and 3% reductions in the Sigma 150-500mm and Canon 100-400mm zooms!  That said, I would not recommend any product until it has been proven in the field and the jury is certainly still out on this one.

In the past, a lens of this specification would have been relatively useless for bird photography for various reasons.  Firstly, an aperture of f/6.3 at the long end would have meant shutter speeds so long that both subject movement and equipment movement would be excessive.  Second, autofocus systems would have been hopeless in the low transmitted light levels.  Looking forward, though, developments such as image stabilisation, improved AF systems and, especially, better high-ISO performance of DSLRs all make such a design much more usable.  The fact that this is a full-frame lens design also means it can be expected to perform well in the centre part of the frame used by crop-sensor cameras.

I don't see this type of lens as an alternative to the Canon superteles for professional bird photographers but, for enthusiast photographers, it could provide unprecedented reach.

December 2013 Update

On 7 November, Tamron announced the development of a new 150-600mm f/5-6.3 zoom with Vibration Control.  See here for details.  No delivery date or price has yet been announced, but this will be followed with interest by those who can't afford or justify the megabucks superteles.

As the Christmas shopping season gets into full flow, there is still no sign of the general price reductions we normally see at this time of year.  The 100D and 600D both dropped by 5%, but that's expected for models at either end of their lifespans.  The 6D also dropped 3%, finally bringing it down to a reasonable level (23% below its launch price).  Lens prices were static, with the Sigma 150-500mm increasing by 3% and the Canon 200-400mm zoom reducing by 8% being the only movements.  The latter is significant, since it is the first fall from its astronomical 12,000 launch price.

There was one major price change this month, as the new 70D body dropped 17% to 880 (200 down from its launch price).  As mentioned last month, there is very little to choose between the 70D and the 7D but, with this price drop, the choice becomes a lot clearer.  I now have no reservations in recommending the 70D for those looking to significantly upgrade their entry-level DSLRs.

A year or two ago, the Canon DSLR product range was confused and over-crowded, but this has now resolved nicely.  The 1100D, 700D, 70D and 7D crop bodies at the 240, 490, 880 and 1030 price points make sense and the long-anticipated 7D Mk II coming in at a higher price point will make this even more rational.  The 400 100D with its price premium for compactness sits alongside this crop body range sensibly.  The full-frame 6D, 5D Mk III and 1D X at 1400, 2300 and 4800 also provide a clear choice at prices that are now justifiable by market demand.  As regular readers of my equipment updates will know, I'm not reticent in criticising Canon if I think they've got it wrong but, right now, I'm happy to congratulate them on a very well designed product range.

All that's missing now are high-megapixel bodies to meet the demands of reach-hungry sectors such as enthusiast bird photography and the range will be complete.

November 2013 Update

As expected, no announcements of note this month.

As predicted last month, the price of the new 70D body has now started its fall from its 1079 launch price, falling by 3% this month.  The anomalous rise in the 1100D body price has also been corrected by an 8% fall this month.  Unsurprisingly, the venerable 7D body also saw a slight price drop of 4%.

Anyone coming to the Canon DSLR range for the first time will wonder why there are two bodies - the 70D and 7D - at almost exactly the same price.  When they realise one of these is four years old - an aeon in consumer electronics terms - they will almost certainly opt for the shiny new model on the assumption that everything has been improved.  If that doesn't convince them, the increase in megapixel count from 18 to 20 will be the clincher.  In practice, though, there are almost no differences between the two models as far as bird photography is concerned, either in image quality or performance.  Once again, this shows that DSLR development is focused on improving other areas such as video or static-subject shooting.  There has never been a Canon camera more optimised for enthusiast-level bird photography than the 7D.  Hopefully, the long-overdue 7D Mk II will take this optimisation to the next level; the 70D certainly doesn't.

In contrast to the above camera body price drops, there have been no significant price drops for bird photography lenses this month and some Canon lenses have gone up significantly: 300mm f/4 up 5%, 400mm f/5.6 up 7%, 100-400mm zoom up 11% and 1.4x/2x extenders up 5%.  All bad news, but especially for the 400mm f/5.6 which I strongly recommend.  If you're thinking about buying bird photography gear for Christmas, I'd probably wait to see whether next month brings the traditional seasonal price reductions. 

October 2013 Update

Another quiet month for equipment announcements, with nothing of note for bird photographers.  Even the rumours websites are suggesting there may not be any further significant announcements this year.

There have been a few price changes, but mostly just by one or two percent, such as the expected 2% reductions in the new-ish Canon 700D and 6D models as they continue to drop from their launch prices.  The Canon 100D dropped 5% for the same reason, but the 70D still refuses to budge from its 1100 opening price, despite now being readily available.  I expect some movement on this next month.  In the meantime, prospective purchasers should think about whether to grab one of the outgoing 60D bodies, the last few of which can now be picked up for less than 600.  The 500 price saving would be better added to your lens fund unless you already have a lens at least as good as the Canon 400mm f/5.6.

Speaking of lenses, this month also saw the Canon 100-400mm and Sigma 150-500mm zooms drop by 6% and 3% respectively.  Neither of these lenses is as sharp or fast as the Canon 400mm f/5.6, though.

Finally, an anomaly this month is the rise in the price of the Canon 1100D body by 13%.

September 2013 Update

Another quiet month for equipment announcements, with nothing of note for bird photographers.

The 70D body is now in stock at some retailers.  Although a solid upgrade over the 60D, it is still at its launch price of almost 1100.  The 60D, which was launched at almost 1000, plateaued at 600, so I would expect the 'target price' of the 70D to be around 700, making it 60% overpriced at present.

On the price front, the new Canon 100D and 700D bodies dropped by 2% and 3% respectively, as expected.  The 700D still costs 30% more than the outgoing 600D for no benefit to bird photographers, so is still one to avoid.

Worse news is a pair of price increases on lenses, Canon 100-400mm zoom and 300mm f/2.8 II prime going up 7% and 5% respectively.  For bird photographers, the first of these is not much of an issue because it makes a poor value-for-money purchase even poorer, but the return of the 300mm almost to its pre-order price from two years ago is terrible news for those who were hoping this lens would drop to a more affordable level.  In truth, the quality of this lens either alone or with the latest 1.4x or 2x extenders is such that many bird photographers are using it as an alternative to the longer focal length superteles, enjoying the size, weight and cost savings it brings.  When higher-megapixel Canon bodies eventually arrive, this will be an even more attractive option for all but the most committed bird photographers.  5000 may prove to be a sustainable price point for this lens, so don't hesitate if you've identified this as your ideal lens, especially since resale values on lenses are hugely better than those on bodies (I could still sell my Canon 500mm and 300mm lenses for pretty much what I paid for them 7 and 2 years ago, but my camera bodies are now all but worthless).

August 2013 Update

Since the announcement of the new Canon 70D body on 1 July, no new product news has broken in the equipment types I monitor.

Price-wise, there have been 5-6% increases in the price of the Canon 7D body and 400mm f/4 lens, but 5-8% reductions in the Canon 1100D, 100D, 700D and 6D bodies.  The 1100D is now down to around half its original price and, at just over 200, proves that DSLR ownership is possible for most budding photographers.  The recently-launched 100D, 700D and 6D bodies have already dropped 20% and are starting to get into the sensible zone (although they will all surely drop further by the end of this year).

Definitely a quiet month!

July 2013 Update

For bird photography, the most significant equipment announcement this month is the Canon 70D camera.  In comparison to the 'badge upgrade' of the 700D, the enhancements incorporate into the 70D seem huge.  The headline improvement is the new 'dual pixel CMOS autofocus' system, which improves AF performance when shooting in Live View mode.  Don't get too carried away, though: this has limited application for bird photography.  The new model also brings back some of the features that had been removed from the 60D such as autofocus microadjustment and throws in some usability improvements such as WiFi connectivity that are nice-to-haves, even though they don't improve image quality.

Importantly, though, there has been a return to the solid incremental improvements that had been a feature of xxD model evolution until the retrograde step taken by the 60D.  The sensor now promises a megapixel increase from 18 to 20 without a loss of image quality, whilst the shooting rate increases from 5.3 to 7 frames per second.  More significantly, the 19-point AF system of the 7D now replaces the 9-point system used on its predecessors.  This (customisable) AF system may not compare to the latest pro system used on the 1D X and 5D Mk III, but it has satisfied countless 7D users for several years now and is certainly good enough for all but the most extreme bird photography situations.

The 70D should therefore prove to be a significant advance for enthusiast bird photographers when it hits the streets in the next month or two.  As always, the launch price is ridiculously hiked - in this case to 80% higher than the street price of the outgoing model and to higher than its 7D 'big brother', but, assuming this comes down to something sensible in the coming months, this would make a highly desirable Christmas present.

Price changes this month have been 7%, 2%, 8% and 3% drops for the Canon 1100D, 700D, 100D and 6D bodies, and 2% and 5% rises for the Canon 400mm and 800 f/5.6 lenses.  The new 200mm-400mm zoom is now available to purchase for those who wish to do so.

June 2013 Update

After more than two years since Canon first said they would develop a 200-400mm zoom with built-in 1.4x teleconverter, they have now finally launched the finished product and are starting the first trickle of deliveries.  The lens, the full name of which is the 'Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x', has a launch price of 12,000!

If you're thinking of buying one of these lenses, you will probably have convinced yourself that the flexibility of being able to zoom from 200-560mm with a single lens will give you an advantage over the fixed focal length alternatives, such as the 500mm and 600mm f/4 superteles (the latest Series II versions of which cost 7700 and 10,600, respectively).  If you're a general wildlife photographer who shoots as many mammals as birds, you may be right but, in my opinion, if you consider yourself primarily a wild bird photographer, you would be very wrong!  Trust me, you would be using the longest focal length available to you for 99.99% of your shots and, even if you think you'll have an advantage for the remaining 0.01% of shots, you could normally gain the same advantage by stepping back a few paces.  Occasionally, this won't be an option, but you're then down to 0.0001% of shots.  On the flip side, the greater reach, quality and speed of the primes would be an advantage in almost all bird shooting situations.

The new zoom is 13% heavier than the 500mm prime and almost as heavy as the 600mm prime.  It is even heavier than the 500mm prime with a 1.4x extender attached, despite giving only 560mm reach compared with the 700mm of the latter.  It also costs 4000 more!  That price difference would almost buy you a 1D X body or a 300mm f/2.8 II lens or a dream trip to photograph birds anywhere in the world.

I'm convinced that bird photographers who own prime superteles would wish they had the 200-400mm zoom only once in a blue moon, and equally convinced that 200-400mm zoom owners would wish for a prime supertele just about every time they pointed their camera at a bird.

If you're a bird photographer with a five-figure lens fund burning in a hole in your pocket, buy the excellent 600mm f/4 II prime instead.  If that's too big for you, go for the 500mm (or the 300mm f/2.8) and put the money you saved to good use.  Just don't be tempted to make an expensive mistake.

On the prices front this month, there has been something of a polarisation, with top-end gear going up and budget gear going down.  The new Canon Series II superteles have all increased in price (1-3%) and the Canon 6D body has also gone up 7%, whilst the Canon 1100D, 600D, 700D and 100D bodies dropped 3%, 3%, 5% and 9%, respectively.

May 2013 News

The new Canon 100D camera body announced last month is already in stock, but still at the launch price.  The new (depending on your definition of 'new') 700D is also in stock with a 6% drop from the launch price.  It's incredible how quickly things can move at the budget end of the range compared to the snail's pace of the high-end gear.  (Actually, even snails can travel a long way in two years!)

The only other significant price changes this month were 3% reductions in the Canon 7D and 6D bodies and a 2% increase in the 5D Mk III body.  There are also some Canon cashback deals available until the end of May/August that mean there are further savings on almost all their camera bodies.  All lens prices are the same this month for the gear I track.

Updated firmware is now available for the Canon 5D Mk III body meaning that both it and the 1D X can now autofocus at f/8 (e.g. using a 600mm f/4 lens with a 2x extender).  This AF is limited, but at least it's now (belatedly) possible.

As you can see, little has happened this month, so I thought I'd have a quick look at what's happened over the last year.  In fact, I've looked at the past 15 months, because I last did a full-year round-up last February.

Starting with the 'deaths and births', we lost the 550D, 5D Mk II, 1D Mk IV and 1Ds Mk III bodies and gained the 650D, 700D, 100D, 6D, 5D Mk III and 1D X.  The prices of the 600D, 650D, 60D and 5D Mk III dropped by a quarter during the period, mostly reflecting corrections from the hiked launch prices.  The long-in-the-tooth 7D dropped only 6% and the venerable 5D Mk II had dropped only 1% until a last-minute clearance saw 20% reductions during the last few weeks of its life (a real bargain for those who took the opportunity).  At the top end, the 1D X dropped only 8% from its launch price (the old 'reassuringly expensive' advertising slogan springs to mind).

On the lens front, the 500mm and 600mm Series II superteles finally started to ship in late 2012, but supplies are still patchy and the prices haven't yet dropped by much (9% and 5%, respectively).  The other Canon lenses I track dropped by 5% to 8%, which is welcome.  The Sigma lenses I track, on the other hand, stayed at exactly the same prices for the whole 15-month period, other than the 50-500mm zoom, which dropped 9%.

What's most interesting is what didn't materialise through this period.  New versions of the 7D body and the 400mm f/5.6 and 100-400mm lenses had been rumoured, but didn't appear.  A new Canon 200-400mm zoom lens with built-in 1.4x extender had also been expected, but hasn't even been officially announced yet, even though samples have been out in the field for many months.

In the same period, Nikon have continued to gain ground, especially with their new high-megapixel bodies.  Through much of the period, Canon was simply unable to supply any 500mm or 600mm lenses, whilst Nikon stocked equivalent models.  Even now that these Canon superteles can be purchased, they are still much more expensive than the Nikon equivalents.  In the bird photography world, Canon has now lost much of its advantage over Nikon.  Although I have no plans to switch to Nikon gear, I may start including information about Nikon products in future website articles.

Ultimately, though, where money is no object, Canon have still proved that they can deliver what pros need most.  The combination of the superb 600mm f/4 II lens and 1D X body really has pushed the boundaries of equipment capability.  With this combo, you can still get AF and very good image quality even with 2x extenders, giving a 1200mm f/8 equivalent.  In the generally low light levels of the UK, f/8 would normally be too small an aperture to get action-stopping shutter speeds, especially for fast-moving birds with such a high-magnification lens.  With the low digital noise of the 1D X, though, it's possible to just bump the ISO up to 10,000 or more and still freeze any subject or equipment motion, whilst retaining excellent image quality.  This really is a game-changer in bird photography.  Where extreme magnification is not needed, the sharpness of the new Series II superteles without extenders has proved as impressive as Canon's original claims.  Finally, top-quality autofocus on the new 1D X and 5D Mk III bodies, together with the flexibility and 'look' of full-frame sensors completes the picture.

Little of this has yet rippled down to the budget or mid-range products, but the top-end gear really has advanced the state of the art over the last 15 months.  The challenge, as always, is for bird photographers to make the most of equipment advances and do what only they can do: deliver beautiful portraits, revealing behavioural records and stunning action shots of our amazing avian subjects!

April 2013 News

After the anticipation of a 60D replacement in March, what actually happened was that Canon launched two different DSLRs: a 700D to replace the 650D and a new 100D which Canon claim is the smallest and lightest DSLR in the world.  Let's look at the Canon 100D first.  I can understand Canon launching this model because, for general photography, many people find DSLRs too big and heavy and the alternative options of bridge cameras and compact systems cameras fail to deliver DSLR-level performance (e.g. in autofocus capability).  For bird photography, though, there is no advantage to having a 30% weight/size saving in the camera body because all suitable lenses make this saving insignificant and you're just left with a fiddly, unbalanced combination.

Moving on to the Canon 700D, which is the latest model in a range that has been the entry point for most serious bird photographers since DSLRs began.  Under the right circumstances, xxxD bodies can produce images every bit as good as megabucks pro bodies, which is why I still recommend the 600D as an ideal started body for people wishing to take up bird photography.  Where the pro bodies reflect 'state of the art' in DSLR advancement, the xxxD series reflect the 'state of the market' for everyday DSLR users.  For this reason, new bodies in this series are important and highly anticipated.  They will never be ground-breaking, but are expected to provide significant incremental improvements.  So how does the 700D stack up against this expectation?  Well, what can I say?  The only differences from the old model are an 'improved finish', an ability to preview 'creative filters' (gimmicky effects unbecoming of any DSLR in my view) and - wait for it - a mode dial that now turns 360 degrees!  This must be a contender for the most disappointing new product release in the history of photography.  If you're the type of person who feels the need to have the latest model, you may like to consider this: the pre-order price for the 700D is 620, whilst the almost-identical 600D can be bought new for 390.  That's 60% more to change the badge from a 6 to a 7!  Looked at another way, you could go two model ranges up and buy a new 60D for less money (610) or go for a used body three or four model ranges up.  Unless you have a lens at least as good as the Canon 400mm f/5.6, an even better option would be to stick with the 600D and put the extra 230 into your lens upgrade fund.  For developing bird photographers, it's all about buying smarter!

In other news this month, there have been more price reductions than recent months (and no price increases), so all good news there.  The 1100D, 600D, 60D and 6D bodies have dropped 2%, 8%, 2% and 3%, respectively, and the 300mm f/2.8 II and 400mm f/4 lenses have dropped 2% and 4%.

March 2013 News

Another quiet month as far as equipment announcements are concerned.  There is speculation that a replacement for the Canon 60D body will be announced later this month, with a 7D replacement later this year.  It is expected that both will move 'up-market' to broaden the spread of the model range.  The 3% fall in the price of the 60D body whilst all other Canon bodies stayed at exactly the same price this month in interesting.  To many, the 60D was a disappointing step in the evolution of the xxD body series.  It will be interesting to see what Canon comes up with as a replacement.

The only other price reduction this month was a 2% drop for the 400mm f/4 DO lens.  This lens uses a Diffractive Optical element that allows the size and weight of the lens to be greatly reduced.  In practice, though, I've never seen a great image taken using one of these lenses and, at 5200, that's not what you'd expect.  If lens size and weight are a big issue for you, I would recommend the 300mm f/2.8 Series II instead of this lens.  Canon has said it will develop more DO lenses in the future.  Let's hope they're better than this one.

Speaking of 300mm lenses, both the Canon f/4 and f/2.8 II versions have seen 2% price rises this month, whilst the 1.4x and 2x extenders have gone up 8%.  All unwelcome hikes!

February 2013 News

No major announcements this month on the equipment front for the items I track.  Of interest, although I don't generally track Nikon gear, is their announcement of an 800mm f/5.6 lens, which seems pretty much identical in spec to the Canon equivalent launched five years ago.  This is about par for the course for Nikon, who took 8 years to add image stabilisation to their 500mm and 600mm lenses after this was added to the Canon versions.  On the other hand, Nikon have taken the lead in launching a high-megapixel (36MP) full-frame body, the lack of which continues to frustrate many Canon enthusiasts.  A price comparison is also interesting, with the pre-order price of the new Nikon 800mm an astronomical 15,600, compared to 9700 for the Canon version.  Again, to be fair to Nikon, their 500mm and 600mm lenses cost roughly 6000 and 7000, compared to Canon's new versions costing 8000 and 11,000.  In truth, taking the Canon and Nikon systems as a whole, there is not all that much to choose between them.  In practice, 'operator capability' will certainly be a bigger factor than equipment capability.

On a completely separate theme, this month I noted an interesting development in an area I've predicted for many years will become of major importance to bird photography, namely the extraction of high-quality still images from video footage.  The reason this will eventually become so important is that it will remove one of the most difficult-to-acquire skill of bird photographers, namely timing.  It will be possible to just leave the camera to run during capture and then just extract the frames later that correspond to the peak of the action or the best poses.  I don't normally mention the Canon 1D C body, which is essentially a 1D X with '4K' video recording capability added (pre-order price 10,000!).  However, seeing some of the stills captured from its footage finally shows the feasibility of this technique.

After a few months of price reductions across the board, there have been some increases this month, with the Canon 1100D and 600D bodies going up 3% and the 1D X and 5D Mk III going up 2% and 1%, respectively.  Disappointingly, the Canon 300mm f/2.8 II lens also went up 3%, taking it back up to the 5000 level.  As a slight consolation, the other Series II telephotos (400mm, 500mm and 600mm) all dropped 1%.

January 2013 News

Once again, this has been a good month for price reductions, with most of the Canon camera bodies and lenses I track seeing reductions.  At the lower end, the 600D and 60D dropped 4% and 6%, respectively.  In the mid-range the new 6D dropped 11% (at which it is still overpriced), whilst the 5D Mk II dropped 17% as Canon finally discontinued it.  The 5D Mk II has probably been the most ground-breaking DSLR ever and will be remembered with fondness.  At under 1300 while stocks last, this is an incredible bargain.  At the top end, the 1D X dropped 4%, taking it below 90% of its launch price, a welcome step on its way to a reasonable level.  The 1D X is winning favour for its excellent high-ISO noise performance, which opens up new photographic possibilities, but its limited resolution continues to cause frustration and means many photographers are holding on for Canon's 'big-megapixel' model(s) expected later this year.

On the lens front there have been further 2-3% reductions in the Canon 400mm f/2.8, 500mm f/4 and 600mm f/4 Series II superteles, keeping them on track to achieve more sensible prices later in the year.  There was also a 3% drop for the Sigma 150-500mm zoom, but this is still not down to its former price point.  Finally, the Canon 1.4x and 2x Series III extenders (teleconverters) also dropped 3% to reach two-thirds of their launch price, which is a realistic price (even though it is nearly double the price of their Series II equivalents three years ago).

December 2012 News

Amazingly, only just over a month after its announcement, Canon's 6D body is already in stock.  The variation in Canon's new product lead times is baffling: a product announced today could become available any time from 2012 to 2014.  Anyway, if you're interested in the advantages of full-frame cameras, I would seriously consider a 5D Mk II at 1500 whilst it is still available.  If (and only if) you're into more action-oriented bird photography, it could be worth paying the extra 800 to get a 5D Mk III for its improved autofocus, but don't convince yourself that the image quality will be noticeably better than its predecessor.  Price-wise, at least the 5D Mk III is now in sensible territory, unlike the 5000 1D X, from which I've yet to see an image that couldn't have been taken with older/cheaper cameras.  Sensible territory for the 1D X would be well under 4000, whilst the new 6D would be under 1300.

My main prediction for 2013 is that we will see both full-frame and crop bodies with much higher pixel densities than the current range of 20-ish megapixel FF bodies.  These will obviously have poorer noise performance than the current FFs, but their apparent reach will prove irresistible to most bird photographers.

Looking at price movements this month, there is plenty of good news, with a number of further reductions - and no increases - across the items I track.  The Canon 1100D, 600D, 60D, 5D Mk III and 1D X bodies are all down 3-4%, whilst the Canon 100-400mm, 300mm f/2.8 II and 500mm f/4 II lenses are down 2-3%.  The last of these, the 500mm f/4 II, has now dropped below the 8000 threshold, giving encouragement that it has started its journey to its target price of, hopefully, around 6000.

November 2012 News

This month, Canon has finally responded to the widespread (and justified) criticism that its new flagship DSLR, the 1D X, was unable to autofocus at apertures below f/5.6.  Earlier 1D series models could autofocus at f/8, albeit with reduced speed and flexibility.  Now, a firmware update can be downloaded that will allow the 1D X to AF at f/8 enabling, for example, the 500mm and 600mm f/4 superteles to be used with a 2x teleconverter.  A similar firmware upgrade for the 5D Mk III will be available from next April.

Further price reductions in the last month include: the 1100D, 600D, 650D, 5D Mk III and 1D X bodies down 2%, 7%, 7%, 9% and 2%, respectively; the Sigma 50-500mm and Canon 300mm f/2.8 II lenses down 9% and 2%, respectively.  Unfortunately, the Sigma 150-500mm zoom went back up 3%, taking it back to its end-of-2011 price.

To me, the most notable price reductions are the Canon 5D Mk III body and the 300mm f/2.8 II lens.  The first of these had a 3000 launch price which has now reduced by 20% to 2400 (in just four months!).  The second, despite a launch price of 7500, has now dropped by a third to 5000.  I predict further price reductions in these products, but at least they have now move out of the ridiculous zone.  Hopefully, once stocks of the 500mm and 600mm f/4 II lenses become generally available, they will also dip below the ridiculous.

As a final note for this month, I see the 5D Mk II is now starting to be removed from dealers' lists, so don't hesitate to snap one up at the bargain 1500 price point before they disappear.

October 2012 News

On 17 September, Canon launched the new Canon 6D body, a 20-megapixel full-frame DSLR with a launch price of 1800 and availability expected around the end of the year. Initial impression is that Canon have effectively taken the 5D series up a level with the launch of the 5D Mk III, but introduced a new 'entry' level with the 6D. The 6D is therefore in some ways a downgrade compared with the 5D Mk II in the same way as the 60D was a downgrade compared with the 50D. Spec-wise, the 6D seems to have no advantages over the 5D Mk II for bird photography.  In particular, its autofocus system seems very basic and it has even fewer megapixels to play with than the four-year-old 5D Mk II.  I have yet to see a bird photographer who has showed any further interest in the 6D once they've read the spec list.  For now, therefore, I would definitely recommend grabbing a 5D Mk II while stocks last, rather than paying an extra 300 and waiting months for a camera that will give you nothing extra.

As with other recent camera launches, initial comparisons and judgments will always be made based on the launch price.  Since these can be inflated by up to 30% or more, it's easy to be overly harsh on the cameras.  For example, if the 6D were to be evaluated at 1200 - a price point 300 below the 5D Mk II rather than 300 above it - it would undoubtedly be seen in a more favourable light.  On the other hand, if Canon wanted to avoid their new products receiving lukewarm responses, they could rack back on their launch price inflation.  They can't have it both ways.

After a year and a half's wait, I've finally seen small stocks of the Canon Series II 500mm and 600mm f/4 lenses appearing in the UK.  Hopefully prices will soon start to drop to something more sensible (it's good to see that the other Series II superteles - the 300mm and 400mm f/2.8 lenses - have dropped by a further 2-3% this month).

Following last month's record number of price reductions in the equipment I track, there have been several further reductions this month: the Canon 600D, 650D, 60D and 7D bodies have dropped 3%, 6%, 4% and 2% respectively, and the Canon 400mm f/5.6 and Sigma 50-500mm lenses have dropped 3% and 8%.  Time to start Christmas shopping?

September 2012 News

After many months of waiting, the Canon 1D X and 5D Mk III bodies are now generally available.  Were they worth the wait?  From a bird photography viewpoint, I'm far from convinced, especially since the excellent 1D Mk IV body is no longer available and the 5D Mk II body will soon go the same way.  Photographers are now having to pay 50% more for only minor improvements and, in some respects, are getting less than they got before.  Not surprisingly, apart from the usual Canon 'fanboys', the response from leading bird photographers has been decidedly lukewarm.  Maybe if the prices drop by, say 25%, people will start to focus more on the improvements.

There have been a number of price reductions this month: the Canon 650D, 5D Mk II and 5D Mk III bodies are down 12%, 6% and 4%, respectively; the Canon 300mm f/4, 300mm f/2.8 II, 600mm f/4 II and 800mm f/5.6 lenses are down 5%, 4%, 2% and 3%; the Canon 1.4x III and 2x III extenders are both down 7%; the Sigma 50-500mm and 150-500mm zooms are down 4% and 7%.  For the equipment I track, this is the largest number of significant price reductions I've seen in a single month for two years, so that's got to be good news!

August 2012 News

This month, Canon has finally announced its long-awaited entry into the 'mirrorless camera' market in the form of the 'EOS M' model, which is due to be available from October.  Most major camera brands now have similar 'Compact System Camera' (CSC) ranges that sit between DSLRs and traditional fixed-lens digital cameras.  The EOS M has an 18-megapixel APS-C sized sensor and can use any Canon EF or EF-S lens through the use of an adapter.  It would therefore give similar results to a DSLR from the 'xxxD' model range, but with around half the size and weight.  So does that make them of interest to bird photographers?  In a word, 'no'.  For bird photography, the great majority of the size and weight is in the lens, not the body, so the miniaturisation has no benefit.  Worse, with an entry price of 770, you're actually paying a premium for the miniaturisation as well.  For that price, a new 60D or a used 7D would be a much better bet.  Over the next year, I'm sure I'll see plenty of bird images from EOS M cameras that are just as good as those taken on DSLRs (unlike images from smaller-sensor compact digital cameras), but that's not the point: I would still use a toaster to make toast even if someone proved they could make it with a cigarette lighter.

More significant than the EOS M launch, then, is the first drop in price of the Canon 5D Mk III body from 3000 to just under 2800.  This is still a premium price for this camera body, but at least it gives hope that we may see it dropping to something more reasonable over the coming months.  Sadly, the 1D Mk IV has now started to be removed from stock lists, leaving the 50% more expensive (and not yet generally available) 1D X as the only option for action-oriented pros.

All other prices and availabilities are almost exactly the same as last month. 

July 2012 News

Globally, tiny quantities of 1D X bodies and Series II 500mm and 600mm lenses are finally becoming available, but I haven't yet heard of any reaching UK bird photographers.  Initial reviews of these items are suggesting the improvements are relatively small considering the long waits and huge price hikes.  The main benefits seem to be the improved IS and reduced weight of the new lenses, especially the 600mm.  In my first 'blog' entry below (16 months ago!), I made the following comment about the 'forthcoming' superteles: "It remains to be seen whether there are any worthwhile improvements in image quality or AF performance".  Early reviews seem to be suggesting that improvements in these areas are slight at best, but the jury is still out.

In contrast to the production delays of the expensive products, Canon seem to be able to ship budget gear straight after launch, despite the much greater product volumes involved.  The 650D was only launched in mid-June, but is already generally in stock!

As expected, the arrival of the 700 650D has meant stocks of the 550D are now dwindling, leaving the 500 600D as the main option for bird photographers looking for new started gear.  New cameras in this class tend to have only very minor improvements, but greatly inflated launch prices.  I can't think of any reason why someone would pay 700 for a 650D when the same money would buy you a good used 7D, a current model from two classes up!  In the early days of digital, rapid technical advances and scarce availability made used DSLRs an unattractive proposition.  That's no longer true, though: the day of the used DSLR has definitely arrived.

June 2012 News

It's finally possible to get hold of a 5D Mk III, although still at the launch price of 3000.  Independent testing (see, for example, the DxOMark scores) shows sensor performance improvements of around half an F-stop through the normal ISO sensitivity range, despite Canon's headline claim of a 2-stop improvement.  They also show that dynamic range (the ability to retain detail from bright highlights to dark shadows) hasn't improved at all through the normal ISO range.  Given the extra three years' development time, this is not impressive, especially taking account the price hike.

It's still likely to be some time before you'd get your hands on a 1D X or a Series II 500mm or 600mm lens.

As predicted, Canon have now launched the successor to the 530 600D, in the form of the 700 650D.  So what do you get for the 30% price increase over the current model?  Well, for the bird photographer (as opposed to home video-maker), the answer is virtually nothing.  All the headline specs are the same, except for a continuous shooting speed increase from 3.7 to 5fps.  An articulated touch screen will make no difference whatsoever to your ability to take bird photos.

General prices are the same as last month except for a 10% increase in the price of the Sigma 150-500mm lens and small changes in the prices of the 1100D, 60D and 1D Mk IV bodies (-5%, -3% and +3%, respectively).

May 2012 News

A month after initial trickles of the new Canon 5D Mk III, stocks are still not generally available.  I suspect this will have given many prospective purchasers time to reconsider grabbing the outgoing 5D Mk II whilst they're still available (or two, in fact, for the price of a new Mk III), or waiting a little longer to see if Canon bows to the market demand for a higher-megapixel model.

There are also still no stocks of the 1D X body or the Series II 500mm or 600mm lenses worldwide.  Canon's ability to delay products it has already launched is becoming quite impressive!  If they launched 'my ideal product' today, I'd go ahead and buy what was available now rather than pay a huge pre-order price, then wait an indeterminate number of months for a product that still had teething problems.  Maybe that's what they want!

The biggest price changes this month have been a 14% increase for the Sigma 50-500mm zoom (avoid) and 8% increases for the Canon 1.4x and 2x extenders.  There has also been a 3% rise for the 1D Mk IV body as stocks ramp down and a 3% drop in the 5D Mk II (after last month's 10% rise).  Finally, there has been a 2% rise in the price of the Canon 100-400mm zoom, taking this lens back to its all-time highest price - even more reason to go for the 400mm f/5.6 prime instead.

One last thing: I don't normally plug my services through my Equipment News blog, but I'm pretty fired up by the initial response to the launch of my new Helpline, which makes it possible for me to give advice and training to people anywhere in the world by telephone, or online via Skype.  As far as I'm aware, I'm the only bird photographer offering this service.  For more details, click here.

April 2012 News

Compared to Canon's long lead times between products being announced and finally becoming available, it's good to see that 5D Mk III bodies are already starting to ship in some countries.  UK photographers who don't mind paying the full 3000 launch price should be in with a good chance of getting their hands on one during April.  In a sinister move, I've heard Canon are controlling the price at which this camera can be sold, meaning we may not see the price of this (or other new products) falling as quickly as for past products.  On the plus side, early reviews seem to confirm that this camera is as good as expected.  I have to say, though, that it's not twice as good as the camera it replaces, despite being twice the price, so bagging a 5D Mk II while they're still available may be a good move.  This may be the reason 5D Mk II's have gone up in price by 10% this month.

The only other significant price change this month has been a 2% rise for the Canon 800mm f/5.6, taking the price up to 10,000!  If I had that much to spend on a supertele, I'd be waiting for the new Series II 600mm f/4 instead.

All other prices and availabilities are as last month.

A final point of interest is the expected launch of a new Canon 100-400mm IS II zoom within the next year, to replace both the existing 100-400mm IS zoom and the 400mm f/5.6 prime.  The first of these is 'good, but not great' optically, whilst the second is sharp and fast-focusing, but with no IS.  The latter is a well-loved lens for flight shooting and provides an upgrade path that's missing from the Nikon range, namely a sharp, fast 400mm lens for around 1000.  My concern is that, even if the new zoom is equally sharp and fast, it is likely to cost over 2000.  If it's confirmed later this year that the prime will be discontinued, it may be worth getting hold of one before stocks disappear.

March 2012 News

The big news this month is the long-awaited launch of the Canon 5D Mk III.  Full specs can be found here.  The biggest change compared to its predecessor is the inclusion of the 61-point autofocus system developed for the 1D X, which should address what has, up to now, been the biggest weakness of the 5D model range for bird photography.  Disappointingly for me, Canon has chosen to make only a tiny increase in the megapixel count from 21.1 to 22.3, but this is not surprising because it is driven by the need to optimise for video shooting (I can't help hearing the old Buggles song with the lyrics "Video killed the DSLR").  Anyway, that aside, I'm sure the 5D Mk III will be a superb piece of kit and, as a fan of its predecessor, I can't wait to get my hands on one (though not at its inflated preorder price).  The other big spec change is an increase in the shooting rate from 3.9 to 6 frames per second.  I'm not a fan of machine-gun shooting, but this will help for action situations such as flight shots.  The thing I've always loved about the 5D Mk II is the rendition of colours and tones and this will hopefully be further improved in the new model, plus even better noise performance.  I'll add further thoughts shortly but the bottom line is that this should be a great camera.  I want one!

The other camera body launch expected imminently is the replacement for the 600D, which may explain this month's 5% price reduction in the 550D, which will surely then be discontinued.  The only other significant price changes this month have been 3% reductions in the Canon 1100D body, the Sigma 150-500mm lens and the Canon 1.4x and 2x Series III extenders.

There have been reports that several already-launched products will start to ship in the next two or three months, including the 1D X body and the Series II 500mm and 600mm f/4 lenses.  Don't hold your breath, though!  At least the Series II 300mm and 400mm f/2.8 lenses seem to have finally become fully available, more than a year after their launch.

February 2012 News

Further reductions on Sigma zoom lenses (8% off the 50-500mm and 3% off the 150-500mm) take the prices of these lenses back to where they were a year ago.  Sigma's price hike last May obviously didn't wash with the market.

Some Canon items have seen unwelcome 3%-5% rises, namely the 550D, 60D and 5D MkII bodies, the 300mm f/4 and 100-400mm lenses and the 1.4x and 2x extenders.

This is the 12th of my monthly Equipment News updates, so I thought it would be good to look at what's happened over the last year.  In that time, small amounts of stocks of the Series II 300mm and 400mm f/2.8 lenses have trickled into the UK and the prices of these lenses have dropped by 20% and 10%, respectively.  The accompanying Series III extenders have dropped by 17%.  The two new budget DSLRs, the 1100D and 600D have become available and their inflated launch prices have dropped by 26% and 21%, whilst the older 550D has dropped by 7%.  At the top end, the outgoing 1Ds Mk III has gone up 8%.  On the lens front, there are still no delivery dates for the Series II 500mm and 600mm superteles, despite stocks of the Series I models being long gone.  The Sigma 500mm and 800mm lenses rose in price by 11%, perhaps capitalising on Canon's lack of ability to stock competing products.  On the horizon, we have a new pro body to look forward to - the 1D X - but this doesn't seem to offer much more bang for its many more bucks, and we still haven't seen much more of the Canon 200-400mm with built-in extender.  All other equipment prices are the same to within 5%.

Perhaps the most striking thing, then, is that very little has changed in 12 months!  In some ways this is disappointing, but in other ways reassuring.  Despite a lot of marketing and rumour-mill noise, new products come along only rarely and, when they do, the improvements are only marginal.  This suits the market leaders, especially since people will pay inflated pre-order and post-launch prices for all new products, so it will never change.  The encouraging thing is that any investment in equipment, especially in lenses, will give lasting value and won't suddenly be invalidated by an unexpected new product.  It also means that bird photographers can gradually build up to high-quality gear, getting decent resale prices for their existing equipment and, most importantly, concentrate on bird photography itself after each upgrade.  Obsession with equipment is probably the biggest factor that holds back the quality of photographers' results.  Give a pro a Canon 400mm f/5.6 and a cheap used camera body and they'll show you results that are 90% the same as the most expensive gear in the world.  It's all about the image!!!

January 2012 News

Following last month's price reductions on Canon equipment, there have been further 4% reductions on the 7D and 5D Mk II bodies and the 300mm f/4 lens (although the 100-400mm zoom has gone up 9% after last month's 11% drop).

Also, for the first time in many months, there have been a couple of reductions in Sigma lens prices, with the 50-500mm and 150-500mm zooms dropping by 6% and 9%, respectively.  I still wouldn't touch the first of these, but the second is now an even better stepping stone on the way to a sharp prime lens such as the 1100 Canon 400mm f/5.6.

There are rumours of new image-stabilised versions of Sigma's 300mm and 500mm lenses in 2012, as well as the much anticipated 7D Mk II and 5D Mk III.  If you're interested in following rumours such as these, the best source is CanonRumors.com, which provides daily updates on all upcoming gear relevant to Canon shooters.  The main thing to be aware of if you use this site is that all rumours are given a credibility rating from CR0 (pure speculation) to CR3 (fact).  All articles rated lower than CR2 can be safely ignored.

Happy shooting in 2012!

December 2011 News

Canon equipment costing up to around 1200 has seen some welcome pre-Christmas reductions, including 3% off the 600D, 60D and 7D, 4% off the 550D and 6% off the 1100D. As well as these reductions on camera bodies, there has been an 11% reduction in the price of the 100-400mm zoom lens (not that I'd recommend that lens though) and a 3% drop in the price of the Series III 1.4x and 2x extenders.  On top of all this, Canon is offering a limited time cashback refund of 40 on the 550D and 50 on the 600D.  Unfortunately, there are no reductions on more expensive gear, but all reductions are good for consumers.

Equipment availability is almost exactly the same as last month, with a trickle of stock on the new Series II 300mm and 400mm f/2.8 lenses and no sign of the new Series II 500mm and 600mm f/4 lenses.  In fact, the original target shipping dates for these last two lenses were for this month, but Canon have now said this will not happen until well into 2012, and have refused to give alternative dates.  This is not a good time for people looking to upgrade to supertelephoto lenses!

November 2011 News

Equipment prices and availabilities almost exactly the same as last month.

The big news is Canon's announcement of the long-rumoured replacement for the existing 1D Mk IV and 1Ds Mk III camera bodies (see full details here).  The new Canon 1D X professional body (pre-order price 5300) is due to be available from next March (think May or June for the first UK stocks).  The 1D X is a full-frame camera, and apparently marks the end of the 1.3x crop factor APS-H sensor format.  It has major enhancements to its AF system (though still unproven) and Canon's fastest-ever shooting rate (12fps), BUT it produces only 18-megapixel images!  Although this will keep high-ISO noise very low and allow for improved dynamic range (both very important), it simply will not have the resolution/reach desired  by most bird photographers.

Just when we thought high pixel densities might allow us to carry 300mm lenses instead of the 'big guns', this represents a backward step.  In a further cruel twist, even if you're looking to regain reach by attaching the new Series III extenders to a Series II supertele lens, Canon has disabled AF function below F/5.6!  One of the big advantages of the 1D series professional cameras over the 'prosumer' models was always the ability to AF at f/8, enabling a 2x extender to be fitted to the 500mm or 600mm f/4 lenses (and a 1.4x extender to be fitted to the 800mm f/5.6). This move takes away that advantage at a stroke.

Whilst the 1D X will be the perfect body for some photographers (e.g. sports shooters), it still represents a frustrating departure for bird photographers.  It's like building a supercar and then fitting a 1-litre engine to make sure it never misbehaves.

Watch out for the rush on 1D Mk IV's and roll on the 5D Mk III or 7D Mk II...

October 2011 News

There have been further significant reductions in Canon camera body prices this month, with the 1100D down 8%, 550D down 6%, 600D down 8%, 60D down 3%, 5D MkII down 9% and 1D MkIV down 5%. Lens prices have been static apart from the pre-order price of the new 500mm f/4, which has dropped by 5%. The new series III 1.4x and 2x teleconverters have also dropped by 7%.

Overall, a very welcome set of reductions making this a good time for a camera upgrade.

The other big news is that, a full year after they were announced, the new Series II Canon 300mm f/2.8 and 400mm f/2.8 lenses are now shipping!  Only a few more months to wait for the even more interesting 500mm and 600mm models...

September 2011 News

The last month has seen no new relevant equipment announcements and no change to the availability of the new Canon supertelephoto lenses.  After last month's price increases by Canon and Sigma, some of the items affected have had their prices reduced again, namely the Canon 1100D, 5D MkII and 7D bodies (down 5%, 3% and 4%, respectively) and the Canon 100-400mm zoom (down 3%).  The large price rises by Sigma are still in place.

At least there was some positive news this month!

August 2011 News

The last month has seen no new relevant equipment announcements and no change to the availability of the new Canon supertelephoto lenses.  Also, there have been price increases of 2%-5% on all Canon camera bodies, plus the 100-400mm and 400mm f/4 lenses.  Worse still, the prices of the Sigma 500mm f/4.5 and 800mm f/5.6 lenses have gone up by 7% and 11% respectively, taking them even further into the 'poor value for money' category.

Hopefully I'll have some more positive news next month!

July 2011 News

The last month has been very quiet, with no new relevant equipment announcements and static prices on most camera bodies and lenses.

The retailers I use for benchmarking - Warehouse Express and Mifsuds - have the same prices as last month to within 1%, except for the following: 1100D and 600D bodies down 2% and 4% respectively; 1D Mk IV body up 3%; 300mm f/4 lens up 2% and the Series III 1.4x and 2x teleconverters down 2%. Significantly, these retailers are no longer listing the Series I 300mm f/2.8 or 500mm f/4 lenses, or the Series II 2x teleconverter, confirming that stocks of the superseded models are just about gone, even though their replacements may not be available for several months.

Incidentally, if you want to take a broader view of prices and availability, you may be interested in the Camera Price Buster website, which does an excellent job of aggregating information from major retailers.  Of particular interest are the price history graphs, which can give you a good indication of when product prices have stabilised after their inflated launch prices.  Looking at the history for the 7D, for example, shows that waiting only two months after launch would have saved you 500, whereas the benefits of waiting longer than two months would have been minimal, and prices are now actually climbing.

June 2011 News

Canon announced that, following production delays due to the Japanese earthquake, the new 300mm f/2.8 and 400mm f/2.8 lenses should start to become available from the end of August, with the new 500mm and 600mm available by the end of December.  Obviously, a lot of these lenses will have been pre-ordered, so you'd be lucky to get hold of any of these lenses for some time after those dates.  Anyone who is kicking themselves for not having pre-ordered can take consolation from the fact that, after a further 9% reduction this month, the pre-order price of the 400mm f/2.8 II has now fallen by 2500!  I would expect it to fall by the same amount again over the coming months, so there's a heavy price to pay for getting in early.

As advised over the recent months, there's also a heavy price to pay for the as-yet-unproven improvements in the Series II superteles.  Time is running out to pick up a bargain Series I lens before they've all been snapped up.  I've now taken my own advice on this and picked up a used 300mm f/2.8 for only half the price of the new version.

Also on the supertele front, the price of the Sigma 500mm f/4.5 has dropped by 7% after last month's 12% rise, whilst the Sigma 800mm f/5.6 and Canon 800mm f/5.6 lenses have both gone up by 2%.

Unusually, prices on all other lenses and camera bodies were completely static (all within 1% of last month's prices).

May 2011 News

Stock levels and prices are the same as reported in April, with the following exceptions.  As predicted last month, stocks of the outgoing Canon supertelephotos are dwindling and prices rising (the 300mm f/2.8 rose by a further 5% this month).  The new 1100D and 600D bodies have fallen in price by 15% and 5% respectively this month, whilst the 60D has remained unchanged.  This has slightly spread out the prices of the low-end models to something a little more sensible, especially since the older 1000D and 500D models are now disappearing.  Prices of the high-end models - the 7D, 5D MkII and 1D MkIV - have all increased by 3% this month, presumably due to the increase in VAT rate.

On the lens front, there have been some significant price hikes in the Sigma lenses, with the 500mm, 50-500mm, and 150-500mm lenses going up by 12%, 10% and 6%, respectively.  This makes Sigma lenses less competitive in comparison with Canon lenses, which have mostly held their prices this month.

The only other significant change this month is an 18% reduction in the pre-order price of the new 300mm f/2.8 Series II lens, which offers some hope that the prices of the new lenses will eventually drop to something less astronomical.

April 2011 News

Stock levels and prices are the same as reported in March, with the following exceptions.  As predicted last month, stocks of the outgoing Canon 500mm f/4 are dwindling and prices rising (by 6% this month).  The same trend has continued for the 300mm f/2.8, which has gone up another 3% this month.  The new 1100D and 600D bodies are now in stock, with prices around the same as the pre-order prices.  The 600D has actually dropped by 4% and the 60D has increased by 4% this month but, even so, there's only just over 100 price difference between these current models.  Canon are crowding the market with new consumer DSLRs that add little to their predecessors, making used 'quality' DSLRs such as the 40D, 50D or 1D Mk IIN more and more attractive.  Partly to blame is the current obsession with DSLR video features, which are used to justify price hikes without giving any benefit whatsoever to stills photographers.

Although not yet proven in the field, I still think the raft of next-generation Canon supertelephotos due out over the coming months, together with the Series III extenders, are going to be real game-changers (for those who can afford them).  To me, the most exciting options are the new 300mm f/2.8 and 600mm f/4 which - with and without their matched extenders - will provide an unprecedented set of shooting capabilities.

On the flip side, many people are getting excited about another new Canon lens that I didn't even bother to mention last month, the Canon 200-400mm f4 zoom with built-in 1.4x extender.  Ignoring the 'built-in extender' gimmick, this is just a copy of the equivalent Nikon lens that's been around for nearly a decade.  The latter is good for 'big stuff' such as mammals/people, but has never been able to compete with the similarly-priced prime superteles as a bird photography lens.  Why have a 560mm f/5.6 lens that suffers the twin image quality degradation of zoom design and extender use when you can have a perfectly optimised 500mm f/4?

The only other significant price change this month has been a increase in the cost of the Sigma 150-500mm lens to 800.  Although only a 4% rise, this takes the price of this 'so-so' lens even closer to that of the ultra-sharp Canon 400mm f/5.6.  I know which I'd go for, and I've noticed a lot of people are finally noticing this overlooked Canon lens.

March 2011 News

Still no stocks of the new Canon 300mm or 400mm f/2.8 Series II lenses, and the high pre-order prices have remained static this month.

The Series III Canon 1.4x and 2x extenders have finally become available to buy, although stocks are limited.  The price of these extenders has dropped a further 4% to 480, but they are still 80% more expensive than the Series II models, so I would expect further price reductions once stocks become widely available. Early testing of these extenders suggests that, on existing Canon lenses, they give very little improvement in image quality or AF performance, especially on the 1.4x extender.  Most of the benefits of the Series III extenders are expected to come from their use with the new Series II telephotos, so we'll have to wait for the verdict on those.

The big news this month has been the announcement of specifications for the new Series II Canon 500mm and 600mm f/4 lenses, plus the first pre-order prices.  Taking the 500mm lens first, this is the same size as the existing lens, but with an 18% reduction in weight.  In practice, this will make very little difference, especially since the 18% saving becomes only a 13% saving by the time you've attached a 1D Mk IV body.  It remains to be seen whether there are any worthwhile improvements in image quality or AF performance. Pre-order price is 9000, which is 70% more than the existing model.

The 600mm is also the same size as the existing lens, but with a 27% weight reduction, taking it down to the same weight as the existing 500mm lens.  This is very significant, because the majority of serious bird photographers regard the current 500mm and 600mm lenses as being either side of the weight limit for sustained hand-held shooting.  This weight reduction therefore makes the new 600mm hand-holdable for the first time. It is also 13% lighter than the Canon 800mm f5.6 and, with a 1.4x extender, you get an 840mm f/5.6 lens that's still lighter than the 800mm f/5.6.  The downside is the enormous pre-order price of 11,300!

Both the 500mm and 600mm lenses gain a new 4-stop image stabilisation system and get an 18% reduction in minimum focus distance.  They will certainly be superb bird photography lenses, but they won't be available until summer and their prices are likely to remain inflated for at least a year after that.  With diminishing stocks of the outgoing Series I lenses, I would currently recommend you grab an existing 500mm f/4 while you can, then trade up in a couple of years' time if you think you'll benefit from the improvements.  Unless, of course, money's no object, in which case get your deposit down on a Series II 600mm to get one of the first off the production line in the summer.

Incidentally, following last month's 5% rise in the price of the Canon 300mm f/2.8, this month has seen the same rise in the price of the 400mm f/2.8.  These lenses are both being replaced by Series II lenses imminently, each costing 3000 more than the outgoing model, so the price increases on the old versions reflect diminishing stocks.  Again, grab an existing 300mm f/2.8 if you want a lens of this type without having to pay the earth.

On the camera body front, there have been no major changes this month.  Pre-order prices of the newly-announced 1100D and 600D bodies have remained static at 420 and 680, respectively.  Even with the post-launch drop of 100 expected in the first month or two, these represent poor value for money and an outgoing or used body is likely to be better value (see below for my new section on buying used DSLRs).  Similarly, reductions of around 5% on the 550D and 60D bodies still don't make these good value for money.

Conclusions

To briefly summarise my equipment recommendations and preferred products:

You've probably realised by now that bird photography can be an expensive activity.

On the plus side, though:

Whatever camera gear you can get your hands on, give it a go! You'll never know how much fun it can be until you try it.

If you're interested in getting some assistance with your bird photography, contact me.  I'd be happy to give advice or to sign you up for one of my Bird Photography Workshops.