In the year that I’ve been doing my blog I’ve mainly just reported on the trips and days out that I’ve had, but to start off the year I’m going to talk about what I use for my photography and birding. I’ve always had to keep to a strict budget and, as I’m hardly a pro wildlife photographer, that has meant not being able to go out and splash £20,000 on the best equipment for the job. However, I have managed to put together a nice little kit bag over the last decade or so, and it’s mostly doing a decent job for me at the moment.
Firstly, as with almost all birders, I have a main pair of binoculars. After my first trip to Sweden in 2009, I noticed that I was the only member of the group who didn’t have a pair of bins. I’d assumed I probably wouldn’t need them as I was planning to spend the vast majority of the time looking through the viewfinder of my camera. In reality I found that I was missing things, so soon after I returned I decided to look into getting a pair. I first tried some Nikons out in the big Jessops on New Oxford Street, but I didn’t like the feel of them. I then went to Camera World on Wells Street and tried out several different pairs. The pair that I liked best within my budget – and which had the best control over chromatic aberration (the magenta/cyan fringing where there is extreme contrast in light) – were a pair of Steiner Skyhawk 8x32s. I decided to order online to save money, and opted for the higher power 10x42s instead. Unfortunately, this was a mistake. The Steiners had an unusual system of clips for attaching the strap ends into small slots on the sides of the barrels. One of these was giving me major problems as I tried to attach it and I ended up snapping the clip of the end of the strap, leaving the end piece stuck in the slot and rendering it useless. Fortunately, the retailer agreed that it was a fault with that particular pair and replaced them for me (and checked the straps would fit correctly in the replacement pair), so all was well. They weren’t bad bins, but I found there were four issues: firstly, they had the unusual design by which the eyepiece focus adjustment was on the left eyepiece instead of the standard right side, which felt very unnatural when using; secondly, despite being designated birding binoculars they didn’t have any kind of anti-fog feature, which was a big problem when I returned to Sweden for a winter trip in early 2012; I also found that if I didn’t have my eyes lined up absolutely perfectly (not always easy for me as I wear glasses) the image would black out completely; and finally, the chromatic aberration was far less well-controlled than it had been with the 8x32s. In their defence they weren’t hugely expensive, they were very rugged, and they were both light and comfortable. And aside from the CA issues, optical quality was also good.
Anyway, by the time the first Serbia trip came around in April 2012, I was looking for something a bit better. By sheer luck I received an email from Wex Photographic on the Friday (I was flying out on the Sunday), detailing significant discounts on two pairs of Nikon Monarch Xs – both the 8.5x45s and 10.5x45s. The 10.5x45s had been retailing at over £700, but were on offer at under £400. I knew I wasn’t going to get a chance to test them first, and I remembered that I wasn’t too keen on a pair of Nikons I’d tried previously, but I decided to take the plunge anyway after reading lots of very favourable reviews. They arrived the following day and I have to admit, I was very impressed straight away, despite a couple of slight niggles. I didn’t like the strap much, so ordered a more comfortable one soon after (which I would’ve done anyway as I prefer a foam strap to a webbing one), and I found the objective lens covers to be absolutely terrible: two flimsy circles of thin plastic that don’t stay in place and are ‘held’ by retainers that become too easily detached from the barrels. This actually turned out to be a good thing as they were easy to remove and discard (I’ve never bothered to reattach them, even though it means the objective lenses are now unprotected). Everything else about the binoculars is absolutely spot-on. They’re comfortable to use, easy to grip, not too heavy, and are extremely rugged. They are nitrogen-filled to deal with most weather conditions (I’m yet to see any pair of bins with an anti-fog feature that can deal 100% with sudden temperature changes – even ones that cost more than £2,000), and sealed against the elements. On top of that, the extra 3mm in objective diameter gives a bright image, the chromatic aberration is well controlled and only just evident in even extreme contrasts of light, and the image is clear and sharp. They’re also very good for using when wearing glasses. Whilst in Serbia I did a quick comparison with another guest’s pair of Zeiss bins, and although the Zeisses were better the difference was only marginal, and they were significantly more expensive. In Norfolk last year, our guide Stuart accidentally left his top-of-the-range Swarovskis in the car at one site, so I loaned him the Nikons whilst I was taking photos. His reaction to the quality of the Nikons was one of astonishment at just how good they were. Overall, it’s fair to say that although the Nikons may not quite be a true £700+ binocular, they’re definitely worth much more than the £380 that I paid for them. I think I might consider upgrading in the future – either to Zeiss or Swarovski – but I’m definitely very happy with my Nikons at the moment, and I think there’s plenty of birding left in them yet.
So this brings me onto my main photography equipment. Firstly, the camera. When people see that I am a Sony user, it’s often met with surprise – the vast majority of serious DSLR photographers use either Canon or Nikon – but the reason for my choice takes me back to 1999, when I was doing a photojournalism module as part of my degree. Minolta’s Dynax 505 had recently broken the £500 barrier for autofocus SLR cameras, making it a very attractive option for a student on a tight budget. It had also won numerous awards, so I knew it was a decent piece of kit. Over the next few years I continued to enjoy the Minolta, adding new lenses such as the Sigma 18-35 wide-angle and an old Minolta 50/1.7 prime, and I eventually upgraded to the flagship camera body of the Dynax range: the Dynax 7. After I joined U-Dox in 2004 I was having to use a DSLR for the first time (a Canon EOS 1000D with the horrifically-lightweight 18-55/f3.5-5.6), and by early 2006 I decided it was time to get my own digital body. It made sense to go for the Dynax 7D – almost identical to the Dynax 7, but for digital instead of film. Minolta had just sold its SLR division to Sony, so I got the D7 whilst there were still a few around. Since then I’ve owned the Sony A700 – the direct upgrade to the D7 – and now the A77, which continues the flagship line. There were times when I considered switching to one of the ‘big two’, but by then I already had a decent set-up of lenses and accessories, plus I liked the comfortable A-mount camera bodies and the well-designed button layouts, not to mention the in-camera anti-shake feature.
So, my main camera at the moment is the Sony A77. The plus-sides for me are the solid weatherproof construction, the comfortable body and grip shape (I have small hands, so this is very important when out in the field), and a few little features that make it a very handy piece of kit. The first is the fact that it’s an SLT rather than an SLR: it uses a semi-transparent mirror that doesn’t need to flip out of the way whilst taking the photo (thus solving the problem of vibration caused by the mirror assembly’s movement). The main reason they chose this, as I understand it, was so that it could use the more accurate phase detection autofocus system whilst recording movie footage. I very rarely use the movie functions so that wasn’t a concern of mine, but it does have a few handy side-effects. Firstly, it has to incorporate an electronic viewfinder instead of an optical one. Sony had to work hard in making this EVF extremely high-resolution and with minimal time-lag for enthusiast-to-professional level users – and they succeeded. I very rarely notice that the image I’m seeing through the viewfinder isn’t a directly optical one. It also means I can use the ‘settings effect’ feature to actually see if the exposure is correct (if the image on the screen is correctly-exposed, that’s what you will get in the final image). I can also review the images I’ve already taken – and I can access the settings menus – without taking my eye away from the viewfinder. There is a 12-frames-per-second maximum burst rate And finally, and most handy of all, I can significantly zoom into the image BEFORE taking the photo so I can see if the subject is in focus or not, even from a great distance away. I can also overlay a focus-peaking shimmering edge which gives a quick at-a-glance representation of where the depth of field extends. As with most things in photography there has to be a compromise, and that comes in the form of a loss of a third of a stop of light transmission caused by the fact that the mirror is only semi-translucent, but I can just about live with that when you factor in all the benefits of the system.
The other main draw with this camera is that it was the first APS-C format camera with a sensor resolution of 24 megapixels – a very high resolution at the time. This gives greater scope for cropping-in especially when photographing small birds from a distance. Again, there’s a compromise, and this comes in the form of slightly higher levels of digital noise than comparable cameras provide. I’ve also noticed – and I don’t know exactly what causes it – but there’s occasionally a slight halo-like effect that appears around the edges of some subjects. It’s not a huge deal as it can be easily airbrushed out in post-production, but I’d obviously prefer if it were a cleaner image straight out of the camera. The digital noise is a bit of a disappointment. Photographing small subjects in challenging conditions means the noise can often be quite obvious, even if I’ve been shooting in very good light and at low ISO. I often find myself having to employ quite heavy noise-reduction settings in my workflow in order to clean the shots up, but that obviously has a detrimental effect on fine details. I try not to see myself as a pixel-peeper, and try as much as possible to look more objectively at images I’ve taken, but my subject of choice means I often find myself looking at something very small in the frame and trying to get the most out of it. When I compare my images with the works of the better wildlife photographers out there, I regularly find myself wondering exactly how their images are so much crisper and cleaner – and I assume the answer is that they’re using higher-end camera bodies that provide cleaner images.
Rumour has it that there could be a new upgrade to the flagship line of the A-mount system – a successor to the A77 – early in 2014. I wasn’t really planning on upgrading my camera body yet as I’ve only had my A77 for two years and I’d like to try to get three out of it if possible, but it’s slated to be a completely mirrorless system (thus dispensing with the light loss of the SLT mirror). If the digital noise can be controlled a bit better too, I could very well see myself upgrading.
Part Two of my equipment run-down will deal with lenses and flashes…