Friday, February 12, 2010

Cameras used to be easy ...

On my most recent field trip to Michigan's Sault Ste. Marie (aka "the Soo"), at Hulbert bog I noticed the camera of another trip participant, Amy Ennis - a point and shoot Lumix [Panasonic] FX35, 12.1 MP, 18x zoom, IS. She showed me a sample of photos on her camera's viewfinder - Gray Jay, clear and sharp. I hadn't even tried to photograph this first pair of Gray Jays - too far and too flighty for my circa 2007 slow, point and shoot Canon Powershot, 6.1 MP, 12x zoom, IS.

Many attending the Soo field trip also had nice, big lens DSLR cameras, as do many of my birding acquaintances. Their photos with these cameras are, of course, fantastic. The DSLR shutter speeds are very fast and the photographer can just fire away.

I recall that on my first wintertime field trip to the Soo in February, 2005, I had a tiny, candy box of a digital camera - a Nikon Coolpix that I purchased second-hand from Julie Craves and Darrin O'Brien. My memory may be faulty, but I don't recall anyone using a big lens DSLR camera on that trip.

Cuban Pygmy Owl, Cuba, January, 2006

The photo above is of a Cuban Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium siju) that I took with my Nikon Coolpix by holding it up to an unoccupied Kowa spotting scope trained on the bird. This photo remains one of my most successful attempts at digiscoping. I was thrilled with the result, and I think this is the only bird photo I took on my birding trip to Cuba in January, 2006. All of the other photos I took on that trip were scenics, buildings, cars and people. The Coolpix finally broke. I took it to Jerry Sadowski, then at Adray Camera (those were the days - now sadly gone), and he just looked at me. "Cathy, you don't really expect me to try to fix this - do you?" I upgraded to the Canon Powershot. The thing is, I wasn't unwilling to upgrade, it was just that I was not knowledgeable about digital cameras; their usability, their functionality and their affordability. I still think digital cameras lack intuitive operational features.

Does anyone else remember this circa 2000 camera?

I have been thinking for awhile about upgrading my Canon Powershot but to what kind of camera has caused me to have some out-of-character inertia. I have three very nice trips coming up and initially I thought I would continue to use my current camera for all three.

I commented on my intention to upgrade my camera to my friend, Cliff Young, who I plan to visit in England this coming June. Cliff is a freelance photographer who photographs a variety of subjects and his website, Cliff Young Photography, is linked here. He wrote back that he has a DSLR Nikon camera body he no longer uses and a variety of lenses that he would also be able to provide for use while I am visiting. If I liked the Nikon, we could work out an agreement for me to purchase it.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I know a few big lens bird photographers who, if given the choice, I would rather bird with than anyone I currently know. I need to be careful here.

I've only been birding for twelve or thirteen years. Even in this relatively brief period of time, big lens bird photography is a new thing that seems to have gained traction only in the past five years or so. It is impossible to go birding nowadays without running into the big lens DSLR photographers. Are they birders or are they photographers? Both? Sometimes it's hard to tell. Not exclusively, but most are men. As with their birding, most are quite competitive with their photographs as well. A Maryland birder, who is also a photographer, said this, "I don't care if I see the bird, as long as I get a good photo." Indeed, in Maryland, the birding community added an extra layer to their annual listing competition with the category of who photographed the most birds. Why go birding if one cannot also photograph the birds? Or, I've already seen all the birds and now I want to photograph them all.

I think Karl Overman, one of the most skilled and experienced birders I'll ever know, writes most clearly about the intrusion of photography into his birding on his new website. In an email, Karl wrote, "Birding f0r most of us is about collecting and if it is collecting photo images that is just as fine as county listing or bird banding - it is all a form of collection."

Certainly improvements in digital cameras, high-speed internet connections, birding websites, photo websites like Flickr and birding listserves have flung open the door to photography for birders. Remember what it was like trying to download a photo with your old dial-up connection? Painful. Have a look at this website, Digital Bird Photography, for the advancements birders and photography have achieved.

This caused me to think about how and why I use my camera for birding. Since I know I will never be a professional photographer, I recognize that my focus is limited. And I don't want absorption with photography to displace the enjoyment I find in birding.

1. I take photos to write my blog. In my blog I document my birding and other, mostly outdoor, experiences and activities. Five years from now I will never remember my most recent trip to the Soo without some kind of documentation. Did it snow? Rain? Was it sunny, was it cold? I can't imagine writing my blog without photos. Would I recall how blue the sky was behind the Northern Hawk Owl? How beautiful it all was? For many reasons, my blog has been an enjoyable, albeit time-consuming, activity for me.

Northern Hawk Owl, Sault Ste. Marie, February, 2010

I also use my photos to drive the narrative of my blog. Some of my photos are good, some are passable and then some are only identifiable. When they are only passable or identifiable, I admit this in the narrative. My blog provides me a place to put my photos into context and, for me, this is how the photos are most enjoyable.

2. I carry a camera in case, while out birding, I see a special bird. I learned the hard way. Back in my Nikon Coolpix days I rarely bothered to carry my camera. In April 2005, I was on a scouting trip to Tawas Point State Park for a trip I was planning with my Maryland birding friends. By the time I arrived it was late afternoon and sunny, but quite chilly. I was the only visitor in the park. I walked all around to check out the park and saw the birds one would expect to see at TPSP in early April. Ready to call it a day, I was walking back to my car when I saw a different bird - by color and flight style. Without going into any more detail, the bird was a female Smith's Longspur. I stayed with the bird and it was often no more than five feet from my toes. My cell phone did not have service in that area. I drove into town and used a pay phone to call a birding friend and asked him to post my longspur on the listserves. I drove back to the park and relocated the bird. As was typical for me, I did not have my camera. Finally, I had to leave. It was getting on for dusk and by then it was clear that no one else was coming to see the longspur. I wrote up my report and sent it to the Michigan Birds Records Committee (MBRC). I'm not an experienced rare bird report writer but I did my best, and not having a photo I probably need not add that my sighting of the Smith's Longspur was rejected. At that time, this would have been the first lower peninsula record of Smith's Longspur. Given my length of time with and my close proximity to the bird, even with such a basic camera as my Nikon Coolpix, it would have been easy to take identifiable photos. The lesson to me was this; no photo, no rare bird.

Pond in agricultural fields in Texas, January, 2009

Masked Duck (Nomonynx dominicus) and cropped Masked Duck in Willacy County, Texas, February 1, 2009 taken with my Canon Powershot and accepted by the Texas BRC, file number 2009-13; Texas photo record file under TPRF-2705.

Now I recognize that, when out birding, carrying my camera is almost as important as carrying my binoculars. Since, for me, it's important to have a carryable camera, I'm going to upgrade with the Lumix FX35. When I go to England this summer, I'll try using my friend's DSLR and see how well I can manage it. In the meantime, I'll retire my trusty Canon Powershot and begin practicing with my new Lumix - purchased today at Woodward Camera from Jerry Sadowski.

Many thanks to Jerry Jourdan for helping me with the research on the Lumix FX35. I sought his advice and my timing was perfect as he had just helped his father research and purchase the same camera.

Also, thanks to Cliff Young who offered me the use of his Nikon DSLR during my upcoming visit and helped me make my decision to purchase the Lumix.

Finally, if you are making the same decision to purchase a new camera, perhaps in the meantime you can use your cell phone like my friend, Colleen McLean. Colleen took the above photo of a White-throated Sparrow perched on the railing of her deck in Ocean City, Maryland. You may recall that Maryland was part of that huge eastern snowstorm. This little bird was appreciative of a dry place to stand.


Richard Quick said...

Another nice issue. Good topic. I will look at the two cameras you have discussed (small cameras) but I don't think a DSLR is for me although I had a film SLRyears ago(1962 - 197?).

troutbirder said...

My goodness I just stumbled in here and there you were explaining my thoughts exactly on why I stick with my new hobby birding and my little point and shoot camera both of which help facilitate my new found love of blogging and writing. Well the writting part isn't really new. It's just in a different format. Neat! :)