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Bird Photography Equipment used on Safari

Southern Ground Hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri)

I don’t pretend that I know everything about bird and wildlife photography, far from it. But as an enthusiastic amateur and as someone who has spent a lot of time in the African bush taking both wildlife and bird photos, I think at least some of my experience should be useful to those looking to take decent wildlife photographs with equipment that does not cost the earth.

Rather than just telling you exactly what equipment to get, as equipment improves so fast (especially cameras) that if you were reading this in a years time it may already be out of date, I think I will explain the attributes that I look for when deciding what to get for myself, which is far more timeless.

I took the video below after I had spent a very successful morning photographing a few of the many birds that live around Mazvikadei Dam in Zimbabwe:

Large Telephoto Lens / Powerful Zoom

To me, probably the most important thing that I need to get good photos of birds in the wild is a powerful zoom. Yes, there are some birds that will let you get closer to them, but for the most part they are pretty shy and small creatures and so to get a good photo of them you need a powerful telephoto lens. This however does present some problems, and one of the biggest is price, especially if you want to use an SLR camera as good quality, powerful telephoto lenses cost a lot of money. So to get around this problem… I don’t use an SLR camera!

Using the Raynox 2.2x 2025Pro Teleconverter with the FujiFilm FinePix HS20EXR
Using the Raynox 2.2x 2025Pro Teleconverter with the FujiFilm FinePix HS20EXR
Using the Raynox 2.2x 2025Pro Teleconverter with the FujiFilm FinePix HS20EXR

No SLR Camera?

No, I don’t personally use an SLR – You see photography for me is mainly an enjoyable hobby. So it is for this reason as well as a few others (see my article on SLR vs SuperZoom Bridge Cameras) that for my needs, a superzoom bridge camera is more than sufficient.

Yes, if I had an unlimited budget and did not have to worry about the size and weight of my equipment, I would definitely get myself an SLR with a massive telephoto lens. But back to reality and as I said, for my needs a good Super Zoom bridge camera (see my article on the Best Superzoom Bridge Cameras) and a few other pieces of equipment is all that I need to take what I think are pretty decent photographs without having to sell my house to pay for the equipment!

Super Zoom Bridge Camera
On my last trip, I used the very good Fujifilm FinePix HS20EXR, that I highly recommend. Before this and for many years I used the Panasonic FZ superzoom cameras and almost chose to go with what is also a great camera, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ100. Both are ideal but why them? Well for me something I look for is if it is possible to attach a teleconverter lens to the camera:

Teleconverter Lens

Even though both the FinePix HS20 and the Panasonic FZ100 have powerful Zooms (30x/720mm on the FujiFilm), I am always looking to get closer to the birds and so I always look for a superzoom bridge camera that has a threaded lens so that I can also attach a Tele-Converter lens to it, to make it even more powerful.

Unfortunately, whilst there are many Super Zoom bridge cameras on the market, many of them don’t have a threaded lens. Which is fine for most people, but for me, it means that I don’t consider them.

Many people assume that it is difficult to attach a teleconverter lens their camera and it all seems a bit confusing- well it is not, if you have a bridge camera with a threaded lens, all you need to do is find out what thread size it is, get a step up / step down ring that will fit your camera and the teleconverter. The Fujifilm FinePix HS20EXR has a 58mm thread on the lens and the Panasonic FZ100 has a 55mm thread.

In the past I have used the DMW-LT55 55mm 1.7x Telephoto Conversion Lens and the Olympus 1.7x Tele Conversion Lens (TCON-17), mainly because both were really simple to attach to my Panasonic FZ cameras. (see my article on Telephoto Conversion Lenses for the Panasonic DMC-FZ100), but for my last trip I took the excellent 2.2x Raynox DCR-2025PRO Telephoto Conversion Lens, which once again at the time of writing this, I highly recommend.

Cost & Where to Buy

One of the main advantages of a SuperZoom camera like the HS20 when compared to an SLR with a telephoto lens is the far cheaper price tag:

UK Shoppers
UK Shoppers
Buy this camera in the UK:

US Shoppers
US Shoppers
Buy this camera in the USA:

Fujifilm FinePix HS20EXR & Raynox DCR-2025PRO
£342 (with free delivery) at Warehouseexpress.com  
 

 

Tripod

The 2.2x Raynox teleconverter, combined with the 30x FujiFilm HS20 now gives you a massive zoom of 66x (1584mm – 35mm film equivalent) – Even with the very good Image stabilisation that comes with the Fuji camera, to prevent image shake, it is imperative to use a tripod.

Here it is important to look for a tripod that can easily carry the weight of you camera with the teleconverter lens attached, yet not be so big and bulky so as to make carrying it around with you whilst looking for birds difficult. You also want a tripod that is quick to set up as many birds have a very annoying habit of not staying in one place for too long!

I am personally currently using the Vanguard Alta Pro 263AT Tripod that I simply love – especially because of it’s very flexible central column that can be rotated – making shooting high up in the trees that much easier.

Tripod Head

As important as the tripod itself is the head that you attach to it (cheap tripods often come with a head that cannot be removed, but these are often just not sturdy enough and I urge you to stay clear of these.)

In the past my dilemma has always been to choose between the flexibility of a ball head and the panning ability (I also often take film with my camera) and speed of framing your subject that a pan head provides.

Pistol Grip Ball Head
That was until I came across the Vanguard GH-100 Pistol Grip Ball Head – This piece of kit has helped me so much. In the past I would miss so many shots, just because of the time it took to get the camera pointed in the right direction. With the pistol grip it is just so intuitive, you just pull the trigger and aim – so much faster than untwisting levers and knobs, turning the camera and then tightening them again. On top of this, you get all the flexibility of a ball head and as I demonstrate in the video above, you can also pan using the Vanguard tripod.

The photo below shows one of the big advantages of combining the Vanguard GH-100 Pistol Grip Ball Head with a tripod like the Alta Pro 263AT that has a central column that can be rotated – it makes shooting high up (like into trees where you often find birds) very simple. What I have not shown is that the Fujifilm HS20 has a LCD screen that can be rotated so that you can look down on it, which in this situation makes framing your subject much easier.

UK: Amazon.co.uk

Vanguard Pistol Grip on Amazon.co.uk

USA: Amazon.com

Vanguard Pistol Grip on Amazon.com


Remote Shutter Release

Using the FujiFilm RR-80 remote shutter releaseAnother piece of kit that will really help you to get the best possible images is a remote shutter release. Most superzoom bridge cameras either come with a remote or you can get one as an accessory. I personally like the ones like the RR-80 that you can get for the FujiFilm HS20 that is attached to the camera via a cord (rather than being cordless) as this prevents me from loosing it when out in the field. It is also then always there ready to be used, rather than having to look through your pockets as that once in a life time shot flies off into the sunset! The photo on the right (click for larger version) shows me using the FujiFilm RR-80 remote shutter release to take photos of Hippos.

And that is about it – I hope that I have in some small way helped you decide what you should get.

Cost & Where to Buy the tripod & pistol grip

As with most quality tripods, you can either buy the Vanguard tripod and the head that I use individually or they sometimes come as a package, which can save you some money:

UK Shoppers
UK Shoppers
Buy in the UK:

US Shoppers
US Shoppers
Buy in the USA:

Vanguard GH-100 and Alta Pro 263AT Tripod
 

 

African Fish Eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer)

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