People ask me how I got into birding. It was Loon Love. Common Loons pass over our neighbourhood sometimes in the early morning hours when I walk my dog. To me, there is nothing in the world like the lonely, haunting call of a Loon, so I decided to try to find where they land, rest, nest, breed. Having always been a shutterbug, I took along my best camera. At that time, it was a Canon Rebel T4i – decent but fairly dated. I also had a 50-150 zoom lens. I walked to every body of water in a 5 km radius. I went out most mornings. I snapped pictures of everything that moved, furry or feathery. Eventually, my husband started to tag along. I upgraded to a Canon 80D with a 100-400 and I started to get some amazing photos. I realized I was blessed with a steady hand and a keen eye. People noticed the photos I was posting on social media. I became so obsessed that birding became a 4-5 x/week activity. I joined neighbourhood birding groups, invested in binoculars, a portable camp chair. I downloaded birding apps, purchased numerous bird books, tripods, a special backpack, extra long-life batteries for the camera, hard drives to store all the pictures I was taking. The list goes on and on. I haven’t had a single moment of buyer’s remorse. I am all in.
Figure 1: Greater Yellowlegs, 1/1250; f/4; ISO: 640 - Handheld
We went out birding one day with a friend I’d met through social media. She has a Canon Mirrorless. My husband and I started to think about upgrading. I wasn’t sure what the benefits of a Mirrorless were, but when we spoke to our camera guy about it, he said the Canon R5 (which had to be pre-ordered), has what’s called “Animal Eye Focus” or “Intelligent Focus” – technology that can detect and track a bird’s eye (even in flight) with remarkable speed and accuracy. You can imagine that my eyes glazed over at this point and I was hooked. I had to wait some months for the camera and because the mount wasn’t the same as my DSLR I had to buy an adapter as well. All my DSLR lenses were now usable with my new R5. (November, 2020)
Figure 2: American Avocet: 1/2500; f/4; ISO: 200
Figure 3: American Avocet close-up; 1/2500; f/4; ISO: 200
When Mirrorless started to become all the rage, some people I spoke to were quite reluctant simply because the R5 was rumored to heat up when doing video work. Many of the articles I read and videos I watched mentioned this as well. I shoot more video now than I used to, and Canon has released Firmware fixes in the meantime. In any event, I have never found it to be a problem. Others said they didn’t like the feel of the Mirrorless. It is lighter-weight, less bulky (because it has no mirror), and I agreed that I preferred the heft of my 80D. But then came my biggest knock against the Mirrorless, one I didn’t anticipate until I actually started to use it. When you look through the viewfinder of a DSLR, what you see is a magnified (in my case, with a zoom lens) version of the world. I loved that because in my first year of birding, I didn’t carry binoculars (my husband was the spotter, I was the photographer). I used my camera as binoculars. But when you look through the viewfinder of a Mirrorless, you are seeing a representation of the actual picture you will be taking. Somehow this just didn’t work for me. I didn’t like it at all. One setting I used provided a sharper preview which gives the illusion of too much contrast; I was also talked into using back-button focus, which I didn’t love and eventually stopped using. Anyway, I suddenly didn’t enjoy birding near as much. It was a huge disappointment. I did wonder if I didn’t make a mistake with the Mirrorless. I thought, maybe I’ll just sell it. Forget the whole thing.
Figure 4: Foster’s Tern: 1/5000; f/4; ISO: 200
But, practice, as they say, makes perfect. I was having trouble with focusing; with birds you have to be able to focus so incredibly quickly. There’s no time to muck about. I blamed the adapter – I was still shooting with my 100-400 mm E-series lens. I knew the 100-500 RF would be hard to get because so much Canon equipment has been hard to get during the pandemic. We did find one, though, and I had it a few months after getting the R5. Now I really started to get into it. My photographs were improving. Clarity, depth of field, speed of focus – all improved. And I realized that because with a Mirrorless you see through the viewfinder what you are shooting – focus and exposure, it eliminates the need for checking your monitor between shots. I started to love it, and my biggest knock against the Mirrorless evaporated.
Figure 5: Female Common Merganser: 1/320; f/5; ISO: 250 - Handheld
Zoom lenses can be slow, however. The longer the focal length, the slower it is. At full extension, my 100-500 mm shoots at a max aperture of 7.1, meaning the light had better be good or shots will be underexposed (of a bird sitting in a dense forest), blurry (of a bird in motion), or just not crisp (a variety of factors). The Canon R5 has a fix for this – at least to some degree. You can push ISO incredibly high; I’ve taken pictures in nearly non-existent light at ISOs of 12,800, and even 20,000 and still come out with a decent picture. In normal shooting conditions, I will routinely push ISO to 5,000 and still be happy with the shot. A bit of noise elimination in Lightroom, especially in the darker areas of the picture, will often make an otherwise unusable shot suitable for printing. Please note that I will be including two High ISO images at the end of the article (one with some noise processing, one without) to show examples of what this camera can do.
Figure 6: Lincoln’s Sparrow: 1/400; f/5; ISO: 320 - Handheld
When you shoot mostly birds, you realize that you just have to be close. Most birds are little. They move fast. They are obscured by branches and leaves. They are high up in the sky in flight. So many challenges. To be able to get close with your lens and to have a few extra stops of light is the ideal scenario and every bird photographer’s dream. However, it comes with a big price tag.
Figure 7: Male Wood Duck in breeding plumage: 1/800; f/5; ISO: 400
I had dreamed about the 600 mm f/4 but thought it would always be out of reach financially. After a very good month in my business I decided to take the plunge. I also purchased a Wimberley head for my Manfrotto tripod and a good pair of Vortex binoculars. I’ve had the lens a handful of months and due to circumstances, haven’t had it out that often, but when I do get out with it … wow! Just wow! When you’re shooting birds in flight, for example when Terns perform their aerial ballets while attempting to pick off insects around them, or when Ospreys hover over a river watching for fish to dive for, even hand-held, this lens can get it done. Because you are shooting at f/4 or perhaps f/5.6, the aperture is so wide open, your shutter speed can be as high as 1/5000, more than fast enough to capture all the movements of the wings. With these two settings, unless you’re shooting in very low light, your ISO can be as low as 100.
Figure 8: Male Blue-Winged Teal; 1/5000; f/4; ISO: 500 - Handheld
Shooting at f/4 gives you a shallow depth of field that you just can’t achieve with the maximum aperture on, say, a 100-500. This allows your subject, especially if shooting against a dark background, to really “pop” out of the picture. It’s as if you’re seeing it in 3-D (an effect I’m not fond of). When the background is entirely or mostly out of focus, there are no distractions from the subject of your photograph. The picture is arresting, something you feel compelled to stop and take a closer look at. In the language of social media, they’re the shots that make you stop scrolling.
Figure 9: My spirit bird, the Common Loon: 1/800; f/6.3; ISO: 400
Birding with this lens requires a bit of planning. It can’t be done without a tripod (or perhaps a monopod). My husband carries the tripod; I carry the camera. It rests in the crook of my arm, but it’s heavy at nearly 10 pounds. Every so often we have to stop, set up the tripod, mount the camera, and I shoot like that for awhile. It’s such a nice break for my arms. Once we’ve been out for a couple of hours, I alternate carrying it like a suitcase by the tripod mount (left hand, right hand, left hand, right hand), and balancing it on my shoulders (left side, right side, left side, right side). The day after shooting with this lens is a day of rest! It’s tiring!
It has lightning-fast, razor-sharp focusing ability. It takes the most exquisite photographs. The Canon R5 is remarkably energy efficient for a mirrorless camera. I have two kinds of batteries for that camera, one is pricier, longer-life (LP-E6NH); the other is the same but without the "H". The longer-life battery adds abou 20% more shooting time. Canon claims in test conditions the LP-E6NH gets 490 shots. I've never counted, but I'd say I'm getting about 400-450 shots (close to the tested number, anyway). With my 80D I could shoot well over 1,000 (on the lower-priced battery) so that's a trade-off. However, changing batteries in the field is no big deal and I never have to change my battery more than once. I do carry three fully charged spares with me whenever I go shooting, though!
It is easily the most elegant, most “boy-that-was-worth-it” piece of equipment I own. For shooting video, the R5 allows you to use the viewfinder, rather than the monitor, and senses when your eye is near, switching instantly to viewfinder mode. The Wimberley head allows for smooth 360° panning, independent horizontal and vertical locking, and super-quick adjustments. It’s another heavy piece of equipment, so be prepared!
Figure 10: This isn't a shadow on a screen! This Double-Crested Cormorant in the foreground was shot at f/5.6, a very shallow depth of field, which made the back cormorant look like a shadow of the front one. 1/4000; ISO: 320
Figure 11: Rock (feral) pigeon, hiding deep under an overpass There was no light for this picture! I just aimed and crossed my fingers! I couldn't even see the bird! One of my favorite photos ever. ISO: 1250, f/5.6, 1/1000. No post-processing noise reduction was done for this photo.
Figure 12: Isn't he just the cutest? This is a Least Flycatcher taken late in the day with very little light. Post-processing in Adobe Lightroom: Noise reduction: +30; Clarity: +8. Shot at ISO 6400, f/8, 1/4000.
If this lens is on your wish list … if you can afford it … get it. You will not regret it. It offers so much more than just a bit of extra magnification. If you’re used to shooting with a 100-400 or 100-500, you’ll realize that it is an entirely different experience. The 600 mm can only be hand-held for so long, and it is not ideal for shooting small birds. For finches, warblers, sparrows and the like, it is better to be light and agile, qualities that a 600 mm lens doesn’t have. It’s a tradeoff you’ll likely gladly make, though, for the sheer bliss you’ll experience when you are shooting with this remarkable lens.
My thanks to Claudia Tiefisher for taking the time to write this wonderful article about her usage of the Canon R5 and 600 F4 lens for birding. If you want to see more of Claudia's work please check out her website.
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All images in this article are (c) Claudia Tiefisher, and licensed to the Nature, Wildlife and Pet Photography Forum for the purpose of this article.
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