Tools of the Trade: Birding Cameras April 09, 2016 09:37

I'm often asked which camera/lenses I use to photograph the birds I paint.  There are of course many options for this kind of work — ranging from the extremely expensive high-end DSLRs/telephotos to the much more affordable point-and-shoots.  Cameras like the Nikon Coolpix P900, which I use, and other similar super-zooms are really the best and most affordable options for the bird painter.

Bear in mind that if the ultimate goal is to take photographs of birds for use as references or starting points for our paintings, we really don’t need super-high-resolution images. So you really don’t need a great big camera with a great big sensor, and the big, heavy lenses that would go along with it — or even the tripod that would be needed to support this kind of rig.  An all-inclusive point-and-shoot camera, like the P900 will do a much-better-than-adequate job for us.

There are quite a few cameras in this category.  Along with the P900, there’s the Canon SX60, the Pentax XG-1, and the Fujifilm S1, to name a few.  At about $600 the P900 is the most expensive of the group, but it does offer some big advantages — the most important of which is its 83x optical zoom lens that ranges from 24mm to 2000mm (35 mm equivalent).  You can imagine the cost of the lenses that would be needed to cover this range with a full-sized DSLR.



You won’t necessarily get great feather/fur detail with the P900 (especially at the long end of the zoom range), but I really prefer that the detail not come from the photograph, but rather from my brush.  With the right set of brushes I can add just the right amount of feather detail to my bird paintings.  

Also, the autofocus isn’t always super accurate — I sometimes have to play with it a little to get it to behave, and raw shooting capability is certainly a feature I would like to see added.  Overall, though, I’ve been very satisfied with the P900's performance and image quality.  I’ve really found this camera to be a great image-capture tool for my birding needs.  

And I wouldn't want to leave you with the impression that this camera is only good for bird photography.  I've found it to be an excellent camera for all of my general photography needs — from landscapes to portraits to sports.

In a future post I'll be writing about my process for capturing bird photos for use as painting subjects.  And be sure to catch for my upcoming video tutorial:  Autumn Nuthatch, Painting Birds with the Mixer Brush.

I shot all of the images in the P900’s “auto” mode without use of a tripod.  With lower light levels and/or use of extended digital zoom, a tripod would be highly recommended.  The house finch and the cormorants were shot using a 35mm focal length equivalent of 2000 mm.  The moon was shot at 1800mm (in 35mm).  Note: some images were cropped, color-edited and lightly sharpened.