Photographing birds with a large telephoto lens

I recently got a Sigma 150-600 Telephoto Lens for a Canon, and I haven’t had too many chances to try it yet. But when I have it’s been fairly heavy, which is a little silly for me not to have expected, I’m used to a lens that doesn’t past 200. What I’m asking is, how do I photograph birds with it? When looking for birds I do a lot of walking, and the smaller birds tend to move a lot (which hasn’t been too much of a problem for me with the smaller lens). I guess I’m asking what people who photograph birds with a >300 lens go birding, what’s your routine and what tends to work for you?

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But what is your exact problem? It will took you some time to get used to it, I can assure you in some months it will look small for you, you can use waist bands to carry it with less strain on your back, but you do the photograph bit the same way you do with any other lens.

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lots of patience and practice, shoot on auto/sports mode, use viewfinder instead of LCD screen, holding the camera against your face offers a degree of additional stability. use available trees and rocks for braced positions. when shooting free hand lean back from the hips so your elbows can rest against your chest for more stability.

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I recently upgraded to a 150-600 mm telephoto from a 400 mm lens. The new lens plus camera is about a pound or two heavier than my previous gear. I find I do have to brace the camera a little more such as on a wall or tree trunk when shooting but am still able to do it without tripod or other support. I keep a monopod handy in case I do want more stability.

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Well, my lens and camera were exactly 300 — Canadian dollars, that is. I got a used Nikon P950, with a fixed lens, as it’s a bridge camera. Small sensor? Yep. But that means a very compact system that gives me a 83x or 2000mm (equv) optical upper range.

But I’m not a real birder. I got it just about two months back because it was a great deal and I thought some bird photography might fill the hole left by my buggy buddies exiting the stage in the snow months.

It actually even has a ‘birding’ mode, which takes a lot of guesswork out of perched subjects (purely a guess, but I’m betting at least 80+% of iNat bird shots are perched).

It’s AF system is pretty slow for in-flight focus, and RAW isn’t an option in the birding mode (though the hope is to get better at shooting in other modes where it is an option, eventually). But I do like the temporary zoom back out button on the lens that helps you track a bird as it moves about.

But mostly it’s the physical size and weight that sold me on this system. And if I’ve learned anything from my brief start in nature photography, it’s that the easier and quicker you can get at setting up a shot, the more shot success you’ll enjoy. Most days, light and small handheld trumps big telephotos and tripods, at least for me.

A few of my P950 bird shots from last month:

Final note: On my first ‘maiden voyage’ with the 950 in my local park, I came across two older, much more seasoned-looking birders laden with telephoto gear, having one of those hushed conversations you have while stalking shots, and so I smiled, nodded, and tippy-toed past. But not before hearing one whispering to the other, “See, that’s the model I want to get.” (I presume she wasn’t referring to me, of course.)

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As has been said, practice, practice, practice - especially against wooded areas. I have the Sigma 150-600 Telephoto on my Nikon. You want to be able to quickly find that target when you are already at 600 or be use to zooming in. Find out what works for you best in focusing - I changed my setting to a back button for focusing, although I may change, I use a manual setting of 640/f8. I prop myself a lot -tree, rocks, friend/partner’s shoulder/head, walking stick, more recently monopod because of tennis elbow. I also crop a lot - many of my bird observations end up being 1200x800 which is fine enough for posting but not so hot for reproducing. I use a binocular harness for carrying. I also have the camera set for multiple shots.

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Yes, multiple shots … shoot and keep shooting. Also higher ISO can help reduce fuzziness from motion or hand shake.

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thank you this is very helpful.

I have a Tamron 150-600 after i saw a lot of people talking about it being easy to walk with and its kind of too damn heavy. All my phones are taken either with my Nikon 70-300 or my Nikon 24-200 which is going to be my default for walking around. Right now I think i just want to grab a lightweight 400mm. For small stuff it has mostly been in and around my yard either in plants i put out or sometimes feeders I have up off and on. Part of the answer for me is just been taking stuff at lower zoom and just cropping it digitally.

For me also what helped was just understanding ISO is fake on modern cameras, least with my Nikon I can more or less do all the exposure in post, all ISO is on a digital camera is gain so even if a shot is really dark the detail is probably actually still there so i generally just shoot at like ISO 64-200 and don’t worry about exposure for either seeing details to ID something or just for making pictures look nice, exposure compensating down has been my friend.

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ISO invariance is a thing, but depends a bit on sensor manufacturer. With Sony Alpha sensors you get very little benefit above 800. I shoot with the lowest ISO the lighting permits and don’t go above 800. And turn off EVF Setting Effects so I always get bright view and keep Exposure Meter between +/- 1.

Good place to find sensor info is https://photonstophotos.net/index.htm

A good carrying harness that distributes the weight of your system over the shoulders or chest is ideal. I use a cheapo camera clip (peak design knock off) that fasten to shoulder strap of a camelback. Weight of the water will help balance the camera system and make everything feel lighter. Slightly over length strap is attached to the lens, it acts as an insurance strap and lets me switch to carrying the camera system on my left shoulder to help reduce fatigue.

When I’m expecting to see a subject I carry the lens by crossing my arms left over right and craddling it across my chest. I just uncross my arms, extend my left hand forward and arrive at shooting position very quickly.

It sounds kinda dumb but I learned a lot from tactical sport shooting and how they carry and handle their rifles

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Out of the ‘Sony’ can… true. But if you invest in a good RAW denoiser, such as DxO PureRaw, it’s amazing what you can get with high ISO shooting. For me, it was a better investment than a more pro lens (as if I could afford that), but it’s also something I can use with my Nikon, my Canon, and my Olympus high ISO shots.

Don’t forget, we’re not wildlife photographers. We’re shooting for ID keys, not for the coffee table/calendar most of the time.

Here, I just took a shot in my messy iNat ‘lair’ with my ol’ Sony A6000, no flash. Sorry, not much in terms of good subjects to shoot here (it’s way too messy to show more!) and I was too lazy to change out my zoom, so it’s not as sharp a shot as it should be. But the shot here is at 100% (at least, when you click on it, you should get the full 2048 width of the cropped–but not resampled–original) and shot at ISO 16000 (that’s three zeros).

The middle strip is the image as it came in with default ACR into Photoshop, the rest is run through the default PureRaw settings for this camera. I definitely use high ISO all the time.

What makes this the case is that ISO is just signal gain not really any different then just making the photo brighter in a photo editor, what makes it somewhat different is there is analog gain before the noise that can be introduced in analog to digital conversion. Nikons and Fuji and some Sony cameras have very low noise so there is no penalty. For me it was useful to understand that it is just gain and your not really going to rescue any detail from shadows if anything you might lose them going up in ISO. But also i don’t worry if the shot looks a bit dark as I know i can just increase it in my photo editor and pickup details, for me its one less thing to worry about when trying to take bird pictures that I know shooting in raw i can more or less go rescue that detail and get an ID and this really saved me on more then one occasion when taking pictures of birds on a bright sky.

The thing is the image data pre-mosaic processing. That’s what’s in the RAW file ‘fat’. PureRaw is a different kind of denoiser as it goes in and takes that data and really optimizes it based on tested, tweaked research – for each camera it supports.

And it’s also great for bringing older photos back to life, if you still have their RAWs kicking about. If you want a good rundown of why PureRaw is a photographer gamechanger, this guy does a good job:
https://www.deepgreenphotography.com/blogarchive/2021/dxo-pureraw-full-review

Same page has a ‘condensed’ version of the longer one if you only have a few minutes. But if you’re not convinced, you can always download a free trial from DxO and run some tests. That worked for me! There really IS detail lurking in those dark shadows. And PureRaw really knows how to find it.

https://www.dxo.com/dxo-pureraw/