Bird Photography with a Mirrorless Camera

Green Heron, Butorides virescens


Here’s the issue.  I’m not getting any younger or stronger and my current camera gear seems heavier everyday.  The Canon 7DII camera with the 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 lens is a great DSLR system, but even the wide, cushioned strap is wearing a groove in my shoulder.  We’re soon leaving on a long trip across the pond and the weight and compactness of luggage, including the camera bag, is of concern.

Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus

There is an ongoing revolution in photography that bears on this; I’m referring to the mirrorless cameras, lighter and smaller than their DSLR ancestors.  There is also a growing number of petite and sharp interchangeable lenses suitable for these newcomers.  Is it time for a change?  This would be a big deal for me.

White Ibis, Plegadis falcinellus

This post reflects the musings of a conflicted conservative bird photographer, somewhat slow to adapt, but at the same time attracted to new gadgets and innovations.  I’ll sprinkle it with my latest photos taken with the mirrorless technology, all from the last two weeks.  Hope it doesn’t bore.

Blue-headed Vireo, Vireo solitarius

A SLR camera (single lens reflex) has a flipping mirror with the light and image gathered through the lens and reflected by the mirror to an optical viewfinder.  When you press the shutter button the mirror flips, sending the light to the detector and the image is stored.  In our digital age this mechanical flipping mirror seems somewhat primitive.  Indeed your SLR camera only has a lifetime of several hundred thousand flips; this may seem like plenty, but we’re talking bird photography here.

Black Skimmers, Rynchops niger

Mirrorless cameras are not new.  Your point-and-shoot and cell phone camera are all mirrorless.  What is new is the availability of quality interchangeable lenses for these cameras, and the development of advanced image stabilization, auto-focusing protocols, and rapid exposures.  This allow them to rival the best DSLR’s.

Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata

The absence of the flipping mirror allows the camera body to be smaller and lighter.  The size of the detachable lens is governed by the detector size in the camera; Olympus and Panasonic have the smallest detectors (the micro four thirds), and hence the smallest and lightest lenses.

Limpkin, Aramus guarauna

After pouring over the internet reviews I decided to take the plunge and buy the Panasonic Lumix G9 and three of their lenses, knowing I could return some or all after a field trial.  Will this system even come close to the image quality of the staid Canon?

Panasonic left, with 50-200mm; Canon right, with 100-400mm lens

Delivery day felt like a childhood Christmas morning, but do they purposely frustrate you by sending uncharged batteries?  Three hours later I was finally ready to take some shots.  Battery life is an issue with these cameras.  You have no optical viewfinder; the image you see in the electronic viewfinder or rear LCD screen are digital images, direct from the detector which is always engaged and burning energy.  I now carry two extra batteries, just in case.

Chipping Sparrow, Spizella passerina

Some of these mirrorless cameras are actually too small, especially for big hands.  The telephoto lenses make them front heavy and awkward to use.  That’s one reason I selected the Lumix, one of the larger models.  I know, I’m already compromising on my goal of smaller and lighter.  Everyone needs one all-purpose “walk around” lens; one can’t bird all the time.  I selected the Panasonic 12-35mm F2.8 II for scenery and people shots.

Barred Owl, Strix varia

The dilemma now became the choice of a birding lens.  There are two reasonably priced possibilities in the Panasonic line-up and I field tested both.  They are the smaller 50-200mm F2.8-4.0, and the larger and heavier 100-400mm F4.0-6.3.  The larger is still significantly lighter and less bulky than my Canon gear.  Both are high quality glass with the smaller having the advantage of better low light performance and the larger having the better telephoto reach.  The acid test would be in the field.

Double-crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auritus

It’s as if the birds knew I was coming and headed for cover.  Finally I found a posing immature White Ibis along the Pelican Bay berm.  Big bird posing in bright light–no problem.  A better test was the smaller Blue Jay and Red-bellied Woodpecker that showed up near my bench in Freedom Park.  These initial shots were all encouraging.

Sanderlings, Calidris alba

When you change cameras, the biggest obstacle to overcome is with the user, not the equipment.  Knobs, buttons, dials, and screens that you previously controlled by instinct are all relocated.  They say changes like these are helpful in maintaining a nimble mind.  We’ll see.

Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus

One intriguing new feature of the Panasonic is its “Pre-Burst Mode”.  So often we focus on a bird, waiting for the instant of flight, but end up with a beautiful shot of an empty branch.  With this new mode you focus on the bird with the shutter depressed half-way.  The camera starts saving multiple frames per second in a temporary buffer.  When the bird finally flies you depress the shutter button fully and the camera saves the shots seconds before, during, and after flight.  I’m still experimenting with this, but it does have promise.

Point Ybel Lighthouse

One day before leaving Florida for the season, I was astonished to see the long bird list for April sightings at Point Ybel on Sanibel Island.  Previously, when visiting the island I had proceeded directly to the famous Ding Darling Preserve, but this small park at the point is apparently a migration trap.  Warblers in particular were reported in large numbers there.  So I left the packing behind and headed to Sanibel with Andy and the new gear, for one last Florida birding hurrah.

Cape May Warbler, Dendroica tigrina

We were not disappointed.  Birds and birders galore intermingled with sun bathers near the base of the lighthouse.  I got to try out my system on these difficult flitting passerines.  The Cape May and Chestnut-sided Warblers stole the show with the Vireos, close behind.  We thought we also had a Nashville Warbler, but birding ID by consensus decided on a female Common Yellowthroat instead.  I’ve been fooled by that bird before.

Common Yellowthroat, Geothlypis trichas

Life is jam packed with compromises.  You can’t know it all, see, hear, read, or afford it all, and your time is short.  So you make choices.  Granted, the choice of a travel camera and lens is not monumental, but for a birder it is important.  I’ve decided to stick to my original goal of lightness, compactness, and versatility, knowing that I’d be sacrificing some reach.  I bought the Panasonic 50-200mm lens and head to Europe this week with it, leaving my Canon behind.