Digital Cameras for birders and the new Sony a9

Birders in the modern digital age have access to a fantastic array of SLR type digital camera bodies from numerous manufacturers. Mostly you will hear people talking about products from Canon and Nikon and hear friendly banter over who makes the more suitable camera. As each successive body is released there are jumps in technology that make our lives as birders much easier.

For those that can afford it, you have the two leaders in the DSLR realm being the Canon 1DXmkii and the almost as impressive Nikon D5. These are both Full Frame 35mm equivalent digital speed freaks that can focus and set exposure continuously while firing off well over 10 frames per second.

Then again from these manufacturers you can get cheaper crop bodies in the form of the Nikon D500 and the Canon 7Dmkii with the Nikon slightly edging out the Canon. Again these two bodies also achieve around 10 frames per second burst shooting with full auto focus and exposure control.

These DSLR bodies have been leading the pack for many years now however a new camera has just been released that make knock these two off their perch?

Enter the newly announced Sony a9!

ILCE9B_1

One thing that makes this body different is the fact that it is a mirrorless body and is almost entirely digital. As it has no mirror it is not restricted by the lag waiting for the mirror to bounce around inside the body. In a traditional DSLR the mirror must move out of the way of the incoming light to enable the sensor the capture the information. The mirror in case you were not aware is what bounces the light coming in from the lens up to the viewfinder, helping you track your fast moving falcon.

With the Sony a9 this transfer of light is handled by an electronic view finder. Now in the past I have been staunchly against EVF or electronic view finders simply because they could not refresh the image fast enough for certain birding photography situations. In the case of the Sony a9 they have not only increased the EVF to have 4k output but it refreshes the screen at 120FPS! This makes following fast moving subjects much much easier.

I think now is the time to mention some of the specifications of this new camera:
20FPS with full AF and AE
241 RAW shots in a burst at 20FPS
693 AF points with 93% coverage
35mm 24MP Full Frame Stacked CMOS sensor
1/32000s electronic shutter
60 AF/AE calculations per second
120FPS 4k EVF
Larger battery than before (an old complaint on EVF systems was poor battery life but it looks like Sony have addressed this with the a9)

What is not mentioned above is that you can take 20FPS with full AF and AE and experience absolutely NO BLACKOUT through the view finder!
Imagine photographing small fast moving forest birds and you never lose sight of the bird because you always see what you are looking at. This is because unlike the DSLRs the mirror doesn’t temporarily block your view. Now another point here is that because you are using an electronic shutter there is no noise. You can set the camera play a quiet shutter noise if you really want to but lets face it, if you are in a forest and have access to a silent shutter, I am quite sure you would take it!

Is this new Sony a9 going to cause everyone to change from Canon and Nikon?

I suspect this is a game changing mirrorless camera for birders.

It is light weight, with a small compact body, it has features that have put it well ahead of the DSLR based competition and I think we will start to see many bird photographers start to switch very soon or certainly start to think very seriously.

Are there negatives?

Yes, in my mind despite the amazing videos of the new Sony a9 producing amazing results in a controlled environment, bird photography is probably THE most demanding on camera gear. I still would like to see this body being used in the field.
Another point to consider is the availability of lenses at the super telephoto end. Sony have just release a fast 100-400 designed for this body but if you want a 300 2.8 or a 500mm you will have to use an adapter to A-mount glass and drop down to 10FPS… (ok maybe that is not so bad?). However I am sure Sony will bring out the right glass in this mount.

SEL100400GM

Now, if any kind Sony staff are willing to lend me a Sony a9 and a 100-400 I will very willingly go and do some real world testing for you!

Understanding Binoculars

I have been asked many times over the years what kind of binoculars I would recommend to new bird watchers, or for those looking to replace an older pair, what to look for when choosing a new pair of binoculars.

In trying to answer people you need to try and understand what their needs are first. The answer might seem obvious at first in that they need the new pair for bird watching. Of course there are many different usage scenarios when bird watching.

What if the person is a guide that uses their binoculars mainly in low light forest conditions or they bird mainly in open areas with large distances. This is where understanding the numbers associated with a pair of binoculars becomes important.

The first two main numbers you need to understand are the magnification and the objective lens diameter. So if you see a pair being advertised as 10X50 then your magnification is 10X and the front objective diameter is 50mm.

 

Magnification is pretty straight forward and is simply the amount by which distant objects are enlarged by the optical properties of the glass lenses. The higher the magnification number the more the objects are enlarged so 10X provides greater magnification than 8X and so on.

The Objective Lens Diameter relates to the size of the from glass element. In basic terms the larger the font lens the more light that can be transmitted through the lenses. Therefore objects appear brighter through the binoculars when viewed through a 10X50 binocular as opposed to a 10X43 or 10X30.

There are a lot more factors that can affect a buying decision but the above two are the most basic. When it comes to choosing a pair for birding, you really need to look at what kind of needs you have and where you do your most birding.

Open brightly lit areas where your subject is far off is very different to birding in a dimly lit forest where you might need to focus very close to get a good view of the bird. In the first case a 10X50 or even a 12X60 pair that does not focus close is perfect. However if you try and transfer that to a forest where your bird is potentially close and in a dimly lit area, then an 8X43 is much more suitable.

I personally have always chosen a 10X50 so I get middle ground when it comes to magnification but still let the most amount of light possible in through the binocular. This is because I can find myself birding in just about all habitat types.

As for the brand, there are many choices out there and of course a large price range. As is the rule with most things you get what you pay for. The Leica, Zeiss, Swarovskis of this world command premium prices and the optics are outstanding. However you can pay considerably less and still get to 90% of what these top brands offer. Both Pentax and Nikon have very very good optics in their binoculars at a vastly cheaper price.

Always do your research. Go online to the various stores, have a look around, then go into a store and try them out. Have a look through the binoculars and see how you find them. Try the different magnifications and lens diameters and see what feels comfortable. Beware of very cheap binoculars where you start to see purple fringing. This is where quality coatings on the glass come into play. Do the lenses line up or do you feel they are pulling your vision? Be very careful of this as you will be spending a lot of time looking through them.

When you look through them are you looking through a small little “hole” or is it nice and bright and appear to have a full view through the binoculars. This is to do with the size of the exit pupil or the rear objective. On some brands the rear lens is very small so even though the front objective is 50mm you just feel like you are not seeing the full picture. Whereas a pair with a larger exit pupil allows you see the full field of view that the 50mm provides. This affects eye strain have helps provide relief when looking through the binoculars for long periods.

You will often hear me talking about Pentax equipment and yes I am partial to them but they are one of the brands that does provide about the best balance between features and price while still providing that important eye relief.

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