Start with Good Glass
I got my hands on a Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sports lens and strapped it to my Canon EOS 5D Mark III. For under $2,000, this lens is actually a bargain for anyone looking to make extreme close-ups of wildlife or athletes in action. That said, I simply rented mine. (LensRentals.com, for instance, offers this lens for just $68 per weekend.) There’s another version of this lens, the Contemporary model, that sells for about half the price. I can’t vouch for its efficacy, but if it’s half as good as the Sports model, it’s a great deal. The Sports version of the lens focused quickly and accurately and offered helpful features, such as image stabilization, zoom lock and a nice, rugged construction—which is good because with a lens this long you’ll likely bump the lens and its hood with regularity. That’s the only drawback, really. It’s a big, heavy lens and very long when extended to the full 600mm focal length and capped with the lens hood. But what else would you expect from a well-made super-telephoto zoom?
Hard to Handhold
Because of that size, my No. 1 advice for using this or any other long, heavy lens would be to invest in a monopod to help carry the weight and keep the image stable. At more than 10 pounds stretched out across half a yard, this lens is difficult to leverage without help. Leaning its tripod collar base against a branch, railing or other structure is immensely helpful for those working without a monopod, but if you’re serious about fine focus control and the ability to follow moving subjects, a monopod is all but essential. Plus, it’ll simply help keep you from getting worn out by this heavy lens quite so quickly.
One more thing when it comes to camera positioning: At eye level from ground level is perfectly fine, but for a unique vantage point, try getting up to the birds’ eye level—whether that means climbing a tree (which I don’t think I’d recommend with a big lens like this) or, more likely and even better, getting up on a porch or balcony. The nice thing about these high angles is that they can produce unique angles of the birds most folks aren’t used to seeing. Not only does that make for inherently interesting images, but in the case of birds, it also allows for a closer look at the shape, color and texture of plumage that can’t normally be seen from below.
Camera and Lens Settings for Sitting or Flying
When a bird is perched nearer to the trunk of a tree, with several tree branches between itself and the photographer, not only is it difficult to find a clear view of the bird, it’s difficult to autofocus on that bird. Inevitably, in those cases, the lens focuses on an errant branch in the foreground or background or, even more frustrating, it focuses on the branch on which the subject is perched, missing the subject itself by just a bit. So, targeting birds perched on outside branches, I find that manual focus is more effective than autofocus. First of all, the subject is sitting still—at least for the moment, so there’s not as much of an advantage to using autofocus. But once that bird takes flight, if you’re panning to track birds in flight, autofocus is more likely to produce a more accurate focus of quickly moving birds than your hands will—and continuous AF is going to produce more hits than one-shot focusing as well. This panning process for capturing birds in flight, by the way, can be quite frustrating as it produces far more missed shots than winners—so shoot a lot. When you do manage to get a bird well illuminated, flying toward the camera rather than away, and capture the ideal composition with nice, sharp focus—well the results are pretty impressive.
Just look at the purple martin in flight shown here. That’s a significant crop of the full-frame image, as the others are as well, but the focus, color and sharpness all hold up. (The 22 MP resolution of the 5D Mark III is just about at the limit of usability with these subjects anywhere from 30 to 100 feet away. A higher resolution sensor would certainly come in handy in order to provide more cropping capability for close-ups.) For birds in flight, I suggest a shutter speed of at least 1/2000th of a second, and I’ll crank my ISO to get it. (That enables you to shoot at a sharp aperture, like ƒ/8 or ƒ/11, and buys a bit of depth of field as well. You can simply dial back the noise in RAW processing via Lightroom.) A seated bird still requires a fast shutter speed, primarily because the length of the lens dictates it. I’d stay at or above 1/1000th for even a resting subject. In each case, I suggest dialing in the appropriate manual exposure to ensure maximum accuracy and to prevent over- or underexposure due to other elements in the frame.
Finding the Right Light
One benefit of shooting on a lightly overcast day is that the birds and trees won’t produce strong shadows that obscure some of the details of the subject. But generally speaking, I’d keep it simple and choose sunnier days, preferably at the beginning or end of the day when the light is at its best. I want to see the bird facing the sun—or at least enough to produce a catchlight in the eye. Without that catchlight, the bird’s eyes can appear lifeless and black, like a doll’s eyes. Turned just so, the catchlight appears and gives the image a lift, which means the plumage facing the camera will also be illuminated. While I may seek out backlighting in many other situations because of the depth and interest it provides, for birds, I want to see them in their full glory—every feathered pattern and color just right. With the sun at your back or a quartering angle, you’ll ensure the birds are properly illuminated. Just watch out for the shadows of branches and foliage that can obscure the subject a bit too much.