Bird Photography for Older Photographers

Bird Photography for Older Photographers

Last winter, at the tender age of 71, I underwent a procedure that would have a major impact on my life: total knee replacement surgery. My previously stiff and painful arthritic knee has improved dramatically and I’ve pretty much returned to my normal active lifestyle. But the healing process was slow and the physical therapy difficult, and I confess that there were days when I despaired of moving around easily again with my photography equipment.

This got me thinking about how we bird photographers could update our equipment to take advantage of new technologies and innovative products, as well as adapt our techniques and our own behavior to enable us to pursue our passion as we age and become less mobile.

Bulky cameras and giant telephoto lenses are part of any serious photographer’s journey. Two decades ago, I sometimes carried two whole systems. My main birding gear was a Canon DSLR body with a 500mm f/4 telephoto lens supported on a tripod. Over my shoulder was a second body with a 100-400mm zoom for birds in flight. Over the years, however, carrying all that weight has sapped my energy and motivation. Bird photography was no longer fun. The solution? Reduce the size!

Luckily, now is the perfect time to lighten that load. We now have mirrorless cameras that are more compact and lighter than their DLSR predecessors. Three years ago I upgraded to a Sony a9 mirrorless, whose fast and accurate autofocus system made it the best option for bird photography at the time. Since then, every camera maker has jumped into the fray with a wide range of mirrorless bodies, including models from Canon’s R-series and Nikon’s Z-series, as well as the a1 and a9 II. from Sony, OM1 from OM System and others. (For detailed recommendations, see “Camera Manufacturers Embrace Mirrorless Technology” by William Jobes, Bird watchingJuly/August 2022 issue.)

Let’s not forget the lentils. Downsizing doesn’t mean sacrificing the telephoto reach so vital to getting decent image size from our little flying subjects, as there’s a new generation of lightweight, compact telephoto lenses to pair with mirrorless bodies. Of the various options, Nikon’s PF 500mm and Canon’s RF 100-500mm have proven to be excellent bird lenses. Professional friends who use them report good results even when paired with a teleconverter. My current bird lens is Sony’s 200-600mm, a terrific zoom that covers almost the entire focal range of my previous two telephoto lenses. How’s that for a weight saving switch!

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It is true that these compact zooms are not as fast as large prime lenses with their large light-catching front elements, which means that acquiring focus can be a little slower (especially in low light and/or when used with a teleconverter). Despite this, for me, the mirrorless revolution was a game-changer. Bird photography is fun again!

To relieve a weight

Gone are the days of lugging around a huge tripod-mounted rig resting on your shoulder! Many photographers find new cameras and lenses easy to hold in the hand. But neck strain and back strain can still be a problem during long hours in the field. Fortunately, there are a number of great products that make it easy to transport gear and always have it on hand.

One thing that is sure to hurt your neck is hanging your camera around your neck on the bracket provided by the manufacturer. webbing. Instead, switch to a camera strap, a design that angles the strap across your chest, redistributing the weight of the camera and lens away from your neck and shoulders. My strap of choice is from BlackRapid. Another recommended brand is Peak Design.

Or you can use a portable camera mount that holds the camera close to the body rather than hanging from a strap. Consider the belt made by Spider Inc. ( It uses two metal plates: one attached to the camera which clips onto the other on the belt, holding the camera in place. A photographer friend of mine swears by this system, finding it much more comfortable than a shoulder strap for carrying her camera/telephoto combo. Or consider a camera harness like those made by Cotton Inc. that holds the camera close to your chest. Hands-free designs such as these are a great option if you need to use hiking poles for stability when hiking.

Struggling along a beach through deep, soft sand with heavy equipment can be particularly tiring. You may prefer a beach cart. Choose one with large wheels and/or large tires with thick treads, as these types tend to move easier and smoother over bumpy ground and sand. The typical beach cart used for family outings has four wheels, but another suggestion is a two-wheeled “beach rolly” like the Eckla Rolly Beach Trolley. It is expensive but recommended by photographers.

The point on low-angle shots

older photographersAuthor Marie Read uses the camera’s tilting rear screen rather than the viewfinder to see the subject. It’s more comfortable than lying down to photograph low-angle birds. The camera and lens are mounted on a tripod head atop a Skimmer Ground Pod.

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The most compelling bird images are taken at eye level. For ground-dwelling species, this requires descending to the ground, which becomes much more difficult as we age. (Yes, going vertical again is even harder!) Typically, you lie on your stomach with the camera supported either on a floor stand, or on a tripod with flattened legs, or even directly on the floor, then crane your neck up to look into the viewfinder. Ouch! Fortunately, there is an easier way, thanks to the new camera design. Rather than dialing through the viewfinder, use the tilting rear screen found on many newer models. Now you can sit, rather than lie down, on the floor, tilt the screen outward, and look down. This should help you avoid neck pain. Composing via the rear screen takes practice, especially if the subject is moving, but once you get used to the new method it works well.

Some photographers might think that a right-angle viewfinder attachment would achieve the same effect. But to see through the viewfinder requires bending lower than looking at an angled screen, which leads to neck and/or back pain. Also, these accessories aren’t available for most camera models, and in my experience, one-size-fits-all types don’t fit very well.

Crawling to approach birds can wreak havoc on sore, aging knees. Knee pads, such as those designed for construction workers or gardeners, can help. It took several months before I dared to put weight on my new knee, and even a year after the operation I still cannot tolerate the dense foam and/or hard shells of conventional knee braces. Instead, I bought orthopedic-recommended Total Comfort memory foam knee pads. Now I can crawl like a 2 year old!

Use it or lose it

Being physically fit is important for bird photographers of all ages, but staying fit is even more important for older people. Having stamina, strength, good balance and flexibility will allow you to stay in the field longer with the birds and avoid injuries. So renew your expired gym membership or sign up for a fitness class, ideally one that includes strength training and stretching, like Jazzercise or Pilates.

While we photographers need to stay fit to best pursue our craft, the reverse is also true: bird photography itself provides health benefits, encouraging a healthy outdoor lifestyle that is good for the body AND the soul! Think of it as a win-win situation – a positive outlook to keep in mind as we head into this new stage of life.

This article originally appeared in the “Photographing Birds” section of the November/December 2022 issue of BirdWatching magazine.