When I got back into photography back in 2001, it was with an early generation Canon Elph pocket camera. All I was planning on doing was playing with it on vacation, but I caught the bug. When I got serious about photography I found myself interest in bird photography, so I researched lenses and decided that the Canon 100-400 was the lens I should build my kit around. Because of that, I started building my camera kit around Canon gear, and Canon is still my primary gear for my bird photography.
For my landscape, event and street photography I now use the Fuji X-T1, and in fact have sold off all of my wide angle Canon lenses. Mirrorless cameras just aren’t ready for the challenges of critter and bird photography or big telephoto lenses, so I am still happy using Canon gear for that.
Sometimes I carry both sets of gear together in one big bag, and sometimes I split the Fuji out into its own kit to carry it around in a much smaller package. Check out my Fuji Landscape kit page for more details on that camera setup.
Think Tank Airport Accelerator
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Think Tank Lens Taxi
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This is the Think Tank Airport Accelerator Backpack. I’ve owned it for a couple of years now, and I’ve worked it pretty hard. It’s not cheap ($300), but it’s built like a rock, carries a massive amount of gear, and is comfortable on my back. I expect to be using this bag for many years and as long as I’m carrying large telephoto-type gear. If you’re still a photographer hauling around heavy backs slung on a shoulder, you really should consider a backpack. It keeps the weight balanced and it’s a lot easier on back and shoulders. They aren’t just for hiking photographers.
Because of the size and weight of the Sigma 150-600, it now lives in its own bag, the Think Tank Lens Taxi, designed for behemoth lenses like this. This is the other bag I use for carrying my bigger gear, Think Tank Retrospective 30.
Canon 7d Mark II
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Canon 70-200 F2.8L IS II
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Canon 2.0X Teleconverter III
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The Canon 7DmkII is the top of the line APS-sized sensor camera from Canon. This camera is what I’d call the “prosumer” body, in that it has most of the features you’ll see on the more expensive full-frame pro-caliber bodies but the APS sensor keeps the price more reasonable. I like the APS sensor for bird photography because you can use the sensor magnification factor (1.6x on Canon gear) to get some boost out of your lenses and save some money off the cost of the full-frame bodies.
I’ve recently upgraded to this body from my Canon 7D. There are a lot of improvements between the two generations of the camera, most visible being a new 20 gigabit sensor and DIGIC processor and the new, 46 sensor autofocus system. In use I’ve found the new AF system to be incredibly fast and accurate, even in cases that traditionally bother autofocus like a moving object in front of brush and branches. The new sensor is quite good, and to my eye, looking at a 7DmkII image at 200% looks better to me than most 7D images look at 100%. That’s a significant improvement. Between the two (plus faster and more sustained burst mode and a number of other features) this is a worthwhile upgrade to users of the Canon 7D or an older Canon body where the photographer is thinking of moving up to a more heavy-duty body.
My workhorse birding lens Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II combined with the Canon 2.0X III Telephoto Extender. This combo gives me the ability to cover from 70mm (at F2.8!) to 400mm at F5.6, using a single lens. If it a fairly expensive combination compared to the Canon 100-400, which I started my bird photography with, but the lens is sharper, with faster autofocus, and a really solid build quality. This is not a beginners lens (that’s the 100-400), but unless you want to spend $11,000 for the new Canon 200-400 with the built in 1.4x extender, this is the best birding and critter lens for the Canon line, with no compromises. It’s allowed me to shift to a single lens on a single body for everything in the telephoto range, and the image quality, sharpness and detail is such that it lets me shoot and crop without often wishing I had a 500mm or 600mm lens in my kit. I really, really love this lens setup and if you’re serious about this kind of photography, this is the lens set to aspire to.
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My new lens is the Sigma 150-600, the expensive Sport version. It is big, it is heavy, and it is awesome, but the size difference between the 70-200+2.0 and the 150-600 is almost 2 pounds, and it makes things like hand-holding the lens and walking around much more difficult. I can do it, but this really is a tripod lens. I’m still working out how best to use this lens with the rest of my kit, but especially for bird photography, I really like it.
My camera strap is the Black Rapid Yeti, which allows me to add a second strap that will carry my Fuji I love the shoulder-sling style straps; much nicer on the neck on long photo days. As a two-camera setup, it’s okay. Overall, I like this but don’t love it, and I’m still looking for a strap setup I love for two cameras.
To keep the sensor clean, I carry the Giottos Rocket Air Blaster, also useful for blowing dust and dirt off of the camera body or lens. I find too many photographers don’t take sensor dust seriously and waste a lot of time removing dust spots in post-processing. A bit of care early on and I rarely have to deal with dust spots on my images, and since I catch the dust before it welds itself to the sensor, I rarely have to wet-clean the sensor as well.
Also, don’t forget to carry and use a good lens cloth. I currently use these microfiber cloths from Canon. They’re dirt cheap, I buy a bunch of them at a time, keep at least one in each bag, in my car, on my desk, and anywhere else I might want to grab one, and throw them out after about 6 months and replace them, because they collect dirt, skin oil, and other ‘stuff’ you don’t want rubbing on your lenses like the oils from your fingers. it’s a cheap investment to replace them often. I also carry the Nikon Lens Pen as another tool in getting the gunk off the gear without scratching the lenses.
Memory cards. Can you ever have too many? (actually, probably, but that doesn’t stop me). My current standard is the Transcend 32 GB Compact Flash Card, which I’ve found to be reliable and a good value. I carry them in the Think Tank Pixel Pocket Rocket so they get some protection and they don’t get misplaced. It also holds my business cards, so they’re always handy.
While battery life has improved massively since the early days of digital cameras, I still try to carry spares, if only because on the road it means I don’t have to be quite so paranoid about recharging everything in the hotel room after a long day on a multi-day shoot. Of course, the more you start doing timelapses and video and night shooting and other long exposure work, the more you’re going to eat up your batteries, so this is another accessory where “can you have too many?” seems to apply. I currently carry two spares as well as the one in the camera, and I use the Canon LP-E6N Battery not a third party version. I keep them in a Think Tank Battery Holder. A minor but important point: you want to keep your batteries in some kind of holder, because if something metallic gets in contact with the connectors of a charged battery in your bag, it can short out the battery and lead to a fire or a melted battery causing damage to everything near it.
When your light is weird and you need to make sure you get the color rendition right, you can’t trust your camera’s white balance to figure it out. For that, I have the X-Rite ColorChecker Passport. Take a shot of the Passport in the light you’re working with and you have all of the information you need to set an appropriate white balance and adjust your colors to match what you saw.
Things you might not think to pack
When you’re out in the field early in the morning or late into the evening, it can chill fast, even if it was a warm day. Even as someone who’s not too sensitive to cold, I’ve found as I’ve gotten older that my fingers notice it a lot more than they used to. I’ve learned, the hard way, to carry a winter cap to warm my head and ears, and a pair of gloves. I discovered Grabber Hand Warmers a few years back and love them; activate a couple and put them in your jacket pockets, and you can go a long way towards making those early mornings less dismal. Also, don’t forget your DEET. Many of the refuges I visit during the winter are well-populated with small flying things that are interested in having you over for lunch. I use Tender Ben’s Deet Wipes which are packaged like moist-wipes, so they’re easily carried, take up very little space and available on very short notice, and I’ve found them to be effective, even in rather intense mosquito attacks. Don’t forget to DEET your bald spot if you have one. Just saying.
Don’t forget your Leatherman. I have a few of these stored in places like my main bag, the car, etc, because they are both useful in many situations, and because when you need one, you don’t want it to be in the other bag at the trailhead…. Also don’t forget your remote shutter. Buying one that can do long exposure or serve as an intervalometer can help you move into timelapses and other techniques, and well worth getting. Make sure you do some tests with it to learn how it operates before going out in the field, though.
Finally, a couple of minor things that can really make a difference. There are very few photographers that can get a level horizon without help, and I’m one of them. One of the tools I use to try to solve that persistant 3 degree slant is the Opteka Hot Shoe Level. It may seem like a silly accessory to buy, until you come home with a stack of landscape shots and need to manually level the horizon of each one. I also keep an OP/TECH Rainsleeve in the bag; they’re cheap, light, take up no space, and if you get hit by bad weather when you’re away from shelter, it can save your gear.
There are a few final things that live in this bag, mostly to keep me from being horribly miserable when the conditions aren’t spa-like. I always carry a touque hat that I can pull on and cover my ears; this is more important now that I’m losing my hair and I’ve found that getting the top of your head sunburned really sucks (I also carry a Tilley’s floppy hat in the car at all times, but when it’s cold and damp and windy, a knitted cap is a joy). I also carry gloves for the same reason — the first place I feel the chill and damp now is the fingers, and gloves can mean the difference between another hour in the field and a chair in Starbucks complaining about the cold.
I also carry some food bars — in my case, the Clif high protein chocolate chip bars because they’re the only ones I’ve found that are higher protein instead of carb bombs while not using nuts in the recipe. Most of the others use almonds or almond paste to boost the protein content, which because of my allergies, is a non-starter for me.
The Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS is the most common lens you’ll see among amateur bird photographers for a reason. It’s a good lens, and a great lens for a newer photographer. It’s relatively inexpensive compared to other lenses for bird photography, and it turns out consistently good images. it’s also flexible enough that you don’t need to supplement it with other lenses to do most of your photography. If you’re considering a lens for bird or wildlife photography, this is the one to start with.
When I decided I wanted to upgrade to a higher quality lens, I upgraded to this combo. The Canon 300mm f/4L IS and the Canon 1.4X III Telephoto Extender. This combo gives you the equivalent of a 420mm F5.6. I prefer it over Canon’s own 400mm lens because it’s autofocus is a bit faster, and you have the flexibility of removing the teleconverter. It’s sharper than the 100-400, but less flexible, so you’ll need to carry something like a 70-200 to cover the same range, but if you do, you’ll find the image quality is somewhat better than the 100-400.
Before I upgraded my wide angle work to the Fuji, The Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS was my wide angle lens and I used it for all of my street and landscape work, mostly attached to my Canon T3i. I really like this lens, it’s sharp, it’s got nice texture and contrast, and it’s got good autofocus. On the other hand, I think the Fuji system gives me better color in landscapes, and my entire Fuji setup (body AND camera) weighs about the same as this lens. But if you’re looking for a good wide-angle lens for the Canon system, this one is a great choice.
Here are some common gear selections that I recommend to users depending on their needs and budget. If you are a photographer looking to get started in bird photography, take a look at my article on how to create a good birding kit as well. Prices mentioned are from Amazon US at the time I wrote this and will vary by location and time.
- A serious intermediate or advanced photographer: Canon 7DmkII ($1500) with the 70-200F2.8L IS II ($2100 and 2X TC III ($430) or the new 100-400F5.6L IS II ($2100).
- A photographer looking to upgrade to better gear or a newer photographer willing to invest in gear for the future: Canon 70D with the 70-200F2.8L IS II ($2100 and 2X TC III ($430) or the new 100-400F5.6L IS II ($2100)
- An entry level photographer on a budget: Canon T6i ($750) with the Canon 100-400F5.6L ($1400) or the Canon 300F4L IS ($1350) and Canon TC 1.4X III ($429).
New? Or Used?
You can get some nice bargains buying gear used. I’ve bought from rental houses like Borrowlenses when they retire gear off the rental scene, and I’ve worked with KEH and been very impressed with both the quality of their gear and prices. That said, if you’re just starting out and you aren’t sure how to evaluate used gear — you may save some money, but you may also be asking for problems you don’t know how to solve. My recommendation: unless you absolutely have to watch every dollar spent, buy new when starting out, and leave the used market for when you’re more experienced. The one exception: buying from someone you know personally and trust; if someone in your “photo posse” is selling something, that might be the best way to get a lens or a camera body you want at a good price. What you definitely do not want to do? Craigslist or eBay, especially as a new photographer. The chances of being hit by some kind of fraud is too high for my comfort level.
Manufacturer or third party lenses?
These days, I shoot only Canon lenses. That hasn’t always been true, and I’ve used lenses from Sigma and Tamron extensively, and Tokina a few times as well. The quality of the non-manufacturer lenses has really improved over the years, and you can save a lot of money making smart choices with the third party manufacturers. We’ll talk about some of those as well. Sometimes those are the right choices, especially when starting out on a budget.
Some bird photographers swear by the Sigma 50-500. Others swear at it. I’ve seen some really good images come out of that lens. For my money, I prefer the 100-400. It’s an option, though, and if you have access to one, try it out. If I were buying used, I would trust buying a used 50-500 more than a used 100-400.
Canon sells 70-300mm lenses at various price points. the inexpensive ones will disappoint you. The more expensive model (about $1300) doesn’t really save you any money compared to the 100-400, can’t take a teleconverter and so is at best marginally powerful enough for bird photography. You might try it, you won’t like it — not for birds.
Sigma sells a 120-40, and Tamron sells a 200-500, both at about the $1000 price point. I’ve never tested them, so I can’t make a recommendation. They’re worth experimenting with, but definitely try them out first.
In general, I’ve found most Sigma lenses create pretty good images and hold up pretty well, and some Tamron lenses do. My general rating of product and build quality for lenses is Canon is best, then Sigma, then Tamron, but Tamron doesn’t currently sell a lens I’d use for bird photography.
For what it’s worth, a high end Sigma will usually out-perform a low-end (or “kit”) Canon. For instance, I usually suggest to someone they but the Canon “body only” and add the Sigma 24-70 F2.8 IF EX DG HSM instead of buying the Canon bundled iwth their lower end wide-angle lenses.
Be wary of bargain shopping and trying to “make do” with less expensive gear, especially lenses. If they don’t have enough power or aren’t sharp enough, it’ll frustrate you and your experience won’t be fun. If it’s not fun, chances are you won’t pursue it. It’s better for you to work with the less expensive point and shoot for a while until you can afford the “real” gear — and you may well find that these mid-range cameras are exactly what you want for how serious you are at this kind of photography.
If you have thoughts and feedback on all of this, or if you have unanswered questions, feel free to drop me a line. I’ll be happy to talk to you about your needs and offer what suggestions I can.
(last updated: April 2016)