After graduating from a Zenith SLR that I had as a schoolchild, I moved on to a Canon AE-1 as a student. For birds, I mainly used a Tamron 500mm mirror lens, which was compact, but produced miniature ‘polos' in the background. For over 20 years I used Nikon gear, especially a trusty second-hand Nikon F3 that I took around the world. Whenever possible, I used the fine-grained but slow Kodachrome 25 slide film. My most-used lenses were Nikon manual focus f2.8 105mm macro lens and a 300mm f4.5.
I had little time for birding and photography when my children were young, but as they became more independent, opportunities increased again. When digital photography took off in the early 2000's I started ‘digiscoping' – taking shots with a Nikon 995 camera attached to my Swarovski AT 80 HD telescope - images here. This greatly increased reach, with the telescope usually being used as the equivalent of more than a 1000mm telephoto lens. With the advent of cropping in Photoshop, the possibility of getting sharp images of distant birds became a reality. Digiscoping can be very frustrating however – it is difficult to locate the bird in the camera, and the method only allows relatively slow shutter speeds, which coupled with high magnifications often results in image blur. The Nikon 995 also has a lag after pressing the shutter button, so what you get as an image often isn't quite what you'd hoped for. I've now abandoned digiscoping and use digital SLRs (DSLRs). My first DSLR was a 6 megapixel (MP) Nikon D100, which I used with my old Nikon manual focus lenses after being told in Jessops that the camera would meter with them (of course it didn't!). I stuck with Nikon because I had several old lenses, but would probably have switched to Canon at that point had I been given the correct advice about lens compatibility! I increased my battery of Nikon lenses, mainly shooting birds with a 300mm AFS f2.8 lens used with a 2x TC-20E II teleconverter. The 1.5x crop factor in Nikon DSLRs was useful for bird photography, and my favourite DSLR for a long time was a 12 MP Nikon D2X. For travelling I would use a Nikon 18-70 DX lens and an 80-400mm zoom with vibration reduction (VR). Most of the images on the 2005 and 2006 pages were shot this way.
After shooting with Nikon for such a long time, it was with some trepidation that I switched to Canon gear in January 2007. Nikon gear served me well, and there are swings and roundabouts involved in switching. Although it is undoubtedly the photographer who makes a good photograph, for many years it was also clear that Canon supertelephoto lenses with image stabilisation (IS) often deliver quality that Nikon lenses cannot. Nikon adopted a strange strategy where it introduced stabilisation (termed VR) into shorter focal length lenses, but did not put it where it really counts - in the long focal length lenses. I therefore followed a considerable number of photographers who made this switch. I preferred my Nikon body to the Canon one, but the superior lens quality of Canon, plus the better compatibility between converters, extension tubes and lenses which all maintain IS and autofocus with the 500mm lens left me in no doubt about moving. At last (2008) Nikon introduced Vibration Reduction into their long lenses, but the lenses are considerably more expensive than Canon's, and now Canon have brought out an 800mm lens! The competition can only be good for new developments and cost reduction.
My bird photography using Canon equipment was initially done with a Canon ID Mark IIN body, losing some of the crop factor (the Canon is 1.3x), and about 4 MP in the image (important when cropping images) compared with the Nikon D2X I used previously. The camera also used bulky NiMH batteries (however these last forever). On the plus side, it had better autofocus and a higher shooting rate (up to 8.5 fps) than the Nikon. The megapixel and cropping issues were not improved when Canon introduced the 50D because of the excessive noise produced by cramming too many pixels onto a small sensor. I used the 50D briefly, but sold it after about 6 months of use. My main consideration now is image quality, and that means avoiding noise. I wish Canon would stop cramming megapixels onto small sensors and hence producing excessive noise. I liked the Canon 1D Mark III a lot - the image quality was excellent, and mine (with a sub-mirrror fix) never experienced any major autofocus issues (except with small auks flying against a dark blue sea, but maybe any camera would be challenged by that). Best performance on sensors that crop images seems to be around 10-12 MP right now, though it will be interesting to see how the 1D Mark IV performs with 16MP. Having got one in March 2010, I think the resolution:noise trade-off is about as good as it gets on this camera (it has a 1.3x crop).
I buy a lot of my equipment in good-condition on the second hand market, because like with second hand cars, depreciation can be rapid at first, and savings can be considerable. Equipment bought from reputable dealers is also covered by a warranty in case it is faulty. I especially recommend Aperture Photographic in London and mpb photographic. I have never bought anything via eBay because of the risks of getting broken or stolen gear, especially if you are handing over thousands of pounds -although bargains are no doubt out there, the risks are just too high and the bidding system can be very frustrating. I buy most of my new equipment via the Internet, often through Warehouse Express who have competitive prices, good stock and rapid delivery.
My equipment (January 2014) is:
Canon 1D Mark IV. I traded in my 1D Mark III with mbp photographic to get this. Initial impressions are that this camera should last some time - Canon seems to have solved autofocus issues (despite Rob Galbraith's attempts to try and show otherwise), and bird photographers are almost all giving positive reviews. I think it will be difficult to improve image quality substantially with sensors of this size now without increasing noise to unacceptable levels unless radically new microlenses are designed. The camera has outstanding image quality, excellent autofocus, and shoots at a high frame rate. Mine now has some masking tape on its rear, but is still dependable and durable.
Canon 5D body. A full frame camera (no image crop) – nice for landscapes and has 12 megapixels. A classic, though largely adopted by my daughter now.
Canon 17-40mm L f4 lens. Mainly used at 17mm. Didn't need a wider aperture lens for landscapes when I mainly stop down.
Canon 100-400mm L IS lens. Mainly used when travelling. Good zoom range, has IS, though like the Nikon 40-400mm VR could be sharper at 400mm - don't shoot at full aperture if possible. Useful when travelling for photographing large wildlife, bats, dragonflies and even landscapes when shorter focal lengths are often useful.
Canon 180mm L f3.5 macro.
Canon 400mm f5.6mm L lens. I bought a second hand copy for taking bird photos when travelling or trekking - noticeably sharper than the 100-400mm zoom at 400mm, although it lacks the benefits of IS.
Canon 500mm L IS f4 lens. Excellent for wildlife photography, and not much heavier than my old Nikon 300mm f2.8.
Canon 1.4x and 2x EF II teleconverters. Usually used with the 500mm.
Canon 580 EX and EXII flashguns. Dreadful instruction manuals make these a nightmare to learn. Default is fill-in flash when used with Aperture Priority, so don't use this mode in the dark (it will use very long shutter speeds!). In dark conditions I use ETTL mode, high-speed synch, and manual exposure to vary aperture and get good depth of field. I use a Canon ST-E2 wireless transmitter for off camera flash. Wimberley macro brackets are useful for close-up work.
Gitzo 3530 LSV carbon fibre tripod. My first serious tripod – light and sturdy. Seriously over-rated and expensive though, and the design of the feet is dreadful (they self-unlock and fall off, so I've stuck them on with Superglue).
Velbon Sherpa Pro CF-435 Carbon fibre Tripod with PH157Q 3 way head. Not tall, but only weighs about 1kg and great for travelling with lightweight kit.
Wimberley II Gimble head. Used with Arca-Swiss lens plates (P40 for the 500mm (don't forget to also get the ¼” to 3/8” thread adaptor), and a Wimberley P20 plate for other smaller lenses).
Manfrotto 679 monopod – sometimes used when travelling.
Nikon 5000 ED Super Coolscan slide/negative scanner.
I also use my iPhone a lot for landscapes and snapshots.
I usually carry all of my gear in LowePro bags – usually a Supertrekker, or an Off Trail II bag or in a Jack Wolfskin Berkeley daypack if travelling light.
I now shoot in RAW rather than Fine JPG. The uncompressed RAW files are big, and take some time to load into Photoshop, but there are some advantages in shooting RAW. Because most of my work is only for computer display, the advantages of RAW are arguable (see Ken Rockwell's sharp observations about RAW vs. JPG). The main benefit that I notice is the increased tonal range in shady areas when shooting RAW. The underside of backlit bird wings can look black in compressed JPGs, but a RAW-processed shot can reveal a subtle gradation of tones. Remember that the camera buffer size can also limit how many RAW images you can acquire in a short time - I once lost a potentially great shot of a penduline tit on a reedmace stem while I was waiting for some earlier poor shots to load onto the CF card. Initially I processed my images in Photoshop CS2 (especially using the Smart Sharpen option for sharpening and the 'Save for web' option), and in Neat Image to reduce any background noise. If I have time, I use 'Quick Mask' in Photoshop to sharpen an image on one layer, reduce noise in the background of a duplicated layer, and then 'paint in' the noise-reduced background onto the sharpened layer. Generally I dislike spending ages at the computer however, and get away with sharpening and noise reduction on the same layer with plain backgrounds that I aim to shoot with. I use sRGB colour space for web images. My web page was initially designed using Macromedia Dreamweaver with thumbnails and slide shows generated in Arles Image Web Page Creator. I now use Adobe Creative Suite Master Collection that includes Dreamweaver and Photoshop CS6.
My favourite bird photographers right now are Daniele Occhiato and Hugh Harrop.
I've switched to using Apple computers for my work, and I'm experimenting with Topaz DeNoise for noise reduction.