My Canon Birding/Wildlife Camera gear Kit

 
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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 it’s still my primary gear for my bird photography. I’m quite happy with Canon gear, so I don’t expect this to change any time soon.

That said, in the last year, I made a decision to shift my wide angle photography to the Fuji platform. Roughly speaking, if I’m shooting wider than 70mm I’m shooting Fuji, and if I’m shooting medium telephoto or stronger, I’m shooting Canon. Landscapes, Street Photography, the general carry-around and what little Macro work I do is now done by my Mirrorless camera, while my bird and wildlife photography is the mainstay of my Canon gear.

I’ve found this shift did a lot of things for me. It forced me to take a very serious look at what I was carrying and ask hard questions about why I was carrying it. Here’s what my bag looked like a year ago:

old_bagold_bag_2

That bag weighed almost over 25 pounds, and while it covered all my needs, it was a bear to haul around.

Today the bag is a lot lighter, a bit over 15 pounds (with the Fuji gear in it also). That’s a lot easier to convince myself to strap on and go out shooting…

What’s in my bag

bag

Notice how much emptier the bag looks! Some photographers might wince, but I think shifting from “what might I need?” to “What do I use?” is a great change of mindset for photographers. There is gear that I use occasionally or that covers a special purpose (such as recording audio); that lives in it’s own bag now, but I can swap it in to this one when I need to — but I’m not hauling it around when I only pull it out once every six or seven trips.

The empty spot is where I stick my Fuji gear when I’m carrying both sets in this bag. normally, it lives in its own bag and I carry it independently, but when I want to haul everything at times as well. There’s more than enough room for it in this bag, so I can have the best of both worlds: carry it all in this bag, or carry just the Fuji in it’s small and light bag. There really is no reason to carry everything everywhere, something I think a lot of us forget…

My bags

ThinkTank Airport

Retrospective 30

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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.

This is the other bag I use for carrying my bigger gear, Think Tank Retrospective 30. I have stuffed a 70-200F2.8, 24-105, 180mm macro and two bodies into this and it held it all for a day in the field. Normally I don’t carry that much gear in it, but it’s a very useful bag for when you want to grab some of your gear and do something where hauling the backpack around is inappropriate or won’t be allowed. Bonus points to the Retrospective lines for not screaming CAMERA BAG HERE to a casual viewer.

The Camera

Canon 7D

70-200 F2.8L IS II

Canon 2X TC

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The Canon 7D 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 some money off the cost of the full-frame bodies. These days the cost isn’t as significant (compare the price of the 7D to the Canon 6D) and the image quality lets you do the cropping in post-processing instead of with the sensor. This is a great body and it’s taken a lot of use and abuse from me without a glitch, but it’s at the end of it’s life in the product line and is rumored to be on the list for an update in 2014. See below for my recommendations for camera bodies for someone looking to buy their gear today (hint: not the 7d).

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.

Accessories

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. Also note that BlackRapid has been aggressive at challenging competitors with their patents and this makes me really uncomfortable buying any of their products in the future, so once I find something I like, I’ll be retiring this — I just haven’t found the right strap yet.

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.

Black Rapid Yeti

Rocket Blaster

Lens Cloths

Nikon Lens Pen

Memory Wallet

Battery Holder 4

Canon 7D Battery

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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.

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.

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.

X-Rite Passport

Transcend 32GB

Deet Wipes

Hand Warmers

Remote Shutter

Leatherman

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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-E6 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.

A few things you may 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. I primarily use the Canon RS-80N3 Remote, but I also use Triggertrap system and the Phottix Aion Wireless depending on the situation.

Phottix AION

Hot Shoe Level

iPhone Light Meter

Rainsleeve

12″ Reflector

Builder’s Bars

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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 supported the Luxi Light Meter iPhone Attachment and now carry it in my bag. I don’t use a light meter a lot any more, but when the lighting conditions are really tricky, it can mean the difference between getting it right and missing the shot, and I love having one that costs almost nothing, takes up almost no space, and hooks up to my phone when I need it. I really nice hack, well executed. 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. And I also carry a small Photoflex 12″ Reflector because especially with macro work, sometimes natural light needs a bit of help. It’s not something I use a lot, but once in a while, it’s crucial to have, and it’s light, cheap and very portable.

Miscellaneous 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.

Other Canon gear I’ve used and recommend

Canon T5i

Canon 100-400

Canon 300F4

Canon 1.4xTC

Canon 24-105

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If the price of the Canon 7d stretches your budget, you should consider the entry-level Rebel series bodies instead. The Canon Rebel T5i is the current version of that. I used the Canon T3i as my second body and it shot a lot of my landscapes and timelapses before I shifted to the Fuji. These are great cameras, the sensor is very close to the same as you’ll get in the Canon 7d. The primary differences between them are a slower burst rate and being able to shoot fewer images before the camera buffers fill up and the burst stops, and that it’s built for a less-intensive usage pattern. You can feel the difference in build quality between the two just by holding them, the Rebels are still quality built, but not built for the kind of constant and not-always-gentle use that a pro insists. They’re a great value, though, especially for a new photographer on a budget.

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.

Recommended Gear for different situations

If you’re looking at this article for advice on getting started in bird photography, I’ve gone into detail on my thoughts about how to create a good birding kit and I suggest you read that article.

If you’re a new photographer trying to figure out what you want to buy, and you’ve decided to buy Canon gear, my suggestion is to buy the Canon Rebel T5i. I’m a big believer in investing in glass to keep and bodies to upgrade, so you’re better off buying the less expensive camera body and putting more money into better lenses, so I’d suggest you think about a lens like the Canon 24-105 for wide angle work. If you’re primary interest is in the telephoto range, the Canon 100-400 is almost always the lens I recommend, and the one you should start your search on. If cost and budget are a factor, while the Canon kit lenses are a lot less expensive, my experience with users is they run into their limitations fairly quickly and end up upgrading to better lenses soon (or get frustrated and stop taking pictures). You’re better off considering some of the third party lenses from Sigma or Tamron as a way to get better lenses while saving money, but I don’t currently have any specific recommendations for lenses by those manufacturers.

If you’re becoming a more advanced photographer and you already own something like a Rebel body, and you’re trying to decide whether or not to upgrade to a more expensive camera body, here’s some general advice: First, if you’re body is fairly recent (T3i or newer, Canon 50D or newer) then I’d investigate upgrading your lenses before upgrading your body, because the sensor and image quality improvements aren’t that significant. There might be a specific reason to consider upgradings, such as improved video, ability to sustain a faster and longer burst rate, weather sealing, or something like that, but if better images are the primary reason to upgrade, better lenses is usually a better investment.

Canon 70d

Canon 6d

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I do not currently recommend the Canon 7D. The rumors are pretty solid that it’s going to get replaced with a new generation in 2014, and while it’s still a workhorse, there are better values. The Canon 70D has an improved sensor, better autofocus, better video and otherwise has fairly similar capabilities as the 7D for a few hundred dollars less; it’s hard to see any reason to buy a 7D instead of a 70D today, so if you’re looking for a higher end APS canon body, buy the 70D.

An interesting question is full-frame vs. APS-Sensor, and the answer used to be “can you afford full-frame?” — if not, you bought an APS sensor body. But now, with cameras like the Canon 6D, the decision is a lot more difficult. If I were building out a Canon-based kit today and I were going to do any amount of street or landscape work with it, I would buy the Canon 6D instead of the Canon 7D or Canon 70D. If I were planning to work entirely in telephoto ranges (70mm or greater) then I might buy the Canon 70D or the Canon 6D, and more and more I’d be leaning towards the Canon 6D over the APS sensors. This is all going to change again in 2014 as Canon’s new products are announced, and I’m going to be interested in seeing where the Canon 7DmII fits into the mix.

For now, though, the three camera bodies I recommend from Canon are the Canon 6D if you’re primarily a wide-angle oriented photographer, Canon 70D if you’re a big-glass, bird/critter photographer, and the Canon T5i if you’re budget sensitive.

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: August 11, 2014)