Best birding camera system, significance of DxOMark, and best telephoto lens brand


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Oct 14, 2012
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This may end up being a moderate epistle for assistance in choosing a camera system, so please bare with me.

I have had some interest in photography for several years now. In 2003, I had purchased a Olympus C-5050 and used it extensively while living overseas, in Micronesia. I had purchased an underwater housing from Ikelite and fell in love underwater photography. After I returned to the States, I returned to college and then professional school, which took most of my time. Now that I have been out of school for several years, I have found myself wanting to start photography again. Unfortunately, my underwater housing leaked last year and ruined my C-5050, so no more camera (I don't miss the camera). My wife lets me barrow her old Canon PowerShot SD630 and, if I am lucky, I use her new PowerShot Sx220 HS. I have handled a Nikon D7000, D3200, 1 J1, Panasonic DMC-GH2, Canon 5d MkII, T3i, and Sony SLT-A55?, NEX-3, and at my work we have a Canon Rebel Xti with the battery extension.

One big frustration I had with the C-5050 was the delay in the live view between shots. I remember having some great opportunities diving with manta rays and taking a shot, then the manta was gone by the time I could take the next one. Not only that, the delay between depressing the button and the lag between the shutter, often times caused the moment to be lost. Well, that was nearly ten years ago, so I assume most anything would be better now. Two reason's I went with the C-5050 instead of a DSLR was the size/weight and the video capabilities. I, unfortunately, never really took the time to try and figure out all the buttons on the camera, which may have affected my shots.

I was on Safari in South Africa last year, and was really kicking myself for not just buying a DSLR or m4/3 for the trip. The wildlife and birding was amazing. A friend had some model of the NEX, and it seemed rather slow between shots and I hated the idea of the live view, however, he seemed to really like it. The SD 630 I had was mostly a disappointment in ergonomics, picture quality, reach, and enjoyment, the Sx220 was an improvement, but not by much, better reach and picture quality. My in-laws had the 5dMkII, and I loved shooting with this camera. However, the lens was not satisfactory for reaching some of the wildlife, especially birds, and I used it briefly, while we were in the car, so I am not sure on the portability, layout, and menus. The ergonomics, the image quality, and overall enjoyment were high. There is something about holding the DSLR and shooting it that made it pleasurable for me, there seems to by an inner boy that thinks he is on a shooting range or something. Anyway, I liked it, especially hearing and seeing the shutter go so quickly, no logic behind this.

As for the Nikons, I handled them briefly and liked the D7000's sturdiness, but didn't like either of the DSLR button layouts, same for the A55?. Since I could spend more time with the Xti, I grew fond of the button layout, and most everything on it, the battery extension and hand strap made it more comfortable for me, and all the buttons seemed easily accessed by my right hand, so my left could zoom in and out/focus. I have large hands so I found this to by my favorite, most recently. I barrowed it and set up a bird feeding station in my back yard a few weeks ago, the only lens I had was a 60mm macro, so it couldn't reach the shy birds, I ended up using the Sx220. On the Sc220, I used a cheap tripod, and I fiddled with the ISO and shutter speeds to see if I could get some shots, but they didn't turn out very well, due to low light in the jungle and slow shooting speed.

So, where to go from here. I have looked over multiple websites for the last few weeks and, from my understanding, for birding, I need greater then 5 fps, over 1000 ISO, moderate-high pixels, and full frame if possible. Most importantly, I need a system that has great glass, with stabilization, and reach. This seems to be the hardest thing to find good comparisons on. I understand for birding I need over 300mm lenses, zoom or prime, w/ as large as financially feasible aperture.

At one point I was planning on going with the Canon DSLR system, due to my experience with the Xti. I was debating getting a new/used/refurbished 7d or used/refurbished 1d#, and putting most of my budget (around $3-3.5k USD) into lenses. Then I was reading reviews and noticed that the button layout on the mid/high end Canon's is like the Nikon and Sony, not like the Xti, so no free left hand. This was one wrench in the gears, then came along building a excel spreadsheet with all the specs that mattered to me on most Nikon, Canon, and qualifying m4/3rds, which was ok, until I found DxOMark, which has currently thrown me for a curve. I see that the 7, 5, and 1d's are lower on sports and low light, and the overall rating, compared to the Nikon midlevels. Well, I would like to say I fully understand their rating system, but I don't. One Amazon forum commentator tried comparing it to cars and said that it is like rating the stroke volume of an engine and not including whole system for overall performance... kind of helped... but still having some issues grasping it all, cause I kind of want there to be a problem with the ratings. Moreover, I read some comments on forums by R.N. Clark, in regards to some of the things that DxoMark overlooked, and read some of his articles at home, but it was somewhat over my head. It has been sometime since college physics, and so I feel like I need to re-read some of them to fully comprehend them. Now, I am at a quandary. I was hoping to have an idea before November so I could take advantage of November sales, but I may have to wait. Part of me is sold on Canon, but, specs are specs, and I am sure I can get used to the Nikon system, but I am not as familiar with it as the Canon, due to the time I have spent looking into it. Plus, Canon seems more intuitive then the Nikon, from first glance. Also, I am considering waiting for the 7d, if I go canon, cause the price should go down with the 7dMkII in Early 2013, but I may be going on a birding trip in late November, so I may need to get one before then.

Another issue is, I am concerned about having to much gear and to much weight. I have no way to handle any of these products until December, due to me living overseas, and I remember not taking my c-5050 on hikes cause I thought it was to much weight, partially due to the poor results/effort ratio. I have looked into the lighter micro 4/3 (m4/3) systems and am impressed with Olympus OM-D E-M5 and the Panasonic DMC-GH2. I have handled the 1 J1, NEX-3, and GF3. The GF3 is way to small, and I could deal with the NEX-3 and the 1 J1, if needed. I am impressed with the GH2's handling and most everything about it. My friend that uses it gets really great photographs underwater and with most everything else. However, he admits there are some AF-tracking issues, which is an issue on the E-M5 also, from what I understand (For overall looks, which don't matter, I like the E-M5 with the silver). Now since I will be needing this for bird photography, the m4/3 AF-tracking issue may be a critical hit, also I am afraid that the shooting lag, might cause me to loose my bird/subject (fear from my experience with the c-5050) and I don't like live view either. It is just really hard to make a decision without actually using the items for some period of time, but my location makes it impossible. Even when I am in the states in December, I will only get to handle them at the store, most likely, without and birds or proper lenses. I almost feel like getting a few options and flipping a coin, but I really don't want to do this.

So in summary, I would like to focus on birding, but would like it if I could have some versatility for wildlife, butterflies, nature, scenery, micro... and most everything else in photography, with adequate video. In addition, I need weather sealing due to the tropical climate I live in. However, I know I can't have it all, especially with my budget. If there was no birding, I would seriously consider a m4/3s, for the size, weight, and versatility, especially the GH2 or the new GH3. If I go with the DSLR, I would really like a full frame, for better light gathering and less noise, and feel willing to get a used/refurbished camera (I found some extended warranties on B&H from Mack) and sacrifice video if needed. The older 1d#'s were looking nice on the specs. I think the 5d mk II will be to slow, leaving the 7d or 5dmkIII as the main new Canon contender. I am still not fully familiar with the Nikon, but, as I recall, the D7000 was the main contender for my budget, although the D800 seems nice on the DxoMark. I briefly considered the Sony DSLR and m4/3 due to the Konica/Minolta glass history and the Zeiss, but am hesitant, due to it not being the top camera leaders, as Nikon and Canon are. I don't want to invest into a system and have to change over. I anticipate being able to invest about $1k per year into the system, unless I get good at it and people want to buy my work, then I could invest more.

I would appreciate any insight into the following: regarding some published side by side brand comparisons between similar DSLR telephoto (zoom and prime) lenses (so I don't have to go and enter all the various ratings on my own, in hopes this will help me decide between brands from the available glass), whether I should buy into DxOMark ratings, disregard, or just consider them, can and will the m4/3 get to the point of being able to bird well and have adequate AF and response, is anyone successful with birding and m4/3rds (if so, what system), are the Mack used warranties safe, should I consider other brands besides Nikon and Canon DSLRs (even though they seem to be the most recommended due to availability of telephoto glass and are market leaders)?

Well, thanks for your time. If I am asking something that has been repeated extensively before, my apologies. If you would be kind enough to share a link, I will be glad to read it, but appreciate any comments, guidance, experience, and suggestions.

How much money do you have to spend to start? I suggest buying the best you can afford "now", and adding the best lens you can afford every year. I'd say get a Nikon or Canon APS-C camera with a 16 to 18 MP sensor. Nikon D7000, or Canon 7D or 60D. Nikon D800 if you want the highest-resolution of its 36MP FX mode, AND a 16MP camera when shot in its High Speed Crop mode.

"The best" is a moving target...birds on the ground are easier than birds in flight.
Going DSLR route is by far the most versatile and the best if you want to get "quality" shots but it is also by FAR the most expensive. And all the equipment will be heavy as hell. But if you do end up going DSLR route, you'll need different lenses for different types of shots.

For example:
100mm f/2.8L for macro
24-105mm f/4L as general walk around lens and maybe for scenery at the 24mm end
Sigma 150-500 for wildlife
birding, I think the D7000 is the best bang for your buck. You get more pixels on the animal than just about any other camera (besides the D800), but even with such pixel density, it has the best low light ISO performance of any crop frame camera. Pair that with the 70-200 f/2.8 VR II and a teleconverter and you have a very capable birding rig. Build off that.

Birding you want high resolution, great focus system, good low light performance (since teleconverters steal light from your camera). The D7000 is great at all those things and reasonably priced at ~$1000

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