A BIF Hole in the Market

Bengt Nyman

Bird photography is one of the most challenging and rewarding kinds of photography. Free range, hand-held, birds-in-flight photography requires long reach, high resolution, fast and accurate autofocus and effective vibration reduction. Today this equals big and heavy equipment, similar to that used for professional sports photography.

However, as opposed to sports, BIF usually does not leave room for the use of supports, tripods or even monopods. But one factor easing the requirements on equipment for BIF is that it’s normally done in daylight, often allowing decently tight apertures (large numbers) and low ISO in spite of very short exposure times.

Arctic tern kiting by Amir Ayalon | Nikon D300, Nikkor 300mm F4, Gitzo 3530 LS tripod plus WH 200 Wimberley head
Arctic tern kiting by Amir Ayalon | Nikon D300, Nikkor 300mm F4, Gitzo 3530 LS tripod plus WH 200 Wimberley head
The last few years I have used 36MP, full-frame cameras and quality primes for all my photography. I think there is a hole in the market for BIF. Long reach, high resolution and sharpness is a must.

That means the effective number of pixels must be kept high without sacrificing ISO beyond what’s practical for short exposure, daylight photography.

My thoughts go to smaller image sensors to take advantage of the cropping factor. The APS-C format produces a virtual 50% increase in reach by means of optical cropping, compared to a full-frame sensor. A Micro Four Thirds sensor offers a multiplication by two, and so forth.

The problem is obviously to offer both enough pixels and sufficient light sensitivity in the smaller sensors. I have searched the market and done the math using DxO and SenScore / LenScore on a number of cameras, lenses and combinations. Size, weight and cost aside the winners are those expected; big, heavy and expensive equipment. However there is no second place. Not because it can’t be done, but because the combinations required are presently not there.

Let’s assume that our desired reach is 600mm. A 24MP APS-C camera would then require a 400mm lens, preferably a DX format F4 lens to keep size, weight and cost under control. I cannot find such a lens. In the Nikon family the closest is a five kilograms heavy, nearly $12k costing F2.8 FX prime lens, the Nikkor 400mm F2.8E FL ED VR, a pro prime lens producing 21 P-MP. The desired lens is missing.

P-MP? It essentially replaces the older two-dimensional measurement of lens resolution expressed in line pairs. Except P-MP goes a step further by measuring it on a combination of lens and camera. It is actually the only way to measure, express and compare the resolution of a camera and lens combination.

I do not consider zoom lenses since most reproduce less than half the potential resolution of the camera. The closest to reaching the goal above is the new Nikkor 300mm F4 VR with a TC 14-E III teleconverter attached. The TC attachment drops the resolution of the pair from an estimated 18 P-MP to an estimated 16 P-MP. Comparing this to the full-frame, 600mm setup producing 24 P-MP, this might still be adequate for lightweight birding.

Choosing a Micro Four Thirds format camera is tempting considering the reputation of the OM-D lineup and similar lines of cameras. However, a 300mm prime lens for this camera with autofocus producing at least 12 P-MP final resolution is not available. The nearest lens, the Panasonic 100-300mm F4, produces barely half the resolution required.

We are now down to Nikon 1 camera system and similar equipped with an adapter to accept 200-300mm autofocus lenses. Even though the Nikon 1 sensor resolution is adequate at 18.4MP, the real world results are not encouraging. Nikon early promoted this camera for long reach sports and nature photography because of its 2.7x cropping factor. Actual results, however, are disappointing. It appears that despite an adequate sensor resolution the image quality of these very small pixels does not support a final image with a resolution rating much over 6 to 8 P-MP. An improved 16MP sensor with an optimized 200mm lens producing a final image quality of 12 P-MP would be much more tempting.

In conclusion it appears as if the camera manufacturers do not find bird photography enough of a market to offer an optimized combination of cameras and lenses. I wish they would.

  • Flavio

    Olympus is about to release a 300mm F4 prime that should give the required resolution and AF speed. What about the 75-300mm native Nikon 1 lens? That should give you the required combination as well, I presume, although, as you state above, it probably won’t give the quality you expect being a zoom lens and not a prime.
    In a few months we will have the first crop sensor native super tele lens you are looking for…and having seen the quality the first two Pro designated lenses from Olympus are capable of, I would be optimistic about the E-M1-300mm F4 Pro combination!

  • Bengt Nyman

    No zooms, thank you.

  • Bengt Nyman

    LenScore test results for the new Nikkor 300mm F4 VR are out. The results are disappointing.
    The new lens, with its Fresnel component, does not even come close to the performance of the older Nikkor 300mm F4 lens without VR and without the fresnel lens. The advantage of the new lens is a reduction in size and weight, while unfortunately also reducing resolution and overall image quality by approximately 20%.
    Conclusion: The hole in the market remains wide open.

  • Bengt Nyman

    With additional disappointing reports about the new Nikkor 300mm F4 PF VR my hopes are moving back to your suggestion Flavio, about the Olympus E-M1-300mm F4 Pro combination.

  • true

    For what it’s worth, I think LenScore results for it contradict “alot” the findings of camera labs’s and lensrentals

  • true

    300 PF might be very good with 1.7x TC if the AF is significantly faster than it’s with 2x TC. Have a look at this http://www.dpreview.com/forums/thread/3817039

    I’m currently waiting for 3rd iteration of the 1.7x TC, the iii

  • Bengt Nyman

    Agreed. That’s why I have aggressively hammered on DxO to give us their five cents worth. But I sense there could still be PF work going on at Nikon and possibly a wait order from Nikon to DxO.

  • Bengt Nyman

    Unfortunately, based on recent inputs, it does not look like an MFT format sensor will ever reach the IQ of FF, no matter what lens.
    The DX format camera with it’s 1.5 crop, a 300mm prime lens and a 1.4 TC might still be the most economical way to reach 300×1.5×1.4 = 630mm.