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The Photographer's Take on this Trip

A great trip!

Over two weeks, day after day, with no pressing obligations other than to enjoy the scenery, the birds, and to try to take good photos in an exotic, far-away place - that's an opportunity that doesn't happen very often.     

We were small group of compatible people, had meals and transportation provided, and had a tour-leader who is a nature lover, birding expert, bus driver, and professional problem solver.   Tonia Cochran, who owns and lives on a 500 acre nature reserve on an island in Tasmania, specializes in boutique nature tours.   For the western portion of the trip she brought on two additional, local birders,  Frank O'Connor and Brice Wells. Just one example of how well we were treated: even though Tonia could have put all nine of us in a ten-person van, she upgraded (at her cost) to a 20-person van so that we'd all be comfortable.  As a result, I always had a place to set my camera bag and a seat next to me where I could lay down down my long lens, and secure with a seat belt.  It's hard to imagine better than this.

The ability of our guides to locate and call out birds was simply phenomenal.  If you want to see and also photograph birds, that's essential, of course.  But it's still amazing to be there and see it happen.  We learned a lot about the plants and non-avian animals as well, and even got a smattering of geology.

Watching vs. Photographing

This was a bird-watching tour, not a bird-photography tour.  I was the only one carrying a camera instead of binoculars. By the second day, my companions were asking me, "Hey did you get a shot of that one?"  or "Come here, look at the third branch on the second tree...."   So, the photography fit in well with the watching.  And now my friends have a lot of photos they didn't have to bother taking! 


I was left to my own devices when it came to photography technique.  It would have been great if there'd been a more experienced photographer along to help with my on-the-job training, but that wasn't the case. Still, progress happened.  On the second day I discovered that the monopod I'd brought along was useless.  We were always on the move, it was clumsy to carry, and there was seldom time to set it up.   More important, it soon became clear that, if anything, the image was less steady using the monopod than hand-holding. I discovered that if I extended my hand all the way out to the tip of the lens hood, the camera-lens system was significantly steadier.   I had to learn how to sight a bird and aim the camera at it, so that I could move quickly from naked-eye sighting to seeing the bird, usually buried in some dense vegitation, in the view-finder.  It seemed like target practice - point and shoot, and do it in a hurry before the target flies away.  No time for monopods or tripods.   Of course, there were some water birds who were happy to hang around and even pose such that a tripod would have been great.  But hand-holding seemed to work well enough, even though I was occasionally shooting as slow as 1/250 at 600 mm (because it was getting dark, or because of flash synchronization).

For walking about, the default gear soon became my 300/2.8 + 2X + 5D Mk-II, 580Fflash + Better Beemer.   We were seldom away from the bus for more than an hour or two, and most of the time we were near it, so I practically never changed lenses in the field and, indeed, seldom carried the second body (a 40D) or other lenses while walking in the bush.

Although poor focus was the main reason for losing shots, I am still amazed at how well autofocus works, even with the 5D.  That the autofocus can distinguish between a three-inch-high bird and a twig six inches in front of it, at distances of a hundred or more feet and get it right a third of the time, is just phenomenal.  When I would occasionally change to manual focus  (bird in the sky at a large distance), I would appreciate how much autofocus does.


Here's a full list of gear I brought.  Except for the monopod, it all fit in a ThinTank Airport Antidote 2.0 bag that weighed 35 lbs, loaded.

5D-II,   40D,   300/2.8 L IS,   70-200/2.8 L IS -II,   24-105/4 L IS,   1.4X,   2.0X,  580 Flash + Better Beamer, MacBook Pro.

I happen to own the 300/2.8 because I do motorsports, and bought the 2x extender for this trip.  I think it worked reasonably well.  I don't know if/when I'll want to invest in a 500 or 600.

I didn't use the 70-200/2.8 zoom all that much. It was great when the animals were in captivity, and on a few other occasions.  But, I'd have to say, it wasn't worth its weight.  (I agonized whether to take the 100-400 L in its place, and don't know if I made the right decision.  The 70-200/2.8-II is wonderfully sharp, so I chose it. I left my 1D-MkII N at home.  Not enough pixels, and pretty heavy.) 

I came home with about 3000 images, mostly JPG at the highest camera compression.  This was a compromise, I realize, but I don't regret it (at least not yet), as the post processing would have been an even bigger chore with this number of images.  I took only 70 shots in Raw (at night, and on a few other special circumstances). After returning to the US, the first edit yielded 900 images.  The second edit brought it down to what's here, roughly 480 images.

About the quality of the photos: 

There are some very heavy crops in the galleries, a consequence of taking photos of small birds a long way away.   Here's one of the extreme cases:    Red-Capped Plover at Lake McLarty Nature Preserve (a photo my colleagues asked me to take).  Original:  5676 x 3144.   Crop: 486 x 324, and the bird is still a small part of the crop.

I think there may be five or ten images in these galleries good enough that a serious bird photographer would put them on his/her website.  But I'm not aspiring to that level, just yet, and have included many more because they are a record and reminder of our trip.  Besides, even if a particular shot isn't exhibition quality, it is a photo of the bird WE SAW.

Since most people will not want to wade into the Trip Diary with its 470-odd images, I picked out some photos that I, as a photographer more than a birder, particularly like and hope others will, too:  Favorites.

Have fun.


Bob Stokstad Photography