Graeme Chapman - natural history photographer - ornithologist

Photographic equipment

Cameras and Lenses

My first bird pictures were of a female Eastern Whipbird sitting on her nest. I took them with an old Zeiss Contax rangefinder camera with its standard 50 mm lens from a distance of about a metre using a length of string to release the shutter. When the Kodachromes came back you can imagine how disappointed I was to see such a small dark image. From that camera I graduated to a superb old Sanderson teak and brass quarter-plate camera with a 120 roll-film back (I wish I had it now, it would be a collectors piece). The first pictures I took with it were Yellow-tufted Honeyeaters on Anscochrome film and they are still in good condition.

Then I moved to a 35mm SLR, a Practica FX2 which had no prism and went off like a shotgun, and after that the legendary Pentax Spotmatic which had a prismatic viewfinder, an innovation! Coupled to a 400 mm Telemegor lens which seemed to weigh a ton and a light aluminium tripod, it wasn’t the best combination for sharp pictures. I knew little about the effects of camera shake, let alone mirror vibration so most of my early pictures were well-exposed blurs. Few of them have survived. I tried all sorts of films - Agfa, Gevaert, Perutz, various Ektachromes and Fuji but none of them stood the test of time like Kodachrome in all its forms.

When I moved from Sydney to Canberra in 1962, I met Ederic Slater, a master of black and white photography, and he impressed on me two important things: (1) for sharp pictures the need to hold a camera still and (2) just how good Leica cameras and lenses are. To him I am eternally grateful.

Most of my lenses were made by Leitz but I have had a range of camera bodies - my original Leicaflex SL, still a precision instrument, Contax 167MT and Pentax LX were my favourites, all excellent film cameras but now a thing of the past.

Until recently, the principal lens I used for stalking birds was a 400 mm f5.6 Leitz Telyt long focus lens and Televit rapid focusing mount (see pic at right) . This super-lightweight lens (2 elements!) worked in manual mode with all those cameras using various adaptors, and still works well after 40 years of use, even with my newer Nikon digital cameras using a TC-14B extender. Mounted on a superb old Miller wooden tripod with fluid head, it is a go anywhere outfit provided you have the strength to carry it. With this setup I have taken shots in subdued light without flash on exposures as long as one second - quite sharp so long as the subject didn’t move. Nearly all my pictures are taken in natural light, usually by stalking. I rarely use a hide. With smaller birds in the bush, my Televit was fast and easy to focus whereas autofocus was often prone to fail because of intrusive branches etc.

For a long while I persevered but finally I realised that, even counting the odd failure, autofocus is the way to go, particularly with moving birds and definitely with birds in flight! Autofocus has opened up a whole new era of bird photography. Now, one of my favourite lenses is a superb Nikkor 300 mm f/4 AFS, often with 1.4x converter which equates to 600 mm on a Nikon D300 body. This lens has no VR, so at slower shutter speeds, I usually use a tripod.

That was my favourite lens - enter the latest Nikkor 500mm f/4 AFS VRII, a huge, heavy, expensive lens and in a word - outstanding! The VR is amazing - there are two settings, one for use on a tripod (which I use) and one for hand holding. It performs just as well with the 1.4x converter making a super telephoto of 700 mm, or over 1000 mm equivalent on a DX camera like a D300. At these extreme focal lengths, even with VR, you still have to use good technique to avoid camera shake.

At the other extreme, a neat, light and inexpensive lens is the 70-300 mm AFS VR Zoom Nikkor. For taking flocks of birds or from a hide or wherever I don’t need the reach I find it great. It is only f/5.6 at 300 mm and it won’t accept a converter (a Nikon one at least) but I leave it attached to my little old D40, Nikon’s lightest and quietest DSLR. It stays in the car for all those spur-of-the-moment shots.

People frequently ask my advice about suitable cameras for bird photography but that’s a bit like asking how long is a piece of string. It depends on how keen you are, how much you can afford and how you want to display the pictures. If you want to make large prints to hang on the wall you’ll need a top-rating camera. If you only want small (A4 or less) prints or only for web use, just about any camera will do.

For a beginner or someone on a small budget, the latest Ultra Zoom Point and Shoot cameras are amazing - you can have a built-in lens with a maximum 35 mm equivalent focal length of up to 700 mm. These cameras are OK under ideal conditions but start using them on moving subjects, in low or harsh light or other testing conditions and you will realise why most keen bird photographers use an SLR. My main dislike of “Point & Shoots” is that they have an electronic (= pixillated) viewfinder whereas even the cheapest SLR has an optical viewfinder that allows you to see more clearly just what you are taking, focus, depth of field and so on. In fact, just looking through the viewfinder is one of the best ways to judge the quality of an SLR. The top ones have large, bright viewfinders and lesser cameras, like my little old D40, don’t.


Getting close enough

Everybody has this problem. Using a hide, providing food and water, or photographing birds that are used to humans (in parks, zoos etc) are all simple solutions and in such situations often a 70 -300 zoom lens will suffice - lenses of this size are light weight and fairly affordable. A good place to start.

However, for all round bird photography the ideal focal length to aim for is 500 mm - even then you’ll need to be patient to get big enough images of small birds. Lenses of 600 mm and longer are very heavy (and expensive) whereas I find 400 mm just that bit too short so I am forever adding and removing a 1.4x converter. Still 400 mm lenses are more affordable and that’s what I used for many years.

Handholding a big telephoto lens is one thing, but holding it still is another. The old reciprocal of focal length rule of one over the focal length as a minimum shutter speed might be okay for some but for me it’s more like 1/2000th sec for a 500 mm lens. Fortunately, the advent of anti-shake technology in lenses and cameras is a huge improvement. Some people can now hand-hold long lenses and achieve acceptable sharpness at quite slow shutter speeds - even 1/50th sec.

Not me!! Everyone is different. I still prefer to use a tripod and I can’t emphasize the following point enough: camera shake is one of the greatest causes of failure.

Graeme Chapman at Karumba - dusk
Telyt long focus lens and Televit rapid focus mount
Leitz Telyt 400mm long focus lens and Televit rapid focus mount. The camera is a Nikon D2H.
500mm Nikkor on Miller Tripod
500mm Nikkor on Miller Tripod


The use of a steady tripod will always ensure the highest quality images and most of the pics on this website have been taken from a tripod. But, it’s a lot harder to follow birds, especially through the bush (long grass is the worst) with a big heavy tripod in tow. So often it gets in the way and may even spoil what may have been a great opportunity.

That said, I have 9 tripods at present and have tried many more.

To manoevre a heavy telephoto lens easily and accurately I find a heavy tripod essential. My favourite which has served me well for nearly 50 years is a Miller wooden tripod (see pic at right) with a fluid head. Until you’ve tried a decent fluid head you’ll never realise what a difference they make. Originally designed and still made in Australia, the Miller is a truly professional tripod, well known in the television industry around the world. Unfortunately it isn’t cheap but second hand ones are often available at a fraction of the new price. The beauty of a wooden tripod is that the legs will withstand anything - mud, silt, sand and salt water - don’t try this with aluminium! The strength in this type of tripod results largely from the twin shank design of the legs - nothing new in this, twin shank tripods have been around for ages. These days the more up-market ones are made of carbon fibre. One of the best twin shank style aluminium tripods was the Bolex (made I believe by Linhof). They are quite light and extremely sturdy and occasionally appear second hand. The aluminium is extremely shiny, a bad point when stalking birds. Another plus for wood!

There a a large number of well-made high quality tripods available, both in aluminium or carbon fibre which have metal (not plastic) fittings but as a general rule you won’t find one under AU$500. And you rarely find them in the shops!

Finally, ever tried putting up a four section tripod in a hurry? Two sections are really the way to go but are harder to find. They go up in a flash and are more rigid (fewer moving parts) but of course take up more space when folded. Most twin shank tripods have two section legs. In Australia the market for tripods is dominated by just a few brands - if you really want to see a huge range of tripods, have a look at the B & H website!

Two Miller tripods with 500mm Nikkor
Two Miller tripods with 500mm Nikkor