3 November 2004

Equipment Reviews

Many birders seem as obsessed with the equipment they use as with the birds they seek. I, sadly, am no exception.

I know I'm certainly not alone, because a large number of Google searches which bring people to these pages are from people looking for equipment reviews and comments. So for their benefit, and for anyone else who might be interested, here is my current birding equipment list and my comments on them. I have also included comments on other equipment I have used, or which my partner uses.

Binoculars - Leica Trinovid 8x32 BN
Binoculars are the most important piece of equipment for any birder, and these are a real favourite of mine. The Trinovid 8x32 is a classic birders bin and a design that has stood the test of time over more than a decade. I bought these second-hand when I was a relative beginner and have never regretted it. They are smallish and lightweight, but the high quality optics means they are also bright enough for Nightjar watching and other low-light activities.
It probably goes without saying that they are as sharp as a tack, edge to edge, with good depth of field and close focusing (the BN range has better close focusing than the earlier BA models). They are also built to last, with a real solidity, and good to use with glasses.
The Trinovids have now been replaced by the Ultravids, but while the 8x42 Ultravid is a revalation compared with its Trinovid counterpart (so much lighter for a start), I can't really detect a huge difference at 8x32 size - they are similar in size, weight and optics. At just over £600 new, and around £400 second hand, the Trinovid is still one of the best pair of bins you can buy.

Binoculars - Optricon Discovery 8x42
My partner's bins, a much cheaper pair than my own Leicas. She chose them because they hit all her criteria in a decent budget package. They are very bright, extremely compact for an 8x42 (about the same size as my 8x32) with a wide field of view. They are also waterproof. The drawback, and hence the budget £100 price tag, is some soft edging to the image and a degree of distortion when panning. My partner doesn't mind this at all, and I get used to it after a few minutes (they are OK for spectacle wearers), so that's not a huge problem. Plus Opticron seems to be a decent company and our after-sales experience with them has been great. Overall, she is delighted with them and they are a decent pair of bins for an occasional birder.

Binoculars - Opticron LE 8x25 Compacts
My first pair of compact bins (apart from those £5.99 throwaway pairs you can buy) and optically they are pretty good. The LE stands for Long Eyerelief which is important if, like me, you wear glasses. They have decent screw up / down eyecups, are pretty compact, and have really sharp bright optics - and all for around £85. There are just two drawbacks which frustrate me. The least important is that they're not waterproof. But the real killer is the narrow field of view. It makes finding your target just that bit harder, and makes using them a lot less fun than it should be. If I could choose again I'd sacrifice the compact size for wider, brighter optics and go for the Taiga.

Binoculars - Optricron Taiga 8x25
My all-time favourite compact binoculars, because of the balance they strike between price and optical performance. They are a porro-prism design, which means they are bulkier that my LE compacts, but the result of a much sweeter handling experience.
Optically they are superb - and I mean superb. I bought a pair for my parents and was reluctant to hand them over. Bright, wide and sharper in some cases even (and I swear this is true) than my Leicas when I tested them over several days. They are a bulky compact, they aren't waterproof, but for around £80 they are brilliant. You will only improve on them by spending £250+ on one of the big brand compacts.

Spotting Scope - Zeiss Diascope 65 + zoom
This was my biggest investment to date, although not so big as it might have been thanks to a superb special offer from Warehouse Express (they deserve the plug, they saved me a fortune!).
This is one of the top four scopes (along with Leica, Nikon and Swarowski) and while they all have their idiosyncracies and differences, they all produce first-class optics. The Zeiss Diascope is famous for its wide bright zoom, genuinely class-leading. Against that, when the zoom is at its lowest / widest setting, it is slightly soft at the edges. For me this is a design feature not a drawback - I scan with the wide setting, find the bird, zoom in and the softness goes - you've found the bird more easily than you might with a narrower field scope, and ended up with a lovely sharp bright image.
With its 65 objective it is pretty lightweight, although not as much as the Leica 62 scope (a big favourite of mine as well). I can't imagine ever wanting to change.

Spotting Scope - Kowa TS611 + TSN 30ww
My first scope, and a cracker. It is now out of production, but if you can find a secondhand model it will be well worth considering - particularly with the TSN extra wide eyepiece.
It is ultra light for a 60 objective scope, with great optics. I gave it up with huge reluctance, changing to the Zeiss simply because I started to digiscope (using a compact camera attached to the scope to take pictures) and for that you really need the high-grade ED glass which the 611 doesn't have. Optically I don't think this makes any difference at all (although purists will claim otherwise) but sadly, for digiscoping it does. If you need ED glass for this reason, look out for the 613 - again out of production, but still hugely popular.

Spotting Scope - Mighty Midget 2 ED + HDF zoom
As I started to do more patch birding on foot, I found that I didn't want to lug my Zeiss 65 around so much, particularly with a tripod. So I bit the bullet and invested in this little gem, the MM2. It's about half the size, half the weight, and does the job a treat. I carry it either over my shoulder or in the shoulder bag I use for all my birding, and don't even notice it's there until I need it.
The HDF lens upgrade is, in my opinion, essential - with the standard eyepiece the scope simply doesn't do it for me. The upgrade from standard MM2 to ED MM2 (better quality glass) is of less value. I did it in case I ever digiscope through it, but to be honest, I can't see that ever happening.
My recommendation would be save the money and get the standard model with an HDF zoom, or the HDF 18x eyepiece - both are great. Or spend quite a bit more and treat yourself to a Nikon ED50 - that has the benefit of being slightly more compact, optically better still, and waterproof.
Whichever one you choose, I can also wholeheartedly recommend the Cullman shoulder pod. It makes the MM2 a dream to use, and is so much better than lugging a full size tripod around (which sort of defeats the idea of using a lightweight scope in the first place).

Camera - Contax SL300
My first digital camera, bought specifically for digiscoping. It was highly recommended at the time, and still popular. The reason is the split-body design, which allows you to angle the screen towards you while the lens is held against the scope eyepiece. It is also fast, extremely compact (like an old cassette tape) and takes a decent picture. I used it extensively for digiscoping until I bought the Panasonic FZ20 and started 'normal' photography, and got some great results with it. I also use it for video footage of the family and for taking to parties and the like (it easily slips into a jacket pocket).
BUT... ugh, the battery life. It is appalling. Not just bad, but bloody awful. I get through a battery in no time (ie I can just about fill a 1gb SD card with video footage, maybe 8mins in all, and it is totally flat). In the cold a fully charged battery can last as little as 5, 4 or even 1 shot, making a battery pack essential for digiscoping! It's a fun camera which is capable of great things, but I'm afraid that battery drives me mad.

Camera - Panasonic FZ20 + TCON 1.7
My first introduction to the world of 'proper' photography and I love it. This is one of the so-called superzoom cameras, also known as a prosumer cameras, and it about as good as fixed lens cameras get (the alternative being a DSLR with interchangeable lenses, see below).
Effectively this is a 'proper' camera in a single, easy to use bundle. By proper I mean it gives you full manual control over shutter speed and aperture (the essential tools for good photography), as well as a host of other important features like a hot-shoe for external flash, remote shutter release, manual focus and thread for filters and teleconverters (I have a Pemeraal adaptor that makes this a standard 55mm).
For birding I screw on an Olympus TCON 1.7 teleconverter, and I also have a wide angle converter for landscapes, interiors and so on. That means I can take this lens from 28mm at the wide end to 730mm at the top end, an astonishing range for the price and size (I paid just over £400 for the lot, including adaptors and convertors).
There are as ever, compromises you make. DSLRs do take better pictures - they have bigger sensors, bigger lenses and produce great results. The FZ20 struggles in low light - it only goes to ISO400, and anything over ISO100 is noisy (not insurmountable - for dark indoor shots I either switch to B/W and get atmospheric grainy pictures or stick the external flash on).
But there are also drawbacks to DSLRs, and for me, just too many. The cost, including a decent 400/500mm lens, is unlikely to be less than £1,000 and could easily top £1,500 (frankly, could easily top £4,000). Those lenses are telescope sized, so the bulk is 3/4 times greater than my kit (which fits easily in my shoulder bag for whenever I need it). Changing lenses results in dust on the sensors, a minor niggle but a niggle nevertheless. And every DSLR owner I knows spends their whole time lusting after bigger, brighter or different lenses. It's a bottomless pit for money as far as I can tell.
I am regularly tempted by the fantastic quality of bird photography that good local photographers with their DSLRs produce, but at the moment I am a birder first, photographer second. For me, the FZ20 is as good as it gets.


Anonymous said...

Got here via Birdforum.net (25/7/07).
Odd really but I have a Kowa 613 having changed from a 611 and use with the Kyocera SL400R. Still need to improve my field craft as I have loads of fun tracking birds and trying to get the little blessings in focus!!
Then my big digital camera is a Panasonic DMC FZ20 with a Fuji 1.5x but tend not to use on anybird that is not in my garden.
And I live in Warwick! are you my doppleganger?
Do you inhabit the warwickbirds group on Yahoo?
Regards Digital Dingbat

Nick The Grief said...

I don't live in Warwick but I do live in North Warwickshire ... you know the bit of the county the other side of Coventry 8-)


Like the blog, and the reviews. I've got a Kowa 824 bit of a beast but V.good and was interested in your review of the MM2, Can I suggest another pair of Bins to look at, The Bushnell Elite's (8x43 ) you can still get them from Focus Optics (no conection honest guv) for £499 and they are crackers I sometimes think I should have gone for the 10x43's as I don't always have the scope with me but hey ho they'll do me.