Just as a successful recipe requires all of the right ingredients to come together, the same is true in bird photography. In order to come away with great bird images, you must be armed with the right tools when you’re out in the field. Simply having a long prime lens and a pro-level DSLR doesn’t guarantee great images.
Lightweight tripod – A sturdy, lightweight tripod is the most important tool for a bird/wildlife photographer. When shooting wildlife with long (and heavy) prime lenses such as the 600mm lens, a tripod is a must for providing stability and support. The emphasis here should be on identifying a lightweight tripod – wildlife photography equipment is heavy and every lightweight tool in your kit helps to eliminate excess weight. Today’s market has a host of companies such as Gitzo, Benro, and RRS that produce lightweight carbon fiber tripods. Though expensive, it’s worth the investment.
Tripod head – Because tripod heads used for bird photography are significantly different from those used for other types of photography, it’s essential to identify the correct tripod head. A tripod head is the part to which the lens is attached. For large and heavy lenses, choosing the wrong type of ballhead can result in unstable equipment and restrictive lens movement when panning or tracking birds. One of the most popular types of tripod heads for mounting large lenses is the gimbal head made by Wimberley. It allows for an unrestricted movement when panning or a seesaw type movement for erratic birds. When mounted properly on a gimbal head, a long lens and camera body setup becomes almost weightless.
Extenders – Never leave home without these. Extenders, commonly known as teleconverters, increase the focal length of a lens. They are a great alternative to investing in an expensive super-telephoto lens. Canon teleconverters are available as 1.4X and 2X; and Nikon teleconverters are available as 1.4X, 1.7X, and 2X. The numbers represent the magnification factor once attached to a lens. For example, a 1.4X (when attached to a 600mm lens) gives an effective focal length of 840mm. Teleconverters are very handy when you’re unable to get close to the subject.
Extension tubes – This tool may come as a surprise, but it’s one that should be in your camera bag at all times. Extension tubes allow a lens to focus closer than its original setting. They’re commonly associated with macro photography. For bird photography, an extension tube can be very useful – when connected between the camera and the extender attached to the lens, a 12mm or 20mm extension tube can help when just a few extra millimeters are needed to achieve the right frame.
Remote shutter release cable – The release cable allows you to remotely trigger the camera without touching it. This may be the last tool a bird photographer would ever consider needing because, with birds, you are dealing with erratically-moving subjects which require panning to track. A release cable is useful when you are shooting small birds that consistently land on a fixed perch. It is extremely challenging to track and lock your focus on small birds when they are in flight. I often acquire pre-focus on the fixed spot and, with an attached cable release, fire away when the timing is right.