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Araba Bioscan

Araba Bioscan SLAM 3-10 March 2023

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Miscellaneous

Digital cameras for wildlife observations

What I photograph

These are notes from my personal history on experiences with capturing images as a tool for recording wildlife. My perspective is limited. I don’t take time to produce really stunning artistic photographs. I use my camera to record what I see as faithfully and as crisply as I can. My targets are usually insects and other invertebrates, birds, mammals, reptiles and smaller numbers of flowering plants and fungi.

My primary goals are to provide reference shots for myself and others to improve identification for less well-recorded species and to provide evidence for mapping and monitoring species distributions and populations.

Over the years, these basic goals have led me to try many different cameras to find one best suited to my needs and to maximising simplicity. Most of this post is a cursory examination of what has driven my choices at each stage and where I find myself today.

TL;DR - My needs seem to be well met by a combination including the Sony RX10 IV camera, the Marumi DHG Achromat 330 (+3) macro lens, and a GODOX MF12 macro flash set.

I share my photographs in a few key places on the web, always under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) licence so that I can maximise the potential value others can gain from my images and so that there’s a way I can be contacted in cases of misidentifications:

  • Flickr – my primary destination for all my photos that are not of irretrievably low-quality.
  • iNaturalist – my primary channel for making these images useful for biodiversity research and monitoring (and to get identifications for organisms outside my expertise).
  • Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) and Atlas of Living Australia (ALA) – secondary channels, in that I rely on iNaturalist to pass them on, but these are in fact the main reason I take time to photograph wildlife.
  • Wikimedia Commons – secondary channel for long-term reuse, mainly from other Wikipedians taking the time to add my photos from Flickr.
  • Mastodon – cherry-picked photos I feel like talking about on a given day.

I also take a lot of photos under a microscope (mainly again insects and other invertebrates), but this piece is about field photography.

Before digital cameras

In the distant pre-digital past, I tried to photrograph birds with various largely unsuitable film cameras. Probably the only useful legacy from those efforts (aside from a few slides) is this photo of the only Little Auk I’ve ever seen, in Southwick (Sussex, UK) in 1995.

Photograph of choppy water in a marina with a tiny black and white bird occupying perhaps 0.25 percent of the image area.
Alle alle, Little Auk or Dovekie, Southwick, UK, 29 November 1995 (some long-forgotten film camera)

Around a year after that photo was taken, I began getting seriously interested in the UK’s moths, mostly with help from the only good guide readily available at the time, Bernard Skinner’s The Colour Identification Guide to Moths of the British Isles (1st edition). The only cameras I had lacked any macro capability, so I started my journey into entomology with a pack of coloured pencils and my appallingly limited artistic skills. The following drawings are sadly representative.

In 1999, we moved to New Zealand and purchased a video camera that wrote to magnetic tape (no idea what brand or model). With some care, it could capture and export still images, so my first insect photos are of relatively large moths attracted to our garden in Auckland, like this ghost moth, Aenetus virescens. These images were only 768 x 576 pixels in size.

Aenetus virescens, Mairangi Bay, Auckland, New Zealand, to MV light, 8/9 November 1999 (some video camera)

Coolpix 4500 and other bridge cameras

Canon PowerShot SX60 HS camera with Raynox DCR-250 macro lens and a collapsible flash diffuser
Canon PowerShot SX60 HS camera with Raynox DCR-250 macro lens and a collapsible flash diffuser

In 2002, as we returned to Europe (Denmark, during my first stint with GBIF), we bought a real digital camera. Internet discussion groups had identified the Nikon Coolpix 4500 as the camera of choice for reasonably inexpensive macro photography, boasting a 4 megapixel resolution (2272 x 1704 pixels) and the ability to focus as close as 2 cm without serious distortion, so that is what we got. The first insect I photographed with it was a many-plume moth, Alucita hexadactyla in August that year.

Alucita hexadactyla, to MV light, Hellerup, Denmark, 2 August 2002 (Nikon Coolpix 4500)

I went on to use it for thousands of images, mainly of moths I attracted to light but also other wildlife. It always took excellent photos, although it was completely unsuited to photographing birds or any animals at a distance.

Pogona barbata (Cuvier, 1829), Eastern Bearded Dragon, Aranda, ACT, 18 September 2009 (Nikon Coolpix 4500)

Somewhere around 2009, I was feeling constrained by the lack of zoom capability and tempted by the increasingly large sensors of newer cameras. Although though I continued to use the Coolpix 4500 for moths, I invested in a series of different bridge cameras to give more flexibility in the field. These included a Nikon Coolpix P6000, a Canon PowerShot SX40 HS, then a Canon PowerShot SX50 HS and finally a Canon PowerShot SX60 HS.

Macropus giganteus Shaw, 1790, Eastern Grey Kangaroo, female with joey, Aranda, ACT, 21 October 2009 (Nikon P6000)
Emmelina monodactyla (Linnaeus, 1758), to Robinson trap, Søborg, Denmark, 1/2 June 2014 (Canon PowerShot SX40 HS)
Notodryas vallata Meyrick, 1897, to actinic light, Blackheath, NSW, 8/9 November 2014 (Canon PowerShot SX50 HS)

I usually carried a Raynox DCR-150 or DCR-250 macro lens that I clipped in front of the camera lens when I needed true macro. With the PowerShot cameras, these lenses gave me the same versatility as the Coolpix 4500 but with larger image sizes and the ability to use the same camera for telephoto shots of birds.

This combination was very effective, but although it brought some improvements on the telephoto side, the PowerShot SX60 was less satisfactory than earlier models for macro use since images were heavily vignetted by the Raynox lens except at the very highest zoom levels. I was able to zoom in and take great pictures of the smallest insects, but I had to remove the lens, change camera settings and rely on non-macro zoom if the insect was larger than around 25 mm. Constantly switching backwards and forwards between Raynox macro and non-Raynox telephoto disrupted the experience of photographing moths at a light sheet (probably my most significant use for a camera).

Canon DSLRs

Canon EOS 7D camera with Canon EF 100 mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens and Canon MT-24EX twin macro flash
Canon EOS 7D camera with Canon EF 100 mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens and Canon MT-24EX twin macro flash

Eventually, because of my focus on macro imagery, I took the plunge and invested in a Canon EOS 7D DSLR with EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens and (ultimately) the MT-24EX twin macro flash unit. This is a fantastic and very flexible combination. The autofocus is great, and it’s easy to get good images. The flash unit is perfect for illuminating the area in front of the lens, although it can need to rest briefly to recycle. This delay has rarely been a problem for me, except when charge is very low.

So, for several years my standard field equipment has been a Canon DSLR for moths/macro and a bridge camera for other wildlife. The disparity between image quality for moths and birds caused me also to test a telephoto lens (Sigma 150-600 mm f/5-6.3 DG) and even to go into the field with two DSLR bodies (EOS 7D and EOS 6D) so I could switch more quickly between lenses.

Habrosyne pyritoides (Hufnagel, 1766), Buff Arches, to LepiLED and actinic light, Utterslev Mose, Søborg, Denmark, 15 June 2018 (Canon EOS 6D, Canon EF 100 mm)
Chrysopilus cristatus (Fabricius 1775), female, Rude Skov, Denmark, 30 June 2018 (Canon EOS 6D, Canon EF 100 mm)
Nucifraga columbiana (Wilson, 1811), Clark’s Nutcracker, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, USA, 21 September 2016 (Canon EOS 7D, Sigma 150-600 mm)
Ochotona princeps (Richardson, 1828), American Pika, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, USA, 21 September 2016 (Canon EOS 7D, Sigma 150-600 mm)

I was always exceptionally happy with the results from Canon DSLRs, but the bulk and weight is troublesome when carrying or traveling with multiple lenses and bodies. Taking so much equipment was particularly problematic when camping.

So, in recent years, I’ve found myself rarely carrying anything bulkier than the PowerShot SX60 except when I am photographing moths at light. Because of the hassle of doing everything properly, I’ve found myself taking many fewer pictures than formerly.

Sony RX10 IV

Sony RX10 IV camera with Marumi DHG Achromat 330 (+3) macro lens and GODOX MF12 macro flash set
Sony RX10 IV camera with Marumi DHG Achromat 330 (+3) macro lens and GODOX MF12 macro flash set

I recently decided to do something about this. I’ve been testing a simpler solution and have been immensely pleased with the results.

The Sony RX10 IV is a bridge camera with a Zeiss 24-600 mm equivalent zoom lens. It covers my desire to photograph birds and mammals much better than my past equipment, including the Sigma lens.

Macropus giganteus Shaw, 1790, Eastern Grey Kangaroo (with cloud of flies), Black Mountain, Canberra, ACT, 22 February 2024 (Sony RX10 IV)

The native macro capability of the camera is good for quick images of flowers, etc., but a couple of additions makes it an astoundingly good camera for macro.

First, the Marumi DHG Achromat 330 (+3) macro lens (in the 72 mm size) plays the same role the Raynox DCR-150/DCR-250 lenses did with my older PowerShot cameras, but with virtually no vignetting throughout the zoom range. This means I can go from a field of view around 20 cm wide down to little more than 20 mm simply by zooming. Focusing the camera of course relies on moving backwards and forwards to find the correct distance. This is less optimal than the autofocus offered by the EF 100 mm lens, but the camera does manage to adjust focus within a narrow relevant range.

Secondly, a pair of GODOX MF12 macro flash units and a GODOX XPro II Trigger replace the Canon MT-24EX flash unit but with greater flexibility and an unbelievably short refresh interval. The ring that holds the twin (or up to six) flashes can be attached to the camera itself or to the Marumi lens using a 72 mm screw adaptor.

So far, I’ve attached the flash outside the Marumi lens. The flash ring does very slightly vignette the frame when the zoom is below around 34 mm. I suspect that with some extra step-up/step-down rings I could mount the ring further back or even behind the Marumi lens and avoid all obstruction.

The camera is now giving me macro images that are every bit as good as those I was taking with the Canon setup. The complete Sony combination weighs 1.70 kg compared to 2.25 kg for the Canon. Another advantage is the relatively low profile of the GODOX trigger compared with the very upright trigger component of the MT-24EX. In the past, if I wanted to add light to help locate an insect, I held a torch below the EF 100 mm lens. Now I can use a head torch directed at a slight downward angle. This is much easier. The GODOX flash units also have LED focusing lights that seem very good for this but that clearly place some drain on the flash batteries. It should be noted that the MF12 batteries are not removable. When drained, the flash unit itself must be recharged. With the MT-24EX flash unit, all power comes from AA batteries. Hence the longer recycle times, but that does allow the batteries easily to be switched in the field.

Strepsinoma foveata, to light, Aranda, ACT, Australia, 2/3 March 2024 (Sony RX10 IV)
Stangeia xerodes, to light, Aranda, ACT, Australia, 2/3 March 2024 (Sony RX10 IV)
Christinus marmoratus, to light, Aranda, ACT, Australia, 2/3 March 2024 (Sony RX10 IV)

Conclusion

For now, it seems the Sony RX10 IV serves my needs exceptionally well. I am much more ready just to go out with the camera to see what wildlife I can find and photograph.

As a final comparison, here are two images of an ichneumon wasp taken with the Canon 7D and the Sony RX10 IV. I believe I could have done more to optimise each camera for these shots, so this should not be treated as a realistic comparative test, but these photos again show how well the Sony does in this macro configuration.

Lissonota macqueeni, sample from SLAM trap, Aranda, ACT, Australia, 17-24 February 2023, photographed 2 March 2024 (Canon EOS 7D, Canon EF 100 mm, Canon MT-24EX)
Lissonota macqueeni, sample from SLAM trap, Aranda, ACT, Australia, 17-24 February 2023, photographed 2 March 2024 (Sony RX10 IV, Marumi DHG Achromat 330, twin GODOX MF12)