It may seem like a silly question to some, but it has become a big deal for me recently as I spend more and more time in the woods looking for birds. As my interest in both birds and photography grew by leaps and bounds last year, I started realizing that I needed a backpack just to carry all my gear when I went on even the shortest hikes. I began by always taking my camera and binoculars, and soon added an extra lens or two as I prepared for my outings. Here’s how my internal conversation often goes:
“Ok, binoculars, check. Camera, of course. Now, which lens? I’d love to take my big 400mm, but that means I should take the tripod too. Both far too heavy. Ok, I’ll just take the 55-250mm lens and get the best pics possible with that. Oh, and I know there will be some nice scenery out there, so I should also take at least one wider angle lens. Ok, so at a minimum I’ve got the binoculars, camera, and two lenses. And cell phone with birding app. Thank goodness I got that app so I don’t have to carry a field guide anymore…. Now where’s my water bottle? And bug spray?…..”
So off I go to whatever park I’ve planned to visit that day. I load myself up with gear and head off onto the trails. I usually take lots of pictures of any “cool” birds I see, but am almost always disappointed in the quality of the photos with my 250mm lens. Birds are tiny things and they don’t usually let you get close enough for frame-worthy photos. And I end up spending more time dealing with the camera equipment than using the binoculars.
I’ve heard some people say that you’re not really birding if you take a camera along. I disagree, but I understand what they mean. If your real purpose is to study the birds, you don’t need a camera. You should spend more time watching them through your binoculars and learning their habits and songs. Some people even frown on excessive use of a birding app or field guide to look up species while you’re in the field. These purists think you should just take notes and do your researching after you’re back home. Whatever…to each his own… blah blah blah. I get too excited when I see a good bird; I wanna know what it is right then. And if I can’t figure it out then and there, well that’s where my camera comes in. I can take a picture to help me ID the bird once I get home.
But I have to admit, recently I’ve tried leaving the camera at home, just to see what difference it made. It’s definitely nicer to have less weight hanging on my shoulder. And it does let me focus more on watching the birds longer. But wouldn’t you know it, on a recent hike (without the camera) Eric and I found our first ever Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. And it was close enough and stayed still long enough that I would have had fantastic photos of it. If only I’d been willing to carry my camera that day.
This experiment has reminded me of what happens on a day when you carry your umbrella around — it doesn’t rain, right? But leave that umbrella in the car and what happens? It rains. Same thing with the camera. If I carry the heavy 400mm on a hike, the birds remain hidden. But if I don’t have the camera, of course there will be a Bald Eagle sitting in a tree within camera range. Or a Pileated Woodpecker drilling a big hole in a tree, unobscured by any branches, showing a nice profile of that awesome pointy head. C’est la vie, I suppose.
(Hey, if any birders are reading this, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the camera issue.)