Thursday 31 October 2019

Sony FE 200-600mm F5.6-6.3 G OSS

Wow I have been inconsistent with blogging this year! Given how lousy my birding has been lately, here's a slightly different type of post. I rarely write about equipment, but sometimes something comes along that inspires me to do just that.

Enter the Sony FE 200-600mm F5.6-6.3 G OSS.

Starting with film, I've been using Canon equipment for approximately 20 years and have generally been happy, despite having some extraordinarily bad luck with reliability of some of the bodies. For wildlife pics I prioritise the lens, hence why I use Canon, although for beginners or keen amateurs I would still recommend Nikon in terms of the overall package. Ideally I'd like a Nikon D850 with my big Canon prime on the front! Sony do seem to be getting there with lenses now though. 100-400mm is another popular wildlife focal range and the Sony 100-400 is superior (well, significantly sharper at least) to the equivalent lenses from Canon (100-400 ii) and Nikon (80-400).

You may or may not have seen some of my astro pics on here, Facebook or Twitter, but this shift in photography genre is why I've started investing in equipment outside of Canon. Earlier this year, I bought a Sony A7Riii. Part of the joy of the Canon EF and Sony E mounts is that there are adapters that let me use my Canon glass on a Sony body (with limitations) so I haven't needed to go out and throw a heap of money at new lenses.

My intention was for the Sony body to be used for astro and landscapes whilst my Canon kit would still be the wildlife rig. Here I am, a few months down the line, buying a wildlife lens for my Sony body. This isn't because I'm unhappy with any of the Canon kit (although it is fairly old), but more so because every review I've read/watched about the 200-600, and (almost) every sample pic I've downloaded, has looked excellent.

There are a few things that particularly attracted me to the Sony 200-600:
- Internal zoom, it doesn't extend during use
- Useful zoom range
- Short throw on the zoom ring
- Compact and lightweight vs what I'm used to
- Suitable size to travel with, it fits within cabin baggage dimensions/restrictions
- Sample pics were very sharp at the 600mm end

My main concerns:
- The widest aperture at 600mm is f6.3
- Minimum focus distance is 2.4m, which is a fair bit worse than 100-400mm lenses
- No full-time MF in AF-C mode

If someone is buying a superzoom like a 200-500 or 200-600, it is my view that the lens should be strongest at the long end. Why? Because if the person didn't need that lens primarily for the extreme reach, they'd buy something smaller. I was pleased to see that 600mm on this new Sony zoom is its strongest/sharpest focal length, although it is still excellent at shorter focal lengths. It's important to match camera and lens well for your intended purpose. Some lenses aren't good enough to make full use of a high resolution camera, and vice versa. Both the Sony A7Riii and 200-600 are geared up to take very sharp images.

Here's a test scenario (real-world testing is in progress) showing how sharp this combo is at 600mm and wide open at f6.3. No profile corrections were used hence the vignette, but they have been lightly sharpened. These are various crops of the same image:

It is SHARP.

I'm gonna stick my neck out and say that this could currently be one of the best lenses for general wildlife photography on a moderate budget. It's certainly up there amongst them. My Canon 600mm f4 ii is very slightly sharper, lets in more light and has better contrast. But here's the question. Is it worth 6x the money? Well, if I sell the rest of my Canon kit in the next year or so, that may provide the answer (for my usage/scenario at least). Within days of buying the 200-600, I sold my Canon 100-400 ii. I'm not saying I'm switching to Sony. I never even intended to use my A7Riii for wildlife. However, unless Canon releases some decent RF mount bodies in the next year, a full switch is definitely on the cards.

Before anyone suggests bias, I have none. I'm not loyal to any system, I use what fits my needs and budget at any given time and I'm realistic about what different systems have to offer. People may of course have a different opinion on gear for their specific uses, and that's fine!

More soon...

EDIT: Shortly after writing this I noticed some dust/debris inside the lens so I looked more thoroughly under lights. The news is bad; one of the elements in the middle of the lens (can't get to it without dismantling it) has dust/debris, dirty smears and what appears to be some scratches on it! Clearly a QC slip up, but not what you want for such a lens. Back to Sony it shall go...

Wednesday 18 September 2019

White Stork after midnight

Twitching a bird after midnight is a hoot!

After seeing a report on Birdguides of a White Stork roosting in Lyme Regis I picked up Dad and we headed over. It was a clear night with a fairly full moon and with the bird being pale, I knew there was a decent chance we'd be able to see it, even in the middle of the night. It didn't take long to find; the Stork was still on the Power Boat Club House as per an earlier report. We kept our distance in an effort to make sure the bird wasn't bothered by us (not that it necessarily would have been, others before and after us had seemingly approached it much closer).

I wanted to try and get some pics of it. Yeah, I know, wildlife pics after midnight. It is doable; camera sensor technology is improving and night photography has been 'my thing' for the last 15 months. The wind made it pretty difficult to get sharp shots as the bird and its feathers were rarely still. Low light on its own is easy enough to deal with, but low light and a moving subject is not so easy. 

I tweeted a pic of the back of my camera whilst taking some video footage last night and included most of the settings so that people could see how I was taking my pics/footage, but I did still get someone suggesting that I was using flash. I wasn't. When asked I always do my best to educate and help people understand how things were done etc. Not everyone knows how to take pics in certain conditions, or what cameras can do, and I appreciate that. If you have any questions, I am happy to help!

No torches or flashes were used in any of my pics or videos of the White Stork. The bird was lit by moonlight and light from nearby buildings only.

ISO was between 20,000 and 32,000 for video footage (not processed it yet), and between 5,000 and 10,000 for stills, with further exposure boosting in post-production. I have an ISO invariant camera so I deliberately underexposed the photos at the time of capture.

Specific settings for the shot below are:
1/2 second shutter speed, f4 aperture at ISO 6400, then exposure pushed a further 1.5 stops in post.

Whilst watching the Stork I said to Dad that it may well be on patch later, and indeed it was according to multiple reports on Birdguides. As with most White Storks seen in the UK, it looks as though this is not a properly 'wild' bird (@Wawlee on Twitter has an excellent open-wing shot). Still, I'm glad we made the effort to see it at Lyme and get some shots which are different from the norm!

Thursday 29 August 2019

So many birds!

Bit overdue as it has been a busy few days; I've managed to squeeze in a fair bit of birding & photography recently. The juvenile Osprey has continued to show well, as has at least 1 Marsh Harrier and a Wood Sandpiper. I spotted a very distant egret sp. flying in high from the north on Tuesday (27th) morning and I thought it was probably a Great (White). Fortunately it did the decent thing and landed on the estuary where it afforded good views for over an hour, a relatively long time for a Great Egret here. This is likely the same bird that was seen at Chard Reservoir earlier that morning. Also on the 27th there was what was almost certainly a 2nd Osprey. There was a huge flush from BHM and the estuary at around 1pm and Sue & I figured an Osprey or something else large must have gone overhead without any of us seeing it from inside the hide. Moments later Steve Waite tweeted that he had an Osprey fly in from west so this mostly fits the bill, but as Steve later said, that was a long way away from the birds which flushed! Maybe they were just on high alert? A few others in the hide said it must have been a false alarm as we didn't see anything but a massive flush like that is certainly not a false alarm! We just couldn't see what caused it.

Onto today and I was up early in the hope of seeing the Osprey before having a general look around. It eventually showed, but a fair bit later than normal, and then proceeded to fly high out to sea and then west towards Beer Head so I figured it may be leaving us in favour of somewhere else along the coast. It returned in the afternoon and caught 2 fish, however.

A later visit to BHM yielded a few new birds. Dad and I were scanning the marsh from The Lookout and I spotted 3 Ruff and a Curlew Sandpiper, our first of the autumn of both species as far as I'm aware. We then went to Island Hide where another couple of people were also looking at them and we soon saw that there were in fact 3 Curlew Sands, including a colourful adult. Shortly after this I spotted a Knot, so a very good evening indeed.

I'll save it for another post but we also have some Long-tailed Blue butterflies near the mouth of the Rive Axe. I've only seen one of them so far so must pay them another visit.

There are a few pics to post when I have time to look at them, but here's a taster. A silly/tight crop of the Osprey when it flew by quite close and in nice light:

Monday 19 August 2019

Osprey, Kite & Harriers

A good day for raptors on patch! We still have 2 Marsh Harriers here and I finally saw them flying together. One perched in front of the hide at Colyford Common with an item of prey but I was watching from the other side of the river and without camera (how most of my birding has been done lately). Not sure if anybody was in the hide but the views would have been pretty impressive from there. A later look at Colyford Common yielded nothing different with 10 Ringed Plovers and 3 Green Sands being the best of it.

On my way home I noticed a raptor drifting north-west over Colyton. I initially thought it had the jizz/giss of a Red Kite and fortunately it was moving slowly enough for me to park up and get bins on it. Not a bird that's particularly 'on my radar' this time of year. It continued to drift north-west at fairly low altitude. The few gulls that went up soon settled, only for them to make a bigger commotion a little later. I figured it'd be the Kite coming back but it wasn't. It took a great deal of scanning to find the culprit - an Osprey! It was to the east of Chantry Bridge and drifting south; I'm surprised I managed to pick it out at all to be honest, it was still an unidentifiable speck through binoculars (8x). Good to know that my eyes are still okay even though a lot of the rest of me is broken... It was also another one of those occasions where the camera was essential as the bins simply didn't cut it, so it was a good job I brought the camera out this time. Not that the pic is up to much...

To give you an idea how far off it was, this was taken at the equivalent of 1260mm and cropped! Although I've seen lots of them over the Axe estuary, I think this is only my 2nd Osprey over Colyton so it was certainly good to see. It has been a good year for me with raptors over Colyton. A few Red Kites, a few Hobbies, this Osprey and of course a Hen Harrier (also very distant, see here). 

Old news now but on the 10th I had the following from Tower Hide:
2 Turnstone (one or more has been seen almost every day since)
2 Greenshank
44 Dunlin
5 Ringed Plover
1 Wigeon

On the 11th many of the waders were favouring the scrapes at Colyford Common for feeding, the most interesting of which being:
1 Turnstone
11 Ringed Plover (inc. 3 juvs)
1 Whimbrel
6 Green Sandpiper
1+ Wood Sandpiper (most likely 2 based on calls)

Pretty similar on 12th but with better combined wader totals from BHM & Colyford Common:
1 Turnstone
2 Greenshank
12 Ringed Plover
58 Dunlin
2 Marsh Harriers (the lingering birds, seen by visitors rather than me on this day)

Aside from visits around the Axe, a couple of quiet trips up at Beer Head were concluded with pizza...

Friday 9 August 2019

Marsh Harrier & brief update

Sorry for the lack of wildlife pics, I haven't had a camera with me for much of my birding lately! I've done parts of Beer Head a couple of times recently and checked BHM and the estuary most days but the most interesting bird I've seen has been a Marsh Harrier which I picked up at distance from Tower Hide on the 7th. The best I could see in the heavy rain on the evening of the 8th were 3 Greenshanks and a Greylag. Dad and I didn't see a single other person there; most presumably had the more comfortable plan of staying somewhere dry!

Over recent weeks we've had a few of the usual/expected waders for this time of year with Wood, Common and Green Sands, as well as LRPs & Greenshanks etc. I'm hopeful that we'll get something more interesting soon.

The weather for Friday and Saturday certainly looks like it's going to be dramatic...

Talking of dramatic, here's a pic from the electrical storm we had here a couple of weeks back. It was a very impressive few hours with thousands and thousands of strikes!

Tuesday 18 June 2019

A rather colourful Cattle Egret

I've seen quite a few Cattle Egrets on patch, but the one that landed on Black Hole Marsh briefly on the evening of the 17th was easily the best looking! It wasn't really twitchable as it was fairly late when I saw it and it flew south moments later. Perhaps it'll still be around the Seaton area in the morning.

I was trying out my new Sony camera with one of my bigger Canon lenses, a combination which isn't meant to be able to cope with wildlife pics very well (have to do a lot of the work manually, but I tend to anyway). Then again, my Canon body is primarily a studio and landscape type camera rather than an action/wildlife camera, but I make do with it!

The only other birds of note from the evening were 4 Med Gulls, also on BHM.

Late news but worth mentioning given my relative lack of blogging this year (my Twitter feed isn't quite so neglected):

Hobby over Colyton on May 15th and June 5th.
Another Red Kite over Colyton on May 22nd. Not quite the same numbers as I had here last year...
Knot, Grey Plover & 4 Greenshanks on the Axe estuary on May 16th.
Even later news, and there are pics to follow at some point, is that there was a Wood Warbler near Lower Bruckland Ponds on May 5th.

Wednesday 24 April 2019

Osprey, Garganey and Marsh Harrier

Well that was almost as good as the Hen Harrier two days ago! Not for rarity value, but to get three (locally) good birds in one afternoon was very nice indeed. Paul Cook phoned me mid-afternoon saying he had a drake Garganey showing well on Black Hole Marsh. I saw 3 here last year but it's always worth twitching a drake Garganey on patch; they are less than annual here. Upon arrival I couldn't see the Garganey but soon spotted a Marsh Harrier over the estuary, our first of the year here. Some others came to look for the Garganey and Harrier but we all initially drew a blank for the former. I persisted and checked the Colyford end of the reserves and eventually re-found the Garganey in the Reed Bed Loop (highly probable that it's the same bird). It was often out of sight but the effort paid off and a few other locals connected with it.

I hung around for a bit to make sure people arriving got on the bird and it was at this point when I spotted an Osprey floating in, low and slow. It's a shame that the views were looking into the Sun; the bird was really close, perhaps only 100-150ft above me. I managed to miss all of the Ospreys here last year and I've missed a few this year as well (not sure on the exact number, 3 or 4 I think) so it was nice to see this one.

An excellent afternoon.

Tuesday 23 April 2019

Hen Harrier on patch April 22nd

River Coly, Colyton.
What an afternoon that was! Hen Harrier is a raptor I had been wanting to see on patch for a rather long time, especially after having already seen two of the rarer Montagu's locally. The sighting reminded me of the 1st Monty, with the view being both distant and brief, and confirmed (beyond doubt) from dodgy pics after the event. The Hen Harrier was so distant that I might have missed it had a Buzzard not flown up to mob it. I've been spending a lot of time looking up during the warm weather lately but this was mainly with the hope of seeing some more Red Kites, so you can imagine the excitement when a ringtail Harrier showed up. Hen Harrier was my initial impression with this bird but I wasn't confident enough to rule out Pallid until I'd got the pics home, at which point it became pretty obvious (thanks to Steve and Brendan for their views on some lousy BOC pics whilst I was still out). Some of the pics were overexposed so it looked artificially pale on BOC, but did appear to show 5 'fingers' in some (not all) of the pics from the little that I could see on the screens. It was rather bright outside and my experience with Pallid/Hen Harriers is not thorough having not seen either properly, hence the slight lack of confidence initially.

The below (cropped and adjusted) pic makes things look a lot clearer than what I had to work with at the time...

Versus the original, viewed on a dull camera screen whilst I was out in the field:

Now, a Pallid Harrier next would be nice wouldn't it? We can dream.

Friday 19 April 2019

Red Kite

Blimey it has been a while since my last blog post! 2019 is proving rather challenging and I haven't been able to do much birding so far this year but have managed a couple of short walks this week. Dippers have been showing well on the Coly and providing excellent views; they're easily one of my favourite birds to watch, just so full of character!

A Red Kite heading west over Colyton at 16:59 on the 18th was also nice to see (not the best pic mind). I wonder if we'll get anything like the 100+ Kites we had over Colyton in 2 days last year  < SEE HERE >.

Monday 21 January 2019

Total lunar eclipse

Clouds. Lots and lots of clouds. I did manage to get some (fairly bad) pics during the eclipse, but to give an idea of how challenging it was here in Colyton, the total eclipse phase lasted approximately an hour, and during that hour there were perhaps 3 or 4 seconds of moon viewing time. That doesn't mean clear skies for 3 or 4 seconds, it means I was able to take a couple of dodgy pics through the cloud for those 3 or 4 seconds only.

Worth the effort, but still a very disappointing night/morning.

Just under 11 years to wait until the next one! Well, one that's visible from the UK at least.