7.82 LBS – My New Bird Photo Rig

I’m slightly more than half way through my experiment with using my iPhone 13 Pro as my main camera. I committed to one year back in November of 2021. What have I learned? I think that in most cases – for most people – it’s all the camera you need.

But now let’s break that down a bit. The small percentage of people who own an interchangeable lens camera (ILC) v. a smart phone camera will be looking for more capability than the iPhone can deliver. (Smart phone sales numbers are many, many, many times higher than ILC camera sales.) Often, iphone photographers don’t realize that their phone is capable of so much more than they actually realize. In my deep dive into this space I have learned that one thing which is common between ILC and iPhone cameras is nobody reads the manual! The iPhone 13 Pro/Max is capable of amazing things – only most of the people using the iPhone camera aren’t aware of the phone’s full capabilities.

Once I spent time testing accessories and apps for the iPhone I found out it could compete with lots of digital ILC cameras, especially when it comes to video but even still photography.

But I do agree, that there are times when the iPhone just won’t cut it. Maybe someday, using computational photography, digital zoom will actually work and bird/wildlife photographers like me will be able to get to 600-700-800mm worth of focal length. But right now, on an iPhone, digital zoom sucks. That’s just the plain old facts, folks.

I investigated add-on lenses and the best I can do there is about 150mm, which is still nowhere near enough reach for someone who does the kind of work I do. I tried digiscoping and my eyes aren’t good enough to achieve critical focus (even though the gear is.)

So I have literally tested a dozen cameras since resigning as an Olympus Visionary. I used Olympus for five years – exclusively. I always said I would switch (Visionary or not) if I found something that worked better FOR ME. The FOR ME part is important. PLEASE pay attention to those words. They are important because we don’t all have the same needs so there’s no way any one camera or lens combo could solve ALL of our photographic problems.

Then (if you’ve been following along) I got a new job and HAD to switch to cinema cameras so I left the Visionary program. But now that I can use any camera I want, I have found some new options which I will talk about below.

Most (meaning the literal translation – more than half) of you, will NEVER need a 600mm lens. The great majority of people will never need that kind of focal length. So smartphone photography (if you treat your smartphone camera like a “REAL” camera) will do nearly as good or AS good a job as most ILC cameras for MOST people.

Most people also won’t need a full-frame sensor. Why? Because most people share their photos on Instagram or Facebook and to do that they only need a tiny smart-phone sensor. Very few people make prints these days and those that do think an 8×10″ print is a BIG print. So full-frame isn’t necessary.

But some people feel like they need to buy a “real” – i.e., FF-ILC camera because it “looks” professional. And that is a valid point if you are a pro. If you show up at a wedding with the same camera that all the guests are using, the bride and groom may question your competency, even though there’s no reason for them to do that.

There are other times where specialty work like aerial, scientific, wildlife, bird, architectural, medical, sports, etc., photographers have to use specific kinds of lenses to get what they need. For me, as a wildlife/bird photographer I need reach.

There are a very, very, very few times when a full-frame sensor is needed such as times when you need to make very large prints.

Like I said, few people fall into the above categories. And based on my experiment so far, I can say that for now, I use the iPhone for most casual photography and for video where I don’t need close ups of birds and animals. ProRes 4K HQ on the iPhone is spectacular and better quality video than you will find on many hybrid ILC cameras. But the need for focal length has driven me elsewhere.

Now I have a very specific set of ailments and health issues that make it impossible to carry around a full-frame, DSLR with an 800mm lens attached and a tripod and gimbal – all thrown over my shoulder as I trek through the woods looking for subjects to photograph. Those days are absolutely over for me. Done, Finished. No exceptions. My shoulder is shot. My arthritis is severe. And I have other stuff going on that I won’t bore you with.

Suffice it to say that much like it was when I switched from my Canon 1DX MK II to the Olympus OM-D E-M1 MK II (their flagship camera at the time) weight and size have really played a large part in my decision making. Most everything I have tried simply weighs too much or is too big for me to comfortably handle.

So when I can’t use an iPhone, I simply went back to my Olympus gear – which is VERY good. But then I got ANOTHER job where I needed to make a series of very large prints – I am talking billboard-sized prints. So unfortunately, I needed to explore the full-frame options. And I still need mirrorless cameras because they are lighter and smaller (usually) than DSLRs and let’s face it, none of the big camera companies have DLSRs on their future road map so mirrorless is now the standard.

That has forced me to Sony. Sony is a brand that many of you know I do not favor. But as a professional, I need to be able to set aside my personal feelings and use what’s best for me.

After having tried literally EVERY currently available Sony digital, mirrorless camera, I settled on the A7C.

It’s the smallest, lightest, full-frame, mirrorless camera in the world and it weighs even less than the Micro Four Thirds OM-1 (Olympus’ newest flagship camera.)

I didn’t want to like the A7C but I do. It’s barely larger than an iPhone 13 Pro Max. It’s extremely capable. (see the specs below…) It uses the same autofocus system as the heavily praised A9 system. It’s autofocus is excellent. It uses one of the best sensors in the class.

24.2MP Full-Frame Exmor R BSI Sensor
BIONZ X Image Processor
UHD 4K30p Video with HLG & S-Log3 Gammas
693-Point Hybrid AF System
2.36m-Dot OLED Electronic Viewfinder
3.0″ 921.6k-Dot Vari-Angle Touchscreen
5-Axis In-Body Image Stabilization
Shooting Up to 10 fps, ISO 50-204800
Bluetooth and Wi-Fi Connectivity

And most importantly it works with some very lightweight (and spectacular) lenses from Tamron. (Which I will discuss below.)

Before I go on – let me say that I have no business, professional, or other relationship with either Sony or Tamron. I am not their ambassador. I don’t have an affiliate deal with either company. I am just like you. I went out and bought their gear and paid for it with my own money. I didn’t get any discounts or special treatment. So my endorsement here is strictly based on the following…

  1. For ME – for MY specific set of circumstances, this is the best solution.
  2. I have to keep the weight I carry UNDER eight pounds or risk having my shoulder seize and according to my orthopedic surgeon, that could leave me effectively unable to move most of the right side of my body and would potentially force me into a wheelchair for the rest of my life.
  3. The total weight of my Sony A7C, Tamron 150-500mm f/5-6.7 Di III VC VXD and a Gitzo GM2562T Series 2 Traveler Carbon Fiber Monopod with Desmond DMH-2X1 Monopod Tilt Head plus Sony battery and memory card is – 7.82 lbs.
  4. In tests I ran, making 72″ prints, the files from this combo, without using a RIP were just ever so slightly cleaner and sharper than files from any other system.

What about AF? The autofocus is slightly better on the OM-1 (Very slightly) than on any other camera I have tested with the possible exception of the Sony A-1. But the image quality of the files are slightly better on the A7C (Very slightly) and only when you print very large images than they are on the OM-1.

Either way, it’s pretty remarkable that I can walk around with a set up that gets me to 500mm on a full-frame, mirrorless camera with a monopod and head and keep it below the eight pound weight limit, and I am overjoyed about it.

Now mind you, I still use cinema cameras and tripods that are much, much heavier but I travel with assistants who carry and set up and care for that gear. I’m not always in a place where I have an assistant or even want one. One of the great joys of my life is sitting in a chair, in a bag blind, by myself, in the woods or on the coast, waiting for a bird. And I can do that BY MYSELF with this setup. It is extending my career. And my goal is to make images and tell stories with my cameras all the way to the day I die. Nothing would be harder for me to deal with than being told I have to stop doing this work. It would essentially take away my only reason for living and I doubt I’d be around for very long if that day ever comes.

So for now, I can still do what I love to do and get professional results. I linked to my review of the Tamron 150-500. I also have the “trinity” zoom lenses from Tamron in case I need to do something else other than wildlife work. I can carry all three of the trinity zooms from Tamron at one time (as long as I don’t bring the telephoto) and I can do it even when I am by myself – that gives me options. You can read my full thoughts on those Tamron lenses here at PictureMethods.

I will write a separate review of the Sony A7C soon. I also use a different Sony camera – a bridge camera – the Sony RX10 MK IV, but I only use that camera when I’m shooting in good light and don’t need more than 600mm. It only has a one-inch sensor.

You may be confused right about now. How can I say I use the RX10 when I don’t need more than 600mm but still I am using the Tamron which only goes to 500mm? Well it’s really simple. The Sony has a feature called APS-C/ Super 35mm and it essentially crops in on the full-frame lens to give you APS-C reach (i.e., 750mm on the Tamron 150-500) but the trade off is the 24mp sensor becomes a roughly 10mp sensor. There is NO light loss. This isn’t one of those – “well then isn’t f/4 really f/5.6” conversations. I end up having to use (and pay for) a hardware RIP (raster image processor) when I crop in like that but it still seems to be the best option when 500mm FF isn’t enough.

Remember as you read this it’s all written in the context that wherever I can, I use the iPhone as my main camera.

Photography is full of compromises and based on the gear available today, this is the best way for me personally to go. As I said at the beginning of this post, I tested MANY cameras. For me, this is the way. For you? Well who knows? I want you to know that it was very close between this and the new OM-1 with the Olympus 100-400. I WANTED to use that combo but the results, as good as they are, and they are VERY good, they are just a tad bit behind what I can do with the A7C when I need to print BIG!

If all I was doing was making images for the internet or printing 40″ and smaller, I’d go the Olympus route. But that’s not the case. As much as I love Olympus (and don’t love Sony) I have to pick based on my professional opinion about what’s right for me. And based on the results I have achieved, it’s the Sony/Tamron combo – by a hair.

I’m also going to mention that this choice is based on something that bothers me. JIP – the holding company that bought Olympus’ camera division – has a different approach to running the business than the team I signed on with as a Visionary. I am uncertain of the future of the Olympus system. Don’t get me wrong, an investment in the OM-1 is not going to leave you hanging. I just look at the current marketing and there’s nobody like me showing up in their advertising. I think that had a very subtle impact on my decision. They’ve hired a bunch of young people to run the company and young – I am not.

In a way, it doesn’t matter – today. You probably cannot find either an OM-1 or a Sony A7C to buy new, at least today. I was lucky and bought a reasonably priced mint (used) A7C on Ebay and bought a second new A7C body (the last one they had at B&H.) I am using the OM-1 on a loan and will have to return in it a few weeks. Both systems are on back-order and the realistic outlook is a couple of months wait on either one. (The exception is – if you put yourself on a notification list at big stores like B&H, they will occasionally get a shipment of two or three cameras – first come first served and you might wait less time than otherwise just waiting on the sidelines.)

White Pelican – A7C – Tamron 150-500 – monopod – using Clear Image Zoom

The good news is that most the experts think the chip shortage will sort itself out by late Q3 so all of these cameras will be available. The Tamron lenses I discussed are available now.

P.S. In June I will have a review of the new Olympus OM-1 and I can already tell you, it’s a spectacular camera.

CONCLUSION

Being a professional photographer always means making compromises. Being a professional photographer at the late stages of your life means making even MORE compromises. Luckily for me, all the gear continues to get better and better giving me a better chance of staying engaged for as long as I can be.

At the end, maybe if I live long enough, the only thing I will need is an iPhone after all. I would welcome that day with open arms.

Your mileage may vary.