Recently I had an opportunity to photograph some hummingbirds (at a hummingbird feeder). I happened to have three completely different types of cameras handy so I decided to do a quick test to see what kind of shots I could create with each of them.
I’ve photographed hummingbirds in the past (without a feeder) and I can honestly say that they’re some of the most difficult subjects to photograph there is. If you’re looking to freeze them you need a crazy high shutter speed, perfect timing and a little luck. But even when you have perfect conditions you’ll get different results depending on the equipment you use. For my testing I had a big DSLR, a small mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, a super small point and shoot camera and I even broke out my iPhone to see how it could fare. The results were a little surprising…
The Three Cameras
I’ll start by introducing the three cameras I used in this test and talk a little about what the major differences are between them.
My biggest camera is a professional sized DSLR I’ve owned for years. As a working photographer I own several DSLRs and plenty of lenses for getting the shots when the pressure is on. Recently I’ve added some smaller options to my camera bags for traveling and landscape work and I’ve been getting some really great results. Finally I also have my iPhone with me pretty much all the time.
In addition to the cameras I also used some accessories to help me to get the most from my equipment. In almost every shot I take I use a tripod (or monopod) and that was the case for this hummingbird shoot. For my iPhone I used a Mefoto Sidekick360 that has become one of my favorite accessories (more on that in a future article).
Let’s take a look at the results:
The Sony DSLR A700
My big camera on this shoot was a Sony Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera with a 70-200mm f2.8 lens and I used a Manfrotto monopod to my camera keep things steady.
I placed myself about 10 feet or so away from the feeder, set the camera to Aperture priority mode and I dialed in F5.6 at ISO 800 (this gave me a shutter speed right around 1/1000 second for most shots). The camera was set to high-speed continuous mode so I could shoot bursts of images and pick the best shot later. Here’s my favorite shot I captured with the big DSLR:
As usual my DSLR didn’t let me down. I’ve photographed tons of wildlife over the years with this camera/lens combination and what I got was exactly what I expected.
What I like the most about the big camera is how I feel completely connected to the shoot. This comes from having a big camera that fills my right hand combined with looking through an optical viewfinder. It’s the way I’ve shot for decades and it can be difficult to beat.
The shots I captured with the big DSLR were my favorites but not by a large amount. A big advantage for this shoot was the 70-200mm f2.8 lens I used. In addition to being sharp it also uses 9 diaphragm blades so the bokeh looked noticeably smoother than what I got out of the other systems. It’s performance is why it’s been my “go to” lens for over a decade.
The Sony A5000
The Sony A5000 is a small interchangeable lens (ILC) camera and it’s the newest addition to my camera collection.
Unlike the DSLR it doesn’t have a viewfinder so the style of shooting is a completely different experience (note: Sony does make a ILC camera with a viewfinder – I just didn’t use it for this comparison). I’ve found framing shots using just the LCD to be wonderful when I’m shooting landscapes, HDRs or whenever I’m walking around on vacation – but for wildlife shooting it’s not quite as fun. It’s very unsteady when handheld (because it’s held out from the body) and you can’t help but see everything around the camera (when you use a viewfinder you’re forced to focus on only what the camera will capture).
This doesn’t mean it can’t capture a wildlife photo – it just means that you’ll probably take a different approach. Since I knew exactly where the hummingbirds were going to be I didn’t have a problem setting the camera up on a tripod and using a smartphone app to trigger the shutter. This was also a bit “disconnected” compared to my usual wildlife shooting but it definitely works. Here’s a look at the setup I used with the A5000:
For this shot I used my 50mm f1.8 lens (set to f4) because it’s the sharpest lens I own for the small system. While the hummingbird and the feeder were pretty darn sharp I was really let down by the background. The seven blade diaphragm of the Sony 50mm has an extremely edgy look in the out of focus areas that I really don’t care for. My fix for this was to open the image in Photoshop to smooth the background a bit. Here’s a look at the finished shot:
Overall the shot turned out really great! The only complaint I have, other than the disconnected feeling when shooting remotely, was the low number of shots I was able to capture. Unlike using a big DSLR (where you’re collecting frames the entire time the shutter button is pressed) remote shooting you can only grab a few frames before the hummingbird leaves (due to the remote functionality being single shot only).
the Sony DSC-WX350 (Point and Shoot Camera)
The last picture in my comparison came from my smallest and least expensive camera, a point & shoot. My Sony DSC-WX350 is a camera that has specifications way beyond it’s price. With headline features like 18mp images, 20x optical zoom, built in wifi and up to 10 frame per second capture it’s a camera that sounds like it should be far more than just a travel companion.
But it’s important to remember that real world performance may not always be the same as on-paper specifications. With an amazingly small sensor (1/2.3 type) each of the 18 million pixels is small. That means the light capturing capability of this sensor are nothing like what you get with an APS-C sensor. While the resolution is certainly there the trade off is added noise and a serious change in shutter speed due to the sensors small size.
Another factor is the complexity of the 20x zoom lens. At a glance it sounds amazing with a 35mm equivalent zoom range of 24 – 481mm. That’s longer than any lens I currently own! But when paired with the small sensor on a camera that is incredibly tiny there is a price to pay in quality. For casual use it’s a killer camera that I really love – but it was out of it’s element when photographing a subject as out-of-this-world fast as a hummingbird.
I set the point and shoot camera up almost identically to how I set up the interchangeable lens camera and I triggered it using the same smart phone app I used on the A5000. When a hummingbird came in to the frame I started firing off shots. Here’s the best shot I was able to get:
All complaints aside it’s a decent photo of a hummingbird. Does the camera that costs less than $300 and fits in your shirt pocket perform like my $3,000 setup? Not even close – but it took a decent photo of a hummingbird!
For casual photographers a point and shoot camera can do some amazing things. If, for example, you’re on vacation and you stop in to a local zoo you’ll be able to capture some very respectable photos. If, on the other hand, you’re accustomed to using an expensive, large camera system your expectations may not allow you to use a small camera like this for subjects like hummingbirds. If you ask me the point and shoot camera, even though it came in last here, stayed in the race and even had a respectable finish.
I created a composite image that lets everyone make direct comparisons between the three pictures with special emphasis on the hummingbirds:
When viewed side by side the differences get to be a little more obvious.
The interchangeable lens camera shot has the most pleasing background but that’s because of the camera position (which was different from the other two camera setup locations). With the fencing over 20 feet away from the feeder it is completely out of focus which brings viewers attention back to the hummingbird. Unfortunately the shadow cast by the nearby fence darkened the hummingbird compared to images captured by the other two cameras.
The DSLR captured my favorite shot and the background was slightly out of focus (difficult when the fence is less than 2 feet from the feeder) and the lighting on the back of the hummingbird really lit up it’s wings.
The point and shoot did a respectable job but I feel like it wasn’t up to the task of capturing a hummingbird as well as the other two cameras. Additionally, the background was 100% in focus and, without the level of control I’m accustomed to, there was nothing that could be done to change things.
Bonus iPhone Video
Here’s a little bonus. In addition to the three main cameras I compared I also had an Apple iPhone 6. It’s job was to capture some behind the scenes shots as well as be a remote for the wifi controllable cameras. Grabbing a shot with the iPhone was a possibility but instead I decided to take advantage of the iPhones amazing video capability.
I still prefer a full sized camera for capturing video, due to the additional controls and ability to choose a lens for a particular project, but with up to 240 frame per second capture the iPhone does some really incredible things. I used a MeFoto Sidekick360 to lock my iPhone to a tripod, started the recording and I walked away to let it do it’s thing. Here’s a look at what it was able to capture:
In my opinion the real winner of this comparison was the Sony A5000 mirrorless camera. While it didn’t capture the best shot of the day it captured a really nice image for a fraction of the cost of my big DSLR and in a package that weighs a whole lot less. It wouldn’t be my first choice for a serious wildlife shoot (or an adventure at the National Zoo) but it produced an image way beyond my expectations. The small system has it’s faults but many of them can be dealt with in post production. The least expensive Sony interchangeable lens camera is an awesome first step into the world of smaller high performance cameras.
If anyone has questions about the cameras I used or how they were set up just leave me a comment or send an email to me here and I’ll do my best to get them answered as quickly as I can.
FULL DISCLOSURE: This camera comparison was done just for fun and all of the equipment I used is owned by me, personally. I received zero compensation from Sony or any other company to put this article together.
FURTHER DISCLOSURE: Images captured by the DLSR and ILC cameras were RAW files that were processed in Lightroom and Photoshop to look their best. Additionally, the jpeg images from the small point and shoot camera were cropped and processed in Photoshop to look their best. If you rely on out of camera jpeg images your results may be different than what I was able to get.
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