I am occasionally asked by nature watchers to recommend binoculars, telescopes or cameras. Since I am no expert, I try to lead the questioners to resources that are available to them.
Before I turn to that, however, I offer national data comparing fishing, hunting and recreational participation and expenditures based on the 2011 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey: 33.1 million anglers spent an annual average of $1,263 each on equipment. For hunters, those figures are 13.7 million and $1,017. And for recreational nature participants, 71.6 million and $766. Thus, although they spend less per person, those recreational participants spend almost as much in all as hunters and anglers together.
One sure sign of getting old is how dumbstruck you find yourself by the cost of things. And so it is with equipment for exploring nature. Here is how much you could spend to acquire top-of-the-line equipment: binoculars, $2,500; telescope with tripod, $2,700; camera with 500-mm lens, $17,100.
Fortunately, you do not need such equipment to enjoy watching and even photographing birds. One example: A few weeks ago, I visited the north end of Bird Island to see the extremely rare elegant tern that somehow made its way here from Baja California. There it was, sitting on the pier about 50 yards away among several dozen local gulls and two common terns. I didn’t have my binoculars with me, but I had excellent looks at the bird through several of the half dozen birders’ telescopes there. Then I was shown by a young woman a close-up photo of the tern taken with her iPhone through one of the scopes. I was amazed at the high quality of the photograph.
That example illustrates two things. First, birders are more than willing to share their equipment. Second, there are workarounds for many high-tech activities. Today most inexpensive point-and-shoot cameras offer magnification that provides good images of distant animals.
Nevertheless, viewers still need assistance. What are the highest-quality manufacturers? What can they get by with? What can they move up to?
A fine resource for photographers is Harold Stiver’s inexpensive “Guide to Bird Photography.” (Disclosure: Stiver took most of the superb photos that appear in my “Nature Watch Collection” books.) Yes, Stiver does talk about the top-of-the line camera equipment he uses, but he also offers ways to cut costs.
Here are three of his suggestions: “(1) Use third-party lenses. Companies like Sigma and Tamron make lenses to fit camera bodies like Canon and Nikon. The quality varies but some are surprisingly good and inexpensive. (2) Buy used equipment. Look at eBay, camera stores or photography forums. You run some risk of getting problem equipment, but there often is value, especially with used camera bodies. (3) If you have a birding scope, consider digiscoping.”
Digiscoping is how that young woman photographed the tern. Many of my friends use this technique with their point-and-shoot cameras, but I have found it to be not nearly as simple to accomplish as it sounds. Stiver’s suggestions apply equally to the purchase of binoculars and spotting scopes.
Equally important, he addresses concerns about using whatever equipment you have in the field. “If you are shooting without a tripod, keep your elbows tucked beside your body and your feet apart. Take advantage of items around you. Resting the lens on a log or fence will help and even leaning against a tree will make a difference.”
Finally, the difference between budget and top-of-the-line binoculars is only about 10 percent. After using 10x binoculars for years, I recommend 8x for their wider view, clarity and stability.