“SX50 beats all my DSLRs”

Here’s another discussion from the Digital Photography Review – Canon Talk Forum which may be of interest to our readers:

 “SX50 beats all my DSLRs”

The commentary in the above forum thread raises several technical concepts that aren’t too easily understood, but which lie at the heart of successful bird photography. While the somewhat provocative title doesn’t specify so, the premise of the original post refers to photographing birds which are perched or otherwise not in-flight, at telephoto focal lengths. And with those stipulations, I believe the original poster’s enthusiastic observation about his SX50 will be correct in many cases, and for perhaps most people who photograph wild birds. I’ve already replied in the forum with excerpts from this article and will elaborate just a little further here. You can read additional comments on the topic from several other photographers at the link above.


Comparing the SX50 to DSLRs

The small 1/2.3″ sensor of the SX50 with its 5.6x crop factor allows its inexpensive and lightweight 215mm lens to provide an equivalent 1200mm field of view, thereby putting considerably more pixels on the bird (or whatever distant target) than an APS-C sensor with a 400mm lens shot from the same distance. [Note: The APS class sensors found in many entry-level and mid-range DSLR cameras provide @1.6x crop factor which multiplies a 400mm focal length lens to an equivalent 640mm fov in full-frame terms].

Detail is resolved both by getting close (which the wildlife photographer does via technique and/or stealth), and by involving sufficient pixels in its capture (which long focal length lenses and high quality sensors both help to achieve). The size and quality of the sensor and the sharpness of the lens are two important factors, amongst many, in achieving the detail wildlife photography enthusiasts strive for in their images.

Certainly neither the sensor nor the lens of the SX50 can match the quality of the APS-C/Prime400mm class DSLR combo. Nor are these the only ways in which the DSLR is superior. But the DSLR rig may still not achieve the level of image quality that the SX50 can at typical birding distances, even with deep cropping. Despite pixel size and IQ, there will still be significantly more pixels resolving the details at 1200mm with the SX50 sensor than at 640mm with most DSLR sensors. With good exposures at base ISOs the IQ of the SX50 sensor can be quite good indeed, and the IQ advantage of the larger DSLR sensor will not usually be sufficient to match the level of detail captured even with cropping. Also, unlike most DSLR zoom lenses, the SX50 lens is sharp at full reach and at full wide aperture.

European Starling 1200mm @60ft
European Starling 1200mm @60ft

Whereas telephoto zoom lenses for DSLRs (which are neither lightweight nor inexpensive), are generally not at their sharpest either at their longest focal lengths or with their apertures wide open. More expensive “prime” DSLR lenses are typically much sharper at their fixed focal lengths than comparable telephoto zoom lenses at full-reach, but they are also heavy and can be significantly more difficult to use without a tripod.

The SX50 lens also provides its sharp 1200mm telephoto reach from considerably shorter distances where the typical 400mm/DSLR kit is unable to achieve focus. And at these closer distances the SX50 not only captures sharp detail, but also provides the needed depth of field to allow the entire subject to be in focus, which long DSLR lenses often cannot accomplish even at their much greater minimum focus distances.

American Goldfinch 1200mm @10ft
American Goldfinch 1200mm @10ft
Dark-eyed Junco 1200mm @8ft
Dark-eyed Junco 1200mm @8ft
 Eastern Bluebird 1200mm @5ft
Eastern Bluebird 1200mm @5ft

The SX50 also offers a few other advantages when photographing perching or wading birds and other stationary wildlife: Such as more effective image stabilization for easier hand-held operation; silent shutter actuation which avoids spooking the target when you do get close; and “live view” exposure and DOF (depth of field) simulation in the viewfinder when shooting in Manual mode (a little heralded feature which I personally find to be priceless*)

*See: The Case for Manual Exposure.

Dedicated and professional wildlife photographers know the many advantages and sacrifices involved in using large, heavy, and expensive DSLR equipment to obtain maximum quality images of distant wildlife, including birds in flight and other high-speed animal action shots. And no small-sensor compact superzoom will be up to the task for this kind of work imo. But even though the DSLR will focus and shoot faster, provide higher shutter speeds, track BIF, and offer superior image quality at the pixel level, the SX50 can still outperform it in many common birding situations in terms of capturing details in feather and fur. And of course it’s much easier to carry and afford for casual wildlife photographers.

Photographing wild birds can be very challenging even when they’re not in-flight. Getting satisfying results requires a good deal of patience, practice, and more than a little luck, with whichever gear you choose. Understanding and working with both the strengths and weaknesses of your equipment greatly improves your chances for success.

Good shooting everybody.



One thought on ““SX50 beats all my DSLRs”

  1. Very interesting and informative! I just purchased an SX50 a month ago at the recommendation of a couple other bird/photography bloggers I follow. I have been happy with it so far (although the manual is like reading Greek!) but still have A LOT to learn. I was concerned a DSLR would be too overwhelming for me to learn, so went with the simpler SX50 – also weight was a consideration for hiking, etc. I’m glad I did, as this camera is complicated enough for my limited understanding of the finer points of photography!

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