Saturday, 7 March 2009

A picture's worth a thousand cryptids (OK that headline is completely meaningless but Jon thought it up, and I have to humour the old chap)

For this evening/morning/whenever you read this you are going to be talked at by me about the importance of photography and being a naturalist.

Digital photography is quickly becoming a very mainstream pastime. No longer do you need to faff about with darkrooms and expensive films; a simple household computer is all you need. The advantage of the technological revolution is that equipment drops rapidly in price over time (just look at widescreen televisions; you can pick up a 32” LCD TV for £500, a couple of years ago they were over double that!) whilst the quality of the goods increases (you can look at digital cameras this time). So, we are getting double benefits: prices for goods are dropping as the goods get better and better. It’s a great situation to be in, and with the current recession reducing demand for luxury goods (cars, for instance, have seen an unprecedented 35% drop in demand this year compared like for like to last year), if you can afford to buy a good digital camera, now is the time to do it!

In this series of blogs (yes I know, I should be following a trail of dead sheep, but the famer has moved them indoors for a while, so the cat has buggered of elsewhere), I will be looking at what to look for in a digital camera, if you are a naturalist. I could talk at great length about D-SLRs (digital single lens reflexes), but for the moment I am going to discuss more affordable options: entry level cameras.

In the above photo, the black dots are starlings.

A basic camera will set you back about £100 (roughly) and will probably have a 3x optical zoom, still and video modes, about 8.0 megapixels, a macro mode and a fairly large screen. A 3x zoom is not exactly superb, but all the other features are essential for a naturalist. Still and video modes gives you flexibility when shooting without needing two separate cameras, 8.0 megapixels allows you to produce a fairly large image which can be printed out at a later date up to about an A4 size, the large screen allows you to clearly focus on your subject, whilst the macro mode allows you to take clear photos of small flowers/invertebrates. These cameras are usually pocket sized, and are very easy to carry around in a pocket or handbag, and are aimed squarely at beginners, or people who don’t want to fuss around with photography.

Most of the settings are automatic, and there is usually a small manual override on some settings, but usually very little. A large memory card is essential to make sure that you have enough space for images, no matter what happens. So, if you do see that elusive big cat you have been chasing for ages, you want to be able to keep taking photographs for the full duration that you can see the animal and not have to worry that you are going to run out of space on the memory card, which will prevent you from taking any more photos. You don’t need expensive aftermarket image enhancer programs either. Windows XP/Vista (and I assume its equivalents) comes with a “fix” tab in the image viewing screen. It is not fancy, but if you are shooting at night you can enhance the brightness to pick out any figures in the gloom. You can crop the image in the same way.

Cropping cuts out a piece of the image to allow you to take out areas outside of the subject to enhance the look of the image. You can also use it to show a particular far away object in a better zoom, letting you, as I said earlier, determine between a bustard and a goose.

If your budget will stretch to it, a camera with a better optical zoom is a good investment for obvious reasons (to look at Jon’s article the other day, a bigger zoom allows you to see if it was a bustard or a goose when you look at the photo afterwards). Some manufacturers will con you by telling you the digital zoom. This is something quite different to optical zoom (where lenses move inside the camera to zoom), where the camera zooms in digitally on the image. It gives the impression of a bigger zoom, but when you look at the photo on the computer, it will probably be very grainy. You could get exactly the same results by cropping the image from your computer.

Beware however, as you move up from the beginner’s pocket sized cameras, the need to incorporate more space for lenses to move necessitates the need for a larger lens, so the size of the camera tends to increase from this point onwards. But, these more expensive cameras come with customisable features, allowing you to fiddle manually with things like ISO, exposure settings and white balance to produce more tailored images. Image stabilisation (helpful for shooting fast moving objects, or when you are moving) is also a very handy thing to have.

But why am I taking the time to talk to you about photography in a zoological blog? It is because I have a dream.

A dream of a day when everyone, interested in zoology or not, takes a camera with them everywhere they go. How many more photos of cryptids would there be if everyone took a camera around with them? The quality of cameras is rising rapidly, and their use to naturalists is increasing. I find myself wanting to kick people after I talk to big cat witnesses when I realise that although the big cat is a regular in their area/field they never thought to bring a camera with them. A not insubstantial amount of big cat sightings are made face to face with the cat as both sides stare at each other in surprise. Meetings like this can go on for minutes on end, think of how many photos you could take in this time! Even if the first photo wasn’t brilliant, you would still have lots of time to tweak the settings for a better next shot. Why on earth don’t people do this! One of the best ways to prove something’s existence is to photograph it; for the price of one piece of hardware. A small price to pay methinks.

Plus of course, cameras are kinda nice for photographing the kids growing up, family events or holidays. Talk about killing two birds with one stone...


  1. Hi Max,
    I agree, and now with the wunders of modern technology we have phone cameras, whoa ther ei know they are not excellent but improving, without them there would be as many UFO photos as we are now seeing, the main thing with any camera is to remember in the exitement (1) you Have it and (2) Use the bloddy thing.
    My Son-inlaw and I both had a fantastic UFO sighting, had 2 no less phone cameras in the car and totally forgot about them.
    When I did a TV sho here 20/20 on UFO that question came up and I felt a real Dum ass, i mean heres a guys whos an investigator - forgetting to point and shoot. LoL.

    Anyway regards
    Tony Lucas
    NZ Cryptozoologist and dumb ass with a cell phone camera he forgets to use.

  2. Very cool site.. I will keep reading it. I'm not sure if you remember the Montauk Monster (from last summer) but I have a site dedicated to it.