Time to be with your loved ones

Time to be with loved ones

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Apologies for the long post..Just want to give as much info as possible.

I am looking for a suitable camera & lens. Open to suggestions!

Initial plan was to buy a Canon 600d. This is a hobby for now.. My plan was to buy the 18-135 kit lens but I don't know if it's right. I played around with a friend's one and I didn't like the slow auto-focus and zoom limit.... I have never owned a dslr so I really don't know most of the workings.

My main interest is taking pictures of :

  • MOSTLY birds, and wildlife (dolphins, etc). edit:usually the birds are pretty far away, e.g: eagles in the air. I want details like the claws when i zoom in on the pic in the computer. I am okay with cropping, just don't want to lose the details.
  • MOSTLY scenery and landscape.. fitting in as much of the scenery as I can(i'm very fond of the panorama feature in my point and shoot)
  • low light, dusk, dawn.. bats and the moon, etc.
  • and the occasional inanimate objects/pets/flowers/bokeh shots
  • I'm in college so I might (rarely) use it for taking pics of me and my friends too.

Pictures should be sharp, most importantly zoom! and sharpness for birds in flight. I don't like fringing too.

I travel a lot so I want it to be lightweight, not huge and bulky (as "small" as possible really, but fitting to my needs) & easy to carry around... I don't want to gain unnecessary attention! Especially on the road.

Is there any lens that fits my needs? Or are there two separate ones that I can buy?

I have not bought the canon 600d yet, so if there's a better suggestion out there, please share :) Camera budget is $2000

Lens budget $1500, $2000 if its necessary.

I won't be able to "upgrade" until I get a job which is 5 years from now...so I really do want the best I can get. :D

Thank you very much in advance. :)

Kaya.

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For bird and wildlife photography you need long lenses. I'm not a dedicated wildlife photographer myself but often I find my 80-200mm zoom too short (you can, of course, try to get closer but the animal will usually run away or try to eat you). –  Rene Sep 11 '12 at 11:49
    
With this budget and these priorities, if you are a priori restricting yourself to Canon, the answer is simply "whatever Canon sells, and there you go". –  mattdm Sep 11 '12 at 12:50
    
On the lens question, see What are the tradeoffs when replacing two zoom lenses with a superzoom? –  mattdm Sep 11 '12 at 14:04
    
@mattdm - thanks for that, i shouldn't limit myself.. i think i was concentrating on the initial canon600d plan and didnt want to let go.. so its edited now..and thanks for the link, i'm reading it now. -kaya –  kaya92 Sep 11 '12 at 16:03
    
What currency is the budget in? e.g. I got a 550D and the kit 18-55 and 55-250 for a little less than $1500 (Australian Dollars). $3500 would be an extremely large amount for an entry level DSLR. –  damned truths Sep 12 '12 at 8:51
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10 Answers

It is great that you know what you want to shoot and have a respectable budget. The issue with what you are asking is that you will not be able to satisfy all those requirements at any price.

The most critical is that bird photography takes long lenses which are they also need to be bright when you want to shoot wildlife in low-light. Honestly, it's hard to imagine anything harder than shooting bats at night: Low light, small sizes and fast movements together.

The most popular lens for amateur bird photography is the Sigma 50-500mm F/4.5-6.3 which weighs almost 2kg (4lbs) and its not very bright. Add a camera to that and no one would consider this lightweight. Still, if you complement this with a shorter zoom or a few prime lenses, you can leave the big lens at home when not shooting distant subjects and still have a light setup for other occasions. Sorry to say but the 200mm reach which others have recommended rarely cuts it for bird photography except in the Galapagos.

To get something significantly lighter with good reach, you have to reduce the size of the sensor which lets you use smaller lenses. Something like a Micro Four-Thirds cameras is very advantageous for this. The Olympus E-P3 for example is very capable and super-light, if you add to it a M.Zuiko 75-300mm lens, you will have super-telephoto reach that is very light. You will need to add a wide-zoom like a Lumix 12-35mm F/2.8 which has a bright aperture for low-light shooting. All this would weigh just over 1kg (2.2lbs).

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thank you so much for the help! i will look into the sigma. thanks for the tips too, I'm still learning about f stops and everything. –  kaya92 Sep 11 '12 at 17:01
    
btw when you say "sigma... not very bright" what do you mean?:) –  kaya92 Sep 11 '12 at 17:42
    
That means it does not let much light in. This is the case for all long zoom lenses. To get something brighter which allows you to capture sharper images of animals in movement, you need a bright lens. Bright and long lenses required for professional bird photography are certainly heavy and most very expensive, in the several to tens of thousands of US dollars. –  Itai Sep 11 '12 at 18:25
    
oh... thanks for the clarification:), i had it the other way round. that would be a problem..i usually go into dense forests to take pictures of birds, so its very low light :\ guess its unavoidable with my budget..tho im not a pro its still sad when a pic comes out bad..maybe ill get used to flash tho i dont like it. thanks :) –  kaya92 Sep 12 '12 at 3:51
    
No flash. The range is too limited, plus you only get one shot before the birds fly away scared. You will have to wait for when the birds are still, sitting on a branch or nest for example. –  Itai Sep 13 '12 at 0:27
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There is no one lens that can do everything you want because wildlife and landscape require almost the exact opposite lens properties.

I have the 18-135 and I love it as a travel lens - but it's not a good wildlife lens.

For wildlife you want a long focal length and fast accurate auto-focus, long lenses tend to be big and heavy so they aren't very easy-to-carry - you can try one of the 70-200, they are considered very good lenses and the 70-200 f/4 non-IS is relatively inexpensive but I'm really not sure 200mm is enough for birds and dolphins.

For scenery you want a very short focal length (and a tripod), while wider can be better you can get by with the 18mm end of a kit lens (I would love to have the Canon 10-22 or Sigma 8-16 but until I have the budget I use the 18-135).

For your low light subjects:

  • Dusk/dawn - you just need a tripod, dusk/dawn picture aren't that hard to take.
  • Objects in dusk/dawn - for this you need a flash or some other light source (the $40 YN-460 will do)
  • Bats - I can't tell you about that because I've tries to photograph bats and failed miserably, don't know how to photograph them
  • The moon - the moon is actually very well lit (the light side of the moon is in direct sunlight) and easy to photograph, but it is very far and you need a very long focal length to fill the frame with the moon

For the occasional inanimate objects/pets/flowers/bokeh shots a kit lens will do just fine - or you can use your wildlife telephoto lens.

For you and your friends you can also use a kit lens.

I suggest you get a good telephoto for wildlife (the longer the better, a USM is better because focus is faster and obviously L class is better - the 70-200 F/4L USM is probably the minimum) + a kit 18-135 or 18-55 for everything else (the 18-55 is small and you can get a second hand one for next to nothing)

About the camera - for an hobby I think the 600D will do just find (I have the 550D), the 7D is better but not absolutely required.

Also, leave some money for a tripod (required for scenery) and an external flash (it makes a very big difference for people and object - but you need to learn how to use your flash to get good results, a cheap Yongnuo flash works just fine)

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thank you so much for the clear suggestions! i guess i will try get used to lugging around a lens for birds and another for landscape. Sorry I meant bats and the moon in one shot, but bats alone at dusk too. I will look more into that. Thank you. –  kaya92 Sep 11 '12 at 17:06
    
one more thing, i'm just a little confused now about the mm of the lenses.. cuz I don't own any yet so i'm still just reading up on them.. for zooming in on distant objects i need a higher mm range for the lens, like 200mm, and to shoot a wider landscape pic a smaller mm lens in enough..? –  kaya92 Sep 11 '12 at 17:59
    
Correct about the millimeters :) Remember these are usually the case but there are always exceptions due to circumstances and your artistic vision. –  Itai Sep 11 '12 at 18:28
    
@kaya92 - for the 600D a normal lens is about 30mm (28, if I remember correctly), this will give you the same perspective you are used to seeing with your eyes (good for indoor use and group shots of small groups), longer lenses (higher mm value) will zoom in and compress perspective (this compression makes them good for portraits), wider lenses (lower mm value) will zoom out and exaggerate perspective - this will let you include more in your shot but the perspective makes it very difficult to get people to look good. –  Nir Sep 12 '12 at 7:17
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That's a complicated want list with things that are fundamentally in conflict. Here are what I think are the key thigns you're asking for:

Canon Body landscapes and people (wide angle zoom) flowers and occasional macro-style shots birds and critters (big, powerful telephoto) Body $2000, lens $2000 (max, $1500 preferred). So, $3500 total. Lightweight.

First suggestion -- buy a less expensive body. They're very capable, they weigh less (my T2i is much lighter than my 7d) and it'll do you well until you grow into and can afford a more expensive/capable camera. The thing to remember on camera gear is that you'll upgrade/replace camera bodies a lot more often than you'll replace lenses, if you buy quality lenses, so under-spend on the body, and put your budget into better quality lenses. it's a better long-term investment.

Also, you're right to not be impressed with the kit lens. But it is decent and can get you started. Or consider going to a third party lens like Tamron or Sigma. options:

T4i + Canon 18-135 $1100 (Amazon).

T3i + Canon 18-135 $850 (Amazon).

T4i + Tamron 18-200 ($800+$300 = $1100) (Amazon)

T4i + Sigma 18-250 ($800 + $425 = $1225) (Amazon).

For the price of the kit lens, you can get a similar (but better) lens from a third party. It'll give you a bit more reach and be sharper. I've tested the Sigma, and like most superzooms, it softens up at the telephoto end, but it'll still be a very usable lens that'll handle your needs for landscape and street/carry around type work. Sigma lenses are, in general, better built than Tamron lenses, but Tamron is a good lens set as well, but won't hold up to banging around as much. I've owned both types of lenses (still have my Sigma macro) and they're fine for what they are, especially starting out, but you will likely outgrow them as you advance as a photographer.

I put the t3i in there. As a one-generation-older body, it can be a real budget saver, but the advances in the t4i are enough that I suggest you buy the new body. But it is an option. the t3i would work fine with either of the lenses I suggest.

Then, bird photography and critters. For this you need some serious magnification. My go-to lens is the Canon 300 F4 plus a 1.4 teleconverter. I used to use the 100-400, but I ended up switching. For this, zoom is somewhat underrated, in practice, I used the 100-400 at 400mm about 95% of the time. If you use the sigma superzoom (18-200), a 300mm and a 1.4x, you get good coverage throughout the range to 420mmF5.6. That's why I prefer that lens combo compared to the 400mmF5.6.

Canon 300F4+1.4 ($1300 + $450 = $1750)

Canon 400F5.6 ($1300 -- no IS)

canon 100-400 ($1500)

Sigma 150-500 ($1000)

The Sigma: lots of people use it as a budget lens. Lots of people have said it gets very soft at 500mm. Some photographers consider it unusuable at 500mm. Others like it. I'd suggest borrowing/renting a copy and testing it first. I think there are better options for not much more money.

Canon 100-400. This was my primary lens for years. I recently my thoughts on it here: http://bit.ly/PZy7kA -- I think it's a good lens but older technology, and it's a lens I think can only handle a moderate amount of banging around. It's one lens I'd be very hesitant to buy used, and older units I think seem to vary in absolute sharpness more than newer units.

300+1.4 vs 400. 400 is a bit sharper. 300+1.4 is a bit more flexible, has IS, and I found it's AF was faster, even with the tele attached. A bit more money, but worth it. And I lean towards IS whenever practical because it can be a an image saver in the field in failing light while handholding. The 400mm is a stop faster, but you'll get fewer acceptable images handholding.

What you won't get with any of these is "lightweight". They're all big, heavy pieces of glass. all weigh roughly the same. all are fairly bulky. but if you want to shoot birds and critters, you need something like this. Nothing cheaper/lighter/smaller will make you happy for long or give you many pictures you like ("see that tiny blob in the distance? that's a grizzly bear!") This is where you start investing for the long term.

My suggested kit:

T4i ($800)

Sigma 18-250 ($425)

Canon 300 F4 ($1300)

Canon 1.4x ($425)

That's about $3000, or $500 under your lower max. Enough for batteries, memory cards and etc. This is a kit that can be handheld, but you'll want a tripod for landscapes. Lots of topics here on that.

If you prefer, go with the 100-400. I can't argue with buying that one, if you buy it new. If you do, then you can change your wide angle to Sigma 17-70 ($450), which is a higher quality lens.

T4i ($800)

Sigma 17-70 ($450)

Canon 100-400 ($1600)

That's $2850 or so. (all prices today @ amazon)

Either kit's a great kit, especially getting started. And you're investing in the high quality telephoto that you'll keep around for a long time, and the rest you won't feel terrible about upgrading from when it's time because you kept the costs reasonable. None of it you'll outgrow quickly, but be aware, with birds, you'll be lusting for 500mm and beyond fairly quickly. And that's not cheap.

Don't forget to consider the used market. And don't forget you can sell back gear when you want to upgrade. The tamron/sigma lenses typically have much weaker resale prices in used than Canon labeled, but it's there. I'm now buying more of my lens upgrades used. One nice option here is when the rental houses (borrowlenses or lensrentals.com) sell off inventory, and I also monitor keh.com and adorama and b&h's used inventory. You can save some money there. If you go the ebay/craigslist route, be careful about fraud or inflated quality ratings. I'm willing to pay a place like keh because their ratings are trustworthy.

Good luck, and have fun!

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wow, thank you so much for all the info and clear suggestions! very helpful, prices and all. i've got a clearer idea of what i want. i never thought about the "cheap body" idea.. made me go "ahaa", thanks! thanks for the tips on saving.. i really need that. thank u –  kaya92 Sep 11 '12 at 18:04
    
so how about t3i + the 18-135 kit lens, and the canon 100-400? will that cover it? is it okay in low light? sigma 150-500 seems okay except for the softening people are mentioning.somehow i dont like the touch screen in t4i. thanks. –  kaya92 Sep 12 '12 at 8:15
    
That's very close to what I started with and shot for the first 3-4 years of my bird photography. It'll work fine. (my first body was a Rebel XT). –  chuqui Sep 12 '12 at 15:13
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I'll take a stab at giving you some hints. Remember that nearly all photography stores will let you try out gear. This is key when selecting bodies and lenses. If you've researched and found 2-3 lenses you might be interested in coupled with a body or two, go to the store and check the combinations out. Maybe you will find that what seemed ok on the paper is in fact much too big, or that the big one might actually be ok because of it's fabulous zoom action.

A few things to remember when selecting lenses.

  • Zoom The zoom of a lens is not only dependent on the lens itself but also the size of the sensor in the camera. This is often referred to as Crop Factor or Field of View Crop Factor (FOVCF). The Digital Picture has a list of some Canon cameras. The crop factor will increase the range of a lens by said factor if the lens was designed for full frame cameras. When it comes to Canon they name the lenses with EF or EF-S, the EF lenses and this correspond to the sensor sizes of their cameras, EF being full frame and EF-S being a crop sensor (smaller than full frame).

Basically an EOS 600D with crop factor 1.6 will turn a Canon EF 70-300/4-5.6 IS USM lens in to 112-480mm lens where as a full frame camera like the EOS 5D MkII will not modify the length at all because it has crop factor of 1.0.

Note an EF-S lens will only work with EF-S cameras, an EF lens will work on either EF-S or EF cameras. This is important for future upgrades!

  • Speed The lens needs to be fast to capture birds or when available light is low, this is indicated by f-stops, to be fast (low f-number) it needs to allow a lot of light in to the camera. This is why they tend to be very large. f2.8 lenses are fast, such as the EF70-200/2,8L IS USM II but it weighs nearly 1.5kg and it will get you attention. Sacrificing speed you can get away with a smaller and cheaper design, f4 or higher tend to be a lot smaller, lighter and cheaper. The aforementioned EF 70-300/4-5.6 IS USM fall in to this category with its variable f4.5-5.6 and 630g weight.

  • Image Quality The image quality of lens is of course very closely tied in with the quality of the lens itself and the materials used in its construction. Canon will put an L in the name of any professional lens as well as put a red stripe around it near the front. You are best served by finding a few lenses that suited to your size requirements and wallet then going online and reading any of the very many reviews with example pictures online. There is an L version of the EF 70-300, called EF 70-300/4-5.6L IS USM but weighs in at close to double and has a 300% price premium would it be worth it for you at this stage of your photography career?

  • Vignetting You mention you don't want it, I would suggest you use post processing to remove it rather than letting it rule your decision too much.

A few notes on camera bodies.

  • Camera body The camera body selection in my opinion might very much be up to what you feel is necessary for you. If you can't afford the super telezoom then maybe a crop sensor camera is better than full frame, because this will add some zoom to any EF lens you buy as explained above. If we exclude full frame sensors you are left with what you probably were considering before. Then it becomes more subjective, do you need the pixels and so on. I might go instead with the 7D. Also remember that when selecting a house there are often kits, that might impact your budget heavily. A 7D kit with 18-135mm, plus the 70-300/4-5.6 will set you back a lot less than going for the 7D and two separate lenses. But don't forget that buying two separate EF lenses will let you use both in a future upgrade to non EF-S camera.

My final thing to mention would be the EF 100-400/4.5-5.6, it is a big beast though! But one that will cover a large part of what you might be interested, together a wider angle kit lens it might make a nice package. I have never tested this lens but I hear it's got some vignetting going on.

It would be great if someone with more intimate Nikon, Sony etc knowledge could edit this post with some examples and links.

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You are right that vignetting is correctable in post processing and from all the things you can correct in post, vignetting is actually the easiest one and the least detrimental to image quality. That being said, I despise vignetting and avoid buying anything that I can see vignette (about 0.3+ EVs). –  Itai Sep 11 '12 at 13:02
    
thanks so much for your help! and tips on f stops.. i'm still learning it all..i will definitely try them out in the store. Sorry when i said fringing i meant the "Chromatic Aberration" thing. When I take a pic of a bird on a tree and the sky behind is bright white(cloudy), the bird + branches have a purplish outline. I hope that's what u took as vignetting.. thanks again. :) –  kaya92 Sep 11 '12 at 17:00
    
@user11546 it was indeed. I didn't think that far. CA is indeed annoying, however also fixable in post processing with great results, however often more damaging than vignetting. –  Alendri Sep 11 '12 at 18:26
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I'm surprised that no options that can take a teleconverter have been mentioned. There are many extensive answers here, however I think one lens in particular might fulfill most of your needs (landscapes excepted, as you will probably want something fairly wide angle for your general landscape photography). The Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8 L IS (Mark I, not Mark II) along with a 1.4x and 2x TC can give you a lot of focal length flexibility in a fairly small package.

In and of itself, the original Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8 L IS lens is a great lens. It is not as optically superior as the more recent Mark II, however it is still one of Canon's best lenses, and it was one of their most popular general-purpose normal to telephoto lenses for nearly a decade. Its focal length starts from the "normal" (or possibly better termed short telephoto) length at 70mm, which is good for portriature, to a medium telephoto length of 200mm, which can also be good for outdoor portraiture...as well as psuedo-macro work (flora with lots of creamy boke), and short-distance wildlife.

The real versatility of the 70-200/2.8 though is its ability to be used with teleconverters. Add on a 1.4x TC, and your lens becomes a 98-280mm zoom. This extends your reach, supporting wildlife and close up birds, with an f/4 aperture. If you use the Canon EF 1.4x TC Mark III, the IQ hit is minimal (right out to the corners, where the mark III version of that TC really improved over its predecessor.) A 300mm focal length is good for medium distance and closer wildlife, particularly for larger subjects like deer, elk, etc.

The 70-200/2.8, with its wide aperture, can also be used with a 2x TC. Tacking on the Canon EF 2x TC Mark III will increase your zoom range to 140-400mm. This brings it in line with the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS lens, which is currently Canon's most popular midrange wildlife and entry-level birding lens. You'll be down to an f/5.6 aperture, and your corner performance will probably suffer a bit with the 2x TC (although with a Canon 600D, not as badly as it would with a FF camera). The IQ of the original 70-200/2.8 L IS + 2x TC III will probably be slightly lower than the 100-400mm lens, however the overall package with the 70-200 should be much more versatile.

You can currently pick up the original EF 70-200 f/2.8 L IS lens used for anywhere from aroud $1100 to about $2000, depending on condition and the generosity (or lack thereof) of the seller. The two Canon teleconverters run about $400-$500 each, slightly less if you can find a good sale or rebate. If you pick up the 70-200 around $1200, you could pick both TC's up for just over your maximum budget, or pick up the lens and one of the TC's within your budget.


As an alternative, you could also just pick up the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS lens itself and cover almost all of your needs except standard wide-field landscape photography. I own this lens myself, and I use it for birds, wildlife, flora psuedo-macro, even some telephoto landscape...either of distant mountains or to reduce my field and capture part of a landscape in more detail. It is a versatile lens that offers good quality. Its main drawback is its aperture...which is rather limited. In this respect, outside of the 2x TC option, the 70-200 is a better option. Particularly for portraiture, the better quality and wider aperture of the 70-200 will be a huge boon, and the shorter focal length will improve usability in tighter indoor situations.

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thanks for the help! i am leaning towards getting the canon100-400 and the 18-135. i think ill get a TC later once i get the hang of everything, and if i'm looking for more. thanks! –  kaya92 Sep 12 '12 at 8:18
    
Those are not bad options, however you might be afraid of nothing if your thinking you can't use a TC without more experience. They attach to the lens and body the same way any other lens attaches, and once attached, there really isn't anything more to know...just photograph normally. You could get a better lens combination with better IQ with say the 70-200, 1.4x/2x TC, and either the 24-70 or 17-40mm lens. –  jrista Sep 12 '12 at 17:08
    
Question, why would you get both teleconverters? If you're going out to look for birds, wouldn't you just maximize your range, instead of juggling? –  khedron Sep 13 '12 at 4:05
    
You specified a very broad list of needs, more than simply photographing birds. As a bird photographer myself, I can also directly speak to the usefulness of having both...BIF (birds in flight) greatly benefit from having a little less focal length, giving you more room in-frame to track. You also mentioned moon photography...stack both TC's together, and the 70-200 becomes a 560mm lens...which is rather nice for photographing the moon. The other benefit is space...a single telephoto zoom lens and a couple TC's is compact...you could easily carry it all without a bag. –  jrista Sep 13 '12 at 5:13
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Others have written about needing a long lens for wildlife photography. That's true, but "a long lens" doesn't qualify just how long it needs to be.

I have bird feeders set up outside of my home which brings the birds 15-20 feet away from me. Occasionally, one will sit as close as 10 feet away wonderfully close! With a 70-200mm + 2x lens on a crop body I effectively shoot at 600mm. 600mm is pretty much never enough reach to get a frame-filling shot of a small bird like a goldfinch, titmouse, or chickadee.

I think a 70-200/300 is an excellent lens to consider to help round out your camera kit, but don't have any delusions about being able to get a tight shot of that bird on the other side of the field.

Don't care about filling the frame? Here's a little more math when shooting a bird at the feeder from 12 feet away:

  • For reference: a 70-200mm + 2x teleconverter on a t4i effectively gives you 640mm of reach. For arguments sake, lets say this fills the frame giving you 18 MP of detail.
  • At 300mm (from a 70-300mm lens, for example) on a t4i, you effectively have 480mm. Cropping to fill the frame leaves you with 13.5 MP of data.
  • At 200mm (from a 70-200 or 18-200, for example) on a t4i, you effectively have 320mm. Cropping to fill the frame leaves you with 9 MP of data.

9 MP is certainly enough to make a great photo still. But lets extend the distance a bit. Getting within 30 feet of a bird is often as close as you can get:

  • With that 640mm of reach I'd need to crop the t4i's 18 MP to 7.2 MP to get the same frame-filling shot.
  • At 300mm (from a 70-300mm lens, for example) on a t4i, you effectively have 480mm. Cropping to fill the frame leaves you with 5.4 MP of data.
  • At 200mm (from a 70-200 or 18-200, for example) on a t4i, you effectively have 320mm. Cropping to fill the frame leaves you with 3.6 MP of data.

The OP mentions an eagle in the sky. For arguments sake, lets say it's only 1000 feet away. An eagle is much larger than the little birds at the feeder, but it doesn't make that much of a difference:

  • With that 640mm of reach I'd need to crop the t4i's 18 MP to about 2.5 MP to get a frame-filling shot.
  • At 300mm (from a 70-300mm lens, for example) on a t4i, you effectively have 480mm. Cropping to fill the frame leaves you with 1.95 MP of data.
  • At 200mm (from a 70-200 or 18-200, for example) on a t4i, you effectively have 320mm. Cropping to fill the frame leaves you with 1.25 MP of data.

With 1.25 MP of data, there won't be a whole lot of detail. The OP specifically mentions wanting to see the claws of the bird, but in this cropped photo the talons are going to literally be just a blur of a few pixels.

Cropping a lot is going to make it obvious that exposure is probably off and cropping that much is really going to show off limitations of the lens -- you'll likely see some purple fringing and sort of a messy result. In other words a longer lens is better.

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thanks so much for the help! i just want the bird to be sharp and in focus. it doesn't necessarily have to fill the whole frame. i hate when i take a pic of a bird and zoom in on the computer, and its a piece of blurry crap.. but i do tend to take birds that are far off.. like eagles in the sky etc. –  kaya92 Sep 11 '12 at 17:33
    
I'm not sure "frame filling" is necessary -- that's what cropping on these 15mp+ cameras is for. I've got a Canon T1i with the 55-250mm lens, and have taken many pictures I'm happy with. Do I want the 100-400mm? Sure! But that camera/lens combination cost less than $1000. –  khedron Sep 11 '12 at 21:10
    
I've updated my answer with some more examples of how difficult it is to get a tight shot... highlighting how more reach and higher MP is necessary to get anything, not just a nicety. –  Dan Wolfgang Sep 12 '12 at 0:41
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speaking of eagles, here's one I shot over the weekend with my setup (7d+300F4+1.4x). There's some cropping, and I think the worry about cropping is somewhat overrated these days. photos.chuqui.com/… -- also, don't forget if you have to crop heavily, you have an option of using a tool like "perfect resize" to upscale the image so it can be printed larger. Lots of options beyond "more glass" these days. –  chuqui Sep 12 '12 at 1:30
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Well, it's up to the poster to consider the tradeoffs between more range & less weight. For better or worse, there are options that cover the entire spectrum. –  khedron Sep 13 '12 at 4:09
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Considering that it seems low light photography is important for you, I suggest you to get a full frame.

Canon 5D Mark II is a bit old, but it's a really great camera and you'll be amazed by its performance in low light conditions. you can get it just under $2K.

As for the lenses, it seems almost everyone here is ignoring that you want a "easy-to-carry-around" set!

I think somewhere between 15mm to 300mm would be enough for you.

Here are my lens suggestions for your start:

Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM and Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM

This combination almost perfectly fits to your $4K budget :)

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thanks so much for the help! will the 70-300mm be good for far away subjects? the 5d mark II feels like a really "professional" camera to me, i don't know if i can handle it. but i'll try get my hands on it and get a feel. thanks for the suggestions! –  kaya92 Sep 12 '12 at 8:27
    
I had to post a new comment because it was so long :) –  Omne Sep 12 '12 at 15:16
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I think you might as well get a Canon 7D. The 600d is not so good in low light, and considering you want to do bird photography, the fast burst speed of the 7D will help you. This is not so good in landscape though because it uses an APS-C Sensor. But for the meanwhile, you can use it and maybe pair it with a Canon EF 24-105 F4L, Canon EF 24-70 F2.8L (for standard zoom) and a Canon EF 70-200 F2.8L or F4L (for telephoto)

Without the grip, the 7D will be lightweight. So considering your constraints, you may get a 7D with a 24-105 F4L or 70-200 F4L.

But if you are looking for a general purpose lens to fit all your needs, it is almost impossible. You may get a EF 28-300L but it costs a fortune and still not wide enough if you want to fit so much in your landscapes.

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thanks very much for the help! and for the camera suggestion. i'll look more into the 7D. –  kaya92 Sep 11 '12 at 17:09
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All the preceding are good answers so what I'm going to say is in addition the the foregoing.

Weight

If you have a heavy lens, it's probably you long lens, and you really should be shooting on a tripod or monopod anyhow. Getting sharp images at 400mm will be a challenge hand-held unless you are in scorching bright sun and you mentioned low light. So, I think you might want to factor our weight as a concern and just get a nice tripod or monopod.

Autofocus

If you are shooting wildlife, you need an autofocus that will track accurately as the subject moves. Not all do that, so @JudeJitsu's recommendation of the 7D is a good one. There are far more AF points, making it much more responsive and able to track a moving subject.

Primes

Many, if not most, sports photographers use prime lenses. Some professional wildlife photographers use primes as well. They can be fast without adding the weight of the extra optics required by a zoom. You'll see them at professional sports events: 400mm or 600mm prime lenses for distance 200mm for medium and 85mm for closer up. They all use monopods or tripods. Something to consider. Look, a 600mm lens costs a bundle so I'm not recommending you buy one; I'm just saying prime lenses do work well and you should consider working within the limitations of one focal length if weight and clarity of optics are concerns.

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disagree on needing a tripod unless you have scorching sun. This is one place where IS makes a huge difference, so if you're going to shoot very early or late, an IS lens is very handy. this image: photos.chuqui.com/201110301812064_chuq.jpg was shot after6PM in October. ISO 3200 on a 7D, 1/125 @ F5.6, handheld, with a 420mm lens. So you can do good and sharp in bad light handheld iwth practice and technique. –  chuqui Sep 12 '12 at 4:24
    
thanks for the help! yeah i have realised that the weight issue is something i'll have to get used too.. but if it gets me the pics i want, im fine with it..nothing worse than missing a photo opp cuz the camera's not up for it. i think ill test out the 7d and 600d to compare. thanks! –  kaya92 Sep 12 '12 at 8:22
    
looking back on this comment, I don't want to make it sound like I don't think a monopod or tripod is helpful. Both are in the right situations, and can increase sharpness on many shots. But I don't think they are required any more for a lot of situations. –  chuqui Sep 12 '12 at 15:25
    
Ok, you may have steady hands -- steadier than mine, anyhow. But IS is only good for at most 2 stops with reliable results. That is 2 stops when you are not straining to hold more camera weight than you are comfortable with. I am a total fan of IS and use it instead of my tripod more than I should. But my shots on a tripod or monopod are more reliable and with a longer lens they are much more reliable. Just passing on my personal experience. –  Steve Ross Sep 12 '12 at 23:47
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@kaya92

Well, 70-300 obviously can't get you as close as 400 or 500mm lens, but you mentioned that you need a lightweight set, for example the Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS cost almost eight times more than 70-300, about $10K and it weights about 3.8Kg, I don't know how long is long enough for you and your situations but I know I don't want to carry that lens around, even if I had the budget for it!

Take a look at these links

http://regex.info/exif.cgi?imgurl=http%3A%2F%2Fupload.wikimedia.org%2Fwikipedia%2Fcommons%2F6%2F6e%2FCalidris_ruficollis_-_Marion_Bay.jpg

http://regex.info/exif.cgi?imgurl=http%3A%2F%2Fupload.wikimedia.org%2Fwikipedia%2Fcommons%2Fc%2Fca%2FNeophema_chrysogaster_female_2_-_Melaleuca.jpg

In the first link photographer is using a 1.4X converter, both using the mentioned lens on a 7D body, which many photographers believe is a great camera for wildlife. you can't go wrong with either 5D mk2 or 7D, both are great, but a full frame would be much better for landscapes and low light...

I also suggest you to take a look at this lens simulator to understand how is a 300mm lens compared to 500 or 400... http://imaging.nikon.com/lineup/lens/simulator/

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Those pictures are beautiful... and heartbreaking. I will never be able to take pictures like that. But that's a crazy lens - look at the picture on this! the-digital-picture.com/Reviews/… –  khedron Sep 12 '12 at 16:49
    
I know, it's huge :) that's why you should ask yourself that do you need such lens? is it only for fun or do you want to make money with it? how far your subject might be? is it going to move fast? can you carry a tripod or will you have stable place for your camera? honestly, you have a decent budget and choosing one useful set shouldn't be hard for you, just look at your needs. you can even buy the lens from Amazon, try it and return it if you didn't like it ;) I hope one day I see your photos among these: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Featured_pictures/Animals/Birds –  Omne Sep 12 '12 at 17:09
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