Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Canon SX 50 HS for Bird Photography

Warning! Reading this blog post could cost you money. I just got the new Canon SX 50 HS point and shoot super-zoom camera and I love it. It's in my right hand, my Canon 1D Mark IV with the 300mm lens and 1.4 teleconverter is in my left hand. The SX 50 HS has a 12.1 megapixel back-illuminated CMOS sensor, DIGIC 5 image processor, image stabilization, ISO 80-6400. The focal length when optical and digital zoom are combined is as follows (35 mm equivalent) 24-4800 mm (24-1200mm with optical zoom alone.) It can shoot RAW. Here are some of the reasons why I love the SX 50 HS.

It shoots birds in flight fairly easily in Sports Mode, as I found out when I tried it out on Brown Pelicans and got this photo.

I tired it today on fast moving warblers, always a challenge, and got this Palm Warbler photo.

Recently I took the Canon SX 50 for a test spin to Harn's Marsh in FL. See the ducks in the pond near the far shore?

Here are the ducks zoomed in a little closer, they look like black spots.

Now here are the Ring-necked Ducks photographed with the lens zoomed all the way in, past the optical zoom range, into digital zoom of 200x. Camera was set on Smart Auto photo is untouched.

There were a number of other birds that were just too far away for my other DSLR cameras, such as this Limpkin in the far cattails.

The Limpkin was preening then stretched. 

This Black-crowned Night-Heron was way out of the reach of my usual cameras. There is something immensely fun and powerful in being able to zoom in on very distant birds and get a photo.

The camera has great abililty just set on Smart Auto and people should have little problem photographing close, or relative close, birds in decent light. The harder part is hand holding the camera still when you are zoomed all the way, or a good part of the way, in on a bird. Many people may not want to or be able to do this, but that is where the fun is for me.  Here is my tip for steadying the camera while hand holding and shooting with the lens zoomed in closer on the bird. To steady the camera look through the viewfinder with the camera braced against your head. Do not shoot while looking through the back screen. Hold the barrel of the lens with your hand all the way out on the barrel and tuck your elbows against your body, making a tripod of your body. Try to hold as still as possible. Depress the shutter half way to focus on the bird, then take the photo quickly. If you then lose the bird in the viewfinder,  zoom back out to give you just a wide enough field of view to find the bird again, zoom in, then get the bird in focus and take another photo. You can also use the uppermost button on the left had side of the camera near the base of the lens for Framing Assist-Seek. Hold this button down and the camera zooms out, allowing you find and reacquire the subject. Take multiple photos, some shots will be sharper than others.

Another place we went recently was the Bailey Tract on Sanibel. See the Wilson's Snipe on the far shore?

Here it is with the camera zoomed in to 200x.

The Mottled Duck was closer than the snipe, see the dot in front of the island? I am standing on the bank taking the photo with the camera on 24mm.

Here is the Mottled Duck taken with camera on Smart Auto and the photo only slightly sharpened in photoshop.

There were Gulf Fritillary butterflies at my feet and it was so cool to be be able to take their photo as well as the distant birds.

The view from my back deck in my FL home. See the eagle?

Oh, here it is with the camera zoomed in... 

Here it is zoomed even closer. 

Note, with many of these photos I have pushed the camera to its limit at 200x. I have steady hands so for me, it's fun to do this. For other people who are not as steady, one could use the camera on a tripod, or only photograph birds keeping within the optical range of 24-1200 mm. There is also Digital Zoom which lets you apply up to 1.5 or 2x worth of digital zoom beyond the optical zoom with a minimum drop in image quality, sort of like applying a 1.5 or 2x teleconverter. Access this feature on the regular camera menu. Scroll down to where it says Digital Zoom and your choices are to set it at Off, 1.5x, 2.0x or Standard. Standard lets you zoom all the way in 200x.
At these extreme zoom ranges, such as 200x, the photo quality is not usable for many things such as fine prints. However, for use on blogs, a facebook page, etc., and the internet, which only require photos of 72 dpi, these photos may be usable. Most of these photos I took had minimal processing just a little sharpening in photoshop. Images shot closer, at lower ISO and within the optical range would be much better. I mainly wanted to show some of the extreme things this camera is capable of.

Don't get me wrong. I am not about to give up my professional equipment. I adore my Canon 1D Mark IV (shown here) and I have gotten incredible photos with it, many used on our national field guide, The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America and our soon to be published, The New Stokes Field Guide to Birds: Eastern and Western Region. I use the Mark IVwith a Canon 300mm IS lens and 1.4 teleconverter, or my Canon 500mm IS lens with 1.4 teleconverter, Gitzo 1325 Carbon Fiber Tripod and Whimberley head. The Canon SX 50 is not in the same league with the big, professional, or near professional DSLR equipment. Then again, it costs around $430 vs. the Mark IV originally cost around $5,000 (now it is discontinued, can be bought used for less. Many are buying the new Canon EOS-1Dx at a cost of about $6,799.)

At Harn's Marsh I had my Mark IV with the 300mm lens with 1.4x and in seconds got this Northern Harrier shot. I could not have gotten this with the SX 50.

There is nothing like the thrill and adreneline rush of capturing something like this eagle landing with my 500mm lens and the high speed shooting ability of the Mark IV. You photographers with similar equipment who are reading this know what I mean.  

However, the Canon SX 50 HS is an astounding camera in many ways. It can make decent bird photographs within the reach of even a novice bird photographer just by shooting on Smart Auto, then Sports Mode for birds in flight. In the hands of more experienced photographers it can provide great fun and the ability to capture good bird photos, even when birds are impossibly far away. It will make getting record shots of birds more possible because the reach of the camera is so great. It may convert many to bird photographers/birders and give them a love for and appreciation of birds. That would be a good thing.

It is interesting to me that just about every birder, experienced bird photographer, or novice birder/photographer I have showed this camera to in the last week has said they want one. The light weight of the camera and ability to zoom in so close on a bird just blows people away.

There is so much more to say about this camera which does so many things, including video. I still have a lot to learn about it. Make sure and read the complete reviews here at,


Here are a few more thoughts and tips.

- Compared to the Canon SX 40 HS, which I also own, the Canon SX 50 is way better. It has a larger, sharper LCD, faster AF and continuous shooting speeds, and more available scenes in Smart Auto mode. Canon claims it has reduced focus times by 50% and shutter lag by 44%. It shoots 13.0 frames per second in High Speed Burst mode (which has limitations.) The weight is 1.31 lb.

- For more control over photos, many people will want to shoot in Aperture Priority.You choose the aperture and the camera picks the shutter speed. The range is F3.4-F8. I often use this mode and set ISO and exposure compensation as needed.

- Other people may want to shoot in Program Mode, where there is automatic shooting, but with access to all menu options. A Program Shift feature can be activated by halfway-pressing the shutter button and then pressing "up" on the back dial (four-way controller). After that you can use the dial. to scroll through various shutter speed/aperture combinations.

- You must read the manual, which you download to your computer as a PDF. Read it multiple times and learn all the dials and how to set the camera functions.

Practice and most of all, have fun!!! If you have this camera and want to share some tips, let me know.

More photos taken with this camera can be seen on my blog,
Stokes Birding Blog

Also, Don and I will be at The Biggest Week in American Birding, the 10 day birding festival featuring the best warbler watching experience ever, on May 10th giving a keynote address on "Birding and Photography: The Best of Both Worlds." That morning we will be leading a bird walk along with Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman and the staff from Birds and Blooms Magazine that will help raise funds for local conservation work. Other BIF contributers Drew Lanham, Linda Rockwell, and Rob Ripma will also be speaking or leading field trips. Hope to see many of you there!! It will be lots of fun.

Happy Birding!
Lillian Stokes


  1. Hi Lilian. I have the SX50HS too. A few things to try. The 1.5x and 2x digital tel-converters give you better quality than 150x and 200x zoom. The camera kicks in super stabilization and does extra processing on the files. At full zoom, and especially with digital tel...try using the "Framing Lock" button (bottom one on the lens barrel). It will stabilize the image before you take the pic...while framing and getting correct focus point. :)

  2. Hi Steve, Thanks for the input. You take great photos with this camera!! I know about and have used the 1.5 and 2x and the framing lock button. Many of the photos in this post were just pushing the camera to the zoom limit for fun. There are much better quality photos to be had staying in the optical zoom, or using the 1.5 and 2x, also shooting in RAW. The camera is loads of fun.

  3. Wow!! Gorgeous photos, Lillian! I am tempted to trade my Canon S95 in for this one.

  4. Great photos, Lillian. I just got the SX-50. An amazing technical work of wonder! I took unbelievable photos of the Moon. The details of all the craters is flabbergasting!

  5. I sold my DSLR and bought the SX 50 and haven't looked back!! I love it so much. I know I've gotten shots I would never have gotten with my DSLR not only thanks to the super zoom but for the mere fact that I carry the SX50 with me everyday because it's so much lighter!

  6. This is a great review of the SX-50 (I want one now)! The zoom is incredible; your pre/post zoom photos of the Snipe & Eagle are amazing!

  7. So nice to hear from all of you who have this camera, know what I am talking about, and are having fun!

  8. After reading this post my next stop is to the Amazon camera store. This sounds like a great point and shoot, super zoom camera! Thank you kindly for the review. Your photographs are fantastic!

  9. I need to replace my Canon SX40 which was stolen from the car on the way home from seeing Pink-footed Goose and Barnacle Goose. They were in large flocks of Canada Geese, and trying to photograph them was a frustrating experience. I could rather easily find the specific goose with my scope, but almost could not with the camera. When I did, I'd lose it and be unable to find it. My problem may have been lack of experience with a camera that was relatively new to me. Can you comment on my problem and whether I might find the x50 easier to use? Your photos with it are amazing.

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. I was once with two photographers that where taking pictures of Sandhill cranes in a back area of Indiana. They had to have two push carts to deal with all the equipment and if they had wanted to take a picture of a flower they would most likly have been out of luck. Every time you change a lens with a DSLR you risk damage especially if it is in a sandy enviorment or wind is blowing. I had only the SX50HS but could walk anywhere in the woods with no problems.
    Great review and very helpfull.