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  • Writer's pictureVicki Wilmarth

Bird Nerd Buys a Mirrorless Camera

Updated: Apr 4

"Skill in photography is acquired by practice and not by purchase" -- Percy W. Harris

Great Egret and Great Blue Heron

Rationally, I knew in November 2023 that I didn't need a new camera. I loved my Nikon d500 and I was taking pretty great photos with it. But there is no denying that the photography world is moving rapidly towards abandoning digital SLR cameras. The new improvements in software, cameras and lenses are all happening in the realm of mirrorless photography.

Say's Phoebe

When Nikon (the only brand of camera that I have used since high school) released the Z8 mirrorless camera and the 180-600mm lens in 2023 aiming towards photography enthusiasts rather than professionals, I was intrigued. Which is another way of saying that I was checking my bank account and rationalizing why I needed to buy that combination. And in November, shockingly, I suddenly had that new camera and lens in hand. It is amazing how easy it is to talk myself into new equipment when I know that I am going to spend all of my free time birdwatching through a camera viewfinder because it is the most enjoyable hobby I've ever pursued.


But miraculous photos did not just appear in my memory card because I bought fancy new camera equipment. There is a steep learning curve. I downloaded two expert guides on Kindle to understand what settings to choose for bird photos (as usual, the manufacturer's instructions were indecipherable). These cameras are so customizable that it becomes very confusing to understand all the options on how to set the controls. I get overwhelmed with too many choices, similar to when I am looking at paint samples at Lowe's and become paralyzed when I find that there are 500 different shades of white.

Black-crowned Night Heron

I initially piggybacked on Steve Perry's (Backcountry Gallery) settings for bird photography. Then I went out and practiced. I took lots of poor pictures at first. The auto-focusing system in the Z8 is very sophisticated (read: "takes lots of patience and f-bombs to learn"), even more so now that the software has been updated to include bird eye focus. My first couple of months of photos were no better than my d500 and many were worse. But having been through this slow progression with a new camera before, I knew to persevere.

Red Crossbill

But gradually, I was getting more "keepers". A weekend in January 2024 in New Mexico at Bosque del Apache and Bernardo with the alumni from the birding class that I help teach at Amarillo College gave me a great chance to practice with the camera. For the first time, I became more confident in my ability to use the Z8.

Trumpeter Swan
Snow Geese in front of the Wolf Moon

Sandhill Cranes

A trip to the Rio Grande Valley with Rohn over Spring Break to bird and watch a SpaceX launch gave me even more confidence in my ability to eventually master the Z8. We saw so many beautiful birds in South Texas and I added several lifers to my birding list, like Tropical Parula, Hooded Oriole, and Ringed Kingfisher. Naturally, though, the rare birds didn't pose for pictures beyond what was necessary to identify them. But I still took many photos with the Z8 that I am satisfied with.

Adult White Ibis with a juvenlie White Ibis

Reddish Egret (white morph)

Royal Terns

Brown Pelican

Snowy Egret with a shrimp

Altamira Oriole in a spiderweb

I loved using the Z8 to capture the frantic hunting techniques of a Tri-colored Heron and a Reddish Egret at the World Birding Center on South Padre Island. The Z8's bird eye auto focus locked onto both birds during their erratic movements and produced dozens of exciting action shots.

Now I am actually at the point where I need to stop using the burst mode so frequently. I went out to take a few shots with the Z8 at a playa lake last weekend, faced road dust and haze, and still ended up needing to go through more than 600 acceptable shots to find the most exciting keepers.

Blue-winged Teal and Cinnamon Teal

Long-billed Dowitcher

My conclusion about my new camera: while I can take an acceptable photo with the other cameras I have owned, the Z8 seems to be providing me with many more choices for photos I want to keep. I'm now discarding photos that I would have been happy with two years ago. I think the new camera has upped my game.

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