The Ideal Birdwatching Camera

It’s fun playing with cameras but it’s even more fun if you’ve got something useful, or better still, entertaining, to do with them. My main use is for birdwatching, but for years I’ve regretted the non-appearance in ‘bird-watching cameras’ of modern technology that is either possible or actually present in another form, that would be fabulously useful for birdwatching.

1: First, the Focus Control Ring around the lens. Well of course this has been present for maybe a century or so, but in cheap superzooms such as the Panasonic TZ range, that control ring has only just appeared. It is essential for focusing on birds somewhere in trees, where the camera’s autofocus facility can be relied upon to latch onto some irrelevant twig, leaving the incredibly rare lesser-spotted twizzle-tail nothing but an embarrassing blurr for you to show off later. It might be said that such manual focusing is easy on big digital SLRs, but even if you can afford one, I’m looking for a camera you can slip unobtrusively into a pocket and carry anywhere – indeed everywhere. On my 6-minute walk to the local supermarket I’ve managed to snap a sparrowhawk catching a pigeon (which I couldn’t focus on properly because it was behind distracting, though sparse, twigs), a goshawk, and often the goosanders – not to mention a fabulous head-on view of a swift I accidentally got and put in the book (US/UK). I was only five minutes from my house when I saw the glossy ibis fly over, so that might easily have been another example where a “carry everywhere superzoom” would have been handy had I not been driving at the time.

2: Singer Placer. How often have you been staring up into a tree and heard something singing loudly, yet not been able to see where it was? What we need here is a three-microphone pinpointing system that works something like this: one microphone would be fixed, perhaps at the top of the camera; two others would be placed on the ends of rods hingeing out from the bottom panel, each extending downwards and outwards to the right or left. This would give a three-position system that would allow estimation of the source of the sound either by time differentials or loudness differentials, or both. The position of the culprit could be highlighted on the screen of course – perhaps multiple singers could be handled. This would work well in association with the…

3: Singer Identifier. There is an iPhone app called Shazzam which listens to a song and tells you what it is. I have no doubt at all that such a system could be made to work with bird song identification. It could allow the positions on the screen of singers which had been identified by the Singer Placer system, to be marked with their possible identities. An optional list of stock images of possible culprits might appear (also with the Visual Identifier below).

4: Visual Identifier. Unfortunately AI seems not to have managed the kind of task where you take a picture of a bird and identify it with reasonable accuracy. It’s been approximated, but as far I know (and something may well have slipped through recently without me noticing), a reliable performer of this sort has not yet appeared. I’m sorry if this sounds bad but it would take me less than five years to do (maybe I should have started five years ago!) Actually, many cameras can now identify named faces they find in photos, so things are progressing. It might not be done in exactly the same sort of way that Shazzam, or text-from-speech systems work, but it is possible. It could incorporate cues such as rate of wingbeat. Maybe once the camera had found an identifiable target, it could be asked to focus automatically on it!

5: Zoom Framer. There’s a big problem with focusing the camera on a tiny dot you’ve seen up in the sky. If you point the camera at it in wide angle, nothing appears on the screen, partly because it’s tiny, and partly because it’s out of focus. I suppose you could set focus to approximately infinity, but then as mentioned, it’s still tiny. So you try to zoom in, but when you’ve zoomed all the way in you realise you’ve missed the right part of the sky. It’s not so much of a problem if there’s trees or such nearby because as you zoom in, you can navigate using the features in the landscape. Canon, by their SX700 HS, seem to have started addressing this problem. As explained by the mystery writer in Cameralabs who doesn’t seem to be Gordon (hope he’s OK!) but actually writes very well… “Press the Framing Assist button on the left side of SX700 HS and the lens quickly zooms out while at the same time displaying a frame showing your original zoom magnification. That allows you to locate your subject and reframe before releasing the button which quickly zooms you right back in again. It’s a simple idea introduced on an earlier SX model and it works really well.” I don’t know exactly how this works – presumably the “frame showing your original zoom magnification” had been saved from earlier and is not a current view at a different zoom, which would be hard to achieve. Maybe if you aimed the camera at roughly the right place, then Pressed A Special Zoom Framing Button, the camera could try zooming in while focused at nearly infinity, and as soon as it found something that changed (across the image) rapidly from blue to something that wasn’t cloud-coloured (it could get this from the initial scene at wide angle) it would watch it as it approached the edge of the image during zooming in, and mark it in the image. It could also see how its focusing was progressing and try to focus on it if poss. It could place an arrow as the dot was leaving the edge of the screen, to tell you to aim more that way. Of course if there were multiple tiny blurry dots, hopefully it could manage more than one at once. A pure blue sky would help the system find small blurry dots, and that is when you mostly need it. If there are lumpy clouds in the sky, they could have helped you navigate to the right part of the sky in the first place.

6: And finally bat camerability. The Singer Identifier and Placer facilities should allow the user to stand out in a field or under a tree at night, and use bats’ hunting (or social) calls moving through the air, just as they plot their own prey ultrasonically, only we’d be doing it with “passive sonar”. Their positions could be shown on the screen, and a bat detector facility employed to lower the frequency to human limits, and also identify the species. As they fly by, the flash could be employed to fire as the bat was at a pre-set focus range (rather than adjusting the focus to match the bat’s flight, since that might be a bit demanding).

There! Not too much to ask, I think – considering how far we’ve come in the last fifteen years or so!

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