In this Episode of Reviews from the Blind, I take a look at the Canon EOS R and if it can be used as a wildlife camera.

It is no secret that the world of photography is moving away from the DSLR and toward Mirrorless.  Canon and Nikon could no longer sit back and watch companies like Sony and Fujifilm dominate the mirrorless market.  Of note, Canon has had several mirrorless cameras over the years, including the EOS M, but, although a fine camera, it lacked features that series photographers needed.  

Canon's latest response to the growing mirrorless market is the Canon EOS R.  As promised, I got my hands on an EOS R, and ran it through my normal wildlife photography testing.  Although this camera is not marketed toward the wildlife or sports photographer, I still wanted to see just how far I could take this body, and what the results would be.

Canon EOS R
Canon's EOS R Mirrorless Camera (photo courtesy of Canon)
  • Lens Mount - Canon RF (EF with adapter)
  • Weight - 1.45 lbs / 660 g
  • Sensor - CMOS 30.3 Megapixel / Full Frame
  • File Formats - JPEG, RAW, MP4
  • ISO - 100 to 40,000 (Expansion possible to 102,400)
  • Shutter - Electronic and mechanical (30 seconds to 1/8000)
  • Bit Depth - 14 Bit
  • Memory Card Format - SD, SDHC, SDXC
  • Image Stabilization - NONE
  • Focus Modes - Continuous-Servo AF, Manual, Single Servo AF
  • Frames Per Second - up to 8 fps.  Only 5 fps in AI Servo!
  • Viewfinder - LCD, 3,690,000 DPI
  • Viewfinder Coverage - 100%
  • GPS - Yes
  • Wi-Fi - Yes
  • Bluetooth - Yes
  • Price - $2,299 US

Build Quality/Ergonomics 

Picking up the EOS R, I found it to feel smaller than my Canon EOS 7D Mark II, and I also found it slightly less comfortable, however, it does have a nice grip when comparing it to its other mirrorless competitors in this price range.  The overall build quality seemed comparable to my 7D Mark II.

The EOS R lost ground with me on layout of the buttons.  I found them difficult to find and in some cases operate when compared to the 7D Mark II. I particularly struggled to find the AF-ON button when using back button focus.  I do feel confident, that with daily use, I could get much faster in the basic operation.  If you are someone who has both a DSLR and want to guy the EOS R, you might find it difficult to switch back and forth.  Perhaps the biggest loss to me was the thumb wheel which is normally located on the back of the Canon bodies.  On this camera the "wheel" is really just a disc with arrows on it.  It is very similar to how the Rebels operate.  Canon really "cheaped" out here and I can't help but ask "Why?"

Canon EOS R
Photo showing the amazing fully articulating touch screen, but also the somewhat horrible disc shaped navigation control often found on cheaper Canon cameras.

The EOS R redeems much of what it lost with the odd positioning of its buttons with the use of a fully articulating touch screen.  I found this to be a great "go-to" when I was having trouble with the manual buttons.  Also, the articulating screen will make this attractive for videographers, vloggers and landscape photographers.

The menu system is exactly what you would expect from Canon, and I had no difficulty moving from tab to tab and selecting the correct options.  Of course, being able to create your own custom menu tabs is a big help as it is with other Canon cameras.

While looking through the viewfinder, I could definitely tell I was looking at a screen.  I am not saying it was terrible, but I could tell it wasn't real.  The reason I mention this, is I have heard others say that the screens are so good now, you can't tell very well that you are not looking through a traditional viewfinder.

Also, related to the viewfinder, I noticed that there was some lag between shots and sometimes it would freeze for a moment before getting back to the correct live view of the scene.  This caused some confusion as to what the subject was doing, and did I actually miss something?  Perhaps this feature can be turned off?

Finally, I had a total failure of the camera right when I needed it most.  It actually froze up, and I had to remove the battery and essentially reboot the camera.  I chalked this up to it being a new design.  I remember when my old 7D classic used to freeze up like this, and I had to remove the battery on it also.  

First, let me say that overall I was very pleased with the auto-focus system.  I am not going to tell you that it was 1 Series fast, but it did a fine job, and would handle most of your normal photography needs.

As you may know, I am a wildlife photographer, who specializes in wild bird photography.  So that was where I spent my testing time.  The auto-focus did not let me down when paired with my Sigma 150-600 and the Canon EF to RF adapter.  It quickly found focus but from time to time, it would focus to infinity and just stop.  After fiddling with with the lens and placing it on different targets, it would slide in to where I wanted it to go.  The latter is very important.  This lens does not slam into focus like a 1 Series.  It slides into focus and valuable time is lost.  Although a useful feature for video, still photographers will find this a disadvantage.

I used the EOS R in Servo mode, which makes the lens continually focus when holding down the shutter button half way or using the AF-ON button.  Note, when you switch to Servo, the 8 fps drops to about 5 fps.  This made me laugh a bit, since AI Servo is where you need the 8 fps. I am sure that Canon knew that, and simply hit a hard wall on the engineering side.

Dark-eyed Junco - Canon EOS R, ISO 1000, 1/800, Sigma 150-600 C, f6.3

I did not have time to go somewhere to photograph birds in flight this time, but my gut feeling is that it would not be nearly as good at action as the Canon 7D Mark II or Canon 1DX Mark II. To be fair to Canon, that is really not who this camera is designed for.

Throughout my two days of shooting, I noticed a very strange thing happen while using servo.  I held the AF-ON button down, it focused and then as I fired off a burst, it would go out of focus almost every time. During this time, I never moved my auto-focus point off the bird's head.  My guess is that this is a bug in the firmware.  Finally, the lag I experienced when firing bursts of 5 fps was pretty bad. It was almost like it was trying to preview while firing 5 fps. 

My guess is there is a way to turn this off, but I did not find the setting for it.  If there is a setting, this should be enabled by default when shooting in servo mode.

EF Mount Adapter
You can't talk about the EOS-R without talking about the amazing EF to RF mount adapter.  This adapter will convert your existing EF mount lens to the RF mount.  Since all I had were EF lenses, I used it extensively.  

I found it to work quite well, but perhaps some of my early autofocus issues could be attributed to this adapter.  Having said that, I was really amazed at how well the conversion worked.  My particular adapter also had a ring which can be programmed to control whatever you want it to.  It would make a great aperture ring, for example.

Canon EF to RF Adapter - $99 to $199 depending on the version of the adapter.

I have used the MC-11 with Sony cameras to adapt my Sigma 150-600 and they did not work at ALL!  Good job Canon!  You made it work to almost perfection!

Image Quality
In general, I found the image quality to be excellent, and not at all unexpected.  The auto white balance seemed to achieve a very nature look, and I did not have to warm the scene up in post (in most cases).  Canon seems to make auto white balance better on ever new camera model.

Northern Cardinal - Canon EOS R - ISO 1250, 1/1000, Sigma 150-600 f6.3, 468 mm (cropped in post)

I did shoot almost exclusively between 800 and 1600 ISO,  just to get a feel for an ISO a little on the higher side of things.  The results were good, but not great.  I think this is due largely to the 30 megapixel sensor.  It was better than my APS-C, but not as good as I would like to see. The shadows seemed particularly noisy, even in decent light.  Cleaning up the noise in post was not difficult at ISO 1600.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of the 30 megapixel sensor in wildlife photography was in the cropping advantage.  I could crop an image in half and still have a solid 15 megapixel image.  In wildlife photography, this is a powerful feature. 

Northern Cardinal - Canon EOS R - ISO 1250, 1/1000, Sigma 150-600 C, f6.3, 600mm

Conclusion and Wrap Up
First, I applaud Canon for taking their first step in making a serious mirrorless camera. This camera is not a camera to laugh at, and in many cases will be all the photographer would need.  I particularly think this would make an amazing landscape and macro camera.  The 30 megapixels delivers great detail, and having a fully articulating LCD display allows for low angle shots and vlogging.

Let's talk about the elephant in the room.  The price of $2,299 dollars is a bit on the high side.  I would like to see this camera come down to about $1,800.  Although a really nice camera, it simply does not have the feature set to support this price point.  Compared to my Canon 7D Mark II, it is a loser in my opinion in most respects.  Yes, I am being tough here and of course it is just my opinion. Remember though, I am a wildlife photographer and not a landscape photographer.  That is the perspective of this review.

As far as wildlife, I would not recommend this camera as a primary wildlife camera.  Canon hasn't positioned this camera on the market as a fast action camera, so that should not come as a surprise to you.  Having said that, It would fill in some of the cracks in my kit as a good static bird and wildlife camera.  Having a viewfinder that simulates my exact exposure cannot be overlooked as an awesome feature.  I could also see this camera as a good camera for use with a trigger trap.  Since it can support higher ISOs which can help increase shutter-speed, it could be very useful in this role.

So, in general, I recommend this camera, IF you are the right audience for this model. I am looking forward to the more feature rich/professional version of this camera. Good job Canon and keep them coming! You are on the right track for sure.
Day after I day, sanded and sanded until I got the barrel to bare metal.  It was not for the feint of heart I would say!

After getting the barrel sanded down and polished, I started working on the pitting on the receiver.  This didn't take as long.  I started with 80 grit to get the metal down quicker.  Then switched to 120 grit to polish to an almost mirror finish.  One thing I learned here is that as the sandpaper begins to wear out, it makes a nice polish/buffing tool.

Bluing the Gun Barrel and Receiver
For mostly economic reasons, and because, it is a relatively inexpensive firearm, I concluded that sending the barrel off to be hot blued was not really a good choice.  I decided instead, to use the Birchwood and Casey cold bluing method.  I used their Super Blue product because it requires less applications to get the look I wanted.  I wanted the barrel to be a deep, almost black color.

You are going to watch a LOT of videos which tell you that you have to heat the gun metal before applying the bluing.  This is not true and is a waste of time.  Follow the directions on the bluing bottle or refer to Birchwood Casey's official documentation on their web site. If you want to perform a hot blue then send it off for bluing. Here is a summary of the process which worked for me.

  1. Clean the barrel well using the Birchwood Casey Cleaner-Degreaser.
  2. Remove all left over rust or bluing using the Birchwood Casey Rust and Blue Remover
  3. Again, clean the barrel well using the Birchwood Casey Cleaner-Degreaser
  4. Clean it again using the Birchwood Casey Cleaner-Degreaser (yes I meant to put it again)
  5. Make sure the barrel is wiped clean and dry
  6. Use a Birchwood Casey Swauber Applicator and dip it into the Super Blue
  7. Begin applying it to the barrel. I blued the first half of the barrel first.
  8. Let it dry for 30 to 60 seconds and NO MORE
  9. Dip a different Swauber Applicator into clean water and go over the newly blued area with the water to stop the chemical reaction
  10. Repeat steps 6 through 9 for the rest of the barrel or metal part
  11. Apply the Birchwood Casey Barricade product to the barrel to begin the curing process.
  12. Let the metal cure for 24 hours.
The Newly Blued Barrel

As you can see from the above photograph, the bluing turned out very well. I was very impressed with the Super Blue product and would recommend it to anyone.  There are several videos which claim it isn't as good as others, but the internet is full of nay sayers.

I continued the process of bluing each of the other parts that needed bluing, and the results were equally impressive from the Super Blue.

A view of the finished rifle showing the sanded receiver(once full of pits) and bluing

Finishing the Gun Stock
It is always a tough call on whether to refinish a stock or not on an antique rifle.  In the case of the Mosin, I think it is OK, since there were so many made.  Also, if you are looking to make it into a "shooter" or for hunting purposes, I see no reason not to.  In my case, as I had stated in an earlier post, I wanted to perform more of a restoration, and not any real modifications.  That was tricky as I had to decide how far to take each process so the gun would not loose character.

The first step in refinishing this stock was to sand off the old finish.  I did not use a stripper as this could strip away too much of the "character" of the gun. After a couple nights of sanding the gun was ready for finishing.  

A section of the gun stock after sanding off the finish and some of the oily areas

In the above shot, note that I didn't sand down to bare wood.  I left some of the character in the gun, including oily spots where the gun was handled and so forth.

After sanding it was time for the finish to be applied.  I used "Red Mahogany" stain for this project, put the first coat on and let it rest for a day.  The following day I came back and put the second coat on.  At this time, I noticed the gun was too sticky.  This is from putting on too much stain.  If this happens to you, simply rub down the sticky areas with 0000 steel wool and blend together.

After putting the stain on and letting it dry for another 24 hours, I started putting on a coat of Birchwood Casey's Tru- Oil.  This will seal and protect the wood.  Note that you don't want to put on a heavy coat of the Tru-Oil.  Dip your finger in and lightly apply to the entire gun.  Wipe off any excess or it will drip down the gun and dry with an ugly drip stain.

After letting the finish dry for 12 hours, I put the second coat of Tru-Oil on.  The following day, I put the final coat on.  Below is an image showing the True-oiled stock.

In conclusion, I feel like this is mission accomplished.  The finish is close enough to be of the period, and I lost none of the rifle's character by leaving dents, dings and some oil marks in the stock.  All the metal is now nicely blued with most of the pitting removed.  I didn't go into detail on this, but I also disassembled the bolt, cleaned it, sanded the major pitting off and re-positioned the firing pin per specifications. 

In some ways, the Mosin Nagant restoration was a bit of a fool's errand.  It ended up costing me $400 dollars to fix a $200 dollar gun, but I had a great time doing it, and I recommend that anyone who is up to challenge make this project a reality in their world.  If you wanted to take the gun back to it's original, off the factory look, it would have taken more money and much more energy. Frankly, I am not sure it would be worth it both monetarily, and because you would lose all the gun's character.

Well, back to photographing wildlife life.  Thanks for the interruption!

This is an update to the previous posting I did on evaluating and getting started with my restoration of a Mosin Nagant 91/30.

It didn't take long for me to realize the enormity of the project I had chosen and what needed to be done to bring this old girl back to life.  I have spent about 5 nights sanding, polishing the barrel and removing rust.  My technique for removing the rust was to first scrape any of the soft rust off with a plastic tool used for popping off door panels in a car.  This tool allowed me to scrape off old cosmoline from both the barrel and the stock.

Next, I began to work on the actual rust by using a copper penny and oil.  The technique is to oil the barrel and scrape the penny along the barrel.  The softer copper removes the rust without destroying the finish.  You could also use copper steel wool, or, since we are going to re-blue anyway, I could have used any steel wool to remove the rust.  Once I got the rust removed, I was left with the pitting to remove.  I carefully began sanding lengthwise to start removing the pits.

If you remember, the original image showed massive rust.  Below is the original image and the one after it is how it looks at this point in the game.  More to do, but looking much better. The black inside the pits is caused by metal filings and tiny pieces of sandpaper getting burned into the pits.



At this point in the game, you can see that the rifle can actually still be fired.  I recommend taking the rifle to a competent gunsmith though to be sure. He can check head space, pitting depth and so on. Sure beats the alternative.

Once I was satisfied all rust had been removed and the majority of the pitting sanded to acceptable condition, I started working my way toward the muzzle.  The following video shows the results of tedious and careful hand sanding on the rest of the barrel.

There is still a huge amount of work to be done on this project and the barrel and receiver are only about half-way done.  I estimate another 24 hours of work on the barrel and then I can finally move on to the other metal pieces and the stock.

Until next time...

I don't always take photographs.  Sometimes I like to take on a project that exercises the need to work with steel, wood and sweat.  To me, it is something that is built into many people, and more often built into the male of the species.

Being someone who has always been interested in history, I decided to buy a Mosin Nagant 1891/30 rifle. The Mosin was manufactured by various countries between 1892 and the early 1970s., and was the primary field rifle used throughout WWII by the Russian military.  Russian troops would have used the Mosin throughout the war and even had it when they entered Berlin to help crush the Nazis. These firearms can be obtained on the military surplus market nowadays for around $220 to $400.  On the $200 dollar end, you will get a rifle that will work, but will need some tender loving care to get it back up to speed.  On the $400 dollar side, you can get a rifle that is in great condition and won't need any work except for a decent cleaning.  Sadly, we used to be able to buy these for less than $100, but the  market is drying up.

I opted to get a fixer upper and purchased one for around $230 from Classic Firearms out of Monroe, NC.  The rifle arrived at my dealer, and I immediately realized it would take some work to get this back to a semi-restored condition.  My goal with this restoration is to not take it back to factory condition, but to take it back to the condition it would have been during the first year of use, as a war time gun. When the project is complete, it will have wear marks on the stock, and even some dings left on it.  In short I want to preserve the character of the weapon as the original soldier might have seen and used the rifle.

Understanding Where this Rifle Has Been

After World War Two was over, the Mosin Nagant 91/30 and other variants, were sent to arsenals for repair, storage or sent back into the field for use with the now smaller army.  When the rifle was sent back to the arsenal for a checkup, the stocks were often refinished, and any issues with rust were also addressed.  Rifles that were stored long term were covered with a product called cosmoline.  This sticky petroleum product was used to keep the rifle from rusting during long storage, and should be removed when buying a Mosin.  It doesn't appear that the arsenal would take time to remove pitting though, as many Mosins have pitting issues. 

Evaluating the Rifle

The first thing I did after getting the rifle home was to perform a detailed evaluation to determine what I need to do, to restore the rifle, and would it still be safe to fire.  My rifle was not covered in cosmoline, but did have some on the bolt and dried cosmoline on the surface of the receiver and barrel.

Continuing the evaluation, I removed the two barrel bands and removed the barrel from the stock.  This is were I ran into a huge amount of rust on the underside of the barrel and top of the barrel.  It was a disappointment to see the rust, but I decided to press on.  I also removed the magazine assembly and found pitting on the top portion of that.  There was also pitting on the top of the receiver and pitting at the end of the barrel and stock.

Major rust and pitting found the Top of the Barrel after removing hand guard
Minor and major pitting here.  You can also see the dried cosmoline.

The stock itself was in fairly good condition, with minor dings and some areas which need a good cleaning.  This was particularly true on the inside of the stock were the barrel is bedded.  The stock itself appeared to have no cracking.
Minor pitting on the receiver.

Rust and pitting shown on the band spring

Determining a Plan of Action
  1. I need to first rescue the barrel. With that much rust and pitting, I would need to first remove all the surface rust.
  2. After removing the rust from the barrel, I would need to address the pitting.  The pitting will be removed using 80 grit and 120 grit sandpaper by hand sanding those areas.  Leaving small pits on the hidden portion of the barrel is acceptable for this project.  
  3. After all rust and pitting has been dealt with, I will re-blue the barrel using a cold bluing process.  This will give it a fair bluing job which will give it more of a used, historic look.
  4. Next, individual parts will be re-blued or touched up to match the barrel.
  5. Next, I will sand the stock down to remove the damaged finish, but will leave dings and oily hand marks on to give the rifle more character.
  6. Next, I will apply a stain to the rifle
  7. Finally, I will apply the Tru-Oil product by Birchwood Casey to give it a little shine and protection. 

Well, that is all for now.  Keep checking back for each post as I progress through this restoration process.

What a year it has been!  This year started off relatively slow for my photography, but ended with one of the best trips I have had for Florida bird photography opportunities.  As is my tradition, this article will take a look at what I think were my best images for the year.  I hope you enjoy it!  I start with #1 being my best image.

#1 - Great Blue Heron at Sunrise, Viera Wetlands, FL
December 8, 2018,  Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Sigma 150-600 C, 232mm, f13, 1/3200, ISO 400

A highlight to this year, was a week of photographing birds along the space coast of Florida.  This photograph was from that trip.  I particularly like how the heron was stretching his neck in this photograph to provide the perfect pose for this sunset silhouette. Beams of light shoot through openings in the clouds to provide a great supporting backdrop.

#2 - Lanner Falcon Landing, PhotoWild 
October 13, 2018,  Canon EOS 1DX Mark II, Sigma 150-600 C, 252mm, f13, 1/1250, ISO 8000

Even when photographing captive birds, it is very difficult to get a good flight shot where everything comes together as it should.  In this shot, the falcon is moving very quickly, and the shot was taken  just as he began to pull back to make a landing.

#3 - Great Blue Heron Nest Building, Viera Wetlands, FL
December 8, 2018,  Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Sigma 150-600 C, 232mm, f13, 1/3200, ISO 400

The second great blue heron to make the list and the second from my trip to Florida.  Here, the heron is taking twigs to his new nest.  Although some might consider this a fairly common shot, I still think it deserves 3rd in my overall list of images for 2018.  Of course, the twigs in the bill and the wing position help to make this shot a good one.

#4 - Blue Jay in Snow, Forsyth County, NC
January 17, 2018,  Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Sigma 150-600 C, 324mm, f6.3, 1/1000

This was a tough one as there are probably two that could have taken #4.  In the end, I ended up choosing this, because it has so many elements going for it.  First, snow is always a crowd "pleaser" and here, we have snow falling and an inch or two built up on the log the blue jay is perched on.  Secondly, the jay is compressed into a defensive position and warning off other birds from his food source.  This shows the harsh realities of winter for songbirds throughout the mid-Atlantic and northeastern states.

#5 - Roseate Spoonbill Reflection, Merritt Island, FL
December 7, 2018,  Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Sigma 150-600 C, 316mm, f5.6, 1/4000, ISO 400

It is hard to not have a nice reflection shot in the top 10.  Again, a Florida bird is part of the top 10 with this roseate spoonbill.  First, I like the reflection in this shot.  The sharpness of the reflection is paramount with shots like this and this is best achieved by shooting the subject on perfectly still water.  Next, this bird is giving us gesture by opening his mouth. FInally, the morning light really ads texture and color to the image.  If it had just been the reflection, it may have not made the list at all.

#6 - Barred Owl in Forest, PhotoWild
April 15th, 2018,  Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Sigma 150-600 C, 200mm, f5.6, 1/125, ISO 2000

First, I love the framing in this shot produced by the light green early spring leaves.  Next, the owl appears as if he is posing for a portrait as she looks off into the distance.  There is just something about early spring that makes everything come alive in an image.  Despite this being a captive owl, I firmly believe it needs to be in the top 10.  Remember, a good image is a good image despite where it was photographed.  Don't let others take that away from you!

#7 - Reddish Egret with Fish, Merritt Island, FL
December 10, 2018,  Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Sigma 150-600 C, 600mm, f6.3, 1/1250, ISO 800

Reddish egrets are one of my favorite birds, so maybe I am a little biased here.  Watching them dance about in order to scare their prey into making a horrible choice is very interesting to watch.  This is a fairly common shot for many, but a first for me. I do have other images of birds with fish, but here I like the position of the fish in relation to the bill.

#8 - Scratching Grackle, Forsyth, NC
November 17, 2018,  Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Sigma 150-600 C, 283mm, f5.6, 1/800, ISO 400

Let's face it, grackles are common, aggressive and frankly a general pain in the behind.  I like this shot because it takes such a common subject, puts it in good lighting, a good set and performing an activity that makes the viewer interested in this bird.  That is really an accomplishment for wildlife photographers.  It isn't always what you can do with a fascinating subject, but rather what you can do with a boring one.

#9 - Bellowing Alligator, NC Zoo, Asheboro, NC
July 7, 2018,  Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Sigma 150-600 C, 388mm, f6.3, 1/125, ISO 1250

Alligators bellow during the mating season to attract mates, and to fend off intruders.  While at the zoo, this massive alligator decided he was not happy with my camera rattling off shots.  He turned, quickly letting off several massive grunts of anger.  The vibration of the water can be seen in this shot as it was only 1/125th of a second shutter speed.

#10 - Goose Feather, Forsyth County, NC
July 17, 2018, Canon EOS 7D Mark II,  Canon EF 100mm Macro, f8.3, 1/60 (focus stacked)

There were 4 photos I was considering for the tenth image.  This slot is always the toughest to decide on because of this. In the end, I ended up going with this macro shot of a Canada goose feather.  I like the extreme, greater than life size magnification, and the water droplets.

I hope you enjoyed this years top 10 list.  I encourage you to do the same with your images as it is a great practice to help you decide what you did right and what you need to improve on for 2019.

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One of the biggest areas that I see new wildlife photographers struggling in is that of taking shots of birds in flight (BIF).  Birds move so quickly and, in many cases erratically, that it often leaves even the most seasoned pro feeling physically and mentally drained at the end of a day.  He may go back to the hotel with only a few sharp shots and in some cases, none.  Photographers spend thousands of dollars to buy the perfect camera for birds in flight and yet still have trouble making it work.  Photo Gear Designs believe they have the product that will give you a fighting chance at making great BIF images.  I should also note that I do not work for nor am I affiliated with  Photo Gear Designs.

Firearms have had a sighting concept known as a red dot sight for many years.  This sight is used to paint a battery powered, illuminated retical inside the scope so the shooter can better, see where he is aiming the rifle. You can think of a retical as just a fancy, illuminated cross hair sight.  Wouldn't it be nice if we photographers had that same technology applied to what we were trying to do?  Well, we in fact do!  It is called the PGD Tracker by Photo Gear Designs.

PGD Tracker
PGD Tracker Image from

The PGD Tracker as it arrived

About 6 months ago, I received one of these devices from Photo Gear Designs for testing and writing a review.  So I finally got around to testing it at a fairly demanding Florida location.  Specifically, I tested this in the Merritt Island area of the space coast on a couple different subjects.  I will break down the review into a similar manner to my other reviews.  First, I will look at build quality, next,  ease of use and finally the results of the test.

Build, Fit, and Finish
The PGD tracker has a very sturdy build and appears to be fashioned from an alloy of some type.  Perhaps it is aluminum alloy.  It comes with a hex wrench for easily calibrating it to the camera, a small nylon pouch to carry it in, batteries, lens cover, and a cleaning cloth.  

Ease of Use and Setup
Attaching the PGD Tracker to the hot-shoe of the camera was simple.  It just slides into place and is locked down by an easy to use and locate knob on the right side of the rig. Actually it locks down easier than a flash. There is a switch on the back of the device for changing which type of retical you would like to use and another rotary switch on top for selecting the intensity of the retical light in the view finder.  This switch also acts as the on/off switch.

The aiming retical can be seen clearly in this view.  Simpy put your subject in the middle, depress the shutter button halfway and fire away. 

I want to be clear that you cannot simply take this out of the box, drop it into your hot-shoe, and start firing away.  It must be calibrated to your specific camera and lens combo by using the windage and elevation screws on the back of the device.  There is an easy to follow PDF on how to do this on the company's web site.  It only took me about 15 minutes, and I was up and running.  You can view the instructions here.  I would also take it a step further and say that you should check to make sure it is in calibration before going out each time.  I noticed it was no longer sighted in on my second trip out.  I had to make some minor adjustments.  In talking with the folks at PGD, I was told that it shouldn't fall out of alignment very often.  My guess is I was banging it around pretty good in the car and as I walked.  Again, not a big deal, but something you have to think about.

Results/Performance in the Field
If you want to practice your flight skills, there is arguably no better place to go than Florida.  There are no shortage of birds that will line up to have their photographs made.  From challenging fast flying terns to plummeting ospreys, your patience and photography skills will be put to the test.  That is where I decided to test this device as I thought it would be the most fair and balanced testing.

Before shooting for the day, I made sure it was calibrated by focusing on a small stationary object.  The target was a 7 inch icon on a sign at about 15 feet away. After making some minor adjustments, I was off to shoot.  Before shooting, I selected the center autofocus point on my 7D Mark II, Case 1 in my autofocus setting and AI servo mode for constant focusing.

I primarily used the three point hold and extended hands free mode in my testing as outlined on the product website.  The beauty of shooting with this setup is you are free to pickup and track the subject in a more relaxed and natural manor.  You are not looking through a 600mm lens where you can easily loose the subject.  Instead, it is like aiming a rifle or pistol.

The first subject I tested heavily with the tracker, was a "flock" of three ospreys circling one of the lakes on the famed Blackpoint Wildlife Drive.  Here I got to spend about 20 minutes tracking with the device and shooting.  At first, I used just the center point autofocus, but found that it was not locking on quite enough for my taste, so I switched to center point expand using 8 surrounding points.  This seemed to offer the best compromise.  Below is a shot of one of the ospreys using this technique.


Osprey, Canon 7D Mark II, Sigma 150-600mm lens, PGD Tracker Mounted

Later that day, after shooting the ospreys, I moved on to the beach and began to photograph shorebirds and terns in flight.  Terns are a good bird for practicing BIF.   They are faster and more maneuverable than many birds and are generally in abundance at certain locations.  Again, during this test, I used the center point expand and also tried using the center zone approach.  Both approaches yielded good results.  Below is a tern I photographed.

Royal Tern - Canon 7D Mark II, Sigma 150-600 at 481mm using the PGD tracker

OK, so it worked, but not everything is perfect, right?  Well, yes, there are a couple issues with this type of setup.  One of the biggest issues you will run into is not knowing that you are actually locked onto the bird.  You may be focusing, but you are assuming you have a good lock.  I had probably a dozen images where my camera grabbed the background, but there was no way for me to know.  

Another question you might ask is: did you have a greater amount of keepers?  Well, honestly, I did not notice any more keepers than normal, but realize I have been shooting for some time and have really honed my skills over the years.  It certainly was more convenient to shoot.

The other issue, which is petty at best, is that it does not have an auto-shut off to keep the battery from running down.  I would like to see it shut off after 8 hours.  After speaking with PGD, I was told this feature would increase the cost of the product.  This is not a deal breaker, but rather, just a nice to have feature.

The Pros and Cons Summary

  • Easy to find and track your subject
  • Easy to mount on the camera via the hot shoe
  • A good selection of red and green colored reticals 
  • Photographer can hold the camera away from his body making it quicker for initial acquisition

  • Need to check calibration before each shoot (just makes good sense really)
  • The tracker does not integrate with the computer on the camera so there is no way to know for sure if you are in focus on AI servo
  • Easy to leave the unit on and run the battery down.  There is no auto-shut off.

This is certainly a unique and innovative product, but can it really help, will I use it, and is it worth $175?  In short, yes, yes and yes, but let me explain a bit more.

The reality is that there is no silver bullet.  If you are buying this thinking you are going to be the next Art Morris, then think again.  This product is a tool or aid to help us realize our vision.  It is a clever piece of machinery, and when used properly could indeed help you.  Now, in my case, I would keep this mounted and ready to shoot at a moment's notice.  I see this is as a tool to get quick, unexpected shots that I could not get looking through my lens.  It most likely would not replace the view finder, but be used as an aid.

For those that no longer have the reflexes or perhaps have weaker vision, I can see this being the only BIF tool they use. It does work, and if you have to, you can use the entire center zone selected on your camera to aid in focusing.  I would encourage folks in this category to really think about purchasing the PGD Tracker.

Now, the price. Is it worth $175?  For a tool that is this specialized and is not produced on a massive scale, I think the price is very reasonable.

In short, if you can swing the price, you should pick it up.  Even if it helps get you two or three shots you wouldn't have been able to get before, then it is worth the price.


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