Review: The PGD Tracker (Birds in Flight Help)

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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1 comment:

  1. Art Morris....really? Many better bird in flight photographers in Florida.