Few experiences ignite passion in a birder more than a first-time encounter with a new species or the discovery of a previously seen bird in a new or unexpected location. The thrill of these spontaneous sightings, and the anticipation of the next one, are primary drivers in the perpetual quest to see, hear, and learn more about our feathered friends.
Everyone from the newest arrivals to the birding ranks to those with years of experience pursuing and studying birds shares a common gift – treasured personal memories of magical moments in the woods and meadows when we come face-to-face with nature’s winged wonders.
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And we birders recognize that technology – our binoculars, spotting scopes, and cameras – play a critical role in enhancing our field experience. What’s more, when digital photography became the norm 15 years ago, the playing field was leveled flat to reveal a wide gateway, inviting one and all to join the party.
Today’s photo-gear marketplace offers myriad options to consider when it’s time to take the step from simply observing and recording birds to photographing them. Not only do cameras and lenses preserve the memories, enabling us to share with family, friends, and online audiences, but they also open the possibility of publication — that area once reserved for the pros.
The first step into the avian-photography universe is to consider the camera body and lens options that will work best for capturing the most outstanding possible images in your specific area of interest. Whether it’s the drama of birds in flight or birds perched in iconic locations, the gear you decide upon will make a difference in the final results.
An 800mm super telephoto lens may be just the ticket to bring home stunning photos of an Atlantic Puffin bobbing in the ocean off a distant island’s rocky outcrop. But you’ll find the same combo is massive over-reach if you grab the rig for a quick shot of a goldfinch munching on the seeds of a sunflower just off the patio in your garden. The old adage of having the right tool for the task at hand is never truer than in bird photography.
Decide what you want
No rule is hard and fast, and no gear combination can possibly cover all photographic bases and be capable of delivering the goods on every occasion, at all times. However, by thoughtful analysis of your most-favored areas of interest and deciding upon your reasonable expectations, you can put together a kit that will fulfill your mission and deliver quality images to fuel a lifetime of memories.
As is the case with most sectors in the tech world, camera manufacturers are in keen competition to dominate the marketplace with their product innovations. The mirrorless movement is the latest arena of competitive jousting for bragging rights to the smallest, lightest, quietest cameras.
To be sure, the digital ink is often barely dry on online ads for the latest innovative products from one maker before a competitor jumps into the breach with claims of a camera that pushes back at the marketing boundaries.
There’s a cautionary lesson to embrace from all of this — and that’s to pay a visit to your local camera retailer for quality personal time with the camera and lenses that appeal to you, to guarantee that the marketing message is in sync with your personal needs, immediate and future, as well as your skill level. While you are in the store, it’s worthwhile to compare the latest cameras with the nearly new gear on the dealer’s “used” shelves. The quality-performance-value equation often tips in favor of last year’s model, at significant savings.
Once you decide to plunge into the buying fest, it’s prudent to pause a moment to nail down exactly how you envision using the new kit. Is it for birds in flight, bird portraits on branches, large raptors or tiny songbirds, birds nearby or birds afar? Some pairings of camera bodies and lenses work well across the spectrum, though at times with varying compromises.
In general, a huge swath of cameras and lenses will deliver the image quality and variety you desire. But placing the hardware in hand is no guarantee of optimal results — we as photographers must always accept and nurture our roles as the most crucial component in the creative process.
Here are four viable combinations of gear, valid across all brands and, in most cases, modern-era vintages.
- For a birder with little or no photography experience other than smartphone snapshots, the perfect choice with which to extend your birding activities into memory-gathering mode would be one of the “bridge” cameras — models with integrated body-lens designs. Popular versions include the Canon Powershot SX70 HS, Panasonic Lumix FZ2500, the Nikon Coolpix P1000 or P900, or the Sony Cyber-shot RX10 IV. The automated features and robust zoom capabilities make bridge cameras quite capable for avian portraits, and they are an ideal stepping stone into the more advanced and challenging birds-in-flight realm.
- People with some photo experience who are new to bird photography may benefit from a DX crop sensor body, coupled with a zoom lens with a proven track record. One example is the Nikon D500 with the Nikon NIKKOR 200-500mm zoom. I have used this pairing and can confirm from personal experience, and from chatting with others in the field, that the rave reviews are justified. Plus, the DX-format bodies add the advantage of “reach,” due to the smaller dimensions of the crop sensor. They also have the advantage of lighter weight, adding portability to the equation. Other worthy setups in this class are the new Fujifilm X-T30 and Canon’s EOS 7D Mark II. Both have APS-C sensors in the same dimensions as Nikon’s DX format. Similarly, any of the Nikon D7200-7500 series bodies are birding workhorses.
- Then there’s the full frame pro or serious enthusiast DSLR body with a Canon or Nikon 400mm, 500mm, 600mm, or even an 800mm prime lens. This grouping covers just about every bird-photography situation, from birds at rest to the most challenging erratically flying raptors. Both DSLR and mirrorless full-frames should be considered. The super-telephoto lenses are nature photography’s gold standard gear configuration; the image quality results, as long as the proper techniques are applied, are guaranteed to exceed even the most discriminating photo artist’s highest expectations. The downside is that they are big and a heavy lift, both physically and financially.
- Nipping hard at the image-quality heels of the “big guns” are some of the latest mirrorless body and lens offerings in the Micro Four Thirds format. Leading the way in both portability and uncompromising professional capabilities is the new Olympus OMD E-M1X, a lightweight yet powerful camera with a Micro Four Thirds sensor. Joined with the Olympus M.Zuiko 300mm f/4.0 lens, it gives equivalent 600mm reach in a trail-friendly weight. Others worthy of consideration are the full line of Panasonic Lumix bodies, with the GH5 leading the way with robust auto-focus tracking.
The unrelenting expansion of interest in nature photography, with bird imaging at the top of the movement, has spawned a new class of photo enthusiast whose objective is frame-worthy images that don’t require lugging a massive tripod, with its pro-body DSLR and heavy super-telephoto lens. That’s where the telephoto zoom lenses shine.
Here are some zoom tele and super-telephoto lenses that are worthy of inclusion in any serious bird photographer’s kit: Nikon’s ground-breaking NIKKOR 500mm PF, the Nikon NIKKOR 200-500mm, Sigma’s 150-600mm Contemporary, the Tamron SP 150-600mm, Fujifilm’s XF100-400mm, and Canon’s time-proven 100-400mm. Combine Sony’s 100-400mm zoom tele with Sony’s A7R III body for a can’t-miss birding action rig.
The decision to up one’s photographic game marks a significant commitment, one bursting with excitement and anticipation of coming adventures in the great outdoors. Truth be told, with the boundless level of technological innovation being packed across the board into today’s camera bodies, lenses, and accessories, it’s nearly impossible to make a bad choice when selecting your go-to system. All the big-name manufacturers present quality equipment to consider — and ultimately purchase.
With the relentless pace of research and development and new product roll-outs, the savvy photographer never fails to look with care at the secondary market, where nearly new “used” gear can be found with quality, and major cash savings.
Suggested cameras for bird photography
Click on the buttons below for a roundup of bridge, DSLR, and mirrorless cameras that we recommend for bird photographers, based on the principles outlined above. While not a definitive list, these models are excellent options from their respective makers. When selecting a camera, also consider the telephoto lenses and teleconverters available for the models you’re evaluating.