The best cameras for bird photography

best cameras

Few experiences ignite a birder’s passion more than a first encounter with a new species or the discovery of a previously seen bird in a new or unexpected place. The thrill of these spontaneous sightings and the anticipation of the next are the main drivers of the perpetual quest to see, hear and learn more about our feathered friends.

Everyone, from new to the ranks of birdwatchers to those with years of experience researching and studying birds, shares a common gift: treasured personal memories of magical times in the woods and meadows. when we come face to face with the winged wonders of nature.

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And we birdwatchers recognize that technology – our binoculars, spotting scopes and cameras – plays a vital role in enhancing our experience in the field. Plus, when digital photography became the norm 15 years ago, the playing field was leveled to reveal a wide doorway, inviting everyone to join in the fun.

Today’s camera equipment market offers a myriad of options to consider when it’s time to move from simply observing and recording birds to photographing them. Not only do cameras and lenses preserve memories, allowing us to share them with family, friends and the public online, but they also open up the possibility of publishing – that space once reserved for professionals.

Read our reviews of the 13 best cameras for bird watchers

The first step into the world of avian photography is to consider the camera body and lens options that will work best to capture the most outstanding images possible in your specific area of ​​interest. Whether it’s birds in flight or birds perched in iconic locations, the equipment you choose will make a difference in the end result.

An 800mm super-telephoto lens might be the perfect solution for bringing home great shots of an Atlantic puffin bobbing in the ocean off a rocky outcrop on a remote island. But you’ll find the same combo to be grossly overkill if you take the montage for a quick shot of a goldfinch munching on the seeds of a sunflower right next to your backyard patio. The old adage that you have to have the right tool for the job at hand is never truer than in bird photography.

Decide what you want

No rule is strict and no combination of equipment can cover all the photographic bases and be able to deliver the goods on every occasion, all the time. However, by carefully analyzing your most favored areas of interest and determining your reasonable expectations, you can put together a kit that will fulfill your mission and deliver quality images that will fuel a lifetime of memories.

As is the case with most sectors of the tech world, camera manufacturers compete fiercely to dominate the market with their product innovations. The mirrorless movement is the latest arena of competition to boast the smallest, lightest and quietest cameras.

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Granted, digital ink is often barely dry on online advertisements for a manufacturer’s latest innovative products before a competitor jumps into the breach claiming that a camera is pushing the boundaries of marketing.

There is a lesson to be learned from all of this: visit your local camera retailer to spend quality personal time with the camera and lenses you are interested in, to ensure that the marketing message is in phase with your personal needs. immediate and future, as well as your skill level. While you’re in the store, it’s worth comparing the newest cameras with the nearly new gear on the dealer’s “used” shelves. The quality-performance-value equation often tilts in favor of last year’s model, with significant savings.

Once you decide to jump into the shopping spree, it’s wise to take a moment to figure out exactly how you plan to use the new kit. Is it for birds in flight, portraits of birds on branches, large raptors or small songbirds, birds nearby or birds far away? Certain pairs of camera bodies and lenses perform well across the spectrum, although sometimes with varying trade-offs.

In general, a wide range of cameras and lenses will provide the image quality and variety you desire. But getting the gear in hand doesn’t guarantee optimal results: we as photographers must always accept and nurture our role as the most crucial part of the creative process.

Speed ​​options

Here are four viable combinations of equipment, valid for all brands and, in most cases, for vintages of the modern era.

  • For a birder with little or no photography experience other than smartphone snapshots, the ideal choice to expand your birding activities into memory collection mode would be one of the “bridge” cameras – models with built-in lens designs. Popular versions include the Canon Powershot SX70 HS, the Panasonic Lumix FZ2500, the Nikon Coolpix P1000 or P900, or the Sony Cyber-shot RX10 IV. Automated features and robust zooming capabilities make bridge cameras quite capable of avian portraiture, and they are an ideal stepping stone into the more advanced and challenging field of birds in flight.
  • People with some photo experience who are new to bird photography can benefit from a DX crop sensor housing, paired with a proven zoom lens. An example is the Nikon D500 with the Nikon NIKKOR 200-500mm zoom. I’ve used this pairing and can confirm from personal experience and talking to others in the field that the rave reviews are warranted. Additionally, DX-format bodies add the benefit of “reach”, due to the smaller dimensions of the crop sensor. They also have the advantage of being lighter, which adds portability to the equation. Other interesting 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. Likewise, all Nikon D7200-7500 series cameras are workhorses for birdwatching.
  • Then there’s the professional or enthusiast full frame DSLR body with a Canon or Nikon 400mm, 500mm, 600mm or even an 800mm prime lens. This group covers just about every bird photography situation, from resting birds to the most challenging erratic-flying raptors. DSLRs and full-frame mirrorless should be considered. Super-telephoto lenses are the reference equipment configuration in nature photography; image quality results, as long as the proper techniques are applied, are guaranteed to exceed the highest expectations of the most demanding photographers. The downside is that they are big and heavy, both physically and financially.
  • The latest offerings of mirrorless bodies and lenses in Micro Four Thirds format stand out sharply from the “big guns” when it comes to image quality. The new Olympus OMD E-M1X is at the forefront of portability and professional capabilities without compromise, a lightweight yet powerful camera with a Micro Four Thirds sensor. Paired with the Olympus M.Zuiko 300mm f/4.0 lens, it delivers 600mm equivalent reach in a trail-friendly weight. Others worthy of consideration are the full range of Panasonic Lumix bodies, with the GH5 leading the way with robust autofocus tracking.
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Zoom lenses

The growing interest in nature photography, with the imagery of birds at the peak of motion, has spawned a new class of photo enthusiast whose goal is to achieve frame-worthy images that do not require lugging around a huge tripod, along with his professional DSLR. and a heavy super telephoto lens. This is where telephoto lenses shine.

Here are a few telephoto and super-telephoto zooms worth including in any serious bird photographer’s kit: Nikon’s revolutionary NIKKOR 500mm PF, the Nikon NIKKOR 200-500mm, the Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary, the Tamron SP 150-600mm, Fujifilm’s XF100-400mm and Canon’s proven 100-400mm. Combine Sony’s 100-400mm telephoto zoom lens with Sony’s A7R III body for an unmissable birding action rig.

The decision to step up his photographic game marks a significant commitment, brimming with enthusiasm and anticipation for the adventures to come in the great outdoors. Truth be told, with the limitless level of technological innovation built into today’s camera bodies, lenses and accessories, it’s nearly impossible to make the wrong choice when selecting your system of choice. All the major manufacturers present quality equipment to consider – and ultimately buy.

With the relentless pace of research and development and new product launches, the savvy photographer never fails to carefully examine the aftermarket, where near-new, quality “used” equipment can be found. and with significant savings of money.

How to Choose Camera Lenses for Bird Photography

Suggested cameras for bird photography

Click on the buttons below for an overview 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 great options from their respective manufacturers. When selecting a camera, also consider the telephoto lenses and teleconverters available for the models you are evaluating.