This blog entry does not address the ambitious and advanced bird photographer, nor the complex technical aspects of the topic. It’s a more basic, personal approach from a birder, who likes to take casual pictures & videos. It emphasizes giving the interested beginner a brief overview of what options there are for bird photography.
Brief overview about Bird Photography
Not so long ago, taking high-quality bird pictures for publications was exclusively reserved for the professional photographer. The equipment used was invariably extremely expensive and exquisite. But with the rise of digital photography some 15 years ago, things drastically changed.
Digitalization has leveled the field for birders, beginners, and amateur photographers alike, who have the ambition – and now the opportunity – to shoot high-quality pictures with affordable equipment. Nowadays, people with very basic knowledge of photography (like me) are able to take excellent pictures and videos of birds – something that was unthinkable a decade ago.
Bird Photography Market
Bird photography has become quite a market. There’s a large offer of workshops, guided photography tours, as well as many publication opportunities e.g. social media platforms and public databases. Although birders and bird photographers focus on the same subject, the two fields are different pairs of shoes.
Anyway, many people like to combine both and recognize modern technologies as useful tools. Whether it’s to document a very rare bird on your excursion, capture a picture or video of a dramatic and spontaneous encounter, or taking pictures to compare, learn and study species – it’s true that today almost every birder is carrying some sort of photographic equipment in the field!
But what kind of equipment?
That’s where the potential headache starts for people completely new to the subject. Photography (no matter what genre and level) is a science, and the market offers a myriad of options to pros and beginners alike.
To start with, it’s essential to ask yourself in what environment and for what purpose you consider using your equipment. If you aim to take good pictures of rare, cryptic rainforest understory species, you will need – no matter what – adequate, expensive high-end equipment.
In rainforest understory, you definitely don’t need a big 600/800 mm lens. But if you want to take pictures of waders, birds in open habitat, distant birds from a canopy platform, then you have to consider exactly that. But for this purpose, you have several more alternatives and options for compromises.
As well, if you publish your photos exclusively on platforms and databases that compress picture quality drastically, you don’t need the fanciest gear! Nowadays there’s something for everyone, for every need. But no system will be capable to cover all application fields at the same time.
Systems widely used for Bird Photography
The options presented below are the most acclaimed and widely used for bird photography. Still, the best system with the technically best picture results are:
1. Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) Cameras and their accompanying lenses.
But this is mainly for the advanced and ambitious bird and wildlife photographer. With this system, you’ll always carry (at least) two different parts: Camera body + lens, the most weight, and spend the most cash.
For a long time now, the industry leaders for DSLRs are Nikon and Canon. The most significant advantages of DSLR cameras compared to other systems are: They have the best autofocus, have very high frame rates, perform excellent at high ISO, and are the most robustly built.
The price of good DSLR cameras ranges between 700 USD up to 6000 USD. Consider buying them second-hand. There’s a huge market for this. For an overview of Nikon and Canon camera bodies:
Accompanying one of the high-end camera bodies, are high-end telelenses of the same brands. For bird photography, you need at least a 300mm lens (or a 100-400mm zoom). Nikon & Canon offer fixed focal lengths of 400/500/600mm with apertures F/2.8, F/4, F/5.6 suitable for bird photography.
You can combine these lenses either with camera bodies with crop factor or converters in order to get more magnification with smaller focal lengths (300/400,) or incredible magnification with 500/600mm lenses. Using converters will usually (slightly) diminish picture quality. For taking pictures with such high magnification, you need good tripods and tripod heads…
Bird photographers love warm, low-angle sunlight in the early morning and late evening. Often, this ideal light is not available. If you take pictures in dark environments, you’ll need sophisticated flashes too, which tend to alter natural colors significantly.
You see, once you move into this league, you’ll have to add all different (yes, innumerable) kinds of accessories. All the above-mentioned will result in staggering expenses starting at about 12000 USD, and you dragging around lots and heavy gear into the field.
Having said this, Nikon just released the new Nikkor 500mm F/5.6 PF ED VR telelens. This very compact, light (1.5 kg!), “cheap” (3900 USD) lens offers incredible quality and could set THE standard of what many photographers will use in the future.
2. Digital, mirrorless Cameras
The mirrorless camera technology is following the above-mentioned DLSR-System hot on its heels in several aspects. With this system, you still carry two parts – the camera body and lens.
The newest releases of the industry leaders Sony and Olympus apparently approach or even match the image quality and versatility of DSLR cameras. Nikon and Canon produce mirrorless cameras too.
Mirrorless cameras lack obviously – as the name implies – a mirror. This means that one is looking through an electronic viewfinder, instead of an optical one. The imaging sensor is exposed to light at all times and creates a digital image reproduced in the electronic viewfinder or an LCD screen on the back of the camera.
Advantages of mirrorless cameras
They are small and light, still somewhat cheaper, are excellent for taking videos, and they are compatible with Canon, Nikon, Sigma and Tamron lenses.
Disadvantages of mirrorless cameras
Most of the mirrorless cameras have somewhat slower autofocus, are less tolerant to high ISO, and have significantly less battery life.
If you have a little extra cash, you might want to consider Sony’s high-end telelens, a 600mm/F.4 for about 13000 USD.
So, is there something in between the two? Absolutely!
3. Bridge cameras
Bridge cameras are mirrorless, single-lens cameras. The name “Bridge Camera” derives from “bridging the gap” between point-and-shoot cameras and single-lens reflex cameras (SLRs) There you go: You have camera and lens united in one piece!
The ones best suited for bird photography have zoom lenses ranging between 25-400mm, 25-480mm or 25-600mm. These cameras are also well suited for taking videos and are extremely compact and light!
Although image quality is excellent on computer screens and by any means good enough to publish your pictures on Facebook etc., it never matches the quality of good DSLR and mirrorless cameras. Furthermore, they are not resistant to humidity and shock, they focus and shoot slower and are far less tolerant to high ISO settings.
In my opinion, they offer by far the best price-performance ratio for beginners who like to take good quality pictures and videos of birds. The large zoom range of the integrated lens makes them very versatile and useful for many other photographic purposes.
Sony & Lumix currently produce the best bridge cameras:
Here you simply attach a point-and-shoot camera or even a smartphone (with a corresponding adapter) to your telescope. Depending on your equipment you can achieve focal lengths of 1000-3000mm and even more, not possible with any of the above-presented systems. Furthermore, a good telescope produces amazing detail with a forced depth of field and is tremendous in low-light situations.
In turn, with such a powerful focal length you’ll have considerable problems focusing on close and especially moving objects.
Although people have been digiscoping since the early 1990s, probably no one back then believed that it would be possible to take high-quality pictures with a telephone! And more: Make them instantly and easily accessible to the whole community.
Conclusions and recommendations
Advances in technology and optics have provided us new opportunities for photography, probably few have dared to think of a short while ago. Remember: The most expensive equipment is worth little if you don’t know how to handle it properly.
Whatever camera system you use: Learn to handle it well. Of course, basic technical knowledge is essential to take good pictures. Practice and experiment with your gear as much as you can.
Birds rarely pose long enough and wait until you finished fumbling around with buttons and camera settings. But: Pure technical knowledge can limit you in some ways, not helping you to take interesting pictures. And: How often has the same bird been photographed technically perfect on the same branch and the same feeder, not even causing you to raise an eyebrow anymore…
Study your subject – the birds – as well as possible. Profound knowledge about them and the environment they are living in will enhance the chances of taking extraordinary pictures – whatever kit you use!
About the author
Professional bird guide, swiss native, with more than 32 years of experience guiding hardcore birders and birdwatching tours. Jérôme has been focused on bird identification. He also traveled to many countries, starting in Switzerland. Then he traveled exploring South America, the most biodiverse continent in the world, becoming specialized in Neotropical birds.