Photographing birds with your iPhone? Or do I need a real camera?

I got this question in email, and once I got it answered I felt the info was of enough general interest to go ahead and post it to the blog as well. The basic question: how do I take better photos of birds and wildlife with my iPhone — or do I need to get a real camera?

I would like to take better photos of wildlife near my home. We have hummingbirds and turkeys! I find that the biggest impediment to great photos with my camera, my iPhone 6, is the lack of optical zoom. I got a detachable zoom for the iPhone and took some photos of goats clearing a hillside. The optical zoom allowed me to get some nice details on the goats, but the images have chromatic distortion, presumably an artifact of the detachable zoom lens. My question for you is whether you are aware of a detachable zoom lens that does not have chromatic distortion. Alternatively, should I invest in an actual camera?

Here are my thoughts, ranging from as simple as inexpensive as I could think of to, well, lots and lots of money…

There are a lot of options you can consider, depending on how much you’re willing to spend, and what your tolerance of carrying stuff around with you. Here are some possibilities I’ve come up with for you to think about.

The first thing to think about: the rumored and soon to be released iPhone 7. Part of the ongoing rumors is that one of the upcoming iPhone models will sport a two-lens system, meaning Apple seems to be about to build in a telephoto lens similar to the one offered by many of the lens add-ons available. Assuming the rumors are true then if your plan is to upgrade your iPhone to this new model, you probably want to wait and see if this upgrade solves your problem.

But if you aren’t thinking of upgrading your phone, then one of the add-on telephoto systems would be an option. I haven’t tried any of these — I don’t want to have to carry the pieces around, because I’ll grab one of my cameras instead, but I’ve heard good things about the Olloclip systems (around $70). Wirecutter did a review of these systems and recommended the Moment lens ($100). If neither of those interest you, iMore did a survey of various options that you can explore for other possibilities

Another option would be to consider buying (or using, if you have one) a spotting scope with an iPhone adapter. This is known as digiscoping, and it’d allow you to also use the scope without the camera, which if you’re getting more serious about watching the birds might make this option interesting. All about Birds has a nice Introduction to Digiscoping to get you started and Eagle Optics is a good place to research and buy a good scope at a good price. I’ve played with the Solomark camera adapter a bit and it seems to work fine, but I’ve found digiscoping a bit fussy to get all of the pieces working together well, so I haven’t done a lot of it.

Don’t forget that if you want to use a spotting scope you’ll need a tripod to support it. I know people who digiscope with binoculars, but I haven’t tried that and I expect getting everything working right and pointed at the thing you want to photograph would be even more fussy than with a Scope.

The problem with the scope/digiscope option is cost: buying a scope, adapter and tripod quickly gets expensive, and it quickly makes more sense to move into a camera. I really like the Nikon P610 as a good entry-level and easy to use camera with a strong telephoto and it’s currently available for around $500.

One thing to keep in mind as you move into bigger telephoto setups is that camera shake and stability becomes a challenge. It can really help to have some kind of stabilizer for the camera to help you aim and keep the camera on the subject; maybe a tripod, but you can get a nice, inexpensive walking stick with a tripod adaptor in the handle. Attach the camera to this (if you are using an iPhone with a lens, you’ll need a tripod connector) and that can make a big difference in how well you can capture images.

And at the high end, you have the “serious” cameras. When you start talking about bird photography, you need at least 300mm capability (I prefer 400mm) to be able to work with birds, and so this gets pricey fast. the camera/lens capability that’s the least expensive that I’m willing to recommend is this: Canon T6i Body ($750) and the Canon 70-300 IS ($500). That’s $1250 for the two pieces, and that’s the LOW END I can recommend for moving into the interchangeable lens camera world if you want to photograph birds.

That’s a serious commitment, which is why I always push people at the Nikon P610 first It’s a very nice entry camera that lets you figure out how serious you are about this before committing a thousand dollars or more.

And just for your amusement. for an idea of what you can spend… Here’s my current preferred birding gear: Fuji X-t1 body (1000) and the Fuji 100-400 ($1800). That’s almost $3000 (and I usually at a 1.4x teleconverter at another $500), but if you’re serious about this and willing/able to spend the money, it’s very much worth it, but it’s very much not a beginner setup, but one you grow into as your interest and skills grow.

Hope this helps.