(last update: August, 2017)
I frequently get asked about about buying gear to get started in bird photography, primarily from people who have outgrown their point and shoots and are interested in upgrading. The reality is that you aren’t going to go far in Bird Photography with a standard point and shoot, a low-end DLSR with the standard “kit” lens, or your phone camera.
There are options depending on your interests and budget, but most bird photography solutions start as “really? that much?” and work their way up to “you’re joking, right?” — and then continue all the way to “Not a chance. My spouse will kill me.”
Birds rarely want to have their pictures taken, and out in the wild, if you move towards a bird, it will fly off and laugh at you as it leaves. Because of that, your photography gear needs to be able to take photos of small feathered things from a fairly large distance. That means it needs to have significant magnification power. Camera gear typically defines that power in terms of millimeters, or MM. A 24mm lens shoots very wide and is used for landscapes. A 200mm lens is known as a telephoto and shoots a narrow slice of the area it’s pointed at, but magnifies that area so it looks to be close. This kind of magnification is what we need for birds.
An “average” DLSR kit will usually have a couple of lenses that cover a range of about 24mm to about 200mm. The sweet spot for a bird photography lens starts at about 300mm and goes to between 400 and 600mm, with some photographers using huge lenses and teleconverters to build unbelievably powerful (and expensive) telephoto setups. It should be obvious that the kind of equipment we’re talking about isn’t what most photographers carry.
I find 400mm to be the right trade-off between cost, portability, power and usability. If you can find a lens that gets you to or near that power, you’ll be able to go a long way in photographing birds. Lenses with this power aren’t exactly cheap, but they’re affordable without taking out a 2nd mortgage.
Can I use my phone?
The cameras on smartphones have improved a lot in the last few years, but the lenses don’t have the telephoto power to get a good image of distant or moving birds. There are lens add-ons for telephoto, macro and other adaptations, and they can be interesting to experiment with, but my tests found them not useful for birding beyond, perhaps, getting closer images of zoo birds.
The exception is if you have a spotting scope, and then it’s possible to attach your phone to the scope using a digiscoping adaptor and take pictures through the scope. The one I’ve used with some success is by Solomark and is inexpensive at around $20. If you have a scope and want to experiment with Digiscoping, this is a good tool to try.
Maybe you don’t need a DLSR
Nikon Coolpix P900
Buy on Amazon
If you’re just starting out with bird photography, maybe you don’t need to go the DLSR route. Instead, consider a mid-range point and shoot with what’s called a super-zoom lens. These are a lot less expensive than a full birding setup with a DLSR, and will still give you enough capability to get good shots and pull in birds from a distance.
The super-zoom I recommend now is the Nikon Coolpix P900. It currently costs around $550 at Amazon which makes it a good value. I’m just starting to work with it regularly but I really like the mechanics and the quality of the images. Set the camera in automatic (aka “green box”) mode and it works nicely as a point and shoot.
Looking for a budget option? You can try the Nikon Coolpix L340, which will set you back under $200. It has a 24x superzoom that will get you the telephoto magnification you need, but the image quality and usability isn’t as good as the P900. Still, if your budget is really limited, it would be worth it as an entry level camera to experiment with.
The Nikon is my “keep in the car” camera for when I’m not carrying my bigger cameras, and Laurie uses one as her sports camera when she’s off watching baseball or hockey, since many facilities are sensitive about “pro-caliber” gear. That’s one nice aspect of this camera: it’s smaller, lighter and it looks like the kind of camera people carry around with them, so it doesn’t draw attention. It’s also the kind of camera you can leave in the car without being paranoid.
One thing to note about these cameras. As you crank up the zoom, holding the camera steady enough for a good shot – the higher the magnification, the more every twitch and tremor will translate to the camera and move the lens about. Much past 600mm, I found the camera really twitchy and hard to keep on a subject unless I put it on a monopod, so just because the manufacturer says it has a 1200mm lens doesn’t mean it’s easy to work with. One thing that definitely helps here is a monopod, which you can attach to the camera and support it against the ground.
Gearing up with a DLSR or Mirrorless System
Bird Photography is still the domain of the interchangeable lens camera, although the better superzoom do a quite nice job in good light conditions. Where the DLSR and Mirrorless system win out over the less expensive cameras is in poor light or in difficult shadow and focusing conditions, such as partially obscured birds. If the budget allows and you know you’re serious about bird photography, it’s worth it spending the money for an interchangeable lens system.
My camera of choice today is the Fuji X-T2 mirrorless camera body, with their Fujinon 100-400 lens and a 1.4x Teleconverter. This is not a cheap rig and I don’t recommend it for beginners — it’ll cost you about $4000 for this setup — but as your skills and interest advance, this is the kind of no-compromise setup that advanced birders use, giving me a reasonably fast 560mm lens in a low-weight (3.5 pound) package that can be hand-held or used on a tripod.
If you can’t spend that much money, I have a less expensive suggestion. You can get yourself a Canon Rebel SL2 body for about $550, and the Tamron 18-400 superzoom lens and for about $1200 you can have a good system that will help you get quality shots with enough telephoto power to bring in more distant birds. It’ll be a much better camera than any of the Superzooms, but it won’t be as good as the Fuji setup in poor light or weird focus situations.
Willing to spend a little more? Consider the Sigma 150-600 lens instead or it’s big brother, the 150-600 Sport. If your budget allows, you can upgrade the body to a Canon T7i, or even consider a 7dMkII. The 7dmkII with the Sigma 150-600 Sport is the closest DLSR set in comparison to the Fuji setup I use, but it weighs almost 8 pounds vs. 3.5. That really limits your ability to hand hold the gear and makes tripods (probably with a gimbal — I use the Opteka) a necessity.
Pulling the trigger
Hopefully this guide will help you get started. If you think you’re interested in bird photography, I strongly suggest you try the Nikon P900 and get some experience before putting down the money for a full DLSR setup. You’ll be able to take a lot of good photos and learn about where your interests really are before committing to the kind of money a DLSR kit will cost.