Getting started in bird photography: Choose Your Weapons

Revised and updated with new recommendations April, 2016

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.

Maybe you don’t need a DLSR

Nikon Coolpix P610

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 carry now is the Nikon Coolpix P610. It currently costs under $350 at Amazon which makes it a great 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.

The images below are from my previous point and shoot, the Canon SX-50. I’m finding the Nikon images superior to that camera, and I’ll update this article with Nikon images when I can.

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.

Here are a couple of sample shots I took with my SX50. The golden eagle was taken on a day with very poor light, handheld at maximum zoom and shows nice sharpness. The acorn woodpecker was zoomed into the medium range of the lens, and the lighthouse tower is at the wide end of the range. All of them have straightforward post-processing in lightroom with a typical amount of sharpening. I find that even at relatively low ISO this camera needs a bit of noise reduction but it’s not unreasonable and easy to apply in a tool like Lightroom.

canon sx50 test images

Golden Eagle feeding on a hunt.

Cape Meares Lighthouse

Gearing up with a DLSR

If you are serious about buying a DLSR, I suggest you take a look at my Canon Birding/Wildlife Camera Gear Kit. I describe the camera and lenses I use as well as other lenses I’ve used and tested over the years and make some recommendations for bird photographers at different experience levels and budgets. My current recommendation for an entry level photographer on a budget is the Canon T6i ($750) with the Canon 100-400F5.6L ($1400). That’s not inexpensive, but it’s a body/lens combination that you won’t be frustrated with and that you can grow with and not feel like giving up or needing to upgraded again in a year or so.

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 P610 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.

(Last updated: April 2016)