You’ve got the birds at your feeders and water baths (or you’re planning to soon) – now you want to try and get the very best photos (and perhaps videos too) of them that you can.
Bird photography has a reputation for being one of the most expensive forms of photography. Why? Birds are (usually) small, often far away, move quickly, and have detailed plumage that we want to capture as best as we can. All of this adds up to needing a great camera and even better lenses.
But don’t stress if you don’t have five figures to spend on camera gear.
We live in an age where you can get extraordinary photos with even entry level camera equipment. Will your chances of capturing fast moving small birds increase if you have the best camera body and lenses? Of course. But for many people, making the most of what you can afford and learning the ropes of bird photography as you go is what it’s all about.
As you’ll see in this big guide, you can get great photos with even the lowest cost setup. If you can afford more – wonderful, and one should always aim to purchase the best photography gear that you are willing to pay for.
The purpose of this guide is to show you the options available at various budget levels. Bird photography can be as cheap or expensive as you want it to be.
I cover some great camera/lens combinations that are capable of getting stunning bird photos (once you’ve put the practice time in to learn how to get the most out of it!), and I also cover the positives and negatives of each option so you can weigh up the potential cost vs benefits.
One very important thing to keep in mind when it comes to photography, and especially bird photography, is this: the lens you use is even more important than the camera body. A great lens will last you a lifetime, while a camera body is something that you’re likely to upgrade as the years go by.
I will cover all of this and more in this guide.
Which type of camera?
When it comes to taking photos of birds, nothing beats a DSLR camera.
Although point and shoot, superzooms and mirrorless cameras can produce great quality photos nowadays, one of the big things they lack and which is required for most types of bird photography is the fast and accurate autofocus capability that a DSLR offers, as well as the focal length that you can get with long DSLR lenses and the sensor size (allowing for much better low light performance and overall superior image quality) that DSLR’s offer.
For these reasons my main focus is on digital SLR cameras in this guide. I do cover a few of the best superzooms and mirrorless options available as well, as some people do use them to capture images of birds and they can be adequate particularly when birds are not fast moving or at a great distance.
Once upon a time, the cameras and lenses available at the lower end of the budget were not particularly great for taking photos of birds. Fast forward to 2017 though, and we have so many fantastic choices that don’t break the bank.
If you’re just starting to get into bird photography you’ll be pretty impressed at the image quality you can get out of a setup that costs well under $1000. Of course, there’s a lot more to equipment than just the quality of the photos (you need to be able to focus and feel comfortable with the camera’s functionality as well), and these are all things to consider.
The main downsides when it comes to the cheaper and lower spec cameras isn’t their image quality (in many cases they are almost equal to the most expensive cameras), but the trimmed down feature set, build quality, lifespan and functionality. With all that in mind, if you’re on a lower budget and still want a great DSLR setup for taking beautiful bird photos, you are spoiled for choice when it comes to both cameras and lenses.
- Superb image quality
- Low cost
- Excellent video quality
- Small and light
- Easy to use interface
- If you prefer having more physical buttons to control your settings, rather than changing some options on a screen, the D7500 might be more your cup of tea
- Shutter count life rating is not as high as the more expensive cameras
- Not weatherproof to the extent of higher priced cameras
Nikon recently released the D7500 which ticks just about every box most bird photographers want: exceptional image quality, excellent handling and controls, great autofocus and superb video capabilities.
The D7500 is in another class above the two entry level cameras mentioned above. It has a much more professional feel and function with higher build quality, which also gives you increased access to settings using buttons rather than menus through the LCD screen. This means you can change settings much quicker, which is so important when you’re trying to catch that photo of a bird that might only sit there for a few seconds – if that!
The D7500 autofocus system is also superior to the D5600 and D3400.
In short – if you have more money to spend, want a camera that will serve you well for a good number of years (it has a higher rated shutter life than the entry level models too), the D7500 is superior to the lower end Nikon cameras. Image quality wise, you won’t notice a difference between them. But when it comes to usability, control and speed, the D7500 is in another class.
The top end crop sensor camera is the D500. Yes, it’s a high priced camera body and not generally one that beginner’s will look at as their first option (unless money is no issue and you just want to jump right in to the best). The D500 gives you everything that D7500 does, and more. Faster continuous shooting frame rate and professional build quality make this a camera for serious photographers who will use it often to justify the cost.
Lenses are where people spend the most money when it comes to bird photography. Is bigger better? In many cases, yes. You want to get as close as you can to a bird to gain maximum detail in an image.
But it’s not as simple as that, and not all lenses are created equal. The focal length is just one factor in the equation – it’s the quality of the optics that’s really most important. In general, you get what you pay for with camera lenses. With some notable exceptions that I am pleased to talk about here, generally the cheaper lenses just won’t give you amazing picture quality a lot of the time.
You’ll want at least a 300mm focal length for birds (unless you are getting really really close to them). You will want to consider the weight of the lens and how portable you want it to be. Better long lenses will always weigh more because of the more solid build and better quality glass inside it.
These are all factors to keep in mind as you embark on your bird camera equipment purchase decision.
Fortunately it’s now possible to get started in bird photography on a modest budget, and if you’re not ready or interested in dropping four figures on the best camera lenses, there are still some quality of options for you.
True, these lower cost lenses aren’t built to the same standards or have the best optical qualities of the higher end lenses – but they are still capable of capturing great photos of birds (and other things) in your backyard, especially when you can get closer to your subjects.
The lower end of the lens budget spectrum will generally limit you to 300mm focal length at the most.
Top End Lenses
At this end of the spectrum you move well into 4 figure territory and beyond. If your budget is at this level then you’re likely to be doing a lot of research on specialist photography sites and probably already know exactly what you want.
For that reason, I won’t be going into huge detail at the options at this end of the budget range but they are certainly worth covering for those who are interested in just what money can buy when it comes to photographing birds, and in many cases, why the majority of people are able to get by very well with middle of the range gear unless there is a very specialist need (or you just don’t mind spending a lot of money – which is perfectly fine!).
Bird Photography Cameras FAQs
What is the best camera right now to use for bird photography?
Our favorite camera today for photographing birds in 2022 is the Canon R5
How much focal length should I have for bird photography?
A lens of at least 300mm focal length is needed for most birds. But 400mm is even better. Lenses of 500mm and above are the ultimate for bird photography - they allow you to photograph birds without getting too close and disturbing them.
Is the Nikon D4 still good bird photography camera?
The Nikon D4 DSLR is still considered one of Nikon's best ever cameras. It is a superb autofocus system and exceptional low light ability. With the right lens, you can still take brilliant bird photos with the Nikon D4.
Do I need a mirrorless camera to photograph birds?
A mirrorless camera is not mandatory for bird photography. People have been taking photos of birds with DSLR cameras for decades, and they still work perfectly today. If you have a DSLR and prefer not to upgrade to a mirrorless camera yet, rest assured you can STILL take just as good photos with your older camera, especially when you are using high quality lenses.