Unfortunately, camera gear is a very important part of wild bird photography. Unless you are standing close and photographing ducks and geese that are not afraid of people, prepare yourself to invest in a solid camera and one or more long telephoto lenses.
So, what camera is good for fast-action photography? I would recommend a camera that can handle at least 1/2000 of a second shutter speed with 6 to 9 fps (frames per second) and a big enough camera buffer to be able to handle large bursts if you want to get the best results, plus a good autofocus system for quick focus acquisition. Any modern digital camera (whether DSLR or mirrorless) should be capable of shooting at 1/2000 of a second and faster. Fast frames per second and good autofocus mean professional cameras such as the Nikon D500 or Canon 7D Mark II that are suited best for fast-action and wildlife photography. But if you already have an entry-level DSLR, it doesn’t mean that you cannot capture birds – it just means that you might miss a good shot, just because your camera is not fast enough. The most important thing to keep in mind – the speed of focus acquisition both on camera and on lenses is far more important than frames per second.
Which brings us to the next question: What lenses are good for bird photography?
It is tough to answer this question because it all depends on how much money you are willing to put into a lens. The best bird photographers in the world will tell you that they cannot live without their 200-400mm, 400mm, 500m, 600mm, or 800mm lenses, preferably with optical stabilization + teleconverters. The Nikon 500mm f/4E FL VR currently sells for approximately $10,299 USD, while the 600mm f/4E FL VR is about $12,299 USD, while the 800mm f/5.6 costs as much as a new car! That’s very pricey and only professionals who make money by selling their images and people with large wallets can buy those lenses. If you are one of those, the best combination for bird photography would be something like the Nikon D5 or D500 + one of the above-mentioned lenses + 1.4x TC (TeleConverter), which will give you the best performance and reach. In addition, you will have to buy a good heavy-duty tripod + accessories (batteries, memory cards, etc). The small and lightweight Nikon 300mm f/4E PF VR + 1.4x/1.7x TC or telephoto zoom like the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E VR will also yield excellent results without breaking your bank.
On the Canon side, the choices are going to be similar and as abundant as Nikon’s, with plenty of great options. Aside from the 400mm to 800mm super-telephoto exotic glass, there are other great budget options, such as the Canon 300mm f/4L IS + 1.4x TC, or the Canon 400mm f/5.6L (but no IS).
Also, don’t forget about third-party lens options. Both Tamron and Sigma produce superb telephoto zoom lenses that are wonderful for bird photography. Tamron’s 150-600mm VC G2 is excellent and if you prefer Sigma, you have two options – the Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary and the 150-600mm Sport.
Other camera systems from brands like Sony and Fuji might not have professional-grade super-telephoto lenses yet, but you will come across other solid offerings suitable for bird photography, such as 100-400mm variable aperture lenses, which might be excellent candidates for bird photography.
So far, everything that I have mentioned above in terms of focal length is for lenses alone. Once mounted on a camera body, the camera sensor size will also impact the field of view, meaning what you actually see in the frame and in the image. Compared to full-frame sensors, smaller sensors will generally provide better reach. If this sounds confusing, see my DX vs FX, Crop Factor and Equivalent Focal Length, and Field of View articles. All Nikon DX cameras have a crop factor of 1.5x, while Canon’s are 1.6x. So, the actual field of view, which some photographers call “equivalent focal length” (meaning equivalent compared to 35mm film/full-frame) can be approximately calculated by multiplying this crop factor by the total focal length of the lens (which includes the teleconverter). For example, the Nikon 300mm f/4 lens with a 1.4x teleconverter (420mm total) mounted on a DX camera would have an equivalent field of view as a 630mm (420mm x 1.5) lens on a full-frame (FX) sensor. Meaning, if you were photographing a bird from say 10 feet away and you could fill your frame with the bird using a Nikon 300mm f/4 lens with a 1.4x teleconverter on a DX camera, you would need a 630mm lens if you were shooting with a full-frame / FX camera to fill the frame the same way.
Being able to reach birds from distance without distracting them is a major part of bird photography and this combination of a long telephoto lens with a DX sensor camera definitely provides more opportunities for successful birding. The downside of a crop-factor sensor, however, is the amount of noise on images at high ISO levels – so better reach does not necessarily translate to better quality. As I have pointed out in my DX vs FX article, full-frame sensors control noise better than cropped sensors, especially in challenging light. So both have advantages and disadvantages – DX generally gives you better reach, while FX gives you better quality. Keeping a fast shutter speed and retaining low ISO requires lots of light, especially on a lens combination with a maximum aperture of f/5.6. Therefore, in low-light situations, I would recommend shooting on a tripod at slower shutter speeds rather than cranking up ISO and having images with a lot more noise. Birding is all about retaining the detail and having sharp images – nobody likes bird pictures that are soft or out of focus. Noise can often be dealt with in post-processing, but lost detail cannot be recovered.
What about tripods? If you use heavy 500mm or 600mm lenses, a good tripod system (a tripod and a tripod head) is a must, simply because hand-holding these lenses is not practical. If you don’t know where to start when it comes to tripods, check out our detailed guide on choosing a tripod. Ideally, you want solid carbon fiber legs that can hold a lot of weight and a gimbal head, such as the Wimberley WH-200. Such a setup would be able to handle heavy lenses very well and provide enough flexibility to shoot birds in flight. Lastly, go for the Arca-swiss quick-release system, because that’s pretty much the standard now for handling heavy gear.
Maintaining fast shutter speeds, especially for birds in flight and small birds that move very quickly is extremely important – you cannot fix motion blur in post-production. In some cases, photographers shoot at slightly slower shutter speeds just to get the bird’s wings slightly blurred, to create a feeling of motion. But in all other cases, you want to freeze the action. To achieve this, I typically set my shutter speed to something between 1/1000 and 1/1600. Most digital cameras have the following camera modes: “Manual“, “Shutter Priority“, “Aperture Priority” and “Program“. The camera mode I use the most for my photography, including birding is “Aperture Priority”. Many cameras today come with the Auto ISO feature that automatically adjusts camera ISO based on light conditions. You can set your minimum shutter speed, which can be set to a high number for bird photography and maximum ISO to retain the detail. This feature is very useful and I use it all the time, setting the Auto-ISO to on, maximum ISO to something like 1600, and minimum shutter speed to 1/1000 of a second.
When shooting in “Aperture Priority” mode, which I use the most, I set Auto-ISO minimum shutter speed to 1/1000 and shoot wide open, i.e. at the maximum aperture. The nice thing about shooting in “Aperture Priority” mode, is that if there is too much light, my shutter speed increases to a bigger number, and if light conditions deteriorate, the camera’s Auto-ISO feature increases ISO automatically and tries to keep the shutter speed at whatever I set it to. If the highest ISO is already reached and there is still not enough light, it will obviously decrease the shutter speed, while still keeping images bright enough. Another reason for using the “Aperture Priority” mode has to do with full control over the depth of field. For example, if I’m shooting wide open at f/4 and standing close to a bird, my depth of field is very shallow and if I focus on the eye of the bird, I might not be able to capture its back or tail in full detail. By stopping down the lens aperture to something like f/8, I can capture more of the bird without blurring parts of it. Personally, I do not find “Shutter Priority” to be useful for bird photography, because I do not want my camera to set the aperture for me. However, now that cameras are equipped with the Auto ISO feature, you can set both your Aperture and Shutter Speed to certain values in Manual Mode and let the camera control the brightness of images by changing ISO automatically for you.
What about shooting hand-held? If you have a light enough camera setup and you are shooting at fast shutter speeds, shooting hand-held should not be a problem. Unfortunately, sometimes lighting conditions are poor and you cannot use fast enough shutter speeds. Once your shutter speed drops to a certain threshold, you will start getting blurry images due to camera shake. How do you avoid that? The general formula is to follow the reciprocal rule, which is to keep the shutter speed to at least the total focal length of the lens. This means that if you are shooting with a 300mm lens on a full-frame camera, your shutter speed should be at least 1/300 of a second (if the 300mm lens is mounted on a crop-factor sensor, the shutter speed should equal focal length multiplied by the crop factor). However, when shooting with long lenses on high-resolution cameras, you might find a reciprocal rule to be inadequate to produce sharp images – you might need to increase your camera’s shutter speed, even more, to end up with tack-sharp images with plenty of detail.
Here are my Nikon camera settings for bird photography:
Camera Mode: Aperture Priority with the aperture set to maximum aperture (wide open).
Metering: Matrix Metering for most situations, but sometimes Spot Metering can provide better results.
Release Mode: High-Speed Continuous (fastest fps).
Autofocus Mode: Single AF Point or Dynamic (9).
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