Bird photography can be a wonderfully satisfying hobby. But it also comes with many challenges, the first of which is choosing the right equipment. Here are the basics.
A digital SLR (DSLR) camera with a hand-holdable 400mm lens will allow autofocus (essential for getting sharp images of fast-moving birds) and provide flexibility for capturing birds in flight. Canon and Nikon currently have the most complete range of long telephoto lenses, so these are the safest choices when buying a DSLR intended primarily for bird photography.
When camera shopping, don’t be pulled in by bells and whistles; many are surprisingly irrelevant, at least in terms of raw image quality. In-camera processing features (such as noise reduction) have little value as long as you expose properly, shoot in RAW (rather than JPEG), and post-process your photos on the computer with standard software such as Photoshop or Lightroom. Also keep in mind that more megapixels don’t always result in higher-quality images; as a general rule, a higher price tag is often a better indicator of potential image quality than higher megapixels, because manufacturers use higher-quality sensors in their more expensive models. Even more important than sensor quality is autofocus accuracy: Higher-grade camera models typically have more accurate autofocus, and that’s critical for getting tack-sharp images of active birds.
If you’re a beginner or you’re on a budget, consider buying used; you’ll often get better value by buying a used professional-grade DSLR rather than a brand-new mid-grade model.
Finding the right lens can be just as challenging as choosing your camera. Third-party lenses from reputable brands (particularly Sigma) are often substantially cheaper while only slightly less sharp than those of the top-tier brands, though they sometimes have smaller apertures (letting in less light) and slower autofocus motors. For general bird photography you’ll need at least 400mm of focal length, and ideally more than that. Unfortunately, teleconverters—which increase magnification—are no magic bullet for those with smaller lenses, because they reduce autofocus capability on smaller-aperture lenses. Again, think about buying used here. A reputable camera shop should offer a money-back guarantee on used equipment, and I recommend sending all used gear in to the original manufacturer’s service center to make sure the focusing is properly calibrated (that goes for both cameras and lenses).
If you’re not ready to shell out for an expensive camera and lens and you already own a spotting scope, you have another option: Simply point your camera—and yes, that includes your iPhone—into the eyepiece of your spotting scope and photograph the image projected by the scope. (To improve image quality it’s best to remove the eyepiece from the scope and the lens from the camera, and direct-mount the camera body to the scope using a specialized mounting ring.) You can even use an astronomical telescope, such as a Maksutov-Cassegrain design, as an inexpensive bird photography rig; it’ll offer high magnification, though at the cost of reduced aperture (less light).
Digiscoping, as this technique is known, has its drawbacks—such as the lack of autofocus and the need to use a tripod—but for the budget-minded, a basic digiscoping rig can cost less than a quality camera-and-lens setup. (See Audubon’s pick for a mid-priced digiscoping set-up here.)
Regardless of what equipment you’re using, it’s important to remember that bird photography should be fun. For me, birding (with or without a camera) is about enjoying the thrill of being in the company of wild animals. If I also get a good photo now and then, that’s just an added bonus.
William H. Majoros has been studying birds and bird behavior for more than 20 years. This article is adapted from his online reference guide, Secrets of Digital Bird Photography: Tools and Techniques.