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Bird Photography: Equipment

A couple years ago, I decided I wanted to photograph birds.

After playing with several different setups, I finally bit the bullet and purchased a Canon Rebel XS and an EF 100-400mm L IS USM lens. Since then, I have come to enjoy photographing just about anything, but my favorite subjects are still birds.

While most professionals already know all the following information, it may be useful to beginners interested in working towards bird photography. Either way, it gives you an idea of the equipment I work with in my photography. :)

Camera:

Obviously, to take photographs, the first step is going to be a camera. Most professional photographers these days are using Digital SLR cameras over point-and-shoot cameras for the additional features and lens interchangeability. For bird/wildlife photographers it becomes especially important to use a DSLR, as you are most likely going to be shooting at greater distances than a P&S (even with its stunning 5X optical zoom!) can appropriately handle.

As far as camera makers, I have used Canon equipment for a number of years, and never had any major complaints; in short, I think I’m hooked on Canon!

If looking to buy a DSLR for bird photography, I would recommend purchasing either Canon or Nikon. They are the most popular, therefore Canon and Nikon equipment is easy to get either new or used just about anywhere.

Pretty much any of Canon’s DSLRs (and Nikon’s too) will suit bird photography. Whether you choose an entry-level DSLR or all the way up to the advanced (and expensive!) 5d Mark II, you will be able to take stunning photographs of birds with a little experience and:

Lenses:

More important than the camera body (provided you have a somewhat decent body), is the glass you put in front of it. While there are some decent third-party lenses (and some pretty nice ones!), it seems that none can match the quality of a well-made lens from one of the major makers. (i.e. Canon, Nikon) Once again, however, you’ll find that you normally don’t pay for the mechanics of a lens, (though you will pay for some features, such as fast auto-focus) you usually find yourself paying for high quality glass. Always read plenty of reviews before purchasing a lens. If possible, test it on your body before shelling out a lot of green stuff for an expensive lens. Also keep in mind that most entry to mid-level DSLR bodies have a crop factor of 1.6X or so. This means that if using a 300mm lens on such a body, it will produce the same image as a 480mm lens on a Full Frame body.

As far as focal lengths, lenses useful for bird photography could be grouped into categories of:

WIDE ANGLE (17-35mm) and STANDARD or NORMAL (50mm) LENSES

Unless at point-blank, short lenses are not going to get you that wonderful shot of a bird filling the frame. However, they can be very useful for photographing flocks of birds in a landscape.

SHORT to MEDIUM TELEPHOTO and ZOOM LENSES (70-300m)

Like wide angle and standard lenses, these lenses can be very useful at times, but don’t really provide the necessary magnification for an everyday bird photography lens. However, some professionals opt for a high-quality 300mm with a teleconverter.

LONG TELEPHOTO LENSES (400mm and 500mm)

Many serious bird photographers choose their everyday lens from this group. After getting reasonably close to your subject, these lenses offer enough magnification for satisfactory images. Coupling a long telephoto with a teleconverter may be a better option than shelling out many thousands of dollars for:

SUPER TELEPHOTO LENSES (600mm and 800mm)

As mentioned, these lenses are extremely expensive, very heavy and difficult to maneuver and quite fragile. However, with these lenses, you can often simply get out of the car and start shooting.

With lenses, you get what you pay for. While it certainly isn’t necessary to own a ten thousand dollar lens to be a good bird photographer, beware of off-brand telephotos that cost only a few hundred dollars. Due to the low quality glass, many are simply incapable of producing satisfyingly sharp images. When purchasing a lens look for markings such as APO, UD, LD, L, ED, or SD, signifying that the lens has special glass elements to enhance its performance. While more expensive, these lenses will produce much more satisfactory images.

The speed of the lens is also something to consider. The faster the lens (wider opening) the better it will perform in low light situations. But also, the faster the lens, the quicker your money will disappear. Fast telephoto lenses cost many times as much and weigh a lot more than slower lenses. Find an affordable balance between the two.

Tripod:

© Venkra

A tripod is an accessory that I consider essential. While it is possible to produce sharp images handholding a lens, it is always better to use a tripod. When using long telephotos, it becomes a necessity if you wish to produce razor-sharp images.

Basically, you want to use the heaviest, sturdiest tripod that you can carry afield. Ideally, the tripod should be taller than you when set up, so that you can comfortably work while photographing birds high in trees. It is also ideal to choose a tripod whose legs can extend flat, for photographing birds on the ground.

Personally, I cannot stand pan-tilt heads for bird photography. While they may be preferable for landscapes, they are not practical for wildlife photography. In order to lock them down all the way, three knobs must be tightened. That takes too much time, especially for birds, not to mention that the handles often get in the way. Ball heads, though perhaps more expensive again, are a much preferred way to go. Framing the image is easy, you can follow moving birds, and it is easy to lock, all controlled with one knob.

Armed with a decent body, tripod and a high-quality lens, you are now ready to go out and take stunning photographs. While not absolutely essential, you will find yourself adding some accessories such as a shutter release, battery pack, maybe some filters etc…

About Digiscoping:

One method of bird photography that I worked with for a while, is the art of digiscoping. Digiscoping is the process of taking photos with a P&S through a spotting scope. I dabbled at it for a while and purchased a $400 spotting scope. However, scopes in that price range do not offer quality glass, and I experienced horrible problems with chromatic aberration. High quality Swarovski, Nikon, Leica etc... scopes can easily cost over $2000. Rather than pursuing digiscoping, I spent that money on a DSLR body and my Canon EF 100-400mm lens.

While some people (like Mike McDowell), are capable of turning out stunning images using digiscoping, for the beginning serious bird photographer, it is probably more worth while to invest towards a DSLR setup. Digiscoping is ideal for birdwatchers who have already invested in a scope with high quality glass.

Photo credits: Arsgera, Photopips, Silasfirth, Venkra.

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February 25, 2012

Silasfirth

Thanks so much for the comment Iamaster! I'm glad you enjoyed it!
I've been kind of busy lately which is why I haven't been on here a whole lot, but I have a couple more bird articles I hope to get up soon... :)

January 05, 2012

Silasfirth

Thanks for the comments!
Hope you enjoyed it, and can find the information useful. :)

January 05, 2012

Hunor83

Thanks for sharing!

December 20, 2011

Jdanne

Thanks for sharing!

December 12, 2011

Silasfirth

Thanks Brian!
I will. :)

December 12, 2011

Brianarbuthnot

Good blog,keep shooting.

December 08, 2011

Silasfirth

Thanks for the comments everyone!
@Paulcowan: Some excellent points there. I should have clarified more on the crop factor issue. In reality, you are correct, a smaller area is recorded. However, unless viewed at 100%, the subject is going to appear to be larger with the crop factor, because the image has already been internally cropped. I'm not pro crop factor, just something that should be taken into consideration.
Wimberly heads are very nice, I've had the opportunity to use a Sidekick, which works well too. I still believe they should be mounted on a ball.
I agree with the rest of your points, though I do believe that good bird photography can be achieved at an affordable price if you're willing to work at it. That might mean crawling in the mud or spending an hour inching closer to a preening duck, but it is possible.
Thanks for the additional info!

December 08, 2011

Mariaam

Thanks for sharing the useful info! It´s very interesting.

December 08, 2011

Melonstone

Great blog, very enjoyable read!

December 08, 2011

Egomezta

Thanks for sharing this is a great blog for all kind of photography.

December 08, 2011

FabioConcetta

Beautiful images, thanks for the article, I am thinking of buying a good telephoto lens, it is in my next purchase!

December 08, 2011

Grafvision

Nice work !!Thanks for sharing

December 08, 2011

Paulcowan

I've got to disagree with some of your points. To start with, the crop factor. Take a 10x8 print, slice the sides off it so it is a 5x7 and you've magnified the image, right? Because that is all a crop sensor does. It doesn't magnify anything, it just records a smaller area.

There is a case to be made for a crop-sensor case for birding, because you can rarely get close enough to the subject to fill a full frame so you are liable to have waste space round the edges in most full-frame images.

The best support for a long, heavy lens for nature photography is something like a Wimberley Head, which hangs the lens from a balanced mount. It is expensive, of course.

Wide apertures are very important because they allow the camera to grab focus on a moving object much faster. This is one reason why prime long lenses are much better than zooms: you can get wider apertures. It is also worth considering using, say, a 300mm f2.8 prime with a 1.4x teleconverter, to give you a 420mm f4, or even a 2x teleconverter to get to 600mm at f5.6, though accurate autofocus might start to get difficult at that aperture.

I also believe a large part of the price for lenses is due to the electronics. Canon has increased the price of the 400/4 lens from $6,000 to $11,000 going from IS to IS II versions.

Another factor that needs considering is the number of pixels in the sensor. The more pixels you have in a given area, the more detail can be recorded and the bigger you can blow up the final image before it starts to degrade, which is important for shooting small and distant subjects.

Basically, an $800 8MP camera with a 600mm f4 $9,000 lens will only record the same amount of information as a $2,400 22MP camera with a $750 200/2.8. So a lot of (good quality) pixels will really pay off.

Overall, though, getting the very best bird shots involves spending huge sums of money. For most other kinds of photography there are reasonably cheap work-arounds, but not for birding.

Your 100-400 f4.5-5.6 is probably the best "cheap" option available, coupled with a Canon 7D for high pixel count. The next step up adding, say, a 300mm f2.8 lens and 2x top quality Canon teleconverter will cost something like $6,500.

December 08, 2011

Landd09

Nice work !!

December 08, 2011

smartview27

Beautiful birds and captures ! Thanks for sharing .

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