You don’t need $10,000 worth of photography gear to be able to take memorable photos of birds. With the spring migration beginning, and warm weather just around the corner, we’ve put together this tips & tricks post to help you either get started with bird photography, or take it to the next level!
In the past, being able to get a lens with a long enough focal length to capture skittish birds would mean dropping a several thousand dollars, even for a used lens. That changed when Sigma and Tamron released their long zoom lenses that were actually affordable for most hobbyists. And while a Canon 1DX II or a Nikon D5 make a bird photographer drool, the reality is that even a basic DSLR or mirrorless camera is more than capable of capturing fantastic bird photographs.
Many people ask how much zoom is required for bird photography. While there is no perfect answer, generally 400mm or more is ideal. If you don’t have a lens with that much reach, consider renting a lens (you can rent a Sigma 150-600mm for a weekend from us and it’ll only cost you $40!), or going to a park with a lot of foot traffic where more common birds are accustomed to people and you can get great shots with a lens that only goes to 200-300mm.
Our top 5 picks for lenses:
- Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary (at $899, it's hard to beat!)
- Tamron 150-600mm G2 (slightly sharper than the Sigma C & better stabilization, arca-swiss tripod foot, zoom lock at any focal length)
- Sigma 60-600mm Sport (heavy and large, but the zoom range covered is incredible!)
- Sony 200-600mm (finally a naitive mount long zoom for Sony E Mount!)
- Fujifilm 100-400mm (Fuji’s equivalent to the 150-600’s)
- Panasonic 200mm f/2.8 (a 400mm FX equivalent that’s smaller than a 70-200, and you get a 1.4x TC)
- Olympus 300mm f/4 (600mm FX equivalent that slightly larger than Panasonic’s 200mm)
- Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 (fixed aperture is a plus, but the zoom range is a bit limited
- Olympus 75-300mm (a 150-600mm fx equivalent that fits in the palm of your hand, and under $500).
- Tamron 18-400 (not the longest lens, but it’s the king of “all-in-one” lenses)
While lenses are key to bird photography, camera bodies are equally important for professionals. As cameras get more expensive, there are key features that birders look for to make their lives easier, and to help get the money shot.
Faster frame rates, improved autofocus, better high ISO performance and other features that help in getting the perfect shot. This is more important when shooting in less than ideal conditions, or when capturing birds in flight. A D3500 will capture a bird sitting on a branch just as easily as a D500, but when a bird is flying, the 500 will be able to track the bird much more accurately, and its 10fps doubles the D3500’s 5fps. This can also be a drawback as it can result in hundreds of similar images you have to go through.
Features to look for in a camera:
- Autofocus performance
- Number of focus points, tracking modes
- Frame rate
- Full frame will be better at higher ISO’s
- APS-C’s crop factor will give you a longer focal length
- m4/3 will give you a lightweight setup
- Buffer performance (nothing worse than filling up your buffer and having to wait for it to clear!)
- Weather-sealing (extremely important if you plan on shooting in less than ideal weather)
- Battery Life (most mirrorless cameras will kill batteries pretty quickly, so get some spares!)
Our top 5 picks for cameras:
- Nikon D500 (probably the most popular birding camera on the market)
- Sony A7 III (one of the most popular cameras overall in 2019)
- Panasonic G9 (up to 20fps, 6K/4K Photo mode for capturing the perfect moment, under $1k, small form factor - packed with features)
- Fujifilm X-T3 (great sensor, small form factor, priced well with the X-T4 being out now, and currently includes a free grip that can hold 2 more batteries)
- Sony A9 (20fps silently with no blackout, great autofocus and high ISO performance)
- Canon 90D (the successor to the much loved 7D II with a 32mp sensor and 45 cross-type AF points)
- Nikon D7500 (a more affordable alternative to the D500)
- Canon 1D X III (tank-like build quality, 16fps mechanical, blazing fast AF and buffer)
- Nikon D5 (also built like a tank, 12fps, a low light/high ISO monster)
- Canon M6 II (same sensor as the 90D, 14fps, small size, can adapt EF mount lenses)
- Memory cards - get the fastest card that’s compatible with your camera for minimal buffering
- ProMaster’s new Rugged UHS-II CINE cards (up to 256GB)have a 260mb/s write speed, have a rugged shell, and no longer have the ribs on the contacts that can be prone to breaking off.
- Monopods/tripods - not only do they provide stability, but it helps handle the heavy weight of a long zoom lens.
- Sirui’s PS-R series monopods are available in Aluminum and Carbon Fiber, are built to last, and come with a 3 leg adjustable base that helps stabilize the monopod.
- Tripods are a great option for stationary shooting, but can be cumbersome to carry around.
- Tilt heads allow you to tilt a lens up/down while on a monopod and make it easier to use a lens when attached to a monopod
- Gimbal Heads allow for smooth motion in all directions and are great for monopods and tripod
- Comfort accessories
- BlackRapid straps are great for carrying around long lenses at the hip, and have multiple styles.
- WalkStool - easily fits into the side pocket of most camera bags and lets you sit down for a lower shooting angle.
- Rain Sleeves - a great addition to any camera bag in case the weather turns on you.
- Camera Bags - if you’re walking to your location, and plan on taking other gear with you, make sure your camera bag can fit the biggest lens you have, with the body attached.
Getting the right shot can be challenging to many in the beginning. There are several methods to get the right shot in the end. The key is making sure the end photo is sharp and in focus. While many beginners are weary of using manual modes on their cameras, it can be quite easy! If you’re just starting out, and prefer to use pre-set modes on your camera, the sports/action mode is probably the best one, as it will prioritize a faster shutter speed.
If you’re looking to experiment with manual mode, it’s as easy as 1,2,3!
- Shutter Speed
- Set your shutter speed based on what type of shooting you’re doing. If a bird is sitting still, you can get away with a slower shutter speed. The smaller a bird is, the faster your shutter speed should be, as they are more likely to move around and change direction more rapidly.
- Tip - keep your shutter speed faster than the focal length of your lens. If you’re shooting at 600mm, you should be shooting faster than 1/600th on a full frame camera, or 1/1000 on a crop sensor camera (account for a 1.5-1.6x crop factor). This will help reduce camera shake.
- For birds in flight, 1/1000-1/2000 is a happy medium for most birds. The faster the better, but keep in mind you will have to up the ISO on your camera as well
- Most people will want to shoot “wide open” to allow the most light possible to hit the sensor. The downside of this is that most of the long zoom lenses are a bit soft wide open. Try stopping your lens down a bit to increase sharpness throughout the frame. If it’s a bright and sunny day, f/8 is a good choice.
- Let your camera do the work for you! Most modern cameras do well with moderately high ISO’s. Almost all cameras let you adjust the “Auto ISO”. You can set a lower limit (set this to 100, or the lowest your camera can do), and an upper limit (6400 is completely usable on a full frame sensor, try a bit lower with smaller sensors).
- Exposure compensation
- If you can, program a dial to adjust your exposure compensation. This will allow you to quickly adjust the image if they’re coming out too bright or too dark. Most cameras will let you hold down a button and spin a dial as well.
- Metering modes also play an important role in the resulting exposure, unless you have auto iso turned off.
- Center Weight Average - measures the whole scene, but places extra emphasis on the center of the frame.
- Spot Metering - measures the center, and ignores the rest of the scene. Often used for birds/wildlife
- Matrix Metering - divides the scene into frames and tries to balance light and dark areas.
This is one of the most important settings for birds that are in motion. While every camera will have different settings and features regarding autofocus, one thing to make sure is that your camera is set to continuous autofocus. Unless the birds you’re photographing have a clear sky in the background, “auto area” should generally be avoided as the camera tries to pick the point to focus on. In general, the two modes that we find are most useful are tracking/expansion mode and the expanded single point mode. The tracking mode (3D tracking for Nikon, AF Point expansion for Canon, tracking for Sony/Olympus/Panasonic/Fuji) will lock onto a subject you select and track it as it moves through the frame. This mode is fairly accurate, but there are instances where it can lose the subject and pick up something else. Another option is to use an expanded single point, which tracks subjects at that point and the points that surround it, in case you aren’t perfectly following a bird. You can also use regular single point if you’re trying to shoot a bird through foliate/branches and other obstructions.
In The Field
If you’re just starting out, find a local park, or set up a bird feeder and practice with common birds to nail down your technique and test out different focus modes and settings. In general it is best to start shooting from a distance, and slowly moving towards a bird to get a closer shot. There have been many instances where I’ve seen people try and get as close as possible to a bird, and before they can get the camera to their eye, the bird flies away! Spend some time watching birds instead of just shooting. This will help you anticipate their behavior and get a better idea of how close you can get, or how they act.
When shooting, try and change your angle to get different views of a bird. Sometimes adjusting your angle, or moving a few feet to the left or right can be the difference between a good shot and a great shot. One important factor to watch out for is the weather. If it's a cloudy, overcast day, the light will be softer and you can shoot birds from all angles, but this might require higher ISO's. On a sunny morning though, you'll get great lighting and catch-lights, but you have to watch the sun as it can also lead to heavily backlit images with either dark subjects, or blown-out backgrounds.
Also, try and visit places frequently to familiarize yourself with a location. You can find bird “hotspots” after just a few visits by scouting out a park. If you have a pair of binoculars, bring them with you - you can look for birds from a distance and they’re more convenient than a camera when scouting. If you don’t have a pair, you can get a pair of 8x power binoculars (approx 400mm on a full frame camera) for under $200.
The last tip we have is to get creative! Slow down your shutter speed and practice panning shots, look for birds near water and shoot their reflections, try something completely out of the ordinary, and don’t be afraid to crop. Practice, be patient, and don’t be afraid to ask questions! The most important tip is to have fun! If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to us!