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Everything You Need to Know About the Best Camera for Bird Photography
Birds have been one of the most popular subjects for photographers for ages. But as soon as you begin thinking about photographing birds, the question of the best camera for bird photography arises. What camera will give you the best results when you start birding photography? In this post, we’ll talk about what features you most need in your camera to capture the best images.
Where Do I Begin?
In Your Own Backyard, of Course!
You can find birds just about anywhere, but the most accessible place to begin your bird photography adventure is in your own backyard. Birds are busy little creatures, and a bird feeder in the backyard is a great place to get that perfect photo! It can be fun to watch the birds feeding or interacting as pairs or even as enemies protecting their territory.
The first step is to set up your bird feeding station. You will want to choose your location wisely to garner the best results from your camera. Here are some things to think about as you select your feeding location:
1 – Bird Safety
If you choose the center of your backyard for your feeder, keep in mind that wide open spaces put small birds at risk from predators, such as bigger birds or neighborhood cats. Birds are less likely to visit your feeder if they feel at risk.
If you place your feeder too close to the ground, your images will contain a whole lot of boring ground and yard as the background, so be sure and consider the height in relation to both bird safety and photo results. Many birds prefer a sheltered location, so consider a quiet area in your yard out of the wind and weather.
Related: 34 Photos of Backyard Birds of Michigan that Will Inspire You to Pick Up Your Camera
2 – Photo Results
Think about where you will sit or stand when you take photos of your new backyard friends. Will you be shooting from inside the house or lurking around the backyard near the feeder? What time of day will you most likely be available to shoot? If you know your photography basics, you know that you’ll want the sun to your back when you shoot. Choose a spot where that will most likely happen as you’re shooting.
In addition to the light, you’ll want to set your feeding station up to showcase the birds in their natural beauty. You may prefer more naturally colored feeders and perches of wood and branches rather than metal. Nothing is worse than a gorgeous and colorful bird perched on a metal contraption of the same color.
Another great read – bird photos included! All About a Boat, an Osprey, and a Photo
A Note About Depth of Field
As you set up your station, you’ll want to consider depth of field in your photo results. The best photos that allow the birds to pop in your image will have a nice, creamy background bokeh. You can achieve this by shooting with a shallow depth of field, which will work best if you have plenty of space between you and the feeder and again between the feeder and the background.
Before you permanently install your feeder station, testing out your placement ideas is a great idea. Temporarily put the feeder where you think you may want it, take a few shots with various settings (we’ll talk about that a bit further on), and see if you like your results. When you are happy with the look you are achieving, it’s time to make that station permanent!
What do I Feed My New Friends?
Of course, once you’ve gone to all the work to set up your feeder station, you’ll need to consider what to feed your birds. Check out the Cornell Lab HERE to help you know what kinds of seeds the birds in your yard prefer.
Now, About That Camera
Now that you have an idea of what you’ll be working with for your feeder station, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty and talk about what camera you’ll want to use to capture these beauties in your backyard.
You will be able to capture birds with any standard DSLR camera. That’s right. I said it – any solid DSLR will do. If you’re a complete newbie to photography, you can find information about DSLR cameras in general HERE.
I’ve done some research and have two recommendations for basic cameras that will do the work for you. Remember that your camera body is only a portion of the overall equation. In bird photography, the camera body is not as important as the lens you are using on that camera.
You can have the most expensive body with a very low-quality lens, and the result will be lacking. I recommend using some of your budget for the camera body and some for a quality lens. You can achieve a high-quality image on an entry-level camera for the average hobby photographer.
Another great read: Your Step-by-Step Guide to Photographing a Perfect Snowflake
Let’s Get Specific
Because Canon and Nikon are both well-known and reputable camera brands in the industry, you cannot go wrong with either of the two models I recommend. Keep in mind that whatever brand you start with is likely what you will stick with through most of your years of photography.
I have been shooting Canon for as long as I can remember. At my last upgrade, I briefly tried switching to another brand. I had so much difficulty adjusting to the different locations of buttons and menus that I stuck with my trusty Canon. If you plan to shoot with a friend or a mentor, consider using the same brand that they are using.
The basics of photography are the same across the spectrum of high-quality cameras, but the mechanics of how to change settings can be very different from one brand to the next. So, it may be tricky for a Nikon shooter to help and advise you if you’re shooting Canon and vice versa.
The Best Camera for Bird Photography
Consider the Canon EOS REBEL SL3 Digital SLR Camera for a Canon entry-level DSLR.
Consider the Nikon D3500 24.2MP DSLR Digital Camera for a Nikon entry-level DSLR.
These cameras have a burst mode of 5 frames per second (FPS). Burst mode allows you to hold down the shutter button while the camera automatically takes rapid-speed images, up to 5 per second. Burst mode is an important feature you’ll want when taking action photos of the birds, no matter which camera body you end up purchasing.
Also, both of the cameras listed above are crop sensor camera bodies. To understand the difference between crop sensor and full frame sensor cameras, read THIS. There are pros and cons to both, but as a beginner, a crop sensor will offer a much lower price point and will take excellent quality photos.
Related: How $16 Will Solve All of Your White Balance Problems
Now About That Lens for Your Bird Photography Camera
Of course, now that you have some basic info on a camera body, we need to talk lenses. You will want to invest in a long lens because you will not be getting overly close to your avian subjects. The cameras listed above will both come with a basic kit lens. A kit lens is fine for everyday images but is not built to the same quality as a more specialized lens. Therefore, consider a higher-priced lens of better quality to get the clearest picture with the best image quality. Here are two lenses that I recommend. I have both, and l love them each for different reasons.
My Tamron 70-200mm lens for my Canon camera is probably my favorite. I use it for beautiful photos of people and some sports and wildlife. The range of this lens is excellent for all kinds of imagery, and I find this lens is on my camera more than any other lens in my collection. The compression and depth of field are impressive. Consider this lens if you plan to shoot subjects other than backyard birds.
The Best Lenses for Bird Photography
Tamron SP 70-200mm F/2.8 Di VC G2 for Canon EF DSLR
Tamron SP 70-200mm F/2.8 Di VC G2 for Nikon FX DSLR
My other favorite lens for birding photography, or any wildlife photography really, is my Tamron 150-600. This lens is more limited for everyday use as it is such a powerful zoom. If you take wildlife photos or shoot other subjects far from you, such as athletes at play, this might be the lens for you with its amazing focal length.
Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2 for Canon Digital SLR Cameras
Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2 for Nikon Digital SLR Cameras
Both of these lenses have image stabilization. What’s that, you ask? Image Stabilization (IS), or Vibration Control (VC), is a feature within some high-quality lenses that assists in preventing motion blur in your images. This feature helps compensate for camera movement that may happen when you’re holding your camera in hand or even on a tripod in windy or unstable conditions.
Camera shake is a common cause of blurry photos, and IS/VC counteracts that effect. Read more about the causes of blurry photos HERE. As you can imagine, IS/VC important when you consider the conditions under which you’ll be shooting your feathered friends!
Other Important Equipment for Bird Photographers
I love to use two other pieces of equipment when shooting birds. First is a solid tripod. I love my Peak Design Travel Tripod in Carbon Fiber. When I have my camera mounted on the tripod, I frequently use a remote trigger. I have this one, which will work as a corded or wireless trigger and as an intervalometer for timed photos. I always carry this little gadget in my camera bag.
Let’s Talk Settings
Although it is super important to talk about the best camera for birding, the camera will be of little use if you don’t have a starting point for some settings. If you are a new photographer, you’ll first want to learn how to shoot with your camera in manual mode. Click HERE for the basics.
Here are some specific tips for settings to get you started with your camera settings.
Shutter Speed – fast for moving birds – like around 1700 for flying birds. If the birds are perching on a branch or near a feeder, you can lower your shutter speed to lower your ISO; but don’t forget that you dropped it aggressively before shooting at one of the fly-bys, or you will get a bunch of crazy motion blur in your next image!
Aperture – You can start with your aperture set around 8, which ensures that you will get an entire bird in focus within your depth of field, whether he’s flying close or further from you. Consider your background as well. If the birds are right on the edge of a treeline, then you’ll want to open up that aperture (smaller #) for extra light and extra bokeh, so the subject stands out. If your subject is flying in the open sky, go ahead and stop your aperture down some (bigger #) so that you can get every detail crisp.
ISO – I suggest keeping your ISO on Automatic for fast-moving subjects, like flying birds. It is much easier for you to adjust quickly for your shutter speed and aperture if you’re not worried about that ISO. You will get some high ISO shots, which will produce more grain in your images, but you can reduce that graininess in post-processing as necessary. It is better to have a sharply focused image with a bit of grain than an image of a blurry bird with no grain at all, right?
Remember to always focus on the bird’s eyes when you’re framing your bird shots. A teensy bit of motion blur can be easily forgiven if those eyes are nice and crisp.
Some Amazing low light photography tips here: Amazing Low Light Photography Settings to Change the Way You Shoot After Dark
And finally, once you have the best camera for bird photography, here are some pointers for how to set it up.
- Be sure to put your camera on burst mode, as discussed above. You’ll want to be able to grab focus and hold down the shutter button so you can catch multiple shots of the birds in motion.
- If you already use back button focus (BBF), great! Back button focus disables the shutter button from focusing. Focus moves to a button on the back of the camera for your thumb to press. If you do not have your camera set up this way, consider it. I switched to BBF several years ago and can’t imagine shooting any other way. Check out what Tony & Chelsea Northrup have to say about setting it up and using it HERE. https://youtu.be/8PN9R0D3pF0
- You will want to ensure your camera is set on AI Servo (or continuous focus). This setting allows your camera to continuously focus and refocus as you hold down your focus button. When used with BBF, this gives you the ultimate control to stay focused and shoot multiple shots quickly. My camera stays in this mode for almost everything.
Where Do I Go From Here?
Venture Out into the Wild
Although your backyard is convenient, once you get the hang of shooting birds on the feeder and flying by, you may find yourself ready to travel outside of your yard. When you venture out to look for birds to photograph, look for areas with lots of shelter, just as we discussed above when setting up your station. An excellent place to begin is a local nature center or nearby nature trails.
If you venture out in the winter months, your vehicle may become your most important piece of equipment. You can stay inside a climate-controlled, comfortable space with your favorite snack or beverage at easy reach! Birds see our cars as less of a threat than people marching through their territory with a backpack and a long lens, so a vehicle makes a great blind!
When you find a location rich with bird activity, park a healthy distance away and turn off your engine to cut down on noise that may spook the wildlife. Then practice patience. Even if the birds startle at first, they will quickly return when you’ve had a few minutes to sit and settle in the area.
Putting it all Together
When considering what you need in a solid birding camera, the most important thing to remember is that the best birding camera is the camera you have with you. If you want to step it up a notch, you can’t go wrong with a high-quality DSLR. Look for features such as continuous shooting mode and feel how the camera sits in your hand. Does it feel comfortable? Remember to ask your photography friends or mentors what brand camera they use and consider sticking with the familiar.
Finally, remember that the lens and the settings you use while shooting will make the most significant difference in your results. The best camera for bird photography is the camera with the right lens! I would love to answer your questions or see your bird shots! You are welcome in my private Facebook Group HERE.
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