Bird Photography: Camera Essentials
Updated: Jan 27
Grey Currawong (Caiguna, Western Australia): Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F4 600mm Lens + 1.4x teleconverter, F5.6, 1/320, ISO2500 at 840mm.
I am constantly being asked to recommend a camera to people who want to get into bird photography, or upgrade their gear, so I think it's time to set out what I believe to be the most important camera features for bird photography.
Before we start, however, let's get one thing clear:
Everything in photography is a compromise.
Repeat. Repeat again. And again. And again, until it's ingrained in your brain.
There is not, and never will be ... (yet), the 'perfect' camera that does everything you want, in every situation, at the right weight and at a price you can afford.
The other proviso I want to add is that as with any camera gear, 90%+ of the good images you get are a direct result of good technique rather than good equipment. In other words, if you are struggling to get any pleasing bird images with your current kit, it is more likely than not that it is your skills, not your camera, that needs upgrading.
For every mid-range to professional camera these days, regardless of the merits of this or that feature that it has, there will be a professional out there taking stunning images of birds with it. Conversely, not every person with a top-of-the-line professional best-for-bird-photography camera is taking great bird images. Think. About. It.
Key features, and better this or better that, can definitely make it easier to get good bird photos, but at the end of the day, a good camera in bad hands still takes bad images.
So before you rush out for that newer, cooler camera model, invest in some tutorials and master the good photographic techniques that transcend any make or model. These would be things like good composition, exposure compensation, shooting in beautiful soft light, never underexposing at high ISO, using faster shutter speeds for birds in flight, getting to eye level, getting closer to birds and good post-processing (including using specialist noise reduction software). You never know, you just might find that you don't need a new camera after all.
Australian White-eye (Broome, Western Australia): Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III, Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4 IS PRO Super Telephoto Lens with MC14 Teleconverter, F6.3, 1/1000 sec, ISO1000 (at 420mm/840mm FFE).
What features do I need?
When you consider all the features of cameras these days, including:
ergonomics (how easy it is to hold and change settings whilst looking through the viewfinder)
mirrorless or DSLR (Electronic vs optical viewfinder)
to crop or not to crop
processor type & image/sensor quality
AF speed, tracking and points (bird eye detection AF)
number, and type, of focus points
frames per second
low light digital noise control
focus peaking ability
Pro Capture (or similar) mode
and so on...,
it's quite a challenge to even rank cameras in a neutral setting, let alone advise people as to which camera they should spend their hard earned cash on.
So how do you work out which is the best camera with the best features for bird photography for you?
Well, you could read lots of camera reviews and ask different photographers what they use.
However, if you are elderly, or physically challenged, don't have a bucketload of money, love to take photos for the pleasure of it and/or are only planning to send your images to friends or enter the occassional contest, then you probably shouldn't get advice from the obsessive dude in head-to-toe camo, who never leaves home without their tripod/monopod/skimmerpod and who spends their spare time, when not stalking birds dressed as a yowie, stalking forums and telling everyone exactly why their photo is not technically perfect.
Unless you want to look like this, probably best not to ask this dude for advice.
On the other hand, if you are a young, strong, reasonable well off and/or planning to take the world's sharpest images because only sharp, super low ISO images with every feather in focus, matter, then by all means ask the swamp creature dude.
And my personal preferences won't help you either because what I want from my bird photography is likely to be different from you. The same might be true of my physical abilities and access to monetary resources (Ie. Hubby).
'Not helpful!' I hear you squawk.