Bird Photography: Camera Essentials
Updated: Jan 27, 2021
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.
I know, but don't panic. I am not going to leave you entirely flapping in the wind like a galah in a shower of rain.
I have set out below what I think are the most important features you should look for in a camera for bird photography, and why.
Important features for bird photography
Obviously, where you start to look is limited by your budget. Having said that, however, keep your eye out for good second-hand equipment. With newer and better models coming out every year (sometimes multiple times a year), chances are you can snap up older (but, still excellent) pro camera bodies at bargain prices.
This one is likely to be a deal breaker for most would-be bird photographers (in my experience, most people start when they retire). There is no point getting the camera with the best Image Quality (see below for why I think that's not as important as people think), fastest auto-focus and best digital noise control if it weighs too much for you and you NEVER take it out.
Do you really want to be lugging around this kind of monster camera kit? Can you?
Opportunity (going out often) and good technique will TRUMP the best camera in the world, sitting in your cupboard at home, any day.
3. Compatible Lens
The next thing you need to consider is what lens, if any, you have that will be compatible with the new camera.
Ideally, to get good photos of birds without using a hide or external remote, you need a lens with a focal length of 400mm or greater (the LONGER the BETTER), image/vibration stabilisation and fast auto-focus. If you already have a good birding lens, then it makes sense to look for cameras, and possibly teleconverters for extending the focal length (see image below with 1.4x teleconverter), that are compatible with it and its auto-focus system.
Great Crested Grebe (Herdsman Lake, Western Australia): Canon EOS-1D X, Canon F4 600mm Lens + 1.4x teleconverter, F5.6, 1/8000, ISO500 at 840mm.
If you can afford to buy a new lens, too, then, again, it may help to go to DXOMARK and search for the best lens for SPORTS photography (this is the bird photography equivalent) for the camera you are interested in.
4. Auto Focus (AF), AF + Tracking & AF Points
Speed and accuracy of AF
Birds move and they move quickly (and often erratically), so, to say that getting accurate, fast focus tracking is important to bird photography is an understatement.
Most modern cameras (last 5 years) have good auto-focus systems, but are they the best for birds in flight? Tracking a motorbike around a circuit or a horse galloping across a field is NOT the same as tracking a small swallow darting in and out of trees. I have seen some reviews recommending 'top cameras for bird photography' that are recommending models that have relative poor AF tracking for birds in flight performance.
Look for reviews that have tested actual birds in flight. Read and watch as many as you can to find out which model (and lens combination) performs the best in your respective price/weight range etc.
[A good website for comparing mirrorless cameras' AF tracking of birds in flight is: https://mirrorlesscomparison.com/. Incidentally, they found the SONY A9 II to be the best with a 99% hit rate for birds in flight.]
Having a fast and accurate AF with excellent AF tracking ability will make your life easier and your bird photography much more enjoyable as your 'hit' rate goes up.
Golden Bosunbird (golden morph of White-tailed Tropicbird)(Christmas Island, Western Australia): Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F4 600mm Lens, F7.1, 1/2000, ISO800 at 600mm.
A recent feature which could be a game changer (and I only say 'could' because I personally have never used it to find out), is the ability for the auto focus to track not just the bird, but the bird's eye. OMG!
So far, the cameras that have this feature are (and please let me know if I have missed any): Canon R5 and R6 (Animal Eye AF), Olympus OM-D E-M1X (Bird Detection incorporated in recent upgrade), Sony A9/A7/A7R III (with firmware upgrade; Animal Eye AF); Nikon Z5 and Z6 (Face and Eye "Animal Detection").
I have yet to test this feature but if it does perform well, as someone who specialises in birds in flight, this feature would tempt me to change my camera just to get it. For the time being, though, I'm waiting and watching to see how well these features perform before I buy anything new.
Number & Type of Auto-Focus Points
This is linked to the above in the sense that the more focus points you have across the sensor, the easier it will be for your camera to acquire focus of a bird in flight (assuming you are shooting against a relatively neutral background and have all focus points activated ).
This feature will be more relevant to those using older camera models as most modern cameras (ie those in the last 2-3 years) will have good enough coverage.
For instance, if you have a Canon EOS 6D (2012), you will only have 11 AF points on your sensor, of which only the centre point is a cross-type (it's a bit complicated but essentially cross-type AF points focus better, especially in low light), so it will be harder for you to get a sharp bird in flight image (it is also limited to 1/4000 sec shutter speed which is not good).
Contrast this with a Canon 7D Mark II (2014) which has 65 AF points, all cross-type, or a Nikon D810 (2014) which has 51 AF points, of which 15 are cross type.
Fast forward to the most recent cameras, and Canon 1Dx Mark III (2020) has 191 AF points, Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III has 121 AF points and the Sony A9 II (2019) has 693 AF (Phase Detection) points.
Silvergull (Albany, 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, F5.6, 1/1000 sec, ISO400 (at 420mm/840mm FFE) shot using all 121 AF points activated.
In other words, in regards to adequacy of AF points for bird photography:
Canon EOS 6D - definitely NOT
Canon 7D Mark II/Nikon D810 - good enough
Canon 1Dx Mark III/OM-D E-M1 Mark III/ Sony A9II - excellent (also likely to be the most expensive! Aha! There's that compromise bit)
Note: I have only featured an indicative sample of camera makes and models. There are many more to choose from!
5. Frames Per Second (FPS)
Ideally, anything at 7fps and above is good enough to get action shots. Anything slower, and you are at a distinct disadvantage for action photography.
Yellow-billed Spoonbill (Northam, Western Australia): Canon EOS-1D X, Canon F4 600mm Lens, F4, 1/5000, ISO800 at 640mm.
Necessarily, the more shots per second you can take, the greater the chances of getting that 'perfect' wing position or head angle.
Other Handy Features to have (but not Deal Breakers)
Articulated screen (allows you to get a low angle without lying down in mud!)
Focus peaking (allows accurate manual focusing)
Pro Capture Mode or similar (See my article: Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III)
In-camera stabilisation (allows handheld shooting at slower shutter speeds)
5 things that are NOT as IMPORTANT for bird photography as people think
1. The Crop is NOT
When I refer to 'crop' I'm not referring to a field of wheat, but to the size of the camera's sensor.
People refer to camera sensors as either being 'Full Frame', meaning they are roughly the same size as the old 35mm film frame, or 'cropped', meaning they are smaller.
Some are smaller than others. For instance, the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III sensor is half the size of a Full Frame and is called a 'Micro Four Thirds'. The Canon 7d Mark II is 0.6 the size of a Full Frame and is called an "APS-C". The mobile phone sensor, as you can imagine, is even smaller.
Advantage of a Crop Sensor
The effect of the smaller sensor size is to 'crop in' the edge of the frame, thereby giving the appearance of extra focal length. So, for instance, a 300mm lens on a Micro Four Thirds will have an effective focal length of 600mm (as the sensor is half the size, you double the focal length) and on a Canon 7d Mark II it would be 480mm (1.6 x Full Frame).
In theory, if you took the same image with a 300mm lens on a full frame and then cropped in to half its size, you should end up with a comparable image to the Micro Four Thirds, though some reviews say that the cropped sensor images are visibly better.
Crop sensor cameras also tend to be lighter and cheaper.
Buller's Albatross (Lord Howe Island, New South Wales): Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon F4 300mm lens, F5.6, 1/3200, ISO640 at 300mm (480mm FFE). I took this from a boat on the open ocean in rough seas. I didn't want to have a large and heavy camera and lens on the boat so I opted for the lighter and smaller crop sensor camera. The result is one of my favourite bird images ever.
Disadvantage of a Crop Sensor
Generally, a full frame camera will give you a higher dynamic range (good if you are a landscape photographer), better digital noise control in low light and hence better Image Quality (as to which see below). You also get the benefit of a shallower depth of field.
Southern Bandicoot (Albany, Western Australia): Olympus E-M1 III, Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4 IS PRO Super Telephoto Lens, F4, 1/320 sec, ISO3200 (at 300mm/600mm FFE). Even though crop sensors won't give you the same shallow depth of field as a Full Frame, you can still get good background blur using good field techniques. In this image, lying on the ground helped to move the background further away from the subject (and eliminated foreground distractions).
All in all, I think the advantages and the disadvantages cancel each other out, making 'to crop or not to crop' dependent on other, more important, factors (such as those I have outlined in points 1-5 above).
2. Image Quality* is NOT
*By 'Image Quality', I mean the quality of the image in terms of colour fidelity, contrast, brightness, resolution, dynamic range and digital noise, straight out of the camera in a correctly exposed image. The Image Quality of any camera can, of course, be significantly worsened by bad techniques or post-processing resulting in a poor quality photo.
Much of the discussion on the difference in the Image Quality of various cameras is MOOT for 99% of amateur and semi-pro photographers. Why?
Firstly, most modern cameras with interchangeable lenses have good enough image quality when used correctly.
Secondly, most images these days are only going to be seen on social media, and the majority of them on small mobile phone screens. Mobile phone images, such as the one below with poor resolution (detail), can do just as well, and even, as in this case, better than a super detailed DSLR image on social media.
Nankeen Night-Heron (wild) taken with Huawei Pro 30 at 10x optical zoom. See my article Five Steps to Taking Good Bird Photos with a Mobile Phone
When posting to social media, you can resize the image to a small size, such as 600 pixels wide at 72dpi, then sharpen. Only camera reviewers and forum critics zoom in to 100% on a RAW file. When viewed at a reduced size, as most images are, a well exposed image with good composition and light will look good when taken with any camera.
Thirdly, when entering a competition, the Image Quality of your camera per se is unlikely to be the deciding factor. What is going to be important is originality, aesthetic appeal, good technique (in taking a well exposed, sharp and well composed image in good light) and good post-processing. Case in point: Tim Laman won the Grand Prize of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2016 with an image taken with a... wait for it ... GoPro!
Fourthly, how often do you actually enlarge and print your images? Unless you are a professional, the reality is you don't need to be able to super size your images beyond A4 size (good magazine article size).
Further, if, and when, you do decide to print images, you will notice that printed images (on matte paper) are much more forgiving of poor Image Quality than nit-picking bird photography forums. Combine this fact with the 'upsizing' capabilities of new software like Topaz Gigapixel AI (up to 600%) and the advantages of pro-grade camera Image Quality are looking less significant.
If you have never done so, go print one of your favourite bird images now and you see how much better it looks on paper than when viewed on your screen.
3. EVF is NOT
A friend once told me that they would not switch to mirrorless yet as the quality of the Electronic Viewfinders (EVF) is not up-to-scratch.
The main difference between a mirrorless camera and a DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) is, of course, that a DSLR has a mirror within its body that reflects the image to an optical viewfinder.
A mirrorless camera, on the other hand, uses an electronic viewfinder (essentially a bad digital rendition of what the camera is seeing in real time). The image the camera actually takes passes straight to the sensor without the need for a flip-up mirror (hence mirrorless cameras can be smaller and lighter).
It is absolutely true that the quality of the EVF 'image' is not as good as an optical viewfinder. However, it pays to bear in mind that it is only for 'show'. It does not actually represent the quality of the image you will get (which is, of course, always better). Once you get used to that fact, it no longer presents a problem. In fact, it can actually be an advantage to have an EVF, not a disadvantage.
For instance, when shooting in manual mode on the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III, any adjustments I make to increase or decrease exposure are shown in the EVF as they would appear on the final image with those adjustments. In other words, I can see the effects of any adjustments I propose to make BEFORE I take the image. If I make the image too dark, for instance, I will see it in the EVF and can change the settings to avoid taking underexposed images.
For anyone learning photography, or just wanting to experiment with more artistic images (like me), this is a huge advantage to have.
4. Megapixels is NOT
I have never had a camera with more than 20MP and it has never prevented me from getting award-winning, magazine printable, fine art images.
Of course it would be nice to be able to crop in without losing resolution, but is it a game changer for me? Absolutely not.
5. Noise is NOT
Gasp. Shock. Horror! How can I say digital noise is not important?! Well, I can say it because as long as you don't underexpose an image at high ISO (eg 800 ISO & above), most digital noise can be easily removed by modern denoising software.
See the images, below, of an Eastern Osprey. You will see that straight out of the camera the Olympus (with a Micro Four Thirds sensor) has more 'graininess' than the image taken with the Canon 1Dx Mark II (Full Frame). However, this is easily corrected by running the image through Topaz DeNoise AI software (on Low Light/Auto setting).
There are some limits, though. I can shoot longer in low light with my Canon 1Dx Mark III (Full Frame) by going as high as ISO8000 than with my Olympus OM-D E M1 MKII which I limit to ISO3200. On the other hand, because of the superior Image Stabilisation of the Olympus OM-D E M1 MKII (up to 7.5 stops), I can shoot at much slower shutter speeds and get sharp images, and thereby keep the ISO lower for longer, than the Canon DSLR full frame in low light conditions thereby offsetting some of the high ISO limitations.
Eastern Osprey Comparison Images
The following images were taken on a cloudy morning in low light. I was with Nathan Watson, a local bird photographer, who was shooting with a Canon 1dx Mark II whilst I was using my Olympus kit. This is the same bird in the same location at the same time, so the images are relatively comparable. Due to low light, and to ensure that we did not underexpose, we both used a slow shutter speed and high ISO.
IMAGE BY NATHAN WATSON.
Eastern Osprey: Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, F8, 1/320, ISO3200 (at 1000mm). Straight out of the Camera (crop & conversion to Jpeg only).
IMAGE BY ME.
Eastern Osprey: Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III, Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4 IS PRO Super Telephoto Lens with MC14 Teleconverter, F5.6, 1/160 sec, ISO1600 (at 420mm/840mm FFE). Straight out of the Camera (crop & conversion to Jpeg only).
IMAGE BY ME AFTER DENOISING.
Same image as above (Olympus) after application of Topaz Denoise AI (Auto settings).