How to Photograph Birds: Cameras

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While it's true that it's the photographer and not the gear that creates a great image, there are some genres in which the right equipment can make a tremendous difference in the success or failure of your shots. Bird photography is one of those genres. That isn't to say that there's no point in trying to take bird photos without a particular camera; only that in many cases, your results will be greatly improved if your camera meets some minimum standards.

Most of the challenges with bird photography are pretty straightforward: birds in the wild tend to be shy and they move very quickly, not to mention that they've been known to fly. Those facts present two basic needs: a long reach and as much speed as possible. Reach, of course, is a matter of lens focal length, but camera sensor size matters, as you'll see, and speed depends on both the camera and the lens. Along with those needs, of course, you need all the same qualities required for any other type of photography, such as build quality.

With these points in mind, let's take a look at some of the recommendations for bird photography cameras:

Camera Choices

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First, it should be fairly obvious that your point and shoot pocket camera and your iPhone aren't going to get the job done. Second, as light, compact and capable as new mirrorless cameras are, the lag inherent in their electronic viewfinders makes them less than ideal for many situations in birding at this point in time. That means that for the best results, you'll want to go with a film SLR or DSLR. We'll focus on the DSLR, since they're much more convenient and in many cases more capable than their film counterparts.

Full frame vs. Crop Sensor: There are advantages to each of these options. In terms of the sensor itself, here's how they break down:

Crop Sensor:

  • Lower cost
  • Smaller and lighter
  • Crop factor increases apparent magnification

Full Frame:

  • Less noise at high ISO settings
  • Better quality for large prints

If you didn't understand the point about the crop factor and magnification, here's the way it works: Let's say you're shooting with a 300mm lens on a crop sensor camera with a crop factor of 1.6. To determine the effective focal length of the lens, you multiply the focal length by the crop factor. So, in this case: 300mm x 1.6 = 480mm. That means that your 300mm lens is giving you almost as much magnification as a more expensive 500mm lens.

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It's important to keep in mind that this advantage only goes as far as the image quality will allow. At ISO settings above 800, the noise from a crop sensor may start to deteriorate the image enough to cancel out the magnification advantage, especially if your final image will be large.

In addition to these few points, full frame cameras are generally built more with the professional in mind, so the build quality is often higher and features are often a better match for bird photography. Here are a few ideal features to look for in a DSLR for birding:

  • Shutter speeds of 1/2000s and higher
  • Fast autofocus acquisition
  • 6 frames per second minimum burst rate

The first item on the list above isn't a problem; almost any modern DSLR will be capable of those shutter speeds. The second is a little harder to determine, but you'll find a surprising difference in the focusing speed of entry-level and pro-quality cameras. The AF response time of the lens you select will also affect this. The third item isn't quite as straightforward, since both focusing speed and file recording speed may affect the number of frames a camera takes per second.

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A Word about Megapixels

You've no doubt noticed that the list above doesn't mention sensor resolution (megapixels). That's because it lists ideal features. The obvious answer to the question of how many megapixels is, “As many as possible.” You should consider 12 megapixels to be the bare minimum if you want your bird photos to have the quality needed for printing and publishing requirements.

There are many other features that can be considered in choosing a DSLR for avian photography, but these are the most critical. Your final choice will be based on brand preference, price and the other features that matter to you, such as built-in wi-fi, movie capabilities, etc.

Start with What You Have

As I mentioned, these recommendations don't mean that you can't get good bird photos with equipment that doesn't meet these standards. Don't hesitate to try your hand with what you have. The most important step in any photographic genre is getting out there and shooting. Working a little harder to capture bird photos with less-than-ideal gear is great practice as well as very rewarding when you get it right.

The Lens is More Important

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Finally, let's close with something that any pro bird photographer will tell you: The lens you use is more important than the camera. That's why our next lesson will focus on optics for bird photography.

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