Choosing bird photography gear includes reviewing many factors in order for us to make the best decision for our specific needs. This article outlines some of the issues that can be considered before we invest our hard-earned money. Bird photography gear can be expensive, and costly mistakes can be made without a proper needs assessment. Grab a cup of coffee and settle in, this is a lengthy article.
NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.
Do you like using a tripod or monopod?
This may sound like a strange thing to mention right up front, but it is a fundamental determinant. On a personal basis I hate using tripods or monopods, and only do so when I have no other option. I prefer shooting handheld with my camera gear and walking around with it, rather than be limited to one physical location for any period of time.
Since I hate using tripods the size and weight of the camera equipment that I use for bird photography is directly impacted. For a while I did use a Nikon full frame camera and a third party 150-600 mm zoom lens. That combination weighed about 3 KG (~6.6 lbs.). After about 3 hours of constant shooting my left arm would show definite signs of fatigue, and I was basically done for the rest of the day.
When I purchased the 1 Nikkor 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 for use with my Nikon 1 V2 bodies, it made my full frame birding gear redundant for my needs. Weighing less than 850 grams (~1.9 lbs.) that kit allowed me to constantly shoot for 8 hours or more at a time. I’d often go through 4-5 batteries during one bird photography outing with that camera/lens combination.
My main camera system is now M4/3 and for bird photography gear I shoot with an OM-D E-M1X with the M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS zoom lens. This combination falls between my former full frame set up and my Nikon 1 kit in terms of weight, coming in at 2,117 grams (~4.66 lbs.). I’ve shot constantly with it for over 6 hours without any signs of fatigue which makes it acceptable for me in terms of its size and weight.
Shooting handheld versus using a tripod/monopod is a personal decision. One approach isn’t better than the other. It is important that you determine where your preference lies so you don’t buy bird photography gear that is too large and heavy for your favourite shooting style.
If you prefer to shoot handheld, it is critical that you understand what your physical limitations may be when hand holding camera gear that includes long focal length lenses. Sometimes we get caught up in the potential of what a certain combination of bird photography gear can deliver, without properly considering the practical aspects of actually using it. Trying to use camera gear that is too heavy for our physical capabilities becomes tiresome physically. And, wasteful when it ends up sitting in a camera bag more than was intended, simply because it is too physically taxing to use.
This is a factor that is often overlooked by folks when they initially purchase camera gear for bird photography. Once bitten by the bird photography bug, it is quite possible that you will go out in a wider range of weather conditions than you may have in the past.
And, even if you don’t go out during heavy rain or snow, you may be hiking through locations where heavy dew or snow may get on your camera gear as you walk past bushes and other foliage. Your equipment may be subjected to water spray if you are photographing next to waves breaking along a shoreline, or if you are near a waterfall.
Having camera gear that has good weathersealing can be very important. This includes the camera body, lens and flash unit that you intend to use.
Bird photography often involves situations that can be challenging to the auto-focus system of various cameras. This is especially true when photographing birds-in-flight. It is important to understand the auto-focusing performance of various cameras that you may consider.
For example, many people start out doing bird photography with a bridge camera that has a built-in telephoto zoom lens. This style of camera often provides very good reach with its built-in telephoto zoom lens. This can make it effective for perched birds. These same cameras can sometimes be severely challenged when it comes to photographing birds-in-flight.
Another consideration is how accurately a camera can focus in lower light conditions. Depending on the technology and firmware used there can be significant differences between cameras. For example, of the two models of Nikon 1 V-Series cameras that I own, the Nikon 1 V2 is the best performing one in terms of low light auto-focusing. And, both of my Nikon 1 V-Series cameras are far better than the Panasonic GH4 that I owned for a short period of time.
Another assessment that you’ll need to make with auto-focusing is how well a camera performs with birds-in-flight. Again, there can be some significant differences between camera brands and models. Camera reviews can sometimes be helpful, and sometimes not. It takes some time with a camera to understand how to best use it. Not all camera reviewers are fully versed in how best to use specific cameras. Sometimes they default to how they would typically use the camera that they use most often and prefer on a personal basis.
Many of the folks who do camera reviews do their level best to test equipment fairly. Others have obvious biases which are transferred to their reviews. There may also be cases where a reviewer may not be using the best settings for a particular camera to leverage its strengths. For example, I’ve found that the C-AF on my E-M1X is more effective than C-AF +TR, especially when C-AF is used with Cluster Area. The E-M1X’s Bird Detection AI is a completely different animal that takes some adjustment with technique.
So, do some research on the cameras that you may be considering and read a wide range of reviews. Look for obvious biases with some reviewers and don’t pay any attention to their assessments. Spending time reading reviews from real-life users can be helpful. The websites of major camera retailers often have a multitude of reviews done by their customers. Looking at the work of professional bird photographers and understanding why they chose the camera gear that they use for their work, can also be helpful.
Low light performance.
If you intend on doing bird photography under consistently low light, you will need to consider how various cameras perform. There are a number of factors that come into play depending on whether you will be photographing perched birds, or birds-in-flight.
Image stabilization is an important factor when photographing perched birds as quite slow shutter speeds can often be used effectively. This can reduce the use higher ISO values. Various cameras may provide IBIS (in body image stabilization), while other manufacturers may have image stabilization built into their lenses. Some manufacturers have both IBIS and in-lens stabilization. Depending on the camera and lens, they sometimes work cooperatively. Do not assume that the IBIS in one brand of camera will work cooperatively with the in-lens IS of a different brand manufacturer.
If you will be photographing birds-in-flight in low light conditions on a regular basis, you will need to consider how much noise will be created at higher ISO values. It may make sense for you to purchase a camera format that has less noise at higher ISO values.
Post processing software has advanced significantly in the past few years in terms of dealing with image noise. When it comes to low light performance you will need to consider the software you use in post processing as an integral part of your bird photography system. You may find that the software that you use in post can make a difference of 1 or 2 stops of light. This could impact your choice of camera format.
Buffer size/speed and memory cards.
Photographing birds often involves capturing a sizeable number of images in a very compressed time frame. Often overlooked by some folks when purchasing cameras for bird photography, is the size and speed of the camera’s buffer. It can be very frustrating when a camera’s buffer fills up quickly, and additional images are missed because the buffer takes a long time to clear.
Various cameras may use different types of memory cards. The physical size, memory size, speed and cost of these memory cards can vary significantly. A general guideline is to use the fastest memory cards you can for bird photography. For example, if your camera can use UHS-II SD cards, then use that type of card even though they will be more expensive than standard UHS-I SD cards.
Before buying a camera for bird photography be sure to check out which memory card format that it uses, and the costs of those cards. Some newer generation memory card formats can be expensive. Be sure to add the cost of memory cards to your overall camera gear purchase assessment.
Another important factor often overlooked is frame rate. These can vary significantly between camera makes and models. Using a camera that has a wide range of available frame rates enables a bird photographer to set their camera for the specific bird being photographed. This is especially helpful with birds-in-flight where the effects of rhythmic motion can be noticeable.
We also have to investigate how the frame rates offered by certain cameras may impact image resolution. For example, my OM-D E-M1X and E-M1 Mark III cameras can shoot at 60 frames per second and produce full resolution RAW files. Other camera may have a similar frame rate but the output may be limited to jpeg files, and based on video resolutions.
Handling and ergonomics.
Bird photography is often more time intensive than other photographic genres. Using a camera that is not comfortable for you can be extremely tiring and irritating. Also, you may be using longer and heavier lenses than which you are accustomed. It is very important to choose a camera body that fits your grip well and is comfortable to use for extended periods of time.
You may want to consider purchasing an add-on grip for your camera if it does not have a double-gripped body. This will provide additional balance when shooting handheld with larger, heavier lenses. Depending on how the grip is designed it also may give you extended battery life. Add –on grips can sometimes be problematic if you need to remove them to change batteries. This can be annoying if you use a tripod or monopod.
When out photographing birds you can expect that you may need to change the settings on your camera rapidly in order to take advantage of different photographic opportunities. If you cannot change your settings rapidly you will miss potential photographs.
Look for camera bodies that have a good range of easily accessible external body controls. These will allow you to make necessary changes without having to waste time digging through the camera’s menu. A camera body that provides easy access to full custom settings can significantly reduce the number of images missed.
For example, my OM-D E-M1X has four custom settings on the mode dial on the top of the body (C1 through C4). With a quick rotation of the mode dial I can immediately go from using Pro Capture H, Pro Capture L, Bird Detection AI, or AF-C with Cluster Area… depending on the bird image opportunity that has appeared. Each of my custom settings are able to change a wide range of settings that I’ve grouped together for specific situations.
Camera bodies that provide excellent handling will enable you to make adjustments quickly and capture more bird photographs as a result.
As mentioned earlier, the lenses used for bird photography are longer and heavier than those used for other photographic genres. You will need to consider what type of bird photography you will be doing, and under what conditions you will be shooting. Size, weight and cost are also key considerations when purchasing a lens for bird photography.
If you ask most bird photographers, the majority will tell you that one of the biggest considerations is ‘reach’. Another way of thinking about ‘reach’ is the equivalent field-of-view (efov) that a particular body/lens combination provides.
For example a full frame 150-600 mm lens mounted on an APS-C body will provide an efov of 225-900 mm. A 100-400 mm lens used with a M4/3 body provides an efov of 200-800 mm.
A high resolution full frame camera provides a photographer with the option of cropping their image and still getting the same number of pixels on a subject bird. So, there are many ways to look at camera/lens combinations and the ‘reach’ that they provide.
You’ll also need to consider whether you want to use a teleconverter, or if it makes sense for you to invest in a long telephoto lens that may have a built-in teleconverter. There is a penalty to pay in terms of a loss of light. For example a 1.4 X teleconverter will cause a 1 stop loss of light. A 2 X teleconverter will cause a 2 stop loss of light.
Not all teleconverters are created equal. Some can cause significant erosion in image quality, while others may cause very little. The optical quality of the lens to which you will be affixing a teleconverter will also directly impact image quality. You’ll need to do some homework to determine what may make sense for you. Never assume that a lens is capable of working with a teleconverter, not all lenses have this capability.
Another consideration when using a teleconverter is whether you will be shooting handheld, or using a tripod. Using a teleconverter makes it more difficult to shoot handheld and a faster shutter speed is often required to help eliminate the risk of image blur caused by the movement of a photographer. In many cases the IBIS performance of a camera body, or the in-lens IS, will be reduced when teleconverters are used.
When shooting in low light conditions a photographer many choose to use a constant aperture lens, rather than a variable aperture model. Like everything photographic, this can come with trade-offs in terms of higher cost and a larger, heavier lens.
Over the years countless photographers have wasted a lot of money purchasing lenses for bird photography that were not well suited to their specific needs. Taking the time to fully understand your specific bird photography needs is time well spent.
Consider emerging imaging technologies
There are some really exciting imaging technologies that are emerging with the latest generation camera bodies that are changing the rules when it comes to bird photography. If you want to make the most of your bird photography opportunities it is important to understand what additional capabilities that these emerging imaging technologies can deliver.
Some technologies like Pro Capture make it quite easy to capture certain types of images that are very difficult or virtually impossible with other cameras.
Pose factor and bragging rights.
Although few photographers will admit it, a big factor in their choice of bird photography gear is how big and impressive that it looks, and whether it provides them with bragging rights in their peer group. We all have different needs, and if this is one of your needs then keeping abreast of what is the ‘hottest’ thing in bird photography gear will be important to you.
Bull droppings and reality.
It is amazing that the debunked theory about what ‘all professional bird photographers use’ in their business is still circulating today. Thinking that ‘professional’ bird photographers only use super expensive, long telephoto prime lenses affixed to a select number of full frame camera bodies… mounted on expensive tripods with equally expensive gimbal heads, is woefully out-of-date. Just ask Petr Bambousek, Jari Peltomaki, or Andy Rouse.
Making money as a professional bird photographer has never been tougher. Professional photographers will use whatever camera gear gives them the best combination of image quality, durability, functionality, size/weight, and cost. Whatever best fits their business model is what they will use. As long as they can capture innovative, compelling images that they can sell for a profit… or use to sign up participants in their photography tours/safaris, the camera brand and format they use is secondary.
Remember that cameras and lenses are simply business tools to a professional photographer. They will use whatever allows them to be the most profitable and makes the most sense from a business perspective.
If you can, rent it before buying.
After all is said and done, buying bird photography gear can be difficult. After you’ve clearly identified your needs and done all of your research, I’d recommend renting the gear you are thinking about purchasing, before buying it.
Until you hold a camera and lens in your hands and use it for a few days you really won’t know how well it will meet your needs. I made a big mistake by not renting some camera gear before buying it. Had I rented it, I would have never bought it. That would have saved me some money, and aggravation.
Why didn’t I mention sensor size?
The size of the sensor in a camera shouldn’t be of any initial concern when considering what bird photography gear to buy. If you put in the hard work to really understand your bird photography needs, the format of the camera gear that best fits your specific needs will become self-evident.
Making an assumption about the format of camera that you think you need in advance, will only make you a potential victim of cognitive dissonance. That can be expensive, and is one of the reasons why so much money is wasted buying bird photography gear.
Photographs were captured hand-held using camera gear and technology as noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced from RAW files using my standard process.
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