Here's how to choose the best camera for wildlife photography. In this guide, we'll cover 9 factors to consider, 6 types of cameras (with recommendations) and 16 bird photography tips.
Finding the Best Camera for Wildlife Photography
While it's great to spot beautiful birds in the wild, taking photos of them takes it to the next level. And it is nice to be able to prove to your birdwatching group that you really did see a potoo. Whatever your reasons for wanting to take pictures of your favorite feathered friends, you'll need the right camera to get the job done.
But how do you define a high-quality camera? What criteria should you be using for your purchase? Do things like shutter speed really matter?
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Consider this your all-in-one guide to choosing the best camera for bird photography. While the ultimate decision will be up to you, these tips and tricks can help you figure out the right direction for your shopping trip.
Choosing the Best Birding Camera: 9 Factors
Before we get into different camera types, you'll want to know what makes a good birding camera in the first place. Here are just a few things to keep in mind as you browse!
Trekking through wet jungles, dry landscapes, and climbing steep trails is sure to put your camera through the paces.
Do you require a camera that is waterproof, shockproof and fog-proof? It won't start glitching just because you drop it in the mud or get caught in a snowstorm, and it won't take bad pictures through soggy or muggy lenses. Since you'll be doing all of your birdwatching outdoors, you may need a camera that can withstand every type of weather.
- Water: Rain, snow, and wet vegetation can take a toll on your gear. Waterproof cameras are getting more common. And if you plan on spending much time outdoors, they are worth the extra price.
- Dust: Dry conditions often mean lots of airborne dust. Whether you're shooting from a car, blind or the trail, dust can take a toll on your gear.
- Shock: It's easy to think that this doesn't matter, but it does. Even with the best strap, you can easily swing your camera into a tree trunk as you jump a stream. Or drop it on the road while getting out of your car. It's worth getting a camera that can handle a little bit of rough treatment.
2. Weight and Size
As a general rule, it's better to go with a lightweight camera as opposed to a bulkier and heavier one. Not only will it put less pressure on your neck during all-day hunts for the tawny frogmouth, but it can also save you some space for other gear. This is especially true if you're birdwatching abroad.
Of course, you'll sacrifice some function when you choose a lighter camera.
3. Functions and Features
What kind of features are you looking for in a camera? They come with everything from automatic color correction to anti-shake image stabilization, so you'll have your pick of the litter. The automatic functions can be particularly helpful for newbies who don't know how to toggle between dozens of camera settings just yet.
Here are a few features that you should consider:
- Burst mode
- Lens availability / compatibility
- Image stabilization
- Preset modes
- Connectivity (see point #6)
- ISO ratings
- Touch screen auto focus
Looking for more help? Check out Bird Photography: A Beginner's Guide to Mastering the Art of Capturing Stunning Images of Birds It covers artistic composition techniques, camera settings, and basic photography concepts.
4. Lens: Wide Angle or Zoom?
Many birders use zoom lenses that allow them to capture the fine detail from a great distance away.
If you plan on using your camera for things other than birdwatching, however, you might want a wide-angle lens that lets you capture something like the African savanna in all of its glory. The wide angle function captures more of your surroundings and tells a story.
I recommend the Tamron 16-300mm lens– it combines the best of both – a wide angle and a decent zoom length.
With a DSLR or mirrorless camera, you can either use a decent all in one (like the Tamron above) or have a couple of lenses and switch them out depending on the type of shot you want. Of course, rain and dust can complicate that – you'll need to be in a dry, clean setting before you can swap lenses.
5. Frames Per Second (FPS)
Frames per second (FPS) is one of the most important things to consider when looking at birdwatching cameras. The higher the FPS, the more pictures that you can take during a short burst of activity, and split-seconds are going to count when you're trying to photograph the flutter of a hummingbird's wings or the snake stomp of the secretary bird.
For landscapes and city shots, most standard settings will do. But for fast moving birds, you'll want as many frames per second as you can afford.
6. Connectivity: WiFi, Bluetooth, NFC
Some people like the charm of old-fashioned cameras. If you prefer something a little more modern, however, you'll want to buy a camera that can wirelessly connect to a digital network for things like image transfers and data storage.
- File Transfer: Shoot and share without cables. You can transfer images and video with NFC to your phone or tablet and post to your travel blog or Instagram wirelessly.
- Camera Control: Use your phone like a remote control for your camera – adjusting zoom, white balance, ISO, and shutter release.
7. Battery Life
How long will your camera last before the battery dies? How will it need to be recharged? Some cameras require lithium-ion battery chargers; others can be hooked up to a power bank through a USB cord. You'll want to know the protocol before you're miles from civilization in the Amazon rainforest.
I've had good success with aftermarket battery brands for all my cameras. Many have a larger capacity and for just a fraction of the price of original brands (Canon / GoPro).
The size and quality of your camera's sensors can make all of the difference in the quality of your photographs. For example, a bigger sensor might let in more sunlight, and this can be a good or bad thing depending on the exposure levels of the environment. Do your research before committing to a specific sensor!
Sensors can range in size from 1/3″ (cell phone) to APS-C (23.6 x 15.6mm), APS-H (27.9 x 18.6mm) and up to full frame (36 x 24mm).
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Last but certainly not least, think about the cost of your camera.
Think about the accessories that you'll need to buy in addition to the camera itself. If you're also in the market for lenses, light boxes, and selfie sticks, you might need to budget more carefully than you originally anticipated.
6 Types of Cameras for Bird Photography
Now that you've learned how to distinguish a good camera from a bad one, it's time to look at the specific types of cameras that are available for birdwatchers. Not every model will be right for you, so pay attention!
As their name suggests, superzoom cameras can let you get closer to your favorite birds than ever before. While a regular camera might max out at 10X – 20X magnification, superzoom cameras can get as high as 50X – 80X. They aren't always as easy to handle as other camera types, but if you're absolutely determined to find the elusive red-crowned crane, you might need a superzoom camera on your side.
The one downside of superzoom cameras is that they have a different structure than their cousins. They only have one large lens instead of multiple lenses. This can take some getting used to, so you might want to practice with your superzoom camera before you take it into the wild. Don't try to learn on the go, or your picture quality might suffer for it.
Recommended Superzoom Camera
Panasonic Lumix FZ80: This is an impressive birding camera. It boasts a 60X zoom (equivalent to 20-1200mm lens) but weighs just 1.36 lbs.
- 60X Zoom
- 4K Video
- 18.1 MP
- Touch 3″ LCD
- WiFi connectivity
- Optical image stability
This camera has a unique feature that allows you to extra still images from 4K video (when shot at 30 FPS). This is great for getting just the right moment.
Digital single-lens reflex cameras (DSLRs) are used by the majority of photographers. They're easy to operate, and they come with everything from touchscreens to adjustable dials to let you fiddle with colors, lenses, angles, apertures, focuses, and depth of fields. Whether you're shooting night owls or day eagles, a DSLR will help you get the perfect shot.
The only real flaw of DSLR cameras as a whole is that they're quite hefty. They can weigh twice as much as other camera models, and that's before you start adding accessories. While an extra pound or two might not seem like a big deal when you're reading about it from the comfort of your own home, it can translate to a serious crick in your neck when you're lugging your equipment around a mountain for hours and hours.
Recommended DSLR Camera
Canon Rebel T7i: The most recent of Canon's DSLR cameras, the T7i is a step up from consumer grade. Shooting an impressive 6 frames per second at 24-megapixel resolution.
- Shoots 24.2 MP
- High-speed continuous shooting: 6 frames per second.
- 45-point autofocus
- Touch screen autofocus
- Worlds fastest autofocus: 0.03 seconds.
- Wireless connectivity
- Also: Vari-angle touch LCD, Feature assistant
- Weight: 1.2 lbs
If I was in the market for a new DLSR camera right now, this is definitely the one I would buy.
This camera comes with an 18-135mm lens. While this is great for getting started, I recommend the Tamron 16-300mm lens. It is a prosumer quality at an entry-level price. If you choose the 300mm lens you might consider buying the T7i body (without an included lens). You'll save a little money that can go towards your improved lens.
Point-and-shoot cameras are the old, faithful dogs of the photography world. While they don't have some of the cutting-edge features of newer models, they still offer things like magnifying lenses and continuous shooting at high FPS rates. They'll get the job done. As a bonus, they won't take up much room in your luggage if you want to pack one as a back-up camera.
If you need a lot of flash, however, point-and-shoot cameras tend to fall short during nighttime photography sessions. They don't have a lot of wireless connectivity, either. You'll need to download your photos onto a separate device instead of being able to directly edit and upload them from your camera or smartphone app.
Recommended Point and Shoot
Canon PowerShot SX740: Shooting with this Canon point and shoot is about as easy as it gets. And with a 40X zoom with optical image stabilization, you'll get some solid shots.
- Shoots 20.3 megapixels
- 40X optical zoom
- Shoots 4K video and 4K timelapse
- Connectivity: WiFi, NFC, and Bluetooth
- High-speed continuous shooting: up to 10 frames per second (with autofocus lock)
- Weighs just 0.61lbs and it's
This camera is small enough to slide in your back pocket. And while you can't change the lens, the SX740 would make a great starter camera or a backup camera (in case the main camera fails on a trip).
Mirrorless cameras are a lot like DSLR cameras, but there are some key differences in functionality and usability. For example, mirrorless cameras are lighter than DSLRs, but it's because they lack an optical viewfinder. If you hate electronic LCD screens, you might not enjoy a mirrorless model that forces you to use one.
Ultimately, the right model for you will depend on where you're shooting and what you're photographing. Are you moving through low-light environments? Do you need a camera that's easy to carry around all day? Do you want to be able to swap lenses for different subjects? Mirrorless cameras should be considered along with the rest.
Recommended Mirrorless Camera
Panasonic Lumix GX85: The GX85 comes with two super compact lenses that give a decent wide angle and zoom capability. This mirrorless camera has nearly half the bulk of most DSLRs.
- Shoots 16 megapixels
- Includes 2 lenses: 12-32mm and 45-150mm.
- Shoots 4K video
- Live viewfinder
- Touch 3″ LCD screen (tilting)
- Dual image stabilization
- Weighs just 1.09 lbs
Features 4K Post Focus that allows you to shoot photos at 30 fps and then set your focus point after the photos are taken.
5. GoPro (Action Camera)
You might be surprised to see GoPro on this list. It certainly isn't your typical birding camera. GoPros aren't great for capturing a peregrine falcon in the middle of a dive. On the other hand, if you just want some pictures of the bluejays in your backyard, a GoPro can be a quick and easy way to snap the shots. You can even take photos with hands-free dictation!
A GoPro makes a great bird camera at your backyard feeder. While the images won't get you as close to your subject as the other options, a GoPro might be a nice addition to your birding gear.
Recommended GoPro Camera
GoPro Hero7 Black: The latest model GoPro comes with some great features that will help you capture some great photos.
- Shoots 12 megapixels
- 4K60 video
- Hypersmooth video stabilization will keep footage watchable even on windy days.
- Waterproof without additional housing.
- Live streaming to Facebook Live
- Tons of mounting accessories A few mounts I would recommend include the GoPro suction cup mount (for mounting to glass), GorillaPod (for mounting to branches), and a GoPro remote (to start/stop filming from inside).
You can do a lot more with today's smartphones than just snapping a selfie. For example, the iPhone X lets you take 4K videos, and the Samsung Galaxy S9 has a dual pixel camera with phase-detection autofocus that will give your photos a luxurious sheen.
Smartphones will also allow you to edit, organize, sort, store, label, transfer and upload your photos with the swipe of your finger. They're the ultimate convenience tools.
Of course, you might not want to buy these phones for their cameras alone. If you're already in the market for one, however, you might as well pick something that will help you with your bird photography!
Samsung Galaxy S9+: I know. Smartphones aren't the best birding cameras. But they aren't bad either. The beauty of the S9+ is that you likely always travel with it. Just yesterday, my parents spotted a barred owl on a drive, and got some nice shots with their phones.
The S9+ has a total of 3 cameras. Two on the back and one on the front.
- Wide angle rear camera: 12MP with FOV of 77˚
- Telephoto rear camera: 12MP with FOV of 45˚
- Rear camera has an optical zoom of 2X and a digital zoom of 10X.
- Front camera: 8MP with FOV of 80˚
- Water resistant (up to 5 feet of water for up to 30 minutes)
- 3000 mAh battery
- Weighs 163g
All cameras shoot in VDIS (Video Digital Image Stabilization) and HDR (High Dynamic Range).
If you're going to shoot with your phone, why not get the one with the best camera. I've had my S9 for months and it has an incredible camera.
16 Bird Photography Tips
Taking pictures of birds isn't like taking pictures of sunsets and birthday parties. It isn't even like taking pictures of other animals.
While you might have all of the time in the world to line up the perfect shot of a lumbering elephant or sleeping turtle, you'll have less than a second to capture a great potoo‘s wild-eyed look before they disappear into the trees.
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What are the secrets to taking good pictures of birds? What do you need to know before you press the power button? Here are just a few tips and tricks.
1. Increase Your Shutter Speed
Shutter speed is one of the most important aspects of wildlife photography, and it's especially critical for capturing birds in flight.
If your shutter speed isn't high enough to catch each ripple of the blackbird's wings, you're going to end up with blurry, unfocused photos. The ideal shutter speed for bird photography is usually between 1/1000 – 1/1600.
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2. Mind the Foliage
You don't always get a choice when it comes to the background of your bird photos. If the canary won't leave the nest, you'll just have to deal with the leaves and branches cluttering up the viewfinder!
Fortunately, there are ways that you can play around with the focus of your shot so that the background is emphasized less than the subject. This can help a lot when it comes to photographing birds without letting their environment overwhelm them.
3. Consider Your Lighting
A photo taken at 9AM can look completely different than the exact same photo taken at 4PM. The difference is in the lighting.
Not only will the severity of the sun's rays affect the exposure levels of your photos, but the shadows can wreak havoc on your angles as well. Look at your watch before you head out for your next bird photography session.
4. Boost Your Focal Length
There are a lot of fancy calculations that go into the focal length of your camera, but to put it simply, lower focal lengths are better for long-distance photos while higher focal lengths are better for close, personal shots.
For example, a camera with a focal length of 14 – 24 millimeters is great for mountains and oceans, but it's terrible for tiny birds. You'll need a camera with a focal length of 400 – 600 millimeters for goldcrests and cockatiels.
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5. Focus on the Eyes
Not all blurs are bad. In fact, some blurs can give the illusion of motion, and this can make for dynamic action shots of birds in flight. Just make sure that the bird's eyes are sharp and clear.
Blurred wings can look majestic, and blurred talons can bring a thrilling edge to a hunt, but blurred eyes will just look unprofessional.
6. Get Comfortable With Camouflage Clothing
Camouflage will be the key to not scaring them away. If you can take photos while hiding behind a bush or peeking over a rolled-down car window, you'll have a much better chance of getting a good shot.
As explained in the opening video, camouflage clothing can allow you to get closer to your subject.
7. Switch to Manual Mode
Many cameras come with automatic features for zooming and focusing. However, you can't always trust your camera's judgment.
If you find that your photos are coming out overexposed or badly-focused, you might need to switch from “automatic mode” to “manual mode.” This will give you a greater amount of control over your lenses, apertures and shutter speeds.
8. Know Your Birds
Understanding your subjects is one of the best tools that you can wield as a photographer.
If you know in advance that kingfishers always hover before they dive, you'll be able to prepare your camera when you see it coming. If you can distinguish the calls of potoos and condors, you'll know which direction to turn to find each one.
9. Stabilize Your Camera
When you use a camera with a high magnification rate, it increases the magnification of everything, including the tremors of your tired hands. The good news is that there are several ways to keep these vibrations from ruining your shots.
Some cameras will have anti-shake correction technology; some of them can be attached to tripods and clamps to stabilize their sensors. It'll be up to you to decide which of these methods is the right one.
Check out this super popular 60″ tripod. It weighs just 3lbs.
10. Take Multiple Photos
This might sound obvious, but it's rare to get a perfect, magazine-quality photograph on the very first try. A better strategy is to take dozens of photos at a time and simply delete the unwanted ones later. If your camera has a continuous shooting mode, that can really help; you won't have to waste time manually engaging the shutter for every individual picture.
11. Utilize the Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds is a well-known photography trick that can help you take better pictures. Just imagine that your camera's display lens is divided into a 3 x3 graph. Instead of putting the subject of your photo in the dead center of the squares, put it in one of the surrounding boxes. The slightly off-kilter look will add visual interest to the piece.
12. Learn How to Pre-Focus
Do you have trouble focusing your camera? Instead of getting frustrated when the bird just won't show up in your viewfinder correctly, learn how to pre-focus on another object that's a similar distance away.
For example, you might pre-focus on a bush or river until your camera is perfectly adjusted for it, and that's when you'll be ready for the bird.
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13. Save Your Settings
A lot of birders do a one-handed fumble for their camera when they spot a golden pheasant through their binoculars. For this reason, it's vitally important that you're able to toggle between the functions and features of your camera in a quick and easy way.
Save your settings so that everything is instantly focused, framed and adjusted when you open the shutter. You don't want to miss an amazing wildlife moment because you had to poke through your camera's display menu!
14. Embrace Photoshop
Would you like to know a dirty little secret of the photography world? Everything is Photoshopped. Even beautiful pictures are put through noise reduction filters or given a boost of saturation to improve their colors.
Don't be alarmed if your raw images look nothing like the ones from your favorite photography blog. You can give them a makeover with photo editing software when you get home.
15. Get On Their Level
Anyone can take a picture of a swan soaring through the sky. It's a lot more unique and creative to slither on your belly and get a “bird's eye view” photo like you're looking at the world from the swan's eyes. Don't be afraid to play with angles and perspectives in bird photography.
16. Remain Patient
If you're an experienced birdwatcher, you've probably cultivated this trait already. If you're still struggling to find your calm place, however, you should know that birdwatching photography can require hours and hours of stillness.
Getting annoyed won't change anything. You just have to take a deep breath and remind yourself that your future photos will be worth the wait!
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4 Bird Photography Accessories
There are literally hundreds of accessories for the modern camera, but some of them are more useful for birding photography than others. If you want to get the biggest bang for your buck, here are the top four add-ons to consider.
Don't let your camera die in the middle of a goose migration! Make sure that you've packed an extra battery charger or portable power bank. Even if you don't wind up needing it, it's always good to have it, and most of them won't take up an excessive amount of space in your luggage.
Personally, I'm a big fan of Wasabi batteries. They make aftermarket batteries for Sony, GoPro, Canon, Fuji, and Panasonic. I've used them for my DSLR, camcorder, point, and shoot, and GoPro – they cost less and work just as well as the camera brands batteries.
You're probably familiar with a three-legged tripod that rests on the ground, but did you know that they also make flexible, portable tripods that can attach to things like car doors and tree branches? Here are a couple that I recommend:
- Full-size tripod: Geekoto makes a solid 77″ tripod with 360-degree ball head. No need to put the tripod on level ground – you can easily level your camera. Weighs just 3.4lbs and reduces to just 19″ long. Supports up to 8lbs – more than enough for any gear recommended in this post.
- SLR Zoom Gorillapod: This is an updated version of the SLR Zoom that I have. This is one solid tripod. And more than that, you can easily twist the legs around just about anything nearby: branches, road signs, benches, even canoes. It holds 3.3kg – plenty to support any of the cameras I've recommended above. Like the full-size tripod above, this also has a 360-degree panning head with bubble level. Weighs just 0.86lbs and easily fits into a side pocket in your pack.
Clamps work a lot like tripods in the sense that they can be attached to all kinds of objects for unique photography perspectives. However, they aren't only used for cameras. You can also stick your scopes and binoculars in a clamp, so they're a multipurpose tool that will have many different uses during a birdwatching excursion.
Without question, my favorite clamp mount is the UltraClamp. It is crazy stable – my dad once shot a timelapse from the top of a double-decker bus on cobblestone streets and the mount didn't budge for the full 110 minutes.
Choosing the right lenses for your camera can be just as finicky and time-consuming as choosing the right camera itself. Do you want a macro lens to get a bigger zoom? Do you want colored lenses or hooded lenses to change the way that light hits your camera sensors?
There's no right or wrong answer here; it all depends on what you're hoping to achieve with your bird photography. You'll need to do some homework to figure out all of your options.
The Bottom Line
There's a lot more to taking pictures of birds than just firing up your old Polaroid when the crows come fluttering to your feeder. If you're serious about capturing high-quality, high-drama shots, you'll need to find the very best camera for bird photography. Use this guide to figure out which one suits your needs!