The catalyst for our entire bird photography adventure that awaited us was purchasing a DSLR camera with a detachable camera lens. That’s right, the camera actually coaxed us into the rewarding hobby of photographing birds, and birding in general. Needless to say, choosing the best camera for bird photography is a tall order, and never have there been so many choices.
With some practice and a lot of patience, Point and shoot digital cameras can provide some truly remarkable results when it comes to birds. The impressive zoom capabilities of the latest Canon and Nikon models make these affordable cameras an attractive option for beginners. However, the act of photographing a quick-moving subject like a bird has a way of demanding the most out of your camera gear.
For this reason, we believe a DSLR camera with an interchangeable prime lens is the best possible option. These days, we shoot with a Canon EOS 7D, and 7D Mk II with 300mm and 400mm prime lenses. This did not happen right away, as we spent years making our way through different camera lenses for the purpose of bird photography.
Our Bird Photography Gear
In the video above, we describe how far we have come with our bird photography equipment. From the early days of digiscoping through telescopes to our current gear that includes prime telephoto lenses. For a more in-depth explanation of the bird photography gear we have used over the years, please continue reading.
Our first camera for Bird Photography: Canon EOS Rebel Xs
The first camera we purchased was a Canon EOS Rebel Xs (1000D). This is an entry-level, beginner camera body that could utilize a sea of Canon EF interchangeable lenses. The camera came as a kit, that included a padded carry case and more importantly, a small zoom lens.
The Canon Rebel series DSLR’s are one of the most user-friendly options for beginners, and a common entry point into the hobby. Without a positive experience early on, your plans for nature photography may be put on hold as it is easy to become discouraged. Luckily, the Canon 1000D we started with not only inspired us to keep shooting but propelled us further towards the images of birds we were hoping for.
Above: This somewhat average photo of a Black-capped Chickadee (Circa 2011) was a huge accomplishment at the time. (We framed this one!)
You really can’t go wrong with an entry-level Rebel series Canon DSLR. These cameras will open the doors to countless nature photography opportunities no matter which lens you use. The first kit we bought including what photographers call a “kit lens”, as it’s usually an inexpensive all-purpose lens to get you started. In our case, it was the ever popular Canon EF-S 18-55mm F/4-F/5.6.
Our first camera lens (Canon EF-S 18-55 F/4-F/5.6)
The Canon EF-S 18-55mm F/5.6 is a modest camera lens with limited value for photographing birds. The focal length of this camera lens was simply too short to capture close-ups of birds. Even at 55mm with a crop sensor APS-C sized sensor DSLR like the Xs was not nearly enough “reach” to pull birds in for a closer look. Our first few shots included species such as the American robin, House sparrow, and the ever-popular test subject, seagulls. (I believe it was a Ring-billed gull)
As limited as the Canon 18-55mm Kit lens was, it was enough to spark the passion for bird photography in both of us. This lens certainly has its uses and is worth keeping in your camera bag. For landscape images, simple video work and basic daytime travel photography, the 18-55 kit lens is dependable and to-the-point. The IS version of this lens is a nice upgrade if you have the option.
Above: One of our first bird photos ever – with the Canon 18-55mm Kit Lens
We also had a brief stint using a Canon EF-S 18-200mm lens for bird photography, with the maximum zoom of 200mm used at all times. This lens is considered by many to be a useful “walk around” lens for nature photography and landscapes.
Canon EF-S 18-200mm F/3.5 – F/5.6 IS
There was a time when using a 200mm lens for bird photography was our maximum reach. This lens was not prime, and had a limited focal length of 200mm (equivalent of 320mm with our crop-sensor DSLR’s). It was far from ideal for capturing close-ups of small birds, but it did include an image-stabilization mode, which both of our current lenses do not have.
A focal length of 200mm is not enough to capture small, fast-moving subjects such as warblers. These birds do not usually let you get very close to them, meaning extra magnification is needed to pull them in. Backyard birds were a little more obtainable with this lens, as we would often photograph Cardinals and House Finches at the bird feeder.
In the end, we found that the 18-200mm zoom lens like this was best suited for larger birds such as the Great Blue Heron. The image stabilization also made in-flight shots of hawks possible, although they were often quite small in the frame. It was clear that we needed a camera lens with more reach.
The Canon EF 75-300mm f3.5-5.6 Lens
The thrill of discovering birds to photograph set in, and we knew it was time to invest in a camera lens with a longer focal length. Enter, the Canon EF 75-300mm F/4-5.6 lens. Surely at 300mm, we would be able to capture stunningly sharp photos of all kinds of bird species now. Boy, were we wrong.
The specs of this zoom lens may sound impressive (or perhaps not), and the price tag for a new model is so low you may be tempted to “add to cart” immediately. The problems with this lens in terms of successful bird photography are many, such as:
- Lack of image stabilization
- Images are not sharp
- 75mm is not a useful focal length
The lack of IS (Image Stabilization) is intensified when shooting at 300mm. The rather slow aperture of F/5.6 means a slower shutter speed must be used to. Good luck trying to photograph a Chickadee on a cloudy day!
Above: This Bluejay was one of our better photos using the 75-300mm lens. It lacks the sharpness and overall image quality we have come to expect.
In conclusion, you get what you pay for. A camera lens that reaches to 300mm at this price range will likely not deliver the results you are looking for. The budget zoom lens design and odd range of focal length make this lens a real disappointment for bird photography. Do yourself a favor and avoid this one. (We sold ours!)
We used refractor telescopes for lenses!
Seeing as how Trevor was beginning to get right into deep-sky astrophotography, we utilized his high-quality telescope to photograph birds. And why not? An apochromatic refractor telescope such as the William Optics Zenithstar 72 or Explore Scientific ED80 have some impressive specs for daytime nature photography.
Above: Ashley using the digiscoping technique through a telescope for bird photography.
Explore Scientific ED80 F/6 Triplet Apochromatic Refractor
Objective Lens: 80mm
Focal Length: 480mm
That’s right, 480mm! Go ahead and see how much a Canon lens in the 500mm focal length runs for, ($5K+). We had to at least give it a try, and we were delighted with the results. The process is called digiscoping and is usually done with a spotting scope.
Above: A Belted Kingfisher shot by “digiscoping” our DSLR through an 80mm refractor telescope
Of course, a telescope was not designed for nature photography, and focusing quickly can be a nightmare. The telescope was also very heavy, carrying the ED80 around hand-held was not an option, so a monopod had to be used. With a little patience and a lot of luck, we were able to capture some brilliant photos of birds using this telescope including this image of a Black-throated blue warbler at Point Pelee.
Sharing one telescope between the two of us was not ideal. It was time for me to get a “poor mans telephoto lens” of my own, a refractor telescope. The model I chose was a William Optics Z72 F/6 Doublet refractor. I could connect my Canon XS directly to the telescope using a t-ring and adapter for prime focus nature photography. I was thrilled to see my early images were as crisp and beautiful as the photos using the slightly larger ED80.
Above: Capturing a Blue-grey gnatcatcher through a telescope is quite the feat! (Point Pelee 2014)
William Optics Z72 F/6 Doublet Refractor
Objective Lens: 72mm
Focal Length: 420mm
Trevor and I would lug these heavy optical instruments around in search of new bird species to photograph. This was quite the spectacle when visiting busy parks like Point Pelee during migration. We would often get stopped to inquire about our interesting “camera lenses”. As odd as we may have looked, our results spoke for themselves.
The high-quality optics of these instruments produced razor sharp images of birds that more expensive zoom lenses could not match. However, we were definitely missing a lot of shots due to slow and manual focusing. Pointing these heavy telescopes was nearly impossible, further limiting our ability to capture birds in many situations.
Our Current Bird Photography Gear:
The cameras we currently use for bird photography are by no means the top of the line. Even within the Canon line up of cameras, there are better and newer models available. However, if you are looking to replicate the types of images you’ll find in our photo gallery, these cameras will serve you well.
Above: Some winter favorites, a White-breasted nuthatch, and a Reb-bellied woodpecker
Canon EOS 7D
Trevor shoots with a Canon EOS 7D Camera and prime 300mm telephoto lenses. We consider the Canon EOS 7D to be one of the best choices for bird photography, largely because of the impressive 8-frames per second continuous shooting. The original 7D uses 19 cross-type autofocus points, which is extremely useful when trying reach focus on an active bird.
When it was first introduced, the 7D was considered by many to be the best APS-C sized sensor DSLR Canon had ever produced. Considered to be a “professional cropped sensor DLSR”, it’s 18 Megapixel sensor has aged quite well considering it was launched way back in 2009. In fact, the 7D holds the title of the EOS body with the longest product cycle (5+ years) without a replacement.
Perhaps our absolute favorite feature of the Canon 7D is the impressive buffer rate that comes in to play when shooting in high-speed continuous mode. Coming from a background using an outdated entry-level body really made us appreciate this quality. Trevor can reliably shoot in bursts of 8 frames at a time whenever the situation calls for it. This means that he is never held back by the speed of his equipment, and all of the pressure lands on his ability to track the subject.
I shot with a Canon 70D for a short period of time, which was actually an excellent choice for bird photography. This camera was tragically stolen by someone who decided that they were more deserving of my gear. Thankfully, we quickly recovered from this setback. In 2014, the Canon EOS 7D Mark II was introduced, and we took notice.
Canon EOS 7D Mark II
I shoot with a Canon EOS 7D Mark II. The Mark II takes this a step further, with 65 cross-type AF points, and 10-frames per second continuous shooting. It turns out the 7D’s 20.2 MP CMOS sensor is well suited for bird photography in particular. Have a look at the following quote from The Digital Picture.com:
“With the highest density DSLR sensors available, the EOS 7D II along with the 70D lead the Canon pack for “reach”. When you are lens focal length limited, a more-dense sensor can deliver more resolution in your final crop” – TheDigitalPicture.com
Above: Reviewing a photo recently shot with the Canon EOS 7D Mark II
The Canon EF 400mm F/5.6L
The Canon 400mm F/5.6 is very solidly built and lightweight. I have no issues carrying this lens around for a full day of shooting. This is a prime lens, meaning the focal length is fixed at 400mm, without the ability to zoom in. In general, a prime lens will produce sharper images than their zoom-telephoto counterparts.
This is an L series lens, which means that build quality and performance are the best Canon has to offer. When it comes to bird photography, It compliments my Canon 7D Mark II very well. The versatile nature of this lens makes shooting birds in flight a pleasure.
The 400mm focuses extremely fast (and quiet) thanks to its internal USM (ultrasonic motor). Autofocus stays on for 95% of our bird photography, only using manual when we want to get creative. The freedom and versatility of a lightweight telephoto lens make bird photography during spring migration a wondrous experience.
There is no need for a tripod or monopod with this lens. Yes, an extra 100mm would be nice, but in most situations, the 400mm focal length is just right for our subjects. In the case of the Blue-winged warbler below, a 500mm lens would have been much too long for this situation.
Chromatic aberration is virtually non-existent, and the images are clear and contrasty. Where this lens really excels is sharpness. Even wide open at F/5.6, a crisp shot through the 400mm is razor sharp to the edge of the frame. Although for most photos we’re just looking for a sharp subject, with a nice background bokeh.
The lack of IS (image stabilization) is noteworthy, and perhaps the only reason this lens is so affordable. In our experience, handheld shots in good lighting conditions are superb, making IS a non-issue. Adjustments to ISO and selective shooting compensate for this missing feature, and in all honesty – we likely do not miss many photos due to camera shake.
The Canon EF 300mm F/4L (Non IS)
The Non IS version of the Canon 300mm F/4L is a tremendous value if you can find one in the used market. At its native focal length, it is a useful lens for capturing a variety of birds – as long as you’re able to get close enough. For our style of shooting, Trevor felt a little extra reach was needed, so he added a Canon 1.4x teleconverter.
The teleconverter brings the focal length of the lens to 420mm, which in our opinion is more useful for bird photography. This comes at a cost, however, one exactly one stop of light. This brings the lens down to a respectable F/5.6, which is not an issue for Trevor.
Another problem the teleconverter introduces (when used with this lens) is noticeable chromatic aberration, especially on bright, sunny days. Trevor has come to expect these artifacts, and we can remove them quickly and easily during post-processing. We felt it was worth noting this to anyone looking to replicate Trevor’s equipment setup.
Related Video: What it’s like to use this lens in the rain
Trevor’s Current Gear
Camera: Canon EOS 7D
Lens: Canon EF 300mm F/4L (Non IS)
Teleconverter: Canon Extender EF 1.4X II
Ashley’s Current Gear
Camera: Canon EOS 7D Mk II
Lens: Canon EF 400mm F/5.6L IS