Bird Photography: Does Your Camera Really Matter?

Photography can be an intimidating hobby. Not only do you have to understand terms like exposure, ISO, and shutter speed and how they all interact with one another, but you are faced with some (potentially) expensive decisions depending on your gear choice. 

As a beginner, it’s important to realize that every photographer has been faced with the same tough decision of where to start, and will fondly remember their humble beginnings with their first camera – it’s almost right of passage.

But not wanting to break the bank on an expensive should not hold you back, and it certainly shouldn’t make you feel like you are not capable of capturing great images.  

Speaking of first cameras, I remember mine. It was a bright yellow film camera that my parents gave me for Christmas. I took it everywhere and I want to say that it was made by Crayola, but that can’t be right – can it?

Ashley’s First Camera

This camera sparked my interest in photography at the age of 10 and since then it has been a slow progression from film to digital, and now DSLR cameras. 

But our first DSLR camera was a Canon EOS Rebel XS. We bought it on Boxing Day as part of a kit sale, you know the ones where you get a camera, lens, bag, etc. 

View our current bird photography camera gear.

Armed with this new camera, we were eager to get out and take photos of whatever we could. That meant trips to our local Heritage District for architectural shots, pictures of the dog, our families, landscapes, and of course something else that is accessible to everyone – birds. 

As our interest in bird photography grew, our technique improved and it closed the gap between shooting with an entry-level camera and getting great images. In our experience, and maybe others share this opinion – it is more important to understand your camera settings and develop some sound techniques than it is to buy the latest and greatest camera.

Our Bird Photography Trip to Point Pelee (2016)

Sure a more expensive camera will have more features that will assist in getting a great image (better auto-focus, more focus points, megapixels, etc.) but by masting ISO, exposure and shutter speed you can make up for not having these settings with some great images. 

Below is a list of techniques that really helped us improve our images when we were shooting with our entry-level Canon cameras.

Waiting for the right moment: with more experience, we got better at recognizing moments and opportunities for capturing interesting bird actions. We stopped pressing the shutter when the subject was in less than ideal conditions or poses and focused on catch-light, pose and interaction with their surroundings (i.e. eating, bugs, fish, etc.)

Waiting for the right moment and being more selective has helped us capture more interesting images. It also helps to slow your shooting so that when you do press the shutter, you can ensure you are fully focused and compensate for changes in lighting.

A Short-eared Owl in flight

Lighting: birds are most active early in the morning. This is a great time to get out and take photos (once the sun has risen of course) but your position in proximity to the sun is important. When we started, we were so eager to get any photo that we were guilty of sometimes shooting into the sun, which will affect your image quality.

One could argue that lighting is everything in photos and shooting with the sun at your back is your greatest asset in lighting your subject perfectly. This is especially true during the golden hour (first and last hour of sunlight in the day), which produces optimal conditions for lighting. 

Staying Still:

Let’s face it, we have chosen one of the most difficult subjects. They don’t often stay in the same place and they are quick! When on the hunt for birds, particularly songbirds or waterfowl, it is important to move slowly or stay still all together.

Who hasn’t waited for a waterfowl to dip below the surface of the water, only to run closer and get in place before he re-surfaces. These types of tricks can help you set up for a better, potentially closer shot to improve your image framing, etc. 

Blue-winged teal

Holding the camera still is also an important part of bird photography, as camera shake can cause your images too blurry. So when you do get the chance to shoot a fun and exciting bird, be sure to steady that camera in your hand. 

Right time of year:

Taking advantage of migration season (which is spring and fall in North America), is your best chance for high bird volumes of varying species to increase your bird count lists and chances of a rare bird sighting.

You may also get the chance to see a bird closer than usual if they have landed to refuel on bugs, but be sure to respect the bird and not linger too long to limit anxiety. 

Northern parula
Northern Parula

The Right Camera settings:

We suggest getting out in the field to test and play around with different ISO, exposure and shutter speed settings on your camera. Songbirds are often found in the depths of heavily wooded areas and becoming familiar with these settings will increase your chances of capturing a great photo in these less than ideal conditions. 

Waterfowl in flight

Understanding your settings is one of, if not the most important technique to master and can improve your image quality by leaps and bounds. It will also help compensate for having a camera that might have the newest capabilities to assist in low light situations or those lenses with a higher f-stop (don’t let in as much light).

Patience: when we started our birding journey, we had zero expectations. Although we had an existing interest in photography, traveling into the world of manual DSLR photography was new to us and so were birds. We were learning and experimenting with the settings on our camera, and learning about bird behavior and identification at the same time.

It was our curiosity in birds that was the catalyst for understanding our camera settings, but because we had no expectations of how good our images should be, we could be patient with ourselves and enjoy the experimentation.

In addition to learning and understanding our camera, we developed patience with the hobby itself and understanding that some days you come up empty.

There will be times that the bird does not cooperate and there is no opportunity for a great shot (how dare they!), but it’s important to be patient and be ready for those times that they do. 

Kentucky warbler
Kentucky warbler

So the long answer to the question above, does your camera really matter, is no. While having the best camera gear will help you achieve better photos, we would argue that entry-level, basic DSLRs are also capable of taking great photos with the right amount of patience and experimentation with your settings. 

Which Camera Should You Use?

As a new photographer, you will be faced with a variety of choices and decisions in selecting a camera. We suggest focusing on DSLR cameras, which offer full manual control of settings to aid image quality and offer the widest range of lenses available.

The option of a detachable lens is equally as important, allowing users to control their focal length and shutter speed (faster is better), by selecting a lens with an appropriate f-stop. 

To date, I have used a variety of different DSLR cameras, including Canon XS, Canon 70D, and my current camera, Canon 7D Mark II. Although the XS was a starter camera, I was able to capture some great images of birds with razor-sharp focus.

Canon EOS 7D Mark II
Canon EOS 7D Mark II

It was also a great camera to learn and experiment with to better understand the setting, options, etc. I used this camera for many years before deciding to upgrade to my next camera.

Below are a few images that I captured with my Canon XS. 

Green heron
Green Heron
Scarlet Tanager

Can you use a Point-and-Shoot Camera or Smartphone?

Point and shoot cameras or smartphones have made significant advances in recent years, producing great images right from the comfort of your pocket.

While these options are affordable and compact for travel, if you are interested in bird photography, I wouldn’t expect great results from these options and would suggest investing in a DSLR camera with some sort of zoom or telephoto lens. 

Camera lens
Ashley testing out her new (at the time) Canon EF 400mm F/5.6

Why Your Lens is so Important

If you are new to the hobby and considering purchasing a new DSLR camera, we would suggest that investing in a good quality lens is more important than the camera itself. Each camera lens has two main attributes, focal length, and f-stop. 

The focal length determines your reach (how close you can get) or how wide you can get with a lens. For bird photography, you generally want to be able to ‘zoom’ in on your subject without having to be physically close.

Migrating warblers at Point Pelee
Bird Photography in the Spring

This means investing in a zoom or prime focus lens with your desired focal length. I use a 400mm prime lens for birding, which means that I do not have the ability to zoom in and out with my lens, but rather I need to physically move back if I am too close to my subject. 

F-stop determines how wide the aperture can open, a good rule of thumb is the lower the number the wider the aperture can open, increasing the amount of light for a brighter photo. Investing in a lens with a ‘fast’ aperture will allow more light in, we recommend F/5.6 or faster if possible to capture a fast-moving subject.

In the end, your lens will mainly dictate the quality of your image and will outlast your camera. So remember, an entry-level DSLR with a great lens will take great photos. 

Bird Photography with a 400 camera lens
Ashley’s bird photography camera and lens combo

Practical Bird Photography Tips for a Beginner-Level Camera

Looking back, shooting with my Canon XS was just as much fun as shooting with my newer 7D Mk II. Sure, there are more options with the newer camera but I never felt that my entry-level camera was holding me back from getting great photos. 

As previously mentioned, getting to know the basics of photography and getting out to practice go a long way in adding to your experience when you are ready to get out there.

Related Posts: 5 Insanely Useful Bird Photography Tips

A few tips: 

  1. Find a good quality lens that works for your budget, but know that you may have to compromise on focal length or f-stop. Before investing in our prime camera lenses, we used telescopes as our daytime lenses. They had a far-reaching focal length, the quality of the glass was great, and they were cheaper than other Canon-branded prime lenses. You should know though, that camera lenses hold their value and when you are ready to make some upgrades you can likely sell it.
  2. Always be aware of your surroundings and how your lighting changes based on where you are. If you are shooting in an open field and transition into a wooded area, you are going to need to change your camera settings to accommodate for less light before shooting your first find. If not, you will be left with a dark photo.
  3. Have fun and get excited. In the early days, we were inexperienced but never felt that we were held back because of the type of camera we were shooting with. We enjoyed the hobby so much that we were out shooting often, which meant more practice and skill improvement, and lots of opportunities for memorable experiences. 

One particular memory that stands out was during an impromptu trip to a conservation area that was further away than our typical birding destination.

It was a warm, sunny spring day and we hiked the site with little bird action until we heard an intricate bird call from an upcoming open field. As we approached, the bird stayed there perched in a perfect pose, singing his heart out.

Our ‘lens’ was the telescope mentioned above, which was manual focus. We stood there at a safe distance shooting several shots moving the focuser in and out, in hopes that at least one would be sharply focused.

When we returned home to edit, it was the second last photo on my memory card…but it was there!

Common yellowthroat
Common Yellowthroat

That entry-level camera got me out there participating in the hobby, just like any other bird enthusiast, living and loving the thrill of the chase.  

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