BIRD PHOTOGRAPHY EQUIPMENT
Bird photography equipment
1. Superzoom compact camera
2. Dslr camera with a long lens.
3. MILC (mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses, and bigger sensor) camera with a long lens.
4. Some kind of telescope with an adapter to the camera (digiscoping).
According the my experience the second option (Dslr camera with a long lenses) is the best option by a big margin, if we want high quality results.
I explain this a little bit. Dslr cameras has optical viewfinders meaning you see the real picture not a projected one (the light enters in the lens after the mirror leads to your eye by a pentamirror or pentaprism). With compact or MILC cameras you see a projected picture from the sensor. In short the sensor is the weakest part of the story. Today’s digital sensors are nowhere near to lens optical capability. One problem is the dynamic range other is the digital noise, third is the lag between what you see in the sensor and reality, fourth is that electronic viewfinders eats battery, fifth I guess not good for your eyes as well to stare hours at an electronic picture.
To understand the matter what we need.
To photograph birds we need a camera and a long lens. All four option is basically this.
1. The lens – the lens is much more important than the camera, if we speak about a Dslr camera. The detail, missing colors, contrast from the lens no camera or post processing can provide. With a very good lens and the cheapest, even oldest Dslr camera of any kind will provide you much better results than a bad lens and the best Dslr camera.
In case of compact cameras the problems is with the camera, the tiny sensor cannot give the results you wanted. A usual compact camera has a sensor size of 6x4mm (24 mm2) while a Dslr minimum is 22.3 x 14.9 mm (332 mm2), which equals 13.84 times more light to the sensor. Dynamic range noise are problems even in bright sunlight.
How long lens I need ?
First if you want to photograph birds just by walking without a hide, you cannot have a long enough lens for all situations. In any case you somehow need to go closer to the bird. I give some example. If you see an eagle in the sky I guess all photographers wants to take a picture. Yes but eagles fly very high and shy of people. (and very rare to see them as well, as an eagle has a 400 km2 territority). If you want a picture of the tiny bird on the top of the try to get enough detail you need a really long lens.
If you photograph birds mostly you can photograph small birds (unless you have some special opportunity), because there are much more small birds than big birds, usually in the cities for example. For small birds like tits or robins tightly framed with a 280-300mm lens you need 6-7m (20-23′) distance, with 400mm 10m (33′) distance, with 600mm 15m (49′) distance, with 800mm 20m(66′) distance. In all these cases the frame horizontally is around 55cm (1.8′). For really small bird we must go even closer. For birding I don’t recommend lenses shorter than 400mm.
Cropping. There is a myth. If your camera has more megapixel you can crop more (and you don’t need as long lens). This is a myth. You cannot gain any extra focal length with a higher pixel count camera. If you need more focal length you need a longer lens, not a higher pixel count camera. My 8 megapixel camera picture in some cases looks very nice at 100% magnificiation, but yet to see any high pixel camera with a same performance. More smaller pixel more noise.
On Aps-C camera 400-800mm is a usual birding lens, if you not sitting in a hide where sometimes less long lens can be good in some cases. I don’t say you cannot make a nice picture with a 200-300mm lens. I used a 280mm lens for a long time, but really frustrating that I missed many very nice shots because of the short focal length. With a 280-300mm lens you need to be very close to have a shot you most times wanted.
400mm is better, you have more opportunity, but the focal lengths of 560-800mm is much more useful according to my experience.
For high quality prime lenses you can attach a 1.4x teleconverter and you gain 1.4x reach (200m will be 280mm 300mm will be 420mm 400mm will be 560mm) but lose 1 stops of light. You can attach a 2x teleconverter as well for some extreme situations.
1. Price – the equipments which would be ideal is extremely expensive.
Let’s see what most people is using. The ideal kit is a Canon 600mm f/4 is II (11,500 USD) and a Canon 300mm f/2.8 II (6100 USD) lenses. In this case you have a long lens with a stabilizer and a really bright lighter lens as well for darker situations. For this amount of money one can easily by a used car or a house at some places, and we haven’t talked about cameras or other accessories yet.
Nikon has similar range lenses some of them even more expensive (see later all the options).
Sony has a 70-400mm zoom lens.
Pentax has a Pentax 560mm f/5.6 and a Pentax 300mm f/4 lenses, and recently a Pentax 150-400mm f/4.5-5.6
Micro 4/3 companies Olympus and Panasonic recently will release some 300mmm f/4 and 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lenses. Here the sensor is smaller meaning you have 25% more reach. For example the 300mm lens on Micro 4/3 is like a 375mm on Aps-C.
Which are the cheapest really good lenses ?
2. Here the lens is the key issue. The cheapest really good quality lenses are: The Canon 400mm f/5.6 and the Nikon 300mm f/4, the Sigma 150-600mm Sports and the Tamron 150-600 Vc.
For Sony or Pentax it is hard, Pentax also has a 300mm f/4, and a 560mm f/5.6 (for 7000 USD) but if your main aim is bird photography, I suggest to think in Canon or Nikon land. Unfortunately the Tamron is hard to get nowadays, so much people ordered already, you need to wait several months. It is a very good lens, a zoom lens, very sharp, long, cheaper. This lens has lots of lens elements, so it is not fair to looking for prime like image quality. On the other hand much easier to frame birds with a zoom lens, and you can use it for other purposes as well, and you can forget changing teleconverters all the time. It is a bigger and heavier lens app. 2kg with fast autofocus. The other options are prime lenses with excellent image quality, but lot less versatility. The Canon 400mm f/5.6 is very good with teleconverters as well. The lens at 400mm f/5.6 is perhaps sharper than the Tamron, has better autofocus, and lighter(app. 1.2kg), and in the used market is cheaper. If these lenses are too expensive, than we will have a drop in quality or in focal length. Generally I don’t like 300mm lenses in bird photography. The Canon and Nikon 300mm primes are very good (I would put a 1.4x converter on both), but we don’t gain anything on price. I think a longer lens is a more fun to use than a shorter, but the picture quality won’t be similar. The Canon 200mm is the nest step with converters. With the 1.4x it is very nice, but short. With the 2x is much softer. Other options are the Sigma 400 f/5.6 Telemacro and the Sigma xx-500mm zooms. These lenses are much softer than the native Canons or Nikkors. Some of them can have very cheaply used. The Sigma 100-300 f/4 is also an interesting option.
1. There are some incredible long lenses in recent compact super zoom cameras, more than 1000mm focal length. The problem with these cameras is the tiny sensor, which only allows this cameras to make decent pictures in bright sunlight. The other problem is that the autofocus system is slow compare to Slr cameras. On the other hand if you cannot afford an Slr camera with a decent lens, better to used these cameras, you will have more success. Some of these cameras has little bigger sensor, but not as big as you want. If you want to photography a white bird on the seashore in good light, these cameras perform quite good. The problem comes if you want to photograph a small bird in the shade (where they usually likes to be), you need higher iso with a long lens and these cameras makes ugly noisy pictures. Other problem is the viewfinder or LCD which is lot worse than Dslr cameras optical finder(we look through the lens).
What if your budget is higher?
After the three lenses mentioned: Canon 400m f/5.6L, Nikon 300mm f4, Tamron 150-600mm vc, there is huge gap coming. While you can easily walk with these lenses, longer or brighter lenses are much bigger, heavier and much more expensive.
After theses lenses my preference would be the Canon 500mm f/4 L lens, the Mk I version is very good, the Mk II is even better for much more money. Another very popular lens is the Canon 300mm f/2.8 L is which has also two versions. Both of them are extremely sharp lenses, even with the 1.4x teleconverter. Nikon also have an 500mm f/4 lens.
There are two techniques in bird photography, the first is sitting in the hide, the other is make photograps by walking. Any case a Mobile hide or a hide tent is a good thing to have. Other thing is perhaps needed especially in a hide is a good sturdy tripod, which helps to make sharp images with long lenses.
3. Digiscoping – all kinds of spotting scopes are very popular among birders. A good one is not cheaper at all than a Dslr camera lens, even more expensive. On the other hand if you buy a good Chinese one(Celestron) with ED glass(here you can have some bargain), you won’t end up with the same results as a Canon L or Nikkor glass. The drawback’s are the following:
1. Less brightness
2. Harder focusing
3. Lot less keeper rate
4. Tripod or some kind of support is pretty much needed
the advantage is the bigger reach available.
The most popular, highest quality spektivs are the Leica, Swarowsky, Kowa. The usual types has 65mm or 80mm front glasses.
There are bigger types of Astro telescopes available with bigger brightness and bigger weight, like Maksutov ones. One of the best telescope for birding is the AP 130 GT which has stellar optics, needs to wait for years to have one.
There are straight 45 degrees, and 90 degrees eyepieces. 90 degress are used in Astro photography. There are fixed (usually with 22x or 30x magnification) and zoom eyepieces (up to 60x or more magnification). If you wear glasses it is very important how the eyepiece was constructed.
I spent lots of time searching this, so I thought I can share my experiences. I want to find out the best option without spending a price of a house or a car on a piece of glass with some metal or plastic.
I made photographs of birds with the compact camera and was not happy with the results. My opinion that for quality (bird or wildlife) photos the best equipment is the digital slr (single lens reflex camera) with special single focal length tele lenses. (Primes) Teleconverters are also “essential” parts of the bird photography kit.
I would not recommend to buy a Dsrl body with a cheap lens. The lens has more effect on a final result than a body. If you don’t have budget for a Sigma, Canon, or Tamron 70-300 or a Canon 55 250 or Nikon 70 300 and a Canon 1000D (around 600-1000 EUR/USD), or an entry level Nikon body, perhaps better to use a superzoom compact camera, because this cameras has sometime very good lenses unfortunately with a small sensored camera. (Fuji Hs10, Hs20, Panasonic fz 18,28,35,40,50,100,150 ). I use Canon system. I think the best (price/performance) for bird photography is Canon equipment. Nikon is also very good, but much less people uses Nikon equipment according to my opinion, therefore harder to find used equipment, and harder to sell, and usually Nikon equipments are more expensive. At the moment Nikon bodies are better (May of 2013) in high-end lenses I don’t think that there are big optical differences between Canon and Nikon, perhaps Canon has the edge over Nikon.
The Canon bodies are the following:
Canon 300d,350d,400d,450d,500d,550d,600d,650d,700d – consumer bodies – plastic bodies, smaller viewfinder, worse handling
Canon 10d,20d,30d,40d,50d,60d,70d 7d – prosumer bodies – better built, easier to adjust, good handling
Canon 1 Dx, 5d, 5dmkII, 5dMkIII, 6d, 1d, 1dmkII, 1dMKIII, 1dMk IV – pro bodies
Perhaps for today for bird photography a used 7d is the best deal or a new 70d which is little too expensive.
The Nikon bodies are the following:
Nikon d7100,d7000,d300,d90,d80,d70 – Prosumer bodies
Nikon d5000,d5100,d5200 – upper entry level bodies
Nikon d3000,d3100,d3200 – entry level bodies
Nikon d800,d600,d700,d4,d3 – Pro bodies
Currently the newest 16Mp Sony(Nikon d7000, d5100) and 24Mp Toshiba (Nikon d7100,d5200) sensored Nikon prosumer cameras are the latest. The Nikon d7000 can be a good bargain today. Both sensors has very good low light ability which is crucial in bird photography. I don’t recommend Full frame bodies if otherwise you don’t need it, or don’t want to make a professional business. You need longer, heavier and more expensise lenses to achieve the same focal length.
The best bargain in price/performance ratio is the prosumer bodies. In case of tight budget the Consumer bodies also good, picture quality not really different from prosumer bodies.
There are other things to consider though. The ususal method for photograph birds are usually the following:
1. Using a hide or natural cover and waiting the bird arrival, or using a car as a hide
2. Walking and try to approach the birds.
What is the difference in equipment ? If you walk several hours, or pointed the lens to a bird several minutes, the big and heavy lenses perhaps not the best choice. From the hide using the tripod, the weight is not a problem.
What are other things to consider ?
The useful focal length for bird photography started from 400m for an APS-C dsrl (according to my opinion). This can be 400mm or 300mm with a 1.4 converter, or 200mm with 2*converter. Sometimes 300mm can be ok, lots of time even 500mm is not enough. My opinion cannot expect to photograph birds easily with the 300mm lens. If price doesn’t matter I would say 600 mm would be preferred. From a hide if you feed the birds sometimes even 200mm can be ok. In the process you need to come close to the bird no matter from a hide or by walking. How much? It depends on the bird size, the focal length what you want to see on the pictures (eye, bird in a distance, etc). The more closer you get, the better photos you can possibly make. I enjoy this procedure to come closer and feel somehow as a part of the nature. Usually 8-10m distance is realistic. Sometimes with little birds easily can approach even 1-2 meters, but usually 8-10m gives a good opportunity.
Lenses for bird photography
In bird photography a lens had much more impact than the camera body. For canon system my idea about the best choices according to me are the following, the idea between the choices to spend less and less money:
If money doesn’t matter the very best lens currently available for bird photography is the Canon 600m f/4 is II according to my opinion.
For Nikon the 800mm f/5.6 with a Nikon d800 or a D7100 if we want more reach.
Canon 500mm f/4 L is usm with 1.4 and 2.0 teleconverters – no compromise in quality, very expensive and heavy
Canon 400mm f/5.6 L usm with 1.4 converters – this is the most recommended, high quality not the most expensive alternative, sharp wide open at f5.6, not so heavy
Sigma 150-500mm os or Sigma 50-500mm os – big bulky, heavy lenses with less brightness, than primes good for example in hides. Sharp from f8.
Sigma 170-500mm and Sigma 50-500mm lenses. Used can be a good bargain but long term I wouldn’t be satisfied with quality, the newer Tamron 150-600mm is much better. On tho of that the Sigma 50-500mm is quite heavy.
Canon 200mm f/2.8 L usm with 1.4 and 2.0 teleconverters This combination is that I currently using and happy with it. Not heavy very good 280mm, good 400mm, interesting 560 mm.
Canon 200mm f4 L is with 1.4 or 2.0 teleconverter much more versatile choice for more money but less speed
Tamron 70 300 vc or canon 70 300 is
Canon 70 200 f4 with 1.4 converter better quality option than the two lens above, but the focal length is less and with the teleconverter the price approximately double. It is better if your main target is not just wildlife but just occasionally.
Sigma 70-300 apo
Soligor 100-400mm lens
There are other terrific lenses, for example the canon 800 f5.6 L , 600f4 L is, 400/2.8 L is, and the canon 300/2.8 is. These are very high quality lenses for extreme amount of money, if you budget allows them also very good alternatives, any of them is similar quality with the first option. (Bird photography usually the longer is better for example I would prefer 500f4 over 300f2.8 or 400f2,8).
Seems the new Tamron is the best bang for the buck, especially if you live in America.
In near future(beginning in 2014) Tamron will release a new 150-600mm lens, which seems like an ideal tool for bird photography: 600m long focal length seems not very expensive and have an effective stabilizer also and hopefully has a quick silent autofocus drive. Paired with a capable camera like the Nikon d7100(I am not sure about diffraction, because the lens seems sharpest at f9, which already in the diffraction zone) or Canon 70d or 7d can be a useful combination.See more Tamron 150 600 informations here
How to choose ?
1. Set up the budget first, how much you want to spend.
2. Check the alternatives. Used good lens, still much better than new less quality lens. I recommend to check a really good lens first as a reference.
3. Check the copy if you want to buy a used lens. What to check? Picture quality – on a computer (sharpness, colours, contrast) – try to photograph something from 10 meters and in a distance – you better see the real quality, autofocus operation, apertures, anything you can adjust. The most important question why somebody wants to sell it. If you buy used equipment buy from rated seller on eBay for example. Check the ratings, customer feedback. Best if you buy with an option to give back the product if you not happy.
4. If you not happy with the quality your budget allows, don’t buy, wait and try to save more money. Usually very hard to sell a low quality equipment if you don’t like it, good quality equipment you can sell more easily.
Bird photography lens reviews
Canon 200mm f2.8 review
Canon 200mm f2.8+2x teleconverter
Canon 300mm f4 is review
Canon 400mm f5.6 review
Sigma 170-500mm f/5-6.3 review
Soligor 100-400/4.5-6.3 review
Canon 100-400 review
Canon 400 vs 100-400
Sigma 50-500mm f/4-6.3 review
Update: At the moment the new Tamron 150-600mm , the Sigma 150-600mm lenses and the Canon 400mm f/5.6 is the best bang for the buck.
If you want to make really good quality bird photographs the best price/value choice for Canon system: Get a 400/5.6 L with any kind of body, if it is too expensive, I would suggest a 200/2.8L with teleconverters. If that the 200 L is too expensive, get a Tamron 70-300 vc, or sigma 70-300 apo. If you have the bucks 500 F4L, 600F 4L, 800 F5.6L….. If you prefer zoom: 100-400 L.
For Nikon 300f4 Af-s with 1.4 and 1.7 converters is the ‘natural’ best value choice for bird photography. The old 300 f4 is also very good, but has slower focus. For a 300mm lens a teleconverter is needed according to my opinion.
For any system perhaps the new Tamron 150-600 and the Sigma 150-600mm can be an interesting option.
For both system the old Sigma 400/5.6 tele macro also good if you find a fully functioning copy.