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Bird Photography - Basics

You can be a great bird photographer!



Gyrfalcon - Falco rusticolus - Photograph
Gyrfalcon, taken with a cheap camera!

My Current Equipment (May 2015)

The Gyrfalcon photo at the top of this page is one of my favorite photos I have ever taken.  It also happens to be taken with equipment I had shortly after starting in photography and birding.  It was a Nikon "Coolpix" point and shoot camera, shot through a spotting scope ("digiscoping").  The camera itself?  An early digital camera that was just 4 MP (megapixels), very few effective pixels compared to todays cameras.  Yet with that quite average, low cost camera, I got a very nice photo of a rare bird, in a great pose. 

Don't get me wrong, having good equipment DEFINITELY helps, particularly in terms of image quality.  However, even for those on a tight budget, you can have a lot of fun with bird photography.  Note that I use Canon equipment, but this page isn't meant to endorse any particular product or brand.  Nikon and others also make absolutely wonderful cameras, lenses, and other equipment.  With that said, here's what I currently shoot with, and my take on each piece of equipment:

Camera Bodies

Canon 70D - My primary camera body. Ever since the 20D a number of years ago, I've shot this series, having a 20D, 40D, 50D, then 70D.  I've enjoyed them all, and with each successive iteration Canon has made increment improvements. The 70D has performed wonderfully for me, with terrific auto-focus and very good image quality.  It's also got a great, touch LCD on the back that also swivels and rotates out from the camera body, a great feature when the viewfinder is impractical and you need to compose a shot with the LCD viewer.  One VERY nice advantage to me with this series of cameras as compared to "full-frame" has a 1.6x "crop factor" which in effect makes your subject seem 1.6x closer than it would be with a full-frame camera.  A very useful "feature" when shooting birds at a distance, and something I wouldn't trade for the much more expensive full-frame bodies. 

Canon 20D - My old backup.  It still shoots wonderful photos, but it sits unused in my camera bag unless for some reason the 70D goes down.


Canon 400mm 5.6L - I don't care what your budget is, if you can afford the most expensive lens in the world, the Canon 400mm 5.6L still should be a part of any bird photographer's arsenal.  99% of the bird photos on my website were taken with this lens.  It's 14 years old and still going strong.  The price? It's "cheap" compared to what most birders use, as it comes in at around $1,200.   For comparison, the Canon 500mm or 600mm lens preferred by most "pro" bird photographers will cost $12,000+.  This lens is incredibly sharp, and with the advantage of being light enough to hand-hold all day long.  It's the perfect lens for bird flight shots, and compared to the longer lenses, the bang-for-the-buck value is very high.

Canon 70-200mm 4.0L - Another of the best bargains of the professional "L" series of Canon lenses.  It's VERY sharp throughout the entire range, even when shot wide open (rare for a zoom).  It's obviously much shorter than my 400mm, so it doesn't get used much for birds, with the exception of tame birds at feeders (such as hummingbirds which you can often shoot at very close range).

Canon EFS 18-135mm IS - This was a "kit" lens that came with my 70D.  I don't shoot a lot of landscapes or other wide-angle shots, but I've been pleasantly surprised by this lens.  It's sharp, and the image stabilization (IS) really helps when hand-holding. 

Canon 50mm 1.8 - This is truly an El Cheapo in the Canon line, coming in at $75 when I bought it.  It's also cheaply made (do NOT drop it!).'s EXTREMELY sharp, and makes a very nice medium wide lens. (NOTE: I've since lost this's now floating in the ocean somewhere off the coast of Seward Alaska!!!  Oops...)

Canon 1.4x Teleconverter - Read about teleconverters below.  They multiply the effective focal length of your lens (e.g., making my 400mm behave like a 560mm lens).  There are downsides (as noted below).


WHAT TO BUY? Camera Bodies

For your digital camera body, I'm not going to touch the cheaper "point-and-shoot" digital cameras that are very popular, that you can put in your pocket.  Keep in mind that birds aren't the most considerate of subjects!  You will quickly learn that you can NEVER have a long enough lens, and nearly all point-and-shoot cameras simply don't have the "reach" you're going to need when photographing birds.  Any point-and-shoot that does promise long range usually does so with digital processing tricks rather than the equivalent of a long lens, and your image quality simply won't come close to what you can get with the equipment I'm recommending here.  For bird photography, you want a digital SLR (DSLR), the digital equivalent of the old standard film camera bodies that allow for the use of a wide variety of detachable lenses.  There are some factors that most people consider when buying a DSLR.  Some are important for bird photography, some are not.

Resolution - Do NOT worry about the number of megapixels your camera has.  Today's DSLR's will nearly all ensure you have plenty of image resolution to not only make wonderful web-based presentations, but will also allow for the creation of hard-copy prints up to quite large sizes. When DSLRs first were introduced, there were basically "megapixel wars" between manufacturers.  At the time, it WAS a big deal when DSLRs first went from 4, to 6, to 8 MP.  Don't worry about it now.  The practical difference between shooting a 14 MP and 20 MP camera is negligible for the vast majority of folks out there.

Canon sensor size and crop factors - Graphic
Relative sizes of sensors, and resultant crop factor

Full-frame vs. a "Cropped" Sensor - The most expensive DSLRs typically have "full-frame" sensors. It goes back to the old film days, where images were captured on a 24mm x 36 mm rectangle. The digital sensor in a "full-frame" DSLR is the same size, 24x36mm.  When shooting my 400mm lens, for example, the resulting image would look exactly the same on an old film camera body as on this full-frame sensor.  Most cheaper DSLRs use digital sensors smaller than 24x36mm because smaller sensors are cheaper.  The APS-C sensor used in my Canon 70D, for example, is quite a bit smaller than a full-size sensor, at 25.1mm x 16.7mm (see the crop factor image here for an example).  That's bad, right? Not necessarily.  By squeezing more sensors on a smaller chip, you're reducing available light for each pixel, which CAN affect image quality and make a "noisy" image.  Today's DSLR's do such a great job though with noise that I haven't found much of an issue for most outdoor, bird-shooting situations (or other situations for that matter).  What you are ALSO doing is projecting an image on a smaller area, and effectively using a smaller part of  the lens, in the center.  The result of a "cropped" sensor is a "crop factor" or "multiplication factor".  On my Canon 70D, it's 1.6x, which means if I shoot an image with my Canon 70D and my 400 mm lens, the image will appear as if I shot a full-frame sensor at 560 mm.  That "magnification factor" can be awfully darn beneficial when trying to shoot birds, given how hard it can be to get close enough to them for them to fill the image frame.  If you can afford a full-frame camera, perhaps you're more likely to be able to afford a longer lens.  If not?  Don't worry, you can great shots with "only" a lens like my 400mm, and a mid-range to cheap DSLR with a crop factor.

Bells and Whistles - When you go from a basic DSLR, through the mid-range and high-range DSLRs, you will add more bells and whistles, such as wireless connectivity, video shooting (which most DSLRs now do), water resistant bodies (often magnesium or other stronger material as compared to plastic bodies), bigger view screens, and more.  Are these necessary?  It obviously depends on how you shoot. Perhaps the environments you shoot in DO demand a water-resistant, damage-resistant body.  Perhaps wireless connectivity is a necessity for you.  Perhaps a bigger view screen is easier for tired eyes.  The question I ask though these things help you to get a better image?  Keep in mind that most options available on a more expensive camera (other than sensor characteristics themselves may be handy, but they will not improve the photograph you ultimately take. 

FINAL VERDICT - CAMERA BODY - If money is an issue, do NOT spend it on the body, save it for high-quality lenses.  You don't need the fanciest, $6,000 DSLR to take incredible, world-class, professional-quality photos. There is very little practical difference, for example, in picture quality between the cheapest Canon "Digital Rebel" camera bodies and my mid-range Canon 70D.  In fact, many manufacturers use the same exact sensors on their cheapest DSLRs as they use in mid-range bodies, while the high-end bodies are the ones where full-frame sensors come into play.  Even if you have an unlimited budget for a camera body, it may not be in your best interest to buy the most expensive, full-frame DSLR.  When you're shooting birds, you're always wishing for more "reach", and you lose the artificial magnification factor if you use an expensive, full-frame camera body.



I've already mentioned it several can NEVER have a long enough lens when photographing birds.  When people first get into bird photography, they tend to grossly underestimate the length they'll need.  I definitely did. Telephoto lenses are so much longer than "normal" lenses people use for photographing people, landscapes, pets, etc.  When someone sees a 200 mm or 300mm lens, they often believe they have enough magnification for birds.  Keep in mind that many birds are quite small, and to fill the photographic frame with the bird either requires 1) a beast of a lens, or 2) being very close to the bird. One other factor to consider with is the LENS that is your most important investment, not the camera body. If you've got the money to spend, invest in high-quality lenses.  In my case, since I shoot with the Canon line, that means the "L" series of lenses. They are generally costlier than "consumer" lenses, yes, but they truly do blow away the cheaper lenses in terms of image quality.

Acorn Woodpecker - Melanerpes formicivorus - Photograph
"Habitat" shot, Acorn Woodpecker and his Oak

When I started and got my first DSLR (one of the first Digital Rebels), I got what I thought was a monster, 75-300mm lens.  It cost all of $250.  I quickly found out that the vast majority of my bird photos consisted of 95% landscape, and a quite small bird in the frame.  I could that the picture quality, particularly sharpness, wasn't up to par with some of the amazing shots I saw online, but I initially chalked that up to my skill level.  I decided to invest in the most expensive lens I could afford, the Canon 400mm 5.6L I still own and use today.  It was $1,100, the most I could ever consider spending at the time.  The length was definitely improved, and it did help me to fill the frame with the bird more effectively (although I was, and am, always wishing for more length).  But it was picture quality that was astounding.  There was absolutely no comparison in sharpness and clarity in the images from the professional "L" 400mm lens as compared to the consumer 75-300mm lens. Yes, technique helps improve image quality.  However, the most sound technical skill in the world can't compensate for a poor-quality lens.  With that said, here are things to consider when buying a lens:

Focal Length - Focal length is provided in millimeters, the larger the number, the greater the magnification and the narrower the field of view. The focal length you'll require is dependent upon your subject matter and the composition of the shots you hope to achieve.  If you're looking for "habitat shots" that show the bird as a small part of its natural surroundings, or if you're primarily photographing very large birds, a 200mm lens may often prove effective.  However, if you're looking for "fill-the-frame" shots of small birds, even a $14,000, 600mm lens can be very "short" at times.  A word of warning...the longest telephoto lenses cost as much as a good used car.  Weight is another consideration. You're simply not going to be able to walking around all day with a 15 pound lens attached to your camera. 

FINAL VERDICT - In an ideal world, if money isn't an issue and you want absolutely fantastic, fill-the-frame bird photos, get the 500mm or 600mm lenses, along with a shorter 300mm lens.  With this combination, you'll have the reach for most situations, but still have flexibility to have a shorter, lighter lens for walking around, and for shooting flight shots or larger birds.   Note however that this combination could easily set you back $16,000 or more.  I balk at spending 1/10th of that.  If money IS an issue, like for most folks, you can get by, and thrive, with a more practical set of lenses.  As noted above, my longest lens is 400mm.  Could I use more length?  No doubt.  I miss some shots by "only" having a 400mm, and the bird is relatively small in the frame in many other shots.  Can I still have fun and get great shots?  Most definitely!!  As I said above, patience and persistence is free and can largely compensate for equipment that's a little lacking.  Get the longest, highest-quality lens you can afford. Don't believe for a second though that you can't get great photos without that 500mm or 600mm lens.  Even those on an extremely tight budget can take really cool bird photos, without the longest of lenses.  The Acorn Woodpecker photos shows the bird and his wonderful habitat, the massive oak tree where his family caches and hides acorns.  Does the bird fill the frame?  No...I didn't have enough focal length to do that.  But I still love this shot, and the great story it tells.

Speed/Aperture - The aperture controls the amount of light that reaches the sensor, and is controlled by the size of the opening through which the light passes. Aperture also controls depth-of-field, the amount of depth that is "in focus". Typical lens apertures are f/2.8, f/4, f5.6, etc. The smaller the number, the wider the aperture. The wider the aperture, the "faster" your lens is, as is doesn't have to be open as long to collect the same amount of light as a more narrow aperture.  When photographing birds, a fast lens is definitely an advantage.  A faster lens, with a smaller "f" value, will allow faster shutter speeds, reducing the chances you'll get "motion blurring" of a moving bird.  Note that just as with focal length, where longer lengths cost more money, lenses get more expensive as they get faster.  For example, a Canon 300mm f/4 lens may cost around $1200, while the same focal length but faster Canon 300mm f2.8 lens will be closer to $5,000!!!  Also keep in mind weight.  The faster speed lenses are larger to let in more light, and can be quite heavy.

FINAL VERDICT - Ideally they'd make a cheap, 600mm, f.2.8 lens.  They don't.  If they made a 600mm 2.8 it would likely be $30,000 and weight 35 pounds.  From a practical standpoint, yes, a faster lens is nice.  But keep in mind weight, and cost.  Is it worth an extra thousand dollars, for example, to get a f/4 lens vs. an f/5.6?  It depends on your style of shooting, but spending that much money for one extra f-stop doesn't make a lot of sense in my book. KEEP THIS IN MIND...there's a HUGE advantage with digital cameras in that you can change "ISO" levels, just as film cameras could switch to "faster" film to improve shutter speeds based on low-light situations, for example.  Instead of spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars more for a faster lens, just increase the ISO level as you shoot in low-light or other situations where more "speed" is needed.  My 400mm f/5.6 is considered "slow" compared to many Canon "L" series of lenses, but if it's cloudy, if the sun is settling below the horizon, or if I'm in any other low-light situation, I just dial the ISO up on my Canon 70D body and I can usually get plenty of shutter speed to shoot birds.

Image Stabilization / Vibration Reduction - The exact terminology differs, depending upon manufacturer, but many lenses now offer mechanical tools that compensate for "shake".  I'm pretty darn steady hand-holding a camera, but no human being can hold a camera perfectly still.  If you couple a shaky photographer with a low-shutter speed, you're almost certainly going to get motion blur.  Image Stabilization (Canon's term) mechanically compensates for an unsteady hand, effectively lowering what might be considered a "safe" shutter speed for hand-holding a shot (i.e., without use of a tripod for stabilization). 

FINAL VERDICT - It's a great feature to have, and will improve the sharpness of many shots by reducing or eliminating blur from a shaky hand. Note there is only ONE negative thing I have to say about my Canon 400mm 4.0L does NOT have "IS", Canon's Image Stabilization.  I'll have my 400mm lens until 1) it breaks, 2) I lose it, or 3) I die, but the ONE thing that would make me consider getting a new primary bird-shooting lens would be if Canon made a 400mm lens like mine, WITH IS.

Prime vs. Zoom Lenses - "Prime" lenses refer to those that have one, non-adjustable focal length.  "Zoom" lenses have a continuous range of usable focal length between two end marks.  Zoom lenses offer much greater flexibility, as one zoom lens can be used for a wide variety of shooting situations. Prime lenses generally offer the greater sharpness and less distortion.  To put it simply, using a 75-300mm zoom lens at the 300mm length will almost certainly provide poorer image quality than a prime 300mm lens, and unfortunately for bird photographers, zoom lenses tend to be the softest at the longer focal lengths.

FINAL VERDICT - Go with prime lenses. The sharpness is simply astounding for a good quality prime.  Yes, there are zoom lenses that can provide very nice image quality, but if you're after the highest-quality photos that you can capture, you can't beat a high-quality prime lens.  The problem is versatility and practicality, as only using prime lenses means you'll likely need multiple lenses to cover different shooting situations (e.g., shooting landscapes vs. shooting birds).  I know I'm probably an outlier...I almost exclusively shoot birds, and my 400mm lens rarely get exchanged for something else on my camera body.  If you are going to shoot birds, landscapes, family shots, etc., perhaps a zoom is your best option.  Just be sure to invest in the highest quality zoom you can reasonably afford.

Teleconverters - As noted above, teleconverters are little "extenders" that fit between your lens, and your camera body, effectively increasing your final focal length.  Teleconverters generally come in 2 magnification factors for a given manufacturer.  For Canon, there are 1.4x and 2.0x teleconverters available.  Teleconverters sound like a GREAT idea for bird photographers, as you're always wanting more length.  Given a good prime lens and a good, compatible teleconverter, you WILL have an excellent combination for bird photography.  Keep in mind that there are 2 disadvantages.  You WILL lose sharpness and increase distortion with a teleconverter. It's unavoidable by throwing more layers of glass between your subject and the sensor.  Note too that teleconverters make your lens operate slower, with a 1 f-stop decrease with a 1.4x teleconverter and a 2-stop decrease with a 2.0x teleconverter.  Thus, if you use a 2.0X teleconverter with a f/5.6 lens, you end up with a VERY slow f/11 lens that will be quite unusable for most birding situations.  Teleconverters are the most effective if you have a fast lens to begin with, and if you're using a teleconverter made by the manufacturer of your lens.

FINAL VERDICT - I have a 1.4x teleconverter and I rarely touch it.  Part of it is my "slow" 400mm f/5.6 lens. If I use the 1.4x teleconverter, my lens becomes an even slower f/8, and with my camera body, I lose auto-focus.  As you can imagine, having a slow lens combination where you're struggling to get adequate shutter speed, PLUS losing auto-focus is not a great formula for winning photography.  Note the high-end Canon DSLR bodies can generally auto-focus at slower native lens speeds, but you're still sacrificing speed and image quality.  If you can afford that 500mm or 600mm f4.0 lens?  Then YES, by all means, a 1.4x teleconverter would likely be a great tool for your equipment, expanding your reach even further.  In my case?  It's not that helpful.


WHAT TO BUY? Tripods/support

Camera shake caused by your own unsteadiness, the wind, internal vibration, etc. can make your once-in-a-lifetime shot blurry and out-of-focus.  Hand-holding a camera is the most convenient method of taking a photo, but it can definitely have consequences to image sharpness.  This is ESPECIALLY true in bird photography, where you are generally using very long focal lengths.  Hand-holding becomes less and less desirable as focal length increases, as the effects of camera shake are much more noticeable at higher focal lengths.  A simple rule of thumb in photography:  Hand-holding is only effective if the shutter speed is faster than the inverse of your lens' focal length.  For example...with a 400mm lens, hand-holding will generally provide acceptably sharp shots if your shutter speed is 1/400th second or faster.  So what are your options to reduce camera shake?

Tripod - A good sturdy tripod is truly wonderful in stabilizing your camera and helping you achieve, crisp, clear photos. When using extremely long focal lengths, the use of a tripod is pretty much mandatory. A wide variety of tripods are available.  The cheaper, lighter models often don't have enough mass to prevent camera shake caused by the wind or other sources.  Consistent use of a good, heavy tripod is one of the best ways to improve image quality.

Monopod - A monopod is simply a one-legged version of a tripod. While it isn't able to fully support your camera, using a monopod will provide additional stability.  They are lighter weight than tripods, and can be a good option when hiking or for capturing shots in areas that won't allow for a complete tripod setup.

Camera Stock - Camera stocks are somewhat similar to gun stocks, and provide additional stability while still "hand-holding" your camera. I must admit I've never tried such a setup and can't provide much insight.

Window supports - Do you shoot from your car a lot?  There are many options to provide stability when shooting out a car window.  I have a small window mount that allows me to fit my ball-head tripod top to the window. It's very stable and can be great when shooting from a car.  Even simper options are bean bags or other soft items that can be placed on the door frame of an open window, providing a place to rest the camera while still "hand-shooting".

FINAL VERDICT - I hate tripods with a passion.  I have one.  Somewhere.  I never bring it with me.  If I have it with me, I never use it.  Would it reduce the "fail rate" of my photos? I have no doubt it would!  But I also have no doubt that I'd miss a heck of a lot of shots, as you lose the flexibility of hand-holding. When you're hand-holding, you can quickly pivot and track a moving bird.  When you're hand-holding, you can shift position to eliminate a tree branch or other object between your lens and the bird.  When you're hand-holding, you can move much more quickly over the landscape. 

If you're hand-holding almost exclusively, you quickly learn how to keep the camera steady, and use tricks to aid in stability.  If I can, I lean against a tree or other solid object to improve stability.  If I can, I rest the camera itself on top of a fence or branch to improve stability.  Even holding the lens against the side of a tree trunk reduces camera shake quite a lot.  I hate to advise against using a tripod, and if you use longer equipment than me (e.g., the 500mm or 600mm lens), you almost certainly WILL need a tripod. For my equipment and shooting style?  Hand-holding works great.

Note the one situations where I seek extra stability is shooting from my car. I do shoot from a car quite a bit, and do use my window-mount quite a bit.  However, most of the time, I still hand-hold from my car window.  I simply rest the camera lens on the door or window frame to improve stability. 


Burrowing Owl - Athene cunicularia - Photograph
Burrowing Owl, taken with flash at night


This is pretty obvious, but when you're shooting birds, CHANCES ARE you'll be outside!  All nature photographers of course love using natural, ambient light.  Most bird photos also use ambient light, but there are many, many situations where the use of flash will greatly improve your bird photos.  Low-light situations, such as taking a shot of a bird in a dark forest understory or photographing owls at night, are obvious situations where you NEED a flash just to achieve an image.  But there are other situations where flash is a great accessory.  Here are the two situations where I would use flash:

Total flash - Total flash is used when both the subject and the background need to be illuminated just to be able to record an image.  This is typically the case in low-light situations, either because of time of day or night, or because of location (e.g., the forest understory example above).  Most 35mm DSLR's offer electronic through-the-lens (TTL) flash systems, which have internal flash meters in the camera that determines the appropriate flash based on the current aperture and shutter speed settings.

Fill Flash - Fill flash is used to augment ambient light by filling in the shadows or for lighting a back-lit subject.  For example, let's say you're shooting a bird sitting on a fence post, with the sun behind the bird. Shooting a back-lit subject such as this will likely result in a dark subject and very bright background.  By providing fill-flash, you're adding light to the subject itself, helping to fill in the shadows that result from a back-lit subject.

FINAL VERDICT: Get a flash unit and learn to use it.  My flash unit rarely leaves my camera body. I'll use a flash unit in bright sunlight just as much as I will in a shadowed environment. I rarely use the flash to provide the primary illumination for a shot, it's almost always for fill-flash. The burrowing owl photograph shown here is an oddball for me, a case of actually shooting at night and using flash as the primary (only!) light source.  In bright sunlit situations, the fill-flash really can help remove the harsh shadows that result from bright light and provide a much more natural looking shot.  It can be tricky to determine the right amount of fill-flash to provide for a given situation!  The proper use of fill-flash is one technical aspect of bird photography that took me the longest to master.