GearGuide: Digital Cameras for Bird Photographers

More and more birders are becoming interested in photography. To go beyond the limitations of digiscoping (limited low light capability, tricky auto-focus, limited panning or ability to capture action, etc.) requires a fairly serious investment in a camera body and lenses. In this section of our exclusive GearGuide we'll cover tips for what to look for in a camera body...

or you can just . The comments and notes here will be of use to anyone considering a new digital camera but they are very much tailored to those wanting to photograph birds.

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The first question to ask yourself is how much and how often? That is, how much are you prepared to spend on a camera body (keeping in mind that you'll likely spend more on lenses than on the body) and how often do you expect to upgrade it? Unlike film cameras, digital cameras improve by leaps and bounds so that you are likely to be better off in the long run buying a mid-priced D-SLR every couple years and having a nice pair of cameras for the long run than buying a flagship camera today and feeling you have to stay with it for many years to justify the cost.

The second question is about sensor size. For bird photography there are many reasons to like the slightly smaller sensor sizes offered by the Nikon "DX" format cameras and the Canon "crop factor" sensors. You get a longer effective focal length and most of the time you won't need the ultra-high ISO settings available on the full frame cameras or their greater wide angle capability. You also get to choose from some smaller and cheaper lenses and of course your camera will be less expensive.

That said, there is no equal to the image quality offered by full frame sensors so I'm not discouraging you if you have the money and the willingness to invest in enough glass to give you the reach you need on your full frame camera. If you are building a full set of gear you can consider getting one of each over time. I have shot with just about every Nikon D-SLR and many of the Canon models, but I own and use a Nikon D300 (DX format) and a Nion D700 (FX format) for example. And wrote about the advantages that provides: .

At some point you'll also need to decide which camera manufacturer you'll be buying from. For most of you that's probably already a given as you have some gear already. If not, then the two realistic choices are Nikon and Canon. Not because they are the only firms that make great D-SLRs, but because they have by far the best selection of long lenses, the bread and butter of bird photography. Sony is working hard to catch up and if they ever ship the prototype 500mm f/4 they showed they'll be in the hunt.

Frankly either brand is really excellent and offers a complete array of options from entry level to over-the-top. You may want to pick a brand that is used by other friends or family members to share gear, or you may just want to decide based on your personal preference for how the cameras operate.

Recently there has been another issue that seems to be getting more pronounced. Nikon's long lenses are very expensive--noticeably more expensive than Canon's. Their 500mm f/4, for example, is $8400 at B&H while the Canon version is $6140. Either one is a substantial investment but the difference can pay for an entire pro grade body. Since I personally prefer the handling of my Nikons to the Canon designs and I already own a lot of long glass it's easy for me to ignore the difference, but if you're just starting out this may be an issue for you. Note though that Sigma makes a growing line of professional grade lenses which typically sell for 1/2 to 2/3 of the price of the vendor lenses and are available for either brand. I'm using an increasing number of them in my own work.

Within each brand there are a bewildering array of almost randomly numbered models. So now you need to sort out the one that is right for you. In general features go up with price, but some of those features are more important to bird photographers than others. We'll cover some of the most significant ones here:

Resolution: This is much less important than most people think. I've got 2' high prints from my original Nikon D1 (2.7 Megapixels) on my wall that visitors swear were taken with a D3. Especially for bird photography essentially any modern camera has plenty of resolution. Getting one with at least 10MP to 12MP does allow for some cropping, which is nice, but if you go beyond that you are likely spending more than you need to or trading off image quality or speed or low light performance.

Frame Rate: One of the best reasons to move beyond digiscoping is to capture action. And action can happen faster than the fastest camera, so it does pay to invest in higher frame rates when you can. But it doesn't always need to cost an arm and a leg. In the Nikon product line, for example, rather than spending $5K on a D3 to get a high frame rate I use the vertical grip for my D300 & D700 which gives me almost the same speed for less than half the price.

High ISO Image Quality: If you're often out early and late this can be a biggie. It's the one reason I'll use my D700 for birds photography on some occasions instead of my D300. Newer cameras tend to do better than older cameras in this category, and full frame cameras better than ones with smaller sensors. But it is a tradeoff between the longer effective focal length of the smaller sensors and the better low light performance of the full frame versions.

Weatherproofing: This is either irrelevant if you're a fair weather photographer or crucial if you expect to be out at Rail Corner in the driving rain trying to be the first of the year to get a Black Rail image. Even with the best rain covers your gear will get wet eventually if you are setting it up and using it enough in rainy or muddy conditions. Consumer cameras (typically those < $1000 currently) have almost no weather sealing. Mid-level Pro models (those from $1000 to $2500 currently) have pretty good sealing, and the flagship models ($5K and up) typically have excellent weather proofing. But none of these cameras are waterproof so all of them require special care (I use Aquatech SportShields for mine).

Auto-Focus: This is huge for any type of flight photography or even for smaller birds flitting around in the reeds. Ideally you'll want a double-digit number of AF points you can switch between and a fast AF mechanism. Here too you get what you pay for. Higher end cameras have more AF sensors and faster AF chips.

Size and Weight: The best camera is one you have with you. Flagship models weigh in at close to 3 pounds and are nearly the size of a hardback book. So think about when you'll be out and what you're willing to carry and hold. Mid-range models often sport an optional vertical grip so you can choose between smaller & more functional each time you go out. Note that the vertical grips are not quite as nice to use as the cameras with those controls already integrated, so you do sacrifice some usability for the flexibility of having the grip on or off.

Video: The ability to capture video (often in HD) is a cool new feature on some models. If you want to document a bird's behavior it is well worth ensuring you get a model with it. I suspect within a year almost all D-SLRs will have this capability, but as the product lines transition it's something you'll need to check in the specs. Video quality and features vary widely and none of the D-SLRs do as well as a dedicated handycam, but you do get to leverage your long lenses, which is a huge plus for bird photography.

Accessories: If you want to load up on various optional devices like GPS tagging of your images, remote control triggers & wireless integration, multiple off-camera flashes, etc., then you'll need to check for compatibility with the specific model you choose. Higher end models tend to have lots more accessory options.

Sensor Cleaner: This is one feature that is both very valuable and not found on some of the high end models, so if you expect to change lenses a lot in dusty environments it's worth checking the model  you're looking at to see if it has a built-in sensor cleaner. They don't work all the time but I'd estimate they cut down on the need for manual cleaning by about 80%.

Miscellaneous: There are other features that you gain as you climb up the product lines, like Live View, multiple card slots, artificial horizons, audio recording, mirror lock-up, full frame viewfinder coverage, etc.  If any of those are important to you then you'll need to pick a model based on them. Also, less expensive cameras tend to use SD cards--nice for compatibility with other devices, while higher-end cameras tend to use the larger and more expensive CompactFlash cards.

Newest vs. Proven: I'm frequently asked my opinion of some internet reported glitch in a new camera. First, every new model camera has glitches. In most cases they are either infrequent or minor--although the Internet sure amplifies every deficiency. And in most cases they are addressed through firmware updates (normally ones you can do yourself, although some have required returning the camera for service) within a few months. But if you don't want to worry about that type of issue (examples include the battery flakiness in the Nikon D300, the AF issues with the Canon 1D Mark III and now the 7D, buggy firmware in the original Nikon D1X, etc.) or hassle with fixing them, simply wait and buy a camera 6 months or more after it ships.

Backup camera. If you only shoot locally and aren't too concerned that you might be without your camera for a few days or weeks when it needs service then one camera is probably plenty. But if you plan on going on any extended trips you'll feel much safer with a backup. If you're not in a hurry one plan is to buy one camera now and invest in another in a year or two when new models are available and keep your first camera as a backup.

What birds & what locations: Think about the type of bird photography you do. For example, in backyard setups or blinds like we use on our Texas trips we can often get quite close to the action without disturbing the birds. In those situations its okay to have less focal length and heavier cameras are also not a big deal. But if you're chasing songbirds around a forest you'll need plenty of focal length but at the same time you'll be lugging it through the underbrush all day. Shorebird photography is somewhere in the middle. Some slogging, but lots of opportunities to work birds and not much underbrush to work through.

Healthy Scepticism: Like the adage says, don't believe anything you read and only half of what you see:-) In that spirit remember that you can find just about any opinion on just about any product by looking around the Internet. In my case I've either owned or shot with almost all these cameras and watched people shoot with and looked at the images from the others but that is still a very limited sampling under limited conditions. There is no substitute for borrowing or renting or at least handling in person any expensive gear you are thinking of purchasing. We are incredibly fortunate in the Bay Area to have a new and relatively inexpensive local option for renting cameras and lenses,  in San Mateo, San Jose & San Francisco, although your local camera store might also make you a good deal or apply rental fees towards an eventual purchase.

Information on specific camera models:

  • 10.2 Megapixels
  • 3" LCD
  • Nikon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR AF-S DX Lens
  • 11-point Autofocus System
  • Compact Design
  • Self Cleaning Sensor
  • 3fps Burst
  • High Sensitivity (ISO 1600)  

If you want the least expensive possible way to start taking photos of birds, the D3000 plus a will get you started for under $1000. 11-point AF is just barely enough to be satisfying for bird photography although of course the camera is much slower at focusing and shooting than its more expensive cousins.


  • Nikon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR AF-S DX Lens
  • 12.3-megapixel DX-format CMOS Sensor
  • HD 720p Video Capture w/Exposure Control
  • 2.7" Vari-angle LCD
  • Live View Mode
  • 4 fps Burst Mode
  • GPS Geotagging (optional)

For $200 more you get a tiny bit more resolution and more interestingly a video capture capability. Even though it says HD video it won't compare with a dedicated HD camcorder, but can be a lot of fun and is a great way to document behaviors.  With a will get you started for under $1200

  • 12.3 Megapixel, DX Format CMOS Sensor
  • 3" VGA LCD Display with Live View
  • Self-Cleaning Sensor with D-Movie Mode
  • High Sensitivity (ISO 3200)
  • 4.5 fps Burst

 For pure photography the D90 still wins out over its newer sibling, the D5000. It has a better LCD, some better ergonomics and a better build. But they share the same sensor so they have similar image quality. And the D5000 has video. The D90 also has an internal focusing motor so it can be used with non-AF-S lenses--important if you have some older AF lenses you want to use. Paired with the you'll have a very reasonable setup for about $1700.

  • 12.3 Megapixels
  • 3" LCD
  • 51-point Autofocus System
  • Live View
  • HD Video Recording
  • Stereo Audio Input
  • Self Cleaning Sensor
  • 100% Viewfinder Accuracy
  • CF and SD/SDHC Card Slots
  • Dust and Weather Resistant

This is the cat's meow (if you'll pardon the expression) for bird photography. For 1/3 the price of the D3 you get everything you need to take world class images in every situation. Plus it has video for recording behaviors and with the can zip along at 8 frames per second. Somehow they've even managed to cram in dual card slots. If I was buying a camera for bird photography today, this is the one I would buy. Paired with the you'll have a very reasonable setup for about $2400. Or this is the type of camera it is worth looking at pairing with a more expensive long lens like the Nikon 500mm f/4.

  • 12.1 Megapixel, FX-format CMOS (full frame)
  • 3" VGA LCD Display
  • Live View
  • Self Cleaning Sensor
  • 51-point AF System
  • 5 fps Burst
  • ISO 6400 Sensitivity
  • Dust and Water Resistant

If you feel you want extra low light performance or photograph a lot of landscapes which demand real wide angle shots then for another $800 the D700 delivers. Keep in mind though that you'll either need to be doing more cropping or carrying more lens to equal the telephoto performance of its smaller sensor sibling the D300s. The D700 also does not have video (expect that in a D700s sometime in 2010). The D700 uses the same sensor as the D3 and is half the price.

  • 12.1 Megapixels
  • FX-format CMOS (full frame)
  • 3" VGA LCD Display
  • LiveView
  • 51-point AF
  • 9 fps Continuous
  • ISO 6400 Sensitivity
  • Customizable Picture Controls
  • Dual CF Card Slots
  • HDMI Video Out

The D3 is an incredible camera and I would never discourage anyone who really wants one from buying it. But it is big, expensive and being replaced by the slightly more expensive (but hard to get yet) D3S. The D3 delivers on all counts. Features, speed and image quality are all un-equaled (although the D3S offers even better low light performance and adds video). If you can wait the D3S might be a better option.  Paired with a you'll have the top of the line for a cool $13,000.

  • 12.1 Mp FX (36x23.9mm) CMOS Sensor
  • RAW/JPEGs & 720p HD Video @ 24fps
  • ISO Sensitivity Up To ISO 102,400
  • Built Tough, Fully Weathersealed
  • 3" 920,000-Dot LCD with Live View
  • Buffers Up to 48 RAW or 130 large JPEGs
  • In-Camera RAW Processing
  • Compatible With Most Nikkor Optics
  • Dual CF Memory Card Slots
  • Up to 4200 Exposures per Battery Charge

The D3S is the top of the line when it comes to any type of action photography, including birds. For $5K (when you can get one) it should be. It is large and heavy and full frame so adding lenses will up your weight even more, but if money was no object this would be the camera I'd buy for sports and wildlife photography. Paired with a you'll have the same gear as the world's top pros for a cool $13,500.

  • 24.5 Megapixel Resolution
  • FX-format (full frame) CMOS Sensor
  • Nikon EXPEED Image Processor
  • NEF (RAW) Files at 12- or 14-bit Color
  • 3" Super-density LCD Monitor
  • Live View Shooting Modes
  • 5 fps Continuous at Full Resolution
  • Scene Recognition System
  • Virtual Horizon Indicator
  • Dual CF Card Slots

If you already own one of these $8,000 beasts, good for you. The image quality is insanely good. But given its higher cost and lower speed than the D3/D3S I wouldn't rush out to buy one for bird photography.

You can get more information on all the Nikon D-SLRs at:

Canon EOS Rebel T1i Digital SLR (Kit with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens $709)

    • 15.1Mp CMOS Sensor
    • HD 1080p, 720p, and VGA Video Capture
    • 3" Clear View LCD with Live View
    • DIGIC 4 Image Processor
    • ISO Expandable to 12,800
    • EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens
    • Compatible w/ 60-plus EF & EF-S Optics

With the you can get started doing some reasonable bird photography for about $1100. The T1i is a great entry level camera with plenty of resolution and good overall performance for the price. The addition of HD video is a really nice touch. This is also a popular backup camera for many of our participants.

Canon EOS 50D SLR Digital Camera (Camera Body $940)

    • 15.1 Megapixel
    • 6.3 fps Continuous Shooting
    • Uses Canon EF & EF-S Lenses
    • 3.0" Clear View VGA LCD
    • Live View Mode
    • Integrated Cleaning System
    • ISO 3200 - Expandable to 12800
    • 9-point Wide-area AF

The Canon EOS 50D offers a clear step up from the Rebel with faster performance and an improved AF system. From a pure photo perspective it is a clear upgrade but it does lack video. It is a very popular camera among my safari participants.

    • 18.0 Megapixels
    • 3.0" LCD
    • HD Video Recording
    • Selectable Video Exposure + Frame Rates
    • Dust & Weather Resistant
    • 100% Viewfinder
    • Self Cleaning Sensor
    • High Sensitivity (ISO 12800)
    • 8fps Burst Mode

This brand new model from Canon goes head to head with the Nikon D300S in the entry-level-pro product range, which is a welcome development. With an excellent frame rate and 19-point AF system this is all the camera most bird photographers need. It is second only to the Canon 1D Mark III/IV in the Canon line for bird photography (and less than half the price).

There has been a bit of a ruckus over the Auto-Focus on the Canon 7D but it has to do with Zone AF specifically and doesn't seem to affect the performance of single-sensor AF. If it bugs you then waiting until the furor settles down and hopefully a firmware patch is available might make you sleep better. But personally I wouldn't stay away from the camera simply based on that relatively small issue.


Entirely new 10.1 Megapixel Canon CMOS Sensor (APS-H size, 1.3x lens conversion factor), featuring the EOS Integrated Cleaning System







Until the Mark IV becomes widely available this is still the flagship of Canon's "action" camera line. With truly rugged pro-grade features it is a workhorse for any type of wildlife, sports or other action photography. If you have the budget (or unless you're willing to wait until you can get your hands on the Mark IV) this is a no-brainer excellent purchase. Paired with the you'll have a world class setup for just under $10,000.

    • 16.1 Megapixels
    • 3.0" LCD
    • High Sensitivity (ISO 102,400)
    • 10fps Burst Mode
    • 45 Point AF System
    • HD Video Recording
    • Selectable Video Exposure + Frame Rates
    • Dust & Weather Resistant
    • 100% Viewfinder
    • Self Cleaning Sensor

If you can get your hands on one this is without question the best camera for bird photography in the Canon lineup. An upgrade in every way (including price) from the current Canon 1D Mark III this camera is the new flagship for working pros and serious amateurs with a sizeable equipment budget. Paired with the you'll have a world class setup for just under $11,000.

    • 21.1 Megapixel
    • Full-Frame CMOS Sensor
    • 3.0" LCD with Live View
    • 5 fps Burst
    • Dual DIGIC III Image Processor
    • Self-Cleaning Sensor
    • Fast AF system
    • Picture Style Settings
    • Weather Resistant Body

Much like the Nikon D3X the EOS 1Ds Mark III takes an absolutely amazing image but is slower and more expensive than it's more action oriented cousin. So unless you need the 21MP full-frame sensor for landscape or studio work you're better off buying a 1D for your bird and wildlife photography and using the extra money on a lens or tripod upgrade. If you do own one of these or are willing to spring for one then paired with the you'll have some of the world's highest resolution and quality bird images for just under $13,000.

You can get more information on Canon's D-SLRs at: and more about Nikon's at the .

For ideas about lenses to go along with your camera see our GearGuide:

As always comments are welcome and in particular I always love to hear about individual's equipment experiences. I have left out (on purpose) anecdotal experiences I've had with equipment failures in the field as it is hard to generalize about those, but they also make for an interesting topic of discussion.

Regards--David Cardinal