Is it even possible to think of an ultimate birding camera a best in class that can satisfy all types of birding and birders. How would you even rate a camera to say its the best bird watching camera in the market. That’s a tall order and something I’m going to try and tackle here with my thoughts as a bird photographer shooting with a range of cameras and lenses.
Bird watching camera basics
I’ve put together the list below of what I feel are some essential things to think of when buying a camera for bird photography. It’s not a tech spec view but rather a more practical look at what is needed to capture birds out in the field.
- Camera size and weight – This is often an overlooked item. Recently I was doing a comparison test between the Canon 1D-X with a Sigma 150-600 Sport lens and an OLYMPUS OM-D E-M1X with 300mm lens. This was a fair comparison for the focal length being an effective 600mm reach (you can read my full Olympus birding camera review for more details). The biggest difference in these two setups is the weight. The Olympus won hands down and was easily hand held for long periods of time. So when looking at a camera hold it in your hands and ask yourself, could I carry this around for hours?
- Shutter speed – Well birds tend to fly and even the slowest moving bird is fast. Unlike the camera settings needed for motocross photography birding is a whole lot faster. Shutter speed and frame rate (number of pictures you can take in a second) are all important when considering shutter speed and overall speed to take a photo. The lens often ends up to be the bottleneck in that the camera could take a large number of images but if the lens can’t focus in time they will all be blurry. Also, depending on the memory card used it can limit how fast the pictures are written to the card resulting in the camera stalling as you take photos. So a balance between images per second, the speed of the lens (f stop) and write speed of memory card are all factors when considering the overall speed of shooting for birding.
- Sensor resolution – This is a battle right now with all the major camera manufacturers. Almost all of them are going mirrorless and full frame. This presents some serious issues for selecting a bird watching camera. The average mirrorless camera has a slow response in what you see and snapping the image. This lag is very annoying when trying to capture that split second with a bird. Now I know many people will argue this point and say it’s just as good as a DSLR but really it’s not. I’ve used a range of brands and all so far lag the DSLR. The sensor size is the next issue. Moving everything to full frame allows for more resolution but it also means larger file sizes and as mentioned above slows down overall write speed. Then you have companies like Olympus birding cameras that are moving in a very different direction with a micro fourthrids sensor. For me the verdict is still out on that.
- Lens focal length – This is a big one. Birds don’t come close enough and they aren’t big enough. So the only way to snap a good photo of a wild bird with a camera is to use a long focal length. That leads to the question of what’s the best lens for birding. I shot with a 70-200mm. 100-400mm and 150-600mm zoom lenses. I have to admit that’s a little extreme and not what everyone can afford or would want to purchase. Add in to that the best options for lenses when birding and you’re looking at prime lenses in the area of 400mm, 600mm or even 800mm. The glass is the key in my opinion. You can easily have a great lens on a crappy camera and snap some amazing bird photos but try doing the opposite. If you have a great camera body with a crappy lens you’ll struggle for ever. So when selecting the best camera for birding don’t forget the lens!
Top tips for any bird photographer
I’ve spent many hours trying to take a perfect bird photo and through that trial and error I’ve come up with some simple tips for birders. These are not the end all in tips but a great start for the beginner bird photographer. It’s a journey not really a destination when it comes to wildlife or nature photography.
Can you use a compact camera for birding?
This is a great question and a type of camera I’ve never really used for birding. So what would be the best compact camera for birding if you’re on a budget? Well I’m not 100% sure which specific brand or model but I would look toward Sony and there small format cameras. Something like the Sony A6600 or Sony A6100, even the Fujifilm X-T3 or X-T30 (the Fuji X-T30 is one of the best street cameras around). I don’t think there is such a thing as a best point and shoot camera for birding now that most cellphones have pretty good cameras built in. The whole point and shoot market has been crushed buy the cellphone camera. I guess the key here is finding a camera that has some type of zoom lens (not digital zoom) and a good low light sensor. You’ll often find yourself shooting birds in less than ideal light and having a camera that can handle low light for both focus and noise (grain) is critical when buying a compact camera for birding.
Tips for picking a bird camera
At the end of the day any camera will make a good bird camera. That’s to say the camera in your hand is better than the one at the house. So depending on your birding habits and what it is that you want to get out of birding many cameras will in the end be the best camera for birding. I suggest you talk with other bird photographers and ask them about the gear they use. Maybe even ask to try one out.
If you’re a birder and have any questions on what to look for in an outdoor camera for bird watching ask away.