how to do bird photography

Bird photography, especially wild bird photography can be quite challenging. There are many articles on the Internet that cover everything from “bird photography tips” to “the art of bird photography”, but I found that many of them are not detailed enough for the beginning photographer who just wants to go out there and shoot.

You might think that photographing birds is similar to other types of wildlife photography, but actually, it is so different that it’s practically like being on another planet! But fear not, because this guide will tell you everything you need to know about getting started with bird photography.

Lenses for Bird Photography

Regarding the best equipment for bird photography, countless articles have been written and discussions have gone on forever. Furthermore, it is unquestionably true that there are presumably just as many perfect setups for bird photography as there are birds—just over 10,800, to be exact.

But before I go into specifics, allow me to point out that the most crucial piece of gear to think about when taking bird photos is a long lens, or a lens with a long focal length.

For those who would like a more in-depth discussion, my friend Libor has written a bit about this subject in his article, What Makes a Good Wildlife Photography Lens? However, to keep things brief, the optimal focal length for birds is between 400mm and 800mm, and even longer when using teleconverters. However, 500mm and 600mm are the most widely used focal lengths.

Is it possible to take pictures of birds using shorter focal lengths? Larger birds will frequently fit your viewfinder nicely with a 400mm lens, and very infrequently, if you’ve found a very tame individual, a 300mm lens will work as well. Generally speaking, though, and having shot over 600 different bird species, it’s undeniable that you’ll need at least 500mm most of the time to get a respectable amount of reach.

Don’t think you’ll have to spend a fortune though. Many prime or zoom lenses with a maximum focal length of 500mm are available at nearly every price point. I like to classify lenses into two groups: those that are reasonably portable and handholdable, and those that frequently require a tripod. To assist you, I’ve compiled a list of both of these types. Here are the lighter ones:

Mount Lens Weight Cost
Canon EF Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II 1.64kg (3.62 lbs) $2399
Canon RF Canon RF 600mm f/11 IS STM 0.93kg (2.05 lbs) $799
Canon RF Canon RF 800mm f/11 IS STM 1.26kg (2.78 lbs) $999
Canon RF Canon RF 100-500mm f/4.5-7.1 L 1.365kg (3.01 lbs) $2599
Fuji X FUJIFILM XF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 R LM 1.375kg (3.03 lbs) $1499
Fuji X FUJIFILM XF 150-600mm f/5.6-8 R LM 1.605kg (3.54 lbs) $1599
Micro 4/3rds Olympus M.Zuiko ED 100-400mm f/5-6.3 1.12kg (2.47 lbs) $1399.99
Micro 4/3rds Panasonic Leica DG 100-400mm f/4-6.3 II 0.985kg (2.17 lbs) $1597.99
Micro 4/3rds OM SYSTEM M. Zuiko 150-400mm f/4.5 TC1.25 PRO 1.88kg (4.14 lbs) $7499.99
Nikon F Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED 2.3kg (5.07 lbs) $1396.95
Nikon F Nikon AF-S 500mm f/5.6E PF 1.46kg (3.22 lbs) $3296.95
Nikon Z Nikon Z 180-600mm f/5.6-6.3 VR 1.95kg (4.30 lbs) $1696.95
Nikon Z Nikon Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S 1.245kg (2.74 lbs) $2996.95
Nikon Z Nikon Z 800mm f/6.3 VR S 2.385kg (5.26 lbs) $6496.95
Pentax K Pentax HD PENTAX D FA 150-450mm f/4.5-5.6 DC 2.0kg (4.41 lbs) $1896.95
Sony E Sony FE 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G OSS 2.115kg (4.66 lbs) $1998

These ones, unless you’re Hercules, call for a tripod:

Mount Lens Weight Cost
Canon EF Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM 4.49kg (9.90 lbs) $12999
Canon RF Canon RF 600mm f/4 L IS USM 3.1kg (6.83 lbs) $12999
Nikon F Nikon AF-S 800mm f/5.6E FL 4.59kg (10.12 lbs) $16296.95
Nikon Z Nikon Z 600mm f/4 TC VR S 3.26kg (7.19 lbs) $15496.95
Nikon Z Nikon Z 400mm f/2.8 TC S 2.95kg (6.50 lbs) $13996.95
Sony E Sony FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS 2.895kg (6.38 lbs) $11998
Sony E Sony FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS 3.04kg (6.70 lbs) $12998

Some people prefer primes while other prefer zooms. I never find 500mm to be too much reach for most birds, but a zoom can be useful for very large birds. For instance, don’t be shocked if the enormous Emu, at 500mm, barely fits your frame; you’ll still get a good head shot, though.

Thus, it’s hard to discount the value of a zoom. Additionally, if birds pique your interest, you might also be drawn to other animals. Zooms are ideal for capturing nearly any kind of creature, and because they typically have higher magnifications, they will magnify small objects even more, such as insects and butterflies.

And finally, what about tripods? Using heavy 500mm or 600mm lenses requires a good tripod system, which consists of a tripod and a tripod head, as it is impractical to hold these lenses by hand. See our comprehensive guide on selecting a tripod if you’re not sure where to begin when it comes to tripods. Ideally, you want a gimbal head and sturdy, weight-bearing carbon fiber legs, like the Wimberley WH-200. A setup like that would be very capable of supporting large lenses and offer enough versatility to capture images of birds in flight. Finally, choose the Arca-swiss quick-release system, as it is currently the industry standard for managing heavy equipment.

Cameras for Bird Photography

Since almost any camera can be used for bird photography as long as you have the appropriate lens, cameras for bird photography can be slightly more varied than lenses. However, what kind of bird photography you want to do will determine what kind of camera you get or need.

Just taking pictures of perched birds can be accomplished with almost any kind of camera. But even when they’re hopping from branch to branch, birds move around a lot, so improved autofocus helps.

One of the most common types of bird photography is capturing birds in flight, so a camera with strong autofocus is essential. Be ready to spend a lot of money if you want a full-frame camera with fast focusing. These are the best full-frame mirrorless cameras available right now for shooting birds:

Camera Weight Cost
Nikon Z8 910g (2.1 lbs) $3996.95
Nikon Z9 1340g (2.9 lbs) $5496.95
Canon R5 738g (1.62 lbs) $3399
Sony A9 II 678g (1.49 lbs) $4498
Sony A1 737g (1.6 lbs) $6498

Don’t give up if the cost of the newest full-frame mirrorless cameras is making your eyes water; there are plenty of used DSLRs available for a very affordable price, such as the Nikon D850, D500, and D5. A camera like the D500 is always my first choice if given the choice between it and a less costly mirrorless camera like the Nikon Z6.

Presently, the most recent full-frame mirrorless cameras such as the Nikon Z8% and the Sony A1% are obviously excellent, but the difference between an older DSL and the most recent full-frame beast only amounts to approximately 1% when all other factors are taken into account and you return home with a winning bird capture.

You can also save money by going with as smaller sensor. The Canon R7 has good enough autofocus for most situations, and it’s not that expensive at $1399, and it can handle probably around 80% of the situations the top-notch full-frame cameras can.

Then you’ve also got the micro four thirds camera, the OM System OM-1, which has amazing autofocus at a fraction of the price ($1999) of the full-frame options.

Remember to look into the used camera market as well, as these cameras are frequently available there for far less money than they are on this list.

How to Take the Best Duck Photos Some simple tips for capturing compelling images of these special birds.

how to do bird photography


Is bird photography difficult?

Photographing birds is both challenging and rewarding. For starters, they like to move around a lot. What’s more, birds aren’t always in the most convenient of locations—out on a lake, high up in a tree, across a field. But these factors are also what make getting that perfect image so satisfying.

What is the best setting for bird photography?

The key to a good bird in flight shot is a fast shutter speed else it’s going to be a blurry mess. So switch to Tv mode (for Canon, S mode for other brands) and dial in 1/2000th sec. Set your ISO to ‘Auto’ so it’ll crank just high enough to enable you to use that shutter speed, no matter how low the light.

What camera settings are needed for bird photography?

In short, yes. Both DSLR and mirrorless cameras are great for bird photography. (They’re both definitely better than any superzoom camera since interchangeable lenses and fast focusing are critical for serious bird photography.) It’s really all about finding a camera that fits your requirements and shooting style.