Birding on a Budget

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If you enjoy outdoor photography, birds are one of the most challenging subjects you can try to capture. The very nature of bird photography—trying to capture small, fast-moving subjects from a distance—evokes visions of monster lenses costing nearly as much as a quality used vehicle. Without question, serious birders typically have serious gear.



But for those of us who can’t justify the cost of a 500mm or 600mm image-stabilized lens, you can still put together a quality birding kit for a much smaller sum than you might expect. In this article, I’ll discuss some of the ways you can work to get quality shots of our avian friends without breaking your bank account.

Purple Gallinule
If you know where to go and use good technique, then you can get great bird photos without a massively expensive kit. I photographed this purple gallinule in the Florida Everglades at an effective focal length of 360mm using a crop-sensor camera (Nikon D300).

Choosing your spots

Birds are, by nature, fairly small animals. They are also fairly shy. As a result, most birders rely on camera/lens combinations that produce effective focal lengths of over 400mm. Even with the longest lenses, you’ll find yourself in a difficult situation for shooting if you can’t get within 50 feet (15m) of your subject. That’s right, my best bird shots, even with a 600mm lens, are usually taken within 30 feet or less of the subject. At greater distances, accurate autofocus is more challenging and you are more likely to encounter thermal atmospheric disturbances (heat waves) that disrupt image quality. The best way to photograph birds, then, is to either find larger species, get close, or both.

The best places to photograph birds are where they are feeding and accustomed to people. Stake out a bird feeder at the local wildlife center, or visit a state or national park where the animals are more accustomed to humans. An even better way to get close to birds is to use a blind (hide). In South Texas, this is exactly what you can do. Many of the ranchers there have set up permanent birding blinds with feeders nearby. If you’re in a blind, the birds will get very close, making extreme focal lengths unnecessary.

Your other option is to concentrate on photographing the larger bird species. Florida has a vast array of birding “hot-spots", including Everglades National Park, Venice Rookery, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, and the St. Augustine Alligator Farm. In these locations, the birds are large and you can get really close to them, especially during the breeding season when they are somewhat “distracted” by the events at hand.


Crested Caracara, photographed from a blind in South Texas at an equivalent focal length of 300mm with a Nikon D2x (DX) camera.

snowy egret
In Florida, the birds are large and you can often get quite close, as was the case with this snowy egret during the breeding season in St. Augustine.

Gear for budget birding

Cameras

A good birding kit is a camera and lens combination that will get you to at least 400mm of “equivalent” focal length, and a sturdy support system. For this reason, I recommend a cropped-sensor (APS-C) format camera. Most Canon bodies and the Nikon DX bodies offer a sensor that is smaller than 35mm format, and as such gives you more “reach” with a telephoto lens. For example, a 300mm lens on a Nikon DX body will have the same angle of view as a 450mm lens on a “full-frame” camera. When choosing a camera, other features to consider are frame advance rate and autofocus performance. If your budget permits, try to get a camera that offers 5 or more frames per-second burst shooting, such as the Nikon D7000 or the Canon 60D. All of the recent mid-range DSLRs from Nikon and Canon offer plenty of resolution, so don’t worry about megapixels.

Lenses

With the camera out of the way, you can next consider your lens choice. You’ll want something that gets you at least 300mm of actual (optical) focal length. For in-flight shots, you’ll probably want to use a shorter focal length to help you keep the subject in the frame. Fortunately, there are numerous options out there, including some really nice 3rd-party optics. For Nikon shooters, I really like the 300mm f/4 AFS Nikkor. It is incredibly sharp and can handle a 1.4x teleconverter (extender) without issue. Its only drawbacks are that it does not zoom and does not have an image stabilization system. I’ve also used the 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 AFS VR G Nikkor, which is significantly less expensive, and does offer Nikon's vibration reduction (VR) image stabilization system. Compared to its fixed focal length cousin, the 70-300mm Nikkor focuses more slowly and is not compatible with teleconverters. Even if you mounted a 3rd-party TC to it, the effective aperture would drop to f/8, making autofocus difficult or impossible. Canon users will want to check out the Canon EF 300mm f/4.0L IS USM lens, which has the advantage of image stabilization built-in, or the less expensive 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM option.

If you expand your lens choices to include 3rd-party manufacturers, you can find some excellent optics as well. The Sigma 120-400mm f/4.5-5.6 DG OS HSM APO lens is well-built, has optical stabilization, and isn’t too heavy to hand-hold on occasion. Its larger cousin, the Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM APO is much heavier and has a slower maximum aperture (f/6.3), which can degrade AF performance. If you really want to lower your costs, look for a used copy of the Tamron 200-400mm f/5.6 LD IF lens. On a crop-sensor body, that gives you the equivalent of 600mm at the long end. One final thing to look for in a lens is whether it offers a tripod collar. Lenses with collars are easier to use on a tripod because you can simply rotate the entire camera/lens combination on the tripod without having to unscrew or release the camera from its mount.


I made this shot with a Nikon D300 and 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 AFS VR G Nikkor lens. Timing and location were key.

Support Systems

The final part of your kit should be the support system. Even though you can use smaller, lighter lenses with a crop-sensor camera, the high magnification factors of these camera / lens combinations requires adequate support. I don’t recommend skimping on a tripod. Find a sturdy tripod and use it. Make sure that it it has a support rating of at least 22 lbs (10kg), as this will help keep everything from vibrating. I also recommend spending a little extra and getting a ball head and avoiding a pan-tilt head. Not only will your shots be sharper, but your arms won’t fatigue from carrying a heavy camera and lens. If you’re shooting from a blind, you may be able to use a beanbag support instead of a tripod.

Other Accessories

When you’re photographing birds, expect to take a multitude of shots. Extra memory cards are mandatory, because keeper rates are generally low. I can usually get by with 8GB of memory in any one session, but I usually have 16GB on hand. I also like to have a flash unit for adding fill light or catchlights. When you’re using long focal lengths with a flash, a great and inexpensive accessory is the “Better Beamer” flash extender. They come in various sizes designed to fit most Canon and Nikon flash units. If your camera offers it, you might want to pick up a battery grip. Not only will this extend battery life, but for some cameras, such as the Nikon D300s, it increases the maximum frame advance rate. I find it ergonomically easier to shoot in portrait (vertical) orientation with a grip, because you get the vertical shutter release button and other controls.

Conclusion

While bird photography does require specialized equipment, if you choose smartly and go to the right places, you can do excellent work without having to mortgage your home to buy gear. Technique and practice will allow you to get great images regardless of the equipment that you use, because you’ll know your limitations. Also, there’s something to be said about not having to lug around a 14-pound lens and the tripod required to hold it while photographing in the field. In many situations, a compact birding kit can be just right if you know where to go. I've put together my recommendations for a basic birding kit (Nikon) as a public B&H wishlist.

wood stork
Wood Stork, St. Augustine Alligator Farm, FL.

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amazing photos...shared to FB wall, so my family and friends can see what they are missing over there...lol

I would like to know whether the Nikon Telephoto AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4D ED-IF Autofocus Lens is with VR or not.

Please inform me that which one will be better for bird photography: Nikon Telephoto AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4D ED-IF Autofocus Lens /Sigma 150-500mm/Nikon AF-S Nikkor 300 mm f/4D IF-ED Lens

No, the Nikon Telephoto AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4D ED-IF Autofocus Lens does not incorporate the "VR" Vibration Reduction feature to it.

The Nikon 300mm f4 ED-IF lens is a very sharp lens, however for most practical birding situations, the Sigma 150-500mm lens is a much better tool for the task.  It's broad range and powerful focal lenght make it a very versatile tool.  It is one of the lenses I recommend first for most people looking to get into birding.

Very good brief and to the point discussion about birding.Thank u very much

Hi Jason,

Nice tips...

I am using Canon 7D and Canon 100-400 L for birding. Please recomend is these are proper gear to use for birding?

Yes, your camera and lens are commonly used for birding photography.  The Canon EOS 7D has a fast burst rate for shooting continuous still photos at a rate of 8 frames per second (which is very fast) and also has a high ISO rating of 12,800 which is great for low light situations and high speed subjects. 

The 100-400mm IS lens is also a very commonly used lens for birding.  It has a broad range and fast autofocus, which helps you get the best shot.

My favorite bird camera has quickly become the Canon Sx50 HS, due to its 50x optical zoom.  It is the equivalent of a 1200mm lens, although only 12.1 Megapixels.  It's really nice to not have to fumble with lenses though, and the price is about the same as a dslr lens so I recommend picking one up.  

hi

am a hobbiest. love birding too. I have nikon D7000 and Sigma 150-500mm, what coudl be a possible upgrade. can u pls give me two options! one budgeted one and one general. am not too happy with clarity of sigma lens.

Short of looking at some of Nikon’s exquisite, but pricey, telephoto prime lenses, there aren’t many options in this focal range.  The best option would likely be the Nikon AF-S 80-400mm.  It would be sharper than the Sigma 150-500mm.  It also has less lens aberrations, which would help with overall image quality.  You would be losing a bit of reach, though.  You might contact our Used Department to see what lenses they currently have in their inventory.  You might be able to find some interesting options there: usedphoto@bhphotovideo.com

 I'm asking your opinion wich one is better in sharpest and Focusing fast between the 300mm F/4.0L is vs the 100-400mm L.

Can i use the 2X teleconverter with both to expand focusing distance?Please let me Know your opinion about this two choices for my Canon dsrl 70 camera. Thank You!

The 300mm f4 is the sharper of the two lenses, but in using it compared to the 100-400mm you sacrifice the flexibility of the zoom.  Both lenses are compatible with the 2x converter (AF is possible with most cameras however in low light it might be a challenge for some cameras to autofocus with the combination).  In more instances I recommend the 100-400mm lens due to the overall broader range which will give you more compositional options.

Thank you.

This is one of the best explainations on birding I have ever encountered.

Thank you.

This is one of the best explainations on birding I have ever encountered.

Hello,thanks a lot for sharing your guiding views.I am on the verge of buying a new camera,thinking os cannon 70 D,should I go for it or not?Please guide.

Thanks a lot once again

Yes, the Canon EOS 70D is a great camera to use for birding photography.  It has a fast AF as well as a high ISO rating of 25,600 and a burst rate of 7 frames per second.  Those features along with 19 AF points and Continuous Servo AF mode will allow you to capture great shots of birds - both still and in flight.

My Girlfriend & I have been getting into shooting birds but prefer to shoot them in the wild, which usually means they are far away. She has a Nikon D7100. I have a Canon 60D. We are considering new longer lenses, such as the new Tamron 150-600mm with image stabilization or the Sigma 150-500mm with image stabilization. We have also considered buying some 70-200mm and adding the 2X teleconverter. I know from experience that the tele will add a stop or two and can ruin the AF capabilities. 

Any suggestions? Like everyone, we want as sharp, crisp and clear pictures as possible and find it hard to get the shutter speeds to accomplish that without jumping the ISO so high that the noise is a problem.

Alan

It's my recommendation to select a lens in the focal range you need to work in that does not require a teleconverter to achieve the focal (unless that is the only option which is not the case here).  I think you have it right to consider the two lenses you’ve mentioned, as well as to consider that Sigma just announced two new 150-600mm lenses that may be worth your time.  Using a lens such as a 70-200mm f2.8 lens, with the original Nikon or Canon pro teleconverters will deliver nice results, but the converter (even the best) can degrade image quality down from what the lens is capable of without the converter.  Converters are great for the occasional need to boost the focal, but if the duty demands consistent use of a longer focal, invest in the proper lens. 

I’ve successfully recommended the Sigma 150-500mm lens for years with great feedback from birders, and the small amount of people out there working with the Tamron 150-600mm lens are extremely pleased with it.  I could honestly recommend either to you and feel you would be excited with the results. 

See the link below to the new Sigma 150-600mm lenses mentioned above.

http://bhpho.to/1ovsYBO

When are you going to have stock for Sigma 150-600mm Sports for Nikon? Earlier it was announced  to release by October, which is now. I am going to buy a suitable gear combination (lens, tc, etc) for birding and aggressively looking for advices. My interest is wild birds, with occasional migratory. I have a Nikon D610 and a lens budget is under US$ 4K. Thanks in advance.

Unfortunately Sigma has not updated us with a specific delivery date.  They merely estimated "October" as their target delivery time frame (which could mean up to the end of October or later since they are not garaunteeing any particular date).  Hopefully they will come through with the lens by the end of the month.  As far as recommendations go which are currently available, I would recommend considering the Nikon 80-400mm lens or the Sigma 150-500mm option.  See the following links for details on the lenses:

http://bhpho.to/1j9ayG7

http://bhpho.to/1cXdSQ4

Hi, I have been birding for a little while, but I am only just getting into bird photography, and I was thinking about getting the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ200 as a beginning camera and I was wondering if this is a good desiscion or not, and if you could tell me a different camera that I should get. The distance I will be photographing at isn't all that far, and my budget is very low, preferably around $150.

Hopefull for help, Dashiell Hunter

Hi Dash -

This "bridge" camera has a great extended zoom lens and does a very nice job with video as well. I think it will be a great fit for you and your fledgling foray into birding and photography.  Good luck!

Please contact us via e-mail if you have additional questions:  AskBH@BandH.com

I have a Pentax K50 and would like advice on which lense to purchase for birding there is a special on the  DA star 60.250 F4 ED lense Is this too short?

The Pentax 60-250mm f/4 looks to be an excellent lens.  That being said, for birding, you might want something more telephoto.  For the K-50 you might look at the Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3.  It would give you much more reach, which can be key for getting tight bird shots.

the article is vey helpfull. please send me the details on Bidingon a budget.

Please send us an email to sales@bhphotovideo.com and let us know what specific model camera you are currently using, and what lenses you have for it, and we can recommend other lenses/accessories etc useful for birding.  Feel free to include any specific questions on the topic you have there, and our agents can reply in specific detail to you.