Birding on a Budget
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, St. Augustine Alligator Farm, FL.