A few things happen when you look through a pair of binoculars, a spotting scope, or a telescope. The first thing that happens when you see awesomeness is you think, sometimes out loud, "Wow!" The next thing that happens is that you want to share what you are seeing with others—this usually means photographs! The second part is what turns some astronomers into astrophotographers and birders into bird photographers. If you are a birder and want to start sharing some of the awesome avian sights you observe in your binoculars, here are some hints and tips for getting started in successful bird photography.
The Birding Basics Are Still… The Birding Photography Basics
Regardless of whether you are equipped with binoculars, a spotting scope, or a camera, when you're out looking for birds, the basics of successful birding apply.
- Safety first
- Bring a friend or let someone know where you are going and when you will be back.
- Beware of dangerous wildlife—from bears and coyotes, to ticks and mosquitoes, to homo sapiens hunting where you are birding.
- Be overprepared for the environment you are in and the duration you will be there.
- Respect the environment
- Leave only footprints.
- Don't disturb animals in their habitats.
- Avoid nesting areas.
- Don't trespass
- Be quiet
- Birds don't like loud noises.
- They also don't like unnatural noises, so approach or exit quietly.
- Patience is a virtue
- Like fishing, hunting, and dating, sometimes you have to wait for what you are looking for.
- The early birder gets the bird
- Mornings are often the best time to see birds as they search for breakfast.
- Keep the sun behind you
- The best birding, as well as photographs of birds, will be made with the sun at your back… unless you are going for silhouettes.
- Stay observant
- Even if the species you are targeting don't show, there will often be other birds to admire and photograph.
- Blend in
- You don't need head-to-toe camouflage and a sniper ghillie suit, but you'll want to blend into the environment more than usual.
- Bright colors and reflections from your optics can send birds flying away. Mind them.
- Guides and apps
- Your trusty birding guides and apps work the same regardless of whether you are observing or capturing photographs.
- Be sure to enjoy the view through your binoculars or scope, as well
- Even with top-flight cameras and lenses, the view through your binoculars or spotting scope will be brighter and clearer than any camera/lens combination.
If you are familiar and comfortable with the magnification you get from your pair or pairs of binoculars, you might wonder what focal length lens will give you a similar magnification and field of view.
While it's not exact, there is some math you can use to calculate the focal length lens you'd need to replicate the view from your binoculars or spotting scope virtually.
In the world of 35mm cameras (film or "full-frame" digital), the 50mm focal length lens provides what is known as a "normal" field of view—it approximates the unmagnified view that our human eyes see without our peripheral vision. We can assign this 50mm focal length lens the magnification of 1x (and do not confuse this magnification factor with macro or close-up photography, because that number is based on a reproduction ratio).
Using this base, a 100mm lens equals 2x magnification… and so on, and so forth.
6x binoculars — 300mm
7x binoculars — 350mm
8x binoculars — 400mm
10x binoculars — 500mm
20-60x spotting scope — 1000-3000mm
As you can see, if you are making the switch to a camera and lens, you need some serious focal length to match the more powerful binoculars and nearly unattainable focal lengths to achieve what a spotting scope gives you.
When one thinks of a big-time "professional" birding photographer, you envision the hero wearing a khaki photography vest, professional DSLR camera (identified by its thick vertical grip), and a monster of a large-aperture telephoto lens resting on a monopod. While this could easily be the kit of our dreams, this expensive gear is not required to get compelling images of birds.
When it comes to cameras, there are two directions in which you can head:
- The interchangeable-lens DSLR or mirrorless camera.
- A "superzoom" point-and-shoot or "bridge camera."
Let's start with the second option. A bridge, or superzoom, camera looks a lot like a DSLR, but there is no way to remove and change the lens. Because of this, the bridge camera and its superzoom brethren have expansive zoom ranges built into the onboard lens. They will zoom from wide-angle fields of view to telephoto focal lengths that rival large telescopes—up to 3000mm (like your spotting scope at 60x)!
These bridge and superzoom cameras are fantastic for birders because they are easy to use, focus surprisingly quickly, and are light and portable (especially when compared to a professional DSLR and huge telephoto lens). Their image quality does not always rival that of an interchangeable-lens camera, but they are certainly capable of capturing compelling images. Besides that, they are really fun to use!
The interchangeable-lens camera, be it a DSLR or mirrorless camera, is the ticket to ultimate image quality. The downside is that you'll likely be heading out into the field with a camera bag full of heavy lenses. For a birder who goes far off the beaten path in search of rare species, this is not a trivial consideration.
However, there are alternatives to the heavy "pro" DSLR camera. Today's mirrorless cameras are blazing fast, and feature autofocus and frames-per-second capabilities, yet they still fit a smaller form factor than a DSLR camera. Although the marketing world encourages everyone to get a full-frame camera, the telephoto dreams of a bird photographer are often best served by a crop-sensor model. Because of the smaller sensor size, an APS-C cropped sensor camera provides a longer equivalent focal length for any attached lens. For instance, a 300mm lens on an APS-C model has the same field of view as a full-frame camera with a 450mm lens—basically, your 300mm becomes a virtual 450mm lens!
Speaking of lenses, you do not need to haul that huge telephoto lens into the field. As a birder, your goal is to achieve the best telephoto range available without breaking the bank (or your back!).
Many DSLR and mirrorless cameras come with "kit" lenses. The longer focal length of the kit pairings is usually a 55-200mm or 55-300mm lens. On cropped sensor cameras, that is a focal length equivalent of 300mm or 450mm—similar to a 6x or 8x binocular.
Another newer alternative is the small family of 150-600mm lenses made by a few manufacturers. 600mm is absolutely nothing to sneeze at and, when on a crop-sensor camera, this big boy acts like a 900mm lens (18x in the binocular world). These 150-600mm lenses do not have gigantic maximum apertures, so they are still relatively light and portable when compared to the large-aperture telephotos mentioned above (and seen on the sidelines of professional sporting events).
Camera Settings, Tips, and Additional Gear
Once you have your new long lens and are out in search of birds, here are a few recommended settings for your rig to help you get the best images.
- Use Shutter Priority. When using long telephoto lenses, camera movement is the enemy. Make sure you dial in a fast shutter speed to keep things sharp.
- Maximize your "motor drive." Set your camera to capture the most frames per second it can, to maximize your chances of getting that awesome photo.
- Use wide-area autofocus instead of a single point. At long telephoto ranges, it might be difficult to keep a single autofocus point on your target. Let the camera's computer shoulder the work for you.
- Try to get your focus on the closest eye of the bird. Just like in human portraits, the eyes have to be in sharp focus and the near eye is preferred.
- Be conscious of your backgrounds. If you can, reposition yourself to "clean up" the background—it can improve your image and free it from distracting background elements.
- A repeat of a basic birding tip… shoot with the sun at your back, if you can. A front-lit subject will have more color and detail than one that is backlit.
You might find that a few additional items of gear can benefit your foray into bird photography.
- If you want to extend your focal length without having to get an additional lens, the teleconverter is a great choice. Before you buy, check and double-check compatibility with your camera and lens, and also verify whether the autofocus will work with the teleconverter you choose.
- A monopod can help you steady your rig without weighing you down. In fact, you can also use it as a hiking stick!
For some other views into birding photography check out our Birding & Wildlife Photography page, and for a deeper dive into photographing birds with long lenses, please check out my Guide to Birding with Long Lenses article that includes tips from top birders!
Do you have more questions? Please ask them in the Comments section, below!
In your article, you say, " For instance, a 300mm lens on an APS-C model has the same field of view as a full-frame camera with a 450mm lens—basically, your 300mm becomes a virtual 450mm lens!" When you couch the comparison in terms of "field of view," your statement is technically correct, but I think it is important to also point out that the magnification factor of that 300mm lens is exactly the same whether used on a full frame camera or a crop sensor APS-C camera. The image projected onto a full frame sensor is exactly the same size as the image projected onto an APS-C sensor. The only difference is that the image is cropped on the APS-C sensor due to the difference in the size of the sensors.
Very good article, though. Thanks for sharing.
Yes, you are 100% correct and I was intentionally semi-vague on the subject. Crop factor is one of those things that confuses the snot out of many of us [as you can see by the over 150 comments on this article: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/understanding-crop-factor] and, especially on this article, I didn't want to too far down the proverbial rabbit hole!
Thanks for the kind words on the article and thanks for stopping by! I am glad you enjoyed it!
As a bird photographer who often answers questions in Facebook groups about birding and photography, I find this article to be an excellent and thorough introduction! Thank you!
That is as good a compliment as I could ever ask for. Thank you and thanks for reading, Explora!