How do I choose the best camera for bird photography?

The market is flooded with digital SLR (DSLR) and mirrorless cameras now. 20 years ago it was still a limited market and we can remember when Canon released the first DSLR under the US$ 1,000.00 mark in 2003, the Canon EOS 300D. This started to make digital photography more affordable for the masses of enthusiasts. Since 2003, camera bodies evolved and with every cycle of new models that get released, small improvements are made. Naturally, manufacturers don’t want every camera model to have the same features. Thus, it’s fair to suggest and recommend, that if you want the best of all features and you can afford it, always go for the pro model of your chosen brand.

What should you expect to find in a good digital SLR (DSLR) or mirrorless camera? We believe, that you should have a number of basic features available and features should be easy to select. This easy to select notion is crucial when photographing fast action, as you need to move fast and won’t have time for fumbling around looking for buttons and switches.


Why does a solid camera build matter?

It is important to have a solid camera (and lenses) that can withstand a lot of knocks, scratches and inclement weather. If you are pretty keen about nature photography, I can assure you that you will sooner or later drop the camera, hit it against some hard surface like a tree trunk or rocks, you may get caught in rain, get water splashed onto it from a river, stream or the waves on the sea shore.

How does sensor quality affect my bird photography?

We have shot with APS-C, APS-H, full frame and now M43 (micro four-thirds) cameras. Anything other than a full frame sensor is referred to as a crop sensor. The below table explains different sensor sizes and how the sensors’ sizes affect the actual field of view of the lens used on the camera.

One of the reasons many folks choose a camera with a sensor crop factor of 1.6x (APS-C) to get started with birds, besides affordability, is for the field of view reduction that results in much tighter framed images compared to using that same lens on a full-frame camera body. If you consider the crop factor of 1.6x, then you’ll soon realize that a 300mm lens will have a reduced field of view of 480mm (300 x 1.6). A 600mm lens will have a field of view of (600 x 1.6) or 960mm. That’s a significant advantage when shooting birds that are always just that little bit further out of reach.

While we are discussing sensor quality, it’s worth talking about ISO and shooting at high ISO values to take images of action.

ISO is simply the ability of your digital camera’s sensor to gather light. The higher the ISO you set, the less amount of light you need to make an exposure given the same lighting conditions. In other words, do consider that for bird photography it is often important to use fast shutter speeds. This means that you need to be working with higher ISOs to achieve the required faster shutter speeds.

As a general rule, a higher end camera will be able to produce less noisy images compared to a lower end model at the same ISO setting. This does not mean you need to dismiss a mid-range camera for example, just be aware of the camera bodies’ limitations with regards to high ISO performance. However, you’ll be often shooting in poor light, so any camera that can handle a higher ISO well will be your best bet.

Here is an example of a very old DSLR body that is still capable of shooting at high ISO today. While the photo was taken a long time ago, it illustrates, that good digital exposure technique will results in very good quality images. More in correct digital exposure in a future blog post though, as that will take an entire post in itself.

Perfect RAW file captured at high ISO. Histogram pushed as far right as possible without clipping of highlights (or shadows), see circled indicator triangles next to histogram. Then reduce exposure during post processing and the image is crisp and wonderful. Even for a camera that is almost 20 years old now. And best of all, the bright and dark tonal details are all there!
Straw-necked Ibis, Canon EOS 30D, EF 500mm f/4L IS USM + EF 1.4x, ISO1600, f/5.6, 1/500th. Image was taken back in 2013.

Is weather sealing important when taking photos of birds and wildlife?

If you are out in the field in all types of weather, you really want to consider having some weather sealing in your camera bodies. Most high end camera bodies will allow the user to shoot in rather wet conditions, but it is still best to research a camera you are considering thoroughly to ensure it has the weather sealing features you are looking for.

Why should I consider user-selectable Auto Focus points?

It’s not even that the AF points need to be user selectable, because all cameras offer that option. It’s HOW quickly you can select them when you want to change the AF point?

When your point of focus needs to be in a place other than the center. It’s not only the center point that needs to be used; depending on compositional needs I will select any of my selectable AF points to get the shot. It’s not even the fact the camera has to have this feature, but usually, in the higher end models the functionality of this feature is faster in practice. Instead of say, four buttons (up, down, left, right) to move the AF point, you can use a small joystick, or even a small wheel under your finger to move the points to the desired position.

Canon EOS 30D, EF300mm f/4L IS USM lens and EF1.4x teleconverter, Av mode, ISO800, f/8, 1/320th

Note, that all cameras will have different number of AF points available and different numbers of highly sensitive cross-type AF pointswith horizontal and vertical detection sensing lines. My Canon EOS30D nearly 20 years ago had only 9 AF points, with only the center AF point being a super sensitive as a cross-type AF point. If I look at our top of the line Olympus OM-1 bodies, The OM-1 has a completely new, and first-to-market ‘Quad Pixel AF’ system, with 1053 cross-type AF points covering the entire sensor, and this supports continuous shooting speeds up to 50fps with Continuous AF, when using a compatible Olympus PRO lens.

Canon EOS 30D AF points, all nine of them, with only the center AF point being the highly sensitive cross-type AF point.
You can see each of the 1,053 cross-type AF points here on the Olympus OM-1 camera, and we found the AF to be fast, and incredibly accurate in the majority of instances. Image source: https://mirrorlesscomparison.com/om-system/om-1-bird-photography/

Do I need subject detection modes to photograph birds?

This is a fairly recent addition to many camera bodies. It simply means, that the camera’s processor has been developed to recognise certain subjects through the lens and use features of that subject to focus on the points where focus needs to be. When used with continous focus and subject tracking (C+AF+TR), this feature can be very accurate in detecting subjects and focusing quickly and accurately. Since we have switched to the Olympus brand (now OM System) and recently acquired our OM-1 bodies, we have concluded, that as a rule, this subject detection plus C+AF+TR works very effectively nailing images faster than we could using previous methods. We have car, train, plane, bird and pet detection modes, and all work exceptionally well.

OM System is not the only manufacturer that has these amazing tracking features. If you shoot with other systems, check out which bodies will give you something similar.

Why should I save custom settings on my camera?

It is important to be able to save a group of settings as a custom mode and recall them back later by turning the mode selection dial on your camera body. Since you may shoot different settings and being able to save these to a custom mode makes it super quick to recall those settings where you need them quickly, rather than having to reconfigure the camera in the field. Often it means making or missing the shot!’

The OM System camera bodies have different options for customising and the bodies, which allow to most number of custom modes to be saved and recalled are the professional bodies, namely the OM-D E-M1X, OM-D E-M1MkIII and the OM-1, with each body having four custom modes you can set and recall at the turn of a dial. This is really great for us, as we set each of the four custom modes (C1, C2, C3 and C4) to different sets of attributes and use them when needed by simply turning the dial to the custom mode we want to use. Again, not all camera bodies will have up to four custom setting options avaliable, many will only have one. Buy one that you need for your photography needs. We find that even four is not enough at times, but we make do.

Why does a fast frame rate matter so much?

Your camera should be able to take a lot of frames in one second. While ten or so years ago 10 frames per second (fps) was not bad, nowadays 15fps or more are available in many cameras, especially the mirrorless bodies. To put into perspective, even our Canon EOS 1DxMkII bodies with which we shot for a couple of years could shoot 14fps with a mechanical shutter are no match for our current Olympus OM-1 bodies, that can shoot up to 50fps while continuously focusing on the subject and with no viewfinder blackout! It is insanely good! At that rate, you’ll have a lot of culling to do, but boy, if you can’t nail the right wing position of a bird in flight, then there is something very wrong. Practice, practice and practice makes you a much better photographer.

Sooty Shearwater, Olympus OM-1, 300mm f/4 Pro lens, ISO500, f/5.6, 1/1600th, C-AF-TR, bird detection enabled, all 1,053 AF points used.

We really hope you’ve found our answers to these common questions useful. If you have any more questions, please jump onto our facebook page and drop us a line. We’d be more than happy to answer any questions that you might have about bird photography!

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