What equipment should I buy to get started photographing birds?

This is a question we get asked more than any other. There are many ways to photograph birds and the choice of bird photography equipment is mind-boggling at the best of times. What we recommend depends on what you want. Do you want to simply take images for a scrapbook to have a memory of your birding adventure? Or do you want to take images in all different conditions and have the equipment that gets results in low light, fast action situations as well? Do you want to create images for yourself and friends? Or are you aspiring to be exhibited or published someday?

There is far too much information to cover in a single post, so do check back in the coming weeks for a more in depth commentary on all aspects of gear choices. But for now, here is a broad view to get you thinking.

Think about the overall system

The first thing to consider is whether you are already invested in a camera system and if you want to build on that system or switch brand completely. If you already have some gear it may be worth adding new pieces to your collection – new lenses for your existing camera body? Or upgrading the body if your lenses are ok. This can save you some money in the long run.

Netra and I were heavily invested in Canon equipment for almost two decades. However, in 2020 we decided to switch to mirrorless and opted for the Olympus brand (now changed to OM System) after contemplating the jump for two years.

photographing birds
Our Canon arsenal until mid-2020. You can guess which was my go to lens for birds. Only Netra’s Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary zoom lens is missing from the above image.

There were reasons for that change and the most impotant one was that we love to travel. Traveling in economy class (which we do!) means we need to be careful with the weight of our carry-on luggage. We weighed our bags meticulously so as not to exceed the standard 7kg limit imposed by most airlines. OM System has the advantage from two perspectives. One is, that the sensors in the cameras are micro four thirds format (M43) so they are half the size of a full frame sensor, therefore the crop factor of lenses is 2 times. This simply means, that if you put a 300mm lens on a M43 camera the field of view equivalent will be 600mm, which is hugely advantageous for bird and other wildlife photographers. A 300mm f/4 lens is light compared to a 600mm f/4 lens and also much, much smaller. We can literally pack all our bird photography equipment into carry-on luggage and even add more equipment to the bag before we hit the 7kg mark. This is awesome for our air travel.

The Camera

You will need a digital single lens reflex (DSLR) or a mirrorless camera. While mirrorless is now becoming very popular among bird photographers – both enthusiasts and seasoned professionals – DSLRs are still very capable and sought after by photographers, so don’t ever discount a bargain if you come across one.

The range of cameras available means that you will find one to suit your budget. I think it’s a good idea to opt for the best lens for bird photography you can afford rather than the best camera for bird photography that you can afford. Camera and sensor technology changes often enough that you don’t need to invest in the latest and greatest from the outset.

If budget is not a consideration at all, I would suggest you buy two Nikon Z9 mirrorless bodies with the following lenses: Nikkor Z 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S, Nikkor Z 600mm f/4 TC VR S, Nikkor Z 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S, and the Nikkor Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S lenses. You will have coverage for just about every scenario you could think of in all types of available ambient light. And you won’t get much change out of AUD 100,000.00 either!

If you have a tighter budget, then a standard DSLR or mirrorless body with a basic 100-400mm zoom lens will do the job. Some photographers will be happy with this gear for many years. While others will opt to upgrade their gear every few years for a veriety of reasons.

Bridge cameras are probably good for a total beginner, but they will pose major limitations for serious photographers in the long run. While a bridge camera will have a big zoom range, from wide angle to super telephoto, it will not have as fast an AF system, high ISO capability, shutter frame rate, and overall performance so you may find yourself missing more shots than you’d like. They are, however, a good way to start in bird photography. But be aware, if you really like it, you will be wanting better equipment pretty soon.

Entry level DSLR or Mirrorless cameras are also good to start with, and if coupled with high end lenses, they are capable of taking some amazing photos. The only time you might find them slowing you down is when you need to shoot fast action scenes, fast AF tracking, clean(er) high ISO image capture. So they are still rather limited, but are a good step forward and will perform better than a bridge camera.

My own journey began 21 years ago when I bought the Canon EOS Elan 7 body from B&H Photo in New York (EOS 33 in Australia) and the EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 lens. Having done a lot of underwater photography and being able to take very nice images with my manual cameras and slide film, I figured that any lens that can go to 300mm would do the job. Little did I know! Having taken to photographing birds with that really basic outfit and while using unforgiving slide film to capture my images, I was not convinced that shooting film was the way to go, as 36 frames per roll didn’t give much latitude for error or missing shots. This is where the increase in the popularity of digital SLR cameras came in.

I bought my first DSLR body – the Canon EOS 30D in March 2006 and still insisted on using the kit zoom lens, the 75-300mm plastic number that came with the body. I became disillusioned rather quickly, as despite shooting thousands of frames over about six months, I was not seeing good results despite having good technique and many opportunities. That lens just simply did not give me the sharp, detailed RAW files that I really wanted to capture.

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2006 March. Eastern Great Egret, Canon EOS 30D, EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 lens at 300mm, ISO800, f/7.1, 1/500th. Even when using Topaz Photo AI to recover some sharpness in the obviously soft image made by my kit lens, the lacking detail is obvious.These kinds of soft results that I was achieving regularly with the kit zoom lens made me want to upgrade to a professional grade L series lens.
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2006 October, almost 8:00pm. I remember having received my pro lens and teleconverters at work and how fast I drove the one hour home and to this pond at a friend’s property to desperately try out the new lens. Eastern Great Egret, Canon EOS 30D, EF 300mm f/4L IS USM lens, ISO640, f/4, 1/125th, with flash and better beamer extender. My very first image taken with a professional lens and boy, was I seeing the results immediately in the RAW file? You bet I was! Buying professional equipment gave me amazing results from this point forward.

The Lenses

After what seemed like endless months of frustration, I decided to buy an L series Canon lens, the EF 300mm f/4L IS USM with matching 1.4x and 2x teleconverters. I instantly noticed much faster autofocus (AF) and much higher image quality than what the kit lens could provide me with. I’ll share two images below, one with the EF 75-300mm lens and the other, my very first image I have ever taken with a professional quality lens the EF 300mm f/4L IS USM.

Simply put, professional lenses are built not just to withstand various weather conditions including heavy rain, but the glass in these lenses is of exceptional quality. Very rarely will a photographer receive a poorly made professional series lens. To be really honest, most poor results come from poor photography techniques employed by the photographer, and not the result of poorly made equipment.

Medium to high end DSLR or Mirrorless cameras, when coupled with pro-quality lenses, these are the pinnacle of equipment to achieve consistently great results with birds.

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A typical kit zoom lens image. Canon 30D with EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 lens. Note the chromatic abberation (purple fringing) on the upright stick on the left and on other sticks within the image. A professional lens gives excellent sharpness, detail and no purple fringing.
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You can make something reasonable out of the kit lens shot, and if you are not fussed with the technical limitations of such gear, then go for it. Canon 30D, EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 lens at 300mm, ISO1250, f/8, 1/400th.
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Professional gear gives professional results. Canon 1DMkIV, EF 500mm f/4L IS USM lens and EF 1.4x teleconverter, ISO3200, f/7.1, 1/50th, hand held.


Other equipment you may consider beside your camera and lens(es) are teleconverters, which basically increase the focal length of your lenses, which is a great thing to have with birds. Keep in mind though, that adding a teleconverter to your lens will change the light gathering capability by one or more stops of light. For example, if you have a 500mm f/4 lens, if you add a 1.4x teleconverter to it it will become a 700mm lens (500mm x 1.4 = 700mm), but you will lose a stop of light, so it will be a 700mm f/5.6 lens, not f/4, because of the extra piece of glass you have introduced. Should you want to add a 2x teleconverter to the same prime lens, it will become a 1000mm f/8 lens, effectively losing 2 stops of light during the extension. Something to consider when photographing birds in low light, as the slower the lens becomes, the slower your AF will be. This will be very noticeable with even professional camera bodies, but extremely so with the lower end bodies.

With (especially) birds, you can never have enough focal length, so Netra and I always use teleconverters when we need more reach, aka magnification. The below images demonstrate the magnification achievable with teleconverters when shooting a subject from the exact same spot using the different focal lengths that can be obtained by adding these pieces of glass to a super telephoto lens.

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Canon EOS 1DMkIIn, EF 500mm f/4L IS USM, ISO800, f/5, 1/50th, flash and better beamer.
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Canon EOS 1DMkIIn, EF 500mm f/4L IS USM + EF 1.4x (700mm), ISO400, f/5.6, 1/50th, flash and better beamer.
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Canon EOS 1DMkIIn, EF 500mm f/4L IS USM, + EF 2.0x (1000mm), ISO400, f/8, 1/50th, flash and better beamer.


Another piece of kit that you may find handy is a tripod or monopod. Depending on your preferences you may want to not even bother with a tripod, as setting it up, breaking it down costs you time and shooting fast moving subjects, you really need to be quick to adapt to a scenario. These days I’ll only use a tripod with a gimbal head from a hide. That’s it. I like the flexibility of being able to hand hold my camera and lens so I can change shooting position fast if needed. Most cameras and lenses now have exceptional image stabilisaion and I have no problem getting sharp images hand holding even at 1/30th of a second with lens focal lengths of 1200mm.

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I quickly found, that using a tripod is of little use for the majority of my photography and even used to shoot at night without one. I now only use a tripod from a hide or if I am (rarely) shooting landscapes or astro.


You can start out with entry-level cameras and lenses and see what you think of this crazy pastime; bird photography. If you decide it’s something you could be serious about, you can upgrade lenses and cameras in time. You will always get what you pay for with equipment. The more you pay, the better performance you will get out of your gear. It’s really that simple. But the better performance comes with a caveat; one actually needs to understand how to get the best results out of their gear. It does not just happen on its own.

You also need time….

Nothing happens overnight, especially when it comes to photographing birds in flight. Even more so, fast flying birds like falcons. To be honest, you will need to commit to spending the hours in the field shooting these subjects to hone your skills. Even with the best gear, you will still need to get to know how to use it best, learn where all the settings are located and how to change them by feel sometimes. As they say, practice makes perfect.

Some examples below of how much the results can improve over a relatively short space of time.

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Netra’s first good results with Peregrine Falcons. 2017, Canon 7DMkII, 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM with EF 1.4x, ISO1600, f/8, 1/1000th.
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Netra’s advancement with Peregrines, 2019. Canon 1DxMkII, Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Contemporary Zoom lens. ISO 1000, f/7.1, 1/4000th.
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Netra in 2022. Stunning juvenile Peregrine photographed. Olympus OMD-E-M1X, M.Zuiko 300mm f/4 Pro lens, ISO1600, f/5, 1/10000th.

Gear choice is complex and multi-faceted. The important thing to remember is that no matter what gear you can buy, you should have fun taking photos (and as long as you consider the welfare of your subjects but more about that in a future post!) The journey of learning to take photos of our feathered friends can be rewarding and enjoyable… and the exhilaration of seeing all your efforts come together to nail THAT shot is unbeatable!

Till next time!

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