Are you interested in getting started with bird photography or are you looking to take your shooting to the next level? Here’s a complete guide to bird photography gear from our resident expert Scott Bourne
The Complete Guide to Bird Photography Gear
Our list here is based on what I actually use, day-in-and-day-out. It is an expensive list, but I decided to simply build this guide based on what I know will work. At the end of the day there is no free lunch. If you want to photograph birds it’s going to cost you. You can pay now or pay later 🙂
Here’s the list of things I use.
Ultimately, you need to get a camera body with excellent auto-focus, a high frame rate, a large buffer, and the ability to use fast, long glass.
- Canon 1DX MKII This is the ultimate bird/wildlife/sports photography camera. Super fast frame rates, a seemingly infinite buffer and the best auto-focus I’ve ever used make this my hands-down choice.
- Canon 1DX This was my go-to camera for three years. It’s been replaced by the MK II version but makes a very capable backup camera which is similar enough in operation that it is easy to revert back to in an emergency. Also a good budget choice for those who can’t quite reach the price of the newer model.
The problem with bird photography is that it is often very expensive. Big glass costs big bucks. There are things you can do to mitigate costs, but when it boils down to selecting where to spend the bulk of your money, you can’t go wrong with buying good glass. You may not need the super long glass if you’re lucky enough to live in a place like Florida where the birds are unbelievably tame, or if you have the luxury of working from blinds that are close to the action.
- Canon EF 100-400 f4.5-5.6 L IS II This is a very sharp, hand-holdable, stabilized zoom with great image stabilization and it works with the 1.4 teleconverter for those who need more reach but are on a budget. Great either way for flight shots and places where you need good close focusing distances.
- Canon EF 24 f/1.4 L II I like to make what I call “birds capes” and this lens is also great for that purpose of shooting the wide shot of the sky filled with birds during the morning fly out at places like Bosque del Apache wildlife refuge.
- Canon f/4 400 DO IS II USM This is quickly becoming my favorite bird photography lens. It’s extremely sharp, has the latest IS, is smaller and lighter than its counter parts thanks to the DO technology pioneered by Canon. It works with either a 1.4 or a 2X teleconverter to give you up to 800mm of focal length in a hand-holdable package. This is my desert island bird lens. It’s expensive but worth every penny.
- Canon EF 70-200 f/4 IS This is a sleeper lens in the Canon lineup. While most people will suggest the 70-200 f/2.8 lens, this one is smaller and lighter and great for close work when you want to do hand-held flight shots. It’s extra sharp and very hand-holdable. Save the money and buy this one instead of the f/4 unless you work almost exclusively at dawn or dusk where you might need or want the extra stop of light you get from the f/2.8 lens.
- Canon 50mm f/1.8 It’s always good to have a nifty fifty in your bag because you never know when you might need a good, fast, lens for generic work.
- Canon EF 2X III Extender The 2X TC gets you twice the effective focal length (at a cost of two stops of light) and when paired with the new 1DX MK II can deliver 61 active auto-focus points even at f/8. This turns the 400 f/4 DO listed above into a hand-holdable 800mm f/8 lens. Many photographers try to save money buying the cheap Chinese knockoffs but don’t be fooled. To get super fast AF even with a TC you need the brand that matches your camera/lens.
- Canon EF 1.4X III Extender Same reasoning for using the 1.4 as the 2.0, you just get less reach (560mm on a 400) but it only costs you one stop of light, i.e., f/5.6 on an f/4 lens.
- Canon Extension Tube EF 25 II When you’re at a place like Alligator Farm or Gatorland (both in Florida) where you can get incredibly close to the birds, you may find yourself in a situation where you are TOO close and your lens’ close focusing capability falls short. By putting an extension tube between your camera and lens you can work closer.
- Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2 for Canon EF this is a fantastic bird photography lens for those who need to work on a budget. It has a six-year warranty. It is stabilized, sharp and even has a built-in Area-Swiss compatible lens foot. They also make a Nikon version.
Flash & Accessories
Some people wrongly assume that a camera flash bothers birds. It absolutely does not in almost any circumstance, except when a bird is sitting on a nest with eggs in it. And even then, depending on the species it may be no problem. The smaller the bird the more likely the flash is to bother it in that situation. While somewhat controversial in some circles, I have no problem with using flash on wildlife photos. I just don’t have much occasion to do it but it is possible.
- Canon Speedlite 430EX III RT I don’t use flash very often, but when I am working close and against a backlit subject, flash is great to fill in the shadow side and this one works well enough in almost any situation to always be in my bag or my vest just in case.
- Canon off camera shoe cord OC-E3 There are few things uglier than on-camera flash. This cord mounts to the hot shoe and lets me take the 430EX off the camera for better (more flattering) lighting.
- Gary Fong GFLSC01 LightSphere Collapsible Flash Diffuser This diffuser lets me soften the light that covers the bird and does so without costing too much light.
- Gary Fong AMBDOM AmberDome for LSU and LS2 (Amber) I use this when I want to balance the color temperature of the flash with that of the ambient subject.
Avian photography is one of the rare photographic pursuits where the equipment can often make the difference between getting a shot or not. Very long, fast lenses of 400 to 600mm (even 800mm) at f/4 or f/5.6 are required for salable bird portraits. Fast 300mm lenses with image stabilization are required for flight shots. A good heavy tripod is a must. You will also want a gimbal head for that tripod if youre shooting 500mm lenses and up.
- Kirk Photo Replacement Foot for Canon 400mm f/4 DO IS II USM – LP-59 When you want to mount your camera/lens to a tripod, you will typically want a camera/lens plate to secure the head to the lens or camera. This replacement foot makes it necessary to use a separate plate since the plate is built in and gives a sturdy platform which leads to more sharp images.
- Kirk Photo Replacement Foot for Canon EF100-400 f4.5-5.6 L IS II – LP-61 When you want to mount your camera/lens to a tripod, you will typically want a camera/lens plate to secure the head to the lens or camera. This replacement foot makes it necessary to use a separate plate since the plate is built in and gives a sturdy platform which leads to more sharp images.
- Jobu Design BWG-J3K Jobu Jr.3 Gimbal Kit with Swing-Arm HM-J2 When you use a big lens you want to consider a gimbal head which allows you to balance the camera/lens combo in such a way that it swivels much like a machine gun turret. Takes the stress out of moving a big lens quickly.
- Induro GHB2 Gimbal Head This is a slightly sturdier version of the same thing the Jobu does – meant to be used with 600 f/4 lenses and larger.
- Induro CT414 8X carbon fiber tripod An affordable, yet sturdy and light weight tripod meant to give people taller than 5’10” the ability to stand eye-to-eye with the camera while mounted on a tripod.
- Really Right Stuff TVC-23 Tripod An affordable, yet sturdy and light weight tripod meant to give people shorter than 5’10” the ability to stand eye-to-eye with the camera while mounted on a tripod.
- Induro BHD2 ball-head A ball head for use with smaller lenses requiring no gimbal.
- Kirk Photo Mini Table Top Tripod If you need to get down on the ground, this is a very portable, small tripod that can help you steady up to a 300mm lens.
- Kirk PZ-150 Camera Plate for Canon 1D x When you want to mount your camera/lens to a tripod, you will typically want a camera/lens plate to secure the head to the lens or camera. This plate is designed to affix to your camera lens and offer a sturdy platform which leads to more sharp images.
- Gitzo GM2562T Series 2 6X Carbon Fibre Traveler Monopod One or two sentences on why this item
- Platypod Pro When you can’t use a tripod and you have a smaller lens on your camera this device will get you the stability you need and yet fit in your pocket.
- Platypod Pro Max Similar to the Platypod Pro only this device is larger and able to handle larger camera/lens combos.
- 77mm LB Warming Circular Polarizer Thin Mount Filter Great for cutting reflections and warming a scene. 77mm with step down rings can be used on most lenses.
- 77mm Circular Polarizer MRC Filter 77mm with step down rings can be used on most lenses for when you don’t want to warm up a scene and yet want to polarize it.
- 77mm True-Match Vari-ND Filter 77mm with step down rings can be used on most lenses. Used to knock down the light on super bright days.
- Airport Security V 2.0 Rolling Camera Bag (Black)
- 1614 Waterproof 1610 Case with Dividers (Black)
- 1510 Carry-On Case with Foam Set (Black)
Digital Darkroom Hardware:
- MacBookPro –My laptop of choice
- iMac 5K Computer –A bigger screen to work on at home.
- Drobo 5Dt – Fast storage that’s reliable
- Drobo 5N – A great way to backup my images and access from the road with Drobo Access
- Drobo Mini – A portable RAID for the road
Digital Darkroom Software:
- Adobe Photoshop/Lightroom CC
- Perfectly Clear Plug-ins V. 2.0
- Macphun Creative Kit
- Macphun Luminar
- Google Nik Software Collection
- Topaz Photography Collection
- Delkin 128GB COMPACTFLASH x2
- Delkin 64GB Cfast Card
- Lexar Professional USB 3.0 CF Card Reader Model Workflow CFR1
- Delkin Cfast Card Reader
- OP/TECH USA 18″ Rainsleeve (Set of 2)
- OP/TECH USA 25″ Mega Rain Sleeve (Pack of 2)
- Walkstool Comfort 55 XL 22
- Giottos Rocket Blaster Dust-Removal Tool
- 128GB Lexar Professional 2000x UHS-II SDXC Memory Card with SD UHS-II Reader (U3, Class 10)
Micro Four Thirds Alternatives
While I primarily rely on the Canon gear that I listed above when photographing birds, I am also using some Micro Four Thirds gear when/where possible because it has some obvious benefits.
The M43 gear is smaller, lighter and less expensive than the Canon full-frame gear. The M43 gear can’t match the performance of the FF gear but in situations where there is good light, and you’re doing pretty much anything but flight photography, the M43 gear can hold its own.
I find the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX8 to be a very capable camera body which can provide images that print up to 13×19” quite nicely. It doesn’t have the dynamic range or the high frame rate of the 1DX, but it does have very good image quality. It also doesn’t autofocus as well as a 1DX, but it autofocuses well enough that anyone who needs to rely on it won’t be disappointed. While birds in flight are challenging for the current state-of-the-art in M43 cameras, good technique can yield good results.
The GX8 also happens to be one of the most capable video cameras you can buy and for the money, it has no peer. Video is becoming more and more important for both professionals and aspiring professionals and for this reason alone you should consider adding a GX8 to your kit. It’s lightweight, powerful and affordable and there is a full lineup of lenses for any task.
And then there’s this. The Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f/4-6.3 ASPH. POWER O.I.S. Lens, matched with any M43 camera, gives you a stabilized telephoto lens with a 35mm equivalent of 200-800mm! Matched with the GX8 it offers DUAL IS and allows for even easier hand-holding. Speaking of hand-holding, I can hand-hold this lens at 1/125th of a second shutter speed on the GX8 and still get crisp images when using the GX8. This lens costs under $1800, has a close focus distance of about 4.5 feet and weighs in at just over two pounds. Imagine a FF lens with those specs. Then imagine a price tag of $15000! You can also imagine a lens that weighs north of 10 pounds and is AT LEAST a couple feet long!
Being able to hand-hold a lens with this kind of reach is amazing. You can also get by with any old ball head on your tripod. While a gimbal head always helps, it’s not necessary when using this lens.
Another great lens for the M43 format is the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4 IS PRO Lens. It’s a $2500, stabilized telephoto lens with an EFL of 600mm at f/4! It also pairs well with an Olympus 1.4 TC to get you 840mm in a hand-holdable lens that costs about 1/5th it’s full-frame equal!
I have made some great portraits and birdscapes with this gear and even made some salable prints from the RAW files I get from the GX8. For some, there is no other option. Many people who love birds and bird photography simply can’t carry or effectively wield the large, heavy full-frame gear that most associate with bird photography. Still others can’t come up with the $20-$30k that it costs to grab a couple of Canon 1DX bodies with telephoto lenses.
If you need to save space, weight or money, rest assured that the Micro Four Thirds gear I’ve discussed here will get you some great results. You may have to work a little harder to get winning shots but you can do it. If I can – you can too!