5 Best Cameras for Bird Photography in 2020

Birds are beautiful, but capturing a photo of one of these small, flighty creatures can be quite the challenge. For birders interested in taking their birdwatching to the next level, bird photography is the natural next step.

Birders who take that step will quickly find out that taking quality photos of birds is not as easy as spying a bird through a pair of binoculars. Bird photographers know that there is a lot more to capturing photos of birds then merely clicking the shutter button.

Bird photography requires more advanced camera features, zoom lenses with adequate magnification, and a bit of photography know-how. You’ll still be looking for birds, but as a bird photographer, you’ll start to look for ideal lighting conditions and be at the ready to capture the perfect action shots.

We Recommend

Best price/value ratio

Nikon D500

Best for beginners

Nikon Coolpix P1000

Best compact mirrorless

Sony a7 III

Here's How Bird Photography is Different

Bird photography is a different style of photography that requires a more nuanced set of skills.

First, bird photographers must get used to tracking objects through the camera’s viewfinder. Birds are lively little creatures that tend not to stay in one place too long. In order to capture these birds in flight and to have them framed well, tracking the birds effectively through a viewfinder is absolutely essential.

Another thing bird photographers must learn is to alter their manual camera settings very quickly. Conditions in nature can change rapidly–the bird may fly from a shady spot to a sunny spot, a storm might roll through and darken the day, you may be in the woods where the lighting constantly changes with every step–it’s up to the photographer to quickly adapt and be ready to capture the perfect shot.

In terms of settings, bird photography requires a fast shutter speed. This is essential for capturing images of birds in flight. Shutter speeds of 1/1,000 of a second or higher are sufficient for capturing birds in motion, but the key is to balance your ISO and aperture settings with your shutter speed setting to ensure the camera captures enough light to create high-quality images.

Do You Really Need an Expensive Camera?

The answer to this question really depends on what you plan to do with your photos. A relatively cheap DSLR camera with a relatively small telephoto lens (high of 250mm, for example) can take decent pictures of birds. The photos you take will look fine online or on Instagram, but when you go to print these images, the resolution issues will become obvious.

In order to take incredible bird shots that can be printed and enlarged, it’s essential to invest in a good camera and a lens that has a focal length of 300mm or higher. 

Many bird photographers will invest in a high-quality lens and settle for a cheaper camera. But the camera still needs to perform well to capture the quick movements of birds in varying light environments.

For most hobbyists, you can take great bird photos with simpler camera setups that use a higher-quality lens. If you are hoping for professional-grade photos, then a high-quality camera plus a high-quality lens are essential.

Bridge vs. DSLR vs. Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens

Bridge Cameras blend the telephoto zoom capabilities of standard DSLR cameras with the ease of standard point-and-click cameras. 

  • Bridge cameras are easy to use, offer some great internal specs for digital processing, and can feature practical zooms that can be used in a variety of scenarios. 
  • Bridge cameras are an excellent option for beginner bird photographers who shy away from the complex manual controls offered by DSLR and Mirrorless Cameras.

DSLR Cameras are the go-to cameras for high-quality photography.

  • The reason photographers love DSLR cameras is that they typically use a mirror to project the image from the lens into the viewfinder in real-time.
  • This allows the photographer actually to see the image as it appears in the lens. Bird photographers may find this particularly helpful, considering there is zero lag time between the viewfinder and what the lens sees.

Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Cameras offer similar features as a DSLR but are often lighter and more compact.

  • These cameras have fast shutter speeds and can shoot photos silently.
  • Bird photographers looking for a lightweight travel camera may want to make the switch to mirrorless.

What About Lenses?

Lenses are arguably the most important part of your camera setup. Finding a quality lens that will allow you to take incredible bird pictures will require some research and some money. But essentially, you want to find a lens that has adequate zoom, quality glass and is durable.

One thing, in particular, to look for regarding zoom lenses is the quality of the image at higher magnifications. Some cheaper lenses may take excellent photos at lower zoom, but when you zoom in further, the image quality may be lacking. Also, check out our best lens for bird photography guide.

Take into consideration the lens’ glass quality and other user reviews to help you determine whether or not a cheaper lens will be adequate for your use.

How to Take Good Pictures of Birds?

Taking good pictures of birds is easier said than done, but mostly you need to be in the right place at the right time, and your camera settings need to be well balanced.

  • In order to be in the right place at the right time, it’s essential to go to the places where you will find birds. For some, stationary birding will allow you an opportunity to capture great images of birds. In this scenario, you need to make sure your sit-spot is well situated, and your camera settings are set for whatever may fly by.
  • More active birders may actively pursue the birds that they are trying to find. For photographers on the move, particularly in wooded areas, it’s important to make sure your camera settings are well-adapted to the changing lighting conditions. 
  • This may mean taking a few test shots to adjust your settings as you go from one spot to another. As you practice this, you’ll come to be able to predict the necessary settings before you have to put your camera to use.
  • When taking any photos, it’s crucial to balance your camera’s settings, specifically ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. With bird photography, photographers tend to prioritize shutter speed in order to capture the motion of birds. 
  • Shutter speeds of 1/1,000, paired with a low ISO, and an aperture f-stop setting that fits your light conditions is a good starting point for beginner bird photographers. 

How to Choose the Right Birding Camera?

Choose a Style of Camera

  • Bridge Cameras- Great for beginner bird photographers who want an easy-to-use camera (check out the best bridge cameras for birding.
  • DSLR Cameras- An excellent choice for more experienced bird and wildlife photographers looking forward to having more control over camera functions and a variety of lens options.
  • Mirrorless Cameras- Similar to a DSLR in terms of manual control and image quality, however, more compact and lightweight. A great option for bird photographers who like to travel and prioritize optimal photo quality.

Consider Your Lens Options

  • Whatever camera you choose, make sure it has a compatible zoom lens that offers a focal length of at least 300mm.
  • If you want a camera with a variety of lens options, it is best to purchase name brand cameras such as Canon or Nikon. Other brands may have fewer lens options available.

Find the Best Image Quality that Fits Your Budget

  • When it comes to a camera’s image quality, sensor size is the biggest indicator of how well a camera will perform.
  • Here’s a breakdown of what to expect at different price points when searching for a camera with a decent sensor:
    • $500-1,000 = Small Sensor (such as 1/2.5 inch)
    • $1,000-3,000 = Mid-Range Sensor (such as 23.5 x 15.7mm CMOS or 23.6 x 15.6mm APS-C)
    • $3,000-Higher = Full-Frame Image Sensor

Best Cameras for Birding

1. Nikon Coolpix P1000 (Best for Beginners)

If you are a beginner bird photographer the Nikon Coolpix P1000 is an excellent bridge camera because it is easy to use and offers incredible zoom

You won’t have to worry about purchasing any extra lenses because this point-and-click camera features a fixed zoom lens that magnifies images up to 125x! 

At its price point, there’s not another camera on the market that compares to the zoom capabilities of the Nikon Coolpix P1000. 

The zoom is what makes this camera an amazing option for bird photography

Other cameras would require zoom lenses nearly 3x the size of this camera. That being said, the compact nature of this digital lens does impact image quality. At lower to mid-range zoom levels though (still enough to get close-ups of birds), this camera performs exceptionally well.

Check the price of Nikon Coolpix P1000 here

What we liked

  • Great Value
  • Easy to Use
  • 125x Zoom
  • Wireless File-Sharing Options
  • Close Focus for Macro Photography
  • Fixed Lens Included

What we didn’t like

  • Slow AF
  • Small Sensor

Type: Bridge
Sensor: 1/2.3 inch Low-Light CMOS
Megapixels: 16
Frames per second: 7 fps at full resolution
LCD Screen: 3.2 inch Vari Angle TFT LCD
AF points: Target Finding AF
ISO range: 100-6400
Weight: 3.12 lbs
Connections: SnapBridge, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Hi-speed USB, and HDMI Output
Matching lens for birding: Features a Fixed Digital Zoom Lens 24-3000mm

2. Nikon D500 (Best Intermediate DSLR)

For bird photographers wanting to have a bit more control over the settings, the Nikon D500 is a serious performing mid-range DSLR camera capable of capturing high-quality photos. 

This camera does everything exceptionally well, offering high ISO, fast auto-focus, and the ability to capture 10 frames per second. 

The ergonomic design and the weatherproofing seals make this camera great for fast-action shots in the field.

Paired with the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 Zoom Lens, the Nikon D500 can take photos magnifying images up to 10x their actual size.

Nikon is one of the most trusted brands among photographers and for a good reason. This camera, paired with the right lens, will satisfy almost every photographer regardless of skill level or photography style.

Check the price of Nikon D500 here

Matching lens for birding: Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED Vibration Reduction Zoom Lens with Auto Focus

What we liked

  • Speedy Autofocus
  • Continuous Shooting Up to 10 fps
  • Shoots 4K Video
  • Customizable Control Buttons
  • Wireless File-Sharing Options

What we didn’t like

  • No Built-In Flash
  • Video AF Could Be Improved

Type: DSLR
Sensor: 23.5 x 15.7mm CMOS
Megapixels: 20.9
Frames per second: 10 fps at full resolution
LCD Screen: 3.2” 2,359k-dot Tilting Touchscreen LCD
AF points: 25, 75, & 153 (3-D Tracking)
ISO range: 100-51,200
Weight: 1.9 lbs
Connections: Snapbridge, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC, Super-speed USB, and HDMI Output

3. Canon EOS-1D X Mark II (Best for Professionals)

The Canon EOS-1D X Mark II is a top-of-the-line camera reserved for professional photographers and anyone wanting a serious upgrade from the mid-range ($1,000-2,000) camera choices. 

This camera is designed to be extraordinarily fast. 

Capturing birds in flight is made easy with the exceptional ISO capabilities and its high-speed autofocus which tracks moving objects with ease. 

Professional wildlife and bird photographers may invest in a huge (and expensive) Canon 600mm or 800mm prime lens. But if you are looking for a more compact and portable option, the Canon 100-400mm lens is the perfect choice

This lens is one of the most popular lenses for serious wildlife and bird photographers. Combined with the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II you will have all the tools you need to take superb photos of birds.

Check the price of Canon EOS-1D X Mark II here

Matching lens for birding: Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS Telephoto Zoom Lens

What we liked

  • Incredible Autofocus
  • Full-Frame Sensor
  • Image & Build Quality
  • Excellent for Videographers
  • Continuous Shooting Up to 14 fps

What we didn’t like

  • Touchscreen Functionality is Limited
  • Physically quite Heavy

Type: DSLR
Sensor: High-Sensitivity, High-Resolution, Full-Frame CMOS Sensor
Megapixels: 20.2
Frames per second: 14 fps (at full resolution), 16 fps (in Live View Mode)
LCD Screen: 3.2” TFT Liquid-Crystal Monitor
AF points: 61 (maximum)
ISO range: 100-51,200
Weight: 3.4 lbs
Connections: Wireless File Transfer, Super-speed USB, and HDMI Output

4. Panasonic Lumix GX85 (Best for Travel)

The Panasonic Lumix GX85 is a light, compact mirrorless camera offering fast shutter speed and a range of other features to improve image capture. 

Paired with the Panasonic Lumix G II Vario 100-300mm Lens, photographers will get the focal length they need to take photos of small or far away subjects. 

This camera is a great option for travelers looking for a compact setup. 

The Panasonic Lumix GX85 is a great camera for multiple uses, offering high-quality image capture and even 4K video.

Check the price of Panasonic Lumix GX85 here

Matching lens for birding: Panasonic Lumix G II Vario 100-300mm Lens

What we liked

  • Lightweight & Compact
  • 4K Video
  • Great for Everyday Photos
  • Perfect for Travel

What we didn’t like

  • Small Sensor
  • Fewer Lens Options

Type: Mirrorless Interchangeable-Lens
Sensor: 1/2.5 in Live MOS Sensor
Megapixels: 16
Frames per second: 8 fps at full resolution
LCD Screen: 3” Tilt & Touch LCD
AF points: 49
ISO range: 100-25,600
Weight: 1 lb
Connections: Wi-Fi, High-speed USB, and HDMI Output

5. Sony a7 III (Best Intermediate Mirrorless)

The Sony a7 III is a full-frame mirrorless camera which features interchangeable lens options. 

This setup is quite impressive and making many die-hard DSLR photographers think twice about their preference. 

The full-frame sensor is able to capture minute details in low and high light situations. 

Its mirrorless build makes this camera snappy and compact. 

Bird photographers will be impressed with the clarity and color this camera produces. Paired with the Sony FE 100-400mm F4.5–5.6 GM OSS Telephoto Lens, this camera makes a great carry camera for hiking and traveling while still producing exceptional images.

If you are hoping to get professional grade photos without paying for high-end Canon and Nikon cameras, the Sony a7 III is a fantastic option.

Check the price of Sony a7 III here

What we liked

  • Excellent Sensor
  • 693 Autofocus Points
  • Great Battery Life
  • 4K Video
  • Truly Silent Shutter Function
  • Continuous Shooting Up to 10 fps

What we didn’t like

  • Electronic Viewfinder
  • Weather Resistance Could Be Better

Type: Mirrorless Interchangeable-Lens
Sensor: Full-Frame Exmor R CMOS
Megapixels: 24.2
Frames per second: 10 fps, 8 fps
LCD Screen: 3” 923-k dot Touchscreen LCD
AF points: 693 phase-detection and 425 contrast-detection AF points
ISO range: 50-204,800
Weight: 1.44 lbs
Connections: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC, Super-speed USB, and HDMI Output
Matching lens for birding: Sony FE 100-400mm F4.5–5.6 GM OSS Telephoto Lens

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