Types of Cameras
DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex)
- Best image quality due to large image sensor
- Most versatile due to interchangeable lenses (incredibly important for bird photography), ability to shoot in difficult lighting scenarios, quick focusing, and shutter speed mechanisms
- Provides user with complete control over settings
- Viewfinder indicates exactly how image will come out
- Highest quality in terms of build – durable, consistent, reliable - holds value over time
- Long-lasting battery life is a very valuable attribute – especially when shooting birds, which tend to require lots of shots
- Largest and heaviest camera type but ergonomic design is favored by many photographers
Bird Photography requires a camera with the power to capture quick, flying birds, in a variety of lighting scenarios – there is no camera better equipped for meeting those demands than a DSLR. A DSLR is highly recommended for anyone interested in taking high-quality/professional caliber bird photos. For a more in-depth look at DSLRs see: DSLR Overview and Equipment Reviews
Digital Compact (aka Point & Shoot)
- Much smaller than DSLR – more transportable but smaller image sensor
- Image quality better than Mobile Phone camera but not as impressive as DSLR
- Certain Digital Cameras feature zoom lenses, that will capture birds well but only if at relatively close distance
- No interchangeable lenses
- Not as versatile as DSLR – only Advanced Compact (which can be more expensive than a beginner-level DSLR) offers user complete control over settings and modes
- Viewfinder offers preview of shot, not exact image like DSLR
The key advantage to a Compact Digital Camera is its size and simplicity. DSLRs are heavy, bulky and often carried around in a large bag, Compact Digital Cameras on the other hand are sleek, lightweight and can easily fit into the user's pocket or around his or her wrist. DSLRs can take time to understand due to all the control the user has over it – Digital Compact Cameras are more straightforward – the camera does all the work – you just point and shoot. Opportunities for bird pictures can be random – being able to quickly take a shot can be the difference between getting the picture and not getting the picture – with a DSLR you have to take your camera out of the bag, potentially switch out the lens, potentially adjust settings, and then lug the heavy camera up in the air for the shot – with a Digital Compact all you have to do is point and shoot.
Mobile Phone Cameras
- Incredibly convenient and simple to operate
- Image quality behind Digital Compact but improving every year
- Digiscoping and Clip-On Lenses (see below) enhance image quality, zoom ability
For those who just want to take bird pictures for fun or for identification purposes, a mobile phone camera is all you really need. They are incredibly convenient – as most people carry their phone with them at all times – and they are incredibly simple to operate – no settings to adjust – all you need to do it click on the app and take the picture. Image quality is surprisingly strong and seems to improve with every new release. While the shot will never be as crisp as a DSLR and most Digital Compacts, high quality images can still be produced – especially if accessories like Digiscopes and Clip-On Lenses are added. These supplementary tools are often made by the top camera companies and enable the photographer to take pictures at further distances – which is obviously very important when it comes to bird photography.
Clothing & Camo
In most cases the best pictures are taken at distances relatively close to the bird itself, getting close to birds however is quite difficult, as most are genetically programmed to avoid large, scary-looking creatures like humans. Dressing in discrete clothing or camouflaging yourself can end making a big impact in terms of how successfully you are able to approach birds. Below are some basic tips on clothing and camouflage options:
- Wear dark/earthy colors: like green, gray, brown, and tan.
- Wear a hat: it will help you blend in but more importantly it will keep the sun out of your eyes, which will greatly aid you in locating birds high in the trees.
- Use a hunting blind: a hunting blind is essentially a pop-up tent with windows in it, they are built for hunters but also used by wildlife photographers. They key advantage is that the design enables the photographer to shoot pictures while concealed. A great choice for someone who finds a bird hotspot.
- Wear a Ghillie suit – originally designed for the military but now used by hunters and photographers, a Ghillie suit is a full body outfit completely covered in realistic-foliage-looking material. It’s the ultimate camo, as a person in a Ghillie suit can literally pass for a small tree or shrub. Ghillie suits aren’t for everyone – in order to maximize effectiveness and totally blend into the environment the user must remain very still (potentially for long periods of time). Ghillie suits can also get very hot on late spring and summer days – some suits way as much as 7 pounds.
- Tripod: A tripod is a three-legged stand used to support and stabilize cameras (primarily DSLRs) and Spotting Scopes/Binoculars. Pictures taken on a tripod tend to be sharper since handshake is taken out of the equation and angles are more controlled – the ability to focus on and freeze images improves substantially. Mobility (moving around from spot to spot) is obviously limited when using tripods, which are generally best used for stationary shoots at birding hotspots.
- Binoculars: Essential to birdwatching, it can be difficult to locate and identify birds without a pair of binoculars. Binoculars are also commonly used to Digiscope images. For more on binoculars and birdwatching see: The Ideal Birdwatching Binocular and Equipment Reviews
- Remote: Enables the photographer to snap pictures by pressing a single remote-control button rather than pressing the shutter (picture-taking) button on the DSLR itself. In bird photography, a DSLR remote is used to take pictures without the photographer having to approach the bird. For example, the DSLR is set up on a tripod at a birding hotspot, the photographer moves up to 15 feet away from the camera (and out of bird-scaring range), then presses the button when the bird is in the desired position for the shot. While the DSLR remote process takes time to get down (and can be frustrating to operate) they are quite cheap and worth experimenting with.
- SD Card: Memory card used for digital cameras and even some smartphones – your pictures won’t save without one. Purchasing an SD card with a lot of memory (32GB or higher) is highly recommended – as success in bird photography usually requires taking lots and lots of pictures (with only a few of them actually worth saving). Bird Photographers never want to be limited in terms of the number pictures they can take. Plus, high memory SD cards are cheaper on a per GB basis.
- Harness: Most DSLRs come with a generic neck strap – while the neck strap is fine for basic or quick photography sessions, it can create problems during extended bird photography shoots. For one, carrying what is at least a 3 pound camera around your neck for an extended period can be very uncomfortable for the neck and shoulders. Neck straps also struggle to hold the camera securely – high winds and sudden movements (very possible during bird photography shoots) can knock the camera around and potentially damage it. A harness (a camera holding vest) on the other hand, secures the camera around the photographer’s chest area, reducing physical strain and potential for damage. Harnesses also make it easier to grab the camera and shot at moment’s notice – sometimes it takes a photographer too much time to reach down and secure the camera when held by a neck strap. Many harness also include pockets that can hold important items like additional lenses, binoculars, mobile phones, and batteries.
- Spotting Scope: Essentially a small telescope for viewing wildlife – Spotting Scopes are a substantial step beyond binoculars in terms of magnification power. They are usually mounted to a tripod and used to view subjects clearly from far distances, such as a Bald Eagle in a tall tree on the other side of a river. Spotting Scopes are not only used by photographers to spot distant birds but also as a very effective digiscoping tool.
- Digiscoping Tools: Digiscoping is the process in which a small adapter is used by a photographer to take pictures with a camera through a magnification device (spotting scopes or binoculars) – resulting in a more zoomed-in image. While any camera type (DSLR, Digital Compact, Mobile Phone) can be used, Mobile Phones are the most common choice, as digiscoping with a Mobile Phone can produce zoomed-in images that many Digital Compacts and DSLRs cannot even shoot – and at a much lower price. Of course, digiscoping with a Digital Compact or DSLR will provide a crisper, higher quality image. Digiscoping adapters for smartphones are quite affordable but go up in price considerably when it comes to Digital Compacts and DSLRs. For bird photography beginners, digiscoping with a smartphone is recommended, as it is a cheap way to drastically improve your bird pictures. It is also a great option for a Digital Compact or DSLR owner who wants to get more magnified images without having to pay for an ultra-expensive lens.
- Clip-On Lenses: A small lens that clips over the camera of your smartphone, it improves magnification and overall image quality. Intended for close shots only, it will produce nowhere near the magnification power of a digiscoped set-up but will produce better short-range shots.
- Chair: There is nothing wrong with taking pictures while seated – in fact seated pictures are favored by some photographers, who feel it improves stability and visibility. A chair can also be used to sit while waiting for birds to visit a particular spot you hope to shoot at it – bird photography often requires great patience – sitting while waiting is preferable to standing. For maximum visibility look for a chair that can swivel 360 degrees.