The catalyst for our entire bird photography adventure that awaited us was purchasing a DSLR camera with a detachable camera lens. That’s right, the camera actually coaxed us into the rewarding hobby of photographing birds, and birding in general. Needless to say, choosing the best camera for bird photography is a tall order, and never have there been so many choices.
With some practice and a lot of patience, Point and shoot digital cameras can provide some truly remarkable results when it comes to birds. The impressive zoom capabilities of the latest Canon and Nikon models make these affordable cameras an attractive option for beginners. However, the act of photographing a quick-moving subject like a bird has a way of demanding the most out of your camera gear.
For this reason, we believe a DSLR camera with an interchangeable prime lens is the best possible option. These days, we shoot with a Canon EOS 7D, and 7D Mk II with 300mm and 400mm prime lenses. This did not happen right away, as we spent years making our way through different camera lenses for the purpose of bird photography.
Our first camera for Bird Photography: Canon EOS Rebel Xs
The first camera we purchased was a Canon EOS Rebel Xs (1000D). This is an entry-level, beginner camera body that could utilize a sea of Canon EF interchangeable lenses. The camera came as a kit, that included a padded carry case and more importantly, a small zoom lens.
The Canon Rebel series DSLR’s are one of the most user-friendly options for beginners, and a common entry point into the hobby. Without a positive experience early on, your plans for nature photography may be put on hold as it is easy to become discouraged. Luckily, the Canon 1000D we started with not only inspired us to keep shooting but propelled us further towards the images of birds we were hoping for.
Back to the lens I mentioned, the Canon EF-S 18-55mm F/5.6 is a modest camera lens with limited value for photographing birds.
Our first camera lens (Canon EF-S 18-55 F/4-F/5.6)
The focal length of this camera lens was simply too short to capture close-ups of birds. Even at 55mm with a crop sensor APS-C sized sensor DSLR like the Xs was not nearly enough “reach” to pull birds in for a closer look. Our first few shots included species such as the American robin, House sparrow, and the ever-popular test subject, seagulls. (I believe it was a Ring-billed gull)
As limited as the Canon 18-55mm Kit lens was, it was enough to spark the passion for bird photography in both of us. This lens certainly has its uses and is worth keeping in your camera bag. For landscape images, simple video work and basic daytime travel photography, the 18-55 kit lens is dependable and to-the-point. The IS version of this lens is a nice upgrade if you have the option.
The thrill of discovering birds to photograph set in, and we knew it was time to invest in a camera lens with a longer focal length. Enter, the Canon EF 75-300mm F/4-5.6 lens. Surely at 300mm, we would be able to capture stunningly sharp photos of all kinds of bird species now. Boy, were we wrong.
The Canon EF 75-300mm f3.5-5.6 Lens
The specs of this zoom lens may sound impressive (or perhaps not), and the price tag for a new model is so low you may be tempted to “add to cart” immediately. The problems with this lens in terms of successful bird photography are many, such as:
- Lack of image stabilization
- Images are not sharp
- 75mm is not a useful focal length
The lack of IS (Image Stabilization) is intensified when shooting at 300mm. The rather slow aperture of F/5.6 means a slower shutter speed must be used to. Good luck trying to photograph a Chickadee on a cloudy day!
In conclusion, you get what you pay for. A camera lens that reaches to 300mm at this price range will likely not deliver the results you are looking for. The budget zoom lens design and odd range of focal length make this lens a real disappointment for bird photography. Do yourself a favour and avoid this one. (We sold ours!)
We used refractor telescopes for lenses!
Seeing as how Trevor was beginning to get right into deep-sky astrophotography, we utilized his high-quality telescope to photograph birds. And why not? An apochromatic refractor telescope such as the Explore Scientific ED80 has some interesting specs for daytime nature photography:
Explore Scientific ED80 F/6 Triplet Apochromatic Refractor
Objective Lens: 80mm
Focal Length: 480mm
That’s right, 480mm! Go ahead and see how much a Canon lens in the 500mm focal length runs for, ($5K+). We had to at least give it a try, and we were delighted with the results.
Of course, a telescope was not designed for nature photography, and focusing quickly can be a nightmare. The telescope was also very heavy, carrying the ED80 around hand-held was not an option, so a monopod had to be used. With a little patience and a lot of luck, we were able to capture some brilliant photos of birds using this telescope including this image of a Black-throated blue warbler at Point Pelee.
Sharing one telescope between the two of us was not ideal. It was time for me to get a “poor mans telephoto lens” of my own, a refractor telescope. The model I chose was a William Optics Z72 F/6 Doublet refractor. I could connect my Canon XS directly to the telescope using a t-ring and adapter for prime focus nature photography. I was thrilled to see my early images were as crisp and beautiful as the photos using the slightly larger ED80.
William Optics Z72 F/6 Doublet Refractor
Objective Lens: 72mm
Focal Length: 420mm
Trevor and I would lug these heavy optical instruments around in search of new bird species to photograph. This was quite the spectacle when visiting busy parks like Point Pelee during migration. We would often get stopped to inquire about our interesting “camera lenses”. As odd as we may have looked, our results spoke for themselves.
The high-quality optics of these instruments produced razor sharp images of birds that more expensive zoom lenses could not match. However, we were definitely missing a lot of shots due to slow and manual focusing. Pointing these heavy telescopes was nearly impossible, further limiting our ability to capture birds in many situations.
Trevor’s Current Gear
Camera: Canon EOS 7D
Lens: Canon EF 300mm F/4L (Non IS)
Teleconverter: Canon Extender EF 1.4X II
Ashley’s Current Gear
Camera: Canon EOS 7D Mk II
Lens: Canon EF 400mm F/5.6L IS