It’s possible to get quality shots of birds on any digital camera, but these are what professionals recommend for the best results.
Your camera body can be DSLR or mirrorless, but it must be able to achieve a shutter speed of 1/2000 of a second or faster. At that speed, you might even be able to capture a hummingbird’s wings without motion blur.
Just as important is focus acquisition — the speed at which the motors in your camera and lens focus on your subject. The faster you can take multiple pictures, the more likely you are to get one that captures your subject the way you want. It helps to have a camera with a burst mode that can shoot six to nine frames per second (FPS) and that has a big enough buffer to handle large bursts before the camera has to pause shooting.
Long lenses can be expensive and heavy, but in order to get crisp, close-up photos, you need a long focal length. You can increase your focal length with a teleconverter, a secondary lens mounted between the camera body and another lens.
For his bird photos, wildlife and landscape photographer Joseph Filer uses a DSLR camera with an 800mm lens. Photographer Gerrit Vyn says you need both long focal length and close proximity to the bird. “To get a full-frame hawk from 60 feet away, you need a 500mm lens and a 1.4x teleconverter,” Vyn notes. “To get a warbler that’s five or six inches long, you need to be 15 feet away from it.”
The ISO setting determines the amount of light your camera sensor takes in. For portraiture (photos of birds standing still), you can use a lower ISO setting, like ISO 400, and slow down your shutter speed to capture as much detail as possible. For birds in motion, you can go up to ISO 800 or more, high enough to receive a lot of light in a tiny fraction of a second. “If I’m waiting for behavior, I’m at a higher ISO and faster shutter speed, prepared for that moment,” says Vyn.
Aperture describes the opening in the lens that allows light to pass through to the camera’s sensor, measured in f-stops. (Remember, the lower the f-stop number, the larger the opening.) Aperture priority mode is a camera setting (A or Av on the camera dial) that you can use to set the aperture manually, and your camera will automatically select the optimal shutter speed to match it. If the camera senses too much light, it will increase the shutter speed.
If you want photographs of birds perched, sitting in nests, or standing in water, you can get better photos with a tripod. The extra steadiness allows you to slow the shutter speed and increase depth of field. “It’s more fun not to use the tripod and move around,” Filer says, “but if it’s a portrait you want, then it makes sense.”
If you want to capture flying birds or birds moving quickly on the ground, camera stabilization is key, but a tripod may be too unwieldy. With a lighter 200–500mm telephoto zoom lens and a fast shutter speed, you may be able to get good photos without the tripod.