By Kirby Flanagan
If you’re completely new to bird photography, choosing a camera can be overwhelming. If that’s the case, I would recommend watching my video on the LAS website called Introduction to Bird Photography. Then come back and read this article. Otherwise, welcome to the first in a series of articles on bird photography
Where to start? The first decision to make is whether to buy a bridge camera, a traditional digital camera, or a mirrorless camera. Bridge cameras are a good choice for those on a tight budget or those who don’t want to deal with the complexities of an interchangeable lens camera. They are small, lightweight and have very nice zoom lenses. They do have their limitations though, mostly in autofocus resulting in the lens hunting back and forth in low light conditions or in picking out a bird against a cluttered background. If you’re ready to jump into photography with both feet, should you buy a traditional DSLR or the newer mirrorless camera system? In my opinion, you should go mirrorless! The cameras and lenses are markedly improved from the old digital cameras. They’re lighter with better autofocus and better handling. Many have excellent built-in image stabilization to help you hand hold the camera without taking blurry images from shaking. Finally, DSLR’s are rapidly going away as manufacturers quickly switch to mirrorless only models.
The second decision point is brand. It’s not so much about name recognition, it’s more about the camera systems and the availability of the lenses you need or want at various price points. The big three manufacturers, Canon, Nikon, and Sony, all have a variety of lenses that will work for bird photography at a variety of price points. I’ll talk much more about lenses in my next article. Just remember that when you buy a camera, you’re buying into that manufacturer’s system, and it gets expensive to change systems if you change your mind later. Also remember that camera companies are extremely competitive regarding technology and price and periodically leapfrog ahead of one another. For many years, the big names were Canon and Nikon. Then along came Sony and suddenly, it was the brand to buy with the latest and greatest technology. Now Nikon has finally caught up and Canon is not far behind. All three come out with firmware updates for mirrorless cameras and new lenses regularly.
So, how do you decide which brand/system to go with? One important consideration is ergonomics. Make a trip to the camera store or big box store of your choice and hold the various camera bodies in your hands. How does it feel? Does the grip fit your hand comfortably and firmly, so the camera won’t slip out of your hands? Are the buttons and knobs placed so that your fingers can reach and use them easily? Another ergonomic consideration is the menu system. Is the menu simple and easy to find and use? How often do you need to go into the menu to change a setting as opposed to pressing a button or turning a dial?
You may be feeling a bit overwhelmed at this point. Coming to the rescue are camera reviewers, ideally impartial ones. Each camera company has its own fan club, so choose carefully. One source I like is Photography Life: https://www.photographpylife.com. Their reviewers are not overly technical and are fairly objective. For a more technical discussion, check out DPReview: https://www.dpreview.com. If the review is too complex, skip to the summary at the end.
Another important consideration is price. Should you consider new or used? Used can save you big bucks. Advances in camera and lens technology are fast. Often you can buy last year’s technology with significant savings! The big box camera stores like B&H and Adorama have used departments. My personal favorite spot is KEH: https://www.keh.com. I’ve bought and sold many pieces of gear through them over the years. But it pays to shop around as sometimes there are bargains. All three have rating systems that describe how the camera or lens has been used or misused. All three stand behind what they sell.
If you want the latest and greatest, you’ll have to pay full retail with minimal differences in prices amongst various suppliers. Keep in mind that cameras depreciate rapidly.
Finally, time to decide. Go for a bridge camera if that fits your budget and shooting style. Or pick a mirrorless brand that you know and trust after you’ve done your homework. Go to your favorite camera store and pick it up and handle it to make sure it feels good in your hands, and that you can reach and use all the buttons and knobs easily. Decide if you must have something new or if used is ok. Decide on a budget. Then, you’re all set to make your purchase!
But you’re not done yet. It’s time to invest a few quality hours in getting to know your camera and practicing using it. Sit down with the owner’s manual and get to know how each button and knob works. Go through the menu system and set your camera up for bird photography. My favorite way to set up a mirrorless camera is to put it in manual mode. Then set the f-stop to 8, the shutter speed to 1/3000 of a second and turn on auto ISO. Why these settings? Birds are fast moving, especially small birds. If they’re not flying, they’re hopping from branch to branch, moving their bodies and heads looking for food or for danger. This shutter speed is fast enough to stop the motion of all but the fastest moving birds like peregrines and hummingbirds. F/8 gives you enough depth of field to keep all the birds in focus. Auto ISO lets the camera decide how much light is needed for good exposure. Now you’re ready to go out and do some practice shots of large slow-moving birds.
Article two in this series will discuss how to choose a lens for bird photography.
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