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The 5 Best Birding Cameras: DSLR, Mirrorless and Superzoom

the best birding cameras come in different styles

I’ve been hooked on birdwatching since I was 6 years old when my dad first took me to see the impressive bald eagle congregations along British Columbia’s Fraser River. At 7 I was already asking for Audobon guides for Christmas, and once I was old enough (and had enough money) to bird seriously, I followed my passion around the world to some fabulous birding destinations–from Panama to Raja Ampat. 

For several years, I was lucky enough to live in, perhaps, the Mecca of birdwatching–Colombia–home to the world’s highest avian diversity, and I had the good fortune to experience some of the country’s top birding spots alongside serious bird lovers and guides; from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta to the flooded plains of the Orinoco to the northwest Amazonian piedmont. 

I’ve owned and used a few birding cameras over the years, from DSLR to mirrorless, as well as some great superzoom point and shoots, and I’ve loved all of them.


The Winner of The Best Birding Camera Overall: Sony A1

Specs

Max Resolution:
50MP
Video:
8K
Special Features:
BIONZ XR Processor; 5-Axis SteadyShot Image Stabilization; 759-Pt. Fast Hybrid AF, Real-time Eye AF
Weight/Dimensions:
1.6lbs
Optical Zoom:
1
Image Stabilization:
SteadyShot Image Stabilization
Photo Sensor Size:
Full Frame (35mm)
Connectivity Technology:
Bluetooth, USB, HDMI, NFC

The best birding camera out there is hands down the Sony A1. It is also, perhaps not surprisingly, the most expensive. If you’ve ever used the A9 II, there isn’t a massive advantage in terms of the number of keeper photos per total photos shot, but it has double the sensor resolution of the next best thing on the market (the A9 II, IMO) as well as a faster burst rate

What’s more, the A1’s precision tracking mode is incredibly impressive, as is how responsive the autofocus is. You get stellar performance even while shooting at 30fps.

Combine that with the eye autofocus feature for birds and wildlife, and this is hands down the best birding camera on the market (if you have the budget). None of the other mirrorless cameras I’ve used (including the A9 II) come close. 

If you’re using the AI to shoot birds in flight, make sure you have the AF-Area Mode setting enabled, the priority setting in AF-C set to “focus,AF Track Sensitivity set to 5 (which is responsive) and the Dive Mode set to at least medium (10fps). 

Demerits

50MP is crazy and if this is the birding camera you opt for, prepare yourself for enormous file sizes and a big demand on your storage setup. Each uncompressed RAW image is around 100MB. If you take 400 shots in a single outing, that is just about enough to fill up a 64GB SD right there.

Your best bet is to pick up a few 128 GB cards and a big SSD drive if you’re investing in this camera. Let’s face it, if you’re willing to drop 6K+ on a birding camera, then you’re probably willing to spring for the add-ons too.


Other Great Options

While the Sony A1 is, according to a huge swath of birders and wildlife photographers (myself included), the best birding camera on the market, there are plenty of cameras that have the specs to take great bird photographs, across a variety of price points.

They are: 


Best DSLR Birding Camera: Nikon D500

Specs

Max Resolution:
20.9MP
Video:
4KUDH @ 30fps
Special Features:
Multi-CAM 20K autofocus, XQD memory card technology, which provides faster read/write and transfer speeds, radio-controlled Advanced Wireless Lighting system.
Weight/Dimensions:
1.6lbs
Optical Zoom:
1
Image Stabilization:
No in-body image stabilization but it does have electronic vibration reduction for video. 
Photo Sensor Size:
23.5 x 15.7 mm CMOS sensor
Connectivity Technology:
Bluetooth, USB, wi-fi, NFC

The only reason to be using a DSLR as a birding camera at this point is that it’s what you’re used to because it’s pretty unanimous that mirrorless (and especially the Sony A1 above) outperform DSLR. For this reason, and others, DSLR development has stopped across almost every major manufacturer

With that said, Nikon’s D500 is still a phenomenal birding camera. Its multi-CAM 20K focusing system comes with 153 autofocus points (and 99 cross-type points) which let you take great still and in-flight shots. 

A 20.9MP CMOS sensor is certainly not the 50MP offered by the Sony A1 (although nothing is and it costs 6K), still gives you highly detailed and textured image quality. I also really like the option to shoot videos while birding, if not of birds of the myriad other critters that often wander into the frame while you’re waiting and scanning. 

The best birding cameras also function well in low light, since you’re often in dense vegetation while shooting. The D500’s ISO range, which is very capable in low light down to -4 EV, gives you great brightness and fine detail, noiseless photos. 

Demerits

In addition to being a DSLR trying to remain relevant in the age of mirrorless, the D500 is quite a large and heavy birding camera. Still, talk to birders who’ve used it and continue to use it and they all sing its praises.

Check out the below video of National Geographic Photographer Ronan Donovan shooting falcons with the D500 at a wildlife reserve in Montana.


Best Superzoom Camera For Birding: Nikon Coolpix P1000

Specs

Max Resolution:
16MP 
Video:
4K @ 30p
Special Features:
2.36M-dot OLED electronic viewfinder with eye sensor, 24-3000mm equivalent F2.8-8 lens
Weight/Dimensions:
4.62lbs
Optical Zoom:
125
Image Stabilization:
Dual Detect optical image stabilization
Photo Sensor Size:
1/2.3″ BSI-CMOS 
Connectivity Technology:
Bluetooth, wi-fi

The Nikon Coolpix P1000 has 125x optical zoom, which means it has an equivalent focal length of 24-3000mm (3000!). It’s so long that you can easily fill the frame with something that is 1 metre tall from 70 meters away. 

The P1000 has a very nice 16MP SX540 1 /2.3” BSI-CMOS sensor, RAW support, shoots 4K video, and a fully articulating LCD screen and high-resolution EVF. I think this is one of the best superzoom cameras for birding, (if not the best) because of the “Dual Detect” optical image stabilization that Nikon has equipped the P100 with, which makes it easier to shoot while zoomed in and capture birds in flight (which is often quite hard with point and shoots). 

Demerits

125x zoom means this is quite a big camera and the lens has a slow max aperture so image quality is affected by the atmospheric and thermal issues you would expect anytime you shoot from a crazy distance with a massive telephoto lens. At 16MP, the sensor is not that impressive, though the camera’s features do a good job of making the best of it. 


Best Budget Superzoom Camera For Birding: Canon SX540 HS

Specs

Max Resolution:
20.3MP
Video:
1080p full HD
Special Features:
Hybrid auto (4 seconds of video before each image), story highlights, built-in wifi button
Weight/Dimensions:
0.97lbs
Optical Zoom:
50
Image Stabilization:
Intelligent IS image stabilization
Photo Sensor Size:
1/2.3″ BSI-CMOS 
Connectivity Technology:
Bluetooth, USB, wi-fi, NFC

The SX540 was the first superzoom camera for birding I ever used and, until I discovered the Nikon P1000, I thought it was the best superzoom camera for birding. While it is definitely much less powerful than the P1000, it’s one of the best budget birding cameras as far as digital goes. 

This is a birding camera I would recommend to a beginner birder on a budget or to someone who didn’t really take birding seriously and wanted something powerful but affordable they could take out whenever the fancy struck. 

It has a very powerful 50x optical zoom lens (equivalent to a 24-1200mm DSLR or Mirrorless Lens) and good image stabilization, which means this is actually a really nice birding camera. It has a 20.3MP CMOS sensor (bigger than the more expensive Nikon P1000) and DIGIC 6 image processor that gives a really nice resolution even in low light. 

I also really like this as a birding camera because there’s a dedicated wi-fi button that lets you easily transfer and share over NFC and wi-fi, which is great for birding and wildlife lodges with wi-fi connections. 

Demerits

As I said, I like a birding camera that has good video capabilities, and the SX540 only shoots in 1080p. That’s still quite good, but it’s no 4K and quite outdated at this point.

I’m also not the biggest fan of its lack of a viewfinder. You have to look at the digital screen at the back, which doesn’t have the greatest resolution so you don’t always get the best idea of what your photos will actually look like. 

That said, I’ve still managed to shoot some photos with the SX540 HS that I’m quite happy with. Given the constraints of this piece of gear, all in all, I still say it’s one of the best superzoom cameras for birding for those on a budget. 

Check out some of the photos I took with my SX540 at La Isla Escondida Nature Reserve and Birding Lodge in Putumayo, Colombia:


Best Budget Mirrorless Birding Camera: Sony Alpha a6000

Specs

Max Resolution:
24.3MP
Video:
1080p full HD
Special Features:
11 FPS burst, 3-inch tilting LCD with 921,000 dots, 0.39 in type electronic viewfinder (color)
Weight/Dimensions:
0.67 lbs
Optical Zoom:1Image Stabilization:
none
Photo Sensor Size:
APS-C (23.5 x 15.6 mm)
Connectivity Technology:
USB, micro-HDMI, wi-fi

The Sony Alpha a6000 is, in camera terms, a pretty old piece of technology, first hitting the market in 2014. That said, it’s one of the best birding cameras for birders on a budget and definitely the best budget mirrorless birding camera out there.

The 24MP sensor is as impressive today as it was back in 2014 and its 11fps burst mode is still top-notch, even if the much newer and far more expensive Sony A1 blows it away.

What’s more, Sony is top of the game when it comes to autofocus, and while the A1 is the pinnacle of that evolution, the a6000 still enjoys fabulous autofocus technology which should be good enough for anyone who doesn’t get paid to take photos of birds for a living–179 phase-detection points and 25 contrast detection points.

Demerits

I don’t like that this camera doesn’t have a silent shutter option (something a newer mirrorless would have). It’s also kind of difficult to set a single autofocus area position and the lack of a touchscreen definitely lets you know that this is an older piece of mirrorless technology. 

All things considered, a great and much more affordable mirrorless birding camera.


What Went Into My Selection Process for the Best Birding Cameras List

I’ve been birding and taking photos of birds since I was a little kid and I’ve been to a lot of birding destinations and used a lot of cameras. I’m not a world-famous photographer or anything, but I think I take pretty good shots and I know what I like in a birding camera. 

Many of my friends are birders and wildlife guides, and I myself have worked on and off as a wildlife guide in places like Thailand, Borneo and Colombia. I’ve been around and learned from serious birders and wildlife enthusiasts, and I know what kind of camera setup you need if you want to take respectable shots of birds and wildlife more generally.


The Differences Between Bird Photography and Other Niches

Anyone who spends a lot of time photographing (or trying to) birds will probably agree that there are a few important distinctions between bird photography and other photography styles. 

Birders have to know how to make on-the-fly adjustments to their camera settings in ways that a lot of other photographers (e.g., landscape photographers) don’t have to. The ideal settings when you’re birding can change from moment to moment. Birds move quickly and erratically from well-lit to shady spots, clouds can suddenly roll in or open up and trying to shoot primary forest species means you are stuck working with low light. 

Birding photography also demands fast shutter speeds. Whether you’re trying to capture birds in flight, birds hopping branch to branch in fruiting trees or skittish birds constantly scanning their surroundings for predators, shutter speeds of 1/1000th of a second or higher are best for photographing birds. 

That said, you still need to ensure your shutter speed is balanced with your ISO and aperture settings so that you are allowing enough light in to effectively capture your subject. 

Lastly, a birder needs to be good at tracking birds through a viewfinder. Birds are a flurry of movement and rarely stay in the same spot or same position for a long time. To take good shots of birds, birders have to hone their viewfinder tracking skills.


What Qualities Make For a Good Birding Camera?

The best birding cameras, whether they are DSLR, superzoom (aka bridge) or mirrorless, all have certain things in common. 

Weight

Taking good photos of birds requires taking a lot of photos, even with the best birding camera. It also means taking photos while heavily zoomed in, which requires a steady hand if you want to take clear shots. What this means is that weight is a factor in a birding camera. You don’t want something so heavy that it’s a burden to shoot with. 

Autofocus (AF), AF + Tracking and AF Points

The Speed and Accuracy of the Autofocus

Because birds are so erratic and unpredictable, a good birding camera should have fast focus tracking–especially if the goal is to shoot birds in flight. 

The best birding cameras–modern high-end cameras like the Sony A1–are going to have really good autofocus systems. Because this is a sophisticated piece of technology, it’s expensive, and not all cameras (anywhere or on this list) are going to have it. 

If you are looking to take photos of birds in flight, there really is no substitute for a good AF tracking system. 

Animal Eye-tracking

The best birding cameras (again, like the new generation Sony Mirrorless cameras) also incorporate what is called bird/animal eye-tracking.

There aren’t too many cameras that have it, and you don’t need it to take great shots of birds, but the following birding cameras do:

For that reason, these cameras are preferred by serious birders and professional wildlife photographers. 

The Quantity and Type of Autofocus Points

The greater the number of focus points on a sensor, the easier it is to focus on birds in flight. This assumes you’ve got a somewhat neutral background to shoot against and have activated all your focus points. 

Frames Per Second (FPS)

For birding, you are going to want a camera that shoots at least 7fps to adequately capture action shots. Anything less and you can still take good photos of birds that have decided to sit still for a moment, but you will have a hard time capturing movement. 

It makes sense since the greater the number of shots you can fire off in a second, the higher your odds of capturing that perfect pose or movement.


Bridge Cameras, DSLRs, and Mirrorless Birding Cameras

Throughout this guide, I discussed a few different types of cameras. They are: 

  • Mirrorless Cameras
  • Superzoom (or Bridge) Cameras
  • DSLR Cameras

A mirrorless, interchangeable lens camera is similar to a DSLR but tends to be lighter, more compact, have faster shutter speeds because of more simple internal mechanics, and can take photos silently (ideal for a birding camera). 

A DSLR camera has been the go-to birding camera and professional photography camera for years, up to the advent of the more sophisticated mirrorless cameras now preferred. DSLRs use a mirror to reflect the image from the lens into the viewfinder, which allows you to see what the image really looks like, as opposed to a digitized version. 

Superzoom, or bridge cameras, combine the high-power telephoto zoom capability of your DSLR with the simplicity of a digital point-and-shoot. They are very easy to use and tend to be good options for beginners who either aren’t interested in learning the manual controls of a DSLR or mirrorless setup or who are looking for something less expensive.


Lens Considerations

All of the birding cameras that I covered in this guide include just the camera body. In the case of the point-and-shoot superzoom/bridge cameras, you don’t need a zoom lens because the cameras already have zoom built in. 

In the case of DSLR and mirrorless cameras, the lens is one of, if not the most important part of your camera setup. To take photos of birds, you need a zoom lens that allows you to get up close to your subjects and you want something that has enough zoom, is made of good glass and is durable. 

A variable focal length lens with a max focal length in the range of 400-600mm is the most popular lens type for birding. They give you 8x magnification at 400mm and 12x magnification at 600 when you use a full-frame sensor camera.


Tips For Shooting Birds: In-Situ and In-Flight 

Photographing birds is different from most other animals because birds have freedom of movement that most other animals don’t. To take good shots of birds, keep the following in mind: 

  • Patience is the most important asset for birders. You can have the best birding camera on the market, but if you aren’t willing to wait for the right shot, you’re going to end up with a card full of duds. 
  • Use continuous shooting mode. Part of the joy of birding and bird photography is watching these animals perform amazing acrobatic and agility feats in the air. Continuous shooting takes a series of images and lets you choose the best one. It’s more work curating, but you almost always end up with more keepers this way.
  • Fast shutter speeds are best. In addition to using settings like continuous shooting, a fast shutter speed of at least 1/1000 will help you capture birds better. 
  • Don’t be afraid to shoot birds in direct sunlight. We tend to avoid shooting portraits of people in direct sunlight because they look washed out, but bird plumage often needs direct sunlight to really show off its brilliance because of the way they reflect sunlight. 
  • The golden rule of wildlife photography, in general, is to know your subject. You will almost always take better photographs of birds if you know about their habits. These include where they are found, where in the tree they are active (e.g., canopy), and what they eat. In the Americas, savvy birders often look for the ants that the birds use to find prey.
  • Focus on the eye. Having any subject’s eyes in focus is always better, and birds are no different. The Sony A1’s ability eye-focus special feature is especially nice for this.

Thoughts on Using Playback

I hear a lot of different opinions on “playback” or using audio recordings of bird calls in the field to attract and photograph birds. I’ve heard anecdotes claiming that the extent to which “baiting” birds with song playback is harmful varies from species to species. 

My own view is that, if done sparingly, it likely doens’t have significant effects at the population level. It can, and often is abused, however. A 2019 article from Conservation authority Mongabay details how the overuse of playback has meant serious behavioural disturbances for a lot of species. 

Unscrupulous birding guides overusing playback who don’t care about the animals and just want that fat tip from their customers at the end of an expedition are definitely an issue in the international birding community. I think a lot of birders may not realize the effects that playback can have on the animals they love so much.


Great Free Birding Resources

While any serious birder no doubt has a bird guide for every region they’ve ever been to or are planning on visiting, there are a lot of great free birding resources out there to make the hobby more accessible and enjoyable. 

The Cornell University Lab’s BirdNET

The Cornell University Lab’s BirdNET Sound ID App has to be one of the best birding free birding resources ever produced. Simply record the sound on your phone, and the BirdNET database will tell you the species. 

Google Lens

Google Lens is a fantastic free Google application that IDs species based on an image. You can take a photo of literally anything–a plant, insect, bird, fish, snake, whatever–and the app, although not with 100% accuracy, will tell you the species you’re looking at, and usually, at the very least, the genus. 

iNaturalist

iNaturalist. Any serious birder (or wildlife enthusiast of any kind) worth their salt will know what iNaturalist is. For those that don’t, it’s a joint project between the California Academy of Science and National Geographic that allows scientists and citizen scientists alike to record species observations around the world, complete with coordinates, time, date and a range of other environmental factors. This is a great resource for birders who are trying to target specific species because you can see where they have been recently observed. 

Fieldguides.fieldmuseum.org

Fieldguides.fieldmuseum.org is a fairly recent user-generated field guide database that focuses on specific locations within countries and regions. The guide selection is very conveniently broken down into continent and country, and they cover everything from plants and fungi to birds, reptiles and mammals. 

They are often put together by local researchers from local universities, and they provide free, albeit incomplete, samplings of various animal groups from specific locations. Here is a screenshot of part of a “Birds of the El Cauduceo Nature Reserve in San Martin, Meta, Colombia”: 

Why Investing in Good Quality Birding Camera Makes Sense 

Admiring birds is a so much richer experience when you are able to get up close to them. The behaviour, intelligence, striking beauty, and physical prowess of birds are what draw so many people into their worlds. 

In order to truly appreciate one of nature’s most spectacular creatures in all of their glory, you need to spend a bit (or, depending on how far you want to take it, a lot) of money in order to capture images and memories these often reclusive, skittish animals. 

I hope the above list, whether you opt for a cheaper superzoom point and shoot or a state-of-the-art mirrorless, helps you choose the best birding camera for your experience, budget, needs and passion level so that you can better pursue one of life’s great joys: birdwatching.

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