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 wildlife and bird photography 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 bird photography–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 cameras for bird photography 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
The best camera for bird photography (and by many accounts, the best full frame camera period) 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 Sony camera 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 system 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).
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 camera for birding currently on the market, there are plenty of cameras that have the specs to take great bird photographs, across a variety of price points.
- Best DSLR Birding Camera: Nikon D500
- Best Superzoom Camera For Birding: Nikon Coolpix P1000
- Best Budget Superzoom Camera For Birding: Canon SX540 HS
- Best Budget Mirrorless Birding Camera: Sony Alpha a6000
Best DSLR Birding Camera: Nikon D500
4KUDH @ 30fps
Multi-CAM 20K autofocus, XQD memory card technology, which provides faster read/write and transfer speeds, radio-controlled Advanced Wireless Lighting system.
No in camera stabilization but it does have electronic vibration reduction for video
|Photo Sensor Size:|
23.5 x 15.7 mm CMOS sensor
Bluetooth, USB, wi-fi, NFC
Opinions change from one bird photographer to the next, but according to many, 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 best mirrorless camera (and especially the Sony A1 above) outperform DSLRs.
For this reason, and others, DSLR development has stopped across almost all major camera manufacturers.
With that said, Nikon’s D500 is still a phenomenal birding camera and a DSLR is still able to deliver fantastic image quality. 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.
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 the praies of this great Nikon camera.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
4K @ 30p
2.36M-dot OLED electronic viewfinder with eye sensor, 24-3000mm equivalent F2.8-8 lens
Dual Detect optical image stabilization
|Photo Sensor Size:|
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 impressive features like “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).
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 massive telephoto lenses.At 16MP, the sensor is not that impressive, though the camera’s features do a good job of making the best of it. All in all, an excellent camera to have as part of your bird photography arsenal.
Best Budget Superzoom Camera For Birding: Canon SX540 HS
1080p full HD
Hybrid autofocus (4 seconds of video before each image), story highlights, built-in wifi button
Intelligent IS image stabilization
|Photo Sensor Size:|
Bluetooth, USB, wi-fi, NFC
The SX540 was the first superzoom, and the first canon camera for birding I ever used and, until I discovered the Nikon P1000, I thought it was, as far as superzooms go, the best camera for birding.
While it is definitely much less powerful than the P1000, it’s one of the best budget cameras for bird photography as far as digital goes.
This is a birding camera I would recommend to beginner bird photographers 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.
As I said, I like a birding camera that has good video capabilities, and the SX540 only shoots in 1080p.
Given the age and lower price point, it’s still quite good, but it’s no 4K and quite outdated at this point. A Canon EOS, for example, is going to be a far superior camera for bird photography in every respect.
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 wildlife photography 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 cameras for bird watchers 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
1080p full HD
11 FPS burst, 3-inch tilting LCD with 921,000 dots, 0.39 in type electronic viewfinder (color)
|Optical Zoom:1||Image Stabilization:|
|Photo Sensor Size:|
APS C (23.5 x 15.6 mm)
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 cameras for birding photography 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 your autofocus system, 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.
I don’t like that this camera doesn’t have an electronic 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 capturing 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 and Wildlife 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.
Bird photography also demands a faster shutter speed. 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 camera for bird photography, whether we are referring to the best DSLR, superzoom (aka bridge camera) or best mirrorless camera, all have certain things in common.
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 System (AF), AF + Tracking and AF Points
The Speed and Accuracy of the Autofocus
Because birds are so erratic and unpredictable, the best cameras for bird photography have fast focus tracking–especially if the goal is photographing birds in flight.
The best birding cameras–a modern high-end full frame mirrorless camera like the Sony A1–are going to have really good autofocus systems and deliver quality images.
Because this is a sophisticated piece of technology with a second-to-none autofocus system, 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.
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 your feathered friends, but the following birding cameras do:
For that reason, these cameras are preferred by serious birders and professional wildlife photographers.
Autofocus system: 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) and Continuous Shooting
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.
Your Camera Body: Bridge Cameras, DSLRs, and Mirrorless Birding Cameras
Throughout this guide, I discussed a few different types of cameras for bird photography. They are:
- Mirrorless Cameras
- Superzoom (or bridge camera) 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 was the go-to birding camera for professional bird photographers 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.
A superzoom, or bridge camera, combines the high-power telephoto zoom capability of your DSLR with the simplicity of a digital point-and-shoot with integrated body lens designs.
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.
And, while not the professional camera of choice, and not the best cameras for bird watching, you often find them as backups in the kits of a lot of wildlife lovers. This plus a pro level camera is a common gear combination.
Lens Considerations and Image Quality
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.
Bird Photography Tips: In-Situ and In-Flight
Capturing birds, and especially photographing wild 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 quality 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 bird photography 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 for image quality, and birds are no different. The Sony A1’s ability eye-focus special feature is especially nice for this.
Thoughts on Using Playback
Trying to photograph birds in their natural habitat, even with a bird feeder camera positioned just right, is tough, especially in low light.
Perhaps nothing splits the bird photography niche or professional photographers like the concept of playback.
I hear a lot of different opinions on “playback” or using audio recordings of bird calls in the field when it comes to bird photography.
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 by bird photographers, it likely doens’t have significant effects at the population level.
It can, and often is abused, however. A 2019 article from the 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 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 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. 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 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, and bird photography, are much richer experiences when you are able to get up close to them. To do this you need a good camera for bird photography (the body), telephoto lenses and a lot of patience.
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 stunning 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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