Updated July, 2015

BIRD PHOTOGRAPHY GEAR GUIDE

I get a lot of questions and inquiries about what equipment to use for bird photography. On this page I will list the items that I use (or would like to use) for bird photography for both the Canon and Nikon systems. I will try to keep the page current and hope that you will find this a useful resource.

We all know that bird photography requires specialized camera equipment in order to achieve consistently high quality images. Starting with a camera body the serious nature photographer will add a lens, tripod, flash and other accessories to their ever-expanding camera bag. There is no list of equipment that will be perfect for every photographer and the decisions that each photographer makes will depend upon their preferred subject matter, the weight of equipment that they are willing to carry, budget, etc.

 

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Below you will find a list of everything that is in my camera bag. These are the tools that I have chosen to carry taking into account a variety of factors. I hope you will find this list useful.

If you happen to find some good information on this page or on other pages on my site I would really appreciate it if you would consider making your next equipment purchase through one of my affiliate links to B&H Photo Video. You’ll pay exactly the same, but I will get a small commission for the referral. It all helps! Simply click on the image of the product you are interested in and you will be linked to the B&H site. Cheers!

BODIES LENSES FLASH SUPPORT

STORAGE

ACCESSORIES

 

When choosing a type of camera for serious tropical nature photography there really is only one option – a digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera. These digital bodies allow the user to look into a viewfinder and directly through the lens to their subject. They allow for the use of a wide variety of lenses, have sophisticated autofocus capabilities, have high speed shooting capabilities, and allow their users to quickly and intuitively change settings. For these reasons digital SLR cameras are the choice of 99% of wildlife photographers. Choosing a type of camera is indeed the easy part. Deciding on a brand and model of camera becomes somewhat more complicated.

Once you have decided on a brand of camera you will have to decide what model is right for you. In many cases it is the budget of the photographer that contributes in large part to this decision. After all, both Canon and Nikon produce camera bodies that range in price from about $700 to well over $5000. Aside from the cost of the various camera models there are several factors worth considering before choosing a camera body.

MEGAPIXELS - This is the question that so many new photographers have in mind when they are looking for their first digital camera. While camera manufacturers seem hung-up on the never ending “Megapixel war” to add more and more Megapixels to their cameras – you should not be. The truth is that for most people (including professional photographers) any camera with 8 Megapixels or more will be more than sufficient.

CROP FACTOR - Both Canon and Nikon produce cameras that have full frame sensors as well as bodies that have sensors that are smaller than 35mm. The result of these smaller sensors is increased focal magnification. For example, if a camera has a 1.6x crop factor a 100mm lens will become a 160mm lens or a 300mm lens will become a 480mm lens. Bird photographers may choose to use a camera with a smaller sensor so that they can take advantage of these crop factors. Landscape photographers, on the other hand, would likely choose a full frame camera body so that their wide angle lenses retain their wide field of view.

FRAME RATE - There are occasions when the ability to capture many images in a short period of time is a tremendous advantage. Photographing birds in flight in particular is often more successful when the photographer is equipped with a camera that is capable of shooting at a high frame rate. The top of the line camera bodies can take up to 10 images per second and can quickly write these images to a memory card. If you are a photographer that enjoys photographing action then you may want to consider the frame rate as an important factor in the camera you choose to buy.

AUTOFOCUS CAPABILITY - Perhaps one of the most important factors when choosing a camera body is how sophisticated of an autofocus system do you need. The reason this is an important question is that this is often the main reason to spend the extra money and buy the top of the line, expensive camera bodies. If you are just getting started in nature photography you likely do not need one of these bodies.

HIGH ISO CAPABILITY - Another very important consideration for many photographers is how a given camera body will perform at high ISO speeds. As is the case with autofocus, the results at high ISO speeds tend to improve with the cost of the camera body. High ISO performance however generally improves with larger pixel size. Therefore if shooting at high ISO is important to you we recommend either buying a camera with fewer megapixels or one with a full frame sensor (and larger pixel size).

BUILD QUALITY - Another reason why professional photographers pay many thousand dollars more for the top of the line cameras is build quality. These professional camera bodies will be made of studier materials and will offer more protection against the elements. The shutter mechanism will also be rated for a higher number of actuations (often upwards of 300,000). Nature photography can be extremely hard on equipment and each photographer will have to weigh the advantages of having more robust and weather sealed camera bodies against the added expense of these professional cameras.

 

CANON

 

NIKON

 

Filler Filler Filler Filler

Canon 7D Mark II

For bird photography I like to use a crop body. The increase in effective focal length is a tremendous advantage when shooting in real world scenarios. The autofocus of this camera is exceptional.

This is my day to day camera.

 

Nikon D300S

The current best crop body for the Nikon system. I'm sure the D400 will be out before long.

If I was a Nikon shooter I would have one in my bag for the 1.5x crop factor.

Canon 1DX Mark II

Canons top of the line model. Incredible frame rate, autofocus and video capabilities.

Please see my full review - HERE

Nikon D4s

Nikon's top-of-the-line body this camera has Incredible ISO performance and features.

If you want the best...Look no further!

 

 

Canon 70D

A great intro camera body for beginner nature photographers. This body features a 1.6 crop factor so is a great choice for bird photographers especially.

Definitely a notch down from the 7D series. But still very good and a fantastic place to start!

Nikon D7200

A great intro camera body for beginner nature photographers. This body features a 1.5 crop factor so is a great choice for bird photographers especially.

 

Canon 5D Mark IV

Finally a full frame body that I am actually interested in buying!

This camera is a perfect companion to my workhorse 7D Mark II. With some of the best image quality on the market today and some really cool video features this is one heck of a camera!

Nikon D810

The combination of extremely high rezolution and image quality make this a VERY interesting camera. If I shot Nikon I would definitely own one.

Canon 5DS / 5DSR

At 50+ megapixels this is the ultimate in high resolution DSLR photography. Check out my review - HERE

GOPRO HERO 4

These cameras are so much fun! If you are interested in making videos in addition to taking stills I recommend getting one. They are great for story telling and so small they can be placed anywhere.

 

POINT AND SHOOT

 

Canon S95

Canon Powershot S120

I had been waiting for a good point and shoot that was small, shoots RAW images, and shoots HD video. Finally the S95 has arrived!

For me this is the perfect point and shoot camera.

NOTE - The latest version of this camera is the Powershot S120.

Sony RX100 IV

If you are looking for the ultimate point and shoot and arent too worries about the price tag then this is the camera for you.

AMAZING image quality and features for a point and shoot camera.

Canon G1X

IA fantastic option instead of a DSLR. Great ergonomics allowing the user to change settings quickly. Ultimately if you already own a DSLR though I'd go for the G7X.

Canon G7X

If you are looking for the ultimate point and shoot and arent too worries about the price tag then this is the camera for you.

It is a tough call between this and the RX-100. For better video features go for the Sony. A longer zoom the Canon. I'd buy the Canon...

 

 

Once you have decided on a camera body, you will need to decide what lens or lenses to buy. The choice of which lenses to buy depends largely upon what subject matter you are most interested in. For example, to get started in bird photography you will need an auto-focusing lens of at least 300mm. Nature photographers that are interested in landscapes will likely want to purchase a lens that is wider than 28mm. Those interested in the world of miniature subjects such as insects and frogs will likely want a dedicated macro lens.

 

CANON

NIKON

600mm f/4 IS II

As of July 2013 my new primary lens. For me the weight savings and minimum focus distance of the new lens made it attractive enough to trade in my old 500mm for. Hopefully it will be a great lens for me for years to come!

600mm f/4 VR II

If you are a Nikon shooter and you want the biggest glass possible then this is the lens for you. Very comparable to the Canon counterpart.

Nikon has just updated these to be super light!.

500mm f/4 IS II

This is truly one of the world's best lenses for wildlife and nature photography. It may have cost more than my car - but I love it!

NOTE - I have recently sold my beloved 500mm for the new 600mm lens.

500mm f/4 VR II

If you are not prepared to lug around a 600mm and you are a bird photographer this is likely your next best choice.

Owning one of these super-telephotos is a must for the serious bird photographer.

Nikon has just updated these to be super light!.

100-400mm f/5.6 IS II

I did some recent tests on this lens and was VERY impressed. The new version kills the old version in every way. So much so that I have decided to sell my 300mm f/4 and 400mm f/5.6 for this versatile lens.

Check out my review on YouTube.

80-400mm f/5.6 VR

A great versatile lens for Nikon shooters. Ultimately if you shoot mostly birds I'd go for the new 300mm f/4 though.

200-400mm f/4 + 1.4x

For the price of this lens I would rather have a 500mm or 600mm and a 100-400mm.

If I was more of a general wildlife photographer or if I was going on an African safari this lens would be in my backpack.

200-400mm f/4

This lens has never been especially attractive to me for birds. 400mm is simply too short and the lens is likely out competed by a 300mm 2.8 and teleconverters. However, if I was more of a general wildlife photographer or if I was going on an African safari this lens would be in my backpack.

400mm f/5.6

The ultimate lens for photographing birds in flight! The lens is very light and it focuses extremely quickly.

   

300mm f/2.8 IS II

One of the sharpest and fastest lenses available. It also takes teleconverters extremely well. This lens can offer a very versatile combo for any wildlife photographer.

300mm f/2.8 VR

One of the sharpest and fastest lenses available. It also takes teleconverters extremely well. This lens can offer a very versatile combo for any wildlife photographer.

300mm f/4 IS

For larger subjects, when photographing in a blind, for flight shots or when 500mm is simply too much lens this is a great lens to have. The lens is very light and its close focussing distance of 1.5m makes it a great tool for macro photography as well.

300mm f/4

Very comparable to the Canon 300mm this is an excellent and very versatile lens. Hopefully Nikon will throw VR in a future version and make it even better.

Update. Now it has VR!!

100mm f/2.8 Macro

When you want to get up close and personal with your subjects this is the lens to do it. For insects, amphibians and any other little critters this is lens awesome and it allows 1x magnification.

105mm f/2.8 VR Micro

Once again very similar to its Canon cousin this is a great choice for macro work.

17-40mm f/4

For scenery this is the lens to have. At 17mm it's pretty much as wide as I ever want to go and at 40mm its a great walk around lens. Very versatile, fairly light and reasonably affordable.

14-24 mm f/2.8

Renound for being an incredible wide angle lens this wide-angle zoom would be a great addition to any landscape photographers kit.

11-24mm f/4

Super wide angle zoom. Also works on APC C cameras where it will provide a 17.6-38.4mm equivalent focal length range.

   

Canon 1.4x Converter

When it comes to wildlife, and especially birds, it is often a case of the more focal length the better! As a result I find myself using the 1.4x converter very often with my 500mm lens. The converter features a multi layer lens coating and lens design that reduces flare and also creates an optimum color balance.

Nikon 1.4x Converter

As is the case with the Canon teleconverter this lens lets you get 1.4x closer to the subject and costs you one stop of light.

A must have item for any bird photographer.

Canon 2x Converter

The 2x converter is a very valuable accessory for the nature photograpger. But for the time being I don't use this converter very often as I lose two stops of light and also autofocus capabilities with my current camera body. Eventually though, I will upgrade to a 1 series body and I'm sure I will use this accessory heaps.

Nikon 1.7x Converter

Nikon users are fortunate to have the option of using a 1.7x teleconverter. While I have heard that the Nikon 2x is not that great the 1.7x generally gets good reviews. I would definitely have one in my bag if Canon made one or if I shot Nikon.

Kenko Extension Tubes

Extension tubes are designed to enable a lens to focus closer than its normal set minimum focusing distance. Getting closer has the effect of magnifying your subject (making it appear larger in the viewfinder and in your pictures). They are exceptionally useful for macro photography or when photographing small birds inside of the minimum focussing distance of telephoto lenses.

Kenko Extension Tubes

The exact same as the Canon version.

Very useful and an inexpensive addition to any wildlife photographers camera bag.

 

LENS

WEIGHT (lbs)

MIN. FOCUS (feet)

PRICE ($USD)

Canon / Nikon 300mm f/4

2.6 / 3.1

4.92 / 4.76

$1449 / $1369

Canon / Nikon 300mm f/2.8

5.1 / 6.3

6.6 / 7.5

$6799 / $5799

Canon 400mm f/5.6

2.7

11.48

$1339

Canon 400mm f/4 DO

4.3

11.48

$5969

Canon 400mm f/2.8

8.5 / 10.1

8.86 / 9.51

$11489 / $8999

Canon / Nikon 500mm f/4

7 / 6.81

12.14 / 11.9

$10499 / $10296

Canon / Nikon 600mm f/4

8.6 / 8.4

14.6 / 14.4

$12999 / $12296

Canon / Nikon 800mm f/5.6

9.9

19.7

$13249

Canon / Nikon 1.4x Teleconverter

8 or 7 oz

n/a

$499

Canon / Nikon 1.7x Teleconverter

8.8 oz

n/a

$509

Canon / Nikon 2x Teleconverter

11.5 oz

n/a

$499 / $459

 

Nature photographers generally prefer the warm tones of direct, low-angle sunlight over the use of artificial lighting provided by an external flash. Often however, direct low-angle sunlight is often simply unavailable. In these situations it pays to have an external flash unit to provide the much needed fill-light and to create a catch light in the subject’s eye. Both Canon and Nikon produce at least two models of external flashes. The higher cost units are designed to be more powerful and will also have the ability to control additional “slave’ flash units through a built-in wireless transmitter.

Note that for bird photography I strongly recommend the use of a flash bracket (see support section).

 

CANON

NIKON

600 EX-RT

This is Canon's former top of the line Speedlite. Its got plenty of power and I have always been pleased with its performance.

SB-910

Nikon's top of the line flash. If you are a Nikon shooter and are going to buy one flash only then this is the one for you.

430EX II

I use the 430 EX flash as a backup option to the 580 EX II. It's always good to have a backup!

I actually own eight 430EX's because I use them for multi-flash hummingbird work and also for fill flash in difficult lighting situations.

SB-700

If I shot Nikon these would be used for backup / multi-flash hummingbird work.

Off Brand - Off Camera Shoe Cord

To connect your flash to a flash bracket. The off-brand ones are just as good as the name brand ones but cost WAY less!

Off Brand - Off Camera Shoe Cord

To connect your flash to a flash bracket. The off-brand ones are just as good as the name brand ones but cost WAY less!

Canon Off Camera Shoe Cord

The Canon Off Camera Shoe Cord 2 was designed to assist photographers in more efficiently lighting their subjects. I use this item with my wimberley flash bracket to allow for better flash positioning, which translates into more controllable illumination.

A must have for flash work on birds.

Nikon Off Camera Shoe Cord

The same as the canon version. Although I would say that the Nikon cables seem to be better designed and more durable.

A must have for flash work on birds.

 

Once nature photographers have invested in high quality telephoto prime lenses they should immediately begin use a sturdy tripod. After all, it does not make sense to spend thousands of dollars on a lens that is capable of razor sharp images and then be unable to achieve them because you are not using a tripod!

Tripods are heavy and cumbersome and most nature photographers are reluctant to use them at first. The difference in image quality however once you commit to using a tripod is well worth the burden. Whatever tripod you choose, make absolutely sure that it can support the weight of your longest lens, tele-converters, flash and camera body. If you think that you may upgrade to a bigger and heavier lens in the future you may want to factor this into your purchasing decision. You should also make sure that the tripod will extend up to your eye height without any extension post.

When it comes to selecting a tripod head there are two popular options for the tropical nature photographer – either a ball head or a gimbal type head. Generally speaking, if you have a lens up to the size of a 300mm f/2.8 lens you will likely choose to use a ball head. If you are using a 500mm, 600mm or 800mm lens you will almost certainly want to purchase a gimbal type head for your tripod.

 

Gitzo 3540XLS

Gitzo GT3542 XLS

When shooting with a 500mm lens a sturdy tripod is an absolute must. The Gitzo tripods are the strongest and most stable available on the market. I finally got this carbon fiber model and I love it! The beauty of this tripod is that with just 2 sections extended it is the perfect height for me. Yet with the 3rd section extended it goes well over head height. This can come in handy when the birds are up high.

Induro CT213

This is a nice less expensive alternative to the Gitzos. It's not as good. But it is 1/3 the price. A great started tripod!

Make sure that for telephoto shooting you have a tripod that gets up to eye height without a center column. This is crucial!

Gitzo 0532

A great little backpacking tripod for landscapes. Super light and sturdy.

Wimberly

Wimberly Head Version II

The Wimberley Head is a specialized tripod head for telephoto lenses. Its gimbal-type design allows you to rotate your lens around its center of gravity and thus easily manipulate very large lenses. The Wimberley Head has is prety much the industry standard for serious nature photographers using super-telephoto lenses.

Flash Bracket

Wimberley Flash Bracket

There are many occasions in nature photography where flash is best used off camera. In telephoto applications, raising the flash higher minimizes red or "steel" eye in wildlife photos, since the directional lighting is on a different plane than the lens. This also helps reduce shadows from flash use by casting the shadow downward behind the subject where it less apparent.

 

Wimberley Flash Bracket - Extension Post

In addition to the flash bracket I like to use an extension post. This gets the flash up even higher off camera.

Induro BHL2

Great value for the money. If you need a solid ball head give this one a look!

Giottos

Giottos 1301 Mini Ballhead

This little ballhead is amazing. For about $100 you get a super lightweight ballhead that is capable of supporting an SLR and light lens. If I am going hiking and am taking landscape images this is the head I bring.

Wimberly Lens Plates

These plates allow me to connect my various lenses to either of my quick release style tripod heads.

Be sure to select the appropriate size for your lens / camera.

 

With all of this expensive and heavy gear to lug around you will definitely need some kind of backpack. There is probably no perfect case for all occasions. You may choose a rolling bag for flights and a backpack for in the field use. Just make sure that whatever bag you buy will fit your biggest lens and all of the stuff taht you will need in the field.

Lowepro Pro Trekker 600 AW

This backpack is a monster! It easily fits my 600mm lens attached to the camera, 400mm, 300mm, 17-40mm, 6 flashes, laptop, and a tonne of accessories. It is where my equipment lives when I am not travelling and is my everyday bag when not travelling by air.

Lowepro Pro Runner 450AW

This is my backpack for international travel. It fits my 600mm, 300mm f/4, body, flash, converters or short lens. And it doesnt look big so you shouldnt get hassled at the airport!

Lowepro Rover Pro 35 or 45

This is a sweet little hiking camera pack for landscape work. It has a nice system of seperating and storing your camera gear from your clothes, food, etc. and has a nice harness system. For day hikes and landscape shooting I really like this pack.

Think Tank Photo Airport Security V 2.0 Rolling Camera Bag

With enough storage for a 500mm or 600mm lens this is generally considered to be the best rolling bag on the market today.

CottonCarrier

The Cotton Carrier

This harness system is fantastic to hold your gear steady when walking around or in between shooting opportunities.

 

In addition to the basic equipment needed for nature photography there are several useful accessories that many tropical photographers carry with them in the field.

 

NEC PA272W-BK 27" LED Backlit Wide Gamut LCD Desktop Display 

A good monitor is essential to a photographer. Ideally you want something that shows at least 90% of the RGB colour space (not just the sRGB colour space). This monitor is pretty amazing and it is a treat to edit images on it. Especially knowing that the colours are so accurate!

Datacolor Spyder 4 Pro

This is the device I use to calibrate my monitor. It is essential to have some kind of external monitor calibration tool.

For more info on calibrating your screen - CLICK HERE

Batteries

Powerex Imedion Batteries

These PowerEx Imedion 2400mAh NiMH batteries can be stored for an extended period of time without substantial loss of power. They are rechargeable up to 1000 times and have a 2400mAh ultra high capacity rating.

Charger

Powerex 8 Cell Charger

The PowerEx MH-C801D battery charger features eight independent circuits that charge 1 to 8 AA or AAA NiHM or NiCD batteries in any combination. Embedded with a high-rate battery conditioner, this unit will charge, deep-discharge and recharge batteries automatically for maximum rejuvenation. A new eight cell (0.001V resolution) microprocessor will charge batteries to their maximum capacity without overcharging or undercharging, providing maximum battery longevity.

Heat 3 Smart Gloves

These are the best cold weather photography gloves on the market today. If you need a good pair of gloves look no further!

Use promo code - "GLENNSGLOVES" to get a bonus gift upon ordering.

Camo

Quick Camo Blinds

Kwik Camo photography blinds are designed to cover you and your camera gear—from a telephoto setup on a tripod to handholding a flight lens. A mesh camo window allows you to vew wildlife without disruption, or you canunzip across the top of the window for a totally unobstructed view. Adjustments under the blind are concealed from your subjects and you can use a left and right slot in the blind for easy access outside the blind. A slot on top of the blind allows use of a flash unit externally.

Beamer

Better Beamer Flash

Use of the "Better Beamer" Flash Extender will extend the distance of your flash range. It also allows for faster refresh rates and reduced battery consumption, creating a better chance of catching the action when it happens. It's lightweight, simple to attach with the Velcro strap provided, and conveniently folds flat for packing. "Better Beamer" Flash Extenders are intended for use with focal lengths of 300mm or greater.

Be sure to select the correct size for your flash.

Lenscoat

Lens Coat Lens Cover

LensCoat  telephoto lens covers offer your valuable equipment some protection from scrapes and bumps, preserving its resale value. They also help break up the shape of your lens, making it less noticeable to wildlife.

Covers are available for most lenses in a variety of patterns.

Lenscoat

Lens Coat - Travel Hood

The LensCoat TravelHood is a lightweight alternative or replacement to the rigid lens hood that comes with your lens. Its ribbed design allows it to fold nearly flat to easily store in your gear bag or suitcase, making this hood your perfect long lens companion.

Made with lightweight water resistant material, the LensCoat TravelHood deflects stray light to prevent glare and lens flare. The LensCoat TravelHood also helps to protect the lens from scratches and the elements like rain and dust.

Lenscoat

Lens Coat - Hoodie Lens Cap

The LensCoat Hoodie helps protect the front element of your lens from dirt, dust, moisture and impact. The neoprene Hoodie fits easily and snugly around your lens hood or shade in either the shooting position or reversed.

The Hoodie features a reinforced removable front element protection disc made from rigid plastic and firm foam to further protect your glass from damage. Great for travel and storing your lenses.

Lens Coat - Camera Pouches

The LensCoat Camera Pouches are a great way to protect your camera bodies when they are in your bag. With these on you dont have to worry about scratches or dirt getting on them. Well worth the $20!

Lens Coat - Travel Coat

The LensCoat Travel Coat wraps around teh outside of your lenses adding protection when in transit. Note that if you invest in the Lens Coat protective pouches/sleeves that you can actually take the dividers out of your backpack and fit a lot more stuff in!

Lens Coat - Hoodie Lens Cap

If you are looking for a really well designed and usable rain cover that will allow you to shoot in even the most adverse of conditions give this one a look.

Storm Jacket Rain Cover

There are some pretty fancy rain covers out there on the market. But for me simple is good. This one packs down very small and is easy and convenient to always have with you. I have never had any issues with leaks. Two thumbs up from me!

Tiffen Circular Polarizer

Light rays which are reflected by any surface become polarised and polarising filters are used to select which light rays enter your camara lens. Polarising filters allow you to remove unwanted reflections from non-metallic surfaces such as water, glass etc. They also enable colors to become more saturated and appear clearer, with better contrast. This effect is often used to increase the contrast and saturation in blue skies and white clouds. Note that good quality polarising filters do not affect the overall color balance of a shot.

Canon Remote Switch

This remote works with my 7D. I use it primarily for scenic shots and occasionally for macro work.

Mem

Sandisk Extreme Compact Flash Cards

The Sandisk Extreme series of cards have never let me down. They write as fast as I ever need and I have never lost a single file while using them.

I also use some of the Lexar Professional Series cards.

Binoculars - Swarovski EL 10x42 - THE BEST OF THE BEST

These are about as good as it gets as far as binoculars go. I absolutely love mine.

The view is astounding and the handling is superb - glassing through the EL 10x42 SwaroVision Binocular from  Swarovski  brings the cutting edge of optical performance to a new level. While the original EL series set the benchmark for clarity, color accuracy, and handling comfort, The EL SwaroVision binoculars raise the performance bar even higher.

Binoculars - Nikon Monarch - GREAT VALUE

Great quality and value. They are not as good as the Swarovski's of course. But they cast 20% as much.

 

 

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