Choosing the Camera Body for Bird Photography

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Choosing the camera and lens is the favorite topic among bird photographers.

It’s never ending endeavor. The improvements in today’s technology are tremendous. Every year there are tens of new models.

I can understand the dilemma which you have to go through. It can prove to be a nightmare. Let me simplify it for you.

Things to Consider While Purchasing a Camera for Bird Photography

Here are few points which should steer your purchasing decision in the right direction.

1. Better Sensor Trumps the Reach

I know it will shatter your belief. You must be thinking I am crazy. I am, in a way J

Sensor plays a significant role in getting you the top-notch image quality. Full frame sensors will always outperform the cropped-sensors by leaps and bounds. The bigger the pixel size or photo-diode size in the sensor, the better is the light gathering capability. Better light implies better Signal-to-Noise Ratio (SNR). Higher the SNR, lower will be the noise.

Bigger sensors are always great in handling noise.

If you are serious about your passion, go for the full-frame camera body. Period.

If money is a bigger constraint, then think of going for a second-hand full-frame camera. It’s always worth it.

If you are just starting out and doesn’t know whether bird photography is for you or not, then go for a decent cropped frame camera.

2. Autofocus Points

The number and type of autofocus points is a killer. Not many bird photographers seem to realize it.

If you check few camera models, the fundamental difference will only be in the number of autofocus points. But the price difference will be a bomb. That’s because the increase in autofocus points implies an increase in autofocus sensors, which costs money.

There are two types of autofocus points:

  1. Single-point autofocus sensors (referred by default as autofocus points).
  2. Cross-point autofocus sensors.

Most entry-level cameras have single-point autofocus sensors. These sensors will detect the contrast (contrast detection) or the phase (phase detection) only in one direction. They are also known as vertical sensors.

Mid-segment to professional-end cameras will have cross-point autofocus sensors. A cross point sensor will have a horizontal and a vertical sensor, both working together. It’s much faster and precise in detecting the contrast or the phase thereby achieving a more rapid focus.

Now it should be clear to you why a camera body with more autofocus points, especially more cross-points will cost a bomb.

Next time you are purchasing a camera, you need to check how many autofocus points it has. Also, check the number of cross-points. It will prove to be a massive advantage with the right set of lens.

3. Better ISO Performance

If you are into bird photography for at least some time, you will already know the need of better ISO. Don’t you?

Poor ISO performance could be disgusting. What seemed to be a good action shot in the field looks awful on the bigger display. Many bird photographers are sick and tired of removing the ruthless noise in the image. It’s painful. I know it. And I just hate it.

The best thing that happened to me last year was buying Nikon D750. It changed the whole game. I have shot up to ISO 3200 without hesitation.

Don’t be a scapegoat for manufacturer’s claim on ISO 100 to ISO 12,800. Nowadays, every DSLR supports that range. The manufacturer is bullying you to purchase inferior cameras.

Remember that bigger sensors can handle noise very well. Unless you are buying a full-frame body, I would strongly recommend you to rent a body and test it thoroughly. Most cropped-sensors are good only up to ISO 400 or 800.

Higher ISO is always a boon for the bird photographers. It will give you an enormous advantage in the low light as well as in the early morning and early evening lighting conditions.

4. Higher fps (Frames Per Second)

Wonder why it’s the last thing to consider?

I intentionally wanted to put it at the end, the first thing in bird photographer’s mind. How cruel! J

The reason my friend is; compared to all other factors, this is not a deal-breaker.  I know, at this point, you are growling with anger. I will make my point if you can wait.

Higher fps is always a boon for bird photography. I see a smile now J But, not at the expense of several hundred to thousand dollars. If I have to spend several thousand dollars to get from 6.5 fps to 12 fps, I would rather spend that money on a lens.

Why?

There’s a strong reason. Most of the action can be captured with a decent speed of 5 to 6 fps. Higher fps will only fill your buffer and memory card faster. It doesn’t necessarily give you an edge over others. Certainly there are many exceptions. But, is it worth the extra cost? It might not be.

Today, most cameras support an fps of 5 to 8 fps. That’s sufficient enough. At least 5fps is a must, though. Don’t go for a camera below 5 fps. It will be a disaster unless you are too good at what you are doing.

While purchasing a camera, remember to look for a camera with at least 5 fps. The more, the better as long as it meets other criteria.

Round Up

To round up, here it is:

  1. Go for a full-frame camera or a bigger sensor.
  2. Go for a camera with more number of autofocus points, especially the cross-points.
  3. Go for a camera with better ISO capabilities in terms of lesser noise at ISO 400 to 1600 range.
  4. Go for a camera with a burst speed of at least 5 fps.

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Recommended Pro Camera Bodies

These are too expensive camera bodies, but definitely worth the money. I guess 🙂

1. Nikon D5

I think this is by far the best in Nikon.

2. Nikon D4S

3. Canon 1D X Mark II

I think this is by far the best in Canon.

4. Canon 1DX

Recommended Full-Frame Camera Bodies

1. Nikon D750 – I strongly recommend this camera. I use it 🙂

2. Nikon D810

3. Canon 5D Mark III

Check the comparisons between these camera bodies

Nikon D750 Vs Canon 5D Mark III

Nikon D810 Vs Canon 5D Mark III

Recommended Cropped-Frame Camera Bodies

In case you need to use the cropped-sensor body, here’re 2 of my recommendations.

1. Nikon D500

2. Canon 7D Mark II

I cannot comment on the Sony, Olympus and other camera bodies as I have no idea.


Ok. That’s it for today. Hopefully, I have uncovered some myths and given you food for thought.

If it eased your decision on purchase, it’s good. If you are mad at me, then I am the culprit.

Feel free to share your thoughts by hitting the reply button. I am listening with a bulletproof jacket on 🙂

Alright then…have a great time! Have fun!

Cheers,

Prathap

 

 

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39 Responses to Choosing the Camera Body for Bird Photography

  1. Prathap April 30, 2016 at 8:04 pm #

    It’ll be nice to know which camera body do you use? Maybe you could tell us if you are planning to upgrade to a better camera body soon?

    • Len April 30, 2016 at 8:22 pm #

      Also the Nikon D500 has many more cross sensor points than the D4.

    • Chandran K.P. October 27, 2016 at 10:42 am #

      Good morning,

      Thank you very much for the free e book, tips and tricks, articles etc on bird photography.
      I use a Nikon D810 and a Nikon 300 mm f4 prime lens (white color without VR) with a Nikon 1.4 tele converter for bird photography. I have noticed that many of my photos are not sharp enough and disappointed. Kindly suggest best settings for crystal clear sharpness. I use UV filter and what is your opinion on the filters like UV, polarizer etc for bird photography.

      I am very much interested in getting an extra body for my daughter. Either Nikon D750 or D500 will be bought and looking for a used one but in mint condition.

      • Prathap January 4, 2017 at 11:39 pm #

        Hi Chandran, My pleasure. If you are using a non-VR lens, you have to be very good in hand-holding. With a teleconverter the matter gets worse. My suggestion to you is, try to shoot with at least 1/1250 sec (perhaps, you could try 1/1600 to 1/2500). or higher and see if you get sharper results. If you are getting good results at higher shutter speeds, then you can slowly get it down until you see blurry photos. That’ll give you a fair idea about what shutter speeds suit your style of photography.

  2. Len April 30, 2016 at 8:19 pm #

    Hello Prathap,
    I love photographing birds and presently I have the Nikon D4 which has 16 megapixels. Would the new Nikon D500 which has 20 megapixels and also a fast frame rate be better? What is your opinion?
    Thanks

    Len

    • Prathap April 30, 2016 at 9:05 pm #

      Hi Len, I wouldn’t replace D4 with D500. I would use D500 as a secondary camera unit. There’s no comparison to pro camer body like D4. Megapixel hardly matters and the frame rate is same!
      The bigger sensor and size of the pixel play a critical role.

  3. Myer Bornstein April 30, 2016 at 8:26 pm #

    Prathap
    the Nikon D500 is now my camera of choice for wildlife photography along with the Nikon 200-500 f5.6 Combo is easily handholdable and reasonable in price. Look at my latest blog to see some examples
    http://photobee1.blogspot.com/2016/04/osprey-at-nelsons-beach.html

    • Prathap April 30, 2016 at 9:07 pm #

      Hi Myer, nice article and beautiful photos. Nikon D500 + Nikon 200-500mm is the top choice. No doubt at all!

  4. Dick Beery April 30, 2016 at 9:22 pm #

    Too bad you have not tried any of the mirrorless cameras! Also some of the crop cameras do high ISO just fine. Also EVF is very good to have, once you have tried it you will never go back. Seems like a sort of a love fest for Nikon and Canon, which is a shame as there are many cameras out there that are just as good if not better.

    • Prathap April 30, 2016 at 10:00 pm #

      I know it’s too bad, Dick Beery. But, I don’t think EVF is better than Optical Viewfinder. Especially for the action photography, optical viewfinder will always prove extremely useful.
      I am definitely not condemning the other cameras. I am only saying that I haven’t used them anytime. I have no idea really. There’s nothing wrong if you use Nikon or Canon or Sony or any other camera. Just be happy with it 🙂

  5. Gopal sundaram April 30, 2016 at 9:44 pm #

    Hi prathap

    i use canon D70 body with crop sensor. It has 19 Focus point (all cross type), 7fps. 20 megapixels

  6. Jim Singler April 30, 2016 at 11:58 pm #

    My long lens is the Nikon 200-500 5.6. I’ve compared it at 500mm on my D750 to D7200 and my D7200 won when I cropped the 750 shot to match the reach of the 7200. If I don’t need reach, of course I shoot FF.

  7. Andre Nel May 1, 2016 at 1:18 pm #

    I disagree entirely. I own both full-frame and crop cameras. Often – especially with birds – reach is the most important factor and the crop-sensor wins. The number of AF points is also over-rated by you. I NEVER use all AF points together – not even my 1DX is fast enough to properly track a bird in flight using all focus point – it is far better to work with a small group of focus points.

    • Prathap May 2, 2016 at 11:57 am #

      Hi Andree, I can understand. Having more autofocus points is not same as using them all! They are 2 different things. You should ALWAYS use zone autofocus system for better results. But having a zone focusing on 19-point autofocus camera is useless but will prove critical on a 51-point autofocus system. Do you understand the difference now?

      Crop sensor wins is not true is you consider all the points I mentioned. Don’t just look at one point like the reach. Think about faster autofocus system, better light holding capabilities, best ISO performance, and better color and contrast information. It’s never the same! Full frames are costly for a very good reason. The quality matters the most.

  8. Lancej May 1, 2016 at 6:08 pm #

    Hi,
    I really enjoy your blog it is very helpful indeed. But I was a bit surprised on your pov on 5 fps and not to worry about having more speed. When your trying to get that perfect or decisive bird moment how can it not be an advantage to have more speed .
    This is from Steve Perry who is a great US photographer . This paragraph is from his terrific book on photographing wildlife. I have to agree with him on this point. See below

    “The problem with fast fps naysayers , is they simply don’t know what images they didn’t capture.
    For example, let’s say one camera does 10 FPS and another one gives you 5 FPS. Now, let’s photograph a bird landing at the same time with both cameras.
    With me so far?
    Now let’s say the 5 FPS camera captured identical images in the 1,3,5,7, and 9 spots as the 10 FPS camera did.
    But the best image was at the #4 spot with the 10FPS camera.
    Oops. The 5FPS camera totally missed it!
    Here’s the thing though – The person with the 5FPS camera simply doesn’t know the really good image even exists because his camera never captured it!
    In fact, in the sequence graphic above, I have several shots I really like that would have been the “in between” shots (missed shots) on a 5 FPS camera.
    So, what’s my point? It’s actually twofold:
    1. Please don’t get me wrong about all this. The last thing I want is someone to feel discouraged because they don’t have a camera that does 10 FPS. ANY camera is capable of capturing great images. The important thing is to get out and shoot!
    The idea here is to get the fastest camera you can afford if you intend to do a lot of action with wildlife. You’ll come home with more keepers. You don’t have to have a $6500 camera shooting 10 FPS to get great wildlife, but when choosing a camera for wildlife, FPS and buffer space should be high on the list of considerations. Which leads to…
    2. Many cameras with continuous frame advance offer a variety of settings for just how many frames it can shoot in one second. Always pick the highest.
    This choice can be uncomfortable if you’re not used to really fast cameras, but give the exercise I previously mentioned a try and your comfort level will quickly increase. Before you know it you’ll be easily nailing wall-hangers with each sequence.”
    I think he makes a pretty convincing argument on this point. I have experienced it as well wth my d7100 and slower buffer .
    Love your blog though.

    • Prathap May 2, 2016 at 11:52 am #

      Dear Lancej, thanks for your kind words. I appreciate you for bringing the viewpoint of Steve Perry. If you re-read my statement on higher fps, you can make out that I am not saying higher fps is bad. I am also not saying 5 fps is the best. All that I am saying is if you have to shell out a couple of thousand dollars more just for the extra fps, it’s not worth it. Period.

      Coming to the point which Perry makes, it’s not always necessary that you miss the posture of the bird because of the lower fps. If you know how to track the bird and when EXACTLY to press the shutter, you will have better frames than a mindless shooting @ 10 fps. I have been successful using Canon 5D Mark III @ 3.5 fps.

      Bottom line is “work with the limitations.”

      But all said and done, understand that if I have the luxury to buy a higher fps and a higher buffer camera, I will jump on it. I am not being idealist here. I am just practical.

      If you can buy a Canon 1DX Mark II or Nikon D5, then you are extremely lucky. They are the dream machines!

  9. Peter Burkill May 1, 2016 at 11:08 pm #

    Hi Pratap, I enjoy your comments – as ever. I agree that FX is better than DX but for me the biggest reason is the lens quality. There are simply no really good DX lenses. So we use FX lenses. The weight (a major consideration if you’re hiking or travelling in small planes) saving with DX body rather than FX body is then minimal. It will be interesting of see if Nikon follow the advent of the amazing technological advances in the DX bodied D500 with some impressive DX glass. I’m not holding my breath on that! Peter

    • Prathap May 2, 2016 at 12:00 pm #

      True Peter. But I think the prime lenses perform quite well with recent DX bodies including the Nikon D500. Every manufacturer is trying their best to tune them to their best capacity. In fact, if you look closer, the DX bodies use just the center portion of a FX lens. This means you are getting the sharpest part of your lens. However, there are other factors which matter as I have noted in my article and comments.

  10. Peter Burkill May 2, 2016 at 2:23 pm #

    Hi Pratap. We both mentioned the new DX format D500. I think that may be game changer with its improved autofocus with group capability, low light capability, high fps and huge buffer. Have you tried it? What do you think? Would you use it instead of or as well as your D750? It should be perfect for birds in flight. Peter

    • Prathap May 21, 2016 at 10:47 am #

      I think so too, Peter. Nikon D500 is not yet released in India I think. I would definitely try it in next few months. Hopefully, I will be able to write a review. I am very bad at it, though 🙂 I don’t usually care about many features a camera possess. I care only about what I need 🙂

  11. Amir Uddin Laskar June 2, 2016 at 2:42 pm #

    what about snony alpha a 58 for wildlife photography

    • lokesh duttd June 8, 2016 at 1:25 pm #

      i am a bigner and confused to buy a dslr in nikon or canon sugest me the cemra for bird and wildlife photography with telscopy lence mt email is palka.palkadutta@gmail.com

  12. Melissa June 8, 2016 at 2:55 pm #

    The Canon 6D has most of the features of the 5D mk III for a lost less (and is possibly superior for low light). Its main flaws are

    1) Less weather-sealing (not a problem if you’re careful and working in relatively dry environments, definitely a problem for some people)
    2) Slower FPS
    3) Fewer autofocus points

    In an ideal world, the 5D mk III is better for wildlife photography, and the 7D has some advantages over it (mostly FPS, the noise performance on the 7D is terrible even at relatively low ISOs), but the 6D is a pretty good full frame camera for someone on a tighter budget.

  13. Siddalingaswamy July 4, 2016 at 4:34 pm #

    Namasthe Prathapji.

    My Camera is Nikon D 7200 with 18-140lens.
    How to setting for Bird Photography.
    Please send step by steps guidelines.
    My email ID drsiddhu71@gmail.com
    with warm regards
    Dr.Siddalingaswamy Hiremath
    Tumkur, Karnataka

    • Ritwick Bhattacharyya March 15, 2017 at 4:50 pm #

      Sorry to disappoint you but 18-140 is quite a small lens for wildlife photography. You should buy atleast 70-300VR for wildlife. You can also go for the newly released 70-300 AF-P VR though you lose some light at tele end.

  14. Gary Haigh July 22, 2016 at 7:59 pm #

    Cropped sensor and noise are not an issue on my D500.
    Shooting up to and including 4000 ISO there is no visible noise to my photographs at all.
    I also use a D800 FX at 36 mega pixel but that is now being reserved for landscapes with a wide angle lens permanently mounted which will also keep the sensor clean as I’m no longer on and off with lenses.
    Noise on photographs only really becomes an issue if you print off or save images at silly sizes, if you want poster prints then use the D800/810 with its huge 36 mega pixel sensor, if you want 12×16 inch quality images then the D500 at 20.9 mega pixels and its extra reach when using FX lenses is the camera for wildlife at this moment in time.

    • Prathap July 25, 2016 at 8:40 pm #

      That’s great to know! Gary Haigh. I am really betting on D500 and I hope bird photographers can make the best use of it. I am glad that you are getting excellent results. All the best!

  15. Swetha Krishna January 26, 2017 at 8:30 pm #

    Hi Pratap,

    The combination of Canon 5D Mark iv with Canon 100 400mm IS ii lens will be okk??? Or should i buy Canon 7D Mark ii. I already own Canon 100 400 mm IS ii lens with Canon 80D. Please advice.

    • Prathap February 9, 2017 at 8:15 pm #

      Hi Swetha, you are absolutely fine with what you have. Just keep at it and eventually you’ll start producing good results.

      • Swetha February 12, 2017 at 11:23 am #

        Thank you guidance.

  16. Ian March 11, 2017 at 6:30 am #

    this ff vs crop debate will continue to rage on. i have D5 and D500 . they are both great but if i do detailed the D5 as you would expect comes out on top. The poster above who says the D500 has no significant noise at even up to 4000 iso must be performing in camera noise reduction or is not zooming in enough to see the noise.

    My testing is done with the 600 mm f4 fl.
    Practically speaking to compare the final image you either use the D5 with a 1.4 TC vs D500
    or you crop the D5 image down to the same final image as the D500.

    When you process the images the D500 images will require just a bit more noise reduction and will tolerate less sharpening at any given iso than the D5.

    There is probably also better contrast and color rendition with the FF D5. and a couple of extra FFS. the AF accuracy is also better and faster on the D5. Birds in flight the keeper rate is higher.

    So my conclusion – no surprise the more than twice as expensive D5 is better overall even though it isnt by alot and i will agree that the D500 is an incredible value.

  17. Ritwick Bhattacharyya March 15, 2017 at 4:54 pm #

    Hi prathap sir… till february i had a pns(Fujifilm S8500) . Just few days ago i bough Nikon D7200 and a sigma 150-600C. As of now the combo is good. PnS taught me most of the basics. And as i shoot 12bit raw image. 6fps does good job. Though i can get 7fps if i choose 1.3X crop but i don’t use it. In near future i may get a ultrawide lens too. For a beginner like me, i think this combo is good. 🙂

  18. PUSKAR BASU March 20, 2017 at 5:39 pm #

    Hello Prathap,
    Very enlightening article. But want to bring out few facts which I personally experienced in the FX-DX battle. And before I say that, let me tell you that you are absolutely correct in saying that cropped frame sensors are no match to full frame sensors in terms of ISO performance and contrast. However there are lot many more to be considered before making the choice. Recently I homed on to D750, D810 and D500 and ultimately selected D500 even though D810 was also within my budget. Firstly ISO performance of D500 is highly acceptable upto 2000 (which though is very subjective and differs from individual to individual) ). I have cropped the images considerably and without doing any kind of tweaks have arrived to this conclusion. I believe ISO 2000 is sufficient enough for bird photography though the fx counterparts will allow much more. Now the fact where D500 is a clear winner is the fps count (ten), the huge buffer (200 images) and the autofocus module. 99 cross type sensors mean a lot. I dont intend to use all of them simultaneously but that helps in composing a lot faster. I believe hese three key factors play a major role in hitting or missing a bird in flight in time. And if I talk about perched birds I can compensate the ISO advantage of FX cameras with a slow shutter speed and a sturdy tripod to some extent. That is my take on D500 though if it compares with D5, then D5 is the clear winner. I have not emphasized on the matter of reach and weight, which is always an added advantage of DX bodies.But other factors have made me choose D500 over D750 or D810. Let me know your views.
    Regards
    Puskar

    • Prathap April 6, 2017 at 3:23 pm #

      Hi Puskar, what a wonderful thought, and explanation! I liked the fact that you have a first-hand information and a knowledgeable judgment about why you chose D500. I agree totally with you on most of the points. It’ll be a useful comment to many of our readers who want to purchase D500. I haven’t had first-hand experience with the Nikon D500 yet.

  19. Girish G Menon April 11, 2017 at 3:53 pm #

    Hello Prasad, I am a regular reader of your articles and I find it extremely useful since it is written in a very simple and easy manner with your own practical experience behind it. I am currently using a Nikon D 750 with Nikon 200-500 lens. Though I have taken some fantastic bird photographs I have not published or posted them elsewhere. I love to photograph using some of the prime lens from Nikon like 500 or 600mm. Is it worth buying such prime lenses though I am not a professional photographer and still an amateur. But looking into the photographs taken with those lenses, I feel tempted to try with one. Which lens do you suggest for handheld photography and doses it really matter in between 500mm and 600mm when comes to birding in bushy jungles of Africa( Nigeria) where I work rather than the Savannas of Kenya or Tanzania.

    • Prathap April 12, 2017 at 3:06 pm #

      Hi Girish, Thank you so much for your kind words. My name is Prathap, by the way 🙂 I think the best bet is to take a prime lens on rent and try it out. There’s absolutely a day-night difference between a general purpose (or a zoom) lens versus a prime lens. But, it’s usually about how much the quality matters to you.
      For hand-holding is possible only with 500mm lens (that too the newest FL series). But, most often than not, you might have to go with the sturdy support to really get the sharpest possible images. Let me know how it goes.

  20. Lokesh April 15, 2017 at 11:44 am #

    Hello Prathap. I’m using Nikon D5300 with Nikon 200-500mm. I mostly shoot Birds & other Posed wildlife animals. Since, I’ve learnt a lot over past 3 years, sometimes my D5300 slows down. The autofocus is not on par for bird & wildlife photography. I’m looking for an upgradation to either Nikon D7200 or D500. I seldom do BIF so those frame rates doesn’t matter to me that much. So according to you which camera should I buy as an upgrade over D5300? I’d not like to have any FX model as I prefer to have more reach over better ISO performance & so on.

  21. Rick Hemi April 19, 2017 at 5:38 pm #

    Hi Prathap,
    Lots of interesting comments from all sides of the iso/camera body/fps/lens choice debate. I personally would have to agree with many others here that full frame bodies are superior. Its not only the larger sensor or fps, but the mounting ring support, sealing, and easier function access on full frame bodies. Good quality glass is another debate on it’s own, which can drain the bank account very quickly. Major camera manufacturers like Canon and Nikon within the last 4 years are releasing double the amount of upgraded camera body designs trying to out do one another every year to stay afloat (cover their market).
    My own “outdated” camera gear still works for me, and will probably be still reliable for many more years to come (be happy with what you’ve got if the equipment produces good images)
    I took these shots not so long ago using a Nikon D3 with an old 800mm 5.6 Ais lens
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/insane_snapper/31687264131/in/dateposted/
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/insane_snapper/31763733606/in/dateposted/

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