Equipment Needed for Bird Photography

The nice thing about bird photography is that it can happen anywhere on our beautiful globe. The not so nice thing is that birds are small or shy, and you need to be able to get close enough with your equipment. In this article, we will be looking at the ideal equipment for bird photography. We will also be having a quick look at how to use this equipment.

Photo courtesy of Bob Elsdale

Camera body

We live in the world of digital photography, and therefore we will only be discussing digital camera bodies. I am also a really big Canon fan, so I will talk Canon, and you can translate it to other manufacturers if you need to.

You will need a decent camera body that allows you to set continuous focus while shooting images in the raw image quality. The cheapest body allowing you to do this is the Canon EOS 20D. However, it is not really cheap. The reason for it being not too affordable is that it is actually a very good all-round camera body for the serious amateur or professional. You cannot go wrong with this body…


A lot of amateurs think that a really decent long zoom lens will solve all their problems. I have been there guys, and it does not. Do what the professionals do and get that long prime lens.

I used the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM for a long time, and my results were decent but not good enough. It is not the sharpest lens. If you need to use a zoom rather stick with the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM. It is pin sharp.

I now use the Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS USM and it is the best thing that could have happened to my photography. It is very sharp and very fast at the same time. A bit heavy at times, but I need the exercise! With this lens I mostly use a Canon Extender 1.4x II for an effective focal length of 1 120 mm with autofocus! That is plenty for any bird, and I cannot imagine getting a lot of good bird photographs with anything shorter.

By the way, do not use manual focus. Today’s cameras were not built for manual focus as the viewfinders are small and do not allow you to see enough detail to manual focus effectively.

Photographing flying birds

Okay, now you have all the equipment and you are heading into the field to get that award winning photograph of a flying bird. You have to have enough light entering your lens for a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action. You also want your camera to focus where the bird is in that split second you are going to give it before firing away. So what do you do…?

Set you camera to an ISO speed of 400. In sunshine this ought to be fast enough. The reason for not using ISO 100 or 200 is that you are photographing action and you do not want anything to blur.

You must also make sure your lens is open at its maximum aperture. A Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS USM lens coupled with a Canon Extender 1.4x II gives a maximum aperture of 5.6, and this is what I use when photographing flying birds.

Also ensure your camera is set to continuous autofocus. Canon calls this setting AI Servo focus. This is crucial and the main reason why I am not a fan of camera bodies like the Canon EOS 350D. They do not allow you to use this focus with raw images… Thanks Canon!

I also set my image stabilizer to Mode 2 for photographing moving subjects, to avoid it actually working against that sharp photo rather than for it…

Now all that is left is moving that heavy lens around while the birds are flying past. Happy shooting!


We professionals have a way of sometime making it sound like you do not need good equipment to be a good photographer. That is utter non-sense. Get yourself decent equipment and you will see why the pros get the shot and you don’t.

The other thing that makes the professionals so much better than the average amateur is patience. Go and sit somewhere where there are birds, forcing yourself not to move for three hours, and you will get the magic shots. Your patience will be rewarded.

About the author:
Dries Cronje is a freelance nature photographer operating in Southern Africa. He has a passion for teaching and has dedicated one of his sites,, purely to helping his fellow nature photographers.

See also: Photography Tips

Share your photos with our readers, make your own profile page, create blog, get unlimited storage for your photos, discuss photography equipment & techniques by joining our photo community

Subscribe for our latest updates sent to your e-mail (no spam)

Preview | Powered by FeedBlitz

RSS feed | Trackback URI

1 Comment »

Comment by Yannig
2006-02-18 22:47:12

I own a 350D with a 70-300 4.5-5.6 IS USM lens, and AI servo focus works just fine when shooting raw images.


Have Your Say

Your Comment may not appear immediately due to moderation
Name (required)
E-mail (required - never shown publicly)
Your Comment (smaller size | larger size)
You may use <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong> in your Comment.