Most of us started in a similar way. With our iPhone, or compact camera, we got some reasonable photos of tame lorikeets, kookaburras and magpies that sat obligingly close on our patio railing. From there, we harboured a growing passion to get more and better photos, just like those we saw in books, magazines and on the websites.
For a lot of people, this was their doorway into the hitherto unknown world of more expensive camera gear and big lenses. Where to start when you know very little about such things?
I get asked that question a lot. There is a lot of advice out there about that and some of it is inappropriate for newchums to bird photography. Here is my considered advice for someone with little prior knowledge who wishes to make an entry into bird photography.
What sort of camera do I need?
One with interchangeable lens. DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) are by far the most common type of camera for bird photography. These have a flip-up internal mirror that lets you see exactly what the image will be. Mirror-less cameras with electronic viewfinders are getting better and will one day dominate the market. But, right now, DSLR cameras still prevail and will for some time.
What Brand of Camera should I look at?
There are many recognised brands that offer good camera systems. However, most wildlife photographers use either Canon or Nikon.
What Price Range do I need to Consider?
A budget of about $500 will be needed. Nikon and Canon offer starter DSLR kits with a couple of zoom lenses in the $500 to $1000 range.
However, the second-hand market has plenty of good camera systems for sale as their owners trade up to more advanced systems. Your $500 budget will allow you to pick up a good second-hand camera and lenses.
Remember, this advice is for folks making their first move into bird photography, so I am not going to talk about the more expensive cameras and big prime lenses.
What Size Lens should I look for?
Zoom lenses offer the best starting point. The lens will need to offer a maximum magnification focal length of at least 200mm, ideally as much as 450mm. For example, you may source a good second-hand deal where the seller is offering, say, a Sigma 150-450 zoom lens (or similar) with the camera.
What Settings should I use to start with?
I have some detailed advice on How to Take Outstanding Bird Photos. By all means, shoot with the auto settings of your camera. However, for someone just starting out my advice is have an f-stop set at 8.0 and chose an ISO rating that will give you a shutter speed of at least 1/500 sec. Those setting will get you started producing sharp images. As you progress and gain confidence you can start to vary from that.
What Else Should I be aware of?
Most important, as you begin to get serious about bird photography, is the welfare of your subjects. I cover this in detail in Ethics for Bird Photographers.
For most bird photographers, getting great bird photos is not so much about the gear. Most of the requirements behind an outstanding bird photo are in the location, lighting and similar as detailed in How to Take Outstanding Bird Photos. Until you appreciate that, having a $50,000 camera and lens rig in your hands will not produce any better photos than your $500 starter system. Great success can be had from bringing your subjects to you as detailed in How to Get Your Garden Bursting with Birdlife.
Spending a fortune on camera gear will not make a newchum into an outstanding bird photographer, so do not get led down that path. Once you start to produce really good photos, you can begin the journey into more expensive specialist lenses and the like.