Camera gear and birding

Photography is a beautiful way to experience the joy of birding, to capture birds singing and flying, and to share their elegance and grace with family and friends. There are many choices when it comes to buying a good camera and lens combination for snapping our feathered friends. I’m not going to get too technical here; there are many articles and internet sites that list and compare camera/lens specifications in detail, and post good reviews. But if you’d like my thoughts on camera choices, read on.

Superzoom “point-and-shoot” cameras are the least expensive option, and with the better models you can take truly excellent bird photos. They have fixed lenses allowing you to take wide-angle shots (like a landscape) in addition to zoomed-in avian photos. They are lighter and smaller than their full-size cousins — a real advantage when travelling or hiking longer trails. Since most birds are fairly small, ideally, you’ll want a camera with a lens offering at least 20x magnification. Sony, Nikon and Canon all have contenders, with prices ranging from $400 to $1300. The more expensive models have better optics, faster shutter speeds and many more options. Generally, you get what you pay for. I have a Sony RX10 Mark IV which I have enjoyed using for many years.

Most professionals and hobbyists with cash opt for full-size, full-frame cameras with interchangeable lenses. Almost all are now mirrorless, which has brought about a welcome decrease in size and weight — both in the camera body and accompanying lenses. Exceptional lenses, high capture speeds, full-frame sensors and many other features all contribute to better quality images than superzooms can produce. Canon and Nikon rule the roost. My friend has a Canon R5 with a 100-500mm lens and he captures gorgeous photos of both perched and flying birds. I watched him focus on and track a flying White-throated Swift — and the results were awesome. The price for his rig was a healthy $6,800, and it rings in at 5.1 pounds. But if you have the cash and the stamina, this is the way to go!

A step up from the superzooms, but not quite as fancy as the Canon R5, are the micro four thirds mirrorless cameras. Both Sony and OM Systems (formerly Olympus) make these models. The OM-1 Mark II camera body and a 100-400mm lens weighs a pound less than the Canon, and costs about $2,000 less. It's less expensive but still an investment. Due to the smaller size of the sensor, the final photo is doubled in size, meaning that a 400mm lens is effectively an 800mm lens. This is great for shooting small birds! Unfortunately, the smaller sensor size also means shots taken in dark forests or shade will not be quite as sharp. The same holds true of superzoom cameras, which also have smaller sensors.

Barn Swallow

Quick Photo Tips: Early morning offers soft, rich lighting and is the time when most birds are active. Take photos with the sun shining over your shoulder to light up your subject. Try to get as close as possible, or let the bird come to you. Feeding stations and parks are good spots to practice. Try and make sure the eye(s) are in focus. If possible, set the exposure to 1/1250 second or better. Hold the camera body steady in a two-handed grip and gently depress the shutter release. Enjoy!

Eastern Kingbird

Current regional sightings

Spring migration is over and the breeders are raising young. Henslow’s Sparrows are back at Pyramid State Recreation Area and Sahara Woods. Eastern Whip-poor-will and Chuck-will’s-widow are back at Ferne Clyffe State Park. Early in May Bobolinks were seen near DeSoto and Olive Branch. On May 9 a Red-breasted Nuthatch was spotted in Ava. On May 3 a White-faced ibis was spotted at the Cypress Creek NWR.

• Carbondale is my home town, where I started birding 50 years ago. I spent an exciting 16 years as a bird guide, and have penned bird-finding books for several Arizona, California and Illinois counties. I currently reside in Arizona, but visit southern Illinois when I can. You can reach me at