Bird Photography Equipment on a Budget
I’m frequently asked about what kind of equipment I’m using or what kind of equipment one should choose.
I don’t always have the opportunity to give an answer as precise as I would like, I thought a page describing the equipment I’m using could be a good idea. Let me start by saying that I tend to be always on a budget, I try to maximize what I get from my gear as much as possible, this involves expending lots of time getting close to my subjects, studying them and learning from they behavior. And above all, having lots of patience.
You will see “medium” to “lower” quality gear on this list, and that’s what has worked for me (and my wallet) so far.
Canon EOS 7D
My main and only camera body. 18.0-megapixel, 1.6x crop factor and 8 fps make it a very good option for Bird and Wildlife photography. Be sure to upgrade the firmware to the latest version before you take it for a spin.
On the bad side, it does not perform very good under low light conditions. I rarely take it over ISO 1600.
Canon EF 100-400mm
The only “telephoto” lens that I have, almost 100% of my photos have been taken with this lens. For the price, it’s a nice zoom lens, I like the flexibility that I get with the IS, on those special situations I can be on the move enabling me to get the camera off the tripod or to get on my knees to make the shot. Since it is a zoom lens you can also be more “creative” with your composition
However, It has a number of small flaws. Since it is a “pump” zoom lens it tends to collect a lot of dust. You have to clean it constantly and be very careful that sand, dust or water won’t get in the barrel.
Canon 7D Grip
Grips are great, it makes the camera way more comfortable and enables easy portrait shooting when necessary. This Zeikos grip is excellent at a quarter of the “official” Canon 7D Grip
With this 1.4x extender, the actual focal length that I get with the 7D and the 400mm is of something like 960mm!. Compared to the Canon 1.4 Extender this Kenko extender is not that bad. You can still autofocus without the need for taping pins and sharpness is OK.
On the other hand, the combination of the extender with the Canon 100-400mm is not very efficient. You cant really handhold when using the extender and the autofocus is very slow. You really need a prime lens to make the most of an extender.
I have found good results with the extender when using it with perched subjects or relative still subjects and always on a tripod.
Slick 700DX Pro
Investing in a sturdy tripod is a must in bird photography. This Slick tripod is great for the price, its light and quite sturdy. The column can also be removed to get lower on the ground. Its tall enough for me to be comfortable shooting standing up and I am 6.2′.
Gimbal heads are great for bird photography. They take the weight of your gear and make it effortlessly to pan and move around. They can also be quite expensive. This Opteka GH1 is very good for the price. Its built on ball bearings and moves very smooth.
A shutter cable is very important. It will reduce camera shake to a minimum. Even when you use a tripod and a good tripod head you will have camera shake when you press the shutter button. Here in the tropics we always have to use very slow shutter speeds. The shutter cable is your best friend when using 1/40 or 1/60.
You can find lots of shutter cable options besides the Canon one. I like the Pixel or Bower brand.
Canon Speedlite 580EX II
For me, flash is a must in nature photography and more important if you shoot in the tropics where lights are never optimal, we rarely get shutter speeds higher than 1/80 here. This is where flash comes to the rescue. Fill light, strong backlight and subject in the shadow, subject in light and background in shadow, etc. Everything can be fixed with flash.
When using flash it’s also very important that you try to get your flash above your camera, this will avoid red-eye and other flash nuisance. You can get flash brackets for this purpose. I built my own from an aluminum plate and attach it to my gimbal head(More of this on a separate post).
The Better Beamer or Flash X-Tender is great to get the most out of your flash. Its pretty much a magnifying glass for your flash, but that will enable you to get some light on those birds that perch high up in a branch for example. But most importantly, when using it in “regular conditions” it will enable you to use a lower flash intensity than before, and with that, you will be saving battery and getting faster recycle times, Wohooo!
Chris I just got the Yongnuo 568ex for $190 on Amazon.com. It performs very well. It is functionally equal to the 580 ex. Not weather resistant however.
Thanks for the post.
HI Paul, thanks for the comment, Yes Yongnuo is nice. I use 560s for my multiflash setup.
Good point about the weather resistant, I cant count how many times I have been under the rain shooting away.
Great post, i think the 7d w the 400 5.6 or the 100-400 are the most common budget equip for bird photographers. Interesting to know about the light conditions and the use of flash, we have a huge debate here in sweden concerning how much the flash messes up the eye sight of some spieces, for examp owls. Anything u jungle photographers take into consideration? Hope to see u soon, regards Roland 🙂
Hi Roland! Thanks for your comment. Personally I love flash. It has save me lots of times from basically not getting any picture at all.
I think the secret is to put it high up in a bracket and to know how to control the intensity.
As for the eye sight, there is also some debate here in Costa Rica. I have read some about the subject have not found any real scientific evidence that it harms them.
For owls at night, I always try to be really cautious and use flash as little as posible. Not because I think it will harm them but just to minimize my interactions with them. I have never seen them getting disoriented, they normally just fly to another branch and keep doing what they where doing.
I’ve been amazed by your bird photography ever since I enrolled in Flickr last January. I’ve always wondered how you get such sharp images in tropical rainforest conditions. Thanks so much for sharing your methods and equipment needs. I happen to have the 7d, flash attachment and lens you use but am still working on getting better results. Steel eye in birds has been hard for me to fix. I will try the bracket as you suggested. Again, thanks,
Thanks for the kind words.
Let me know if you have any questions.
I totally agree about the need for flash in low light. I’m usually happy with the results except for the steel eye. Is there a brand of bracket that you recommend? Do you know of a good software program for steel eye removal? My Lightroom doesn’t do the trick.
Any bracket that works with your tripod head will do. The taller the better. Like I mention I built my own from an aluminum plate. There are specific brackets for the Wimberley heads for example and so on.
As for steel eye, I never had any issues with that. In my experience a tall bracket will remove that issue. You will get a nice catch light on your subject and that will be it. 🙂
An interesting selection of kit. I own a 7D and rarely use it exactly for the reasons you state – poor high ISO capability. I now use the 1D4 for birds and a 5D3 for macro but understand budget issues. The 7D can be good for dragonflies that would otherwise be just out of reach. I also own both the 400 F5.6 and the 100-400 IS. The latter is 14 years old and the IS has had to be replaced (twice I think) and once the barrel froze. I took the 400mm prime to Antarctica and it did brilliantly but was less versatile. I just didn’t have enough confidence in the 100-400 for a once in a lifetime trip. I have a 1.4x Canon TC but have Kenko extension tubes – a set of 3 costs less than a single Canon 25mm tube in HK. The results you achieve are fantastic and prove that it is the photographer that counts not the kit. I admire your work immensely.
Great to hear from you and to read about your experience with the same gear.
I feel the same about the 7D, I rarely take it over ISO 1600. So its quite a challenge to use properly with my light conditions. But I do what I can.
The 5D3 will fix the ISO problem but then you will have a reach problems I guess.
My dream gear for birds would be something like a 5D3(Or 1Dx) with the new 600mm, with full gitzo and wimberley support…. A man can dream.. haha.
I saw some of your hummingbird photos on 500px that I really like, so thought I’d check out your site. I am super impressed with the work you have done with the 7D and 100-400. I am coming to do bird photography in your country next April with a similar kit. I will be very pleased if I get anything comparable to your work. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks for your comment! Let me know if you need any help or have any questions about Costa Rica. I will be happy to help.
Really enjoyed your photos and appreciate the work you are doing. Costa Rica has been at the very top of the list for my next birding destination for some time, and I hope to go there next year sometime. This photography equipment page is really nice too… thanks for sharing.
Thanks, let me know if you need any help with your trip to Costa Rica.
wow I love your photos they are very very nice thanks for sharing them with us keep it up!
Thanks Roy, glad you liked them. Let me know if I can help with anything.
Chris, thanks for this post. I’d an older slik that I bought 5 years back when I first started with a DSLR. My interest eventually converged to bird photography and I’m now in the market for a birding tripod. This post and your results helped me make up my mind. Thanks again :).
Believe it or not, I have every piece of equipment with the exception of the tripod!!! How much should I expect to spend on a good tripod?
Cool Tim, You pretty much can spend what ever you want in a tripod. The good carbon fiber ones would be in the range to 500$ to 700$ I think.
Take a look and brands like Induro, Gitzo, Feisol, they have the reputation of being good tripod brands.
Does that include the head? Also, I have the 70-200 2.8 Canon lens with the white 1.4 tele convertor. I tried the convertor on my 100-400 and it didn’t work. why?
I have a trip planned for the Osa Peninsula in mid-February. We are staying at the La Leona Lodge near Carate. I do not believe they have blinds at the lodge. Have you had any luck with portable blinds with or without frames? You photos are very spectacular.
Hi Tony, Yeah Corcovado and Osa Peninsula are great. And yeah sure, I carry a portable blind everywhere I go. It have work for me in a lot of occasions. If you see a bird feeding from a tree or if it has a establish perch for example, you can just pop your blind and wait for it to return.
Hi Chris, great site and thank you for the recommendations. I’m on a budget and just getting into Birding photography. Using my 7D I was wondering what your thoughts are on the Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS with the 1.4x teleconverter as opposed to the 100-400mm IS zoom or the 400mm f/5.6 without IS? I like the idea of the sharpness with a prime lens and the closer focus distance of the 300, Am I likely to experience a big difference ? I’m heading back to Arizona for another trip next month. Any advice would be greatly appreciated
Chris, your work is insane. Ill be heading to Costa Rica soon to do some bird photography. But in the mean time, I had a few questions. Your photos are so incredible smooth and sharp looking. Most 7D photos of seen aren’t so. What post-processing soft do you use (photoshop?). Also, has you have been shooting, are you still loving the crop factor camera or do you wish you were using a full frame, like a 5D mark ii? Thanks!
Chris, your work is phenomenal. Especially with the gear you’re using, its insane. You blow the away the competition that uses your “dream gear” with what you have. I have similar gear and will be headed to Costa Rica soon to photograph birds! I have a few questions though. First, how often would you saw you use flash? Second, what software do you use to process your photos? Photoshop? and Third, do you have any suggestions for getting sharp and vibrant images of perched hummingbirds? Thanks so much!
I use flash every time I can, even in regular light conditions flash helps a lot to get some more details on those shadows. I use Photoshop and Light Room for software. As for the third question, not really just for hummingbird but I guess that for any bird in general a sturdy tripod and waiting for the right moment will get you some good result in my opinion. Let me know if I can help with anything else
Hola Chris, excelente trabajo. Me encanta!
Me gustaría que me accesores sobre un extensor, hace poco adquirí una Nikon y quisiera comprar uno, ( no se si funciona con nikon) y si sí; cuál me recomienda comprar???
Which is the best camera flash bracket for better beamer for under $100?
Hi, It totally depends on your tripod head