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Choosing an Affordable Bird Watching Camera

Updated on July 10, 2014

You Don't Need to Spend Thousands to Get Great Shots

In the past, if you wanted to take bird photos in which the bird appeared bigger than a speck in the final image, your only option was to buy a DSLR, an expensive telephoto lens and maybe a teleconverter. No more! Compact super zoom cameras are making it easier than ever to get closer to the action without spending thousands of dollars. They're perfect for bird watchers who want an affordable camera that can still take great photos. While superzoom compacts can't yet rival the quality of a DSLR, they do offer amazing focal length and excellent quality at a price DSLRs can't match. Here's what you need to know to select the perfect bird watching camera for you.

(Photo by Lisa Howard)

What to Look for in a Compact Super Zoom - Find the features that will meet your needs

female common merganser tahoe
female common merganser tahoe

5 Features to Look for in a Bird Watching Camera - It's not just about focal length

At first glance, you might think the best bird watching camera is the one with the longest optical zoom lens. Of course, that is one thing you'll want to consider, but it may not be the only factor to take into consideration.

All the photos on this page were taken with a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ200. Although it only has a 24x zoom (600mm equivalent), I chose it because it has a constant f/2.8 aperture across its entire zoom range, making it easier to take fast photos, even when zoomed all the way to 24x. For me, the larger aperture was worth a trade-off in focal length. Other may care more about focal length than maximum aperture. It all depends on what you want in a camera.

Here are some other items to consider when choosing a bird watching camera.

  1. Optical zoom length

    Today's compact super zooms can help you get incredibly close to your subjects. Several models now offer 50x zoom, giving you the35mm equivalent of a 1200mm lens. But don't just jump at the biggest number you see. Remember that the focal length isn't going to be the only factor that affects the quality of your photo.

  2. Maximum aperture

    Not all zoom lenses are created equal, and one of the great differentiators between lenses of the same focal length is their maximum aperture. For instance, a lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 will allow in more light (and thus allow for faster shutter speeds) than a lens with a maximum aperture of f/4. If you're going to be shooting in low light, such as at sunrise or sunset, a lens with a wider aperture (lower f/stop) will allow you to shoot at higher shutter speeds.

  3. Continuous shooting speed

    While aperture can affect your ability to choose a fast shutter speed, the camera's continuous shooting speed can also affect your ability to capture an image quickly. In other words, how many frames per second (fps) can the camera handle? Many cameras now can shoot 10fps or even more with a fixed focal point, but aren't quite as fast when autofocus is fully engaged.

  4. Size and functionality

    The size of most super zoom cameras is somewhere between a small compact camera and a large DSLR. If size is a factor for you, be sure to check the dimensions and weight of the models you're considering before you make a purchase. Also, if you'll be using your camera for activities other than bird watching, be sure you look for other features you might want, such as HD video, panorama or scene modes or in-camera editing.

Get a Little Closer!

female bald eagle
female bald eagle

5 Great Compact Bird Watching Cameras - Get closer with these compact super zoom cameras

Ready to start your hunt for the perfect compact camera for you? These five super zooms will help you capture great bird photos.

Among the highlights:

- For the best maximum aperture, check out the Panasonic DMC-FZ200, with a constant aperture of f/2.8 across its 24x zoom range or the Canon SX50, with the best maximum aperture (f/5.6 at full zoom) among the 50x models.

- The 60x Panasonic FZ70 won't get you any closer to the action than the 50x zooms shown here, but it does offer the greatest wide angle (20mm) of the models shown here.

- For maximum resolution, Sony offers the highest resolution, at 20 MP.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX300/BC 20.4 MP Digital Camera with 50x Optical Zoom and 3-Inch Xtra Fine LCD (Black)
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX300/BC 20.4 MP Digital Camera with 50x Optical Zoom and 3-Inch Xtra Fine LCD (Black)

Sony's 50x optical zoom (24 - 1200mm) is paired with 20 MP resolution for amazing clarity.

 
Canon PowerShot SX50 HS 12MP Digital Camera with 2.8-Inch LCD (Black)
Canon PowerShot SX50 HS 12MP Digital Camera with 2.8-Inch LCD (Black)

With 50x zoom (1000mm equivalent), the Canon PowerShot will get you close to the action and take great shots with a 12 MP sensor.

 
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ200 12.1 MP Digital Camera with CMOS Sensor and 24x Optical Zoom - Black
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ200 12.1 MP Digital Camera with CMOS Sensor and 24x Optical Zoom - Black

This isn't the longest zoom in the bunch, but the DMC-FZ200 has continuous f/2.8 aperature across the entire 24x (600mm equivalent) zoom range, giving you speed and depth control you won't find in the others.

 
Nikon COOLPIX P510 16.1 MP CMOS Digital Camera with 42x Zoom NIKKOR ED Glass Lens and GPS Record Location (Black) (OLD MODEL)
Nikon COOLPIX P510 16.1 MP CMOS Digital Camera with 42x Zoom NIKKOR ED Glass Lens and GPS Record Location (Black) (OLD MODEL)

With 42x optical zoom (24 - 1000mm) and 16.1 MP, this camera will help you capture close shots with legendary Nikon quality.

 
Panasonic LUMIX DMC-FZ70 16.1 MP Digital Camera with 60x Optical Image Stabilized Zoom and 3-Inch LCD (Black)
Panasonic LUMIX DMC-FZ70 16.1 MP Digital Camera with 60x Optical Image Stabilized Zoom and 3-Inch LCD (Black)

The 60x zoom on this camera is going to give you the same maximum length (1000mm equivalent) as the 50x zoom on the Canon, but it offers a wider angle on the other end - 20mm vs 24mm for most of the ultra-zoom models shown here.

 

Photos from the Panasonic DMC-FZ200 - Sample shots from a super zoom compact camera

Click thumbnail to view full-size

If you're serious about your bird photography but can't afford the gear you really want, you might want to consider renting a camera and/or telephoto lens for special outings. Sites such BorrowLenses make it easy to use professional gear that many of us can't afford to buy outright.

For instance, the Canon 6D sells for about $1600 without a lens on Amazon as of this writing, and the Canon 400mm f/5.6 would set you back another $1300. But you can rent that camera for $83 a week and the lens for just $60 a week as of this writing. (Check the site for current prices, as they are subject to change.) They also rent Nikon, Sony, Leica, Olympus and Pentax gear. The process is simple - place your order, receive your lens in the mail, and send it back in the same package in which you received it. Renting a body and/or lens occasionally is a great way to get high quality images without spending thousands on gear.

Get Closer with a DSLR Telephoto Lens - Shot with a Canon 70-30mm rental lens

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      I am too adhd to ever watch birds, but I like these cameras.