These days, aspiring nature photographers have nearly unlimited choices when it comes to camera & lens selection. Having personally owned all three brands, I am fluent in Canon, Nikon, and Fujifilm camera equipment. Below are my recommendations for camera & lens combinations for bird/nature photography following much research and personal experience.
First, allow me to demystify the topic of camera gear. A camera & lens combination that costs over $5k will provide better technical results than a combination that costs under $5k. You get what you pay for. However, there are several other factors to consider. In my opinion, any camera with decent auto-focus, a continuous shooting mode, and selectable shutter speed of 1/500th of a second can produce professional results. My budget is in the under $5k range, so I selected my setup based on the critical factors of image quality, focal length, portability, and price. After these minimum technical requirements are met, it becomes a matter of technique, how close you can get to your subject, and how steady your hands are.
Now for the recommendations. There are several reasons I chose to switch from Canon to Fujifilm to Nikon. Some of which I’ll cover below. In any case, I always recommend brand loyalty. If you have a Canon camera, get Canon lenses and so forth.
Canon EOS 7D MKII + Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L II USM
This is a versatile setup that can produce very sharp images when used in good light. The high frame rate of the 7D MKII coupled with the high image quality of the 100-400 lens is a great combination for successful bird photography. The effective focal length is 640mm with this setup (APSC camera sensor crop factor of 1.6x). There are limitations in low light scenarios, as most lenses with f5.6 apertures have, so you’ll have to deal with a significant amount of noise and loss of dynamic range in post processing. However, at f5.6 this lens shines in terms of bokeh (background blur effect) and creative opportunities.
Nikon D500 + Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E ED VR
This is my current preferred setup for bird photography. It’s heavier and bulkier than the Canon setup, but the slightly improved image quality and additional focal length is what drove me to switch. The effective focal length is 750mm with this setup (APSC camera sensor crop factor of 1.5x). The same low light limitations exist with the f5.6 aperture, but in my opinion, you can’t beat the value for this amount of focal length.
Fujifilm X-T3 + Fujifilm XF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 R LM OIS
This combination is my current Mirrorless setup for bird photography. It’s very lightweight and portable. Most importantly, it produces very sharp images. The effective focal length is 600mm with this setup (APSC camera sensor crop factor of 1.5x). I find the auto-focus a little inconsistent which sometimes causes me to miss shots I would normally have no trouble capturing with my Nikon setup. For this reason, I mostly use this Fuji setup on long hikes when weight and portability are an issue. I will also note that the Fujifilm X-T3 is my go-to camera for landscape photography. There’s just something about the color rendition that is superior to other cameras I’ve used.
I hope this technical information is helpful in your selection process. Photography is a continuous learning and continuous improvement endeavor. See my Composition Advice section for more on the non-technical aspects of nature photography. The best camera to use is the one you have with you. Start simple and grow from there. Several folks who have seen my work have said things like, “You must have a really expensive camera!” That may be true, but there is so much more to it.