Bird Photography Camera On a Budget: Nikon D7500

Last Updated on August 19, 2021 by Nancie

Nikon D7500 with Tamron 100-400 Lens (with Hood) is a Bird Photography Camera and Lens on a Budget
Nikon D7500 with Tamron 100-400 Lens Zoomed Out (with Hood)

Picking the best camera for bird photography on a budget means balancing competing requirements. As each birder’s requirements are a little different, there is no one perfect camera and lens for bird photography. Instead, you need to decide which camera is perfect for YOU.

What Does “Budget” Mean When Purchasing a Birding Camera?

A while back, I decided it was time to upgrade from a Nikon Coolpix p900 to a faster camera and lens that would allow me to take higher quality bird photos. The thing was, I wanted to keep my purchase, including extras like batteries, straps and a larger camera bag within a $2,000 budget. While this may sound like a lot of money, and it definitely is, keep in mind that you can easily spend tens of thousands on camera equipment for birding. So my goal was still on the budget end of the bird photography spectrum.

Note: If your photo photography budget is even tighter and you are interested in the much less expensive Nikon Coolpix p900 or p1000, check out my post on tips for setting up the p900 for birding photography and my post on using it on a trip to Magee Marsh.

My final choice was a Nikon D7500 with a Tamron 100-400mm lens. It is a solid step up from a consumer level point-and-shoot to a mid-range enthusiast DSLR camera but still fit my budget. This is how I decided.

Nikon Coolpix p900 with Lens Zoomed Out is a Camera For Bird Photography For an Even Smaller Budget.
Nikon Coolpix p900 with Lens Zoomed Out

Why Switch From the Coolpix p900?

For several years, I used a Nikon Coolpix p900 for casual bird photography. The p900 is a great camera for casual photos of backyard birds as well as in some birding trip situations.

Coolpix p900 Bird Photography Pros

  • The p900 has a wonderful long reach.
  • It is possible to take lovely pictures of relatively still birds that look great on screens for social media, your blog, etc. (Most previous bird photos on this blog were taken with the Coolpix.)
  • As long as you don’t blow them up too big or crop them very much, you can often get reasonably nice prints as well.
  • It’s a great birding camera for someone who wants to set up the camera for bird photography and then just point and shoot.
  • Being relatively light-weight makes it easy to take pictures handheld.
  • And compared to a traditional DSLR camera with a long lens, it is compact enough that it is relatively easy to carry with you.
  • If you are on a really tight budget, this camera’s price is appealing.

Limitations of Coolpix p900 For Bird Photography

  • The p900 is not a speedy camera. So you can pretty much forget bird-in-flight photos. It is not designed for that.
  • Taking pictures of small, quickly moving birds is also a real challenge. I’ve spent huge amounts of time and frustration taking pictures of tiny, always moving, warblers and kinglets. You can do it, but it takes patience, time and enough luck that the bird will stick around while you keep trying.
  • The p900 shoots jpg photos and not raw file types which can limit photo quality and your editing possibilities on a computer later. (The newer Nikon Coolpix p1000 will shoot raw however.)
  • In low light or trying to take pictures of distant birds on the water, it can be hard and sometimes impossible to get a good shot. And its auto focus gets confused easily on busy backgrounds (like a bird in a bush.)
  • While closeups of birds taken in good light can be very nice, in less than ideal conditions, you can get a noisy picture with ugly smudged details. This can limit your use of the picture and often means you can’t crop it without getting an ugly result.

Choosing a Camera by Looking For Bird Photography Gaps

On his website, professional wildlife photographer Steve Perry talks about how to choose your next photography gear. His advice is to to ask yourself, “what shots am I missing?” Focus on the gaps in your current setup, the things you can’t do or would like to do better. What are the gaps you want to fill?

So for example, for birders like me, this might mean thinking about:

  • More reach to get closer shots of distant birds?
  • A quicker lens to shoot fast moving birds?
  • Something light-weight that you can shoot handheld?
  • A better quality lens that lets in more light?
  • A camera with better auto-focus or other features?
  • Something that gets you closer for macros?
  • Etc.

My Bird Photography Gaps/Wish List

Steve’s advice makes sense to me, so I approached my camera search from that angle. For myself, the gaps I wanted to fill were:

  • Faster camera/lens to take bird-in-flight and other quickly moving bird photos.
  • Higher quality photo files that hold up better to enlargements and cropping.
  • Better low-light ability.

My plan was to fill the gap by adding a faster camera and lens. As I’m not a professional photographer and am on a budget, I wasn’t looking for a pro-level camera. I also wasn’t ready for a large, heavy and much more expensive 600mm lens. I wanted something light enough to handhold most of the time, but the lens needed to at least do 400mm, the minimum for most bird photography.

Researching Bird Photography Cameras on a Budget

So I did some online research, looking at various camera blog posts and reviews, specifically paying attention to cameras recommended for wildlife photography. While there are many quality digital cameras available, I narrowed my search to mid-level “enthusiast” DSLR cameras. These very good quality cameras are a good notch above consumer point-and-shoot type cameras, but not as pricey as the cameras the pros use.

While I find mirrorless cameras really interesting, at the time of my research, it didn’t look like there was anything within my budget that would be a good fit. Even some of the reviews of the more expensive mirrorless cameras seemed to indicate that they aren’t quite ready for fast-action type bird photography yet. So I concentrated my search on DSLR cameras. (Mirrorless cameras are evolving quickly though and are likely to get even more interesting as they do. As of 2021, some photographers are starting to rave about using the newest Sony mirrorless camera for wildlife photography. It’s pricey though . . ..)

Affordable Cameras I Considered:

  • Canon 7D Mark II ($1399 or $899 used / 2 lb) B&H / Amazon
  • Canon 90D ($1199 / 1.54 lb) B&H / Amazon
  • Nikon D7500 ($896.95 / 1.41 lb) B&H /Amazon
  • Nikon D500 ($1496.95 / 1.89 lb) B&H /Amazon

(Note: Prices are from B&H at the time of my purchase in October 2019.)

Each camera has its own specs with strengths and weaknesses. But all four are very good quality DSLR cameras. Canon and Nikon are brands I’ve used before and so am familiar with. Plus, there are also many lenses made for these cameras, both by the brands themselves and quality third-party brands. From reading many blog posts and reviews, I felt that any one of these cameras would fill my needs.

Affordable Lenses I Considered:

  • Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM ($1149 / 2.8 lb) B&H /Amazon
  • Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM ($1799 / 3.6 lb) B&H /Amazon
  • Tamron 100-400 f/4.5 – 6.3 Di VC USD* ($699 / 2.5 lb) B&H /Amazon
  • Tamron 150-600 f/5.6 – 6.3 Di VC USD G2* ($1299 / 4.4 lb) B&H /Amazon
  • Tamron 18-400 f/3.5 – 6.3 Di II VC HLD* ($649 / 2.28 lb) B&H /Amazon
  • Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200 – 500 f/5.6E ED VR ($116.95 / 5.1 lb) B&H /Amazon
  • Nikon AF-S Nikkor 80 – 400 f/4.5 – 5.6 ED VR ($2096.95 / 3.45 lb) B&H /Amazon

(Note: Prices are from B&H at the time of my purchase in October 2019. *Also note that the Tamron lenses each have Nikon or Canon mount versions, so if you get a Tamron, be sure you pick the version for your camera.)

Although there are other, even better quality faster lenses available, my budget doesn’t allow me to spend tens of thousands of dollars on them. But from my research, any of these more affordable lenses should work for birding and they all fit my 400mm minimum.

Tamron 100-400 f/4.5 Lens
Tamron 100-400 f/4.5 Lens

Narrowing Down the Lens List

So how to choose the combination that fit my own needs? I decided to narrow it down in three ways:

  • Weight
  • Price
  • Lenses I Own

Narrowing My Lens List By Weight

My husband has a Canon 7D Mark II and uses the Canon EF 400 f/5.6 USM lens on it. It’s a very good camera and lens. While I don’t use it often, I have successfully taken hand-held pictures with it. But I still find it to be a little on the heavy side. The camera is 2 lbs and the lens is 2.8 lbs or 4.8 lbs total weight. I do exercise weekly with light to moderate weights, but even so, I find it tiring to hold this camera with the 400mm lens steady for long periods of time. It’s quick enough and the lens is stable enough that I can still get good photos, but I wanted something lighter for my own use. (Note: Obviously if you plan to regularly use a tripod rather than shoot handheld, weight may be less important to you.)

So I eliminated the lenses on my list that were 2.8 lbs or over. This left:

  • Tamron 100-400 f/4.5 – 6.3 Di VC USD ($699 / 2.5 lb) B&H /Amazon
  • Tamron 18-400 f/3.5 – 6.3 Di II VC HLD* ($649 / 2.28 lb) B&H /Amazon

Narrowing My Lens Choice By Reviews

Although the majority of my birding pictures are taken at the long end of the lens, I still like the flexibility of a zoom. The Tamron 18-400 really interested me because with that range, it could be both a birding lens and a walking around lens. BUT, when I started reading reviews, several pointed out that vibration control and picture sharpness seemed to decline toward the 400mm end of the lens. As that is where I expected to spend most of my birding photography, I instead went with the Tamron 100-400. The $699 price worked better for me than the more expensive lenses as well. I read a variety of reviews of the lens before I settled on it. A Photography Life review in particular sold me on the lens.

Nikon D7500 Camera (Without Lens)
Nikon D7500 Camera (Without Lens)

Choosing My Bird Photography Camera on a Budget

So which camera to use with my chosen lens? As both Tamron lenses have Nikon or Canon mount versions, I could have easily gone either way.

Narrowing My Camera List By Weight and Price

Here, I again considered weight and price. The Canon 7D Mark II and the Nikon D500 were the heaviest at 2 lbs and 1.89 lbs respectively. They were also more expensive at $1399 and $1496.95. I felt that either the slightly lighter Canon 90d (1.54 lbs) or Nikon D7500 (1.41 lbs) would still work well for me and I liked their lower prices ($1199 and $896.95.) Reading reviews, I didn’t see any features that I’d lose in going with the lower cost cameras that were deal-breakers for me.

Narrowing My Camera Choice By Familiarity

What decided me between these final two was that I have a Nikon 35mm lens and a 18 – 55mm lens for my decades old Nikon D40X that also work with the Nikon D7500. That meant that I wouldn’t need to at some point buy a shorter lens if I want to point the camera for other things besides birds. Again, I read a variety of reviews before I settled on it. A video review on the Nikon D7500 on Backcountry Gallery’s site sold me on this camera for wildlife photography.

So my final choice was:

  • Nikon D7500 ($896.95 / 1.41 lb) B&H /Amazon
  • Tamron 100-400 f/4.5 – 6.3 Di VC USD ($699 / 2.5 lb) B&H /Amazon

(2021 Note: The Nikon D7500 body now lists for $997 and the Tamron lens is $799 and still seems to include the Tamron Tap-In Console (mentioned below) which is also available separately for $59.)

Nikon D7500 with Separate Tamron 100-400 Lens and Hood
Nikon D7500 with Separate Tamron 100-400 Lens and Hood

Ordering the Camera and Lens

In a perfect world, I would live near a great camera store like New York City’s B&H Photo. Unfortunately, I am several states away and there really isn’t anywhere to try out cameras and lenses before purchase.

One option would have been to rent a camera and lens online to see how particular combinations work for me. My husband, in fact, has been considering replacing his Canon 400mm lens with a zoom lens, maybe the Tamron 100-400mm or Tamron 150-600mm. He may go this route and look into renting the larger lens online first to see how he likes working with a heavier lens on a tripod. (He typically works with his current lens handheld.)

But I tend to be someone who researches carefully and then jumps into the pool. I went ahead and ordered my camera and lens from B&H Photo. You could alternatively order these cameras and/or lens from Amazon. I’ve included links to both sites in the camera and lens lists above.

Nikon D7500 with Tamron 100-400 Lens Zoomed In (with Hood)
Nikon D7500 with Tamron 100-400 Lens Zoomed In (with Hood)

Nikon D7500 Camera & Tamron 100-400 Lens Impressions

I’ve had the Nikon D7500 camera and Tamron lens for almost two years now and do like it for bird photography. Do I wish I had a 600mm lens so I can get better distance shots? Yes. I’ll love the weight and long reach of a point-and-shoot like the Coolpix but with the speed and picture quality of the D7500. I think about getting a 600mm lens sometimes but I’m still not quite ready to do the whole lugging a tripod around while birding thing.

Would I like a lens that lets in even more light for even better photos in darker settings? Sure, but the cost of a lens like that is beyond my budget. And this camera and lens combo already does so much better than the Coolpix did in low light.

Do I wish I had gone with one of the professional cameras? Not really. This one fits my needs. I will admit that I still have not mastered bird-in-flight photography, but that is due to lack of consistent practice rather than a fault of the camera and lens.

Setting Up the D7500

When I first got the D7500, I spent quite a few hours learning about the camera’s specific settings and deciding how I liked it set up. This more sophisticated camera gives me more flexibility in how I set up the camera. Some of my settings choices are similar to my bird photography settings on the Coolpixl.

The biggest new-to-me change is a custom controls setup that lets me do “back button focusing”. Traditionally the shutter button is used for both setting the focus and taking the picture. This method instead lets you set your focus with your thumb using a button on the back of the camera separate from the shutter button. Once set up, if you leave the back button pressed down, it continuously updates the focus. (This is helpful in keeping a moving bird in focus.) If you lift your finger off the button, the focus stays locked until you press the back button again. (This is helpful when you are photographing something sitting still.) I learned this trick from Backcountry Gallery. It takes some getting used to, but it is really cool and I think has improved my photography technique.

I am now shooting in Manual + Auto ISO mode, also a new method for me and again something I learned from Backcountry Gallery. (With the Coolpix I almost always shot in Aperture Priority Mode.) I set the aperture using my right index finger using the scroll wheel on the front of the camera. The shutter speed is set using my right thumb using a scroll wheel on the back. The camera then picks the best ISO for me. There is a learning curve for switching to manual mode, but the more you practice it, the more you figure out how to set the aperture and speed to get the picture you want.

Using the Tamron Lens

The Tamron lens has been working well for me. It does zoom in and out manually, a change from the Coolpix where you could use a camera control to zoom in and out. Manually twisting out the lens can slow me down just a little. So in situations with high chance of wanting to take a quick bird photo, I tend to leave it twisted all the way out to 400mm. If I instead had a fixed length lens, I would potentially be set up for the shot quicker consistently, but then I wouldn’t have the flexibility of the zoom. And being able to pull the lens in does make the lens a bit shorter, allowing it to fit into my camera bag while still attached to the camera.

When I first got this lens, I did feel that my photos were a little soft. At first I thought it was just part of the learning curve and blamed it on my poor technique. But the camera bundle I purchased included a nifty little gadget for updating the lens firmware and making adjustments to the lens called the Tamron TAP-in Console. It took me months to get around to trying it out. Shame on me! Updating the firmware was very easy and my picture sharpness improved immediately. You can also use this little gadget to correct the lens if you find it is consistently front or back focusing. I haven’t had that problem so I haven’t needed to try that.

I Like the Nikon D7500 camera and Tamron 100-400 lens for Bird Photography

So far, I’m really happy with the Nikon D7500 camera and Tamron 100-400 lens and have no complaints (other than I’d still love a longer reach at this same weight! Birders can never get enough reach.) Yes, eventually when there is a mirrorless camera and lens in my price range that works well for bird photography, I may shift that way. But right now, I’m happy with this camera and lens combo.


More Posts on Bird Photography

Reduce Noise in Bird Photography: NoNoise AI

Getting My Coolpix 900 Camera Fixed

Photographing Birds at Magee Marsh

Creating Bird Photography Camera Settings

Backyard Bird Photo Tips

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11 thoughts on “Bird Photography Camera On a Budget: Nikon D7500

  1. I too am upgrading from the Nikon Coolpix P900 for the same reasons you did I would love to see some pictures you have takem with the 100-400 lens. That is the lens I am considering as well.

    1. Hi Peter,
      That’s a really good question because the two lenses are similar. My main reason was that I sometimes go birding in the rain. While I try to protect my camera and lens from the rain as much as possible, I liked the Tamron’s weather proofing. That was really important to me. I also saw reviews that seemed to indicate that the Tamron’s tracking focus was a little faster. Since I was interested in learning to photograph birds in flight, that was also important to me.

      I need to mention though that when I first got the Tamron, I wasn’t completely happy with the focus at 400 even when photographing a sitting bird. The focus usually seemed soft, even though I thought that I had gotten the focus right in the field. It was really frustrating. I thought it was user error as I was still getting used to the lens and new camera. I was also messing around with learning back-button-focus and learning manual shooting. (Lots to learn all at once.)

      It turned out that was really more user procrastination though. When I purchased the camera from B&H, I got it bundled with the Tamron Tap-In Console. You can use that to update the lens firmware and also to adjust the focus if you find the lens is focusing in front or in back of where it should be. Once I finally used the Tap-In Console to update the firmware, the focus was suddenly much, much better and I am happy with the lens. For updating firmware, I found the console is easy to use (plugged into a computer.) I haven’t tried manually tweaking the lens focus using the console.

      I am still learning to shoot birds in flight though.
      Good wishes,

  2. Hi Nancie!

    Thanks for this very helpful post! I am interested in purchasing a set-up close to what you have. Are you still happy with your camera and lens? Any luck with birds in flight?

    Thank you!


    1. Hi Cierra,
      Yes, I am still happy with this camera and lens combination (although I do sometimes wish for a 600mm reach.) I did find that I was able to get sharper results once I used the Tap-In Console to update the lens firmware, so if you do go with this lens, don’t skip that step. I must admit that I have not spent enough time working on my birds in flight skills to become good at it yet. (My excuse is that since covid, most of my bird watching has been in the backyard.)

      1. Hi Nancie!

        I wanted to give you an update. I ended up getting the Nikon Coolpix P1000, I’ve only had it for a day and I’ve found it to be… frustrating! I guess I’m a pixel peeper, because I am not very happy with the image quality, even in the middle of the lens range. It’s also very bulky and the autofocus is not great. I’ll keep it another week and see if I get more comfortable with it, and if not, then I’ll return it to Nikon. I was hoping to spend less than $1000 for a birding camera, but that’s hard to do.

        I am still looking at the D7500 because I like the idea of having a separate camera body and lens… seems like a better buy for the long term as I would be able to switch out lenses for things such as macrophotography (something I am also interested in).

        1. Hi Cierra,
          That seems like a good plan. The Coolpix is definitely not a perfect camera. But that said, it can be a decent compromise for the price. What I like best about it is the reach. You can get soooooo very close to even a small bird at a distance. Because the lens is slow though, that bird needs to be fairly still and it’s best if you’ve got good light. While it is a boxy shape, compared to the weight and the size of a DSLR camera with a long lens you would need to get close to a distant bird, it is pretty compact and easy to carry. I found it to be a very nice camera for taking photos of birds in my back yard to post here online. (For your testing, be sure to take time to set up the camera settings yourself; don’t just stick with the bird watching setting on the camera.) It is also a nice birding camera if you want to travel light. That said, it struggles to focus on fast moving birds. Warblers and kinglets zipping around in a bush can be frustrating and often impossible. And it definitely is not a bird-in-flight able camera. It’s just not designed for that. It really depends on what you want/need in a camera and how you plan to use the pictures you take.

          Since I bought the D7500 I have not been using the Coolpix. The D7500 is a camera that will take pictures you can enlarge and print nicely for framing. Even if you spring for a 600mm lens, you won’t have quite the reach of the Coolpix but the picture quality is definitely much higher.You would be happier with your pixel peeping. We have mostly been at home this covid year, so I still have not had a real opportunity to hone my birds-in-flight skills so I’m sorry that I can’t tell you more about how well the lens I’m using with the D7500 works for that. Because both the camera and the lens is faster, I do know it is better for that type of photography than the Coolpix. But it’s a skill that really needs to be practiced as well.

          Good luck!

          1. Thanks Nancie. I will try setting up the camera myself instead of relying on the auto or bird modes. The reach is definitely impressive, you are right about that. The P1000 goes up to 3000mm! But it also weighs 3.12lbs, which means that going to a D7500/Tamron set up like yours wouldn’t be much of a weight difference.

            I went out today during good lighting and took a bunch more photos. I got a few good ones of a Song Sparrow and a distant American Robin, but I really struggled with the autofocus. It would go out of focus immediately after I took an in-focus shot, which caused me to miss a ton of shots.

            I think I should have thought more deeply about my birding habits before I sprung on the P1000. I love smaller, faster birds such as warblers, chickadees, and other forest-dwelling species. I also would love to have the capability to take photos of BIF once I get familiar with a camera. My other concern with the P1000 is that I usually have my most interesting encounters with birds around sunset. The D7500, although not perfect for low-light, looks like it has better low-light abilities than the P1000.

            So much to take into consideration! I do appreciate your comments. I wouldn’t have even known where to start with cameras if I hadn’t found your blog through your House Sparrow/Magic Halo post!

  3. Nancie,
    Thanks for this very informative article. I am looking to upgrade from a Panasonic fz300. I’ve had a lot of fun photographing birds with it and have gotten some really good pictures. I’m ready to upgrade for the same reasons you are. I love that your camera/lens combination keeps the weight down and I can use the lenses from my old Nikon D40. I felt like I was spinning my wheels before. The things I was looking at were either too expensive or too heavy. So glad you pointed me in this direction!

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