Bird Photography Camera On a Budget: Nikon D7500

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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.

I recently 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 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 Coolpix p900, 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 the past several years, I’ve been using a Nikon Coolpix p900 for casual bird photography. The p900 is a great camera for photographing backyard birds as well as in some birding trip situations.

The p900 has a Lot of Pros:

  • It 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 birding and then just point and shoot.
  • Being relatively light-weight makes it easy to take pictures handheld.
  • And it is compact enough that it is relatively easy to carry with you (compared to traditional DSLRs with long lenses.)
  • If you are on a really tight budget, this camera’s price is appealing.

But the p900 has Limitations:

  • It 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.

Gaps in My Bird Photography

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.

Steve’s advice makes sense to me. 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’m also not 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.)

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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
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 Review Coming

I’ve had the camera and lens for a few weeks now and have spent quite a few hours learning about this camera’s specific settings and deciding how I like it set up. (The Nikon D7500 has more settings options than my previous camera.)

I’ve practiced with quickly focusing on birds with the new lens and have gotten familiar with shooting with the new camera. I’m currently playing with shooting in Manual + Auto ISO mode, a new method for me. I’m getting a feel for the best shutter speeds for photographing still birds, moving birds and bird-in-flight using the Nikon D7500.

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.) While I’m still in the learning curve stage, so far, so good. Once I’ve had a chance to spend more time with it, I’ll post a review of how I like this combination for birding and how I set it up.

Nancie


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