The Best Camera for Bird Photography that Won’t Bust Your Budget

Inside: If you’re looking for the best inexpensive camera for bird photography, this article is for you. I tested several cameras to find out the best one that won’t bust your budget.

Have you started shopping for a camera for bird photography? It’s overwhelming, isn’t it? So many models to choose from with different zoom ranges and other features you may not have heard of before. It’s hard to know what features are important and which ones you don’t need to pay attention to.

It’s especially frustrating when you take a peek at the prices! Depending on the camera style and features it offers, the prices can range anywhere from $300 all the way up to $10,000. No, I’m not kidding.

That’s how I felt when I started shopping for a camera for birding in my backyard. I knew I wanted to capture up-close photos of the birds but didn’t want to break the bank. At least not at the beginning as I was learning the ins and outs of bird photography.

The more I learned about cameras suitable for bird photography, the less confident I felt about buying one. Something was missing.

It was this frustration and the wide range of prices for the cameras that motivated me to research the best inexpensive camera for bird photography. I purchased a couple of inexpensive cameras, took photos with them, and tested them. It wasn’t until after I did this that I could confidently stand by my recommendation for the best inexpensive bird photography camera.

The best Inexpensive Camera for Bird Photography

I bought and tested several cameras for bird photography and found the Panasonic Lumix FZ80 to be the least expensive of them all (average price $300) and more than worthy for snapping pics of birds.

Now that I spilled the beans on the best inexpensive camera for birding, you may be wondering how I determined that the Panasonic Lumix FZ80 is worthy of the title. Great question! To understand my basis for selecting this make & model, I’d like to briefly explain the different types of cameras as well as the key features that make a camera suitable for bird photography.

In a hurry? Head straight to the reviews now!

Types of Cameras

There are three main types of digital cameras: DSLR, mirrorless, and bridge. Each camera type falls into a price range that clearly distinguishes it from the other types. The DSLR is the most expensive followed by mirrorless and finally the bridge camera which is the least expensive type of camera type.

Below is a brief summary of each type of camera along with the price range needed to purchase one suitable for bird photography.  

DSLR Cameras: The Most Expensive Type of Camera

The DSLR (Digital Single-Lens Reflex) camera is commonly used by professional photographers. They consist of a camera body and interchangeable lenses. DSLRs rely on a mirror inside the camera body to capture the light and direct the image to the viewfinder. This enables the photographer to see exactly what the image will look like.

The minimum DSLR lens needed to capture tiny birds is 600mm. Any smaller and you would need to be so close to the bird which is not ethical, advisable, or easy to do.

The price range of a DSLR camera body & 600mm lens is $12,000 – $50,000

Mirrorless Cameras: The 2nd Most Expensive Type of Camera

The Mirrorless camera is similar to the DSLR in that it has interchangeable lenses. It differs from DSLRs in that it doesn’t have a mirror. This enables a mirrorless camera to be smaller and lighter than the DSLR. 

Also, the image displayed to the photographer in the viewfinder and screen (if it has one)  is an approximation of what the image will look like rather than exactly what it will look like. 

Just like the DSLR camera, the minimum lens for a mirrorless camera to capture tiny birds is 600mm.

The price range of a mirrorless camera body & 600mm lens is $3,000 – $30,000

Bridge Cameras: The Least Expensive Type of Camera

The bridge camera, also known as a point-and-shoot, consists of the camera body and lens built into one unit. They’re also referred to as SLR-Style Compact. 

Bridge cameras may have many manual settings available for the photographer to flex her creative side but are also known for preset modes so the novice can immediately begin shooting pics just by setting the dial (for example) to “Bird” mode. 

To be considered suitable for bird photography the bridge camera must have an optical zoom of at least 25x which is equivalent to a 600mm lens.

The price range of a bridge camera with a minimum of 25x optical zoom is $300 – $2,000

The bridge camera is the least expensive type of camera for bird photography and was the focus of my research to find the best inexpensive camera for bird photography.

Key Features for a Bird Photography Camera

Bird photography is unique from other types of photography in that birds are tiny, fidgety, fly away without notice, and often make their appearance in the early morning and late afternoon when lighting is low – again, without notice. 

When choosing a camera for bird photography the #1 key feature it must have is the ability to zoom close-up to the birds. Here are a few more key features the camera must have to help us take great pictures of birds.

I identified several features to pay attention to when choosing a camera for taking pictures of birds. They are:

  1. Optical Zoom
  2. Auto Focus
  3. Image Stabilization 
  4. Frame Capture Rate
  5. Sensor Size

Combined, the above key features work together to provide great image quality, a clear and in-focus close-up of the bird. After all, that is what we want, right? Great close-up pictures of birds! 

Let’s take a look at each of these features and learn why they made the “key features” list.  

Auto-Focus

We see a bird, grab our camera, get it in the frame, zoom in, press the shutter ½ way to auto-focus, and click! A beautifully focused close-up of the bird. Or so we hope. 

A fast auto-focus dramatically increases our chances of capturing that perfect shot. 

With a slow auto-focus, our photo may show the tail end of the bird as it flies off! This is why auto-focus speed is so important.

All cameras come with an auto-focus feature, Some manufacturers state the auto-focus speed, usually in fractions of a second, while others do not.

By testing each superzoom camera myself I’m able to gauge whether or not the camera’s autofocus speed is suitable for bird photography.

Image Stabilization

Camera movement is a leading cause of blurred images. Image stabilization helps by reducing camera movement and is particularly important with bridge superzoom cameras because not only is the photographer trying to hold the camera steady but also the extended lens – when it’s zoomed out. 

A monopod or tripod is also useful but not always practical. 

Auto-focus and image stabilization work together to produce an image that’s in focus. 

Optical Zoom

Optical zoom refers to the camera lens’ ability to get close to the subject – the birds. The higher the optical zoom the closer we can get to the bird which is crucial. 

Note: Digital zoom is a fancy way of referring to zooming in on the photo. You can disregard digital zoom because it doesn’t improve image quality – in fact, it introduces noise which results in poorer quality. 

I disable digital zoom while testing the cameras in my reviews to ensure I was assessing optical zoom alone.

Frame Capture Rate (fps)

Remember, our models (birds) are always on the go. Even while perching they may be darting their bodies here and there. 

For that reason, it’s helpful to enable the camera’s continuous mode which captures photos continuously versus one at a time. 

The multiple shots allow you to choose from a variety of images in hopes of at least one being the perfect pic.  

Sensor Size

The job of the camera sensor is to capture the photons (light particles) that hit it and convert them to an electrical signal that the camera’s processor reads and forms into an image. 

The camera sensor is important because it is a key factor that determines image quality. The bigger the sensor, the better the image quality. 

However, your idea of great image quality may differ from mine and that of a seasoned professional photographer. So, I invite you to be the judge. Review the sample photos I provide in this article and decide – is the image quality good enough for you?

That said, the majority of the cameras I reviewed have the same sensor – 1/2.3″ (6.2 x 4.6mm) BSI CMOS. 

What about Megapixels?

Time to bust the myth that “More megapixels are better.” 

Note: The number of megapixels your camera has is important when having large prints made of your image. If you’re taking pics of birds to frame and hang a 10” x 20” photo on your wall, more megapixels may be better for you. For the rest of us, keep reading…

Remember when camera and smartphone manufacturers were regularly raising the bar in the megapixels department? It led us to believe that more megapixels are better

While this may have been true back then when the average camera sported 4MP, it no longer is true. Today, even a camera with 12 MP is more than enough for most of us. 

This is great news because in general, the higher the megapixel the slower the camera becomes at other tasks such as auto-focusing and continuous shooting – two key features for bird photography. 

From an image quality perspective, the sensor size is a far better gauge of image quality than megapixels. 

the Cameras I Tested

I chose to purchase, test, and review bridge cameras with an optical zoom of 25 or greater and cost under $600. This left me with only 2 models, they are:

  1. Panasonic Lumix FZ80 (Cost approximately $300)
  2. Canon PowerShot SX70 (Cost approximately $600)

How I Reviewed the Cameras

First, I took several photos of a static subject (wooden cardinal below) at full-zoom, without support (e.g. handheld) from distances of 15, 25, 50, and 75 feet from the subject.

Wooden cardinal bird taken with a Nikon Coolpix P1000 from 50 feet away

This allowed me to determine if the camera was up to the task of zooming in close enough to capture up-close images of birds in a real-life scenario. 

Note: Because the cardinal is made of wood with definitive edges, not soft feathers, the quality is going to be better than a real bird. For that reason, I didn’t use distance tests to determine image quality. It wouldn’t be fair.

Then I spent time using the cameras naturally, taking pics of birds around my yard and beyond. 

I was mindful of how quickly the auto-focus was able to find a clear shot of the bird. How often I was able to capture the bird before it flew away and how often I wasn’t. 

Using the continuous shooting features I wanted to be sure it was fast enough to capture enough pics of the bird (from perching to flying away) so I was left with several choice shots to choose from.

Finally, I analyzed the photos for image quality. 

How I determined the distances

From an ethical standpoint, Audubon suggests we always keep enough of a distance that allows our subject to behave naturally. In other words, if the bird notices us, we were probably too close. Besides that, if you’re too close to the bird it’s going to fly away and you get no shot.

Thinking about my own experience with birds in my yard, a distance of 50’ generally assures the bird hasn’t noticed me. If the bird approached me, I may be between 15-25’ away. If I’m taking pics through a window in my house, the distance is about 15’. In larger yards or out in the wild a distance of 75’ (minimum) is likely needed.

By testing the 4 distances (15, 25, 50, and 75 feet) I felt many bird encounter scenarios were covered helping you to make the best superzoom camera choice depending on how you typically shoot photos of birds.  


Let’s get to the good stuff – the reviews!


Panasonic Lumix FZ80

Panasonic Lumix FZ80 superzoom camera for birding
Panasonic Lumix FZ80 camera

The Panasonic Lumix FZ80 is the ideal budget camera for the backyard birder that wants to capture bird closeups from the deck or patio and still get very-good quality images.

If you prefer a camera on the smaller and lighter side and prefer to navigate the menu via touchscreen, this camera is for you.

When capturing shots of small birds at full zoom, its sweet spot is about 15-20′ away.

It doesn’t have a Bird mode but this can be easily overcome with one of the other preset modes.

Check price on Amazon

Key Features

Make & ModelPanasonic Lumix FZ80
Optical Zoom60x
Auto FocusQuick
Image StabilizationYes
Frame Capture Rate10 fps
Sensor1/2.3″ (6.2 x 4.6mm) BSI CMOS

Pros & Cons

Pros

  • Amazing 60x optical zoom to get up close to the birds.
  • Inexpensive – under $300.
  • Good image quality when within 15’ of the subject.
  • Good autofocus speed to focus on the bird quickly. 
  • Touch screen monitor to easily navigate the camera menu options.
  • Small & light so it’s easy to carry anywhere.

Cons

  • Image quality became soft around 20’.

Panasonic Lumix FZ80 Test Observations

The Panasonic Lumix FZ80 doesn’t have a Bird mode so I wasn’t able to set it and start shooting right away. This is a minor annoyance but may be key if you’re new to photography.

The closest the FZ80 came to a bird mode was to set it to Scene mode and choose animals that appear to be intended for pets – not fidgety tiny birds. So, it wasn’t intended for fast-moving wildlife.

The camera housing does feel rather “plasticy” – but it’s no toy. If you can get past that, the camera is great for a budget superzoom.

Optical Zoom Distance Test

Below are the results of the distance testing with the Panasonic Lumix FZ80 camera at full zoom.

Wooden cardinal bird taken with a Panasonic Lumix FZ80 from 15 feet away
Camera: Panasonic Lumix FZ80 Distance: 15′
Wooden cardinal bird taken with a Panasonic Lumix FZ80 from 25 feet away
Camera: Panasonic Lumix FZ80 Distance: 25′
Wooden cardinal bird taken with a Panasonic Lumix FZ80 from 50 feet away
Camera: Panasonic Lumix FZ80 Distance: 50′
Wooden cardinal bird taken with a Panasonic Lumix FZ80 from 75 feet away
Camera: Panasonic Lumix FZ80 Distance: 75′

The Panasonic FZ80’s strength is image quality when closer to the subject – about 15′ or less. Beyond that, the image quality starts to soften – not as clear and crisp. For someone looking for a beginner camera or just one that won’t bust the budget, this likely doesn’t matter.

Sparrow on the edge of birdbath
Sparrow. Taken with a Panasonic Lumix FX80 about 15′ away using full optical zoom.
Nuthatch at feeder
Nuthatch. Taken with Panasonic FZ80 about 25′ away using full optical zoom.

More Panasonic Lumix FZ80 Sample Images

Below are additional photos taken with the Panasonic FZ80. They’re unedited and perhaps not the best in terms of composition but provide a sample of the camera’s image quality and zoom.

Downy woodpecker.  Photo taken with Panasonic Lumix FZ80 25' away.
Downy woodpecker. The photo was taken with Panasonic Lumix FZ80 25′ away.
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Blue jay. The photo was taken with Panasonic Lumix FZ80 15′ away.
American goldfinch. Photo taken with Panasonic Lumix FZ80 10' away.
American goldfinch. The photo was taken with Panasonic Lumix FZ80 10′ away.

Canon PowerShot SX70 HS

Canon PowerShot SX70 HS superzoom camera for birding
Canon PowerShot SX70 HS camera

The Canon PowerShot SX70 HS is a fun camera with an impressive optical zoom of 65x. It cost twice as much as the Panasonic Lumix FZ80 but at $600 it’s still a great deal for a birding camera that won’t break the budget.

It’s ideal for the backyard birder that wants to be able to zoom in close on birds on the feeder or nearby the deck/patio.

When capturing shots of small birds, its sweet spot at full zoom is about 25′ or closer.

It doesn’t have a Bird mode but this can be easily overcome with one of the other preset modes.

Check price on Amazon

Key Features

Make & ModelCanon PowerShot SX70 HS
Optical Zoom65x
Auto FocusFast
Image StabilizationYes
Frame Capture Rate10
Sensor1/2.3″ (6.2 x 4.6mm) BSI CMOS

Pros & Cons

Pros

  • Tremendous zoom capability (65x) to capture great shots of small birds close up.
  • Small & lightweight.
  • Vari-angle monitor to easily set up the shot.
  • Great image quality.

Cons

  • Cost 2x as much as the Panasonic Lumix FZ80.

Canon PowerShot SX70 HS Test Observations

After unboxing and charging the battery it was ready to go. I did have to fiddle with the settings a bit since it doesn’t have a Bird mode. That slowed me down a bit.

I was impressed with the image quality, especially zoomed in. The autofocus speed was lickety-split. That combined with the fast image capture rate (10 fps), I didn’t miss any shots.

The Canon PowerShot SX70’s viewfinder is large and I was able to swing the monitor out to the side, rotate 360, and place it back in its compartment with the monitor facing outward. I found the flexible monitor really helpful when getting the shot ready, reviewing it afterward, and navigating the camera’s menu system.

Canon PowerShot SX70 HS camera variable monitor
Canon PowerShot SX70 HS camera variable monitor

As you’ll soon see, the image quality is really very good. Kudos to the image stabilization as most shots were very sharp and clear, even in full zoom, without a tripod or other stability method.

Optical Zoom Distance Test

Below are the results of the distance testing with the Canon PowerShot SX70 HS camera at full zoom.

Wooden cardinal bird taken with a Canon PowerShot SX70HS from 15 feet away
Camera: Canon PowerShot SX70HS Distance: 15′
Wooden cardinal bird taken with a Canon PowerShot SX70HS from 25 feet away
Camera: Canon PowerShot SX70HS Distance: 25′
Wooden cardinal bird taken with a Canon PowerShot SX70HS from 50 feet away
Camera: Canon PowerShot SX70HS Distance: 50′
Wooden cardinal bird taken with a Canon PowerShot SX70HS from 75 feet away
Camera: Canon PowerShot SX70HS Distance: 75′

More Canon PowerShot SX70HS Sample Images

Below are additional photos taken with the Canon PowerShot SX70HS. They’re unedited and perhaps not the best in terms of composition but provide a sample of the camera’s image quality and zoom. And yes, I like chickadees!

Black-capped chickadee. Photo taken with Canon PowerShot SX70-HS 15' away.
Black-capped chickadee. The photo was taken with Canon PowerShot SX70-HS 15′ away.
Black-capped chickadee. Photo taken with Canon PowerShot SX70-HS 25' away.

Black-capped chickadee. The photo was taken with Canon PowerShot SX70-HS 25′ away.
Black-capped chickadee. Photo taken with Canon PowerShot SX70-HS 10' away.
Black-capped chickadee. The photo was taken with Canon PowerShot SX70-HS 10′ away.
Downy woodpecker.  Photo taken with Canon PowerShot SX70 HS 25'+ away.
Downy woodpecker. The photo was taken with Canon PowerShot SX70 HS about 35 – 50 feet away.

Conclusion

It can be overwhelming to find an expensive camera that’s suitable for bird photography. I was in the same position which is why I dove into testing the cameras myself.

I learned that whether you’re an all-around birder that likes to venture to parks and nature centers to satisfy your “birding” need or someone that just enjoys their backyard, there’s a camera with amazing optical zoom that won’t break the bank – the Panasonic Lumix FZ80.

When you’re ready for the next level of optical zoom capability – check out The 5 Best Superzoom Cameras for Birding.

Happy Birding!

More than 20 years ago, Tammy put her first bird feeder outside her kitchen window. Since then she learned how to attract wild birds to her backyard. Studying the meaning & symbolism of wild birds is also a passion of hers.