You know the barebones basics that you need to photograph birds: a camera (to state the obvious), and if it’s an interchangeable lens camera, then a lens is the other requirement.
Yes, you also need camera batteries and memory cards, but these are vital for operation of the camera so aren’t going to be considered “accessories” for the purpose of this article.
What I want to talk about here are optional accessories. Now the word optional is easy to gloss over, but make no mistake: some of the optional accessories for bird photography purposes can be so incredibly useful as to become requirements for some people.
A lot of the time, it will depend on what type of bird photos you’re wanting to take. For example, night time bird and wildlife photography is a whole other ball game compared with daytime shooting, and you’ll absolutely need a bunch of additional gear in order to be able to create fantastic night time images of birds and other animals.
Sticking to ten accessories is quite limiting, however considering how many frivolous and sometimes downright useless some of the so called photography accessories we come across, we really wanted to nail it down to ten of the most useful, important and totally awesome accessories that are specifically useful for people taking photos of birds.
Most people won’t have a use or need for every single one of these, but most bird photographers will likely be able to see the benefits of at least a few of them.
Without further ado… ten of the best bird photography accessories that are actually useful!
You probably guessed this would be the first accessory.
A tripod really is optional for bird photographers. Some can’t live without one, others never use one; many people don’t even own one. With increasingly lighter weight telephoto lenses available, tripods have become less of a need for those people who traditionally used one to support a heavy lens.
But tripods have mutiple benefits: if you’re doing video, a rock solid tripod is the only way to achieve perfectly smooth video without the dreaded shakes.
2. LensCoat Lens Cover
You’ve spent big on a telephoto lens for birding, imagine getting a big nasty scratch on it? Not only depressing, but ultimately it reduces the resale value of the lens in the long run as people buying second hand gear want to have confidence that it’s been well looked after. While you’re probably not thinking about selling up now, we never know what the future holds.
But ultimately it’s about protecting the lens for your own personal benefit and the peace of mind that comes with knowing that having a “coat” on a telephoto lens goes a long way to preventing scrapes and scratches, as well as dirt and dust on the lens body.
The original lens cover brand, LensCoat, is not known for its low price; but they are known to be the best. There are imposters out there, some quite good, but you’ll find the majority of wildlife photographers swear by the original and are unlikely to compromise on quality. After all, it’s a one off only purchase and the price is minimal when contrasted with the four figure (or five figures) sum spent on top quality telephoto lenses.
Flash photography when it comes to birds is used in two main ways: as fill flash in certain lighting situations, or at night time where flash is the only light source. Both methods require practice, knowledge of how flash impacts on the image, and very importantly: ethical considerations into the effect of flash on the bird or animal itself.
An external flash unit can be mounted directly on most DSLR camera bodies (you will of course need a flash compatible with your body), however best results are achieved when the flash unit is placed off camera: for example on to a flash bracket.
4. Flash Extender
If you’re using flash on a telephoto lens of any focal length of 300mm or more (as you will be most of the time for birds), then a flash extender is needed to, yes, extend your flash distance range.
5. Beanbag Lens Support
If you’re fortunate enough to be able to go birding from a vehicle, or sit in a permanent hide, then camera and lens support doesn’t have to be limited to use of a tripod.
Beanbags are compact and highly versatile. Some people make their own with a bag of rice, but for something more substantial we need to look at products like the highly regarded LensSack from LensCoat.
This is a lot more than your average bag that you plop your lens on top of; it’s designed to snuggly fit the lens while providing optimal solid support for the heaviest telephoto lenses; additionally they have a built in thread so can be attached to a tripod head – you won’t get that on your average bag of rice 😉
This doesn’t sound very “bird” or very “photography”, but a good pair of warm thermal gloves means the world of difference if you’re getting out there at the best time of day during the winter months: early morning.
Depending where you live of course, if the temperatures have plummeted but you’ve still headed out to catch the first light of the day and some fantastic dawn and early sunrise bird behavior and scenes, the last thing you need is to be worrying about frostbite on your hands.
Having freezing hands is uncomfortable, potentially dangerous in the most extreme places, and can seriously limit your camera handling ability. In other words, while you’re worrying about how cold your hands are, you’re not thinking about taking great photos.
Good photography gloves are thin and lightweight, but warm enough while not limiting your dexterity. They also need to be fingerless so you can access your camera unimpeded.
7. Air Blower Lens Cleaner
Bird photography entails being out in changing environments amongst nature: that’s a given. With this comes dust and dirt.
Even though small dust and dirt particles on the lens element rarely show up in images, leaving this debris on the front of the lens is not ideal; in terms of the health of the lens itself, and the potential the dirt build up can impact image quality over time.
Having a tiny accessory on hand in the forms of an air blower is one of the easiest, quickest and cheapest accessories we can have – not to mention one of the things you’ll end up using the most.
If you’re into recording video, you’ll quickly learn that the built in microphone of any camera is just not up to task of capturing high quality audio.
That’s where an external mic comes into play. And it’s the audio of a bird or wildlife video that means the difference between an average motion clip, or one that truly grabs attention and comes to life on the screen. A microphone should also be equipped with a quality windshield, to help minimize the unwanted noise that even a light breeze can cause.
Mics made specifically for use on a camera generally fit into the hotshoe at the top of the camera body, and as with any sort of audio visual equipment: you absolutely get what you pay for when it comes to microphones. Sennheiser and Rode are two of the big names in DSLR microphones and accessories.
9. Emergency rain cover
You can do all the weather forecast research in the world, but that doesn’t mean you won’t get caught out when things don’t go to plan.
A good waterproof backpack is essential when you’re out in the wilderness, or out anywhere where you can’t quickly reach shelter in the event of a downpour or just a light shower.
A rain cover for camera and lens is another option that not only brings peace of mind, but allows you to keep shooting in conditions where other people would have packed up and left. And this is so often when those magical photos happen. A good raincover is a gear saver, just make sure you get one that’s large enough to fit the lens you’re likely to be using it with.
10. Bird Hide
Not everyone’s cup of tea, but for those interested in staking out some of the more sensitive species and spending hours at a time (or even days) doing so, you can’t go past a quality bird hide to well, hide in.
A good hide not only dramatically increases the chances of getting some exceptional photos, but also reduces stress on birds that otherwise would be distressed or at least very wary at the sight of humans.
This then allows capture and observation of completely natural behavior that’s not at all impacted or influences by your presence; and that has to be the true pinnacle of bird and wildlife photography.