Want to buy the best Nikon DSLR for bird photography? Look no further, I’ve done all the legwork for you! I tested cameras (where indicated), read hundreds of forums and reviews and got feedback from many amazing bird photographers on Instagram, Flickr, Twitter and Facebook.
Here’s my rundown of the best Nikon DSLR models for bird photography.
I have no affiliation with Nikon. This article was written independently.
What You Should Know Before Starting
One thing I didn’t initially realize about DSLRs is that the more money you spend, the easier the camera will be to use. If you’re new to the world of DSLRs and think all you need is the most basic model, consider the following: it’s not just about image quality. It’s about having a dedicated ISO button so you can easily adjust the ISO for each shot or having a large enough buffer to handle continuous bursts without freezing. Some entry-level models don’t have these features and this can make your life very difficult.
The other thing to consider is leaving room in your budget for a decent lens. There is one school of thought that you should buy the best lens you can afford and a camera body that’s simply good enough to get the job done. Food for thought.
Alright, let’s get into the options:
Crop Sensors (DX)
DSLRs fall into 2 categories: crop sensor and full-frame sensor. Crop sensors are smaller than full-frame sensors so they only capture a portion of the frame that a full frame sensor does. Many bird photographers like this “crop-factor” because it gives you more reach. A 500mm lens on a crop-sensor camera will give you the full-frame equivalent of 750mm.
I love this camera (yes, I’m slightly biased since this is my camera)! It’s a fantastic option for excellent image quality and good value for money. It also gets great reviews and is loved by many bird photographers.
The D7200 boasts 24.2 megapixels and has a decent frame rate of 6 frames per second. Its buffer can handle 18 RAW files, or about 3 seconds of continuous shooting. It also has a pretty great autofocus system with 51 focus points.
*Click here to open a chart in a separate window that compares the features of the modes I review in the article. It might be helpful to have this open while you’re reading.
The ISO button is on the left side of the camera, which makes it nearly impossible to change ISO with the camera up to your face. You can get around this issue by reprogramming the movie button (conveniently located beside the shutter) to control ISO. No big deal! You will have to do the same thing if you opt for a D750 or a D810, two models I review further on in the article.
For shots that require cropping, my experience is that this camera maxes out at ISO 2000 before the shots are generally too grainy to even post online. I have to do noise reduction on most shots taken above ISO 800.
Nikon D7200 Bird Photo Examples
The 7200 is a fantastic camera and I would recommend it over any of the cheaper entry-level models in Nikon’s range. It isn’t the fastest shooter out there, nor does it have the top of the line autofocus system, but for its price you can’t go wrong. You can get excellent shots with this camera, you just might have to work a little harder than someone with a more expensive model.
Cost: $996.95 on Amazon.
The D500 is Nikon’s top of the line crop sensor camera. This camera is built for speed with a fast frame rate of 10 frames per second and nearly unlimited buffer of 200 RAW files! It also boasts an excellent 153 point autofocus system that is the same one used on the D5 (a $6500 body!). I see more and more bird photographers using this model and everyone raves about it. It’s twice the price of the D7200, but if it’s within your budget, this is a great option to consider.
The D500 has 1 SD card slot and 1 XQD slot. You will need to buy a XQD Card card to take full advantage of the camera’s speed capabilities.
Nikon D7200 Versus D500
The major differences between these cameras are the autofocus system, frame rate and the buffer size. I had the opportunity to test the D500 for 45 minutes and I found that it focuses more quickly than the D7200. It can also really fire out the shots! When I’m taking bird in flight shots with the 7200, I have to be aware that my buffer will max out after about 3 seconds. This is still a reasonably long time, but you can’t just press down the shutter and blast away the way you can with a D500.
Both the D7200 and D500 will give you excellent quality images, but with the D500’s speed and faster focus you are more likely to get a sharp picture of a fast moving bird.
Although the D500 has slightly better ISO performance than the D7200, it is not on par with a full-frame camera like the D750. If you want to see for yourself, DP Review has a great tool where you can compare noise levels of an image taken by different cameras at different ISOs.
The D500 is a great option if you want a fast shooter than can really hammer out the flight shots or freeze the motion of fast moving birds. Considering it has the same autofocus system as the D5, it’s also good value for money. I also really enjoyed shooting with such a large buffer and fast frame rate – there is nothing hampering you from getting the shot you want!
Cost: Currently on sale for $1796.95 on Amazon.
The new kid on the block that fits somewhere in the middle between the D7200 and the D500. It has the same image sensor as the D500, the AF system of the D7200 and a frame rate right in the middle (8 frames per second). It has a buffer of 50 RAW files, which is larger than the D7200’s 18.
This camera is only available for pre-order, so there isn’t much data yet on how this camera will perform in the field. It only has 1 SD card slot which will be a bummer for some photographers.
As a 7200 owner, I wasn’t overly excited about the announcement of this model because it’s not radically different to what I already own. But, at only $250 more, it’s worth considering if you want the faster frame rate and larger buffer size. Having a dedicated ISO button is also a bonus. If I was starting from scratch, I would seriously consider this model.
Cost: Available for pre-order from Amazon for $1246.95.
Full-Frame Sensors (FX)
While crop sensors get you the extra reach, they lack the low light performance of FX cameras. Some photographers absolutely swear by full frames, but going with this option can cost you more.
The D750 shares a lot of similar features with the D7200 (same autofocus system and similar frame rate of 6.5 frames per second), but its larger sensor gives it the edge on low light performance and image quality. The D750 is also double the price of the D7200.
Low light performance:
I was really interested in finding out much better the D750’s low light performance is. If you’re going to trade-off the reach of a crop-sensor, then you’d better be seeing some seriously improved performance at high ISOs.
Using DP Review’s ISO comparison tool, the D750 performs significantly better than both the D500 and the D7200.
A popular nature photography blogger, Nature Photography Simplified, uses a D750 and claims to be able to shoot at ISO 3200 without hesitation. He says that buying a D750 was the best decision he ever made.
Verdict: This is a great camera for a wildlife photographer who also wants to dabble in landscape or astro photography. The low light capabilities of this camera make it an intriguing option for bird photography, but you lose the reach of a crop-sensor. Its buffer is also the smallest of any model I’ve reviewed (it holds 15 RAW files). In an ideal world, you would use a D750 for cloudy days and a crop-sensor body for sunny days!
This camera is the same price as the D500, but it doesn’t have the same great frame rate, buffer size and autofocus system. Are you willing to trade those off for better low light performance? Some would and some wouldn’t.
Cost: Currently $1795.95 on Amazon
The Nikon D810 is the megapixel king boasting 36.3 megapixels! This is the camera to get if you want high resolution images that are great for printing or cropping. Although not purely designed for birds, many bird photographers really rate this camera. It’s a fantastic option if you also do landscape, portrait or astro photography.
The downsides of the D810 for bird photography are that it only has a frame rate of 5 frames per second (you can boost this to 7 in DX mode and a battery grip), it’s one of the heavier camera bodies out there and the file sizes are huge. It uses a 51 point autofocus system which is respectable, but nothing compared with the D500 or D5.
Low Light Performance:
Using DP Review’s ISO Comparison tool, the D810 performs better than the D7200/D500, but not as well as the D750.
This blog has D810 photo examples at different ISO levels.
Although the D810 is capable of excellent bird photography results, it might not be your number 1 choice unless you do other genres of photography. The D810 costs $700 more than the D500, but it lacks the reach, fast auto focus system and higher frame rate.
One D810 photographer said that unless the bird is relatively close, he can get better details with his D500 because of its further reach. Another D810 photographer posted this article about their experience testing a D500. They concluded that for birds, the D500 is a better choice.
Price: Currently $2496.95 on Amazon
Low Light Performance:
Everything I’ve read indicates that this camera has amazing low light performance. Shots at ISO 8000 are still clean and even up to ISO 28800, the shots are usable with noise reduction software. One photographer said he can shoot at 1/8000 from dawn until dusk because the ISO performance is so good.
Check out Richard Peters blog for D5 bird images taken at different ISO levels.
You’re getting the same amazing auto focus as the D500, an even higher frame rate, amazing low light performance and a huge buffer. What more do you need? The only negative I can think of, aside from the price, is its weight (3.1 pounds).
Cost: Currently $6496.95 on Amazon.
Nikon DSLR Comparison Chart
Reading through all these models can make your head spin. Here’s a synopsis chart so you can easily compare each model’s features.
If you’re using a mobile device, tilt your screen sideways to see the whole chart.
|Cost||AF System||Frame |
|D7200||$996.95||51 point||6 fps||18||24.2||1.49 lbs|
|D7500||$1246.95||51 point||8 fps||50||20.9||1.41 lbs|
|D500||$1796.95||153 point||10 fps||200||20.9||1.90 lbs|
|D750||$1795.95||51 point||6.5 fps||15||24.3||1.7 lbs|
|D810||$2496.95||51 point||5 fps||28||36.3||2.2 lbs|
|D5||$6496.95||153 point||12 fps||200||20.8||3.1 lbs|
The best Nikon DSLR for Bird Photography
Choosing the best Nikon DSLR for bird photography is a personal decision that comes down to an intersection between your budget and the features you can’t live without. Any of the models I’ve reviewed are capable of taking fantastic shots of birds, but some of them just make it easier to do so.
Remember that lens choice is important! The Nikon D7200 paired with a good quality prime lens is likely a better option than a more expensive body and a lower quality lens.
The Nikon D500 came up time and time again as one of the best models out there for bird photography. If you really want better low light performance, then consider a D750. Lastly, if money is no object, get a D5!
-The Afternoon Birder
*If you choose to buy a DSLR from one of the Amazon links provided, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. This helps reduce the costs of running this website which is greatly appreciated.
Prefer a Superzoom camera? Read my article and buying guide: Why Superzoom Cameras Are Great For Bird Photography