Want to buy the best Nikon DSLR for bird photography? Look no further, I’ve done all the legwork for you! I recently updated this article to include Nikon’s exciting new D850 (link to Amazon). I’ve read hundreds of forums and reviews, received feedback from many amazing bird photographers and tried two of the cameras myself.
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 if you’re buying your first DSLR and want 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. 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 starter DSLR 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.
Cost: $996.95 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). The D7500 has a buffer of 50 RAW files, which is larger than the D7200’s 18.
It only has 1 SD card slot which will be a bummer for some photographers. On the plus side, the D7500 has a tilting touch screen and it shoots 4K video.
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: $1246.95 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: $1896.95 on Amazon.
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 twice the price of the D7200.
Low light performance:
I was interested in finding out how 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.
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: $1795.95 on Amazon
The D850 is the newly released update to the D810. It boasts some great new specs that seriously pique my interest for bird photography. 45.7 megapixels (imagine the cropping potential!), 9 frames per second with a battery grip (7 fps without) and 153 point autofocus system (the same as the D500 and D5). Plus, the initial reviews from wildlife photographers about this camera are outstanding.
Considerations: The D850’s buffer holds 51 RAW files which is significantly less than the D500, but still adequate. From initial tests I’ve seen online, its low light performance slightly surpasses the D500 and the D810, but doesn’t match the D5.
Like with the D810, the files sizes are huge and it’s one of the heavier camera bodies out there. Also, don’t forget that you lose the reach of a crop sensor like a D500. For subjects that are further away you can swap to DX mode, but then the 45.7mp is reduced to 19.4mp.
I would love to test (and likely buy) this camera! The faster frame rate, larger buffer size and faster autofocus system resolve many of the reservations I had about the D810 for bird photography. With the D850 you’re getting speed and high resolution images. I also like the option and flexibility of being able to switch to DX mode if needed.
*For a glowing review of this camera, check out Richard Peter’s article: Nikon D850 review. The best wildlife camera ever made. Richard is a Nikon ambassador, so bear that in mind when you’re reading.
If money is no object then the D5 is a fantastic Nikon DSLR for bird photography. Before the D850 came out, I said the D5 was the best Nikon DSLR for bird photography. Now that the D850 is on the scene, this point might be up for debate!
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.
The D5 boasts incredible low light performance and speed, but it lacks the cropping capability of the higher resolution D850 (the D5 has 20.8MP versus the D850’s 45.7)
With the D5, you’re getting the top of the line auto focus system, an even faster frame rate than the D500, amazing low light performance and a huge buffer. These are all ingredients for a powerhouse bird photography camera! The only other negative I can think of, aside from the price, is its weight (3.1 pounds).
Cost: $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||$1896.95||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||$2796.95||51 point||5 fps||28||36.3||2.2 lbs|
|D850||$3,296.95||153 point||7 fps (9 with a $396 battery grip)||51||45.7||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.
The Nikon D500 came up time and time again as one of the best models out there for bird photography. Now that the Nikon D850 is on the scene, I expect it will give the D500 a run for its money. Lastly, if money is no object then strongly consider 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