The Ultimate Nikon Birding Kit

Crested Caracara, South Texas. Photographed with a Nikon D500 and 300mm f/2.8 AFS VRII Nikkor lens. The fast autofocus and frame rate of the D500 really came through!

You probably know I enjoy photographing birds whenever I can get the chance. Over the years, I’ve used lots of different Nikon cameras, and I have to say that we’re living in good times if birding is your thing. After a year with the Nikon D500, I can honestly say that I’ve not run into a better birding camera from Nikon. The autofocus is deadly fast, the camera delivers 10fps RAW, and you can shoot 200 continuous frames when you use a fast QXD memory card. I’ve also had the chance to test a variety of Nikon lenses on my birding safaris, so here’s my current recommendations for anyone looking to maximize their Nikon birding experience. 

DSLR Camera Body
Pyrrhuloxia captured with Nikon D500 at ISO 4000

Nikon D500: Literally a mini D5 at a fraction of the cost and with the benefit of a DX-crop sensor, you get a 1.5x effective focal length multiplier. Frankly, it’s the best DSLR body I’ve used for bird photography to date. The D5 may have an edge in ISO performance, but the D500 still delivers exceptional images even above ISO 3200, and for the price, you can’t really beat it. I recommend adding the optional MB-D17 battery grip, which allows for better balance and ergonomics with long lenses. You can also use the larger EN-EL 18a batteries with this grip for extended battery life when you use the BL-6 battery chamber cover.
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Nikon Lenses

200-500mm f/5.6 AFS G VR Nikkor: This lens is about as good as you’ll get for an image stabilized telephoto zoom at a price that’s hard to match. The constant f/5.6 aperture allows for good autofocus performance, although it doesn’t acquire focus quite as fast as you’d get with a fast prime. It’s sharp, relatively lightweight, and the zoom allows you better framing when your subjects vary in size. Highly recommended!
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The 300mm f/2.8 AFS G VRII Nikkor delivers fantastic bokeh, even with a teleconverter. In this image, I paired the lens with Nikon’s TC-14EIII teleconverter for extra reach.

Nikon 300mm f/2.8 AFS VRII: If you can pick up a copy of this lens, you’ll love it. The focus is lightning fast, and on the D500 it effectively acts as a 450mm lens. It’s incredibly sharp wide-open, produces wonderful bokeh, and you can pair it with any of Nikon’s teleconverters for added reach. I recommend the TC-14EIII and TC-17EII teleconverters for best results, but you can even add the 2x TC-20EIII and still get excellent performance. This is quickly becoming my go-to telephoto lens for wildlife because it’s light enough to hand-hold when needed.
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Nikon 300mm f/4E PF ED VR: Sharp and incredibly lightweight, this is a great travel lens. You can pair it with the TC-14EIII and maintain autofocus.
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Nikon 500mm f/4 VR: There are two versions of this lens, as Nikon recently updated it to the “E” version. Either one will produce stellar results, but keep in mind that you’ll be effectively shooting at 750mm when you pair it with a DX body like the D500. If you are frequently after smaller birds, this lens rocks.
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3rd Party Lenses

If Nikon glass isn’t quite in your budget, you can still do well with these 3rd-party lenses. Keep in mind that they may not focus quite as fast as Nikon lenses due to their slower maximum apertures (f/6.3) and reverse-engineered designs. Nevertheless, these are some excellent options if your budget is tight.

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