Camera Versus Binoculars, A Bird's Eye View

Deb Hirt
Deb Hirt | Source

For Every Season

There are always two or more schools of thought on nearly every topic. In order to keep our feelings of justice without prejudice and as impartial as possible, we must sometimes broaden our horizons and try something new, perhaps missing a good sighting for the sake of learning that what we are currently doing is not always the best way to obtain information.

Having volunteered as a wild bird rehabilitator, my love for birds increased while I observed both their behavior and how different species reacted to one another during the Athos I oil spill in 2004. This experience eventually led me to photograph birds, and then become a serious bird watcher and ornithologist. In order to do that, getting out of my comfort zone as a wildlife photographer was a little unsettling. Not only was I no longer at one with my camera to never miss a shot of that elusive bird, my skills with a pair of binoculars, or “bins,” as they are often referred in the birding world, took a little time and patience. You’d better believe that I missed birds while using two mediums in which to view them.

White Ibis
White Ibis | Source

Can a Wildlife Photog Be a Serious Birder?

Practicing my skills with both a camera and bins at the same time was hard on the psyche as well as my birding numbers for eBird, which collects and compiles data for the world to see. eBird shows other scientists and ornithologists where bird populations are going at any given time, and during an El Nino year, such as 2015-2016, any bird can turn up anywhere. Unless that bird is properly documented, science will not count that bird at that reported location. That’s where the camera comes in, for it is impossible to dispute the fact that your bird was there.

This brings up a valid question that has been discussed in various circles: Can a wildlife photographer be a serious birder? Undeniably, but that photographer must be skilled in bird behavior, flight patterns, and where these birds are found. In other words, that American Pipit, a relatively common bird was not seen in a tree. That is not its behavior as a ground nester and a ground denizen. Behavior plays a large part in bird identification. What you believe that you see, isn’t always the case, especially with sunlight, and that can change coloration a great deal, but I am getting off the topic.

Spotted Sandpiper
Spotted Sandpiper | Source

Movin' On Up

Having begun watching birds through a camera lens and moving to binoculars opened up an entirely new world for me. Not every bird sings, especially not when out of breeding season, and not all birds vocalize. If one seeks warblers in Oklahoma, many of them are silent, and the trees must be scanned for them, which is why one must be knowledgeable on where they might be found. The Hooded Warbler and Ovenbird are often on the ground, whereas the Red-eyed Vireo is high in the trees.

Another important aspect is birding by ear. In order to complete your journey as a good birdwatcher, you’ll want to learn what your area birds sound like, since they will never always be in view. However, if you know that a bird that is a lifer is in the area and you watch that area closely for a little while, you just might nail a lifer.

Lesser Prairie Chicken, Endangered
Lesser Prairie Chicken, Endangered | Source

Camera, Bins, Or Both?

For the good points and bad points of camera vs. bins and heaven forbid that you use both, like I now do, there are some things that you need to know.

Your camera will help you find birds, and if you see a target bird, you can capture it right away. Looking through bins and then trying to get that photo, might cost you a little time and you could well miss that bird that you have been trying to photograph for three years.

On the other hand, there was a glove, BUT those bins will help you see more birds than that camera ever will, and you can bet your bottom dollar that your naked eye doesn’t even hold a candle to either one. When using eye enhancement, keep that medium close to the eye(s) if you really want to find those birds in a timely manner. There is a lot of truth in those words, “here today, gone tomorrow.” I learned that from experience, as have many other birders.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Endangered Bird
Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Endangered Bird | Source

General Thoughts On Equipment

As with any other product, get the best that you can afford if you’d like binoculars. There are a number of manufacturers out there, and with this item, you will get what you pay for. A harness is a good option to keep your bins at the ready, and you’ll want to keep the glass as clean as possible, so there are cleaning kits out there, but the simplest way to go is a lens pen that you can carry with you.

You photographers already have your weapon of choice, so I won’t even begin to touch upon that, unless you require a telephoto lens, so do your research and perhaps discuss your concerns with a sales professional.

Lens Pen to Keep Binoculars Lenses Clean

The Curve

There is also a learning curve for both camera and bins, and they are both different. With bins, it is so much easier to follow the flight of that American Bittern, but if you can get that shot, I commend you. Unfortunately, it was such a cloudy day when my good fortune came along, but there will be another time.

Just touching upon some of the important points will give you a good idea on what pitfalls there are with camera versus binoculars. There are more, and you’ll see what they are, but it all depends on what is important to your individual needs. It all comes with experience, and that truly is the best teacher that we have.

Warbling Vireo
Warbling Vireo | Source

And Then?

My final opinion is that I will continue to use both the camera and the bins, but you’ll never be able to use both at the same time, and I’m smiling when I say that. Go birding with a friend or a family member, and have fun while doing it. Yes, some will get away, but it will only improve your skills in finding those birds. Not only for that reason, one of you can use the bins and the other can focus that telephoto lens in order to capture that bird. Communication is the key.

Keep your eyes on the ground and your head in the clouds. Happy birding!

Tree Swallow
Tree Swallow | Source

More by this Author

Comments 62 comments

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 3 weeks ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Very true, Johan. There is so much to see, and if we record it, the possibilities are endless. You could be the one that photographs a rare bird for the first time!

Johan Smulders profile image

Johan Smulders 3 weeks ago from East London, South Africa

Like you I use both for the same reasons although many serious birders at our bird club prefer to only use binocs. That rarity needs to be recorded and the photos give me so much pleasure in any case that I prefer to go with both. With my camera close by I sometimes also capture photos of other object like insects, animals and even just the beauty of a sunset, so I cannot imagine being without my camera.

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 3 weeks ago from Stillwater, OK Author

You know, Cindy, everyone on Boomer Lake says that their bird knowledge has increased, as well. The column won first place in the People's Choice Awards.

cclitgirl profile image

cclitgirl 3 weeks ago from Western NC

Of course a photographer can be an amazing birder!! I've *always* thought that the shots you captured were just so incredible and your knack for bird identification has taught me a lot over these last few years.

In fact, I know more about birds because of you than because of any other source - so thank you! :)

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 5 weeks ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Thanks, Devika, but I really am still learning every day. Perhaps I shall never stop.

DDE 5 weeks ago

Beautiful and you have a great eye.

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 7 weeks ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Thanks, Dianna! There's always something out there for me to share with the world.

teaches12345 7 weeks ago

I would love to have a camera such as yours, along with your professional eye. I am reminded of the scene in Walter Mitty where they are viewing the ghost cat through camera lens. They do not take the picture because the photographer states that some times you just watch the beauty. I would find it difficult to not take a photo of something beautiful. Guess that's why we need to read your posts!

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 7 weeks ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Yes,Jackie, Owlcation is one of the new sidelines. There are SO many beautiful things out there in nature, it never ceases to keep me humble.

Jackie Lynnley 7 weeks ago

Hey I am signed in but not to your hub, one of these new things I guess?

Anyway no I do not recall ever seeing flowers like that but I would certainly love to. Some flowers I just know I cannot do justice to they are so beautiful and I am pleased I too keep running into new kinds every summer and it makes spring so exciting looking forward to it!

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 2 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Thanks, Norma! I know a little bit about a couple of things.

norlawrence 2 months ago

Great article with so much information. I learn so much reading your articles. The pictures were fabulous as usual.

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 4 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Thanks for sharing that, Sha. Canada Geese behave much in the same fashion, many times with the entire family resting under the shade trees at the lake. Nature is truly a marvel!

bravewarrior profile image

bravewarrior 4 months ago from Central Florida

Your photography is amazing, Deb. I always enjoy your photos and marvel at their clarity.

Yesterday I had one of those damn-I-wish-I-had-my-camera moment. The office building where I work is located on Lake Eola in Orlando. Swans are the main attraction of the lake, along with a variety of other water birds. Yesterday morning a co-worker and I were taking a short break outside the building. Across the parking lot, in the grass (on the lake side) was a mother and father swan with four babies. They were taking the kids for a walk. It was the most precious thing I've ever seen! The kids would get tired and sit down for a bit, but the parents wouldn't let them sit for long. After about 10 minutes the entire family took a break, finding just the right spot in the grass under the crepe myrtles, sat down and watched the humans. I didn't want to go back inside; it was such a beautiful moment. Witnessing the swans' parenting ritual was just breathtaking.

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 4 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Thanks, Vellur! There's a lot to consider in wildlife photography.

Vellur profile image

Vellur 4 months ago from Dubai

Beautiful photos and a great hub with a lot of valuable information.

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 4 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

It all depends on the situation, Missy. I once had a deep woods bird, the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, out on the ground foraging with a robin. Upon my approach, the bird flew to a branch for a fabulous photo op. They are never out in the open like that. Sometimes you just get lucky.

Missy Smith profile image

Missy Smith 4 months ago from Florida

This is an interesting article. I love watching birds, but cannot quite get the birds to stay long enough for a photo op. You have some great advice here. I would think it's probably even more exciting waiting on that hard to catch bird and when, and if, it does show up being steady enough to capture a perfect shot. That has to be tedious and an adrenaline rush all at the same time. I admire your obvious skill in this, Deb. :)

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 4 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Hey, ChitrangadaSharan! To me, nature time is some of the most relaxing and nurturing time that we can spend on ourselves. Keep practicing your photography like I do. I have been practicing for six years, and will continue to do so. Thanks for reading!

ChitrangadaSharan profile image

ChitrangadaSharan 4 months ago from New Delhi, India

Very interesting and informative hub with great analysis!

Your experience speaks here. I love taking pictures and Nature photography is my favourite. But of course they are nowhere near your brilliant clicks.

Thanks for sharing this excellent hub!

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 4 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Woodpeckers don't eat he same kinds of protein. It generally depends on what is available, and what the bird likes.

Drumming is both courtship, as well as territorial. Now is a bit late to be looking for a lady, so it is telling others that the territory is taken and to stay away.

Perspycacious profile image

Perspycacious 4 months ago from Today's America and The World Beyond

I could probably find this on the Web, but I thought I would ask an expert: How do the different types of woodpeckers decide where to find their food, and do they eat anything other than what they get from pecking wood somewhere?

Today a noticed a woodpecker loudly pecking on a telephone pole, I would have thought "Slim peckings there!" I have also seen a woodpecker pecking on a hollow dried rhubarb blossom stalk, apparently going after a spider or two. If it's the same woodpecker, given the time lapse between today and that rhubarb crop of several years ago, that bird is staying alive eating something.

Could pecking on the telephone pole today have simply been part of a courtship activity? The bird certainly announced his presence in the neighborhood.

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 4 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Sheila, I have been quite happy with the Nikon D7100 and Sigma 150-500 mm lens. It has a lot of punch for a very reasonable price. The lens is OS and I use it on a tripod, but it is said that you don't really have to use a tripod. I carry mine for 3+ miles, and have been known to carry it even longer when on out of the area birding trips, so a tripod is really worth the expense, as far as I am concerned. There's nothing wrong with used equipment, just go through a reputable camera store for the best deals.

sgbrown profile image

sgbrown 4 months ago from Southern Oklahoma

I use "bins" when I know the bird is too far away for me to get a good picture and that is most of the time. I am saving my money for a better lens and possibly and better camera too. I would love to know if you have any recommendations for either or both. :)

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 4 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Thanks, Larry. It took me a while to glean knowledge from both aspects and give everything a fair shake.

Larry Rankin profile image

Larry Rankin 4 months ago from Oklahoma

Great analysis!

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 4 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

My pleasure, manatita. There is so much more to do.

manatita44 profile image

manatita44 4 months ago from london

An extremely well-writtten, informative and another beautiful Hub, Deb. Awesome pictures, too. God bless your loving Heart

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 4 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

You know, Blond Logic, eBird is worldwide and I have a number of followers from Brazil, as many of our spring/summer birds go to your area to winter. Everyone from the Southern Hemisphere is interested in observing them in the northern habitat during your off-season. You'll see a lot of old friends on my blog now.

Blond Logic profile image

Blond Logic 4 months ago from Brazil

We don't have binoculars, only a camera. My husband will snap a picture even if it isn't clear if it is a new bird so we can ID it. Just this week, I had a pair of finches land about 10 feet from me when I was having my morning coffee outside. In the 7 years we've been here it was the first sighting of them. They were there for 5 seconds and then gone.

I use xeno-canto to identify bird sounds I don't know.

You have some wonderful images. I also hadn't heard of ebird but will take a look.

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 5 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Actually, Audrey, there is more to an art of the photography than not. I know many of the birds that frequent my lake fairly well, and with that said, I am not feared. I have actually been stalking birds and other animals for quite some time, and know their habits. The best way to find them is to vary your path, and literally, not wear a deep rut in the ground. When they know that you do the same things that they do, they begin treating you as an equal.

AudreyHowitt profile image

AudreyHowitt 5 months ago from California

I have a terrible little camera and so it is a pair of binocs for me--I wondered how you got such great shots! It didn't occur to me that a camera with the proper lens would work as well--

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 5 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Linda, It all depends on what you want to do. Some of us want it all, but of course, that is not possible. However, I truly am grateful for the opportunities that I have had.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

You've shared some lovely photos and an interesting discussion, Deb. I use binoculars because I don't have the right camera lens to get close-up photos of birds. That may change in the future, though.

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 5 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Hey, Dora! Thanks for reading, and always remember the birds.

MsDora profile image

MsDora 5 months ago from The Caribbean

Deb, this is a great, practical lesson for anyone interested in bird watching, photography or both. Thanks for the explanation and for sharing your personal views. Both your words and pictures enrich your readers' knowledge.

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 5 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

It can be a harder situation, Jodah, as birds will not always stay in one spot for long. However, at least you see something for a fleeting moment that could have been questionable, if for just a second. Unfortunately, I missed a shot of a Yellow-breasted Chat yesterday, but, what can you do?

Jodah profile image

Jodah 5 months ago from Queensland Australia

This was very interesting, Deb. The camera and bins both have different advantages, but it must be difficult to switch from one to the other quickly. Your photos are always amazing. Thanks for sharing.

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 5 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Hey, tireless traveler! We are a different lot, for sure, and we never lack for any interesting tidbits about nature. Glad that you enjoyed the article, for there is much more in my head.

tirelesstraveler profile image

tirelesstraveler 5 months ago from California

I have a complete visual of what you are talking about. While birding my friend gets tangled in her straps. She is never without her bins, camera, hat, and glasses. Birding is fascinating. The people who bird are fascinating too. Excellent article.

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 5 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Hey, Faith Reaper! Thanks for the kudos. There are so many birds out there that look so different up close and personal, the swallow clan being some of them. Those are the birds that are always on the move, and if they settle once in a while, it is a rare opportunity to get a pic like that. I'm still learning, and I suspect that I will be doing so for quite some time. After all, behaviors tend to change under the circumstances, and no two birds will be alike.

Faith Reaper profile image

Faith Reaper 5 months ago from southern USA

Hi Deb,

I loved learning more about your techniques. I believe you have mastered using both, just from the amazing photos you post here. I love that first photo of you with your camera and the lake in the background with that lovely sunset.

Wow, I've never seen a Tree Swallow like that last photo there with the gorgeous color!

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 5 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Thanks, whonu. I have been working on my masters.

whonunuwho profile image

whonunuwho 5 months ago from United States

Beautiful pics my friend. Good to hear from you. whonu

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 5 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

In this country, too, Nell, the black birds do the same thing! Thanks for reading!

Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 5 months ago from England

Interesting points Deb to be honest I wouldn't have a clue which one to use first, I suppose the bins then grab the camera, but what do i know? lol! you would have fun here, sitting on my balcony watching the Red Kites being chased in ariel battle by black birds! tiny birds against those birds of prey amazing but the black birds always win! great hub as always nell

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 5 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Your input is very important to me, Johan. Thanks for mentioning SABAP2.

Johan Smulders profile image

Johan Smulders 5 months ago from East London, South Africa

Use both Bin's and camera as I have also worked as a citizen scientist on the SABAP2 programme and often a photo will be crucial in identifying a rare sighting. Many of the LBJ's can only be separated in the field by sound as my wife and I found working on Wind farm research over the past few years. Keep up the good work and excellent input!

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 5 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

I bird with someone occasionally that uses bins, and then I use my camera for the most part. It allows me to find more birds that way, and makes it more enjoyable. Thanks for giving me your input, Suhail.

Suhail and my dog profile image

Suhail and my dog 5 months ago from Mississauga, ON

Very different and an informative hub! This is only one on the subject I have read. My brother, who lives in Bahrain, uses a bin routinely, while I am always with my camera fitted with a 300 mm lens. He and I complement each other. Our partnership has yielded some great results and lot of knowledge build up.

Thank you, for sharing your words of wisdom. They are very helpful indeed.

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 5 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Thanks, Liz. I've been meaning to do more research on the organization and see what you have to offer. Thanks for reading and happy birding.

Liz Deluna Gordon. 5 months ago

Hey Deb, I'd like to personally invite you to join the American Birding Association. I think you'd be very interested to read the President's Birding Together column this next issue of Birding. Thanks for considering joining. www.aba.0rg/join

Happy trails,


aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 5 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Hey, Jackie! You just happened to find a niche in flowers. I met a few wildflowers that I'd never seen before a couple of weeks ago, like the mimosa. It reminded me of the old Spencer Gifts fiberoptic lights. Remember those?

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 5 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Hey, Frank! There are so many more stories that I need to do, but my masters is tying up a lot of time, but what would you expect from masters of ornithology?

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 5 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Yes, Billy! Domestic quail are definitely good birds, too. This has been a great year for them, as there is so much to eat.

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 5 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Hey, Kaili! Good to see you here and I hope my birds up north are living well and prospering.

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 5 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Thanks, Mel! I have seen the pipit fly through during migration and occasionally, only one on the ground (of course!), but it isn't often at all. Thanks for reading!

Jackie Lynnley profile image

Jackie Lynnley 5 months ago from The Beautiful South

So interesting Deb. I used to use binoculars years ago and carry along my little book but once I got into photography I sort of gave up on birds and focus now on flowers but hey we can't all do the same things can we and you do the birds so beautifully. I can still enjoy them through you and others like you that give us such perfect shots!

Great photo of you too!

Frank Atanacio profile image

Frank Atanacio 5 months ago from Shelton

I love when you do these hubs.. the photos are fantastic.. and it's so worth the read bless you :)

billybuc profile image

billybuc 5 months ago from Olympia, WA

The voice of experience speaks, and anyone interested in becoming a better photographer or birder would do well to listen to you. Interesting as always, Deb! Right now I've got about 200 quail in the backyard, so that qualifies me for something in your area, right?

Kaili Bisson profile image

Kaili Bisson 5 months ago from Canada

Hi Deb, always love your articles. Agree that looking through bins first could cost you a great shot. Your photos are always fantastic!

Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere 5 months ago from San Diego California

Happy birding indeed. It can be a frustrating affair - bins, camera or both. But as I tell people, bagging a new bird for your list is as satisfying as bringing one down with a gun, and the poor animal doesn't have to die to make you happy. I love your photos. When we first moved into our neighborhood we used to have American Pipits patrolling our lawns but then, as you say, the trees grew and I haven't seen one in years. I miss the little boogers, but we have the consolation that Western Bluebirds have started to move in. Great hub!

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