There’s no way around it; bird photography gear is EXPENSIVE! While you can get okay results of perched birds with digiscoping, if you want flight shots, or high enough quality images for large prints, sooner or later you will need to invest in some gear.
There have been impressive gains made with mirrorless cameras recently and in the future they might just be the best bet. With prices 1/2 to 1/3 less than high-quality DLSR cameras, they offer possible options. However, right now I don’t feel they’re quite there yet.
So what’s an aspiring bird photographer on a budget to do? I mean, come on, a new 600mm lens is $9,800 to $12,000, while a top-of-the-line camera costs over $6,000! By the time you add a tripod (imperative with a big, heavy lens), and gimbal head (to get those flight shots) you’re talking more money than I’ve paid for all but one of the cars I’ve owned. (My money goes into travel, equipment, & maintaining my small central-Texas nature preserve and photo ranch.)
The answer? Look to used equipment. Used camera gear offers affordable options. Lots of them!
Camera bodies, especially, depreciate like a rock as new models come out every 18-months or so. We were taking excellent digital photos five or six years ago, and cameras from that time still take excellent photos.
A crop-sensor camera like the Canon 40D can be picked up used for around $200. Coupled with a used 400mm lens (for around $1000) you end up with a rig capable of producing fantastic images at 1/10th the price of a new 600mm Canon lens alone. If you’re a Nikon fan, Nikon has the 80-400mm zoom that can usually be had for under $1500 used. The super zooms from Sigma are also worth considering.
Where to get these deals?
Start with friends or camera club members moving to newer equipment. If you have a good local camera store they often have used equipment for sale, too. If they don’t currently have what you want ask them to keep an eye out and give you a call when they get something in.
Next, the big dealers like Adorama and B & H Photo both have a used department. That’s where I recently got myself a used Canon 40D after regretting selling my old one (I sold my original camera through a forum, by the way). Other good choices are KEH.com and LensRentals.com.
Online forums — like where I sold that 40D — usually have a section for used equipment. This is a bit more risky if you don’t know the person you are dealing with. And then there’s the old traditional eBay. Again, this holds an element of risk as you don’t really know what you are getting.
One good thing about buying used from the prior owner is that, on occasion, they throw in some freebies, the sort of stuff that goes with the gear, which they no longer need or want. For example, I bought some used equipment directly from the owner and he actually sent me a water-tight Pelican travel case for free! He simply didn’t need it and figured I might. He didn’t tell me beforehand so you can imagine what a nice surprise it was to find that in the box!