Choosing the camera body for bird photography invited a lot of debate! It was good in fact. It opened up a lot of information.
If you haven’t read the comments, I would recommend you to read it now. As the comments have some of the important debates. You might find some interesting information there.
Today I have another debatable topic for you – choosing a lens for bird photography.
It’s the most crucial decision that you have to make. Even then many bird photographers fail to invest in the right lens. They buy lens after lens without actually gaining anything worthwhile.
Many bird photographers fail to invest in the right lens. They buy lens after lens without really gaining anything worthwhile.
Are you making the same mistake?
If yes, this article might prove to be an eye-opener for you. Pay attention and listen to me carefully.
Lens is the most important element in photography. No matter how good a sensor is and how fast the autofocus system is, if a poor quality lens will ruin your photographs.
All the sensors in the camera – camera sensor, autofocus sensor, and metering sensor – depend on incoming light. The light enters through the lens. If build and quality of the poor then the light gets diffracted or dispersed while traveling through different lens elements. Finally, the aperture opening and the blades will play a significant role in handling the incoming light well.
The larger the aperture opening, the better is your autofocus performance. Other advantages of a larger aperture are of course faster shutter speeds, better light contrast, better color reproduction, and superior image quality.
Read the above paragraph twice. That’s why it is of significant importance to buy a quality lens.
Quality doesn’t come cheap. It’s the universal rule. There’s no exception here. Quality lenses can cost your several thousand dollars. That too lens for bird photography costs a bomb.
Make a wise decision while buying a lens. Invest wisely!
DISCLAIMER: I have given choices only for the Nikon and Canon users. I don’t have any exposure to the other camera and lenses. If you are using a different camera body, I am sorry I cannot help. I hope you understand that.
Choosing a Lens
First things first.
Always try to go for camera manufacturer’s lens. Third party lenses, with few exceptions, are not made of great quality. They usually suck in their autofocus performance. And as you already know from the last newsletter, autofocus performance is a deal-breaker in bird photography.
Quality comes at a price. If you want quality photographs, invest in a quality lens. There’s no second guessing about it.
Any lens you buy, make sure it has superior image stabilization feature. Only purchase an IS lens in Canon and VR lens in Nikon.
Only in certain cases, if there’s no other alternative lens, you could consider buying a non-IS or non-VR lens. Provided it’s a prime lens. Remember…quality comes first, and the prime lenses are meant to produce the quality output.
Below I am giving 2 broad categories to help you make a right decision.
Bird Photography Lens for Beginners
For beginners, you have an excellent choice of lens for bird photography. Here are few of my favorites.
Canon 100-400mm IS II Lens
Probably the most widely used lens by many Canon bird photographers. It’s used as a secondary lens by the professionals too. Canon 100-400mm IS II lens quality is fantastic and the range is excellent for making habitat shots to the close ups.
Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 VR Lens
Nikon 200-500mm is the best thing that happened to Nikon users. I would recommend it to anyone who wants a good reach. I have checked the performance and the quality. It’s a fantastic lens. You have a good reach and a constant aperture combined with the VR. What else can one ask for?
Close your eyes and buy it!
Nikon 80-400mm VR Lens
Another sharp lens which is widely used by Nikon photographers. I haven’t used it but I have seen some professionals using it as a secondary lens.
In my opinion, Nikon 200-500 is your best bet when it comes to Bird Photography. You will get a better reach and a quality output for a phenomenally low price.
If you are looking at a versatile lens that can double as a landscape, wildlife, and a bird photography lens, then you could consider buying 80-400mm VR instead.
Canon 400mm f/5.6L Lens
I think Canon users should check out this tiny lens. It’s an inexpensive lens with superior sharpness. When I first looked at this lens while I was shooting in Bharatpur, I couldn’t believe that it’s a 400mm prime. As 400mm is too short.
But I have heard that it’s a fantastic lens. The reviews seem to back it as well. I think it’s worth checking out.
Lenses For Budget Conscious Buyer
If you are short on the budget (tell me who is not? :)), you could buy Canon 100-400mm IS lens (previous version).
Canon 100-400mm IS lens (Push-Pull)
Probably the most widely used lens until the introduction of IS II lens. It uses a push-pull technology where you have to push the lens to zoom in and pull it back to zoom out.
I have used this lens coupled with Canon 5D Mark III for more than a year. I had very good success with this combination. Though I felt the sharpness was not up to the mark.
Or you can think of buying a second hand 100-400 IS/200-500VR/80-400mm VR lens. If you can spend a good time in understanding how to check a second-hand lens, you will get unbelievable deals. Don’t be lazy. Google and find out the best ways to test the lens. Ask your friends with more expertise to help.
While checking second-hand lens, make sure to check for obvious wear and tear, fungus, scratches, etc. It’s good always to go with another photographer so that you can discuss out few things.
When I purchased my first and only second-hand lens, Nikon 18-200 VR, I did a lot of research. Then I took my friend to check it. It was his friend’s lens that made the matter much easy. I have used this lens for more than five years, and now it’s with my brother-in-law from 3 years 🙂
Canon 300mm f/4L IS Lens
Another decent option is 300mm f/4 lens from Canon. As for as I know it’s a brilliant lens with excellent sharpness and contrast.
Nikon 300mm f/4 VR Lens
I didn’t know about theVR version until now!
With VR capabilities, Nikon 300mm f/4 lens can prove extremely useful. I am hoping that it is as sharp as the earlier version. As I know, the 300mm f/4 non-VR lens is one of the sharpest lenses from Nikon. I am assuming this new lens to be as good as the earlier version.
Couple with 1.4x Teleconverter
Since it’s a prime lens, you can couple it with 1.4x teleconverter which will give you good reach. Unless you are an experienced bird photographer, I would recommend not to use a teleconverter. There are 3 reasons:
- You would lose a stop of light which means you will loose on the shutter speed.
- Due to reduced shutter speed, the chances are that you will introduce camera shake.
- The autofocus slows down affecting the performance.
I would suggest this combo only to an experienced bird photographer.
Lenses For Extremely Budget Conscious Buyer
If you are extremely short on budget, then you can consider buying Canon/Nikon 70-300mm IS/VR version.
Canon 70-300mm IS Lens or Nikon 70-300mm VR Lens
It’s a fairly decent lens with good image quality. Don’t expect to surpass 100-400, 200-500 or 80-400 lens. Purchase this lens if and only if you are completely out of cash. Or, you are not very sure if you like bird photography or not.
If you are cribbing that you don’t have money, then I have a suggestion for you. Save money for a year. It’s not hard to save $200 a month, isn’t it?
While you save your money, learn the skills needed with the current equipment. It’s the skills which pay off in the end, my friend.
Some Fun and Interesting Facts
I started off with a second-hand 18-200mm VR lens, which was the backbone of my initial 4 years of photography. Then I have used 70-300mm VR for quite some time with great results.
As I repeatedly state;
It’s not the camera or the lens; it’s the man behind the camera which matters a lot!
My best friend, Carl Benson, and I would put it in a funny way to tease each other:
It’s not the camera man; it’s the man behind the camera, man!
I owe a lot to my Carl for his help in many respects. Thank you! Carlski.
Lens for Experienced Bird Photographers
More experienced bird photographer you are, deeper pockets you need 🙂
It’s a pity that all our savings gets eaten up before we even realize. It’s maddening. But we are mad. Isn’t it?
In bird photography, reach trumps everything. I know it’s a contradicting statement from me. I can understand the frustration here. When I say reach trumps everything, I don’t mean the effective focal length that you get out of a cropped sensor.
I mean the real focal length. For instance, it’s always better to have a 600mm lens than a 400mm lens as long as you are using the full frame camera.
It’s never enough, in fact. It’s usually a debate between using a 300mm f/2.8 with a teleconverter and buying a 500mm f/4, 600mm f/4, or 800mm f/5.6.
Take this idea for granted. A 300mm f/2.8 + 2.0x is never comparable with 600mm lens. Sooner you accept better it is. Think about it for a second. Why would Nikon/Canon charge you a whopping $9,000 for 600mm lens while you can get the 300mm f/2.8 + 2.0x combo for $6,250?
A 300mm f/2.8 + 2.0x is never comparable with 600mm lens. Sooner you accept better it is.
Teleconverters are like digital zoom. Digital zoom is never same as an optical zoom. Google it to find out the difference.
Here are a few of the best lenses for bird photography.
Canon 600mm f/4L IS II lens or Nikon 600mm f/4 VR lens
The 600mm lens is arguably the sharpest and best quality lens produced both by Nikon and Canon. At f/4, it strikes the right balance of high focal length and light gathering capabilities. They superb when it comes to contrast and bokeh.
One of the biggest caveats of these lenses is their weight. While the latest versions of these two lenses weigh just short of 4 kg, it would still be heavy to hand hold for more than a minute.
You would always have to use the Gitzo tripod + Gimbal head combination to get the sharpest results with these lenses.
Overall the weight could go close to 8 to 9 kgs making it a pain. It might take several months to get adjusted to this heavy weight equipment.There are several instances where I would curse their sheer weight! It’s frustrating really when you are unable to adjust your position because of the rigid tripod setup. But, the quality that you get is next to none.
Think about it…the guy next to you with a hand-held lens is maneuvering the lens as he wishes, but you are struggling to get your height adjusted. It feels annoying. But then, you need that quality.
Canon 500mm f/4L IS lens or Nikon 500m f/4 VR lens
I think arguably this is the most widely lens by wildlife and bird photographers. As per the reviews, this lens is as sharp as a 600mm f/4. It’s also much lighter lens but produces high-quality images with excellent contrast and sharpness.
One of the biggest concern of 600mm f/4 and 800mm f/5.6 is the sheer weight.
A 500mm f/4 lens is just about 3 kg! Can you believe it? I can hand-hold it the whole day. Mind you; I have hand-held my 300mm f/2.8 lens which was about the same weight.
In fact, I was supposed to buy a Nikon 500mm f/4, but there was no stock. I had to buy a lens before going to Bharatpur and I bought a Nikon 600mm f/4. Do I repent? May be or may be not 🙂
The 600mm is always the best but when I consider the weight and maneuverability, I wish I had a 500mm lens. One day when 600mm f/4 lens weighs 3 kg, then I will be the first to buy it. (Really ?! Money???)
Canon 800mm f/5.6L IS lens or Nikon 800mm f/5.6 VR lens
There is a reason why the longest of the focal length is in the 3rd spot. First reason is it’s ultra expensive. The second one is it looses one stop on the maximum aperture compared to a 600mm lens.
I think loosing a stop can be heavy in terms of bird photography. I am not sure if I would ever be excited to buy this lens. But you never know.
Canon 300mm f/2.8L IS II or Nikon 300mm f/2.8 VR II Lens
At 300mm, the lens is too short of the focal length. But, because of its smaller price tag (compared to 500mm and 600mm), it’s a preferred choice of many bird photographers. I did use the Nikon 300mm f/2.8 as you might be aware.
It’s an ultra sharp lens with amazing quality. However, I would not recommend this lens if you are seriously into bird photography. It hinders your performance seriously because of the shorter reach. It’s never the same as using a 500mm or a 600mm lens. Believe me, save some more and buy a 500mm or a 600mm lens. You’ll thank me.
Thinking of using it with a teleconverter? See the last section.
Canon 400mm f/2.8 or Nikon 400mm f/2.8 Lens
This lens is almost in the border with no real reason to buy for bird photography.
First of all, the reach is not great. Then because of its higher aperture, it’s hefty. It’s almost 4 kgs. Most importantly, it’s cost close to a 600mm f/4 lens! One stop gain in light is not worth so much money.
I wouldn’t suggest this lens to you.
It always boils down to one question. Can I afford this lens?
It’s a million dollar question which lingers on. Every bird photographer or any photographer, for that matter, will have to be careful while selecting the lens.
Remember that a wrong lens on a professional camera body is much worse than a great lens on a decent camera body.
The lens is the window to the camera sensor, the autofocus sensors, and metering sensors. Always consider buying the highest quality lens that you can afford.
If you can afford to buy a 500mm or 600mm lens, go for it. Both these lenses are excellent regarding sharpness, contrast, and image quality. You will know it when you use it. They are well worth the money.
If you cannot afford them now, I would suggest you save the money. Instead of buying a cheaper lens, why not wait for a year or so? It’ll be worth a wait. Believe me.
The bottom line is…Start saving money for a superior lens.
Third party lenses and Teleconverters
I have dedicated a whole article to discuss the pros and cons of third party lens and the teleconverters.
If You Are Serious About Improving Your Skills, STOP Going To Bird Photography Workshops
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That’s it for today. I hope I made your life painful now 🙂 I have put more confusion to an already confused soul. That’s my job 🙂
You might be tempted to buy an affordable lens with the money you have at hand, but remember you will come back to square one. You will not be satisfied. Then you will start cribbing again. I can guarantee it.
Bird photography is about patience. Agree? Be patient my dear friend. Save as much as you can. Cut down on unnecessary expenditure. In the meantime, learn more skills. Master the skills.
Now it’s your turn to tell me about your favorite lenses. It’ll be nice to know which lens you would ultimately want to buy and what’s your plan of action to buy it.