The Best Lens for Bird Photography

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The question of what might be “the best” lens for any subject has been a contentious subject for years. It’s often an argument tossed around by amateur photographers through to experts and professionals with very little in the way of a definitive answer. This is because there are a few factors to consider before splashing out on a new shiny lens, which impacts the best lens for bird photography. This handy guide will help you make a more informed decision, whether you’re looking for a prime, zoom, Nikon, Canon or Sony lens.

Prime lens or Zoom lens?

Prime lens

Prime lenses are fixed focal ranges, meaning that to get closer to your image, you have to get closer to your subject physically. So why would you go for such an unhelpful lens? Prime lenses are generally much sharper than zoom lenses because the optics inside the lens are tuned perfectly for that focal range. Prime lenses are often “faster” too, offering a larger aperture than zooms, thus making them better suited for low light situations. Prime lenses are undoubtedly better, but all this high quality comes at a cost.

 

Prime lenses are generally the most expensive option for lens purchases. For example, the Sony 600mm F4 Prime lens retails at around £12,000 and its little brother, and the 400mm f2.8, retails at a whopping £10,500. Prime lenses are generally bulkier and heavier too, because of the sheer amount of glass. So unless you have money to spend on the impressive kit, it’s usually better to go with a zoom lens. It’s also worth noting that, although you get higher quality images with a prime lens, the quality difference is negligible unless you’re printing these images to billboard size. Prime lenses are also a bit harder to use from a birder’s perspective – because you’re always zoomed into 600mm (for example), finding your subject and tracking it is difficult, especially for handheld shooting.

 

Zoom lens

Zoom lenses are a very different beast and offer considerable diversity. Because zoom lenses are not usually the manufacturers’ flagship lenses, zoom lenses are often substantially cheaper with only minor drops in quality. In my humble opinion, Zoom lenses are a much better option for the amateur birder. They offer far more versatility for composition and style and a higher success rate because you’re not stuck at that fixed focal range.

 

The downside of a zoom lens is that it sacrifices lowlight performance. Generally only amplified by the use of a fast shutter speed or when using a teleconverter, but we’ll come to that in a bit! You’ll see from this list that most of the lenses are zoom lenses rather than fixed primes, and, when you’re out shooting while using Birda, it’s pretty rare to see anyone using a large telephoto prime.

 

It’s worth noting that the body of your camera can offset some of the challenges presented by using a zoom lens. If the camera body can offer some support with image stabilisation.

Is a bigger photographic lens always better?

In a nutshell, yes. When it comes to birding, bigger is generally better. Because birds are naturally shy and nervous, getting very close to taking a good shot is often challenging. It’s best to get a lens with a minimum of 300mm focal distance, although even 300mm will be a little short for most wildlife, let alone birds, unless they are pretty tame and don’t mind you coming close.

 

The optimum range is between 400-600mm at the far end, giving enough reach to see the subject clearly, but these lenses also offer a large enough aperture to photograph in lower light conditions. Any lens larger than 600mm and you’ll tend to see a significant drop off in aperture (F-number), making it very difficult to photograph a fast-moving bird.

 

Teleconverters

Before we dive into the reviews of the lenses, I think it’s essential also to note the use of teleconverters and what they do to your images. Teleconverters require a small amount of maths, saving some headaches later. Teleconverters increase the focal distance of your lens, but they also decrease the image quality and the available aperture.

 

Teleconverters in practice

A 2x teleconverter on a Canon 600mm f11 lens would increase the focal length to a staggering 1200mm but decrease the aperture to f22. This means that you would need a considerable amount of light and a good camera body to get a usable image. Another example might be a 1.4x teleconverter on a Tamron 150-500 f5-6.3; this would increase to a 210-700mm and f7-8.8.

So you see that it’s often a trade-off. You get a closer image, but it becomes harder to use your lens in day-to-day scenarios, but that’s up to the photographer to decide.

Canon bird photography lenses

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM

Canon EF 100-400mm f_4.5-5.6L IS II USM
Amazon Canon EF 100-400mm f_4.5-5.6L IS II USM

Rating: 7/10

  • Mount: EF
  • Autofocus: Ultrasonic (ring)
  • Stabilised: Yes
  • Filter size: 77mm
  • Minimum focus distance: 0.98m
  • Weight: 1.64kg
  • Cost: ~£2,000-£2,500

Pros:

  • Image stabilisation
  • High image quality
  • Sharp

Cons:

  • Heavy
  • Pricey
  • Not enough reach for good bird photography

The second iteration of the classic Canon 100-400, this version has more refined autofocus and zoom mechanism. A significant positive about this lens is that the zoom is internal, meaning that the weight doesn’t shift in the barrel of the lens, making it much easier to shoot handheld. This lens does feature image stabilisation which means that you gain up to four stops of exposure if it’s in the perfect conditions. However, this is an expensive lens for 400mm, so I recommend shopping around for a second-hand one rather than buying directly from a retailer. A downside is that 100-400mm is a little on the short side regarding wildlife and birding photography. Unless the subject has sat directly in front of you and less than 10m away, you’ll struggle to capture detail. On top of all that, it’s heavy! At 1,640g your back may not thank you if you’re carting this lens on a Birda session.

Canon RF 100-500mm f/4.5-7.1L IS USM

Rating 8/10

  • Mount: RF
  • Autofocus: Ultrasonic (ring)
  • Stabilised: Yes
  • Filter size: 77mm
  • Minimum focus distance: 09-1.2m
  • Weight: 1.53kg
  • Cost: ~£2,900-£3,200

Pros:

  • High build quality
  • Versatile focal range

Cons:

  • Narrow max aperture
  • Expensive

 

The Canon 100-500mm is a prevalent and versatile lens for birders. The 500mm focal range means that the photographer has ample reach for small birds or wildlife at a distance. It’s aimed squarely at wildlife photographers with great attention to detail on the exquisite build quality.

 

One of the significant downsides is the extending barrel – as mentioned earlier. I started shooting with a Fujifilm 100-400 lens. I found it incredibly frustrating to hold the lens stable as the barrel crept forward and adjusted the weight distribution, especially if it’s handheld. It’s a minor thing and certainly not a deciding factor but an annoyance nonetheless. The aperture is a fairly modest 4.5-7.1; the former is pretty good for the range, but shooting at f7.1 doesn’t give much wiggle room, even with the advertised “6 stops of image stabilisation”.
The price is pretty high for a lens with these specs, but the quality of the image and the extended reach it offers is perhaps worth it.

Canon RF 600mm f/11 IS STM

Rating: 6/10

  • Mount: RF
  • Autofocus: Stepping motor (lead screw-type)
  • Stabilised: Yes
  • Filter size: 82mm
  • Minimum focus distance: 4.5m
  • Weight: 0.93kg
  • Cost: ~£800-£900

Pros:

  • Cost
  • Lightweight

Cons:

  • Fixed f11 aperture
  • Not weather sealed

 

The Canon RF 600mm f/11 IS STM is a somewhat unique lens and not quite as ridiculous as it first sounds. Yes, the small aperture of f11 is pretty underwhelming, but that brings the cost down and makes this lens so compact and portable. The lens could perform very well if paired with a strong enough camera body. Although it’s also worth noting that at f11, the chances of getting that dreamy, creamy bokeh in the background are greatly diminished; there’s a reason why those 600 f4 lenses cost so much! This could be an excellent lens for amateur birding photography because it’s compact, cheap and with a reasonable focal distance. The downside of this lens is the smaller aperture, but also the lack of weather sealing around the gasket make’s it a little less practical when out and about. But for the price, this isn’t too bad at all for a prime lens.

Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HMS

Rating: 8/10

  • Mount: Canon EF
  • Autofocus: Ultrasonic
  • Stabilised: Yes
  • Filter size: 95mm
  • Minimum focus distance: 0.6m
  • Weight: 1.93kg
  • Cost: ~£850-£1000

Pros:

  • Great reach
  • Great value
  • Fast lens

Cons:

  • Telescopic
  • Dated

The Sigma 150-600mm is a favourite for wildlife and bird photographers. With an excellent range, users are sure to have the right reach for any subject, and the relatively fast aperture is plenty for daytime photography. This lens is a little older now, although Sigma has released newer “sport” versions which offer faster autofocus and slightly higher image quality but are more expensive (~£1200). It’s lightweight and built like a tank, so it’s ideal for its outdoorsy life.
There are certainly newer lenses, but this one is well-suited and, time and time again, has proven to be excellent for bird photography.

Nikon bird photography lenses

Nikon AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR

Nikon AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR

Rating: 8/10

  • Mount: Nikon F
  • Autofocus: Ultrasonic (ring type)
  • Stabilised: Yes (although it’s labelled as “vibration reduction”)
  • Filter size: 95mm
  • Minimum focus distance: 2.2m
  • Weight: 2.3kg
  • Cost: ~£1250-£1500

Pros:

  • Great zoom range
  • Constant f5.6 aperture
  • Great value

Cons:

  • Incompatible with older Nikon DSLRs
  • Quite heavy

The Nikon 200-500 is a fantastic starting point for any birder. With a fixed aperture of f5.6 even at 500mm and a very reasonable cost, there aren’t many lenses with these specs and at this price. The optics of this lens are solid and sharp, and if paired with a good body, the autofocus is outstanding. It is another lens with a telescopic barrel (which I dislike), but this shouldn’t be a deciding factor if you’re on the fence about the lens. It’s also pretty heavy at 2300g, which might make it a bit of a lump if you plan hiking with it. There have been some reports that this lens suffers from ‘lens creep’ (where the lens extends with its weight), but the manufacturer has equipped this lens with a lock on the side, to stop this problem. The price is extremely fair, and if this lens were compatible with all Nikon cameras, this would be a 10/10 from me. Unfortunately, the weight and the compatibility issues let this camera down a tiny bit.

Nikon 600mm f/4E FL ED VR AF-S

Rating 8/10

  • Mount: Nikon F
  • Autofocus: Ultrasonic (ring type)
  • Stabilised: Yes
  • Filter size: 40.5mm (rear)
  • Minimum focus distance: 4.4m
  • Weight: 3.81kg
  • Cost: ~£9,000-£10,000

Pros:

  • Fast aperture for low light
  • Great reach for birding and wildlife

Cons:

  • Very expensive
  • Heavy

 

This lens is arguably one of the most robust lenses in its category but has a pretty hefty price tag to match it. Solidly aimed at professional sports and wildlife photographers, this tank of a lens is hard to work handheld and should be paired with a tripod or monopod. Not one for the avid adventurers or hobbyists, as carting this around a nature reserve or up a mountain might be a little challenging – weighing in at almost 4kg on top of the camera’s weight. The fast aperture of F4 is more than adequate for low light situations and offers gorgeous bokeh and blur on the fore and background while retaining sharpness.

 

A 600mm prime is about as good as you’re going to get. The aperture is lightning fast, and as a result, the lens’s overall size is pretty overwhelming. This is a lens that I would want to keep the lens hood on at all times for fear of scratching the front element.

 

The Nikon 600mm f/4E FL ED VR AF-S features your standard focus limiter switches to help with the autofocus speed and of course, image stabilisation (remember – with a lens this size, you’ll struggle to shoot without stabilisation!).

 

The deciding factor in these large telephoto primes is the price. A zoom lens offers more versatility for a fraction of the cost, but if you’re after something to use in the darker evenings or the early mornings, then you can’t get much better than this one.

Nikon Z 800mm f/6.3 VR S

Rating: 8/10

  • Mount: Nikon Z
  • Autofocus: Yes
  • Stabilised: Yes
  • Filter Size: 46mm (rear)
  • Minimum focus distance: 5m
  • Weight: 2.385kg
  • Cost: ~£6,000-£6,500

Pros:

  • Immense range
  • Relatively affordable
  • Lightweight

Cons:

  • Immense range
  • Massive in size
  • Difficult to track subjects

 

First, let me set this one up by saying this is a mighty lens. 800mm is one of the most extended focal lengths and will be more than enough for any birding photography. The focal length of f6.3 Is also excellent for wildlife, although it will struggle in lower light, especially when it’s stopped down to increase sharpness (lenses tend to perform best between f7.1-f9 due to the laws of diffraction). There are some trade-offs for this insane reach: size and price. This lens is enormous. It dwarfs every other lens available, making it difficult to use handheld or in strong winds. The lens itself is massive, and the lens hood adds even more to the overall length—a big issue for birders who often want maximum manoeuvrability. The cost is relatively reasonable for a prime lens this size, but it’s still far more than most people can afford – especially when you can just put a 2x telephoto lens on a 400mm lens and get the same reach for less price!

 

The final issue with this telephoto is that 800mm is too big. Finding, tracking and photographing a moving subject at 800mm is nearly impossible. If you’re a sports photographer following players on a pitch, it’s much easier to work out where the subject will be, but at 800mm, it’s impossible to get a small moving bird into the frame, let alone photograph it. There is no denying that the manufacture of a prime lens of this reach which is both light and (relatively) affordable, is a feat in itself; sadly, I don’t think it’s one for the Birda photographers.

Sony bird photography lenses

Sony FE 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G OSS

Sony FE 200-600mm F5.6-6.3 G OSS
Sony FE 200-600mm F5.6-6.3 G OSS

Rating: 8/10

  • Mount: Sony E
  • Autofocus: Ultrasonic (ring type)
  • Stabilised: Yes
  • Filter size: 95mm
  • Minimum focus distance: 2.4m
  • Weight: 2.12kg
  • Cost: ~£1400-£1600

Pros:

  • Internal zoom
  • Fair price
  • Customisable buttons

Cons:

  • Poor foot design
  • Size compared to camera
  • Loose lens hood

 

Full disclosure, I shoot on the Sony 200-600 almost daily. It has been my go-to lens since switching to Sony camera systems, and although it has a couple of issues, I can comfortably say it’s my favourite lens. The build quality is excellent and features an internal zoom, making it easy to hand hold. The aperture size is relatively standard for this range of zoom, and the image quality has always been excellent.

 

I’ve thrashed my Sony 200-600 lens, subjecting it to waves, rain, sand and snow, and it remains super powerful and clean. One annoyance I have is that the foot of this lens is too small and doesn’t fit any area-swiss style plates, which means I’ve had to substitute mine for a third-party alternative. Additionally, I’ve found that the lens hood and the front optic have loosened over time. One minor gripe would be that this lens isn’t small, and it, therefore, dwarfs any small mirrorless camera paired with, especially the more compact Sony Alpha cameras. For the price, you’re not going to find much better than this. There are many switches and dials on the lens to suit your style. It’s weather sealed and not too heavy. For me, this lens is near perfect.

Other lens mount options for bird photography

Tamron 150-500mm f/5-6.7 Di III VC VXD

Rating: 8.5/10

  • Mount: Sony E & Fujifilm X-Mount
  • Autofocus: Linear stepping motor
  • Stabilised: Yes
  • Filter size: 82mm
  • Minimum focus distance: 0.6m
  • Weight: 1.73kg
  • Cost: ~£900-£1400

Pros:

  • Lightweight
  • Affordable
  • Weather sealed

Cons:

  • Telescopic
  • Cheaper Design
  • Slower aperture

 

The Tamron 150-500mm is an alternative to the Sony and Fujifilm telephoto zooms for much less money. The body of this lens is a little cheaper than its sister lenses but still offers more than enough reach for birding, although at 500mm, you may wanting more. The letdown here is the aperture. F5-6.7 is relatively slow for a 500mm lens and will mean that users will struggle in low light situations. It also has that same issue of lens creep (although it does feature a lock to stop this), so you may find that the weight of the barrel changes as you zoom into the subject. Not an annoyance for everyone but worth bearing in mind.

 

There are some great features here, though! It comes with an Arca-swiss foot mount which is a rarity nowadays – most Sony lenses come with an annoying wedge-shaped foot instead. The lens is straightforward to mount to a gimble or tripod. This lens is also remarkably lightweight, making it perfect for hiking and travel (an aspect which is only enhanced by its compact size). It’s also an affordable lens to get started with birding without breaking the bank. A solid option for anyone on the fence but will inevitably need to be upgraded before too long for more serious photographers.

Conclusion

There are many factors to consider when buying a new lens. My best piece of advice is to ask people who have used the lens you’re interested in before buying one of your own. They’re the ones who will give you honest feedback and hopefully offer the best advice. Hopefully, this little overview has been helpful to some budding birders. Make sure you do your research, and happy birding!

Frequently asked questions about the best lens for bird photography

Arguably the most crucial question. Make sure your purchase is well thought through and not just an impulse buy.
Are you going to be photographing birds, plants, mammals or people? The subject you will be working with will help determine many factors about the lens!
Big room ranges aren’t necessary if you’re photographing mushrooms or tame animals. It can be straightforward to just want the most zoom possible to get close to the subject. Make sure you’re thinking about what is the best all-around option.
Is this lens going up mountains, on planes, hiking or similar? Or will it be solely used on nature reserves or in a hide where it’s protected from the elements or doesn’t matter if it weighs 5kg?
I’ve been brash with my decisions before, and sometimes it’s tempting to buy a lens and then not use it enough. The best way to combat this particular issue is to rent the lens or borrow one from a friend before buying your own. That way, you can decide if you’ll get enough use out of it before committing your own money to the cause.

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