My knees sank into the wet arctic tundra, as I crouched low, balancing my long lens on the tussock of grass in front of me. The Smith’s Longspur, a rarely photographed species, hopped nearby. I spot-focused on the bird’s eye and crackled off a series of bursts. Within moments, the bird fluttered off, and it was over.
That’s how bird photography goes. A few moments of excitement, accompanied, (if you are lucky) by a few beautiful frames. Then, the long wait for the next chance begins again.
When the opportunities arise, if you aren’t carrying the right lens for the job, you’ll miss the shot. But, what is the best lens for bird photography?
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What Is the Best Focal Length for Bird Photography?
Like many things in photography, there is no clear answer to this question. The best focal length depends more on the situation than the subject. I’ve photographed birds at 17mm, but would I recommend that as your primary lens for bird photography? Nope.
Generally speaking, bird photography lenses are long. Is 300mm enough for bird photography? How about 400mm? The answer to those questions depends on a couple of things: What sensor size is your camera?
On a full-frame camera, 300mm might be fine for birds in flight but is likely too short for perched songbirds. Yet, if you shoot with an APS-C or micro 4/3rds camera, then 300-400mm could be more than enough. (A 300mm on an APS-C camera is equal to 450mm, and 600mm on m4/3rd). Before you decide what’s right for you, first consider your camera, it makes a big difference.
Generally, lenses in the 400-600mm range are the most useful for bird photography.
What Lenses do Professional Wildlife Photographers Use?
It seems all professional photographers use big 500 and 600mm f4 lenses, but it’s not true. For years, my primary wildlife kit was a Canon DSLR and a Canon 500mm f4L. The equipment was sharp and fast, but also large, heavy, and cumbersome. And the big lens drew unwanted attention from gaping passersby.
My work involves travel to many remote locations. I’m based in Alaska, and assignments often require me to fly in small bush planes to remote wilderness areas. Weight is a top concern. Many times, I’ve had to leave behind my big 500mm. Frustrated, I sold my Canon equipment and switched to the compact micro 4/3rds cameras and lenses.
My primary bird photography lens is now an Olympus 300mm f4 PRO equipped with a 1.4x teleconverter. That combination yields a full-frame equivalent of an 840mm at f5.6. And it has the best image stabilization available! All at a fraction of the size and weight of a full-frame 500 or 600mm f4.
Pros use all kinds of lenses, big, small, wide, and telephoto. What a pro chooses depends on the situation and the needs of the shoot. Lenses are sure to be sharp and fast, with top-notch image quality- but that doesn’t always mean the biggest!
Deciding on the Best Lens for You
Technology has trickled down from the high-end lenses to entry-level equipment. Glass and image quality of affordable gear now rivals the top end equipment of 5 or 10 years ago. To get professional results, you don’t need the most expensive gear. A $10,000 lens is not necessary to capture high-quality photographs of birds and other wildlife.
Whatever camera you use, you’ll find a variety of lenses suitable for bird photography. Here are some good choices:
Sigma and Tamron dominate the third-party telephoto market. The quality of these lenses has improved in recent years. For budget-minded photographers looking to get into bird photography, these are good choices. Both Sigma and Tamron produce lenses for Canon, Nikon, and Sony cameras.
Sigma and Tamron 150-600 f5.6-6.3
Both Sigma and Tamron manufacture similar 150-600mm zoom lens options. Zooms offer a variety of focal lengths and compositional options in a single lens. For photographers eager to make the most of a single lens, this is very appealing.
These lenses have variable apertures. As you zoom in, the widest aperture on the lens grows smaller, which reduces the light to the sensor. This is a drawback. Users can expect, a small, but noticeable loss of light and image quality at the long end of the zoom lens.
Image quality is similar, but the “Sport” lens has a slight edge in quality. For bird photographers working outdoors, the weather-sealed “Sport” line is worth the extra.
An affordable entry into telephotos, this lens is Sigma’s answer to Canon’s popular 100-400. Quality is good at the price point, but the lens lacks robust weather-sealing.
For DSLR users or those with adapters for their mirrorless cameras, Sigma also offers a 500mm f4 lens. Priced thousands less than comparable Nikon, Canon, and Sony lenses, it’s still a costly piece of glass. The 500mm focal length and fast f4 aperture means a smooth bokeh and a pleasing, shallow, depth of field.
Canon offers several excellent options in telephoto lenses for bird photographers.
This compact lens has been a staple for bird and wildlife photographers for years. The newest version comes equipped with superior weather sealing to previous editions.
Canon 500mm and 600mm f4L IS II
These expensive but exceptionally-built lenses are a gold standard for wildlife photographers.
But at $13,000 for the 600mm, these lenses are likely to remain out of reach for most photo enthusiasts.
Canon 200-400 f4L IS with built-in 1.4x teleconverter
If you have the budget to handle high-end glass but fear a fixed focal length, consider the 200-400. This lens has a built-in 1.4x teleconverter, offering a total focal range of 200-560mm. You can count on durability and excellent image quality in this top-end lens.
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 500mm and 600mm f4E FL ED VR
Nikon offers a similar range and quality of lenses to Canon. Their 500mm and 600mm f4 are the equal of Canon’s super telephotos (and priced to match).
This lens costs less than other telephotos in both Canon and Nikon’s line. It is a good choice for a budget-minded photographer looking to get into bird photography. The wide zoom range and sharp resolution make this a great choice.
Though a stop slower than the 500mm f4 offered by Nikon, this new lens is also over $8000 less! Equipped with high-end glass and Nikon’s durability, this is sure to be a favourite for bird photography.
Sony is the new guy in the camera neighbourhood. Despite this, they have risen to the top and compete directly with Canon and Nikon. Sony is producing several excellent telephotos suitable for bird photography:
This lens has identical specs to Canon’s 100-400, is sharp, compact, and built for Sony’s mirrorless cameras.
This super-telephoto newcomer is an interesting option for bird photographers. The lens has a relatively slow aperture of f6.3 at the long end but does still reach 600mm. It is more compact and affordable than any comparable lens in Sony’s line. This could be a great option for photographers looking for a good lens for under $2,000.
Sony’s response to the famous Canon and Nikon 600mm f4 prime lenses. This G-Master rated lens is sharp, fast and durable. And expensive at nearly $13,000.
Micro 4/3rds Lenses
If you are shooting Olympus or Lumix cameras, you get a lot of bang for your buck when it comes to bird photography.
The micro 4/3rd sensor provides a 2x crop factor, effectively doubling the focal length of any lens used. In my years shooting the m4/3rd system, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the image quality and ease of use.
With a field of view equal to 200-800mm, few lenses compare to the reach of this compact lens.
Paired with a Lumix or Olympus camera, this is one of the most affordable ways to dive into bird photography.
With a 400mm field of view, this excellent lens is good for bird photographers. While more expensive than the 100-400 it is sharp, fast, and works well with both 1.4x and 2x teleconverters.
The flagship of Olympus’ telephoto lenses, this is a very sharp, fast, prime lens. This lens compares well to Nikon and Canon’s 600mm prime lenses, despite the cheaper price tag. Since making the switch to m4/3rd cameras, this has become my go-to lens for bird and wildlife photography.
It works well when paired with the Olympus 1.4x teleconverter for an equivalent field of view of 840 at f5.6. This lens is crisp with very fast autofocus and incomparable image stabilization.
This PRO level lens arrives in the fall and is sure to be sought-after by wildlife photographers. Though I’m certain this will be an expensive lens, I know I’ll be looking into it when released.
The Best Lenses for Birds in Flight
Photographing birds in flight is challenging when using extreme telephotos. A shorter lens with fast autofocus is often the best choice. 300-400mm (or equivalent) lenses are at their best when photographing birds in flight.
Canon and Nikon 300mm f2.8, and 300mm f4 lenses
Large, but faster than the 500 and 600mm f4s, these lenses may be the best available for shooting birds in flight.
A good secondary lens for Olympus and Lumix shooters, this provides an 80-300mm equivalent at f2.8. Paired with the fast autofocus of Olympus cameras, it’s a good option for birds in flight.
How to Choose the Best Lens for Bird Photography
With all these options, how does a photographer choose the best lens for their needs?
All of the lenses on this list are capable of making extraordinary images. Some will excel in low-light conditions, while others struggle. Some will have faster autofocus than others. The difference in quality and performance is narrower than the prices suggest.
Consider your camera system, your budget, and your actual needs. Will you be hiking, backpacking, or travelling internationally with the lens? If so, you may prefer a smaller, lighter option. Do you have an unlimited budget and want the utmost quality? Then consider one of the 500 or 600mm f4 prime lenses.
No matter which you choose, you’ll be spending a lot of money, so don’t rush into a decision.
A final piece of advice that I give whenever anyone asks me what lens or camera they should buy: try it first. There are several companies offering lens rentals. This gives you the chance to try out a lens without committing to buying.
Whenever I’m thinking of purchasing a new, expensive, piece of equipment, I always rent first. It gives me the chance to run the gear through its paces and check out the image quality. This way, I know what I’m getting before I ever whip out my credit card. I recommend you do the same!