Birding Lens Selections

Canon EF 600mm f 4L IS III USM Lens 26 Feb 2022

Birding lens selection has been revised from an old post on a previous website as it has had a lot of hits and seems to be a very popular subject of discussion among bird photographers. So here it is…

I have personally changed my set ups over time as I have gained experience, better options have become available and my needs have changed. I say set “ups” as I have a few options depending on the situation. These situations are having something ready and handy to hand hold while driving through the countryside, setting up a long lens on a tripod for a particular species and then the shorter zoom for closer encouters such as a zoo or for night photography.

For wildlife photography and in particular bird photography a long lens with a focal length of at least 300mm is really essential. Preferably much longer, the basic rule of thumb for bird photography is to get the longest lens you can afford. Unfortunately that statement is not particularly informative, if you are trying to find out how long a focal length to get. If money was no object I would have a 600mm f4.0 with a 1.4x extender available on a full frame high resolution camera and a light but sturdy tripod as my first choice set up. This lens choice is possibly not the absolute best lens there is for the job when considering weight, cost, speed and image quality, which all play an important part when selecting a set up, but it is what suits me. This is precisely what I use for dedicated wild bird photography in the field. My go to set up when driving about or even just bush walking is a 100-400mm zoom and 1.4x extender on a top end mirrorless camera. I also use a 70-200mm f2.8 setup with a 600EX Speedlite flash for night time.

Let’s consider telephoto zoom lenses as opposed to telephoto prime lenses. It seems that when many people start out, including myself, they want to get the versatility of a zoom lens. They are handy for framing a subject and it saves a little bit of post photo editing. However from personal experience, when birding with a zoom lens, I always tend to have the lens on the maximum focal length anyway because I would very rarely get close enough to have a need to zoom out. Conversely in closer situations such as when birds or any wildlife is confined, having a zoom to better frame a shot is very handy. When shooting small birds, even with my longest set up, I normally have to crop in to get a well framed shot, I loose pixels but no one wants to look for the subject. This is where a good camera is needed.

Another and very important issue is image quality, zoom lens image quality has improved considerably with recent models, arguably not as good as an equivalent prime lens but usually good enough to not really be noticeable in a finished product. Since zoom lenses are usually not as fast as a good prime lens, they are therefore generally lighter and easier to hand hold and manoeuvre so all these things need to be considered.

In a zoo or a nature reserve where one can approach birds more easily, or if they are semi captive and are used to being around people. In this situation a zoom of 100 to 400mm would be very handy.

When selecting the right lens, it becomes a compromise between length, speed, weight, image quality and of cause cost as to what is the best birding lens for you and your application. It also depends to some degree how you go about your birding as to what makes a particular lens, your perfect lens. I mean if you are driving along bush tracks in a vehicle with the lens perched on the door sill or if you are sitting in a bird hide with the lens on a tripod and gimbal, then weight is not a major factor. Whereas if you are hiking through the bush, then the camera/lens weight is of major importance.

Another thing to consider when looking at buying a long lens is the use of extenders. The use of an extender will multiply the focal length, but also slow the lens down by the same factor and also marginally reduce image quality. A good example would be to compare Canon’s 300mm f2.8 with a 2x extender v’s a 600mm f4. Both lenses rank very high in terms of image quality individually and the 300mm is probably slightly higher rated than the 600mm. However when you add a 2x extender to the 300mm the image quality would fall by a similar margin to a point below that of the 600mm. So the image quality is going to be very slightly worse with the 300mm set up. Then the setup weight is about 3.1kg v’s 3.9kg’s just considering the lenses and extender. Speed is f4 v’s f5,6 and cost is like $9000 v’s $14000. These specifications are for the older series lenses, not the current series. Newer lenses have lighter weights and heavier costs!

At the end of the day when all considerations are made it comes down to image quality. That is what matters the most out of all these things discussed above. Read lens reviews from reputable photographers, look in your wallet and decide. Happy Birding.

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