Zoom Lenses for Bird Photography
Bird photography is an exciting and rewarding sub-set of wildlife photography, but it can be frustrating as well. Granted, there are birds that will pose for you as you come within ten feet, but there are others that are shy, fast-moving and often small. It is hard to take pride in a bird photograph that consists of a small speck in the middle of the frame or a blurred photograph of a bird taking off in flight.
You will need a lens system that you can operate surely and confidently and has certain features that enhance the camera’s ability to capture multiple images quickly, plus, and possibly a long lens. The emphasis is on long. In this post, I will focus on lenses that work well to capture that shy, elusive bird you’ve been stalking.
How Long is Long?
A lens’ ability to “reach out” and bring in a distant subject is measured by its focal length in millimeters. What the focal length means got a bit more complicated when most photographers switched from 35 mm film to digital capture cameras in the APS-C format.
Thus, we need to start by saying a word about this now-common smaller format image capture system used by Canon, Nikon, and others. Known as the Advanced Photo System Type-C (APS-C) for Canon and others and by the proprietary name DX format for Nikon, the format requires a revised view of how we view lens focal lengths, especially for those who got their start in photography using 35 mm film.
In the 35 mm format the 50 mm lens is considered “normal,” meaning that it sees approximately what the naked eye would see. Any lens with a focal length of less than 50 mm is considered a wide angle. Wide angle lenses are used for a variety of dramatic shots but are not very useful in wildlife photography. For that, we turn to telephoto lenses. In the 35 mm format, any lens longer than 50 mm is considered a telephoto.
That being said, we turn to the DX/APS-C format. Because the image sensor is smaller than that of a 35 mm camera, we have to recalculate what constitutes wide angle, normal and telephoto. Luckily, doing that is fairly simple: just multiply the length of a lens on an APS-C or DX format Nikon camera by 1.5 to compare to the traditional 35 mm format. (Technically, you need to multiply by 1.52 for Nikon, but it is much easier to multiply by 1.5 in your head and the result is close enough.)
For most Canons, the ratio is about 1.6, but again, using the approximate ratio of 1.5 makes life easier. Thus, a 20 mm APS-C wide angle lens would be the equivalent of a 30 mm lens on a 35 mm format camera. The equivalent of a 50 mm “normal” lens would be roughly 35 mm in DX format, and any lens longer than that would be a telephoto.
If you are looking for a complete setup for bird photography, check out our guide to cameras for wildlife photography.
Nikon Lenses for Bird Photography
Nikon 200-500 mm Telephoto
This lens is the real winner for use on any Nikon body: a 200-500 mm zoom with vibration reduction. You now know how to do the calculation: the 200-500 is the equivalent of 300 mm to a whopping 750 mm. That is all the reach you will need.
Note that, even with vibration reduction, the rule of thumb is the longer the lens the more likely you will want a tripod or monopod to avoid blur.
This lens comes with a feature I recommend: a tripod mount on the lens itself. Every camera has a tripod mount, but when you have a long, heavy lens attached to the camera the balance shifts forward and by mounting the lens on the tripod you restore a better balance.
The lens is also offered by Nikon as part of a “sports and wildlife” kit with the 20.9 megapixel D500 body. View the Nikon D500 Sport & Wildlife Kit on Amazon.
Need just the lens? View the Nikon 200-500 mm zoom lens on Amazon.
Nikon 18-300 mm
This lens is a great compromise. The zoom’s focal range goes from 18 mm to 300 mm. That takes you from a mid-range wide angle (27 mm equivalent) to a very impressive zoom (450 mm equivalent.)
If that’s not quite long enough for you, a Nikon 2.0x teleconverter will extend your reach to 900 mm. (I talk more about teleconverters below.) That is all the power you need for bird photography Because of the short, 18 mm, starting point, it can be used as an everyday lens. It has image stabilization and is fairly compact for its reach.
Nikon 55-300 mm
If you don’t need quite as much wide angle capability as the 18-300mm, this lens is a good option. It’s an f/4.5-5.6 image stabilized (VR) lens with good zoom capability in a compact package.
Learn more about the Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED Vibration Reduction Zoom Lens with Auto Focus for Nikon DSLR Cameras on Amazon.
Save a few dollars with the Nikon 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR AF-S DX Nikkor Zoom Lens Nikon Digital SLR (Certified Refurbished)
Canon Lenses for Bird Photography
Because there are so many high-quality Canon bodies to choose from in the EOS Rebel and other series, it is worthwhile to look at what Canon offers in the way of telephoto lenses. This especially makes sense if you already own a Canon and standard kit lenses and want to expand into wildlife photography.
Canon EF 70-300
A good balance of focal length and price is the EF 70-300. The lens also offers Canon’s vibration reduction and autofocus, as well as a neat “Lens Information Display”, which provides a convenient way to check focal length, focus distance or depth of field from a small display on the lens itself.
Check the price of the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 is II USM Lens on Amazon.
Canon EF 100-400 mm
If you are looking for a step up, Canon also has some longer lens offerings that will stretch the budget. The EF 100-400 is a f/4.5-5.6L zoom lens with superb optics. It’s definitely a step up from the EF 70-300.
Its weather resistant and includes Canon’s Optical Image Stabilizer with 3 modes. The zoom ring has a neat feature where you can adjust the feel of the rotation.
Learn more about the Canon EF 100-400 mm on Amazon
Canon also makes professional level lenses used to shoot most major sporting events. Prices go up (way up) from there. (By “way up” I mean over $10,000!)
Sigma and Tamron Lenses
One way around the problem of dramatically increasing prices as we move up to longer and longer focal lengths is to look to the off-brand lens manufacturers such as Sigma and Tamron.
There are quality companies that make lenses for Nikon, Canon, and other brands, but you have to be careful. There are lenses that offer budget prices but give up valuable features such as vibration reduction, zoom capability, and even autofocus. And of course, there are sometimes tradeoffs between quality and durability. Also, be sure to order the lens to match your body’s mount: a lens made for Canon won’t fit a Nikon and vice versa.
Sigma 70-300 mm
One reasonable compromise is the Sigma 70-300 macro telephoto. It’s a relative bargain and is available for Canon, Nikon, and other brands, but, unfortunately, lacks a vibration reduction system. Still, when you are trying to get the maximum focal length for the money, this lens is worth looking at.
Learn more about the Nikon compatible Sigma 70-300 on Amazon.
Canon version of the Sigma 70-300 mm on Amazon.
Tamron 150-600 mm Ultra-Telephoto
This lens has a number of features that make it an excellent choice for birders. It has a three-mode vibration reduction system that the company claims can allow up to 4.5 steps down in shutter speed. It also has a quick autofocus system, ideal for fast-moving targets, but also allows for a manual override for precise focus when time permits.
It has an aperture of 5-6.3, which, while not as fast as one would find on a shorter lens, allows for lower light shooting (particularly with vibration reduction) and the blurred backgrounds which can enhance bird photography. It can also be paired with 1.4X or 2X teleconverters that can extend the focal length to 1200 mm, which is the equivalent of 1800 mm on a Nikon DX body. That is all the length you could possibly want at a somewhat affordable price.
Nikon version of the Tamron SP 150-600 mm zoom on Amazon.
Canon version of the Tamron SP 150-600 mm zoom on Amazon.
A Word on Teleconverters
Most, if not all of the lenses we’ve looked at can be equipped with teleconverters. Teleconverters are designed to increase the focal length of your lens and they are fitted between the lens and the lens body. That can take a bit of time if you are not using the teleconverter full time. You first snap off the telephoto, second, snap on the teleconverter, and finally snap the lens onto the teleconverter.
With the smooth-operating Nikon and Canon mounting systems this doesn’t take too awfully long, but sometimes the bird won’t wait. Teleconverters are designed to keep the important functions of the lens, including vibration reduction, autofocus, and manual focus override.
The power of the teleconverter is designated as 1.4x, 2.0x, etc., with 2.0x being the practical limit. Thus, a 2.0x teleconverter, when attached to a 300 mm maximum focal length lens, will double its focal length to 600 mm.
The good news about teleconverters is that they are the cheapest way to get a longer effective focal length lens on your camera. The bad news? Of course, there is always bad news. The teleconverter increases the effective maximum aperture of the lens, making it less effective in low light and requiring a slower shutter speed or higher ISO setting. Thus, when you put a 2.0x teleconverter on a lens that opens up to a maximum f-stop of 4.0 your new maximum f-stop will be 8.0. There will also be some slight degradation in image quality.
There is no getting around the fact that you pay for all those extra millimeters you crave. I’ve tried to show you some reasonably priced alternatives, including bundles, off-brand lenses, and teleconverters. You might also keep an eye out for used lenses or factory lenses that go on sale when a new model comes out. When budgeting for your purchase be sure to include the price of a sturdy tripod if you don’t own one already.