Last Updated on April 2, 2021
Are you looking for the best lens for bird photography?
Well I started shooting bird photography years ago and have had the opportunity to shoot with dozens of camera and lens combinations in pursuit of the best image quality possible. With those years of experience I will provide you with the lens options for each major camera make so you too can capture the best bird photography images possible.
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What Lenses Do Professional Wildlife Photographers Use?
The first question you should ask yourself when deciding what lens to use is what type of shooting are you planning on doing? Different lenses have different focal lengths and will change the way your images look. There is a time and place for each kind of lens, but it’s important to plan ahead to prevent disappointment.
These days, there are even some zoom lenses that offer a versatile range for shooting wildlife. Zoom lenses can be mounted on any camera body so it’s easy to switch between them if needed.
The range of zoom lenses is vast and can be used for different types of photography. Here is a short list of some popular zoom lenses that are used by wildlife photographers.
10mm – This lens can be mounted on any SLR camera body and it gives an extremely wide angle of view allowing you to capture more details in your images. It’s usually best mounted on the end of your zoom lens kit so you can capture close up shots quickly with extremely shallow depth-of-field.
17-50mm – This low to mid priced zoom is a great lens that is used for close up shots of wildlife in the wild. It comes with a built-in optical image stabilizer that can let you shoot at slower shutter speeds for sharp images. It’s an excellent choice for nature photographers who want to capture fast moving subjects.
70-200mm – This telephoto zoom lens is truly the workhorse of wildlife photography. It’s used to capture images of distant wildlife such as birds, and it allows you to get nice close ups with a shallow depth-of-field. The telephoto nature of this lens will allow you to shoot more candid images and fewer images where you’re disturbing your subject. It also gives you a wider view of the scene around you.
24-70mm – This is an excellent lens that can be mounted on any SLR camera body. It has an extremely wide range giving you the ability to shoot in many different situations. The price range is mid-level, but it’s a great investment for any professional or amateur photographer who wants to shoot wildlife and landscapes.
85mm – This is a high quality lens that’s widely used in wildlife photography. It’s ideal for shooting wildlife where you want to get close up images. The telephoto range allows you to get shots of far away subjects, and the wide angle of view will capture more details in the scene.
70-200mm f 2.8 – This is an ideal birding lens that can be mounted on any digital SLR camera body and it gives you a great range for shooting birds at any size. This lens has an excellent f 2.8 aperture, and it captures images at the highest quality.
70-300mm – This is a lower priced telephoto zoom lens that’s used for shooting birds. It gives you more reach than some of the other lenses on this list, and it offers the ability to get some decent close up images of wildlife. The 70-300mm range will give you enough reach for most situations, but it’s not the ideal lens for photographing birds from a distance.
Best Lens for Bird Photography
Sigma 150-600 f/5-6.3
This is a super telephoto lens by Sigma that allows you to capture birds from a variety of distances. This lens is the sports model and it is fully weather-sealed, has a solid build, and is a good-quality telephoto lens. It is about one foot long when the lens is retracted and it weighs around 6.3 pounds. It is designed to handle exposure to dust and moisture, including spray from the ocean.
The lens can lock at different focal lengths including 150mm, 180mm, 200mm, 250mm, 300mm, 400mm, 500mm, and 600mm. It has a maximum aperture of 5 to 6.3, which is pretty slow, but it still can do the job. It is compatible with the Sigma 1.4x teleconverter, which means that you can increase the aperture range to f/7 or f/9 if you need to. This is an affordable lens, relatively speaking, and it is a great option when you are starting out.
- Variety of focal lengths from 150 to 600mm
- Ability to lock at certain focal lengths
- Great image quality
- Good stabilization and AF performance
- Weather-proof design and can handle dust and moisture
- It has a slow aperture
- It is large and heavy
Sigma 100-400 f/5-6.3 Contemporary
This is a high-powered zoom lens by Sigma. It is popular for photographers who are looking for a lens that has telephoto and is affordable. It is a full-frame telephoto zoom lens that has focal lengths from 10mm to 40mm. It has a lightweight design but maintains a solid build. It has dust- and splash-proofing around the mount. It is 7.2 inches long, weighs 40.9 ounces, and zooms quickly. It is easy to use for long periods of time when you are waiting to capture the perfect bird photo.
When you use the 400mm focal length, it produces sharp images with a good amount of detail. There is minimal chromatic aberration present in the corners of the frame and you can get nice bokeh when shooting up close. It has a hypersonic motor and a magnification ratio of 1:3.8. It is a good lens for bird photographers who are starting out.
- Versatile focal length range
- Good value
- Great optical quality
- Good build quality
- Compact and lightweight design
- Zoom that works well and fast
- Slow with maximum aperture
- Sluggish in low light
Sigma 500mm f/4 DG OS Sport
This lens is a more affordable choice compared to the Canon or the Nikon equivalent. The Sport designation defines the autofocus that is fast to zoom on your subject. This lens is designed for sports and wildlife photography. The long focal length allows you to shoot birds that are in the distance, and the f/4 aperture gives you a fast shutter speed so that you can capture a sharp image with great bokeh.
It is a long lens but still manageable. It is well balanced and made of magnesium alloy. You might need a tripod or monopod if you plan to use it for long periods of time. It has optical stabilization and it can be left on when you use a tripod. It is pretty quiet but you can hear a click when the shutter is depressed partially to engage it. It has autofocus, but you can use manual focus. It is easy to switch between the two if you need to. This lens produces good-quality images with sharp details and great bokeh.
- Fast shutter speed
- Sharp images with good bokeh
- Manageable size but can use tripod or monopod
- Autofocus that works well
- Manual focus option
- Good value for the money
- Can be cumbersome if shooting for long periods of time
Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L IS II
This Canon lens offers professional-grade build quality, fast and accurate autofocus, quality images over a range of focal lengths, and more. It is an excellent lens for bird photography and it captures sharp images in reasonable light settings. The lens can also capture images in low light as long as the subject isn’t moving very fast. When you have a maximum aperture as large as this, it is a challenge to maintain fast shutter speeds in low light.
You do not need a tripod with this lens and image stabilization helps with all subjects, including those that are moving. This is one of the most popular lenses on the market because it can produce excellent images at all of the available aperture and focal length settings. It is rugged in its build, easy to carry with you, and has a wide range of focal lengths. If you can afford this lens, it is a great choice as your first lens for bird photography. You can specialize later but you have a wide variety of shots that you can take and it will produce quality images every time.
- Excellent build — rugged and solid
- Great image quality at all focal lengths and apertures
- Image stabilization that helps produce sharp images
- Ability to be used without tripod
- Fast, accurate autofocus
- Can be heavy after an extended period of time
Canon 500mm and 600mm f/4L IS II
These two lenses are most commonly used for wildlife photography. People often choose one or the other because they are very expensive lenses. The primary difference is the reach, as the 600mm lens reaches subjects that are further away. You have to move closer to a subject with a prime lens so you need to decide how far away your subjects will be and which lens you need.
The 500mm lens is going to be slightly lighter, although both lenses are heavy. Generally speaking, if you are shooting full-frame bodies, the 600mm lens might be a better choice. The focal length is important when you are choosing a lens but there are other considerations here, such as your ability to carry the extra weight and whether you need the extra focal length.
Although both lenses are heavy, they produce quality images that you will be proud of. The 600mm lens gets you about 20% closer to your subject but it is a lot heavier. Weigh your needs with how you will handle the extra weight when you decide which is right for you.
- Excellent image quality
- Fast shutter speed in reasonable light
- Sharp images
- Weight that can be held for reasonable amounts of time
- Very expensive
- Heavy and clumsy
Canon 200-400 f/4L IS with Built-in 1.4x Teleconverter
This is a long-reaching versatile lens by Canon that goes from 200 to 400mm to 280 to 500mm by engaging the teleconverter that is built in. It has one fluorite element and four ultra-low dispersion elements that help control chromatic aberration and increase your clarity. It has a four-stop effective image stabilizer with three modes that allow you to shoot different styles of photography. It also has USM, which provides fast and quiet autofocus. It has manual focus as well when you need it and a focus reset function so that you can recall prior settings.
This lens is weather sealed so that you can use it in a variety of settings. You will be able to shoot bird photography very effectively and you have a lot of choices. This provides you the ability to have a more powerful lens that is still manageable and it has a detachable tripod ring when you need it.
- Powerful, versatile lens
- USM that provides quick and accurate autofocus
- Manual focus override
- Super spectra coating to minimize ghosting and flare
- Optical image stabilizer that minimizes camera shake
- Focus preset function to recall prior focal length settings
- It is expensive
- It is a large, heavy lens and may require a tripod
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 500mm and 600mm f/4E FL ED VR
These two lenses used to be a lot heavier but Nikon has done them using lighter fluorite glass elements as part of the optical construction and including magnesium alloy in the build. The weight is shifted to the center for better handling and the tripod collar is further back. These lenses are designed to handle working outdoors, and they can repel water, dust, and dirt with the fluorine coating on the lens. Nikon added an Electromagnetic Diaphragm to provide more consistent exposures when you shoot in high burst speeds. It also helps to improve autofocus tracking, which is beneficial when you are photographing birds.
Both lenses are compatible with Nikon teleconverters so you can have more reach. The big difference is simply the focal length. 600mm is going to get you closer to subjects that are further away. In addition, 600mm will weigh more. These are both excellent lenses that are top quality if you have a Nikon camera and want to shoot birds.
This is an affordable lens by Nikon with features that give you a range of options when you are shooting bird photography. It has a narrow fixed aperture that helps to keep the weight down. It is 10.5 inches long and weighs 5.1 pounds. You can still manage to use it in a handheld capacity. It comes with a reversible lens hood, caps for the front and rear of the lens, and a carrying case.
It has a rotating tripod collar that you can use for longer outings. You can remove the collar if you plan to stick with handheld photography. The zoom locks in on certain focal distances including 200mm, 300mm, 400mm, and 500mm. It has autofocus and a 4.45 stop Vibration Reduction (VR). You can also use manual focus if you prefer. It has a 1:4.5 magnification ratio and it produces high-quality images. This is a versatile lens and if you have a Nikon camera, it is a good choice as your first lens for bird photography. You can add more specialized lenses after you gain experience and know what your style is.
- Long telephoto reach
- Optic stabilization
- Removable tripod collar
- Sharp, clear optics
- Fixed f/5.6 aperture
- Edges are soft at 200mm
- Some competing lenses zoom further
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
This lens weighs about three pounds so it is lighter than other lenses in its class. It has incredible image quality and is one of the most affordable lenses in its class. It is rare to find a prime lens that weighs so little and sacrifices nothing in terms of quality. The main compromise is that you need to shoot in light because it has a 5.6 maximum aperture. It is 9.3 inches long and you can use a tripod with its tripod collar. You can remove it when you don’t need it.
The lens is well built with a combination of metal and tough composite material. It is sealed to keep dust and water out. It has a nano crystal coat and a fluorine coat to prevent glare and ghosting. It has a lot of great features that are designed for pros and you can move between autofocus and manual focus very easily. The important thing to remember is that the high aperture means that you need light to shoot with this lens. Overall, this is a lightweight telephoto lens that produces quality images.
- Long reach at 500mm
- Sharp optics
- No distortion and very little vignette
- Lightweight build
- Excellent optical stabilization
- Narrow maximum f-stop
- Incompatibility with some older DSLR cameras
Sony FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS
This camera lens by Sony is a well-built lens that can handle shooting in bad weather. It is 8.1 inches long and it weighs 3.1 pounds. It has a detachable tripod foot and a reversible lens hood. The manual focus ring is towards the front of the lens and the zoom ring is in the middle. It is marked at 100mm, 200mm, 300mm, and 400mm.
The lens has three lens hold buttons so that you can prevent autofocus if you are taking a shot. There is also an in-lens stabilization system that can be left on or shut off. This lens has a magnification of 1:3 so you might not get a full lifesize reproduction, but you can take close-up shots. It delivers crystal-clear images. This is a great lens that gives you top-notch image quality, a professional-grade build that can handle the outdoor elements, and fast autofocus. If you have a Sony camera, this is a great option.
- In-lens stabilization
- Removable tripod foot
- Focus hold and limit functions
- Compact, lightweight design
- Sturdy, dust- and moisture-resistant construction
- Adjustable zoom tension
- Solid telephoto zoom range
- Not the brightest aperture
- Higher price than similar lenses
- Soft edges when shot wide open
Sony FE 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G OSS
This is a great lens for photographers who want a long reach without having to spend too much money. It is particularly popular with bird and wildlife photographers. It is 12.5 inches long and it has an internal zoom. It weighs 4.7 pounds and it has internal seals to protect the lens from dust and water. It comes with front and back lens covers, a carrying case, and a reversible lens hood. It also has a rotating tripod collar and you can remove it for handheld shooting.
The lens has a magnification of 1:5 at 600mm and it is 1:3 with the 100mm setting. It has a fast focus speed with the ability to capture 10 frames per second. It is also compatible with Sony’s teleconverter to extend its reach. However, you will need to use brighter light if you use the teleconverter. This lens offers a lot of options to bird photographers and others who photograph wildlife. It is an overall excellent lens for people who are using a Sony.
- Resistance to dust and moisture
- Teleconverter capability
- Internal zoom design
- Fast focus
- Long telephoto reach
- It has a narrow maximum aperture
Sony FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS
This 600mm lens has the focal distance that bird photographers look for and an aperture wide enough to blur out the background and create nice bokeh. It is compatible with a teleconverter if you need further distance and it is as light a lens as you can buy at this length. The lens is 17.7 inches long and it weighs 6.7 pounds. It arrives in a locking hard case and comes with a reversible carbon fiber lens hood, a soft lens cap, a rear cap, and a clear filter.
The lens has a rotating tripod incorporated and you can mount the foot directly to a tripod or monopod. It includes switches that allow you to set the focus and you can get as close as about 14.8 feet. Magnification at this distance is 1:7.1. It is heavy but manageable. The focus is very fast. Overall, if you have the Sony mirrorless camera, this is a great lens.
- It is made of magnesium alloy and carbon fiber
- It has a fast autofocus
- It is sealed to safeguard against dust and water
- It has on-lens controls
- It is big and bulky
- It is expensive
Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400 f/4-6.3 Power O.I.S.
This lens by Panasonic is a super telephoto zoom lens that is smaller than others in its class and it weighs less because it is made of a mix of aluminum and plastics. It has versatility of focal range that makes it ideal for shooting birds and other wildlife. It delivers sharp photos with nice color and contrast. It has good bokeh and it is compact for what it is. It has a good optic stabilizer and is a telephoto lens that you can hold while you shoot. You don’t have to use a tripod or monopod.
This lens is able to reduce chromatic aberrations and distortion. It has a switch to go between autofocus and manual focus that is virtually silent. There is a rotating lock on the zoom so the lens won’t creep while you are shooting. It also has a knob on the lens that allows you to switch between landscape and portrait orientations without turning the camera. It comes with an extendable foot for a tripod, which makes more space on the zoom when you use a tripod. This is a great camera for bird photography.
- Very low distortion
- Light and compact design
- Fast autofocus
- Good optical stabilization
- Sharp images
- Flare possible in some conditions
- Awkward hood design
Panasonic Leica DG Elmarit 200mm f/2.8 Power O.I.S.
This is a well-made lens with controls that operate smoothly and it fits perfectly. You can control the aperture from the lens or the camera. It has a wide focus ring and the AF system locks on or is shut off easily. You can manually focus when you need to. There is a tripod rim close to the body of the camera and it is solid and secure. The lens is rated as water-, dust-, and freeze-proof so you will have no trouble using it outdoors when you are photographing birds.
There is a 1.4x teleconverter that comes with the lens, which makes it a 280mm f/4 lens when you need it. This increases the magnification. The converter has six elements in four groups and it doesn’t add very much weight to the lens. It has good bokeh so your subjects will stand out. This is a great lens with excellent abilities and it produces clear photos every time.
- Dust-, moisture-, and freeze-proof design
- Compact lens
- Excellent optical stabilization (OIS)
- Good design and build quality
- Fast autofocus
- Very sharp images
- 1.4 teleconverter lens
- No flare or ghosting
Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4 IS PRO
Although this is one of the more expensive lenses, it is a good lens that can be very useful. It has a long telephoto reach and it has 1:4.2 magnification. It also has a good image stabilization system and it is weather sealed. It weighs 3.3 pounds and it is 8.9 inches long. It has a collapsible lens hood and can take a 77mm filter. There are two switches: one for the stabilization system and other to set the focus limiter function. You can set it from 1.4 to 4 meters or from 4 meters to infinity.
This lens is very easy to use and the image quality is outstanding. It produces sharp photos in vivid color, which makes it a great choice for photographing birds. This lens is very easy to use. Once you have it set up the way you want it, you can easily take any pictures you want to take. You can turn the image stabilization on or off, set your focus to autofocus or manual, and start shooting pictures.
- Weather sealed lens
- Ability to focus close up
- Compatibility with a 1.4x teleconverter
- Image stabilization system
- Extreme telephoto reach
- Sharp optics
- Integrated lens hood
- Removable tripod collar
- Heavy and bulky
Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 150-400 f/4.5 with 1.25x Built-in Teleconverter
They first announced its development in January of 2019 and this will be a 150-400mm F4.5 TC1.25 IS Pro. It will be the first interchangeable Olympus lens that has a built-in 1.25x teleconverter. This will extend the maximum focal length to 1000mm. This lens will be great for Micro-Four Thirds cameras and it is the equivalent to 300-800mm on an MFT body. The teleconverter brings it to 375-1000mm. It is also compatible with Olympus’s new 3x teleconverter, which can take it to 750-2000mm. It does have built-in image stabilization and it is sealed to guard against moisture and dust. This should be a great lens for all bird photography enthusiasts.
What Is the Best Focal Length for Bird Photography?
So you want to know the best focal length for bird photography? It’s a tricky question, as there are many variables involved.
Firstly, what kind of lens are you using? If you have an APS-C camera like the Canon T5i or Nikon D3000, then your lens will be around 50mm. If you have a full-frame camera like the Canon 5D III or Nikon D810, then your lens will be around 110mm – 135mm.
Secondly, you have to consider what kind of bird you’re trying to photograph. Raptors like eagles are relatively easy to photograph at any focal length (10x zoom would be your best bet, though). Smaller birds like chickadees or warblers are more difficult as they’re usually more active and harder to keep in frame.
So again, the answer is: it depends on what kind of lens you’re using and what kind of bird you’re trying to photograph.
What Makes Bird Photography Requirements Different from Other Photography?
Some types of photography, such as landscape photography, require a wide angle lens. Portrait photography normally uses a medium focal range lens. When you shoot wildlife and especially birds, you need a maximum focal length. You will want to carry the longest lens you can hold and use. You want a wide aperture because the subjects move fast. Birds might be in flight and your lens needs to be able to capture it. This requires a fast shutter speed.
Your field of view will be small so if you move the lens, it might create camera shake. You need to have a fast shutter speed to capture the bird in motion. Remember that a longer focal length requires a faster shutter speed as well, which is important when you are choosing your lens.
How to Choose the Best Lens for Bird Photography
You will want to focus on different aspects of the lens to choose the best one for bird photography. First, you will want to look at the focal length. You need to consider the size of the birds you want to photograph. Birds of prey are large animals and you might not need a lens that is as long as it would be for a smaller bird. If you need to photograph the birds at a distance, you will also need a longer focal length. If you can get up closer to the bird, a shorter focal length might be just fine.
You also need to decide whether you want a prime lens or a telephoto zoom. A prime lens will give you sharper images that are better quality but they will also be more expensive. These lenses do not zoom so you have to adjust your position to get the right shot. Prime lenses are also heavier than zoom lenses so you might need to have a tripod or a monopod.
A super zoom lens gives you a lot of options and it is lighter in weight. They can produce a good-quality image and they are a bit expensive. People who are starting out often begin with a zoom lens that gives them a range, such as 100-400mm. You can always add more specialized prime lenses as you gain experience and narrow down your subject matter.
You should also consider the aperture. You want a wide maximum aperture of f/4 or f/2.8, which will help you shoot in low light and achieve beautiful bokeh around your subject. The AF speed tells you how 0fast your lens can autofocus and the prime lenses have an advantage here. You may need to focus manually with a zoom lens some of the time.
You should also check the image stabilization and vibration reduction. This helps keep your image steady at distances and in different light settings. Finally, make sure that you look at how weather-resistant the lens is, as you will shoot most of your bird photography outdoors.
If you are into bird photography, you have a lot of options on the market. The first step towards narrowing it down is to look at your camera. Nikon lenses will only work on Nikon cameras and Canon lenses only go with Canon. No matter what camera you have, you might consider starting out with a solid 100-400mm lens. This provides you with flexibility so that you can practice and learn what your shooting style will be. Once you have gained experience, most people look to the 400mm, 500mm, or 600mm lens. You need to consider whether you will be staying in one place or whether you will need it to be lighter so that you can travel around. These lenses can be very expensive so it is important to choose the one that works best for your style.
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