Lenses for Bird Photography
The lens you use when shooting birds and other wildlife is of the utmost importance if you’re looking to learn how to take high quality, technically good bird images. It matters not, how fancy and expensive your camera body is if the image that reaches the camera’s sensor is out of focus (OOF), or ‘soft,’ distorted, or has substandard contrast. Actually the last two, distortion and contrast, can be fixed or improved with good photo editing software, but out of focus shots cannot.
Oh, and don’t think for a minute that just because you have your first ‘expensive,’ pro-quality lens that you will all of a sudden become a great bird photographer the first day you take the lens out to shoot. A good lens may be one of the necessary tools for you to be successful but there are a lot of other things to learn and to practice on to make that lens work for you. By the time you read all the articles in this series, you’ll know a lot more about what these are.
In the world of DSLR lenses, the more money you spend, the more you get. Some of the features of lenses that greatly affect price are, speed, focal length, zoom vs. prime, build quality, optical quality, and stabilization. I want to briefly touch on these one at a time. Please note that I’m just hitting the high spots with this discussion and if you want to delve into further detail on any of these points, I encourage you to execute the appropriate searches on the web where folks have tested, reviewed, and compared almost every lens on the market. Also, please don’t rely on just one review or analysis of a lens–consider several and combine the results before you choose a lens. Amazon.com is a good place to check for reviews on products. Also try B&H Photo, J&R, or Adorama Photo. One of the many positive things about buying a good quality lens is that if you decide to upgrade to a better (or bigger) lens a couple years down the road, the ‘old’ lens can usually be sold for nearly as much as you paid for it new. Good, professional quality lenses hold their value as long as you take good care of them.
Lens Speed: A fast lens can be very helpful in bird and nature photography. Lens speed refers to how wide the aperture opens on the lens. It is measured in terms of the lowest numbered f-stop setting achievable (called maximum aperture) by the lens at a given focal length. The lower the maximum aperture f-number, the faster the lens. For instance, most telephoto lenses (bird lenses) have as their maximum aperture setting, one of these values: f6.3, f5.6, f4.5, f4, f2.8. There are lower and higher f-numbers for other lens types but these cover most birding lenses for DSLR’s. So, in terms of telephoto lenses, f2.8 can be considered super-fast. An f2.8 lens is capable of letting in much more light than say, an f5.6 lens. The more light the lens allows in, the faster the shutter speed can be set at. The faster the shutter speed, the less chance of motion blur from either you shaking the camera or from the bird moving (and most birds do not stand still very long!). The less blur, the higher potential quality of the image.
But there are other factors to consider when using a wide aperture like f2.8 such as depth of field and distance the camera is from subject and background, which you may already know about. Having an f2.8 lens does not mean that all your bird photography problems will suddenly be solved but it does open up more possibilites for you as a bird photographer. The other thing is, it will empty your pocketbook much faster! 🙂 Much more about how aperture affects your bird pictures in the Aperture and Depth of Field section.
As you look at the prices of lenses with the above f-numbers as their maximum aperture settings, you’ll notice the price goes up exponentially as you move toward f2.8. The faster a lens is, the bigger the lens barrel (girth) is for a given focal length. It has to be bigger at the glass end in order to allow more light to enter the lens. When we’re talking telephoto lenses, which are physically longer than other lenses, this makes them both long and wide, requiring greater amounts of material and glass necessary to build the lens. This corresponds to a heavier lens and greater cost.
So how fast of a lens do you want? If you’re anything like me (and my budget) when I started out, I was pretty much limited to a slower lens, which for me at the time cost what I thought was an arm and a leg at about $800, and that was on sale! The lens I got was the Sigma 50-500mm (known in bird photography circles as the Bigma), which had excellent optics but was heavy and required a lot of light at its maximum aperture range of f4.5 – f6.3. It also had no stabilization but I didn’t know the difference since I had never owned a stabilized lens. The bottom line is that it was the best I could afford. The regular price for this lens in late 2006 was $1,000. Today it sells for $1,659 at Amazon.com but now has Optical Stabilization (OS). So the lens has been improved and the price certainly reflects it. The lens weighs over 4 pounds.
Lens weight is very important depending on how strong you are and how you are going to use the lens. If you are not going to need to carry it very far and you’ll use it on a tripod most of the time, the weight may not be an issue for you. If you’re going to hike into the wild with it, then you’ll want to be in top shape with the Sigma or, search for a lighter lens to buy.
Also, realize that the Sigma 50-500mm, zoomed out to its lovely 500mm focal length, is only capable of f6.3 at its widest. This is not usually a good aperture setting in low light situations since you’ll have to slow your shutter speed and/or adjust ISO up to expose a low light shot correctly. But if you live in an area that has abundant sun for a major part of the year, this lens can really shine.
Another aspect of lens buying has to do with brand. Do you want to stick with a lens made by your camera manufacturer (usually a higher cost) or do you want to buy a lens from one of the third party companies that make lenses to fit your brand of DSLR? For my first lens as I’ve mentioned above, I chose to go with the third party lens from Sigma that fit my Canon XT. Tamron and Tokina are two other major third party lens manufacturers. These manufacturers make lenses that fit most major camera brand DSLR’s. First party manufacturer’s, like Canon and Nikon, only make lenses that fit their own bodies. Other than the Sigma 50-500mm I talked about, I have not used any other lens made by a third party lens company. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find a good lens out there–especially one to start your hobby off with. There have been many new lens choices introduced by the third party companies since I bought the Bigma in 2006. If you do consider these lenses, try to stick with the respective company’s top of the line models for best results. And check comparisons with first party lens models that are similar.
If you do happen to choose Canon as your camera body, the two Canon bird lenses that are pro quality and at the lower end of the price spectrum are the EF100-400mm f4.5 – f5.6L and the EF400mm f 5.6L prime lens. I’ve owned both of these lenses and can say that both are quite good.
The EF 100-400 f4.5-f5.6 L IS USM zoom lens comes in at 3.1 pounds and has Canon’s image stabilization (IS). IS can be of some help with camera shake (to a point) and at the full extended focal length of 400mm, the widest aperture is f5.6, which matches the 400mm prime’s maximum aperture. The zoom lens’s one other disadvantage besides being heavier than the prime is it can’t match the prime’s sharpness–but it comes awful close for a zoom lens. (Everything else being equal, zoom lenses are rarely, if ever, sharper than a prime lens). UPDATE 28Oct2014: I have seen indications that there is a replacement lens coming for the 100-400L in November 2014. It will sell for $2399, has a new IS system, weighs less, and has new optics. If you are in the market, be sure to check this out.
You may have heard of the “inverse focal length rule.” It’s a general rule that gives a rough indication of how fast your shutter speed must be while hand holding a lens of a specific focal length in order to get a reasonably sharp photo. Say you have a 400mm lens. According to the rule your shutter speed must be no slower than 1/400 of a second if you take the shot handheld. If your lens is 300mm, the shutter speed is 1/300, etc. This doesn’t mean that it is impossible to get a sharp picture with a slower shutter speed than indicated by the inverse ‘formula’ but the planets may have to line up just right for that sharp shot to materialize. 🙂
Here is how IS (image stabilization) can benefit you in bird photography. Say you own the EF100-400 zoom with IS and you’re shooting at 400mm handheld. Say you have the ISO cranked up as high as you dare to limit noise and you still need more light for the shot. In theory (according to lens stabilization claims), you should be able to slow down the shutter speed of 1/400 by the equivalent of about two f-stops, which would be 1/100, and still get a sharp picture. This adjustment would let 4 times the light into the lens and with the image stabilization built into the lens, it should help you hold the lens steady enough to get a good picture. While all of this really depends on the individual holding the camera, it helps explain the inverse rule and what IS can do for you while handholding the camera.
The minimum focusing distance (MFD) for the 100-400 zoom lens at 400mm is approximately 9 feet. This means that if you are less than 9 feet away from your subject, the lens will not focus at (400mm). But if you zoom down to 100mm, the MFD goes down to about 6 feet. So this lens is quite flexible for different shooting situations. Also note that this lens has a “push/pull” zoom. You do not turn the lens barrel to change the zoom–instead you push and pull the lens barrel toward you and away from you to change zoom. It may take a little getting used to but once you do it’s easy to use. It is well built as are all “L” lenses from Canon. “L” lenses are considered professional class lenses both in build quality and quality optics and have a bright red ring around the lens barrel. Some “L” lenses are black and some are white–but all Canon telephoto “L” lenses 400mm and above, are white.
Let me interject here that all Canon “L” lenses have what is referred to as full time manual focusing and internal focus (IF). Full time manual focus means that there is a black ring on the lens barrel that can be used to manually focus the lens even when the lens is set to autofocus mode via its switch. This comes in handy when achieving focus with AF becomes difficult in certain situations. We’ll talk more about this in future series articles. Internal focus means that when the lens is physically focusing, there is no external indication of this by looking at the lens. No part of the barrel exterior moves or turns when the focus motor is activated, it all happens inside the lens barrel where you can’t see it. One advantage to not having the glass end of the lens turn when you focus is when you have certain filters attached to the lens, such as a polarizing filter or a cross-star filter, both of which need to remain in a specific orientation to get the effect you want. If the lens barrel turned when you auto-focused, and the filter turned with it, your filter orientation would change and mess up your shot. Some cheaper lenses have the less expensive exterior rotating barrel when focusing and you should avoid these for this and many other reasons.
The Canon 400mm f5.6L USM prime lens is somewhat lighter than the zoom at 2.8 pounds. It comes with an “always on” built-in lens hood that telescopes in for storage and out for use. It does not have IS! But I’ve heard some folks say that this lens is so sharp, it doesn’t need IS! The lens is really easy to handle and is known as one of the best, if not the best, lens for shooting birds in flight. It’s minimum focusing distance is about 11.5 feet which is useless if a bird lights 6 feet from you. But in the two years I have owned this lens, I have run into relatively few situations where I was too close to a bird or animal to get a shot. 99.99% of the time, I never worry about being too close! Assuming your technique is good and you achieve accurate focus on your subject, this lens will outperform the Canon 100-400mm lens sharpness-wise. This lens is currently selling for about $1300, which makes it quite popular.
Aside from these two Canon lenses, the next step up in Canon telephoto lenses is either a faster 400mm lens (ranging from $6,500 to $11,500), a 500mm f4L IS II lens ($10,500), a 600mm f4L II IS lens ($12,800), and an 800mm f5.6L lens ($13,250). You can see how the price jumps once you look past the 100-400 zoom and the f5.6 400mm prime lens. Oh, I almost forgot the 1200mm model that sells for over $100,000.
You can also purchase an extender for use with your lens–either a 1.4x III or a 2.0x III. Both are about $500 each and they are installed between your camera and your lens. The 1.4x extender will extend your focal length to 560mm when installed with a 400mm lens. The 2.0x extender will make a 400mm lens an 800mm lens. But there is a price to pay for using extenders besides the $500 cash. The 1.4x changes your maximum aperture on the 400mm f5.6L prime lens to f8, and the 2.0x changes the lens maximum aperture to f11. Also, autofocus is disabled on non-pro Canon cropped sensor bodies and limited to the center focus point on pro bodies (up to a combination of f8). The new Canon 7D Mark II will also AF center focus with the 400 f5.6L plus the 1.4x III extender. Autofocus speed is reduced substantially. Also, image quality will suffer some with the 1.4x and even more with the 2.0x extenders, but the optics of both the “L” lens and the extender are so good that the image quality is still quite acceptable even in pro circles (this is especially true for the series II lenses by Canon). I have seen top notch bird photos taken with the 400mm f5.6L prime attached to the 1.4x extender. I have not heard great things said about adding a 2.0x to the 400mm f5.6 lens but I have seen great shots when adding the 2.0x to a 300mm L f2.8 II lens.
UPDATE Sep. 1, 2013: In the last couple of months, Canon has introduced a brand new lens model–EF 200-400mm F4L IS USM lens with Internal 1.4x extender. The lens sells for around $11, 800 and is probably the most flexible high-quality telephoto lens around currently. The 1.4x extender is built in and can be switched in and out, which when activated makes the lens 560mm at a max aperture of f5.6. Canon utilizes its latest technology to make this lens a top notch, sharp performer for the pro or serious amateur. It’s known as a very flexible lens for birds in flight.
Since autofocus is disabled for the prosumer/consumer Canon bodies when the extender is added to the 400mm f5.6 lens (except for the 7D Mark II), I use the following method of manually focusing when I don’t have to focus in a hurry. This works more for large birds that tend to perch for long periods at a time. Get your camera positioned on your tripod or bean bag so that the bird is in the viewfinder. Turn off AF on the lens (unless you have Back Button focus). Turn on Live View so the bird is visible on the LCD screen. Hit the magnify button on the back of your camera once or twice. The LCD screen will go into 10x mode giving you a super close up view of the bird. Slowly adjust your full time focus ring on the lens to the best clarity as shown on the LCD screen. Turn off Live View without moving the camera, and shoot away. When you’re done, don’t forget to turn AF back on using your lens switch if you turned it off.
One other possible combination of lens and extender you might want to consider is the EF 300mm f4L IS listing for about $1400 plus a 1.4x extender. This combination makes a 420mm f5.6L setup, and 672mm taking into account the 1.6x crop factor of the Canon crop body you will likely be using. The autofocus continues to work with Canon consumer/prosumer bodies when this lens is coupled with the extender since the resulting maximum aperture does not exceed f5.6, but the AF is slowed down some. UPDATE Sep. 1 , 2013: Canon has also now come out with a EF300mm f2.8L IS II USM lens that sells for about $6,800, and is sharp even with the Canon 2x III extender. This one is fast enough that you may retain center focus AF even on some crop bodies. I’m not sure if the ‘old’ 300mm f4L model is still available new.
I suggest that a beginning bird photographer not get into using extenders until they have had lots of practice with their camera and lens combination alone, and develop good technique shooting pictures. I did want to mention their availability though since the more information you are armed with in the decision process, the better decision you can make when finally purchasing equipment.
Note that I have not mentioned any Canon telephoto lenses that aren’t L-series lenses. Canon makes 70-300mm, 75-300mm, and 100-300mm non-L lenses but I can tell you now that you will not be happy with these in the long run (remember, I am talking to folks who are SERIOUS about this hobby). Their build quality is way below that of the L-series lenses and the optics just don’t cut it for sharp, detailed bird pictures. The 300mm focal length is really too short anyway and you will probably get frustrated with that aspect very quickly. Now, if your budget allows you only $500, say, for a lens, then one of theses non-L lenses is better than nothing and will at least allow you to go out and start practicing your shooting. In the mean time, you can be saving your money for a better lens knowing that you can sell the 300mm lens when it’s replaced.
By the way, please–always keep the box, packaging, and paperwork that comes with any photography equipment you buy. Having these items available if you sell equipment gives potential buyers a better feeling about the used item they are buying and they might even boost the selling price a bit. When you sell the item, you can advertise that the item comes in its original box with the owner’s manual. And, take good care of your equipment. The more like-new it stays, the better price you will get for it when it comes time to sell.
In my first 8 years of shooting birds I have purchased 4 telephoto lenses and 4 camera bodies. I was surprised that on every change to either my camera or the lens, it took me a certain amount of what I call “seat time” to get used to the change. The first day I tried out my new piece of gear, I was disappointed at the increase in the number of blurry shots I was getting compared to using the prior camera/lens combination that I had become used to.
It shocked me so much when I first tried my new EF 100-400mm zoom lens (replacing the Bigma 50-500), that I actually went down to the local camera shop and rented another 100-400 lens for a weekend. I did this to verify that my new lens wasn’t defective and wasn’t producing higher numbers of blurry photos than the rented lens was. I shot lots of frames with both lenses on the same camera body in the field. It turned out that both lenses performed the same, so that told me that I had some practice to do and that the equipment was not to blame. In a couple weeks I was back on track with my same, or better, keeper rate with the new lens. So, not only do new bird photography students have to deal with the typical ins and outs of bird photography (which I’ll get to later in detail), but they will probably have recently acquired a new body and lens combination to get used to. Just be aware that it can take a while with new gear to get used to the new feel in your hands. This can also be the case for a person who has been shooting for years.
UPDATE Sep. 1, 2013: I am fortunate to have upgraded to a Canon EF 500mm F4L IS II lens recently. I’m beginning to get used to it but have some practice to do before I’ll realize its full potential. I’m quite pleased with its performance with the 1.4x III extender attached. Be looking for some shots in my galleries taken with this lens.
It all comes down to lots of practice no matter what equipment you own! Reading books on photography and articles like this one on the Internet is fine but it will not make you better at finding birds, choosing backgrounds, analyzing the light situation, predicting bird behavior, or operating your camera and improving technique. The only way to become better at doing bird photography is to get out and shoot thousands of photos. Practice, repetition, practice, learning from your mistakes, and practice is the way to becoming the bird photographer you want to be.