Best Lenses for Birding
When it comes to birding with a DSLR camera, your most important piece of camera equipment is without a doubt the lens that you’re using. While the camera body can help in allowing higher ISO when birding in forests or in other low light situations and helping in , your lens is going be what determines the most when it comes to the quality of your images. In most cases you’ll find that professional bird photographers spend more on their lens than they do on their camera body. If one has the financial ability, one should always consider purchasing a lens on the higher end of the spectrum, as it will make a noticeable difference to your images.
In this article, we’ll take a look at a few of the best lenses for bird photography by various manufacturers, covering Sigma, Tamron, Canon, Sony and Nikon. It is important to remember that each lens has its own ‘mount type’, that is to say that for example Canon lenses can only fit on Canon cameras and Nikkor lenses can only be mounted on Nikon cameras. Other manufacturers such as Sigma and Tamron will often produce variations of their lenses with different mounts, some to fit Canon and other to fit Nikon.
Best Canon Lenses For Bird Photography
Canon’s telephoto range has been excellent since the early 90s with the introduction of the 400mm L prime and since then the company has released some iconic telephoto lenses that cater most excellently to bird photography and wildlife photography. Here’s a few of their products that can help you in taking some great bird images.
Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM
The Canon 500mm F4 lens is widely regarded as the best Canon mount lens for bird photography, and possibly even the best lens for photographing birds altogether. It is a fixed focal length lens that offers pin sharp clarity and extremely fast auto-focus. With an aperture of F4, it also allows you to get those forest birding shots that may have otherwise been a tough challenge. The Mark I version of this lens has a similar rapport. The Mark I was released in 1999 and until the release of the Mark II, was seen as the best Canon telephoto lens for bird photography. The Mark II version was released in 2011 and saw a few enhancements on the original, including a dramatic reduction in weight. This lens also offers image stabilization, which can be very beneficial when birding under canopy.
The fact that the 500mm F4 from Canon is a fixed focus lens means that it lacks versatility, so if you are looking for a birding lens that can also double as a wildlife lens, the Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM may not be the lens for you. But if you’re after a dedicated birding lens that will offer you unbelievable quality, then this is a must have for your Canon DSLR.
Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM
This lens is known as the go-to birding lens from Canon if one does not have the budget for the 500m F4 listed above. The Canon 400mm F5.6 offers similar image quality to the 500mm F4 with pin sharp images, while also making use of the USM auto-focus system, meaning quick and quiet focusing. The lens was first released in the early ’90s and quickly became a favourite for photographers and in fact was for many, the primary birding choice until the release of the 500mm years down the line.
The Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM is an excellent camera for bird photography and particularly excels in birds in flight photography, as the smaller build and light weight makes it easy to maneuver. One can comfortably use this lens handheld without too much worry. It holds a particular advantage in this regard when compared to lenses like the Sigma 50-500mm which has far more weight.
The areas in which the 400mm differs from the 500mm is in the fact that it has 100mm lens focal length (the equivalent of 2x zoom), the higher aperture, and the lack of image stabilization. If you’re looking for a birding lens for your Canon DSLR but cannot afford the price tag of the 500mm, the 400mm is definitely your best bet.
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
Somewhere just above the 400mm prime discussed above is the new Canon 100-400mm f4-5.6L IS II USM. This lens offers similar performance to the 400mm prime, outperforming it in some areas though, such as auto-focus and even potentially image quality. The major advantage over the 400mm though, is the versatility that comes with this lens. If you’re looking for a lens that is not a dedicated birding lens, and instead something that can cover a variety of wildlife, then this is definitely the lens for you.
The Canon 100-400mm f4-5.6L IS II USM offers high quality image stabilization, better than the Mark I version of the lens, which was also a favourite among wildlife photographers.
Best Nikkor Lenses For Bird Photography
Nikkor offers its own selection of telephoto lenses for bird photography and in them are parallels to the Canon items listed above. The prices on Nikkor products are close in line with that of its rival Canon, and if you decided to opt for a Nikon body, you’re sure to find a lens to cater to your birding requirements.
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4G ED VR
The Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4G ED VR is a bit of specialty lens. The massive 600mm focal length in combination with an aperture of f4 means that this bad boy is capable of taking some amazing bird photographs. However, as with most 600mm lenses, this Nikkor is quite large and isn’t the most friendly lens for free hand photography. With that said, if you’re generally a tripod or monopod shooter then this lens can offer you unrivaled image quality.
This is often the lens of choice for professional bird photographers, most of whom operate with either a tripod or monopod majority of the time.
This beast of a lens offers very quick and accurate autofocus, as well as producing amazing clarity in images. If you’re operating with a large budget and you’re one for using tripods, then this lens may be just what you’re after. Though if you’re looking for versatility in your gear, then perhaps look at the next item instead.
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR
Released in 2015, this lens was a bit of a game changer for Nikon. Before its release, Nikon’s only real competition to the Canon 400mm 5.6L and 100-400mm was their Nikon 80-400mm VR. The 80-400mm VR offered good quality images, but many felt it fell just short of what Canon had to offer for the price, which was more than double that of the Canon 100-400mm. The 200-500mm however, offers something that Canon doesn’t. A versatile zoom lens that offers both 500mm zoom and extremely high quality images.
Since its release, the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR has quickly found its way into the bags of many Nikon users. It is particularly well known for its capabilities when it comes to bird photography. The lens comes with VR (Vibration Stabilizing) and also offers high quality, responsive auto-focus.
Whether you’re looking for a lens that is dedicated to birding or looking for something that will also cater to your general wildlife photography, you can’t go wrong with this lens.
Best Sony Lenses For Bird Photography
Over the last few years Sony has been managing to edge itself into the DSLR market, that is otherwise dominated by Canon and Nikon. With the new focus from Sony on their DSLR products, they also have some telephoto lenses out to cater to the sports, wildlife and birding photographers.
Sony 500mm F4 G SSM
The Sony 500mm F4 G SSM can be directly compared to the Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM (where it falls short), but is definitely the best dedicated birding lens offered by Sony. It offers very sharp images and excellent autofocus. Though these features come at a price, the Sony 500mm F4 G SSM is by no means a cheap lens and for most people the price puts this lens outside of their options. However, if money is no object to you and you want to keep shooting on Sony, then this is probably your best bet.
Sony 70-400mm f/4-5.6 G2 SSM
The Sony 70-400mm f/4-5.6 G2 is the company’s response to Canon’s 100-400mm f4-5.6L IS II USM. It is far better priced than the 500mm F4 G SSM mentioned above, and this lens is probably the one most Sony bird enthusiasts would be looking at. Despite coming it at 100mm less focal length, this lens offers a competitive price as well as offering high quality images and versatility. The fact that this lens ranges from 70mm to 400mm means that it can even be used in certain situations as a landscape lens.
This is by far the go-to lens from Sony when looking for something to cater to birding and wildlife in general.
Best Tamron Lenses For Bird Photography
Tamron only recently entered the large telephoto market for DSLR cameras, but they did it with a product that saw many people considering dropping their current gear to pick up what they had released.
Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD
Tamron dropped this lens out of nowhere, a versatile 600mm zoom lens that produces sharp images and weighs in at less than many of its shorter-focus competitors. The Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD surprised a lot of people with its high quality images and light weight, as well as extremely good pricing. This lens retails for around the $1000 mark, far removed from most other 600mm lenses which can run into the tens of thousands.
While the Tamron appears to be an excellent lens for bird photography and wildlife photography in genera, it isn’t without some flaws though. It doesn’t handle low light as well as some of the competition, which is something to consider for those who are birding under canopy a lot. The autofocus also isn’t as quick as say the Canon 400mm 5.6L (which falls into the same price bracket). But then again you are getting 200mm more focal length, so it’s something to take into account when weighing your options.
This lens is manufactured with both Canon and Nikon mounts.
Best Sigma Lenses For Bird Photography
Sigma have offered a variety of telephoto lenses over the years, some were good while others had their issues. Today they continue with several telephoto lenses offered some of which are definitely worth considering if on a budget.
Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary
This new lens from Sigma is well placed in the same territory as the Tamron listed above. Both offer the same zoom range, with an impressive 150-600mm, with both lenses also sitting with a f6.3 aperture at the end of the zoom. With regards to quality both the Sigma and the Tamron seem to be on a similar playing field. The Sigma weighs in slightly heavier than the Tamron (7 ounces more). The image quality is very good for the price tag, especially considering the zoom length of this lens. Even wide open at 600mm this lens can give some stunning results.
** If you’re prone to birding in wet conditions or require weather proofing on your lens, we highly recommend paying a couple hundred more dollars and purchasing the Sport version of this lens, which comes with full weather sealing, and subsequent peace of mind. The Sport version however is significantly heavier than the C model, and tripod or monopod support is almost mandatory.