The best birding lenses.

When doing wildlife photography and in particular bird photography a long lens with a focal length of at least 300mm is really essential. The basic rule of thumb for bird photography is get the longest lens you can afford and can carry. But there is a limit and the object of this blog is to determine what is the best birding lenses for you.

Firstly lets 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 very 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 had the lens on the maximum focal length anyway. This is because more often than not you cannot get close enough to birds to back off the zoom and frame it. There was a time when zoom lenses were regarded as inferior in both quality of build and quality of the image produced, but that is not really the case any longer. Many modern zoom lenses are of very high quality. In other words don’t rule one out over the other; if you have a particular need for a zoom and if you choose wisely it can produce as good results as prime lenses can.

When selecting the right lens, it becomes a compromise between length, speed, weight and of cause cost as to what is the best birding lens. 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 four wheel drive with the lens perched on the door sill or sitting in a bird hide with the lens on a tripod, then weight is not a major factor. Whereas if you are hiking then the camera/lens weight is of major importance. This may also influence your choice of a prime or a zoom, as a prime lens is often lighter than a zoom lens of a given length. Image Stabilization is invaluable at high magnification and allows the use of slower shutter speeds which in turn lets you use a smaller aperture.

Another thing to consider when looking to buy 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. A perfect example of the use of an extender is a comparison between the Canon 300mm f2.8L coupled with a 2x extender and then compared to a 600mm f4L. The same focal length is achieved with both set ups, yet the former is almost half the weight (2875g v 5360g) and almost half the price ($6400 v $11500). It is also more versatile, easier to transport, can be hand held and would be very, very close to the same image quality. Admittedly the 600mm is one full stop faster but that sacrifice may well be worth it when you consider the weight and the cost savings, which are considerable.

It goes without saying that focal length is very important and in fact is necessary when talking about birding but so is image quality. To me image quality is the single most important factor after focal length. It seems that image quality and wide aperture or fast lenses go hand in hand also. Following them it would be weight and then cost. But as I said the weighting of these factors changes depending on the birding methods you use and of course it also changes from person to person, not to mention budget, making it a personal issue. At the end of the day you use the best lens you can justify the outlay for.

The purpose of this post is to determine what the best lens is; the lens most birding enthusiasts would aim for. Generally speaking anything from 300mm upward is suitable but most would want a minimum of 600mm but of course the longer and faster the better. But with greater aperture (smaller f-stops) comes a heftier price tag and a heavier lens.

 

LENS Qal 1.4X 2.0X WEIGHT DIMENSIONS PRICE
EF200mm f/2.8L II USM 1.5 280×4 400×5.6 765g 83.2 x 136.2 $800
EF200mm f/2L IS USM 1 280×2.8 400×4 2520g 128 x 208 $6000
EF300mm f/4L IS USM 1.5 420×5.6 600×8 1190g 90 x 221 $1500
EF300mm f/2.8L IS II USM 1 420×4 600×5.6 2550g 128 x 252 $7300
EF400mm f/5.6L USM 2 560×8 800×12 1250g 90 x 257 $1200
EF400mm f/4.0L DO IS USM 1.5 560×5.6 800×8 1940g 128 x 232 $6500
EF400mm f/2.8L IS II USM 1 560×4 800×5.6 5300g 163 x 349 $11500
EF500mm f/4.0L IS USM 1 700×5.6 1000×8 3870g 146 x 387 $10000
EF600mm f/4.0L IS USM 1.5 840×5.6 1200×8 5360g 168 x 456 $12000
EF800mm f/5.6L IS USM 2 1120×8 1600×12 4500g 162 x 461 $14000

 

This table shows a selection of Canon telephoto prime lenses with other information in order to provide easy comparisons between lenses and their physical characteristics.

The Qal column is a ranking of image quality. This is based on reviews and publications done by various institutions and individuals in the industry and should not be taken as gospel, but rather as a guide. All the lenses listed are in Canons professional series (L) and are of course all of superior build quality. Which just goes to make selection on quality almost imposible.

The next two columns are the effect on focal length and aperture that fitting either a 1.4x or 2x extender has on the lens. For example the EF300 f/2.8L IS II USM lens becomes a longer lens with a focal length of 420mm with a maximum aperture of f4 when coupled with a 1.4 x extender. It should be noted that extenders will degrade image quality to varying degrees. For example a lens, say 600mm f/4 generally speaking is going to have better image quality than a 300mm f/2 fitted with a doubler.

The weight in grams is self explanatory as is the lens dimensions which has diameter followed by overall length.

It would seem, just looking at the figures that the 400mm f/2.8 would be the best lens in the selected 10, and it is most likely the most popular lens among professional sports photographers. Having said that it is too heavy in my opinion to lug around the bush and very expensive also. I read an article once written by a professional bird photographer who said when he was poor he used a 300mm f/2.8 and 2x extender; now he uses a 500mm f/4 and a 1.4x extender. He considered that the ultimate lens combination for his job.

Like me, many people make a progression through the lenses until they finally get the lens they are happy with. But what happens to the lens that is no longer used, it is an investment that you don’t really have a use for anymore. I mean you can still use it but let’s face it, if you have a better one, why use it. You could sell it or hold on to it just in case? If you knew what the best lens for your needs was then you could go strait there and save the cost of the in-between lenses. You would also be using the correct lens sooner and hopefully producing more good shots. Sounds good in theory, but in practice most people have to find things out for themselves. HAPPY BIRDING!