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Bird Photography – lenses and essential kit

Bird Photography – lenses and essential kit


Telephoto lenses make a distant subject look larger — in other words, distance seems to be compressed. Anything longer than 70 mm is considered to be telephoto. The shorter telephoto lenses,  between 70 mm and 200 mm, are ideal for photographing less shy maybe larger birds, birds perhaps that are used to the presence of people – Australian Pelicans, Emus, and Swans and so on. If you are working in areas where smaller birds are used to people, then you could use the 200 mm. Lenses from 300 mm to around 600 mm on a DSLR full frame camera are ideal for wildlife. Of course, if your camera’s sensor is smaller than full frame then you can take the ‘crop factor’ into consideration.  The shorter 300 mm and 400 mm focal length lenses are short enough to handold with shutter speeds of 1/125 of a second, with vibration reduction sometimes even lower; depending of course on the zoom length selected. The heavier 500 mm or 600 mm lenses may require either a monopod or tripod to retain stability; the tripod, of course, can be a hindrance, especially when birds move rapidly from branch to branch.  Much like driving a car, following moving subjects takes practice and, of course, if the camera lens and body have advance focus tracking systems then this task is made a whole lot easier.

The optics of a long telephoto lens can create an incredible sense of compression and, by shooting with the lens at its maximum aperture, it is possible to create soft backgrounds which in turn place emphasis on the primary subject – the faster the lens (smaller the f-number), the softer the background will appear.

The first step in making a decision as to what brand and model of lens you need is to establish the type of camera you need to achieve your objectives. Here the need to first establish that you are buying a DSLR (Digital single-lens reflex camera) and not a rangefinder or compact style camera. The reason for the purchase of a DSLR is that you will need to be able to see your composition through the lens before taking a picture. More importantly, you will want to take control of the outcome and not let the camera make all decisions; although there may be times, for example, sudden unexpected action, when you may choose the P (program) or automatic mode on your camera.


When you are considering a long focal length lens, be sure to assess the wide range of zoom lenses that are available. Lenses with zoom ranges of 70–300 mm or 100-400 even 150-600mm are available in quality brands. There are however many, many variables but please remember if a lens seems cheap to you, then consider that you do get what you pay for. For the many Canon and Nikon users, the Nikon’s 80-400mm and the Canon’s 100-400mm lenses are superb for bird photography even when a 1.4x Teleconverter is added.


Budgerigars Nikon 500mm ISO 1,000 f11 1/800th sec (on a Nikon D3s)

Telephoto zoom lenses are fast, easy to use and eliminate the need to change lenses for different focal lengths or to carry additional equipment. Over recent years you will find lenses of excellent quality. Some of the newer releases offer outstanding zoom ranges. A 100–400 mm zoom lens, with its built-in vibration reduction system, effectively takes the lenses from a speed of f5.6 up to f 1.2! In terms of quality, the results I get from my Canon 100–400 mm lens are indistinguishable from similar fixed focal length lenses. In addition to the more portable 100-400mm lens I also use a 200-400mm f4 IS USM with a built in extender 1.4x converter which was used to photograph the Golden Bowerbird (above). On the left 200mm and on the right using the built in 1.4x converter at 560mm; add to this lens a 1.4x converter and the lens has a focal length of 784mm!

VR (Vibration Reduction) lenses

With vibration reduction (VR) or image stabiliser (IS) zoom lenses, such as a 80–400 mm VR and a 100–400 mm zoom, it is possible to handhold the camera and lens with the shutter speeds slower than a normal lens of the same focal lengths. So, for example, if you are comfortable handholding a normal 400 mm lens at 1/500 of a second, with the stabilised lens you can rely on 1/60 of a second producing the same result.I have used an exposure formula of 1/20 of a second combined with f5.6 and 10,000ISO with amazingly clear results on a Canon 100-400mm lens..


Above:  This Lotus Bird was photographed with a Nikon D3s and a 2x converter taking a 500mm Nikkor lens to 1000mm.

Tele Converters

If you find your budget being stretched, you might consider a teleconverter; also sometimes called extenders or multipliers. The better converters, used with higher quality lenses, will produce good results. They are available for most telephoto lenses and are available at a range of magnifications from around 1.2 to 2times. Of course using a teleconverter can be a considerably cheaper option than buying another lens of a longer or shorter focal length.

Keep in mind that extenders do not attach to all lenses, nor may they auto focus even if they do fit. You should check with your manufacturer before purchasing to see if you own compatible lenses.

The pros of a Teleconverter

Cost – an obvious factor is, they are considerably cheaper than the investment in another lens.
Weight – long focal length lenses can be quite heavy, adding a converter to your 200 or 300mm lens will not add that much weight.

The Cons of Teleconverters/Extenders

Lens Speed – teleconverters will reduce your maximum aperture. When using a 1.4x converter this means you’ll lose one stop and when using a 2x converter you’ll lose two stops. This can be counterbalanced through the application of additional ISO, therefore enabling your to increase your shutter speed.

Camera Shake – as you extend the focal length of a lens – any movement of your camera will become more noticeable.
Using a teleconverter magnifies both your subject and any movement in your camera. You can reduce it, either by increasing your shutter speed and/or using a tripod/monopod or some other technique to secure your camera. If your lens offers vibration reduction this will help if you are hand holding your camera.

Focusing Speed – another consideration with teleconverters is that it may slow down the speed at which your camera will focus on auto. A simple compatibility check could be done in store.

Image Degradation – Extenders multiply not only the focal length but also any aberrations of the lens. As a result, you may notice that image quality suffers – on my 200-400 and 100-400mm Canon lenses I cannot notice any image degradation when using the 1,4x converter. Using the best quality lens possible will help keep such degradation to a minimum.

My verdict

While the following list of ‘cons’ may seem severe, it is still possible to get consistently sharp images with a teleconverter, and I do use them often on both Nikon and Canon lenses when extra reach is needed. I have managed to do this by taking extreme care when I focus and also by paying attention that I shoot at the highest shutter speed possible.


Steve with renown bird photographer Martin Willis photographing on the Daintree River.

300–400 mm telephoto focal length ranges

Telephoto lenses in this range are entirely suited to bird photography, particularly for photographing small bush birds in and around gardens and heathlands. If the more expensive fast lenses are within your range, or if you use an ISO of 400 or faster, you will find it beneficial to use a teleconverter to extend these lenses into the 400 to 500 mm range. Attached to quality cameras with autofocus systems and motor drives you will, with practice, be able to react quickly when the sudden action occurs, like the Great Billed Heron (above left) that exploded into flight. Using the 200-400mm f4 IS USM, which has the capability of very close focus, I was able to photograph a male and female Shining Flycatcher as they alternated on their nest. If I had used my 500mm fixed focal length lens I would not have been able to make this shot


Monopods, quality tripods, and tripod heads are essential tools when using the longer, heavier telephoto lenses

400–1000 mm telephoto focal length ranges

I have used 500 mm and 600 mm fixed focal length lenses for more than 37 years, and am always amazed by the results across a very wide range of subjects, from wildflowers to wildlife and even landscapes. The compression of background-to-foreground distance, the ability to blur the background by shortening the depth of field, and the thrill of observing and recording the behaviour of wild birds (without intruding) makes the 400 and 600 mm focal length ranges a particular joy to use. These lenses can have both extension tubes and teleconverters attached and are used with tripods and monopods for stability. You will need to be patient to master the utilization of these particularly long and usually quite heavy focal length lenses.

Here is a summary of a test comparing zoom lenses with fixed focal length lenses across a range of quality and of course prices.

I recently tested the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x zoom lenses on a Canon EOS 1DX Camera body comparing it with a fixed 500mm Canon lens. I then added a Nikon D3s and a Nikon D800 to the test with both a fixed 500mm Nikon lens and a 150-500mm Sigma Zoom lens. These tests were carried out in the field and in my bird -filled back yard across a wide number of frames and camera settings.

The return rate at 100% enlargement with Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x zoom lenses on a Canon EOS 1DX body with the pin sharp was around 90%. The Sigma 150-500mm was a poor 30% on a Nikon D3s’s autofocus, manually focussed the return was around 70%. The 500mm Nikon on both the D3s and D800 were around 80-90% return, however, focus speed is considerably slower than the Canon  EF 200-400mm and even slower again with the Sigma.

The bottom line can also relate to the overall cost justification and today we see Tamron, Sigma and Nikon all offering powerful zoom lenses at very reasonable cost and with care stunning results are achievable.

In summary, as previously discussed, if you are prepared to invest in the best and indeed the right equipment for the job then you will be able to obtain a higher return of stunning images.

SPEEDLIGHTS.001Using flash for fill in

The Canon and Nikon Speedlight flash units, both of which I use, can be very handy when your subjects are either in shadow or perhaps backlit and you feel a little additional fill in light will have an excellent effect in revealing hidden detail.  In the past few years, since the releases of cameras with higher relatively noiseless ISO capability, I use my speed lights less preferring to use natural light.  When I do use mine I usually underrate the light output at least one stop, sometimes even two in an attempt to ‘hide’ the flash effect.  Of course depending on the ISO used it is also possible to recover shadow detail in the post production process.  Flash extenders are also a favorite tool for bird photographers.


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Bird Photography – lenses and essential kit
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  1. Hi Steve, nice site. I have been reading the topic of cameras and lenses (refreshing myself from yesterdays workshop).
    I have a just upgraded my canon body to a EOS 70D and also bought a Sigma 70-200mm F2.8 APO EX DG OS lens which was recommended to me as a very sharp lens (sharper than the canon equivalent).
    What I found when using this lens, it responded too slow for the subject matter – small birds.
    The focus was zooming in and out and by the time I could shoot the pic the bird was gone. Or else it wouldn’t focus close enough.
    My question is this – Could I use the EOS 70D with the IS USM 200-400 zoom (you list on your site) and still get fast response and sharp shots? Or would the camera body let me down?

    • Hi Rikki,
      Very good question, let me ask Canon myself and I will get back to you.
      Will discuss more when I get an answer.


    • Hi Rikki Fisher, here’s a note back from Canon regarding your question.

      “There are disadvantages when using a lens like this on a consumer level camera. The main one being the AF which will be considerable slower because the sensor on the camera doesn’t communicate as fast as a pro camera. It has to do with the amount of light that is able to pass through the mirror, it will be even slower when the extender is dropped in.

      However, it will work and he will boast an additional 1.6x too. According to my calculation, about 900mm…”
      Trust this reply helps. Steve



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