Many people think the best lens for bird photography is the lens that is the fastest and has the longest focal length however this is not always the case. Sure there are times when the best bird photography lens is an 800mm f4 lens but there are times when you will get better results with a 100mm macro lens. Yep, you read that right – there are times when you will get the best results with a macro lens. The best bird photography lens depends on the location of the birds, the situation you are in and the type of shot you are trying to capture.
Best lens for bird photography – Wild/migrating birds
If you are after shots of wild and migrating birds at nature reserves the best bird photography lens is the one with the longest focal length you can afford. The bird hides at nature reserves are typically a long distance from the birds (and quite rightly so) and if you want to get a decent sized photo of the birds you will need a super tele lens to get up close and personal.
The best lens in these situations is an 800mm or 600mm lens but since these are exceptionally expensive (costing several thousand bucks) they are out of reach for most people, and even those who can afford these lenses often struggle to justify the high cost.
There are some budget 150mm – 600mm tele lenses available, and whilst these have the reach they are typically slow, require a lot of light and the image quality is poor. In my experience these budget 150mm – 600mm tele lenses are a total waste of money because the image quality simply isn’t up to scratch.
The best bird photography lens in this situation is a 400mm lens combined with a teleconverter for a bit of extra reach. It is worth remembering that a 400mm lens attached to a crop sensor Canon camera has an effective focal length of 640mm. Add a 1.4x converter (I would not suggest a 2x converter because the loss in image quality is too much) and the effective reach increases to 896mm. This is not too bad is it? The image quality of a 400mm tele lens with a 1.4X converter is far superior to that of a budget 150mm – 600mm super zoom, and will result in usable images.
A fixed 400mm prime lens is a favourite among many bird photographers, and this is fine if you only want to shoot at 400mm or beyond but if you need to shoot closer you could run into some problems. Rather than use a 400mm prime lens I use a Canon 100-400L lens, which is more versatile and gives me more options. The image quality of the 400mm prime is marginally better than that of the 100-400L however the difference is negligible and I am more than happy to sacrifice the tiniest bit of image quality (which my customers never notice) for the versatility and ability of being able to pull back and actually get the shot than be stuck at 400mm and miss it altogether.
Best lens for bird photography – garden birds
Garden birds quickly become tame and are more than happy to come in nice and close, therefore super zoom lens is often an overkill. Even though garden birds come in nice and close they are often small, so you still need a zoom lens to get frame filling shots.
The best bird photography lens in this situation is a 70mm – 200mm zoom lens, and my lens of choice is the Canon 70mm – 200mm f28L IS (for a review of this lens please check out “Canon 70-200 f2.8L IS review”). Whilst this is Canon’s flagship 70mm – 200mm lens it is available in other variants that are cheaper but will still get stunning bird photos.
I could use my 100-400 lens for photographing garden birds (such is the versatility of this lens) but it is bigger, heavier an slower than my 70-200. That said, if I were to buy just one bird photography lens it would be the Canon 100-400.
Best lens for bird photography – Birds in captivity
When photographing birds in captivity there will be times when the birds are so tame you can get so close to them a macro lens is all you need, and there will be times when the birds are so timid and shy they will scoot off to the far end of the enclosure, requiring a super zoom to get a frame filling shot.
Many people consider the best bird photography lens to be a 70mm – 200mm zoom in this situation since it offers the best compromise between size, weight and focal length. There was a time when I used a 70-200 lens for taking photos of birds in captivity however after missing a shot of a breed of bird I really wanted to capture because I didn’t quite have enough reach I decided the Canon 100-400 was the best bird photography lens in these situations.
The most versatile birding lens
As you can see there is no single best lens for bird photography and you will have to make some compromises. Buying the wrong lens is a costly mistake, and whilst there is a market for used and second hand lenses you will always suffer a big loss. Because of this you need to look at the type of bird photography you will be doing and then select the most suitable lens on that basis. If you want an all-round bird photography lens that not only produces stunning images but is also affordable you won’t go far wrong with the 100mm-400mm zoom lens, and this is one I highly recommend.
Other related bird photography articles
If you found this article interesting/useful below are some other related bird photography articles you may want to take a look at.
“Quick and easy bird photography tips” is an article that, as the name suggests consists of quick and easy bird photography tips that will lead to instantly improved photos of birds.
“How to photograph birds in flight” is an article that focuses on capturing awesome photos of birds in the air. Photographing birds in flight is a real challenge, however the tips and tricks in this article should help you along the way.
“Best camera for bird photography” explains the features your camera needs to get the best bird photos possible.
Keen photographer addicted to cameras, lenses and everything photography related. Feel free to follow me in my photography ramblings, and if you have any thoughts, comments, queries or anything else to add I would love to hear from you.