My passion for bird photography has been re-kindled and whilst I know my current “birding gear” (comprising of a Canon 7d combined with a Canon 100 – 400L IS lens is plenty good enough to capture stunning photos of birds, I still wonder whether I should buy the Canon 400mm 5.6 L prime lens or not. There has been a long standing debate over the best affordable lens for bird photography and whether that accolade should go to the 400mm prime or the 100mm – 400mm zoom, and it is one that never reaches a conclusion.
I originally bought the 7d and the 100mm – 400mm lens for motor sports photography and not birding, although I did have this in the back of mind when I bought my current gear. When I was looking for a camera/lens combination for motorsports photography I read my articles and blogs discussing the Canon 400mm prime and the Canon 100 – 400 zoom, and all things considered the 100 – 400 came out on top since it is more versatile (it covers a range of focal lengths), it has image stabilisation and the image quality is on par with the 400mm prime, or so the reports said. For motor sports photography the Canon 100 – 400 definitely seemed the way forward, so I bought it.
Since I am in “bird photography” mode at the moment and spending as much time as I can around the network of local Broads shooting birdlife I am starting to question whether my 100 – 400 is the best tool for the job or not, and it’s all thanks to reading tutorials, articles and blog posts on tips and tricks to photography birds in flight. Most of these articles say the “must have lens” for bird photography is the Canon 400mm f5.6L prime lens because “it is sharper and it focuses faster than the Canon 100 – 400”. The fastest auto focus possible is essential for bird photography, and since I want the best image quality possible it seems from what I have been reading the Canon 400mm prime lens is what I need. An L series prime lens has better image quality than an L series zoom lens, although you may have to go pixel peeping to see it so I guess if I want the ultimate in image quality I need to get the 400mm prime, even though the image quality of the 100 – 400 is exceptionally good.
My biggest concern using a prime lens for bird photography is the framing options are limited, and there is nothing I can do about it. Taking photos of birds in flight shouldn’t be too much of a problem because, if anything, 400mm is generally too short and would need a lens with a longer focal length. That said there will be times, of course, when the birds are “too close” and will be too big for the frame, and in these instances I will be clipping wings, tails and feet, which is not a good thing.
I don’t want to just take photos of birds just in flight – I also want to photograph them swimming, bathing, squabbling/fighting and messing around, resting in vegetation, nestling up to their mate…… and all the other things birds do while going about their daily lives. In these situations 400mm is too long and shorter focal lengths are needed. It is these situations where the Canon 100 – 400 comes in to its own since I can “pull back” on the spot and without having to physically move back, and potentially miss the shot in doing so.
Compared to the Canon 500mm and 600mm prime lenses, as well as the Canon 400mm DO, the Canon 400mm f5.6L lens is affordable but it is hardly a “cheap” lens and I am still going to have to part with the best part of £1,300 if I want one. A used lens would obviously be much cheaper but there aren’t many used Canon 400mm 5.6L prime lenses around (which I can only assume is a good thing) and the ones I have found are either several miles from where I live and any saving I make would be consumed the cost in fuel to get there and back, or they are only a hundred pounds or so less than new – and with such a small saving (and the risk of buying a used lens) I may as well dig a little deeper and buy a new one.
In the ideal world I would use the Canon 400mm f5.6L prime for photographing birds in flight and use the 100 – 400 for the other bird shots, but this would require an additional 7d (there isn’t enough time to keep changing lenses and doing so increases risk of dust, dirt and damage) and I don’t have the funds to do that. Even if I did have the funds available for this I really don’t fancy the thought of walking around loaded up with two large camera and zoom lens set ups. Thinking about it, I guess I could buy the Canon 400mm f5.6L lens and use it solely for taking photos of birds in flight and for those situations where the birds are a long way in the distance, but then I would miss out on so many opportunities.
A sample of bird photos taken with the Canon 7d and 100 – 400 lens.
And here it is....... The Canon 100 - 400L IS lens
The Canon 100 – 400L IS lens is a quality (and affordable) lens that is a real workhorse. This lens is tough and durable (i.e. it is bomb proof), it is versatile, it has useful image stabilization and the image quality is superb. If you’re interested here’s a review of the Canon 100 – 400 you may want to take a look at.
Buy the Canon 100 – 400L IS lens from Amazon.com (US citizens) or buy from Amazon.co.uk (UK citizens).
“What camera for bird photography?” is an article that explores the essential features a camera must have to be any good for taking photos of birds. If you are stuck on what camera to buy to shoot birds this is for you.
If you want some tips and tricks that will help you improve your wild life photography “5 wildlife photography tips” is an article you may want to take a look at.
“How to photograph birds in flight” is an article that focuses on, surprise surprise, taking shots of flying birds
“Quick and easy bird photography tips” is an article comprising a few quick and dirty tricks that will help you get decent shots of birds.
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.