Gear Photography

9 Lenses to Help Your Bird Photography Take Flight

One of the most important things in capturing pictures of birds is reach, and these super telephoto lenses will get you where you need to be...

With the right gear – and good technique – you can make great wildlife pictures, no matter where you are. Shooting birds in your back garden or local park is a great example of this. There are plenty of beautiful species that visit throughout the year, so no shortage of subjects to shoot. All that holds most people back is the lack of a super telephoto lens. And that’s what we’re looking at here.

A super telephoto lens is one with a focal length greater than 300mm, and lenses can be included in that bracket even if they feature shorter focal lengths along with it.

Shot at 600mm on a full frame DSLR, when the subject fills the frame you know the picture will have impact. © Kingsley Singleton

That’s not to say you can’t do great things with medium telephoto lenses – typically those from 135mm to 300mm – but the extra magnification of super telephotos will enlarge small subjects even more, allowing you to fill the frame and make more impactful pictures. And importantly you can also stay further from the subject, so that you don’t alarm them and make them fly off.

The longer the focal length you use, the less chance there is of you scaring off the subject. Here, at an effective 450mm, there’s plenty of breathing space.
© Matty Graham

If you’re using a camera with a Micro Four Thirds or APS-C format sensor, rather than a full frame body, you can use lenses with shorter focal lengths because you’ll get a crop factor, making the effective focal length longer than that which is written on the lens barrel.

So for example, with a 70-300mm lens on a camera with an APS-C sensor you’ll get a crop factor of 1.5x or 1.6x, and therefore an equivalent focal length of 105-450mm or 112-480mm. That also means lenses for those cameras can be smaller, light and more affordable. Game on!

A cropped sensor size adds up to extra focal length. Using an Olympus or other Micro Four Thirds body, you’ll get 2x the lens’s stated focal length.
© Matty Graham

What to look for in a super telephoto lens

There are lots of factors that go into making a great super telephoto lens, not least of all optical quality. But practically, one of the main things you’ll want is for the lens to have some form of image stabilisation – unless it’s present in the camera body. This will help you shoot in low light and avoid camera shake, which is exaggerated by longer focal lengths. Controls on the barrel to help control the focus, like zoom locks and AF limiters will also aid handling.

Features like focus limiters help you shoot through foreground objects without them getting picked up by the AF. © Matty Graham

The greater the maximum aperture the better, but remember that modern cameras have great ISO performance, so you can afford to use apertures like f/5.6 and f/6.3 and simply push the gain higher to get the shutter speeds you want. The wider the aperture that’s available, the better you’ll find the focusing speed and accuracy, and the less compromised the performance will be if you want to add a teleconverter to increase the focal length even more.

If the super telephoto comes with a collar that lets you mount it on a tripod or monopod, even better. Weight is a factor, as heavier lenses are harder to hold still, and can wear you out on a long shoot. Rugged build and weather sealing are important, though only if you intend to keep shooting in poor conditions.

All set? Then let’s look at some affordable examples for full frame and crop-sensor cameras…

Tamron 18-400mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC HLD

Think wildlife photography and you may not instantly picture a lens like the Tamron 18-400mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC HLD. But at the long end, this APS-C format lens gives a whopping 600mm on Nikon and 640mm on Canon DSLRs, and it won’t break the bank either. The shorter focal lengths means it’s versatile, as well as compact and lightweight, and it still features image stabilisation, has a moisture-resistant build, and decent autofocus.

Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM

This is a Canon full frame lens, and doesn’t quite hit super telephoto in that reckoning, but mount it on a Canon crop-sensor body, like the 90D with its 1.6x crop factor, and you’ll get a 112-480mm optic with a decent f/5.6 aperture at the long end. It’s therefore a versatile option for crop sensor users, and backed up four-stops of image stabilisation, quick, quiet AF, and, as a pro-spec Canon L lens, great build quality and weather sealing, all at a decent price. It’s relatively small and light, too, and provides great image quality.

Nikon AF-P DX 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3G ED VR

A lens for Nikon’s range of crop sensor DSLRs, such as the D500 and D3500, this has an equivalent focal length of 105-450mm. Therefore there’s loads of reach at the long end, and versatility if subjects come closer, or you spot an emu. Optical quality is tip-top, and the AF-P range uses a pulse motor in its AF system for smooth, silent focusing in stills – and video. There’s no tripod collar, but it’s small and light, and has four-stop VR stabilisation, so that’s no real loss.

Sony FE 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G OSS

Flexible and stunning in its optical quality, this full frame lens for Alpha bodies, like the a7R IV and a9 II, gives superb control over framing. The maximum aperture is variable, but that keeps the lens’s size and weight to a minimum. For fast and quiet AF, there’s a Direct Drive Super Sonic Wave Motor, and Optical SteadyShot stabilisation to combat camera shake, with quick control of those from the barrel. A rotating tripod collar is included, which is another plus. Mount it on a crop-sensor Sony like the a6600 and you’ll get an equivalent 300-900mm. Ouch.

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS II USM

This is a great general purpose super telephoto zoom lens built for Canon full frame cameras, but usable on crop sensors, too, where you’ll get a thumping 160-640mm equivalent. Optically stabilised with a four stop advantage, and with extremely fast and quiet AF, it’ll cope with all sorts of subjects and lighting conditions, and as an L lens it’s tough as old boots. It comes with a tripod mount, and has a neat zoom ring where you can adjust the torque for more precise performance.

Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD 2

As a 4x zoom, this lens gives lots of framing options, and superb magnification at the long end. One of Tamron’s top-of-the-line SP models, it offers great optical quality, and a Vibration Compensation mode with 4.5 stops of compensation to fight off camera shake. At 600mm you’ll really feel the benefit of that. AF is fast and quiet, it’s weather sealed so you don’t need to scurry in from a shower, and there’s an included tripod collar to take the weight off your arm. It has plenty of control from the barrel, too, including focus limiters for working on close subjects or when grass and leaves are in the foreground, and there’s a zoom lock to prevent it creeping as you move around. It’s available for Canon, Nikon and Sony bodies.

Nikon AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR

This Nikon full-frame lens gives a great range of focal lengths for bird photography, and you can enjoy an f/5.6 aperture at all of them. Mount it on a DX format Nikon like a D500 and you’re looking at 300-750mm, which is very impressive. All that reach is backed up by VR image stabilisation that’s rated at 4.5 stops which keeps pictures sharper, especially useful at the long end. It also has an electromagnetic diaphragm to give precise exposures during high-speed bursts of shots, and comes with a tripod foot and a zoom lock for improved handling. At under £1000, it’s really tempting.

Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm F4 IS Pro

Olympus was one of the pioneers of smaller lighter, mirrorless cameras, and the same goes for its lenses. This model has an equivalent focal length of 600mm, a metal body, and outstanding optical quality. Cutting weight even further, Olympus image stabilisation is in the camera body, so this lens weighs only 1270g. There’s an Fn button on the barrel for improved handling, high speed AF, and weather sealing, too.

Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sport

Available on Canon, Nikon and Sigma mounts, this is another great super telephoto zoom. Sigma’s 150-600mm f/5-6.3 is available in Sport and Contemporary versions, and the focal range is perfect for birding on full frame or crop sensor DSLRs. The Sport version is bigger and heavier, but more rugged and weather sealed, and both have a zoom lock to prevent movement in transit. Optical quality is excellent from one end of the zoom to the other, and Sigma’s OS stabiliser cuts out camera shake, as well as having multiple modes for panning and static shots. AF is snappy and has manual override if you need to correct for subject movement.

With all this reach, there’s nothing stopping you from capturing nice bird images in your own back garden. © Kingsley Singleton