Picking a Lens for Birding and Wildlife Photography

0Share
Picking a Lens for Birding and Wildlife Photography

When it comes to bird and wildlife photography, the one word you need to know is: telephoto! If you've ever tried to approach birds or wild animals (not too close, please!) you've likely noticed they usually don't take kindly to humans and fly or scamper off before you get close enough for a photograph. The magic of the telephoto lens allows you to get "up close" without getting… up close.

For birding and wildlife, getting closer usually means using lenses with a minimum 300mm focal length. We've all seen spectacular wildlife images by top photographers and, when we see those photographers, they are usually accompanied by gigantic (and super expensive) telephoto lenses that us mere mortals only can dream of owning. Luckily for the rest of us, there are some great, and more reasonably priced, options on the market.

Best Birding/Wildlife Lens for Most Budgets: 150-600mm lenses

Coming from Sigma, Tamron, and FUJIFILM, the amazing lineup of 150-600mm lenses (plus Nikon's sparkling 200-500mm f/5.6) represents a fantastic focal-length range for birds and wildlife, great image quality, and exceptional value for shutterbugs looking to get into this genre of photography. Most 150-600mm lenses are great for full-frame cameras, but they are especially awesome on APS-C cropped sensor (1.5x) cameras where they have the focal length equivalent of 225-900mm.

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

Here are links to hands-on reviews of the Sigma Sports, Sigma Contemporary, Tamron, and Caleb Quanbeck's article "When to Zoom Out," featuring wildlife photos from his 150-600mm lens.

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

Best 10X Zoom Lens for Birding/Wildlife Photos: Sigma 60-600mm

Expanding on the zoom range of those awesome 150-600mm lenses, the Sigma 60-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM lens, now available for DSLRs and mirrorless, gives you a bit more in the traditional normal/portrait focal lengths for expanded versatility. At 10x zoom, this lens is firmly in the world of "superzoom" lenses.

Sigma 60-600mm f/4.5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sports Lens
Sigma 60-600mm f/4.5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sports Lens

Best Optically Performing Zoom Birding/Wildlife Lens: 100-400mm lenses

While the 150-600mm lenses mentioned above offer a superlative telephoto zoom range and fantastic value, most of the market's 100-400mm lenses, especially those from OEM camera manufacturers, have a reputation for hosting exemplary optics that result in amazing image quality—some rocking almost unanimous five-star reviews. What you give up in zoom range, you might gain in overall image quality. Note that there are excellent 100-400mm lenses for full-frame, APS-C, and Micro Four Thirds cameras.

Sony FE 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS Lens
Sony FE 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS Lens

Best Premium Telephotos Without Super-Premium Prices: Nikon's Phase Fresnel lenses and Z 400mm

Nikon's Phase Fresnel (PF) lens technology has allowed the creation of very portable super telephoto lenses that deliver remarkable image quality. These lenses are not inexpensive but, when compared to other super telephotos, they do represent a remarkable value. This family includes the mirrorless NIKKOR Z 800mm f/6.3 VR S, and the F-mount AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR and AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/4E PF ED VR, plus the non-PF stepchild, the NIKKOR Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S lens.

See our review—"The Birding Dream Team"—of the diminutive and fun PF 300mm lens.

Nikon NIKKOR Z 800mm f/6.3 VR S Lens
Nikon NIKKOR Z 800mm f/6.3 VR S Lens

Best Budget Birding/Wildlife Zoom Lens: 70-300mm lenses

Likely the easiest way to get to 300mm with a telephoto zoom, the common "kit" 70-300mm lens, especially when paired with an APS-C crop sensor camera, is a completely viable tool for capturing birds and other wildlife. Because this 70-300 comes with many beginner digital photography bundles, it is a great way to get started with super-telephoto photography. But if you get serious about our avian friends and other animals, you'll likely want to upgrade to the other lenses mentioned in this guide down the road—including looking at some of the non-kit premium 70-300mm lenses.

FUJIFILM XF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 R LM OIS WR Lens
FUJIFILM XF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 R LM OIS WR Lens

Best Birding/Wildlife Option for Viewing Plus Photos: Spotting Scope

While it is awesome and fun to get a great photo of a rare bird or wild animal out in nature, there is something to be said for viewing and studying those creatures with your own eye—not through an optical viewfinder and especially not through an LCD screen. Modern spotting scopes feature spectacular optics, rugged portability, and, when paired with a digital camera or smartphone camera (digiscoping), they can be great super-telephoto lenses with magnifications that exceed what a 3000mm lens would give you. Imagine a super telephoto lens that allows you to spend your time exploring nature.

Kowa TSN-88A 88mm PROMINAR Spotting Scope
Kowa TSN-88A 88mm PROMINAR Spotting Scope

See our article "A Guide to Birding and Digiscoping" for more info on how to do this but―full disclosure―the process is not as fast or easy as aiming a camera and lens. Spotting scopes are designed primarily for viewing, not for photography.

Best Lens Accessory for Birding/Wildlife Photos: Teleconverters

As we mentioned above, bird and wildlife photography can be all about getting closer to your subject. The best way to do that, often with a lens you already own, is through the use of a teleconverter that effectively extends the focal length of your lens at the expense of some light-gathering power. For example, a 2x teleconverter on a 300mm f/4 lens transforms the lens into a 600mm f/8 optic.

Not every teleconverter from a brand is compatible with every lens, so do your homework and check compatibility charts before you buy. And, for more information on employing a teleconverter, check out this article and this B&H video.

Nikon Z Teleconverter TC-2x
Nikon Z Teleconverter TC-2x

Best Telephotos if Money is No Object

If there is a herd of elephants in this room, it is the incredible super telephoto lenses from top manufacturers that come with price tags that rival those of a new car than something you'd stick on front of a camera lens.

If you dream of these lenses, check out some amazing glass from Canon DSLR, Canon mirrorless, Nikon DSLR, Nikon mirrorless, Sony, and Sigma. Dream deeper with our article on high-end telephoto lenses.

Canon RF 1200mm f/8 L IS USM Lens
Canon RF 1200mm f/8 L IS USM Lens

What to Look for in Lenses for Birding and Wildlife

Here is a closer look at some buying considerations when shopping for lenses for birding and wildlife.

Focal Length: This may be your primary consideration since the entire mission of your setup is getting closer to the subjects you are photographing. For this buying guide, I intentionally listed lenses that had, at the least, 300mm focal lengths. As good as a 70-200mm lens (or prime 200mm lens) is for a lot of tasks, I feel that 300mm or more is what is needed for wildlife if you want to fill the frame and increase the impact of your images.

Crop Factor: We've all seen the marketing that claims that full-frame sensors are better but, in the world of bird and wildlife photography, the magnification afforded by crop sensor cameras is an advantage—effectively multiplying your focal length by 1.5x/1.6x (APS-C) or 2x (Micro Four Thirds).

Aperture: Large maximum apertures give you two advantages: 1) light gathering and, 2) shallower depth of field. But large aperture lenses often means large price tags and physically larger lenses—the first is never desired, the second is not desirable when hiking deep into nature in search of your wildlife images. At super-telephoto focal lengths, I promise that you will see blurry backgrounds in your images even at mid-range apertures when your subjects are relatively close. And, while extra light-gathering power might be good for low-light work, the high ISO performance of today's digital sensors might allow you to save money, size, and weight with an f/4 or f/5.6 lens instead of an f/2.8 behemoth.

Size & Weight: This was just mentioned in relation to aperture, but to emphasize its importance, the size of a telephoto lens and the weight of your gear should be considered when you account for where you do your photography and how you get there. If you have a team of muscular assistants, by all means, go big! If it is just you and your pack already is full of outdoor supplies, you might have to sacrifice the big glass for a more portable setup.

Support: Even with today's amazing image stabilization technology, when photographing at extreme telephoto focal lengths, camera movement and the resulting blur can be an issue. Don't hesitate to stabilize your lens with a tripod or monopod with a gimbal head. Or, for those travelling light, an alternative camera support like a sandbag might be perfect for giving that critical amount of extra stability to help get the sharpest possible image.

What is your dream birding/wildlife lens? Do you have the perfect lens for your outdoor photography? Do you have questions about the lenses recommended above or another lens not on the list? Post your questions or comments in the provided area below!

0 Comments