When choosing the ideal lens for bird photography you need to consider weight, ease of handling, sharpness, speed and, unless you have a huge budget, price.
Based on these criteria I have chosen two Canon lenses which I consider to be ideal and great value for money. Both of these lenses are in my kit bag and I wouldn’t like to be without them.
An ideal lens for bird photography must:
- Produce sharp images.
- Focus fast.
- Focus accurately.
- Focus quietly.
- Be light enough for your purpose.
The sequence of shots below, showing a Great Crested Grebe territorial dispute, was only possible to photograph because I was shooting with a sharp, fast and accurate lens (Canon 500mm f/4).
Great Crested Grebe territorial dispute (Click to enlarge)
Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM
Lightweight and easy to hand hold.
No Image Stabilization.
At around $1350 the Canon 40mm f/5.6 is an ideal lens for bird photography.
It is excellent value for money, produces very sharp images and it focuses very fast and very accurately. It is one of the sharpest lenses that Canon produces.
When photographing birds in flight I prefer to be hand-holding the camera in order to get good freedom and range of motion. This is where the Canon 400mm f/5.6 excels because it is light weight and easy to handle.
For flight shots I prefer this lens over the much heavier and pricier 500mm detailed below.
The only reason it didn’t get five stars is because it doesn’t have image stabilization. The only time I find this a disadvantage is in low light situations without a tripod. If it did have image stabilization then this would push the price up quite a lot!
Its maximum aperture is f/5.6 which won’t give as much depth of field as an f/4.0 lens but this is fine, especially for flight photography because
- It is difficult to get sharp focus on a birds eye when it is in flight. An aperture of f/5.6 will have a wider field of focus than an aperture of f/4.0 so you’re more likely to get the eye in sharp focus.
- The background is usually the sky, so more depth of field isn’t necessary.
Many choose the Canon 100-400mm zoom lens rather than the 400mm prime because they think there is more flexibility with the zoom range and because it has image stabilization. In practice it is usually used at the 400mm range, and its image quality is much lower than the 400mm.
Canon EF 500mm f/4.0 IS II USM
Can only be handheld for short periods.
If you’ve got the budget for it then the Canon 500mm f/4.0 at around $10,500 brand new is the way to go.
It produces extremely sharp images, focuses very accurately, very quickly and very quietly. The diffused background produced by its good depth of field is excellent.
The only reason that I didn’t give this five stars is because of the high price tag!
These are all essential requirements when photographing birds. You can be waiting quite some time for the specific shot that you have in mind. When it does happen the last thing you want is for your lens to take ages to focus or be so noisy that the bird is scared away.
I prefer this lens to the Canon 800mm because its lighter weight means that I can carry it around with me much more.
Other Ideal lens for Bird Photography Choices
If you have an even greater budget then the Canon EF 600 mm and Canon EF 800 mm are worth a thought, but you’re now into the $13,000 – $14,000 price range. For me, this is way outside my price range and the extra weight means that I wouldn’t be able to carry one around with me as much as I can with my 500mm lens.
The 600mm weighs in at 3.9kg and the 800mm weighs in at a whopping 4.5kg.
Their obvious advantage is the extra reach that they provide so if you’re always shooting close to the car then its worth considering.