Equipment for bird photography
Unfortunately you have to be pretty serious
to contemplate getting into photographing birds .There is
no way around it - the equipment required doesn't come cheap
and it is also bulky and pretty heavy. It certainly took
me some years to acquire the long lenses that I now own.
My advice is to buy the longest prime lens (fixed focal
length) that you can afford. Unless you are in to photographing
ostriches 400mm is the shortest focal length you can realistically
hope to get away with.
In the Canon range, if money is tight or if
weight is a big issue, I would recommend a crop camera such
as a 40D/50D or 7D combined with a 400mm f5.6L lens. This
will yield an effective focal length of 1.6x 400 = 640mm.
The lens is light and compact, very sharp, has great contrast
and accepts a teleconverter very well with insignificant
quality loss, but you then have to manually focus unless
you have a 1 series camera - which will retain AF on the
1.4x converter. It also autofocuses very quickly which is
great for birds in flight (BIF). The lens's biggest minuses
are that it is a "slow" f5.6 lens that lacks image
stabilisation - so it works best in good light or should
be supported on a tripod or monopod. However, lacking IS
keeps the size, weight and cost down. It is quite a bargain.
The widely-used alternative to the 400mm
f5.6 is the Canon 100-400 f4.5-5.6L IS zoom. This lens is
slightly less good optically than the prime, particularly
when used at maximum aperture but does have image stabilisation
and is more versatile being a zoom. Although it is called
a 100-400, it actually only manages 380mm at the long end,
so if you think you might regularly shoot with it at maximum
zoom, you could be better off with the prime lens. Some
people use it successfully with a 1.4x teleconverter but
I have always found the image degradation to be slightly
too much for my needs.
If money and weight is less of an issue, the 1 series Canon
cameras offer superior image quality and far better autofocus
ability along with weather-sealing. They also retain autofocus
at an aperture of f8 (centre AF point only) which is an
important consideration when using teleconverters.
Lenses to consider are the 400mm f4 IS DO - this is very
compact and light but very expensive. You can use a teleconverter
with it. Image quality is excellent but not quite in the
same class as the other "super telephotos".
Another option to seriously consider is to go for the 300mm
f2.8 IS and use it with teleconverters. This is probably
Canon's sharpest lens, so it accepts converters very well
and can even retain autofocus on any Canon body. A 300f
2.8 with a 2x converter becomes a 600mm f5.6 lens. Combine
this with a crop camera and you still have lots of reach.
The 400mm f2.8 lens is a very heavy and bulky lens and retains
AF with both extenders on any Canon camera - so it can become
an 800mm f5.6 lens with a 2x converter with the benefit
of being a very fast lens - ie. it can maximise shutterspeed
in low light situations.
I consider that the best lens for bird photography is the
500mm f4 IS. It is expensive, large and heavy, but is far
more manageable than the 600mm f4. The image quality is
identical to its bigger brother i.e. stunning, it has fast
autofocus, takes both extenders extremely well and AF is
retained with all cameras with the 1.4x and a 1 series camera
will still AF with the 2x converter - yielding a massively
powerful 1000mm f8 lens. The lens is just about the longest
that you can get away with as carry-on luggage when travelling
by plane and you can even hand-hold it for short periods
if you have average strength thanks to the IS ! Compared
to the shorter f5.6 lenses, it is much easier to throw the
background out of focus into a pastel blur.
Fieldfare in snow - taken with the
Canon 500mm f4 IS lens
The final lens to consider is the 800mm f5.6
IS. This is another big, heavy and even more expensive lens,
but not the monster that an 800mm f4 lens would have had
to be if it existed. This is a highly specialised lens and
I have had no personal experience of it. It will only autofocus
with the 1.4x extender on a 1 series body but not with the
Being a Canon shooter, I am no expert on Nikon
equipment, but as I once considered changing to Nikon tempted
by the excellent Nikon D3 camera, I did look into what lenses
are available.You are very much more restricted in choice
in the cheaper and shorter telephoto lengths it appears,
but Nikon do have some excellent super telephotos that are
easily equivalent to Canons.
The equivalent lens to Canon's 100-400 IS is the 80-400mm
F4.5-5.6D VR. I have never used this lens, but I am told
that the image quality is similar to Canon's offering but
autofocus is slow as the lens lacks an inbuilt USM motor,
relying on a motor in the camera driving the lens through
a helical gear.
There is a 300mm f4 that will accept a 1.7x
teleconverter to yield 510mm but lacks VR.
There is a 300mm f2.8 VR, 400mm f2.8 VR , a 400mm f2.8 VR,
500mm f4 VR and 600mm f4 VR which are all said to be excellent
and equivalent to the Canon offerings. There are also two
teleconverters - a 1.4x and a 1.7x.
Finally Nikon have the 200-400 f4 VR lens which is a heavy
and expensive but very high quality zoom that Canon has
no equivalent to. It will accept extenders well apparently
and has the zoom benefits of versatility. It is lighter
than a 500f4 lens so is more hand-holdable for Birds in
Flight (BIF). Some people have bought a Nikon camera just
to be able to use this lens !
Moving on from Nikon lenses to cameras, at the time of writing,
Nikon has the 12Mp full frame D3s SLR with 12 Mp, the D3x
with 24 Mp full frame and the D300s 1.5x crop camera with
12 Mp. I have used the D3 and think that it is superb. Its
strengths are exceptional high ISO noise ability, 9fps shooting
speed, great image quality and probably the best AI servo
autofocus currently available in a digital SLR. On the downside,
the full frame sensor has a low pixel density so you will
frequently be reaching for a teleconverter or longer lens
to address the shortfall. I don't think I would go for the
D3x despite its very high image quality as it has sacrificed
the high ISO ability and frame rate of the D3 for double
the megapixels. The D300s has a high pixel density benefit
for birds but apparently gives away some image quality to
the D3 cameras. A D300 plus a 200-400f4 VR or 500mm f4 VR
on a D3s are potent birding combinations. Sigma also have
a very good 500mm f4.5 USM lens but this lacks VR and does
not retain autofocus with teleconverters as it is just slower
than an f4.
The final requirement for bird photography is a good tripod
and head. If you can afford it I would recommend a carbon
fibre model as they are both sturdy and lighter than their
metal counterparts. I use a Gitzo and Markins ball head
or Wimberley gimbal head with Kirk or Wimberley quick- release
plates. You can read more about these items in my equipment