Photography - Knowledge

Bird Photography: How to Choose the Best Lens for Bird Photography

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Wild Bird photography, or Birding, is quite a challenging activity. While the internet is flooded with articles covering almost everything that falls under the banner of the ‘bird photography art’ not many delve into the intricacies of how to select the best lens for bird photography or are able to provide a satisfactory distinction of a Canon Telephoto lens and a Nikon Telephoto lens or explain the functioning of a Canon zoom lens. As is very obvious, your camera gear will form the most integral part of wild bird photography. A major part or bird photography is to reach them from a distance without causing an alarm or any distraction.

Unless you’re targeting photographing birds such as geese and ducks who are accustomed to being around humans, you can forget about taking pictures with a point and shoot and be mentally prepared to invest in a fast DSLR camera with one or multiple telephoto lenses. If you’re going to go with the assumption that bird photography is simply clicking randomly using a long lens, then you’re in for a rude shock. Any avid bird photographer could describe at length, their efforts lasting from dawn to dusk and involving crawling through the mud to creep up on birds despite their 500mm lenses and teleconverters. 

When deciding to head out into the wild to gain a foothold in birding, choosing and acquiring the right equipment, especially the best lens for bird photography is important. A Digital Single Lens Reflector or a DSLR is an ideal choice for this type of photography since this digital equipment allows the use of a viewfinder and directly via the lens on the subject, while incorporating sophisticated autofocus capabilities, enable the use of a range of lenses, indulge in high-speed shooting capabilities, not to mention empowering the user to intuitively and speedily change settings.    

How to Choose the Camera Body 

There are various factors that one takes into consideration before settling on a piece of equipment. This equipment will tick all the checkboxes in question, such as the brand, the budget, the usage etc. However, there are a few pointers to keep in mind before settling on the correct equipment:

  • Megapixels

While myriads of people are constantly hung up on the number of megapixels their cameras sport, and the manufacturers egging them on by adding more and more to the megapixels war, it’s noteworthy that any camera with an 8 megapixel and above would do quite well, yes, even for a professional photographer. 

  • Crop Factor

Manufacturers of Nikon and Canon create cameras which have full frame sensors and bodies with sensors smaller than even 35mm, and these smaller sensors result in increased focal magnification. While a landscape photographer would prefer to choose a fuller frame camera body, such that their wide angle lenses can maintain their wide field of view, a bird photographer would prefer a camera with a smaller sensor to take advantage of the crop factors. 

  • Frame Rate

Equipped with a camera that enables you to snap at a higher frame rate is worth considering if capturing birds in flight or action is your deal. There are cameras which allow you to shoot up to 10 images in a second, quickly imprinting themselves onto a memory card, and they are worth investing in if the frame rate is a role-playing factor in your photography. 

  • Autofocus Capability

It’s likely that you might not need a high-end autofocus capability if you’re just a beginner at this, but depending on the type of usage, consider investing in a camera that provides you with a good autofocus. 

  • High ISO Capability

A camera’s high ISO capability is interrelated to its price, much as it is interrelated with pixel size. If you’re looking to shoot at a high ISO, then head for a camera with fewer megapixels or a camera with a full frame sensor and larger pixels size. 

  • Build Quality

Birding isn’t going to be possible without the exposure to the elements of nature. Which means that when choosing your camera, also look into its robust body and it’s capability to survive through harsh conditions while giving a decent performance. 

best lens for bird photography
Choose the perfect camera and lens setting

Why You Should Invest Only in Best Lens for Bird Photography

Taking all the sensors of a camera into consideration - be it the metering sensor, the autofocus sensor or the camera sensor – are conditional to the incoming light, which enters via the camera lens. If you end up using a poor quality or badly suited lens type, the light entering will be dispersed or diffracted when travelling through the various elements of the lens.

Other factors that affect the light are the aperture opening and the blades. A larger aperture opening will give you a better autofocus power, better light contrast, faster shutter speeds, more refined colour reproduction and a higher image quality. Looking at all of this it’s pretty hard to ignore the universal rule that ‘Quality doesn’t come Cheap’, which means that choosing the best lens for bird photography might initially burn a hole in your pocket but make a decision worth the money! 

Choosing Lens for Bird Photography

So, which brand to choose for the lens? Is Canon the best lens for bird photography or a Nikon the best lens for bird photography? How does one really make that call? When choosing the best lens for bird photography, always lean towards going for the camera manufacturer’s lens, since mixing and matching with a third party lens most certainly means ending up with something of poor quality, with a sad autofocus which can be the making or the breaking of your bird photography. Quality always bears a bright price tag and it’s inevitable to escape from both. 

No matter what your choice, confirm of a good image stabilization feature. For an IS lens go for the Canon telephoto lens and for a VR lens go for a Nikon telephoto lens. 

Zoom lenses have become the world’s most popular DSLR camera lens choice owing to the resourcefulness of using a range of focal lengths. Previously if you chose a zoom lens over a prime fixed focal length lens, it meant you would be giving up on the quality of the image. But, with the advancement and improvements made to zoom lenses, they now deliver image quality previously known only to prime lenses. Like in the case of the Canon zoom lens which is available for almost every need from a general purpose to something as specific as birding. 

Photography Lenses for Beginners 

If you are just starting out and are unsure of which way to turn for your equipment, and what qualities would determine the best lens for bird photography for beginners then below are a few good lens choices you can go for, depending on what appeals to you and suits you:

  • Canon 100-400mm IS II Lens while popular as a secondary lens by professionals is pretty much go-to for any avid Canon bird photographer. Its high lens quality and range make for taking superior quality shots of close-ups and habitats. 
  • Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 VR Lens is the perfect combination of a constant aperture along with the VR and a great reach, a decent combo for any birding novice and sits pretty on the list of the best Nikon lens for bird photography.
  • Nikon 80-400mm VR Lens is one of those versatile lenses that can easily do double duty, no matter if you’re shooting wildlife, landscape, or birding. While the Nikon 200-500 does come out on the top for bird photography when you take into consideration its reach the quality output that comes at a low price. 
  • Canon 400mm f/5.6L Lens can easily fool you with its tiny size and low pricing but comes with a crisp and superior sharpness to it making it feature among the best canon lens for bird photography.
Nikon camera for bird photography
Nikon 80-400 mm for bird photography

Lenses that Suit the Budget 

Don’t let prices of quality equipment deter you from choosing the best lens for bird photography and from following your photography goals. There are lower priced lenses too that could well serve the purpose while being easy on the pocket.

Canon 100-400mm IS lens (Push-Pull) held the popularity for quite a while till the IS II was introduced in the market. Its push-pull technology functioned such that you pull the lens to zoom out and push it to zoom in. 

There’s always the second-hand option to consider for possibly a 100-400 IS/200-500VR/80-400mm VR lens. But as is the case with buying anything second hand, it’s always wise to take your time to research well. Sort out good deals and discounts, learn new hacks to test out lenses or even asked your more experienced friends to help you out. It’s always good to have a photographer friend with you when purchasing a second-hand lens so that they might pick-up on something that you might miss. Check for wear and tear, scratches, lens fungus, etc. when going in for a second-hand lens. 

  • Canon 300mm f/4L IS Lens bears a good contrast and superior sharpness. 
  • Nikon 300mm f/4 VR Lens lives up to the name of its predecessor, the 300mm f/4 non-VR lens in the context of sharpness, and is certainly an upgrade on the same as well. 
  • Couple with 1.4x Teleconverter Considering it’s a prime lens, you can easily combine it with a 1.4x teleconverter in order to get a good reach. 
Nikon 300mm
Nikon 300 mm is wallet-friendly option

However, if you are new to the game, note that using a teleconverter could have some disadvantages such as:

  • Losing a stop of light leading to loss of shutter speed.
  • Reduced shutter speed could lead to camera shake. 
  • A slow autofocus which would affect the quality and performance. 
  • This combination only works for experienced bird photographers. 

Lenses for the Tight-Fisted 

Barely have any money to spare? Or too chicken to invest in the best lens for bird photography right at the beginning? Not to worry, you haven’t run out of options just yet. 

Canon 70-300mm IS Lens or Nikon 70-300mm VR Lens are lenses of decent quality, but should not be expected to perform to the levels of a 200-500, a 100-400 or even an 80-400 lens. You should reach out for this only when really strapped for cash and not as a resort to saving on cash as that would negate the purpose of your photography. 

Scope Adaptors and Digiscoping

After discussing budget options, let’s now delve into an expensive option. This is for serious birders who don’t mind splurging whether it comes to owning the best lens for bird photography or going the lengths to buying a telescope and possibly already own one or maybe even more. If all you’re looking for is photographs then obviously this isn’t the way to go, but can be considered if you would like the scope of direct viewing additional of pursuing photography. Whether your spotting scope belongs to Nikon, Swarovski or Zeiss, you have a good foundation of gaining good shots with an adaptor. These types of packages including a big tripod and a small camera which can cost you a bomb. There are also two types of adaptors: one which is mechanical and places your DSLR in the place of the eyepiece and the second holds up a compact digital camera to the eyepiece. For successful Digiscoping, you’ll need large solid tripods or big support systems. 


While it’s important to put in some money to buy the proper equipment, always keep in mind it’s a photographer that will speak for his work. A poor craftsman will always blame his tools – if you haven’t worked on your basics, style, technique and all the rest, the best of best lenses would not be able to help you get the photographs you’re shooting for. Also, along with the perfect lens, you should know about the right camera settings for bird photography that will aid in perfect clicks.

Happy Clicking! 

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