Bird photography is a difficult activity. Birds are erratic and quick, and they typically don’t let you get too close, so you need a camera lens that can bring distant subjects close and capture them in detail. With the right lens in hand, you can capture spectacular photos of incredible birds.
The best lens for bird photography is the Canon RF 100-500 mm Super-Telephoto Lens. It offers high-speed autofocus, optical image stabilization, weather resistance, and a versatile focal range.
However, we would not recommend the Canon RF 100-500 mm Super-Telephoto Lens if:
- You are on a tight budget. If this is the case, we recommend the Sigma 150-600 mm Contemporary Lens.
- You want the clearest, best picture with a fixed lens. Then, we recommend the Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 500mm Super-Telephoto Lens.
- You’re a beginner. For bird photography newbies, we’d suggest the Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 200-500mm Vibration Reduction Zoom Lens.
In this article, we’ll explain what you should look into when buying a lens for bird photography and how different lenses perform in these categories. We’ll discuss the Canon RF 100-500 mm Super-Telephoto Lens, as well as alternative options that are ideal for getting the perfect shot of those incredible birds!
Table of Contents
Factors To Consider
There are various factors that you should consider when you’re picking a lens for photographing birds:
- Magnification and focal length
- Brand (Original Manufacturer or Third-Party Brand)
Let’s discuss these factors:
Autofocus Allows for Sharp Images
An effective and high-quality autofocus system is essential to get sharp images, especially when photographing wildlife and other quick targets. Cameras are equipped with algorithms that can scan a scene and identify the subject and automatically adjust the focus so that the subject is clear and defined.
Understanding the Different Types of Autofocus
There are two types of autofocus systems: active and passive. Active autofocus (AF) works by shooting a beam on your subject and bouncing the light back to your camera, determining the distance from the camera to the subject, and adjusting the lens accordingly.
Unfortunately, active AF does not work well for moving subjects that are far away, so it isn’t the best option for bird photography.
Passive AF works either by phase detection or contrast detection. Phase detection uses microlenses to split up images and then measures the distance between those images. The camera then uses this information to send instructions to the lens. Contrast AF uses software algorithms to probe through areas of an image to determine edges.
It is extremely difficult to photograph birds using manual focus, so choosing a camera lens with autofocus is essential to bird photography.
Magnification and Focal Length
Magnification is the ratio between a subject’s size when it is on a camera sensor versus its actual size, which describes how closely you’re focused when you’re capturing an image.
This is written as a ratio that displays how large the subject appears on your sensor compared to how large it is in real life. For example, if the subject is one inch across in your sensor and two inches across, in reality, this is a 1:2 magnification.
Greater Magnification Preserves Details in the Image
The more you focus your lens, the larger your magnification will be. Some lenses can’t go beyond 1:2 magnification, and some can go as far as 5:1 magnification.
For the best bird photography, you’ll need a lens that has enough magnification to fill a large amount of the frame with your feathered subject without having to crop the image too much and lose details of the bird.
This will allow you to not only capture a beautiful image, but if you haven’t yet identified the bird you’re looking at, you can even use your picture of the bird to examine the details and identify the bird.
Focal Length Impacts the Degree of Magnification
It’s also useful to have a variable focal length that allows you to rotate a ring on your camera lens to vary the magnification depending on whether you’re capturing an image of a bird that is nearby or that is far away. Furthermore, variable focal length lenses have a wider range of prices, whereas fixed focal length lenses are always in the upper price range.
However, keep in mind that fixed focal length lenses tend to create higher quality pictures because there are fewer moving parts. If you want to prioritize clear, high-quality images, you may want to purchase a fixed focal length lens.
The best focal length for a bird photography lens is between 400 mm and 600 mm because these lenses can provide between 8X and 12X magnification. This is the same range as most birdwatching binoculars.
Camera lenses vary widely in cost. Lenses can typically be organized into four different categories based on their purpose and quality:
- Consumer: Consumer lenses are the most affordable category, with lenses typically ringing in at under $500.
- Enthusiast: Enthusiast lenses are more durable and advanced than consumer lenses, but these upgrades come with a higher price tag, usually between $500 and $1,500.
- Professional: Professional lenses with top-of-the-line optics, a metal barrel and mount, and leading optical design start at around $1,500.
- Special purpose: These lenses are specially made for specific purposes and are therefore high in price. You won’t need a special-purpose lens for bird photography.
However, you shouldn’t assume that a less expensive lens is not high-quality. Older models of solid lenses will be cheaper than newer models, but new isn’t always better. But is it worth it to shell out more money for a lens?
Factors That Impact Lens Cost
Here are some differences between consumer/enthusiast lenses and professional lenses that explain the price difference:
- Quality of materials: Consumer lenses are typically made with lower-grade acrylic or glass with bubbles. High-quality lenses are made with only the best optics that go through extensive testing. Furthermore, the glass used in expensive lenses is hand-pressed and shaped by engineers.
- Assembly: Consumer lenses are assembled by machines, whereas most professional lenses are hand-assembled. The higher cost of the lens accounts for the hours of human labor put into the assembly of the piece.
- Image sharpness: The complex optical designs of professional lenses allow for the best image quality and reduce distortion and vignetting problems.
- Color accuracy: Professional lenses yield more accurate and vibrant colors than consumer lenses.
- Ability to shoot in challenging lighting: Consumer lenses do not work well in low light because they don’t let in as much light as professional lenses. This causes focusing errors in difficult lighting.
- Autofocus speed: Consumer lenses have slower autofocus systems, which is detrimental to wildlife photography. Birds move quickly, so you need a lens that moves quickly too!
- Weather protection: Expensive lenses are sealed against dust and moisture, so you can use them even in rain and high humidity. Consumer lenses are not as protected.
Expensive lenses tend to be better, but you can still get a quality lens at a lower price.
Brand (Original Manufacturer or Third-Party Brand)
Camera lens brands are either original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) or third-party brands. OEMs only produce lenses that work with their lens mounts, whereas third-party brands produce lenses that work with lens mounts from other brands.
Here are the best camera lens brands available today:
- Canon: Canon is one of the top manufacturers of cameras and video equipment. Sports and wildlife photographers typically choose Canon cameras because they have quick lenses.
- Nikon: Nikon started making lenses even before they started building cameras, so they’ve been in the game for a while. They also have various lenses with different purposes, including wide-angle lenses, fisheye lenses, and super-telephoto lenses.
- Sony: Sony is the final member of the “Big Three” of professional cameras (alongside Canon and Nikon). Sony started in the video world, but now they make state-of-the-art photography lenses as well.
- Lecia: Lecia makes high-quality optical equipment, but they don’t have many options for those with a lower budget. However, they have a reputation for having the sharpest images and color correction. If you have the money for a great lens, Leica is a good brand to go with.
- Pentax: Pentax makes APS-C and Full Frame lenses, mostly at the consumer level.
- Sigma: Sigma makes and markets full-frame lenses for photographers of all levels. The Art line is a professional quality line, whereas their other lenses are more consumer level.
If you’re going to be investing a large sum of money into a high-quality lens, make sure it’s from a brand you can trust.
Best Overall: Canon RF 100-500 mm F4.5-7.1 L is USM Super-Telephoto Lens
This lens (available on Amazon.com) is the best lens for bird photography that you can buy. It delivers high-quality images, especially wildlife and aviation photography, but it is still a travel-ready size and weight.
The lens has two NANO USM focus motors. These provide high-speed autofocus that allows you to capture even the quickest and most erratic of birds. You can zoom in farther than most other lenses to capture birds that are far away, and if you’re lucky enough to get close to a bird, you can focus on the macro details and capture a clear image.
This lens allows for three modes of image stabilization: standard, panning, and during exposure.
If you’re serious about bird photography and you want to be able to capture images that are so detailed you’ll be able to use them to identify birds, this is the lens for you. It has a hefty price tag, but the quality you get makes the price worth it.
- Sharp telephoto optics: You can get clear photos from various distances, which is great when photographing birds. You never know how close or far they’ll be!
- Weather protection: This lens has a cream-colored finish, which keeps it from absorbing too much heat on sunny days, thus minimizing damage. The polycarbonate and metal body are sealed to protect against dust and moisture.
- High-speed autofocus: The RF 100-500 mm autofocus is quick and precise, and has no problems getting crisp, high-quality shots, even of objects in motion.
- Lightweight: This is a big professional lens, but it is not as hefty as some other lenses in a similar quality range. The narrower design makes it lighter and more convenient to carry around.
- Expensive: High quality comes at a price. This is definitely a professional-level lens that comes at a professional-level price.
- Control ring is awkwardly placed: The control ring on this lens is between the handgrip and the tripod collar, which is a bit too far from the zoom ring.
- Not the best in dim light: This lens has a narrow aperture, which means it works best in well-lit environments and struggles a bit in dimmer conditions.
|Minimum Focus Distance||0.9-1.2 m|
|Focal Length||100-500 mm|
Best for Those on a Tight Budget: Sigma 150-600 mm Contemporary Lens
This lens (available on Amazon.com) features a wide range of stabilization and dual-mode autofocus. You can also customize your setup. The images are not as sharp as more expensive lenses, which is to be expected, but for the price, the images are still high-quality and pleasing.
This lens has four switches: one that switches between autofocus, manual override, and manual focus. One switch is for limiting focus: full range and 2.6-10m. Another switch is for image stabilization, and you can choose between regular and panning mode. The final switch is for the custom modes, which you can program with the Sigma dock.
With this lens, you’ll be able to capture some high-quality photos of quick and erratic birds, but you won’t have to shell out too much money to do so. It isn’t as fancy and consistent as more expensive lenses, but it is a solid budget option.
- Affordable price for 150-600 mm zoom: A 150-600 mm zoom is nothing to sneeze at, and it can be difficult to reach 600 mm in an affordable price range. This is the best quality of this lens.
- Lightweight: The lens is made mostly of plastic, so it is relatively lightweight and perfect for hand-holding. This means you can shoot for a while without your hand getting too tired.
- No autofocus freezing issues: Some lenses in this price range freeze up on occasion, but this Sigma lens is more reliable.
- Only partially weather-protected: The mount has a rubber gasket, but the lens is not protected from the weather. After too much time in the dust, it is possible that your bokeh quality will suffer.
- Flimsy focus ring: The focus ring on this lens is thin, which makes manual focusing relatively choppy. Most bird photographers rely on autofocus, though, so this may not be that big of a problem.
- Doesn’t perform great optically above 500 mm: Compared to other lenses in a similar price range, such as the Tamron 150-600 lens, the images above 500 mm are not as clear with this lens.
- Inconsistent autofocus accuracy: The Sigma is a little hit-or-miss with the autofocus, especially when shooting with older camera bodies.
|Mount||Canon EF, Nikon F, Sigma SA|
|Minimum Focus Distance||2.8 m|
|Dimensions||105 x 260 mm|
|Focal Length||150-600 mm|
Best Fixed Focal Length Lens: Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 500mm Super-Telephoto Lens
This lens (available on Amazon.com) is durably made and has advanced weather sealing. It is a lightweight and smaller option for a fixed focal length 500mm lens compared to similar lenses in this price range.
The lens also features VR image stabilization, Nikon’s Extra-low Dispersion glass, and fast autofocus with a Silent Wave Motor that minimizes the noise of the camera so you won’t scare away the bird you’re attempting to capture.
This lightweight super-telephoto lens has great optics at a reasonable price. If you want super clear and crisp photos, a fixed focal length lens is the way to go. This is one of the most mobile and affordable options you’ll be able to find.
- Relatively small size compared to other 500mm lenses. Many professional lenses are big and can be bulky, which isn’t ideal when you’re photographing birds, and mobility can make or break the shot. This lens is significantly smaller than other full-frame 500 mm lenses.
- Lower weight than other 500mm lenses. The smaller size also means that this lens is more lightweight than its competition. Comparable lenses are five to seven pounds, but this lens is just over three.
- Low price for a 500mm lens. This isn’t a cheap lens by any means, and it’s going to cost you a significant amount of money. Still, compared to similar lenses on the market, this is one of the most affordable options.
- Weather-resistant. The metal and composite material barrel are sturdy, and the lens is sealed, which protects against dust and water. Furthermore, the fluorine coat prevents grease and moisture from ruining the front element.
- Only compatible with newer cameras. This lens isn’t compatible with all camera bodies, especially older ones.
- The sports setting is not as effective as other settings. The sports setting on this lens isn’t bad, but there is some motion blur in shots taken with this setting.
- Only a one-year guarantee. For a lens in this price range, we would expect a better warranty than a one-year guarantee.
|Minimum Focus Distance||500 mm|
|Dimensions||9.3 x 4.2 inches|
|Focal Length||500 mm|
Best Lens for Beginners: Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED Vibration Reduction Zoom Lens
This lens (available on Amazon.com) is specifically designed for beginner wildlife photographers; it is a user-friendly and hand-holdable lens at a relatively low price. The f/5.6 aperture gives shallow-depth backgrounds that will make your bird photography pop, and the stabilization reduces vibration and keeps the pictures from getting too blurry, which is perfect for beginners.
No matter how far away the bird is, you’ll be able to get the perfect shot with this lens because the 500mm focal length can bring the subject into close focus. This lens can also deliver rich and detailed close-ups. The lens also has Silent Wave Motor technology that makes the autofocusing nearly completely silent.
The lens comes with extra-low dispersion glass, which cuts through the glare of sunlight. In turn, you’ll be able to capture beautiful photos, even on extra sunny days.
Beginner photographers need a lens that can help them develop their skills, and this is a great option. The vibration reduction is excellent, especially for new photographers, and the affordable price point means that beginners can explore their interests without making too much of a financial investment.
- Vibration reduction: The image stabilization works well to counteract camera shaking. This is essential for beginners who haven’t developed their steady hand yet.
- Long-lasting and solid construction: This lens is built well, so as long as you handle it with care, it should last for a long time. This means that if you move beyond beginner status and want to get a better lens, you can pass this one on to someone else.
- Smooth zoom rings: You won’t struggle with zooming with this lens, which is just one less thing that beginners need to think about.
- Occasional inconsistency with photo quality: Any lens with a huge zoom range at such a low price is going to be somewhat inconsistent in quality, and this lens is no exception. You’ll likely experience some occasional focus accuracy issues.
- Large diameter: The large diameter of the barrel may make this lens difficult to transport.
|Minimum Focal Length||200 mm|
|Dimensions||7.48 x 7.48 x 17.2 inches|
If you’re a bird photographer, you need a camera lens with good autofocusing and magnification. However, you also need one that fits your size and budget preferences.
Taking all of these factors into consideration, the best overall lens for bird photography is the Canon RF 100-500 mm Super-Telephoto Lens. This camera lens will suit most bird photographers under most circumstances. You can buy the Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L Super-Telephoto Lens on Amazon.com.