The best lenses for bird photography

The first thing to clarify is that, while Netra and I love to photograph birds, this blog post can relate to all wildlife photography. Wild animals have the tendency to stay as far from us as possible and we need similar lenses and camera bodies as we would need for bird photography in the majority of cases.

We often get asked what lenses we use for wildlife photography. The answer is simple. The best and longest we can possibly afford. And you, too, should consider buying the very best and longest lens you can afford on your budget. I always suggest – and mentioned to Netra – that if I had the choice of a top of the line camera with a medium quality lens I would rather the best quality lens with a lesser quality camera. Cameras change often enough to buy the best one later, whereas lenses will last you far longer and most professional or serious amateur bird photographers will go through many camera bodies before upgrading lenses.

Don’t be discouraged if you shoot with shorter lenses than what you see other people photographing with. Just practice on less wild birds until you can afford something longer. While we would recommend lenses with at least 400mm focal length (on a full frame camera body) for bird photography, you can get away with shorter ones at your local duck pond where birds are friendly and will approach. And, 400mm is not that long still when you consider how many advanced photographers choose lenses of at least 500mm or more to photograph birds.

Let’s take a look at different lenses for your benefit. Lenses are classed into different categories, like ultra wide, wide, standard, telephoto, medium telephoto and super telephoto. Lenses of 400mm or more are classed as super telephoto lenses, irrespective of how you achieve the focal length (that is lens alone or a shorter lens with a teleconverter).

At a workshop I held in 2017 for a local birding club. The participants had as many different bird lenses as there were people.

Medium telephoto zooms like 70-200mm lenses or similar are great for larger animals up close, or when photographing seabirds like albatross from a boat during a pelagic outing. They can be used from photography hides (or blinds, however you like to call them) or cars, which can be used as a form of a mobile hide.

My favourite albatross species, Buller’s Albatross photographed with a full frame camera and 150-600mm zoom set to 232mm only. So medium telephotos can be handy. This is the UNCROPPED RAW file converted to JPEG only.

300mm lenses are also great for general wildlife photography, especially with crop sensor cameras and having a fixed lens doesn’t make things easy when animals let you approach closer than you anticipated, but the one thing we always do is take tight shots. Even head and shoulders portraits if needed.

OM-1 body and the 300mm f/4 Pro lens. This gives the field of view of 600mm on a full frame body and it makes the framing of a fast flyer, such as this kestrel, very difficult at close quarters. This image has not been cropped.

400mm lenses are getting you into real super telephoto category now. On a typical APS-C sensor camera like a Canon R7 (1.6x crop) this lens is giving you a field of view the same as a 640mm lens on a full frame camera. Simply multiply the focal length by the lens crop factor to get the field of view equivalent in full frame terms. Therefore, 400mm x 1.6 = 640mm, it’s this simple.

Now you can see why wildlife photographers just LOVE the OM System with the 2x crop factor bodies, where our 300mm f/4 lenses are giving us the same field of view as a 600mm f/4 lens on a full frame camera body.

A stunning male Chestnut-breasted Mannakin photographed with a Canon 30D (1.6x crop factor) body and the 300mm f/4 lens and 1.4x teleconverter. The uncropped file is on the left, cropped on the right. That’s why I like more focal length. If I had a 500mm lens back when I took this shot (in 2010), I would have had the image on the right just about full frame in the camera without having to crop from an image where the bird was much smaller in the frame. Focal length is king!

Beside focal length, there is speed of a lens. Speed refers to how much light can enter through the aperture at its largest opening (smallest f/stop). A fast super telephoto would be a 400mm f/2.8 lens, but that f/2.8 aperture comes with an eye watering price. The f/2.8 aperture would allow such lens to acquire focus quicker than an f/4 lens, but besides the cost of such lens, the weight also needs to be considered.

A 500mm f/4 lens would weight something similar and would be a stop slower than the 400mm f/2.8 lens, but with an extra 100mm of focal length. If you were to add a 1.4x teleconverter to a 400mm f/2.8 lens, it would become a 560mm f/4 lens (400mm x 1.4 = 560mm). Adding a 1.4x teleconverter to a 500mm f/4 lens would make it a 700mm f/5.6 lens.

This photo was taken with a Canon 1DMkIII body (1.3x crop sensor) and the 500mm f/4 lens. The field of view was 500mm x 1.3 = 650mm. The bird was difficult to frame from a rocking boat with a big, heavy lens, but it demonstrates that having the right lens got me the shot. A shorter lens would not have.

Basically, adding a 1.4x teleconverter to a lens will cost you one stop of light. Adding a 2x teleconverter will cost you 2 stops of light. These losses in light mean your autofocus will be somewhat slower, even with top of the line camera bodies.

What, I hope, you are getting out of this is that there are lenses, then there are lenses and weights, costs and speeds that all contribute to the final product of your efforts. It all comes down to what you can afford, what you can hold and shoot with or you need to be prepared to make compromises.

That’s me holding a Canon EF300mm f/4L IS USM lens in my right hand and the Canon EF500mm f/4L IS USM lens in my left hand. Two completely different lenses with different prices and one thing I can tell you. Once I purchased that 500mm f/4 lens, my photographic results improved drastically for many reasons, but most importantly because of the extra focal length.

There are many choices available to you if you want to photograph wildlife, I’ll list some below and you too can find your lens that you want to consider buying, or dream about until you can afford. For me, I prefer prime lenses (fixed focal length), although these days the zoom lenses are usually very good quality when you’re paying thousands or tens of thousands of dollars for them. I’ll list lenses from OM System from most expensive at top, to more affordable ones at the bottom.


ED 150-400mm f/4.5 TC1.25x PRO

ED 300mm f/4.0 IS PRO

ED 150-600mm f/5.0-6.3 IS

ED 100-400mm f/5.0-6.3 IS

ED 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO

ED 40-150mm f/4 PRO

The interesting thing to note is that the 150-600mm zoom is one that was rebadged from Sigma (I think) and the Sigma (or Tamron with the same focal length) make amazing lenses for a Canon or Nikon body if you’re on a budget!

This Wedge-tailed Eagle was shot with the OM-1 body and 300mm f/4 Pro lens with the 2x teleconverter. The field of view equivalence of 1,200mm is immense, and not ideal for some flying birds. However, slow flyers like these wedgies are manageable.

In closing: what lenses we would we recommend for wildlife photography?

As mentioned earlier, the best and longest lens you can afford. If you like a zoom, buy a zoom, if you like a prime lens, buy a prime lens and add teleconverters to increase your focal length. It’s really as simple as you working out what your needs are and what your budget is. I’ll attach a table below showing different lenses, crop factors and what they mean in a field of view equivalent of said lenses depending on what camera bodies you use. Don’t hesitate to get in touch with Netra or I if you need any help with any aspect of wildlife photography.

Stay safe!

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