Why use a super telephoto lens for bird photography?

Firstly, what is a super telephoto lens? Lenses between 80mm and 300mm are referred to as telephoto lenses. Lenses of 400mm or longer focal length are considered super telephoto lenses. Now that the technicality is out of the way……..

Our first outing with Netra using borrowed Olympus camera gear and I was able to take this great portrait of a Glossy Black Cockatoo at Kings Tableland, Wentworth Falls. The camera was the OM-D E-M1X with the M.Zuiko 300mm f/4 Pro lens and TC-14 teleconverter. The images were exceptional quality for the first attempt with an entirely new camera system. The field of view of this shot is 840mm on a full frame camera.

You have probably heard many people saying online that you don’t need a super telephoto lens to take wildlife photos. They can shoot with a 70-200mm lens or something equivalent to that and get images. There are a few things to consider with those kinds of statements and while to some degree a shorter telephoto lens can be useful at times, and one can take images with them, you simply cannot beat focal length. Especially when it comes to bird photography. Focal length is king. Let’s look at a couple of reasons where you can use a short telephoto lens, say 300mm or shorter:

  1. In a zoo, where animals are confined in a small place and have nowhere to go to get away from you,
  2. In a public space, where birds are ridiculously tame because people have been feeding them all the bad things (like bread and similar unsuitable things) for a long time. Therefore, they become habituated,
  3. They crop their images so much from the RAW file (but they probably shoot jpegs anyway) that the images are poor quality, and they just don’t mind,
  4. On a boat when you are photographing pelagic birds at sea. Many of these birds (especially the albatrosses) come so close at times you can literally take photos with a wide-angle lens,
  5. From a hide, where you are fully concealed, and the perches or other stages are set-up well enough to use a shorter telephoto lens,
  6. From your vehicle, when you occasionally come across a silly enough bird to let you get too close for a lens of 400mm length or longer.

I bet, that the ignorant statement made by such uneducated photography enthusiasts, come from those who shoot in scenario 1, 2 or 3 above only and have never spent time in the field, trying to take a photo of a truly wild bird or mammal, that have a healthy fear of humans and want to get away as far from the photographer as possible.

25 years ago, when I started to be seriously interested in bird photography, I thought a 300mm lens would suffice and that all 300mm lenses were the same and that they would do the job for me. Little did I know! I really want to save you the headache by helping you avoiding the wrong path if you are at least half serious about taking good quality wildlife shots and on a consistent basis.

Back in 2020, about three months before Netra and I got hold of some Olympus loan gear to try in the field. That’s our younger daughter Lia, 14 years old at the time, and I both shooting with super telephoto lenses in our suburban backyard. She with a Canon 1Dx2 and Sigma 150-600mm lens, I with the 1Dx2 camera and the Sigma 500mm f/4 lens and probably the 1.4x teleconverter.

Super telephoto lenses are the best tool for wildlife photography in general. They allow us to stay well away from our subject, thus minimising the disturbance of our presence in their territory. Even when we stalk them using the best techniques and all possible concealment methods, they may elude us and send us packing to come back another day to try again.

Our very first outing with the loan gear from OIympus in July 2020. We were photographing Glossy Black Cockatoos at Wentworth Falls. This is the 300mm f/4 Pro lens with a TC-14 teleconverter giving me 420mm f/5.6 lens, which equals to an 840mm f/5.6 lens on a full frame camera body. Check out how small the entire outfit is! Olympus/OM System is incredible gear if you learn how to use it.

There are other advantages of long lenses. Such as creating a smooth creamy bokeh (out of focus areas) when you can isolate your subject against its background. There are also disadvantages that I should mention:

  1. You need a fast shutter speed when handholding to freeze motion,
  2. You need solid hand holding technique despite the amazing image stabilisation technologies of lenses and cameras (IBIS – in body image stabilisation) in today’s equipment choices,
  3. Or you would need to use a tripod, but this makes moving around the field more cumbersome, though some shooters may not be physically able to use a super telephoto lens handheld for hours on end,
  4. You will find it extremely difficult to find your subject in the viewfinder using a super telephoto lens when you have very little, or no practice, using such lens,
  5. Point 4 will be exacerbated if you are shooting with a crop sensor camera, then you need to allow for the equivalent field of view of your lens depending on the camera you use. For example, the OM System has a 2x crop factor. Therefore, any lens you attach will have a field of view two times as the lens itself, which is great for wildlife photographers! A 300mm f/4 lens on the OM-1 body (or any other 2x crop camera) is the same as shooting with a 600mm f/4 lens on a full frame camera body like the Nikon Z9. The two lenses are completely different, but the smaller sensor in the OM-1 allows for a narrower field of view.

Most modern zoom lenses are fairly good quality compared to even 20 years ago, and if you were to use a zoom lens zoomed out wide to find your subject, then you zoomed into it while keeping it in the viewfinder, that would simplify the difficulty with point 4 and 5 above.

Netra with a couple of Canon bodies and a 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM lens plus probably a 16-35mm f/2.8L lens. I have three cameras here, two 1D series bodies (1D4 and 1D3) and a 5D3. The most important lens of mine at the time, the Canon EF500mm f/4L IS USM on my shoulder, and another super telephoto, the 400mm f/5.6L USM lens hanging on my left side.

Now that you know that a lens of a minimum focal length of 400mm is classed as a super telephoto lens, you can start considering your options based on your budget. The table below shows different lens focal lengths and how they would be on a particular camera body when attached. As in, what field of view you would have when attached.

The table shows you different prime lenses and lens/teleconverter options to change your focal lengths. You can also quickly check the field of view of your chosen lens depending on what type of sensor your digital or mirrorless camera has.

If you are considering a zoom lens with a super telephoto range, something like a 100-400mm lens or a 150-600mm lens, then all you need to do is use the conversion factor of the sensor crop to work out your field of view equivalency when using your camera body. If, for example, you were using a 150-600mm lens on an OM System body, the 2x crop factor of the sensor will give you a field of view equivalency of 300mm to 1200mm. That’s a mighty zoom lens if you ask me!

I will delve more into the characteristics and speeds of the different lenses and lens/TC combinations in the next blog post. Keep checking back. The post will be up by Friday morning (AEST) on the 12th July 2024.

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