Choosing a lens for bird photography

Bird photography is fascinating. You work with some of the most amazing creatures on our planet. Birds are almost everywhere and can be found during every time of the year. Birds are among the most popular subjects for nature photographers.
In order to get good pictures, you need a good telephoto lens, often with a long focal length like 400 or 600mm. In some situations, a smaller lens like a 70-200 may be enough. This articlelist describes the various options you have when choosing a lens for bird photography. At the end, you can see what I use currently.

70-200mm

This is a popular zoom range. Nikon offers a 2.8/70-200 VR. Canon offers a 2.8/70-200 IS, a 4/70-200 without IS and a 4/70-200 with IS (which I use). VR stands for "vibration reduction" and IS for "image stabilization" and describe a technique to reduce the vibration of the lens when hand holding it or even when on a tripod (some older Canon lenses don't support IS on a tripod). The 70-200 lenses are too short for most bird pictures, but can be handy if you want to photograph a landscape with birds in it. In same places, for example in some bird colonies at the coast or in parks, birds can be quite tame and then a 70-200mm zoom lens may just be perfect.
Artice Tern

Artic Tern, EOS 40D, EF 4/70-200L IS @70mm
Sometimes birds come very close, so that even 70mm are enough to get a frame filling picture.

300mm

A 2.8/300mm lens is used by many photographers. Both the Nikon and Canon lenses are extremely sharp and have very fast AF (Autofocus). But 300mm is still to short for most situations. That's why you will see most photographers using 1.4x or 2x extender with their 300mm lens. The 2.8/300 lenses are not cheap and cost several thousand Euros or Dollars. A cheaper choice is a 4/300 like the Canon 4/300L IS (which I use). Those lenses are also very sharp but much lighter and cheaper. The downside is that you will lose AF with some cameras. My Canon EOS 40D and EOS 7D will not autofocus with the 4/300 and a 2x extender. With Canon, only the cameras from the 1D series provide AF with f8, for the other cameras, AF is turned off at f8. Nikon does not switch off the AF at f8 for their cameras. At the time of this writing, Nikon's 4/300 does not yet offer VR (the Nikon 2.8/300 does have VR).
Sigma offers an interestig 2.8/120-300mm zoom lens (beside a 2.8/300 prime lens). It is a very sharp lens but does not offer image stabilisation. Sigma also offers a very intereting 4/100-300 zoom lens.
Mute Swan

Mute Swan, EOS 40D, EF 4/300L IS
Mute Swans are normally to approach and with 300mm you can get great shots. Sometimes 300mm is even too long.
In situations like this, a camera with a high frame rate is helpful (the EOS 40D has 6.5 fps).

400mm

Canon and Nikon both offer a 2.8/400 with VR/IS. That's a heavy beast (the Canon weighs more than 5kg ) and very expensive. I do not recommend that lens for bird photography. It's too heavy and 400mm is still not very much when it comes to birds. But keep in mind that many photographers use that lens successfully, especially with good 1.4x and 2x extenders.
Canon also offers a 4/400 IS which is very light. That would make a great lens for flight photography and many photographers use it successfully. Some claim that it's not as sharp as Canon's 4/500 and 4/600 but many professional bird photographers have been using this lens for many years now and produced amazing and sharp images with it. If you think about getting the 4/400 from Canon, try it out first on your camera and see if you like the results.
Canon also offers a very light and small 5.6/400 (without IS) which is very popular for birds in flight as it can be handhold for a long time. The 5.6/400 is a very sharp lens and hopefully, a version with IS will follow soon. Nikon does not offer a 5.6/400 at the time of this writing.
Black-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed Godwit, EOS 40D, EF 4/500L IS
The EF 4/500L IS from Canon is probably the most often used lens for bird photography. I absolutely love mine!
That Black-tailed Godwit was photographed from a car and come close enough that I needn't a 1.4 extender.

200-400mm

Currently only Nikon offers a 4/200-400 lens. Canon does not although many Canon photographers (including me) would love to see such a lens. The Nikon lens is a dream of a lens. Very sharp and fast AF. Together with Nikon's great D300 and D300s and their 1.5 crop factor, that lens would be like a 4/300-600 - a dream for bird and wildlife photographers.
The downside of the lens is the high price. If you are a Nikon shooter, you should definitely consider trying that lens and see if the 400mm are long enough for your type of shooting. If that's the case, the zoom advantage of the 4/200-400 can save you many pictures that you wouldn't get with prime lenses, because sometimes you have to change focal length so fast, that changing a lens is not an options. Zooms win here by far.

100-400mm/80-400mm

Canon offers a very good 4.5-5.6/100-400 IS and Nikon a 4.5-5.6/80-400 VR. They are much cheaper than the 4/200-400 from Nikon and also much lighter. The sharpness is good, although not as good as with the 4/200-400 or 2.8/300. AF is slower due to the smaller f-stop. Nikon's 4.5-5.6/80-400 is particularly slow, especially when used with an entry level DSLR from Nikon. When you have that lens and want good AF, use a Nikon D300(s), D700, D3(s) or D3X.
Sigma offers a pretty good 4.5-5.6/120-400mm lens with image stabilisation.
The Sigma lens might be a good alternative to the Canon and Nikon lens. If you think about getting one of those lenses, the best way to check what works best for you is to go to your favorite camera store and put different lenses on your camera and make test shots. Make sure to test different focal lenth and aperture settings. Also do not just test optical performance but also AF speed with the lens.
Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Eurasian Tree Sparrow, EOS 40D, EF 4/500L IS, 1.4x extender
Very often, I use the 1.4x extender with my EF 4/500L IS. When using extenders, make sure to buy the best available for your lens. For Canon and Nikon this means, getting the extenders from Canon and Nikon.

500mm

Canon and Nikon both offer a 4/500. Canon already introduced IS many years ago for this lens. A few years later, Nikon also came up with a new version of it's 4/500 with VR. For me the 4/500 is the perfect bird lens. I love my Canon EF 4/500L IS. Those lenses are very sharp and they deliver amazing quality with a 1.4x extender and even with a 2x. I can handhold it for a while and have used it successfully for birds in flight like Black-headed Gulls, Griffon Vultures and Cinereous Vultures. It is especially great for birds in flight when used with Canon's EOS 7D or EOS 1D Mark IV.
A 4/500 will easily fit in a backpack that you can take as carry-on luggage with you on a plane. It's cheaper than the 4/600 and although heavy (the Canon around 3.9kg), it's still much lighter than the 4/600. That are the reasons why I chose the 4/500 over the 4/600. I use it a lot with a 1.4x extender. A 4/500 and a 1.4 extender together with a Canon EOS 7D or Nikon D300s is a wonderful combination for bird photography.

600mm

The 4/600 lenses from Canon and Nikon (recently also with VR) give you a longer reach than the 4/500. That's the only advantage of the 4/600 over the 4/500, but a significant one. If you are shooting a lot of shy birds and don't have to travel by plane a lot, the 4/600 might be a better choice than the 4/500. The best would be to own both, the 4/500 and the 4/600 but that's quite an expensive option. I do not own the 4/600.

800mm

Recently Canon introduced a new 5.6/800 IS. It's lighter than the 4/600 but more expensive. It has a newer IS system that the 4/500 and 4/600 from Canon.
Since it's introduction the Canon 5.6/800 has become very popular among bird photographers - despite the very high price. If you can affort it, it will be a fantastic lens, especially for shy birds. Given the fact that I use a 1.4x extender with my 4/500 quite often, I would absolutely love to use the Canon 5.6/800 but for me, the price is just too high right now.
One disadvantage of that lens is the maximum aperture of 5.6. When you shot in dark or overcast situations, a maximum aperture of f4 might save the shot. Of course this also depends on the camera you use and how high you want to go with the ISO settings. But f4 will always be one stop better than 5.6.
At the moment, Nikon does not offer a 800mm lens. Sigma offers both a 5.6/800 prime lens and a 5.6/300-800 zoom lens (see below).
European Hare

European Hare, EOS 40D, EF 4/500L IS, 1.4x extender
Most of what I write here about birds also applies to other wildlife.

300-800mm

Sigma offers a 5.6/300-800mm lens for both Nikon and Canon. It's very sharp and the zoom range is perfect for bird and wildlife photography. It's expensive, heavy and long and it does not have IS/VR. But for some it's a dream lens because of the zoom advantage. It would be great if Sigma would update the lens with image stabilization or Canon and Nikon would produce one themselves. If you want a large super telephoto zoom lens, then the Sigmonster (as it's sometimes called) may be what you want.

200-500mm/200-600mm

That lens does not yet exist from Canon or Nikon. But what's needed is a 4/200-500 IS/VR or a 5.6/200-600 IS/VR from Canon or Nikon with a weight not over 3.5kg and the optical quality of Nikon's 4/200-400.
Those lenses would be the killer lens for bird photography. The zoom advantage would be great and allow for a much better composition of an image without the need the change your position (which is often not possible). I really hope that Canon or Nikon will come up with such a lens in the future.
Sigma offers a 2.8/200-500 but that is a real monster. The lens has a weight of over 15 kg (and a price over 20.000 dollars) which makes in completely unusable for almost all bird and wildlife photography. If Sigma would offer a 4/200-500 with image stabilization I think they could sell many of them but currently they offer only the 2.8/200-500 which looks impressive but as I said I think it is useless for nature photographers.
Tamron offers a 5-6.3/200-500mm lens. It is a good lens for the money but not as good as a high quality 4/200-500 or 5.6/200-600 lens would be from Canon or Nikon.
Sigma offers a 4-6.3/50-500 and a 5-6.3/150-500mm lens. Both are not bad for the money Sigma wants for the lenses but as with the Tamron lens mentioned above, not a real substitute for a professional super telephoto lens from Canon or Nikon.

Greater Cormorant

Great Cormorant, EOS 7D, EF 4/500L IS, 1.4x extender
Don't stay at home when the weather looks bad!

What do I use?

Currently, I use the following Canon lenses for bird photography:
  • EF 4/70-200L IS
  • EF 4/300L IS
  • EF 4/500L IS
  • EF 1.4x extender

For over 90% of my pictures, I use the 4/500L (often with the 1.4 extender) as the longer focal length is simply necessary for most bird species. The 4/300L is great for tame birds in a park or for flight shots of gulls, gannets and other large birds that fly close to me.
The 4/70-200L is only used for very tame birds like some Artice Terns I photographed recently (see image above) or to photograph groups of birds and landscapes with birds in it. For me, the 4/500L is the best option. It is lighter, smaller and cheaper than the 4/600L. It's optical quality is superb, even with a 1.4x extender and also with a 2x extender (you will lose AF with a 2x extender and a non EOS 1D camera).
If you use Canon and can afford it, I highly recommend that lens (the same for the 4/500 VR for Nikon shooters). But be sure to also check out the 4/600 IS (or 4/600 VR for Nikon). In the end, it depends on your specific situation what's best for you.

See the amazon links on the left for some interesting books on bird and nature photography.

All the lenses mentioned above can be bought at amazon.com: