Best Lenses for Bird Photography: Part II

In the last post, I talked about some of the inherent contradictions in bird photography. Like the need for long, heavy lenses which are difficult to carry into the woods. Like the need for tripods which make it more difficult to track fast moving subjects. Often it seems, bird photographers are fighting their equipment as much as they are fighting shadows, foliage and elusive, flitty creatures.

Obviously, there is no single “best” lens for bird photography. The lens you use should be the one that gets the shot you want. That will depend on several factors: distance, size of bird, how fast the bird is moving, location of the bird, and available light.

I’ve been photographing (or trying to photograph) birds for 25 years. During that time, I’ve taken tens of thousands of shots that failed. The three biggest, most consistent reasons for the failures:

  • Busy backgrounds – Birds seek cover in dense foliage that often makes selective focus difficult, even at maximum aperture.
  • Subjects too small in the frame – Birds that felt immense in the viewfinder appear tiny in the frame.
  • Subject moving too fast – Couldn’t lock focus fast enough; autofocus got confused; or the bird flew out of the frame as I was depressing the shutter.

When you fail as often as I have, you develop some definite prejudices about…

The Best Lenses for Bird Photography

In order to stack the odds in my favor, I prefer the longest, fastest lenses I can carry. And I want them on a camera  body with fastest autofocus, the highest ISO, the highest frame rate, the longest burst capacity, most pixels, etc.

It’s not that I haven’t taken great bird shots with a 200 mm lens; I have. It’s just that the percentage of good shots goes up with much longer lenses.

Ninety-five percent of the shots I like to show off have been taken with these four Nikon lenses.

  • 200-400mm f4 zoom
  • 400 mm f2.8
  • 600mm f4
  • 800mm f5.6

While available teleconverters create a considerable degree of overlap between these focal lengths, I find that each has its own use.

The 200-400mm f4 zoom is the best of the four for taking hand-held shots of birds on the wing. On the widest setting, I can find fast moving birds in the viewfinder. Then I can zoom in on them as they move toward me. With a 2x teleconverter, the lens turns into 400-800 zoom at f8. The Nikon D4 supports autofocus at f8, meaning this lens can fill the frame with small birds at close to medium distances, and larger birds at longer distances. It’s light enough to carry without fatigue and handhold. And it has a minimum focusing distance of just 6.6 feet. That’s one third of the minimum focusing distance of the 800mm f5.6. All in all, it’s a great all-purpose lens for birding.

The 400mm f2.8 has the widest aperture of the bunch. That means it does the best job of isolating birds from busy backgrounds. It also has a minimum focusing distance of 9.5 feet; that gives it a maximum reproduction ratio of 0.16x (compared to 0.14x for the 600mm f4 and 0.15x for 800mm f5.6). If you’re able to get close enough, there’s no reason to pop for one of the longer, more expensive lenses. (But getting close without scaring off the birds is tough!)

The 600mm f4 is perhaps the most versatile all around lens for birding, especially when paired with Nikon’s 1.4, 1.7 or 2x teleconverters and a gimbal head on your tripod. The lens is a little too heavy for me to hand hold, but it has enough focal length to get me close to most all action, especially with a teleconverter. A warning though. Not all camera bodies support autofocus with this lens when used with the longer teleconverters. Most camera bodies require at least f5.6 to autofocus reliably. The 2x teleconverter will turn this lens into f8. Only the D4, D4S, D800/D800E, D600, D610 and D7100 support autofocus at f8.  If you have one of those bodies, you’re good, but watch out for low light; autofocus may become erratic.

The 800mm f5.6 is Nikon’s longest focal length. It comes with its own 1.2x teleconverter which takes it out to a 1000mm at f7.1. It’s a pound lighter than the 600 and a lot thinner, making it easier to handhold. The f7.1 also means that autofocus will work faster and more reliably than the 600/2x combo in marginal light. The only problem I have had with this lens: sometimes it gets me too close. I actually had to back up from several birds on my first outing with this lens in order to fit them in the frame or to get beyond the minimum focusing distance. All things considered, though, that’s a nice problem to have. The extra working distance that this lens gives you tends to make birds more comfortable. I didn’t have as many flying away from me as I usually do when I try to creep up on them with the 600.

I did not discuss the 500mm f4 here. I don’t own it. Why? I wanted the extra “reach” that the 600 gives me. Had the 800 been available when I bought the 600, I probably would have skipped the 600, too. But I sure like the ability to reach out to 1200mm with the 600/2x teleconverter combo.

None of these lenses is cheap. And none is easy to handle. The last thing you want to do is spend thousands of dollars on a lens that’s too big to carry into the field without an assistant. I’m a big guy, so they don’t bother me too much. But my wife would have a hard time carrying most of these. Beg, borrow or rent one to test in the field before you buy.

Similarities and Differences

All of these lenses come with Nikon’s fast-focusing silent wave motors, ED-glass, multi-coating, and vibration reduction. They differ primarily in their size, weight, focal length, angle of view, aperture, minimum focusing distance, reproduction ratio and (let’s not forget) cost.

I’ve included comparative specs below to help you determine which is best for the birds and situations you encounter.

Minimum Focusing Distance

 200-400 f4       6.6 ft.

400 f2.8              9.5 ft.

600 f4                15.7 ft.

800 f5.6          19.36 ft.

 Angle of View

 200-400 f4    12°20 to 6°10′

400 f2.8          6°10′

600 f4             4°10′

800 f5.6          3°10′

Maximum Reproduction Ratio

 200-400 f4     0.27x

400 f2.8           0.16x

600 f4              0.14x

800 f5.6           0.15x

Weight

 200-400 f4       118.5 oz./7.41 pounds

400 f2.8             163 oz./10.12 pounds

600 f4                178.5 oz./11.12 pounds

800 f5.6            161.6 oz./10.1 pounds

 Length

200-400 f4      14.4 in.

400 f2.8            14.5 in.

600 f4               17.5 in.

800 f5.6           18.2 in.

Diameter

200-400 f4     4.9 in.

400 f2.8           6.3 in.

600 f4               6.5 in.

800 f5.6           6.3 in.

 

Nikon Teleconverter Compatibility

                                 TC-14EII        TC-17E II       TC-20EIII     TC80-12SE

200-400 f4                yes                  yes*                yes*                no

400 f2.8                     yes                  yes                  yes                  no

600 f4                         yes                  yes*                yes*                no

800 f5.6                     yes                  yes*                yes*                yes

Additional weight     7.1 oz.            8.8 oz.            11.1 oz.          4.8 oz.

*Most Nikon cameras will not autofocus with an aperture smaller than f5.6. Autofocus is available only with cameras that offer f/8 support. These include the D4, D4S, D800/D800E, D600, D610 and D7100.

 Pros and Cons of Teleconverters:

Teleconverters (sometimes called tele-extenders) allow you increase the focal length of your lens by up to 2x – WITHOUT increasing the minimum focusing distance. Thus, a 2x teleconverter on the 600mm f4 effectively turns the lens into a 1200mm macro lens with a decent working distance – something very useful for shooting small birds, chicks hatching out of eggs, mothers feeding babies, etc.

However, teleconverters also reduce your effective aperture. The 1.4x reduces the light by one stop; the 1.7 by a stop and a half; the 2x by 2 stops.

This means they won’t work with all camera body and lens combinations. Check the manufacturer’s compatibility specs carefully before you buy to avoid expensive disappointments. Some teleconverters can actually scratch the rear elements of some older lenses!

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