Best Lenses for Bird Photography: Part III

Getting up close and personal with birds often requires long lenses. But long lenses can often weigh so much that they become difficult to carry in the field. They also require a tripod to stabilize.

Apart for the usability characteristics discussed in the two previous posts, what are the best lenses for bird photography from the point of view of their optical characteristics?

As a consequence, many bird photographers use shorter lenses with teleconverters. But how much do you compromise when you do this? I shot a series of tests in my studio with four different lenses and three different teleconverters. The lenses were the Nikkor 200-400mm f4 zoom, the 400mm f2.8, the 600mm f4 and the 800mm f5.6. The teleconverters were the Nikon 1.2x (for the 800 only), the 1.4x and the 2x.

To compare them, I set up a CD on a light table 20 feet away (just beyond the minimum focusing distance of the longest lens). I chose a CD because it is a universal reference that approximates the size of many small birds (which are the toughest birds to shoot).

I the shot the CD with a Nikon D4 on a tripod and every possible combination of the four lenses and three teleconverters. Vibration reduction was turned on on all the lenses and I used a shutter release cable to further minimize vibration. I took three shots with each lens and chose the sharpest shot in each sequence to further minimize the possibility of accidental vibration. Here’s how the CD looks with each lens and teleconverter.


Since cropping and enlargement are strategies that many bird photographers use, I also cropped one word from each image and enlarged it to the same size (to facilitate comparison). Here’s what happens.


You probably want the longest lens you can carry. That means you probably also want to invest in a good back brace.

In general, the less you have to crop and enlarge, the more sharp detail you will capture. No surprise there.

The surprise was that the teleconverters did NOT work equally well with each lens as the second series of shots shows. Some teleconverters work better with some lenses than others. And some teleconverter/lens combinations produce better enlargements than the lens by itself (presumably because of the smaller degree of enlargement required).

Some teleconverter/lens combinations do not work well.  I would put the 200-400mm/2x and the 800mm/2x in that category. The 800mm/2x should not be surprising. Because you’re shooting at an effective aperture of f11, the viewfinder is very dark and autofocus does not work. Therefore, the possibility exists that I simply did not focus the lens properly.  If focusing properly in the studio is a problem, imagine how difficult it will be in the field.

Two big surprises: the Nikkor 800mm/1.2x combination seems as sharp as the prime lens all by itself. Also the Nikkor 600mm/2x combination seems just as sharp.

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


 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


200-400 f4      14.4 in.

400 f2.8            14.5 in.

600 f4               17.5 in.

800 f5.6           18.2 in.


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!

Best Lenses for Bird Photography

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What are the best lenses for bird photography?

As my interest in bird photography grew, so did my collection of super-telephoto lenses. Starting with a 300mm f4, I added 500 mm and 1000 mm catadioptric lenses. The cats brought me closer to the action, but in truth, they weren’t all that sharp. I eventually discarded them and invested in traditional lenses.

Next came Nikon’s 600 mm f4 and the 400 mm 2.8 – with Nikon’s 1.4X and 2X tele-extenders. Both lenses are razor sharp and the tele-extenders produce no discernible degradation. They take the 400 out to 560 f4 and 800 f5.6. They take the 600 out to 850 f5.6 and 1200 f8.

I also purchased the 200-400 mm f4 zoom lens. Both tele-extenders work with it also. They give the photographer the ability go from about 300 at f5.6 to 800 mm at f8.

With all these options in hand, why would a bird photographer want Nikon’s new 800 mm f5.6?

For one thing, it comes packaged with a 1.2X tele-extender that gives you the ability to go out to 1000 mm at f7.1. None of the other lens/tele-extender combinations do that. But does it really make that much of a difference?

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Hawk from 200 feet away. Taken handheld with Nikon’s 800mm f5.6 with 1.2x teleconverter (effective 1000mm at f.7.1).

I test drove the 800 today and was very impressed with it. As we near the start of the spring birding season along the Gulf Coast, I intend to put it through its paces. The nesting season started this week. Birds are pairing up, collecting sticks, weaving them into nests. In a couple weeks, they’ll be laying eggs. And within a couple weeks after that, the chicks will begin hatching out.

Bird photography is difficult because of the conflicts between the demands of the job and the realities of the equipment:

  • You want to travel light but long lenses are heavy.
  • You want narrow depth of field to blur confusing backgrounds, but long lenses have smaller f-stops unless they have huge front elements (making them heavy again).
  • You want a lens that will get you “close” to skittish creatures, but the longer the lens, the harder it is to find fast flying birds in the viewfinder.
  • You want to make the bird big in the frame, but long lenses have long minimum focusing distances.

So my intent is to examine all these trade-offs and see how they conspire in the real world. What do the trade offs between weight, size, maximum aperture, focal length, portability, maneuverability and minimum focusing distance mean when you’re slogging through a mosquito infested swamp?

I found one huge difference already today. It has to do with “f8 support.” Many cameras do not support autofocus on f8. There just isn’t enough light to do it reliably. As a result, the camera searches and searches while the bird flies right through the frame.  Shot missed.

The Nikon D4 does support autofocus at f8. But I find that it works well only about 80 percent of the time. The other 20 percent is frustrating. I have lost many great shots because the bird was moving too fast against a dark or busy background. But I didn’t have that problem with the 800 mm + 1.2X combination at f7.1. Out of approximately 600 shots I took today, only five had focus problems. That’s less than 1 percent. Huge improvement. I like.

The other thing I like about the 800 f5.6 is that it’s about two pounds lighter than the 600 f4. For me, that made the difference between getting a good handheld shot and not getting one.

The front of the barrel is also a lot thinner. This makes it easier to maneuver and carry. Stay tuned. Check back in the coming weeks as I systematically compare what these various lenses and tele-extender combinations do and don’t do.

In the meantime, I’ve included several shots in this post that I took this morning with the Nikkor 800 mm + 1.2X tele-extender combo at f 7.1 using the Nikon D4. The long-billed curlew was taken at the Bolivar Flats on the Bolivar Peninsula near the Audubon Sanctuary (southeast side of Galveston Bay). All other shots were taken handheld (but on a beanbag resting against my car) at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge in early morning under dark, heavy skies. The curlew and egret were taken near the minimum focusing distance. The hawk was taken from about 200 feet away and is an enlarged detail.

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Rolleiflex SL66

camera2I used the Rolleiflex SL66 to to shoot approximately 50 rolls of 120 film on the streets of Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood in the mid-1970s. The camera is a descendant of the Rollei twin lens camera introduced in 1929. Twins lens cameras like the Rollei dominated the market for photography outside the studio into the 1960s. The cameras had two lenses: a viewing lens and a “taking” lens. Because of this, they also had a parallax problem, especially for close up work.

To understand the parallax problem, hold a finger in front of your nose. Then look at it through your left eye. Now look at it through your right. Notice how you see different parts of the finger and how the background changes. This is the problem that twin lens cameras had. When focusing on a flower through the viewing lens, it might be out of the field of view of the taking lens.

Single Lens Reflex cameras (SLRs) like this one were invented to eliminate this problem. SLRs have mirrors built in. In this camera, you looked down through the viewfinder mounted on top of the camera. The image you saw was reflected onto a ground glass by a mirror behind the lens. The mirror flipped up when you pressed the shutter to expose the film.

The lens was bellows mounted and could be revered for extreme closeups. This was a unique feature that made the camera very popular for close-up work. The entire bellows assembly also tilted to increase depth of field slightly for close up work. However, when extending the bellows, one had to compensate the exposure, usually by increasing the shutter speed because the depth of field was so narrow.

The camera did not have automatic exposure, nor did it have a meter built in. Therefore, the photographer had to use a hand-held meter and guess at the exposure compensation for bellows extension.

The camera was made from 1966 until 1982 and competed with the Hasselblad. It had five interchangeable Zeiss lenses: 40, 50, 80, 150 and 250mm focal lengths. The lenses were razor sharp and still compete with today’s lenses.

The Rolleiflex SL66 also had interchangeable film backs that accepted 120 or 220 film. 120 film took 12 2.25×2.25 inch exposures per roll and 220 took 24. The negative is about 4x larger than 35mm. That meant enlargements contained much more detail and looked much less grainy.

The bulk and weight of the camera made it difficult to carry for long periods on the streets of Uptown. The lens on this camera all by itself weighed more than the Nikon 35mm F2 camera with two lenses that I also used to shoot the Uptown series.

35mm cameras were just becoming a viable professional format in the early 1970s. Most professionals disliked the smaller film size but liked the portability, wide lens selection and especially the built in exposure meters of the 35mm cameras.

Professionals still use cameras like the Rolleiflex SL66 today. They offer an acceptable balance between portability and image size – especially if you have an assistant to carry the gear for you.

Image taken with Rollieflex SL66

Image taken with Rollieflex SL66

Deardorff – Handmade in Chicago

4x5 Deardorff Made in ChicagoI used this camera to take several of the images in the Uptown portfolio as well as many landscapes.  It’s a 4×5 Deardorff, handmade in Chicago by the craftsmen at L.F. Deardorff and Sons.

Laben Fisher Deardorff founded the company in 1916, and was joined by the first of his three sons, Merle Deardorff the following year.  By the time the first Deardorff cameras were produced in 1923, Laben’s twin sons James Russell and John Milton had also joined the company.  “LF Deardorff & Sons, Inc.” made ten cameras during their first production year.  The cameras are made from mahogany and are still sold today. Though the company has moved to Tennessee, its headquarters and factory were on Chicago’s near west side when I bought this in 1976.

It was difficult to use in the field. Because of it’s size and weight, the camera required a tripod. Setting the thing up took several minutes. You had to unfold the camera, insert a lens, focus on the ground glass underneath a black cloth using a special magnified, close the shutter in the lens, cock the shutter, insert a film holder, pull out the dark slide, release the shutter, insert the dark slide, flip the film holder, and repeat the entire process for the next shot.  As a consequence, I didn’t use it much in the field, especially when photographing people. They just got too impatient.

However, the camera yielded a 4×5 inch negative, which produced glorious enlargements with rich detail and texture that 35mm cameras could never match.  That’s why it was favored by advertising photographers.  It was also favored by architectural photographers because of the swings and tilts. These allowed you to correct perspective in architectural photos.

For instance, when you point a 35mm camera up at a building, you get converging parallel lines at the top. By keeping the camera back parallel to the front of the building, you could keep parallel lines parallel with the Deardorff.  You shot up, not by tilting the camera, but by raising the lens on the front standard.

All in all, it was an amazing and versatile tool. I seldom use it today, but almost forty years later, it still produces great shots!

L.F. Deardorff and Sons stopped producing cameras in Chicago in 1988.

Back Braces for Photography

Back braces, while technically not photographic equipment, are as essential to street, bird and wildlife photography as shoes and a camera. The weight of lenses, tripods, gimbal heads, teleconverters and cameras can add up quickly. Now consider that you may have to hike miles with all this equipment to get to your location. It can be hard on an old back. And it can turn young backs into old backs quickly – faster than jumping up and down on a concrete basketball court.

Years ago, my chiropractor sold me a simple, effective, super comfortable back brace which I wear during photo expeditions. It’s a giant elastic affair that wraps around the waist and fastens with velcro. Two “wings”, one on each side, let you tighten the brace for additional support. They also fasten with velcro. It’s a little more complicated than putting on a jacket, but not much.

The back brace is a bit like wearing a corset and during hot weather can get a little sweaty, but it’s a lifesaver on long treks into the woods. With it, I can hold a D4 fitted with a long lens out in front of me without stressing my lower back. And I feel great when I return to my vehicle and take it off.

I usually wear the back brace over a T-shirt and under a long-sleeve outer shirt that protects me from mosquitoes. A good back brace costs a pittance compared to the cost of photographic equipment.

I bought my back brace directly from my chiropractor, but I have seen them in medical supply and drug stores. You can also buy them online. They are pretty easy to find. Just google “back braces” and hundreds of models will pop up. Most are in the $20-$30 range. A few are more expensive and a few less. Women will even find models designed just for them. The one I have has lasted 25 years and will probably last the rest of my life.

The bottom line is this. If you’re in pain, you’re not going to want to go out shooting. If you don’t go out shooting, you’re never going to get the shot. And all that expensive gear you bought will gather dust and make you feel guilty.

In my humble opinion, tound for pound, a good back brace is one of the best investments you can make in your photography.

A Gimbal Head: An Essential Tool for Bird Photography

A gimbal head for your tripod is an essential tool for capturing fast-moving birds in flight with a heavy camera and long lens.

Birds in flight move at tremendous speeds. Small songbirds like wrens and sparrows fly 10 to 20 miles (16 to 32 kilometers) per hour, while ducks, geese, and pigeons can fly at speeds up to 60 miles (97 kilometers) per hour. Some birds, like the peregrine falcon and golden eagle, have been timed diving at speeds exceeding 170 miles (274 kilometers) per hour. [1]

Getting good action shots requires nimble equipment. Somehow “nimble” and a 12 pound 600mm f4 lens with a four pound professional camera attached don’t seem to go together.
Fortunately, there are some tools you can buy that will help even the odds. For years, I struggled to mount heavy cameras and lenses on a traditional tripod head mounted beneath the lens. The problem: the camera and lens get too “tippy” the moment you point up or down. You’re always fighting with a runaway camera/lens combo. Then, I discovered a marvelous tool called the Wimberley head. It has a gimbal mount design.  (See pic below.)
The Wimberley gimbal head is a bit pricey but it’s worth every penny in my opinion. It makes the difference between getting and missing the shot. Why spend thousands on great cameras and lenses if you’re going to miss the shot because of a tripod head that wasn’t designed for the task?
The Wimberley gimbal head puts the center of gravity of the camera/lens combination at the exact center of the vertical and horizontal pivot points. This, in essence, makes that 15 pound camera lens combo virtually weightless.
You can move the entire gimbal head, camera, lens and teleconverter combination with a single finger. And when you move it, it stays put without having to lock down the tripod head. The Wimberley L-shaped arm moves up or down so that you can center the weight vertically. And the adapter plates that mount to your lens have horizontal tracks on them so you can shift the center of weight forward or back until everything is perfectly balanced.

Now, instead of fighting your equipment, you’ll find that a gimbal head moves weightlessly and without friction – in a word, effortlessly.

I have no experience with a gimbal head other than the Wimberley. Others may be perfectly satisfactory. But its hard to imagine any gimbal head moving smoother than the Wimberley. It certainly took my game to a new level. I remember thinking the first time I used it that it gave me the best of both worlds – the stability of a tripod and the freedom of shooting handheld. It’s not quite like shooting handheld because you can’t point straight up, but it’s pretty close.


Teleconverters and Birds in Action

Teleconverters increase the effective focal length of a lens without increasing the minimum focusing distance. This means they can help bring you eyeball to eyeball with our feathery friends.

However, they do have one big drawback. They decrease the amount of light you have to work with by one to two stops. I use two teleconverters: the Nikon 1.4x and 2x.

These tele-converters are not fully compatible with all Nikon lenses and cameras. Before purchasing one, read the compatibility chart on Nikon’s web site carefully.

The compatibility issues fall into two big categories: physical incompatibilities and autofocus limitations.

Teleconverters sit between the camera and the lens. Some teleconverter/lens combinations won’t work because they bring the rear element of the lens into contact with the teleconverter. This could damage both pieces of equipment.

Other combinations reduce the amount of light so much that the autofocus no longer works properly. This typically happens when shooting at f8 or a smaller aperture.

Autofocus is critical when shooting birds in action. They just move too fast (at least for me) to pan with them, hold one finger on the shutter, and use the other hand to focus.  This causes me to miss many shots.

However, there is hope. Read the footnotes in the compatibility chart carefully. When using the 2x, autofocus IS available with cameras that offer f/8 support. These include the Nikon D4, D800/D800E, D600 and D7100.

It took me a long time to find this footnote. I wish I would have seen it years earlier. With one of these cameras, you can use the 2x with any lens in Nikon’s range that is physically compatible. (Remember, if elements touch, you could scratch your lens and the teleconverter.)

So I can use the 2x with my D4, the 600mm f4, and the 200-400 f4 zoom and the 400 f2.8. The 2x turns the 600mm lens into a 1200mm lens and so forth. For reclusive and skittish birds, this extra “reach” can mean the difference between getting a great shot and missing it altogether.

Some people talk about using a camera like the D800 which has a 36 megapixel sensor and just cropping the image to obtain the desired magnification. While this is certainly a viable technique, its not the optimal technique in my opinion. The extra megapixels generate heat which creates noise. The images also take longer to download to the card which means you don’t get as many frames in a burst. And the frame rate on the camera when shooting in continuous mode is less than half of that of the D4.

If you want your kid to be into this kind of shooting, start a savings account today. There’s just no substitute for a great camera and fast glass. And it’s not cheap.