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!

Importance of Taking Notes when Photographing

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that my Uptown photos have enjoyed renewed interest. As a result, I have started scanning more of the negatives from the film that I shot in the 1970s. When I was shooting back then, I carried a little note book with me. After each sequence of shots, I would write notes about the scene, the people, the location, and what I talked about with the subjects.

As I have been posting more images, I have consulted these notes. While taking and transcribing them seemed laborious 40 years ago, they are yielding a wealth of historical information. This information would have been lost otherwise in the fog of memory and time.

This was never proven more to me than yesterday. I came across an image of a black man wearing a white suite, white shirt, white shoes and white hat on one of my contact sheets. He was standing outside an Uptown bar. I wondered what it was that would make a man dress in such an unusual fashion. When I read my notes, the log states, “Professional boxer who fought under the name Spider Webb.” Assuming he not just someone pretending to be Spider, he dressed flamboyantly as part of his professional identity, as many entertainers do. Spider Webb retired from the ring in 1960 with a 34-6-0 record. And Spider Webb did reside in Chicago.

The lesson in this for young photographers: document what you do.

I should note that while I have no reason to doubt this man, many of the people in Uptown did give me aliases for one reason or another, such as one amputee who told me that he was Duke Ellington.


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.