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.

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.