Bird photography poses some serious challenges. Unless you’re shooting close-ups of pelicans and the like, or tethered birds of prey, it tends to demand shooting small creatures at long distances. You therefore need all the telephoto power you can lay your hands on. Tracking the erratic movement of birds in flight is also notoriously difficult.
Traditional methods include ‘digiscoping’, a term coined at the end of the last century for mounting a camera on a birdwatcher’s spotting scope, via a specialist adapter. It’s typically a low-budget solution but, more recently, powerful telephoto lenses have become available for the latest digital SLRs and mirrorless cameras.
There are some fabulous zoom lenses on the market, including the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x and Nikon AF-S 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR, both of which have built-in teleconverters. However, at around £11,000/$11,000 or more, they’re beyond the reach of most of us, and super-telephoto prime lenses can be even more expensive.
So here, we've rounded up the best buys that deliver mighty telephoto reach along with fast autofocus systems, capable of tracking birds in flight...
Best lenses for bird photography
From Sigma’s ‘Sports’ line-up of lenses, this is a pro-grade zoom that goes all-out for speed and performance. It has a super-fast ring-type ultrasonic autofocus system, a highly effective optical stabilizer with switchable static and panning modes, dual switchable autofocus modes giving priority to either automatic focusing or manual override, and switchable custom modes that you can set up via Sigma’s optional USB Dock. These enable different behaviors in the autofocus speed and stabilization effect, as well as fine-tuning for autofocus accuracy for individual camera bodies, plus the application of firmware updates. The lens is fully weather-sealed and features a fluorine coating on its front and rear elements. Image quality is fabulous throughout the entire zoom range. The lens is designed for Canon and Nikon DSLRs – but is also option for Canon RF and Nikon Z mirrorless cameras using a mount adapter.
Compared with Sigma’s 150-600mm Sports lens, the Contemporary edition is smaller and almost a whole kilogram lighter in weight. It’s therefore much more manageable for long periods of handheld shooting, without the aid of a monopod or tripod, and easier to carrier around. Although significantly less expensive to buy, it features the same range of dual-mode stabilization, dual-mode autofocus and custom setup options, as well as fluorine coatings on the front and rear elements. It also has a dust- and moisture-resistant rubber gasket on the mounting plate, although it lacks the additional weather-seals of the Sports lens. It’s also not quite as sharp, but it comes very close and its overall image quality is very pleasing.
Tamron’s G2 (Generation 2) 150-600mm lens is about the same size and weight as Sigma’s competing Contemporary lens, but adds a more comprehensive set of weather seals, similar to those of Sigma’s more exotic Sports edition, while splitting the difference in terms of price. Upgrades over the original Tamron lens include a revamped 4.5-stop optical stabilizer with three switchable options for static, panning and exposure-only modes, the last of which leaves the viewfinder image unadulterated, and makes it easier to track erratic movement. The uprated ring-type autofocus system is faster and more accurate, and a fluorine coating is added to the front element. Sharpness is very good at or near 600mm but less impressive towards the short end of the zoom range. For full compatibility with Canon EOS R and Nikon Z series mirrorless cameras, V2 or later firmware can be applied via Tamron’s optional USB-linked TAP-in Console.
• Read more: The best 150-600mm lenses
Canon’s original EF 100-400mm zoom was something of a classic, but wasn’t to everybody’s taste, especially in regard to its trombone-style push-pull zoom mechanism. The second edition of the lens has a more typical twist-action zoom ring and a host of upgrades. These include a refined optical path with fluorite and Super UD (Ultra-low Dispersion) elements and high-tech Air Sphere coating. There’s a more effective, triple-mode image stabilizer and the Mark II also gains weather-seals and fluorine coatings on the front and rear elements. It’s a very good lens but rather expensive for a 100-400mm, and lacks the outright telephoto reach of more recent 150-600mm independent designs.
Compared with Sigma and Tamron 150-600mm zooms for Nikon cameras, this own-brand competitor comes up slightly short in maximum reach. Even so, the difference isn’t particularly noticeable in practical terms and the Nikon lens has the advantage of a constant-aperture design, so f/5.6 remains available throughout the zoom range, rather than dropping to f/6.3 at the long end. Fancy features include a dual-mode, 4.5-stop VR (Vibration System) system and an electromagnetically controlled diaphragm for adjusting the aperture. As in the Sigma and Tamron lenses, this enables more consistency in rapid-fire exposures but, with older Nikon bodies, you’ll only be able to shoot at the widest aperture. Autofocus is fast and image quality is impressive in all respects, making this lens great value for an own-brand Nikon.
• Read more: The best superzoom lenses for Nikon DSLRs
Compared with Sigma’s 150-600mm lenses, this one gives noticeably less telephoto reach, but is relatively compact. It’s also only half the weight of the larger 150-600mm Contemporary lens and just a third of the weight of the Sports edition. It’s therefore much more comfortable for long periods of handheld shooting and you can also use it with the camera body mounted on a tripod or monopod. The flip-side is that no optional tripod mounting ring is available, which would have enabled a better balance, especially in portrait orientation shooting.
Sophisticated controls include switchable dual-mode autofocus options with priority given to autofocus or manual override, static/panning stabilization modes and dual custom setups. In addition to using the twist-action control ring, you can alter he zoom setting in a push-pull fashion. A specially shaped lens hood with a thumb and finger groove helps with this.
Impeccably turned out, the XF100-400mm looks and feels a high-quality item... Looks aren’t deceiving either, as the internals include a super-fast autofocus system based on dual linear stepping motors, and a high-performance 5-stop optical stabilizer. The optical path is top drawer too, featuring no less than five ED (Extra-low Dispersion) elements plus a Super ED element. A full set of weather seals is incorporated, and a fluorine coating on the front element helps to repel moisture and fingerprints. Built from the ground up as an APS-C format lens, it only needs to produce a relatively small image circle, compared with a full-frame compatible lens, but is still pretty weighty for a 100-400mm zoom. Overall performance and image quality are excellent, although outright sharpness drops off a bit at the long end of the zoom range.
A finely crafted lens, the Panasonic 100-400mm is relatively large for a Micro Four Thirds format zoom and weighs almost a kilogram. With its MFT mount, it will work on Olympus mirrorless cameras, as well as compatible Panasonic Lumix models. It's pretty much the same weight as the Sigma and Tamron 100-400mm lenses for full-frame cameras. Even so, the 2x crop factor of MFT cameras gives the Panasonic a maximum ‘effective’ focal length of 800mm, much like using a 150-600mm lens on an APS-C format body. As always, this makes it a challenge to keep everything steady while shooting, but the Panasonic has excellent build quality and comes complete with a zoom lock ring, tripod mounting collar and optical image stabilizer, to help beat the shakes. It all works together very well, except that stabilization can be relatively ineffective for panning. Autofocus is very quick and highly accurate and image quality is excellent overall, although sharpness drops off a little at the longest zoom setting.
You need a pretty good reason to trade up from Panasonic’s 100-400mm zoom lens for Micro Four Thirds cameras and it might just be this Olympus prime. It has fully professional-grade build quality with comprehensive weather-seals and a dust-, freeze- and splash-proof construction. Naturally, it has a fixed focal length, equivalent to 600mm in full-frame terms, and lacks the versatility of a zoom. Even so, that’s rarely a disadvantage for birding, as you’re likely to use a zoom lens at its longest available focal length anyway. A major plus point is that the aperture rating of f/4 is relatively fast, compared with most zoom lenses that drop to f/5.6 or f/6.3 at a similar focal length. Handling highlights include a customizable Lens-function button, a four-stop image stabilizer that gives up to a six-stop benefit when combined with in-camera stabilization, and an autofocus range limiter that can lock out either short or long focus distances. Autofocus itself is very fast and image quality is fabulous.
This recent addition to Sony’s E-mount line-up has the same 600mm maximum focal length as Sigma and Tamron 150-600mm zooms for Canon and Nikon SLRs. The Sony’s size and weight are fairly typical but feel a little more imposing on comparatively lightweight Sony Alpha mirrorless bodies.
As with its SLR-format competitors, the maximum ‘effective’ focal length stretches from 600mm to around 900mm when shooting on an APS-C rather than full-frame body. Triple-mode image stabilization is switchable for static and panning shots, with an additional option for applying stabilization only during exposures. This makes it easier to track the erratic movement of birds in flight. DDSSM (Direct Drive Super Sonic Motor) autofocus is super-fast and comes complete with customizable focus-hold buttons mounted around the barrel.
The optical image stabilizer is effective on its own and even better when coupled with in-body stabilization, featured in later Sony Alpha A7 and A9 mirrorless cameras. Sharpness, contrast and other image attributes are excellent and very consistent throughout the entire zoom range.
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