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The best lenses for bird photography and wildlife in 2021: get frame-filling shots

best lenses for bird photography
(Image credit: N-Photo Magazine)

Our guide to the best lenses for bird photography will help you overcome some of the serious challenges that taking pictures of wildlife can bring. 

Pick one of the best lenses for bird photography and you'll be able to fill the frame with you subject. These versatile telephoto zoom lenses a perfect for tracking the erratic movement of birds in flight, as well as other forms of wildlife.

Traditional methods include ‘digiscoping’, a technique that sees you attach 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 DSLRs 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. 

Will highlight some of these just in case you've got some really deep pockets, but our round up of the best lenses for bird photography will focus in the popular super telephoto zooms that have become increasingly popular, offering a mighty telephoto reach along with fast autofocus systems, capable of tracking birds in flight...

Best lenses for bird photography

Canon

(Image credit: Canon)

1. Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM

Best own-brand Canon lens for birding

Specifications
Mount: Canon EF
Autofocus: Ultrasonic (ring-type)
Stabilizer: Yes
Minimum focus distance: 0.98m
Max magnification: 0.31x
Filter thread: 77mm
Dimensions (WxL): 94x193mm
Weight: 1,640g
Reasons to buy
+High-quality optical elements+Triple-mode image stabilizer
Reasons to avoid
-Relatively limited zoom range-Fairly pricey to buy

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.

(Image credit: Canon)

2. Canon RF 100-500mm f/4.5-7.1L IS USM

The latest premium super-telephoto zoom for EOS R mirrorless cameras

Specifications
Mount: Canon RF
Autofocus: Ultrasonic (ring-type)
Stabilizer: Yes
Minimum focus distance: 0.9-1.2m
Max magnification: 0.33x
Filter thread: 77mm
Dimensions (WxL): 94x207mm
Weight: 1,530g
Reasons to buy
+Stellar build and image quality+Versatile focal range
Reasons to avoid
-Narrow max aperture-Expensive

As we've touched on, Canon's EF 100-400mm zoom has been an incredibly popular lens for Canon DSLR shooters, so it's no surprize to see something arrive for the brand's EOS R range of full-frame mirrorless cameras. Canon felt that it would be hard to improve on the image quality of the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM so opted to extend the focal range even further with the RF 100-500mm f/4.5-7.1L IS USM. Extending the focal length gives it even more reach, though the trade-off is a pretty modest maximum aperture of f/7.1 at the long end. That said, pair it with the EOS R5 or R6 and the combined image stabilisation delivers up to 6 stops compensation (5 stops on the EOS R or RP). Focusing is very swift on Canon's two new mirrorless cameras, but could be quicker on the R and RP. Combined with Canon's legendary L-series build quality and stunning optical performance,  it's up there with the very best Canon zoom lenses we've tested.  

best lenses for bird photography: Canon RF 600mm f/11 IS STM

(Image credit: Canon)

3. Canon RF 600mm f/11 IS STM

It might not be conventional, but this shouldn't be ignored for bird photography

Specifications
Mount: Canon RF
Autofocus: Stepping Motor (Lead screw-type)
Stabilizer: Yes
Minimum focus distance: 4.5m
Max magnification: 014x
Filter thread: 82mm
Dimensions (WxL): 93x200mm
Weight: 930g
Reasons to buy
+Compact and lightweight+Strong optical performance
Reasons to avoid
-Fixed f/11 aperture-Not weather-sealed

The Canon RF 600mm f/11 IS STM (and the Canon RF 800mm f/11 IS STM) is designed for EOS R-series mirrorless cameras and offers a very different experience to a typical prime telephoto lens. Sporting a clever retractable design, this lens collapses down to 200mm. Using DO (Diffractive Optics) and a relatively narrow f/11 fixed aperture rating, it's also pretty light at 930g. A fixed f/11 aperture isn't quite as limiting as it might first appear as thanks to the Dual Pixel AF sensor-based autofocus systems of EOS R-series cameras. Image quality is impressive, while the size of the lens makes it excellent for handheld shooting and, overall, it’s a great choice for bird photography.

Nikon

(Image credit: Nikon)

4. Nikon AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR

Best own-brand Nikon lens for bird photographers

Specifications
Mount: Nikon F
Autofocus: Ultrasonic (ring-type)
Stabilizer: Yes
Min focus distance: 2.2m
Max magnification: 0.22x
Filter thread: 95mm
Dimensions (WxL): 108x268mm
Weight: 2,300g
Reasons to buy
+Powerful zoom range and features+Constant-aperture design+Good value
Reasons to avoid
-Incompatible with older Nikon DSLRs

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.

best lenses for bird photography: Nikon 600mm f/4E FL ED VR AF-S

(Image credit: Nikon)

5. Nikon 600mm f/4E FL ED VR AF-S

Nikon's mighty 600mm prime is a beast of a lens

Specifications
Mount: Nikon F
Autofocus: Ultrasonic (ring-type)
Stabilizer: Yes
Min focus distance: 4.4m
Max magnification: 0.14x
Filter thread: 40.5mm (drop-in)
Dimensions (WxL): 166x432mm
Weight: 3,810g
Reasons to buy
+Stunning picture quality+Build quality and finish
Reasons to avoid
-Weight-Price

The Nikon 600mm f/4E FL ED VR is one of the company's longest focal length lenses available, and with a price tag that's nudging five figures, its squarely aimed at the professional sports and wildlife photographer. This latest generation optic is significantly lighter than its predecessor thanks to the Flourite lens elements used. This has seen a weight saving of some 25%, though it still tips the scales at an arm-wobbling 3,810g. This is a lens you'll want to partner with a sturdy monopod for long periods of shooting. Optical quality is first-rate as you'd expect for a high end Nikon prime, while the autofocus performance doesn't disappoint either. A stunning lens if you can justify the price.

Sony

(Image credit: Sony)

6. Sony FE 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G OSS

Sony’s biggest and best super-telephoto zoom for birding

Specifications
Mount: Sony E
Autofocus: Ultrasonic (ring-type)
Stabilizer: Yes
Min focus distance: 2.4m
Max magnification: 0.2x
Filter thread: 95mm
Dimensions (WxL): 112x318mm
Weight: 2,115kg
Reasons to buy
+Full-frame and APS-C compatible+Impressive build & performance
Reasons to avoid
-Doesn't balance that well-f/6.3 long-zoom aperture rating

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.

Fujifilm

(Image credit: Fujifilm)

7. Fujifilm XF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR

Best Fujifilm lens for bird photographers

Specifications
Mount: Fujifilm X-mount
Autofocus: Dual linear stepping motors
Stabilizer: Yes
Min focus distance: 1.75m
Max magnification: 0.19x
Filter thread: 77mm
Dimensions (WxL): 95x211mm
Weight: 1,375g
Reasons to buy
+Effective telephoto reach of 600mm+Excellent build quality
Reasons to avoid
-Heavy for an APS-C lens-Sharpness drops at long end

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.

Multi mount

(Image credit: Sigma)

8. Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM | Sport

Best lens for bird photography for Canon & Nikon cameras

Specifications
Mount: Canon EF, Nikon F, Sigm SA
Autofocus: Ultrasonic (ring-type)
Stabilizer: Yes
Minimum focus distance: 2.6m
Maximum magnification: 0.2x
Filter thread: 105mm
Dimensions (WxL): 121 x 290mm
Weight: 2,860g
Reasons to buy
+Top-grade construction+Impeccable image quality
Reasons to avoid
-Physically large at long zoom settings-A real heavyweight at nearly 3kg

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. 

(Image credit: Sigma)

9. Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM | Contemporary

Best budget lens for birding for Canon and Nikon DSLRs

Specifications
Mount: Canon EF, Nikon F, Sigma SA
Autofocus: Ultrasonic (ring-type)
Stabilizer: Yes
Minimum focus distance: 2.8m
Maximum magnification: 0.2x
Filter thread: 95mm
Dimensions (WxL): 105 x 260mm
Weight: 1,930g
Reasons to buy
+Relatively compact and lightweight+Great value for a 150-600mm zoom
Reasons to avoid
-Not as sharp as ‘Sports’ version-Only partially weather-sealed

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.

(Image credit: Tamron)

10. Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2

This Tamron lens combines the attractions of both Sigma lenses

Specifications
Mount: Canon EF, Nikon FX
Autofocus: Ultrasonic (ring-type)
Stabilizer: Yes
Minimum focus distance: 2.2m
Maximum magnification: 0.16x
Filter thread: 95mm
Dimensions (WxL): 108x260mm
Weight: 2,010g
Reasons to buy
+Uprated stabilizer and autofocus system+Weather-seals and fluorine coating
Reasons to avoid
-Sharpness could be better-V2 firmware for use with mirrorless

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.

(Image credit: Sigma)

11. Sigma 100-400mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM | Contemporary

A great lightweight, budget super-telephoto zoom

Specifications
Mount: Canon EF, Nikon F, Sigma
Autofocus: Ultrasonic (ring-type)
Stabilizer: Yes
Min focus distance: 1.6m
Max magnification: 0.26x
Filter thread: 67mm
Dimensions (WxL): 86x182mm
Weight: 1,160g
Reasons to buy
+Comparatively compact and lightweight+Full-frame compatible
Reasons to avoid
-Limited telephoto reach-No optional tripod mount ring

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. 

Micro Four Thirds

(Image credit: Panasonic)

12. Panasonic DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f/4-6.3 Asph. Power O.I.S.

Best MFT zoom lens for birding, thanks to the 2x crop factor

Specifications
Mount: Micro Four Thirds
Autofocus: Stepping motor
Stabilizer: Yes
Min focus distance: 1.3m
Max magnification: 0.25x
Filter thread: 72mm
Dimensions (WxL): 83x172mm
Weight: 985g
Reasons to buy
+800mm effective telephoto reach+Power O.I.S. (Optical Image Stabilizer)
Reasons to avoid
-Typically ‘slow’ aperture 400mm-IS less effective when panning

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.

(Image credit: Olympus)

13. Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4 IS Pro

Best prime lens for Olympus and Panasonic MFT cameras

Specifications
Mount: Micro Four Thirds
Autofocus: Stepping motor
Stabilizer: Yes
Min focus distance: 1.4m
Max magnification: 0.24x
Filter thread: 77mm
Dimensions (WxL): 77x227mm
Weight: 1,270g
Reasons to buy
+Relatively fast f/4 aperture+600mm effective focal length
Reasons to avoid
-Lacks any zooming versatility-Relatively pricey and heavy

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.

Read more:

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• The best portable hides for wildlife photographers
• The best 50mm lenses
• The best 70-200mm lenses
• The best budget telephoto lenses
• The best 150-600mm lenses
• Looking to turn pro? We check out the best cameras for professionals