Equipment is important in wildlife photography, in this article there’s everything you need to photograph birds and wild animals.
How difficult is it to photograph birds? Perhaps it is one of the most difficult photos to take and in addition to having a great photographic technique you must have a decent equipment, that consists of a great camera and a very powerful telephoto lens to be able to follow the irregular movement of birds in flight and be able to photograph them.
If you are interested in bird and animal photography, you need a telephoto, zoom or fixed lens. Telephoto zooms are excellent lenses for animals and many other subjects: they allow you to isolate details of the landscape, and can be used as a “macro” lens for subjects the size of a large butterfly. While these lenses don’t achieve true macro ratios, they typically give good magnification.
If you want the ultimate in image quality and range, professional super telephones are the right choice: 300 f / 2.8, 400 f / 2.8, 500 f / 4 or 600 f / 4. These are large and heavy optics, which you do not always carry with you, but in certain situations they allow you to take pictures that would otherwise be impossible, thanks to the long range, the very fast autofocus and the bright diaphragm. Furthermore, the super telephones are very sharp, and can be used with the 1.4x and 2.0x teleconverters while maintaining excellent image quality, to capture even the most elusive subjects.
Traditional methods include “digiscoping,” a term coined at the turn of the last century to mount a camera on a spotting scope in birdwatching, via a specialized adapter. It is generally a low budget solution but, more recently, powerful telephoto lenses have become available for the latest DSLRs and mirrorless cameras making it the best choice when it comes to taking shots of birds and other wildlife.
We have collected here the best telephoto lenses for photographing birds with fast and bright autofocus systems to help you get the best shots next time you’re out in the nature.
1. Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM
An excellent lens, able to return images of great quality, precision, and fidelity. When extended to 600mm, the loss of acutance, at an aperture of f / 6.3, is almost completely negligible compared to that of a twin photo taken at f / 8. The engine is HSM Updated HSM and the accessories included are lens hood, front and rear cap. Its cover is water repellent and oil resistant. This lens uses a FLD (“F” Low Dispersion) optical glass lens with the same characteristics as fluorite lenses, and three glass lenses.
- Good resolution (still acceptable at 600mm with maximum aperture).
- High build quality.
- Discreet focusing system.
- Ring or pump zoom.
- Significant weight and very uneven distribution of it.
- Complicated calibration with Sigma Dock (absolutely necessary).
- Attachment foot for the tripod too short.
- Hard zoom ring.
The Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM is a lens that works really well in birds and wildlife photography, a great tele-zoom of choice, and whose weight, although very unbalanced, we do not believe to be excessive even for carrying out wandering photographic hunting activities.
2. Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM
The Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM is one of our favorite tele zoom, even if it’s without its flaws. It has good range, excellent build quality, and fast AF. It has image stabilization, but it is the first version, less efficient than the current fourth generation stabilization and not usable on the tripod. The aperture, while not particularly bright (f / 4-5.6) is an excellent compromise between brightness and portability – a wider aperture would make it much larger and heavier. The image quality is excellent between 100 and 300mm; at 400mm it loses a bit, but it’s still good enough, even for large prints.
- Relative compactness and lightweight considering the achievable focal length.
- Supplied accessories.
- First generation stabiliser but still useful.
- Fast AF.
- Not always sharp.
- Collects dust.
- Not tropicalized.
While not a featherweight, it’s very easy to use freehand, and it’s small enough to carry anywhere, even when you walk a lot. In my opinion, this lens is a better choice than fixed lenses like the 300 f / 4 IS or the 400 5.6, because it is much more versatile thanks to the zoom.
3. Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2
Very good lens if used at short distances, it holds well up to about 500mm even at full aperture, but at 600 the image starts losing lots of quality. It is very light especially when used in the mountains and it’s very compact. Very responsive AF and a good stabilization system. In our opinion a flaw lies in the fact that as soon as you remove your finger from the shutter button to focus the VR turns off accordingly, while in other lenses it remains active for a few seconds.
Another positive thing is the tripod support which is already equipped with the so-called Arca Swiss attachment and does not require an adapter plate for this type of coupling. It’s a lens recommended for nature photography beginners but not exclusively, considering the quality from 150 to 450mm, after that, unfortunately, it drastically drops.
- Stabilised: Equipped with the exclusive TamronVC vibration compensation system.
- The eBAND that uses nanotechnology and Broad-Band Anti-Reflection.
- FLEX ZOOM LOCK mechanism.
- Lens and hood.
- Difficult to use at 600mm.
- AF sometimes loses the subject and then hangs up.
- Soft between 450-600mm.
- Very expensive protection filter.
An excellent lens for those who do not want to spend too much, and also for those who want to have more versatility by sacrificing a little sharpness.
4. Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR
An extremely sharp optic with an outstanding image stabilization system that allows, even in the worst condition, to shoot and obtain good results even freehanded. We really appreciate the constant minimum aperture throughout the excursion. It is a bit heavy, but for such a lens you cannot expect more, a harness belt can help. Being able to lock the at the minimum focal length is a nice engineering touch for the user. Efficient focusing, the hood is quite cheap, but it does the job.
- Fixed minimum aperture.
- Size is not massive.
- Lens hood.
- Long range zoom ring.
Overall, even in relation to equivalent lenses, it has an excellent value for money.
5. Sigma 100-400mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM
Considering the rather low cost, it cannot be expected to have a professional construction, it is a bit plasticky, the focus ring is a little hard and not very fluid, the pump zoom is not quite fluid as well, it goes much better using the ring. The stabilizer does its duty greatly, you get almost to 1/10 without using a tripod. It’s an F 6.3, so you can expect it to perform so well when the light gets low and the autofocus might not be the fastest around, but it’s quiet and it gets the job done.
- A new approach to ultra-zooms with a “light gun”.
- Pump zoom mechanism.
- Telephoto and macro photography.
- New Optical Stabilizer (OS) with unique algorithm for better performance.
- Slow AF.
- Quite dark.
Considering so many advantages and the interesting cost, we think it can be safely recommended for wildlife and birds photography.
6. Fujifilm FUJINON XF100-400mm F4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR
The stabilization allows shots with unthinkable times and this sometimes allows you to compensate for the lack of light while maintaining low ISO. AF not so brilliant but not to be thrown away. Can also be used for non-extreme macros. It loses sharpness with distant subjects while with subjects within 10m of distance it renders photos of good detail.
- Super-tele zoom lens resistant to atmospheric agents.
- OIS optical stabilizer with 5 STOP efficiency.
- Lens hood with window to operate on optional separating filters.
- Compatible with XF1.4X TC WR Teleconverter.
- Package Contents: Lens Hood, Front Cap, Rear Cap, Cloth.
- Zoom shift.
- Small lens foot.
- MFD is too long.
Excellent lens, fast focus, it allows you to photograph flying birds without problems even in low light conditions.
7. Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm F4 IS PRO
Great build quality and minimum distance of MAF which makes it almost a macro lens, its’ waterproof and the collar supplied with Swiss style arca. With its lightweight this is an excellent lens with an amazing optical quality under all aspects, at f.4 it has a clear image, at 5.6 it is truly at the top, also used at 1.4 the loss of quality is imperceptible. Perfect image stabilizer. The only flaw, if we may, is a tricky lens hood.
- Light weight.
- Fast AF.
- Solid construction.
- Excellent image quality.
- Probably just the price you pay for such an excellent lens.
A fundamental optic for photographing birds and wildlife. Highly recommendable.
8. Sony FE 200-600mm F5.6-6.3 G OSS
You buy a zoom like this to use it especially at extreme focal lengths, 500 and 600mm. Here with the lens fully open (6.3) it can be a little soft. On the other hand, its maximum aperture is similar to the competition in this price range, with the difference that it costs more. It can be used safely with the 1.4 X TC but it becomes an f/9 and then you need a lot of light in order to not go too high with the ISO. We recommend replacing the bracket, which is way too short.
Ultimately it’s a good zoom with some obvious limitations, but for me the optical quality is a bit lower than the small 100-400mm GM. The freehand weight is still felt, even if, for example, 6 or 700 grams lower than the Sigma Sport 150-600 that I also had.
- Sharpness of the details through the optical design that incorporates two ED glass elements,
- Extra-low Dispersion and three aspherical elements offering superior quality.
- Blurred backgrounds: a circular 11-blade aperture mechanism allows you to use the shallow depth of field available at focal lengths.
- Capture all the details thanks to the Sony Nano AR anti-reflective coating to eliminate reflections and shadow effects.
- Fast and accurate: the DDSSM Motor, Direct Drive Sonic Motor, offers precise and fast focusing for photos and videos.
- Built-in stabilization with Optical SteadyShot.
- The lens hood does’t feel to stable.
- It’s not too well balanced.
- Expensive 95 mm filters.
- Short bracket.
A fantastic lens, moderate price and excellent technical characteristics starting with the brightness and the sharpness, the blur is just great and the speed of the zoom by manual ring it’s outstanding. And a great engineering praise: it’s almost impossible to get dirt between the lenses and a handy rubber hood.
In our view, the lens is the most important piece of your photographic equipment.
The factors to consider when choosing your lens for birds and wildlife photography are as follows:
A minimum focal length of 400-500m as birds are always very far away, in addition to this you want to have the possibility of combining teleconverters (because the lens is never long enough) with a 1.4x or 2x tool.
A maximum aperture of at least f/5.6 for autofocus and f/11 for manual focus is also needed in order to be able to catch as much light as possible in every kind of condition you find yourself shooting wildlife.
Another important characteristic when shopping for lenses is to consider the capacity of autofocus as it is essential for this type of photographic activity. It has to be fast and accurate, and not drifting or dropping when the lens is tilted up or down. Image stabilization is another essential feature when shooting fast moving subject that require you to move erratically as well.
Last, but not least think about the dimensions and weight of the lens you’re thinking to buy, this is very important when the subjects you’re shooting bring you to hike and move a lot.