If there is a photographic genre where the right lens choice really does make a significant difference, that is definitely bird and wildlife photography. In this kind of photography the wrong kind of optic simply won’t let you get the shot, it’s as easy as that. Animals in the wilderness and skittish birds are often at distances that are not optimal and swiftly appearing and moving in difficult light conditions. So how can we help you finding the right lens to get over the challenges that birding photography can throw at you?
First of all if we compare with other types of nature photography, like landscapes for example, there quite a few less lenses to chose from that can work well for bird photography and we truly believe that with this guide we’ll help you find your way around all the best options that are out there for 2022 from the various industry producers. Explaining you all the factors that you should keep in mind like focal length, focusing speed, aperture and weight, but also understanding the importance of prime and zoom lenses.
How we choose the best lenses for bird photography for this guide?
The writers of Avibirds, such as myself, have a long experience in many genres of photography and with many of the major system available on the camera market today. To write our guides we use a mix our own personal experience and user feedback.
Bird photography obviously relies on long telephoto lenses to obtain our shots, this together with image quality, brand, performance in low-light conditions, size, weight, autofocus capacities and image stabilisation are what we looked for in the lenses we present you here today.
Here are the Best Lenses for Birds And Wildlife Photography you can buy
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. Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM
The clue is in the name, being it one of Canon’s L lineup of lenses this is clearly an indication of a professional grade object. And for good reasons, the incredible sharp images it reproduces, even when wide open it’s not something you can find everyday that easily.
Not only it performs incredibly well when in the lights are not so bright but it also has an amazing contrast and saturation of the colours thanks to the elements and coating that Canon used in the assembly of this lens, that is particularly satisfying if you’re happen to be a photographer that capture lots of colourful birds!
As often is the case with bird photography you ideally don’t want to scary them away, that’s when it come very handy to have a silent yet effective autofocus; Canon goes one step further in this lens and allows you to use focus preset system. Let’s say you know that chances are you’ll see a bird at pretty much the same distance repeatedly, you can then program this into your presetting in order to quickly use the needed focus distance, on the same topic it also features three different focus limiters, made to avoid that the lens keep searching an unnecessary focus.
500mm is just an amazing focal length for birds, according to many bird photographer it actually is the ideal focal length for this genre; you can always mount this optic on an APS-C camera to obtain an equivalent 800mm. This Canon premium lens also is weather sealed, a good feature to have when spending lots of time outside in the wilderness, shooting birds and wildlife exposed to the elements.
- Three mode image stabiliser.
- Very sharp images.
- Quick and accurate autofocuses.
- Unsurprisingly expensive.
If you’re a prime lens lover who’s after the best quality image then this 500mm high end option from Canon is what you want in your bird photography kit. With a formidable and quick autofocus to allow you to get the best birding shots.
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. Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 600mm f/4E FL ED VR
Nikon’s 600mm super-telephoto was updated back in 2015 and some noteworthy improvements still make this lens what is probably to be considered Nikon’s Ferrari when it comes to bird and wildlife photography.
The major design improvement is clearly the reduction in weight and the subsequent gain in manoeuvrability, of course this remains quite a heavy lens but Nikon managed to get almost 1,5 kgs off, and with a improved arrangement of the elements that compone this lens the weight distribution works much better.
It might still be an optic that you’re not so keen on holding for too long, but at least is not as front-heavy as it used to be, when it was almost impossible to use without a tripod.
The four stops vibration reduction is another welcome feature that helps with the hand-holding, while the VR together with a decent f/4 maximum aperture makes this lens a good option also in conditions of low lights, it’s worth noting that this lens’ autofocus works well in dark conditions and it’s very fast and precise, very helpful when shooting birds.
The sharpness is where the true value of this lens really is, and it’s cost. The images are extremely crispy on any end of the frame, even when shooting wide open. Nikon designed this lens to work best with a high-resolution modern camera, like a D850; with such a match you bird photography shot will have no rivals!
- Four stops of vibrations reduced.
- Quiet autofocus makes it a perfect match to work on video production.
- Outstanding sharpness across the whole frame.
- Impeccable design. It’s bulky, but the weight is well balanced.
- Very heavy
- Obviously the price of this optic is in the higher range
It’s sharpness is out of this world; truly jaw dropping results, matched with a silent and precise autofocus, and a decent performance in low light conditions, this lens is without doubt the best birding lens from Nikon.
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.