5 Best Lenses for Bird Photography in 2020

Birdwatchers who are interested in bird photography will quickly find that taking pictures of birds is not as simple as a point and click. In order to capture excellent photos of birds, it’s true that you’ll need a quality camera, but the most important piece of your camera setup is the lens!

It can be daunting to begin shopping for the perfect camera and lens combo. But with a little help, you can find the right setup that suits your needs and your budget. 

Below is a guide to help you better understand camera lens features specific to birding and some lens suggestions.

We Recommend

Best budget option

Sigma Lens
150-600mm f/5-6.3

Best wildlife lens

Canon Lens
100-400mm f/4.5-5.6

Best price/value ratio

Nikkor Lens
200-500mm f/5.6

Types of Lenses for Birding

When searching for a lens for birding, there are 2 main types: prime and zoom.

Prime lenses offer a fixed focal length.

  • There will be no zoom ring, so in order to get closer to the object you are focused on, you will have to move closer physically.
  • The benefit to a prime lens is that you will have a wider aperture. (Indicated by a lower f-stop number.
  • For example, f/2.8). A wider aperture will provide you more leeway when it comes to shooting in dark settings.

Zoom lenses, on the other, offer a focal length range.

  • This allows you to zoom in and out on an object from a stationary position. Zoom lenses will typically have a smaller aperture, starting around f/4.5.
  • For most beginner bird photographers, a zoom lens is the best option.
  • They are more versatile and offer more opportunities to capture birds at varying distances.

Do You Really Need an Expensive Lens?

A quality camera lens will go a long way when it comes to image quality, particularly with bird photography. Most bird photographers tend to prioritize the lens over the camera. So if you are choosing between an expensive lens or an expensive camera, it might be best to go with the expensive lens and compromise on the quality of the camera.

It may take some research to determine the right camera and lens setup for your budget, but finding the right gear will certainly make photographing birds a much easier task.

Here’s a breakdown of what to expect at different price points when searching for a camera lens specific to bird and wildlife photography:

$500 – $1,000 – Lenses in this range will typically offer minimal focal length–300mm or less. Although there are brands, such as Tamron and Sigma, that offer a focal length of up to 600mm in this price range. The glass elements will be lower quality, causing photos at high zoom to appear less sharp.

$1,000 – $3,000 – You’ll find excellent options in this price range with focal length ranging from 150mm-600mm. The glass elements in these lenses will be much better, and the lens itself will feature better autofocus and image stabilizing capabilities.

$3,000 – Higher – In terms of wildlife photography, you may see quite a jump in price point for specialty, high-zoom lenses. Name brand prime lenses with a wide aperture, and a focal length of 400mm or 600mm will cost over $10,000. These are professional grade lenses that feature the best glass, the best AF motors, and the best IS systems.

What About Camera Bodies?

It is certainly possible to purchase an expensive lens and use it with a cheaper camera body, but it’s important to take a few things into consideration. Also, check out our guide on best cameras for bird photography.

For bird photography, a quality lens is a priority, but you’ll also want a camera that can keep up with the birds that you are photographing.

Some features you’ll want to prioritize on a camera are:

Sensor

  • A camera’s image sensor is responsible for the resolution, depth, and overall image quality a camera can produce. Quality sensors directly correlate to size: the bigger the sensor, the better the photos.
  • This is because a large sensor will have more surface area to capture light, which helps produce clear and colorful photos. For bird photographers who prioritize image quality, find a camera that features a full-frame sensor.
  • If you are looking for more affordable options, then cameras with APS-H or APS-C sensors are excellent mid-range choices. For budgets under $1,000 you’ll have to settle for smaller sensors, still capable of capturing great photos, just don’t expect enlarge prints to be sharp.

Autofocus

  • A fast (and smart) autofocus will help you quickly focus on the subject in the viewfinder.
  • Great autofocus works on a variety of levels, such as the camera sensor, the mechanics of the lens, and internal computing. It’s difficult to attribute great autofocus to any one thing.
  • For this reason, it’s important to research reviews to find the best camera and lens combinations that produce excellent autofocus.

Shutter Speed

  • Cameras these days are incredibly fast machines. Still, bird photographers will certainly want to make sure their cameras are capable of capturing the lively movements of the birds they observe.
  • Finding a camera that can shoot continuously at full resolution is essential to capturing great bird shots. Look for cameras that can produce a quick shutter speed and a decent frame-per-second rate.
  • A shutter speed of at least 1/1,000 paired with a continuous shooting rate of 6 fps or more is sufficient for capturing birds in flight.

A Bird Photographer’s Best Friend: Focal Length

When searching for a camera lens specific to bird photography, the first thing you should look for is a lens with adequate focal length. This measure will be shown as either a fixed measure (such as 400mm) or a range (such as 150mm-600mm).

In order to capture images of birds, you’ll want to purchase a lens 300mm or higher. The higher focal length will give you even better glimpses of the birds you are trying to capture in a frame. 

For most birdwatchers, they understand focal length in terms of image magnification. For example, an 8×42 binocular will essentially be equivalent to a 400mm camera lens. Consider every 50mm a level of magnification.

6x = 300mm
8x = 400mm
10x = 500mm
12x = 600mm

For bird photographers, a high focal range is essential to capturing excellent images of birds. But just because a lens has a high focal length doesn’t mean it will produce outstanding photos.

There are other considerations too. So even though your first thought should be to look at a lens’ focal length, be sure to consider the other components such as the quality of the AF and IS systems and the quality of the glass elements used in the lens.

How to Choose the Best Lens for Bird Photography?

When choosing a lens, some obvious things should be considered, such as brand and budget. If you own a Canon or a Nikon or a Sony, you’ll want to purchase a lens that is compatible with your camera

If you have a certain budget, make a list of compatible lenses that are in your price range. Once you have that list, assess which lens offers the best quality for your money.

Some things to think about:

  • Zoom – For bird photography, you’ll want to have a lens that is capable of at least 300mm zoom. Woodland birds can be captured quite easily with zooms from 300-500mm. Waterfowl can be harder to capture at close proximity, so a zoom 500mm or larger might better serve you if you live near the coast or plan to do a lot of photography around lakes.
  • Glass – Each lens is composed of a number of elements, some of which will be composed of specialized glass to create clear and sharp images. The glass will typically be described as ED, UD, or Fluorite. Top-end lenses will have Fluorite elements, whereas mid-range lenses will have ED and UD elements. If you prioritize image quality, lenses that have Fluorite will produce professional-grade images. If a lens with fluorite glass doesn’t fit your budget, then look for lenses with ED and UD elements. Lenses that feature this glass can still offer great quality but at a more affordable price.
  • Durability – Bird photographers travel to many destinations: dusty, rainy, humid, sandy, etc. It’s important to get a lens that is durable and can withstand the environmental factors that will come into play in the locations where you’ll be shooting.

Best Lenses for Bird Photography

1. Sigma 150-600mm 5-6.3 Contemporary Lens (Best Affordable Zoom Lens)

The Sigma 150-600mm 5-6.3 Contemporary DG OS HSM Lens is one of the best options for beginner bird photographers. 

This lens offers excellent focal length at a reasonable price. The fact that this is a zoom lens makes it even more user-friendly.

Another great thing about Sigma lenses is that they can fit multiple brands, such as Canon, Nikon, and Sony. 

Just be sure to purchase the correct version for your camera, or, in the case of Sony, make sure to buy the right mount.

Photographers who use the Sigma 150-600mm will enjoy the amount of zoom that is available to them. Serious photographers, though, may be upset with the lack of sharpness at high magnification. 

Overall the Sigma 150-600mm performs quite well considering its price. It may not compete with the upper-tier lenses, but it’s a great beginner lens that gets photographers close to the action.

Check the price of Sigma 150-600mm Lens here

What we liked

  • Up to 600mm Zoom
  • Affordable Price
  • Fits Multiple Brands
  • Relatively Compact

What we didn’t like

  • Lower Image Quality at High Zoom

Focal length: 150-600mm
Aperture: f/5-6.3
Autofocus: Yes, using Sigma’s Hyper Sonic Motor to reduce noise and increase speed.
Image Stabilization: Yes, using Sigma’s Optical Stabilizer system.
Close Focus: 9.2 ft
Glass Elements: 20, 1 FLD (“F” Low Dispersion) and 3 SLD (Special Low Dispersion)
Weight: 4.25 lbs
Matching Camera Body for Birding: A variety of Canon, Nikon, and Sony Cameras

2. Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E Vibration Reduction Lens (Best Price/Quality Ratio)

For Nikon fans (and anyone looking for a mid-range camera/lens combo) the Nikon AF-S FX Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED Vibration Reduction Zoom Lens is a great all-around choice for a telephoto zoom lens. 

It features a focal length that reaches 500mm and also has an advanced AF system that allows for better focus.

This lens also features 3 ED glass elements ensuring images will be vibrant and sharp. 

Paired with a solid camera, such as the Nikon D500, this lens can capture impressive bird photos in a range of situations: long-distance waterfowl shots, energetic warbler shots in the woods, or even during a hawk watch. Overall, this lens is a great value for its price.

Check the price of Nikkor 200-500mm Lens here

Matching Camera Body for Birding: Nikon D500

What we liked

  • Incredible Zoom
  • Affordable Mid-range Price
  • Excellent Vibration Reduction
  • Sharp Images
  • Perfect for Birding

What we didn’t like

  • Physically Quite Heavy

Focal length: 200-500mm
Aperture: f/5.6
Autofocus: Yes, high-speed, near-silent AF using Nikon’s Silent Wave Motor.
Image Stabilization: Yes, using Nikon’s in-lens Vibration Reduction.
Close Focus: 7.2 ft
Elements: 19, including 3 ED (Extra-low Dispersion) glass elements.
Weight: 5.07 lbs

3. Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L Telephoto Lens (Most Popular Wildlife Lens)

The Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM Telephoto Zoom Lens continues to be a favorite of wildlife and bird photographers around the world. 

Canon created this lens to be a smart and fast lens capable of quick and precise autofocus

The elements in this build also include fluorite and UD glass, further advancing this lens’ ability to capture incredibly clear and vibrant photos. 

Serious bird photographers who value image quality over everything else will be satisfied with this lens. 

Paired with high-end Canon cameras such as the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, this lens can capture beautiful stills of birds in motion.

Check the price of Canon 100-400mm Telephoto Lens here

Matching Camera Body for Birding: Canon EOS-1D X Mark II

What we liked

  • Ultrasonic AF Motor for Quick & Quiet
  • Incredible Autofocus
  • Premium Build Quality
  • Advanced Image Stabilization
  • Fluorite & UD Glass Elements

What we didn’t like

  • Physically Heavy
  • Higher Pricepoint

Focal length: 100-400mm
Aperture: f/4.5-5.6
Autofocus: Yes, using an ultrasonic motor plus a high-speed CPU for fast, quiet focusing.
Image Stabilization: Yes, using an advanced optical image stabilizer system.
Close Focus: 5.9 ft
Elements: 21, including 1 Flourite and 1 UD (Ultra-low Dispersion) glass elements.
Weight: 3.1 lbs

4. Panasonic Lumix G II Vario 100-300mm Lens (Best for Travel)

The Panasonic Lumix G II Vario 100-300mm Lens is a decent lens that fits nicely with the compact Panasonic Lumix GX85. 

This lens, paired with a solid mirrorless camera offers a lightweight option for travelers hoping to maintain a higher focal length. 

The Panasonic Lumix G II Vario 100-300mm lens delivers fantastic images that burst with color. 

For bird photography, this lens will be limited because of its lower focal length. But it’s still possible to take great shots of birds that you can post online. If you plan to print your photos, you will want to choose a lens with greater zoom capabilities.

If you are looking for a travel zoom lens that can double as a birding lens, the Panasonic Lumix G II Vario 100-300mm Lens might be the right choice for you.

Check the price of Panasonic Lumix GII 100-300mm Lens here

Matching Camera Body for Birding: Panasonic Lumix GX85

What we liked

  • Great for Travel
  • Very Lightweight
  • Close Focus Up to 4.92 ft
  • Sharp Images
  • Quite Affordable

What we didn’t like

  • Image Stabilization Could Be Improved

Focal length: 100-300mm
Aperture: f/4-5.6
Autofocus: Yes, using a linear autofocus motor for precise and smooth focusing.
Image Stabilization: Yes, using Power Optical Image Stabilization (O.I.S.) and 5-Axis Dual I.S. 2.0.
Close Focus: 4.92 ft
Elements: 17, including 1 ED (Extra-low Dispersion) glass element.
Weight: 1.15 lbs

5. Sony FE 100-400mm F4.5–5.6 (Best Performance)

The Sony FE 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 GM OSS lens is the real deal. 

If you have the budget and want the best, the Sony FE 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 GM OSS lens will not disappoint. 

As a birding camera, its focal length may not reach the lengths of the higher zoom cameras, but the quality of the images taken at the max 400mm are superb and don’t appear to lose any sharpness.

This lens creates nearly flawless images and is packed with high-end features such as Optical SteadyShot IS, an excellent AF system, and high-quality glass. 

The Sony FE 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 GM OSS lens gives Canon and Nikon ample competition. If you have the money and prioritize image quality, this is the lens for you.

Check the price of Sony FE 100-400mm Lens here

Matching Camera Body for Birding: Sony a7 III

What we liked

  • Build Quality
  • Excellent Image Quality
  • Relatively Compact Considering the 100-400mm Telephoto Zoom
  • Great Autofocus
  • Optical SteadyShot Image Stabilization

What we didn’t like

  • Pricey

Focal length: 100-400mm
Aperture: f/4.5-5.6
Autofocus: Yes, using a Double-linear, Direct-drive SSM motor.
Image Stabilization: Yes, using Optical SteadyShot IS.
Close Focus: 8.43 ft
Elements: 22, including 2 ED (Extra-low Dispersion) and 1 Super ED glass elements.
Weight: 3.08 lbs

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