Picking the Best Lens for Bird Photography

Learn what will work best before you go and spend all that money on a lens.

Want to photograph birds? Depending on experience, there are many lenses to choose to improve your bird photography and many considerations to factor in. Whether you’re a pro or beginner, Nikon and Canon has a lens for you.

Telephoto Lenses

The most common type of lens used by professionals are telephoto lenses. On top of unmatched zooming capabilities, telephoto lenses are designed to draw in more light, providing you with sharper detail. Most pros use 200-400mm telephoto lenses, while the best (and those who can afford it) will use nothing short of a 600mm or 800mm lens.


One factor professionals take into account is lens aperture, also known as the f-number. The greater the aperture, the faster your camera shutter speed will be, which is beneficial when shooting in poor light. Aperture also affects image sharpness.

Seasoned bird photographers recommend smaller apertures from f/6.3 to f/8 for taking sharp portrait-style images of your bird. Larger aperture settings, particular those in the f/4 and above range will make different parts of your subject out of focus. F/5.6 is recommended for birds in flight. You can also use Aperture Priority mode or increase the ISO for a faster shutter speed at a higher aperture.

Nikon and Canon produce a variety of professional and budget lenses. Let’s look at the best of both categories.

NIKKOR 600mm f/4E Fl ED VR,The Best Professional Lens from Nikon

The field lens of choice for professional bird photographers, the NIKKOR 600mm has fast autofocus tracking for quick-moving birds, vibration reduction for better photos when holding the lens, and excellent light-gathering optics. Sealed, weather-proof glass that’s also flare resistant enables the sharpest images. Plus, on a DX camera, this lens is capable of a 900mm reach. Though the new model is lighter, a tripod is still recommended.

Best Budget Lens for Beginners From Nikon, The NIKKOR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED

At under $500, veteran bird photographers may scoff at the NIKKOR 70-300mm, but no other lens provides a better value for any entry-level birder with little to no photography experience and hesitant about $1000+ lenses. Light weight and compact, this lens also features vibration reduction. Image quality is sharp overall but expect sharpness to decrease at full 300mm zoom. Performance drops in low-light, but the daytime autofocus is great. Plus, the 300mm max reach is perfect for a wide range of wildlife photography.

The Best Professional Lens from Canon, The Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM

For unparalleled image quality, even with a fully opened aperture, nothing beats the Canon EF 600mm F/4L. Excellent optics, extreme reach, lightning-fast shutter speeds and autofocus, and the ability to snap full-frame photos of your subject from 100 yards away make this the go-to lens for professionals. Heavy, expensive, and requiring a tripod, the 600mm reach is still perfect for photographing predators and skittish animals while still producing a strong background blur.

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6, The Best Budget Lens for Beginners From Canon

A lens approaching $2,000 may not seem budget, but Canon is known as the more expensive brand. Still, what you get is an unbeatable, small-sized wildlife lens with 400mm reach, superior optics, and sharp image quality. The EF 100-400mm is suited for a variety of shooting conditions and comes with quick autofocus and image stabilization. The most recommended lens for beginners by bird photographers—even the pros use this lens as their back-up.

Remember, having some of the best equipment doesn’t do much if you don’t have the knowledge to harness their capabilities. Take the time to learn and gain experience.

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