What is a good lens for backyard bird photography?


A Blue Tit taken with a good lens for backyard bird photography

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Although features provided by your camera body are important for photography, it’s the quality of your lens that will determine how good your images appear. So, what lens is best for bird photography and why?

Lenses with focal lengths of 400mm to 800mm and apertures around f/4 or 5.6 are favoured by bird and wildlife photographers, who will often add a 1.4x or 2x extender for additional reach. Prime and zoom lenses each have their own advantages, but beginners usually start with a zoom because of its versatility.

What focal length do you need for backyard bird photography?

From personal experience, you need as much focal length as possible. You will sometimes find yourself in a situation where a little more reach is necessary. But when you factor in your budget and what lenses are available, “as much as possible”, realistically becomes 600 – 800mm. With a 2x extender (also known as a teleconverter), that effectively becomes 1200 – 1600mm. However, that will push the image quality a little. Even outside factors like heat haze will become even more apparent at those kinds of focal lengths. You’ll probably get better results by trying to get closer to the subject and using a focal length in the 400-1000mm range.

When taking shots of single birds most bird photographers aim to have the bird fill about a third of the frame height. Although the subject, situation, your personal preference, and choice of composition will also determine the size of the bird in the frame. Obviously, you will need less focal length to fill the frame when photographing a Crow than a House Sparrow, so your choice of focal length will also be determined by the species you’re targeting.

The following image sequence shows how large a bird appears in the frame at focal lengths from 100 to 700mm using a Canon RF 100-500mm f/4.5-7.1 at f/10 (+1.4x extender for 700mm). The distance to the toy bird is 30ft (9.15m).

The size change of a backyard bird with changing focal length, from 100mm to 700mm
The size change of a backyard bird with changing focal length, from 100mm to 700mm

In these images I’ve used a soft toy bird to simulate the size of a typical backyard or garden bird. For reference, the bird is about 6 inches high, so a reasonable substitute for a bird like a Blackbird or Starling. Obviously, birds the size of a sparrow will look about half the size.

In these images you can see that increasing the focal length makes a big difference to the size of the bird in the frame.

At 30ft, a focal length of 300mm would be good for a small group of birds. Shots of individual birds would work using a focal length of 400 – 500mm. And at a focal length of 700mm you’ll be able to show good detail.

The super telephoto lens I used for these images has a maximum focal length of 500mm, so with a 2x extender the maximum focal length would have been 1000mm. At that focal length, and a distance of 30ft, you’ll be able to fill the frame with your subject.

Can you only get good background blur with fast lenses?

In the images taken at different focal lengths you may have noticed something other than the changing size of the bird. Even though every image was shot at an aperture of f/10 the background blur is not the same in each image but changes with focal length.

Even when the lens aperture remains constant, the depth of field decreases as the focal length increases. So, the background becomes blurrier as you move to longer focal lengths. The background will also become blurrier as you get closer to the subject and/or the background is further behind the subject.

That’s why I photograph small backyard birds, such as Tits, at a distance of only 14ft in my backyard. When I get so close to the birds, the depth of field is quite shallow and the background becomes blurred. That’s possible because Blue Tits, Great Tits, Coal Tits, Siskins, and Robins are relatively tame. I don’t even use a blind or any camouflage. I’ll sit on a garden seat and although the birds are aware of me, my presence doesn’t seem to bother them.

The following image of a Coal Tit feeding was taken with my Canon R6 and Canon RF100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L IS USM zoom telephotoOpens in a new tab. at a focal length of 500mm, f/7.1, and ISO 16,000. The distance to the feeder was just 14ft, and even though the background was just a few feet further away, the background is blurred despite the relatively slow aperture.

Image of a Coal Tit taken from a distance of 14ft using a focal length of 500mm f/10 showing you can blur the background even when the lens is set to a small aperture (high f-number)
Image of a Coal Tit taken from a distance of 14ft using a focal length of 500mm f/10 showing you can blur the background even when the lens is set to a small aperture (high f-number)

If you have a camera that can handle shooting in low light, such as the Canon R5 and R6, and you can get close to the bird, don’t worry too much about using a slow aperture and high ISO. You can still get blurry backgrounds and clean looking images, as you can see in my image of a Coal Tit.

Remember to check the minimum focusing distance (MFD) of the lens

Not all telephoto lenses let you get close to your subject. I have two zoom telephoto lenses, the Canon RF100-500, and Sigma 150-600mm Sport. Both have similar focal length ranges but their minimum focusing distances are very different. With the Canon I can shoot at between 3 – 4ft from the subject, but with the Sigma I need to get back to 8.5ft before the lens will focus.

Eight and a half feet is still not too bad. Canon’s RF 800mm F11 lens has a minimum focusing distances of about 19.5ft.

Why is this important?

If you have a smaller backyard it’s possible you might not be able to get into a position where you can focus on the bird. But even if you’re out enjoying a trek through a forest a long MFD can be a problem. If you suddenly spot a bird perched in a tree just off the path, you might have to back up until your lens is able to focus.  A large MFD isn’t a bad thing, you just need to be aware of it if you’re getting too close to the subject.    

Will a heavy lens be a pain to carry around all day?

As I mentioned earlier, I have two telephoto lenses. It’s not because I plenty of cash or that I collect lenses. I simply made a mistake in get the Sigma 150-600mm Sport lens. Although I love the images it can take and the 840mm reach with a 1.4x extender, I’m not keen on the weight.

The Sigma Sport lens is made of metal, is built like a tank, and can handle some rough treatment, but I can’t hand hold it for any length of time. Even for the few second that I can hold it up, I’m struggling so much that the shake means most of my shots are blurred. For me, this awesome lens needs to go on a strong tripod, which is too much weight to carry around for any length of time.

With hindsight, I should have got the much lighter “Contemporary” version of the lens and not the heavy “Sport” version. After six months of owning the Sigma, I had to buy the Canon RF100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L IS USM zoom telephoto. Which, as it turned out, was the lens I should have got in the first place.

Canon RF100-500 F4.5-7.1 lens
Canon RF100-500 F4.5-7.1, the perfect telephoto lens for bird photographer

Unless you have muscles like Popeye, a heavy lens will sap your strength and ruin your day taking wildlife shots. The effort of hefting up your gear will introduce unnecessary camera shake and reduce the number of keepers on your memory cards. If you fancy getting one of these heavyweights, I’d advise you to hire one for a day or two to check that it is the right lens for you.

Get more good shots when the lens matches your camera

Weight wasn’t the only reason I changed from my Sigma to a Canon lens. I learned another important lesson. Some lenses work better with certain cameras. More correctly, cameras are better at communicating with native lenses, i.e. lenses from the company that made the camera.

My experience is that Canon lenses work so much better on Canon camera bodies. The RF100-500mm lens is designed to work with cameras using Canon’s RF mount, while the Sigma had to be adapted to my Canon R6. I find that the Canon lens is sharper, autofocus is faster, and it is better at staying locked on to the subject. With the Sigma I had real problems getting shots of flying birds but with the Canon RF lens I find it a whole lot easier to do.

But it’s not about adapting the lens that caused the reduction in performance because I have used Canon’s EF mount lenses adapted onto my Canon R and R6. In all cases I have not experienced any issues.

I suspect you get the best results when you fit a Canon lens on a Canon camera body, with the same being true for Nikon and Sony. Which makes sense, they know best how their technology works.

So why would you buy a third-party telephoto lens? Quite simply, price. As an example (an extreme example I admit), the Canon RF100-500 F4.5-7.1 L IS USM is about three times the cost of the Sigma 150-600 F5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary lens. If cost is an important buying consideration, then a third-party lens is a great option or even a lower spec lens from the manufacturer of your camera body. The performance will still be very good and may even exceed your expectations.

You can get more reach by adding an extender to your telephoto lens

Canon RF 1.4x Extender
A Canon RF 1.4x Extender that will multiply the focal length of a compatible len by a factor of 1.4x

To get even more reach with your telephoto lens you can use an extender, also known as a teleconverter. Ones from Canon, Sony, and Nikon are not cheap but, as you might expect, are very good quality. Depending on the manufacturer, you can get 1.4x, 1.7x, and 2.0x teleconverters. These will increase the focal length by the stated factor but there is a cost, other than financial. You will lose one to two stops of exposure, depending on which extender you use, and there may be some image degradation as well.

If all you want more reach but are less critical about image quality, then a cheap teleconverter might be ideal. You’ll find options from companies like Kenko, Vivitar, and some lesser-known brands on online stores.

15 affordable telephoto lenses for bird photography

Although I’ve mentioned the two telephoto zoom lenses I own, there are many others you could choose for backyard bird photography.

Since I assume you want to capture good quality images, most of the lenses in this comparison chart are high quality. For instance, I’ve listed a few Canon L series lenes that are often faster, and weather sealed, both welcome features since not all locations are always bright and sunny. Even so, I have also included some more affordable lenses that are not all-weather glass.

Since this is a list of what I would consider affordable lenses for serious bird photographers, I have left out many lenses that only professionals would buy. For example, the average birder will not buy the Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM at $8,999, nor the Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM at $12,999.

With the exception of the Canon EF400mm F5.6 L, all the other lenses in this list have Image Stabalization (IS), or in the case of the Nikon lenses, Vibration Reduction (VR).

LENSFOCAL LENGTHAPERTUREMFDWEIGHT
Canon EF 300mm F4L IS USM300mm41.5m/4.9ft1.2kg/2.6lb
Canon EF400mm F5.6 L400mm5.63.5m/11.5 ft1.3kg/2.8lb
Canon EF 100-400mm F4.5-5.6L IS II USM100-400mm4.5-5.61.0m/3.2ft1.6kg/3.6lb
Canon RF100-400mm F5.6-8 IS USM100-400mm5.6-81.2-1.1m/3.9-3.4ft0.6kg/1.4lb
Canon RF600mm F11 IS STM600mm114.5m/14.8ft0.9kg/2.1lb
Canon RF800mm F11 IS STM800mm116.0m/19.7ft1.3kg/2.8lb
Canon RF100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L IS USM500mm4.5-7.10.9m-1.2m/3.0-3.9ft1.5kg/3.4lb
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm F5.6E ED VR200-500mm5.62.2m/7.2 ft2.3kg/5.0lb
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 500mm F5.6E PF ED VR500mm5.63.0m/9.8ft1.5kg/3.2lb
Sigma 60-600mm F4.5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sport60-600mm4.5-6.30.6-2.6m/2-8.5ft2.7kg/6.0lb
Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemp150-600mm5-6.32.8m/9.2ft1.9kg/4.3lb
Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sport150-600mm5-6.32.6m/8.5ft2.9kg/6.3lb
Sony FE 200-600mm F5.6-6.3 G OSS200-600mm5.6-6.32.4m/7.9ft2.1kg/4.7lb
Tamron SP 150-600 F5-6.3 Di VC USD G2150-600mm5-6.32.2m/7.2ft2.0kg/4.4lb
Tamron 150-500mm F5-6.7 Di III VC VXD150-500mm5-6.70.6m-1.8m/2-5.9ft1.9kg/4.1lb
Table of affordable telephoto lenses for bird photography

If you are interested in buying a super telephoto lens I have included links below to several available on Amzon. If you use these links I may earn a commision but you do not pay any extra. Thank you if you do make a purchase. If you are new to bird photography and would like to give it a try inexpensively before commiting to spending several hundred dollars or more on a lens, scroll down to the next section on using a cheap vintage lens.

Make
Canon
Canon
Canon
Canon
Canon
Lens
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
RF100-400mm F5.6-8 is USM
RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L is USM
Canon RF600 F11 IS STM
RF800 F11 IS STM
Lens Mount
Canon EF
Canon RF
Canon RF
Canon RF
Canon RF
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens, Lens Only
Canon RF100-400mm F5.6-8 is USM
Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L is USM Super-Telephoto Lens
Canon RF600/11 is STM(N) (3986C002)
Canon RF800/11 is STM(N)
Focal length
100-400mm
100-400mm
100-500mm
600mm
800mm
Max Aperture
4.5-5.6
5.6-8
4.5-7.1
11
11
Image Stabilization
$2,399.00
$649.00
$2,799.00
$699.00
$899.00
Make
Canon
Lens
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
Lens Mount
Canon EF
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens, Lens Only
Focal length
100-400mm
Max Aperture
4.5-5.6
Image Stabilization
$2,399.00
Make
Canon
Lens
RF100-400mm F5.6-8 is USM
Lens Mount
Canon RF
Canon RF100-400mm F5.6-8 is USM
Focal length
100-400mm
Max Aperture
5.6-8
Image Stabilization
$649.00
Make
Canon
Lens
RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L is USM
Lens Mount
Canon RF
Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L is USM Super-Telephoto Lens
Focal length
100-500mm
Max Aperture
4.5-7.1
Image Stabilization
$2,799.00
Make
Canon
Lens
Canon RF600 F11 IS STM
Lens Mount
Canon RF
Canon RF600/11 is STM(N) (3986C002)
Focal length
600mm
Max Aperture
11
Image Stabilization
$699.00
Make
Canon
Lens
RF800 F11 IS STM
Lens Mount
Canon RF
Canon RF800/11 is STM(N)
Focal length
800mm
Max Aperture
11
Image Stabilization
$899.00

Last update on 2021-12-03 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Make
Nikon
Sigma
Sony
Tamron
Tamron
Lens Mount
Nikon F
Canon-EF, Nikon F, Sigma SA
Sony FE, Sony E
Canon EF
Sony E
Lens
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm F5.6E ED VR
Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM | C
Sony FE 200-600mm F5.6-6.3 G OSS
Tamron SP 150-600 F5-6.3 Di VC USD G2
Tamron 150-500mm f/5-6.7 Di III VXD
Image
Nikon 200-500mm Lens | f/5.6E | ED | VR | AF-S | NIKKOR | with Cleaning Kit...
Sigma 150-600mm 5-6.3 Contemporary DG OS HSM Lens for Canon
Sony FE 200-600mm F5.6-6.3 G OSS Super Telephoto Zoom Lens (SEL200600G)
Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2 for Canon Digital SLR Cameras
Tamron 150-500mm f/5-6.7 Di III VXD Lens for Sony E Mount with Altura Photo...
Focal length
200-500mm
150-600
200-600mm
150-600
150-500mm
Max Aperture
5.6
5-6.3
5.6-6.3
5-6.3
5-6.7
Image Stabilization
Price
$1,624.95
$799.00
$1,898.00
$1,399.00
$1,299.00
-
Make
Nikon
Lens Mount
Nikon F
Lens
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm F5.6E ED VR
Image
Nikon 200-500mm Lens | f/5.6E | ED | VR | AF-S | NIKKOR | with Cleaning Kit...
Focal length
200-500mm
Max Aperture
5.6
Image Stabilization
Price
$1,624.95
-
Make
Sigma
Lens Mount
Canon-EF, Nikon F, Sigma SA
Lens
Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM | C
Image
Sigma 150-600mm 5-6.3 Contemporary DG OS HSM Lens for Canon
Focal length
150-600
Max Aperture
5-6.3
Image Stabilization
Price
$799.00
Make
Sony
Lens Mount
Sony FE, Sony E
Lens
Sony FE 200-600mm F5.6-6.3 G OSS
Image
Sony FE 200-600mm F5.6-6.3 G OSS Super Telephoto Zoom Lens (SEL200600G)
Focal length
200-600mm
Max Aperture
5.6-6.3
Image Stabilization
Price
$1,898.00
Make
Tamron
Lens Mount
Canon EF
Lens
Tamron SP 150-600 F5-6.3 Di VC USD G2
Image
Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2 for Canon Digital SLR Cameras
Focal length
150-600
Max Aperture
5-6.3
Image Stabilization
Price
$1,399.00
Make
Tamron
Lens Mount
Sony E
Lens
Tamron 150-500mm f/5-6.7 Di III VXD
Image
Tamron 150-500mm f/5-6.7 Di III VXD Lens for Sony E Mount with Altura Photo...
Focal length
150-500mm
Max Aperture
5-6.7
Image Stabilization
Price
$1,299.00

Last update on 2021-12-06 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Consider a vintage lens as a cheap way to start bird photography

Assuming you are just starting in bird photography, investing in high quality telephoto prime or zoom lenses may be a financial challenge. If you want to try this fascinating area of photography while keeping the cost to an absolute minimum, why not get an inexpensive vintage lens and adapt it to your modern camera body.

With bird photography focal length is king, and in most cases, the longer the focal length the better. Although I would normally recommend getting a lens with a focal length of between 400 and 600mm, an old 210mm lens can help get you started, or at least let you know whether bird photography is for you.

One option to consider is a vintage Vivitar 70-210mm lens. These can be picked up very cheaply on eBay, and some models are quite good optically, considering they date from around the 1970s. The downside is that they are fully manual. So focus and exposure are controlled by turning the appropriate ring on the lens tube.

Vivitar-Series-1 70-210mm lens on a Canon EOS R6 camera body
Vivitar-Series-1 70-210mm lens on a Canon EOS R6 camera body

Even so, bird photography with one of these vintage lenses is certainly possible. I inherited a 40+ year old Vivitar Series 1 70-210mm lens a few years back. It has an Olympus OM mount, so I bought an inexpensive OM-EOS R adapter to mount the lens on my Canon EOS R.

Forget any idea of having autofocus or tracking. This baby is all manual. Pre-focus on a perch or feeder where you expect the bird to land, set the aperture to between f/5.6 and f/11, and wait. Many of your shots will be imperfect, but some will be keepers.

As an example, here is a shot of a Dunnock I took with a Vivitar 70-210mm lens on a Canon EOS R camera body. After some light post processing I was surprised at the image quality, conosidering I was using a lens that must have been over 40 years old.

Image of Dunnock taken with a vintage Vivitar Series 1 70-210mm lens on a Canon EOS R6. FL 210mm f/5.6 ISO 1000 1/500 sec | Fully manual
Image of Dunnock taken with a vintage Vivitar Series-1 70-210mm lens on a Canon EOS R6. Manual settings 210mm f/5.6 ISO 1000 1/500 sec

To show the image of the Dunnock wasn’t a lucky shot, here’s another one of a juvenile Blue Tit taken with the Vivitar lens.

Image of a Juvenile Blue Tit taken using a Vivitar Series-1 70-210mm lens
Image of a Juvenile Blue Tit taken using a Vivitar Series-1 70-210mm lens

Although the Vivitar is a true vintage lens, you could also look at more modern pre-owned lenses. The Canon EF 400mm F5.6L lens, although listed on Canon’s website does not seem to be available as a brand new lens. The price used to be around $1,200. Good used examples of this lens can be bought for under $900. Autofocus and exposure control will work as normal, but you won’t have the luxury of built-in image stabalization. Even so, this is a good Canon EF-mount lens.

Summary

The lens is the heart of your photography system. If your budget is limited, spend as much as you can on a good quality lens, even if it is refurnished or used. Spend the rest of your budget on a camera body, with the intention of upgrading later when funds are available.

If you’re still saving to get your first camera and lens, consider using your smartphone, but upgrade the camera app so you have manual control.

If you’ve already got the money and are set to buy your photography gear, get the best you can afford, especially the lens.

Here are some of my favorite content creation tools

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. Hopefully, you found it helpful in creating your own content for your social media and YouTube channels. I have listed some of the gear I use as a YouTuber and online course creator and hope you’ll also find it useful. I have recommended this equipment to my readers and my own family and friends.

Camera: You can use your smartphone when starting out, but I’d recommend getting a Mirrorless Camera. I use both the Canon EOS ROpens in a new tab. and EOS R6Opens in a new tab.. Both can shoot Full HD or 4K, and the Eye AutoFocus will keep you sharply in focus even if you move around. If your budget is smaller, I would recommend the Canon M50 MkIIOpens in a new tab..

Video microphone: Arguably, sound quality is more important than video quality, that’s why I use a Deity V-MiOpens in a new tab.c D3 Opens in a new tab.Pro super-cardioid shotgun microphone on my mirrorless cameras. It automatically powers on when I turn on my camera and powers down when I switch off the camera. But I also like the versatility of the mic. It automatically senses what device it is connected to ensuring it works with SLRs, camcorders, smartphones, Handy recorders, laptops, and bodypack transmitters.

Video Lighting: Although daylight is my favorite lighting, I use LED lighting for all the videos I shoot indoors because good lighting can make a tremendous difference to the visual appeal of a video. For video calls on Zoom or Teams, I use the Lume Cube Broadcast Lighting KitOpens in a new tab.. For YouTube videos and creating video tutorials for online courses, I love the Lume Cube 18″ Cordless Ring Light Kit. Both these lights are excellent, and I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending them.

Teleprompter software: I use the iCue teleprompterOpens in a new tab. app on my iPad when using it with a traditional beam-splitter teleprompter and control it remotely with the iCue RemoteOpens in a new tab. app on my iPhone. On my PC I use Teleprompter ProOpens in a new tab. from the Microsoft Store.

Teleprompter hardware: Teleprompters help you present to the camera without needing to learn your script. When I need more screen space and the durability of an all-metal build, I like the Glide Gear TMP100Opens in a new tab. beam-splitter teleprompter. It works with my mirrorless cameras and uses an iPad or tablet to run the teleprompter software.

Tosh Lubek runs an audio and video production business in the UK and has been using the Canon EOS R since it was released in the Autumn of 2018 and the Canon EOS R6 in 2020. He has used both cameras to shoot TV commercials broadcast on Sky TV, promotional business videos, videos of events and functions, and YouTube creator content. He has also won several international awards for his advertising and promotional work. You can meet him by visiting his “video booth” at HashTag Business Events across the country.

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