Birding: Nikon 80-400VR vs E-520+70-300 vs 450D+400mm

Discussion in 'Nikon' started by munim, Jan 31, 2009.

  1. I'm new here.
    Got my D90 the week it was available in Malaysia. Now I'm using the kit lens and 50mm f/1.8.
    I'm interested in bird photography, the low-cost way. I know "real" bird photographers use the big 400mm or higher primes, and my budget is limited to below $2000.
    I'm about to get the 80-400 VR but before taking the jump, I'd like a second (or third ...) opinion on this lens. So there's 5 combinations:
    • 80-400 VR. From what I read, it's slow, not recommended with TC and soft at max focal length.
    • 70-300 VR for now, and possibly upgrade to an AFS version later, or never.
    • 300mm f/4 with TC 1.4 (420mm x 1.5 = 630mm FF equivalent)

    For following options, I'm thinking of possibly getting a different camera brand, just for bird photos.
    • Olympus E-520 specifically for tele with the Zuiko 70-300. The lens is supposed to be slow but it be a 600mm FF equivalent at the long end.
    • Canon 450D with the 400mm f/5.6 L prime, effectively 400*1.6 = 640mm FF. I've read that it's a very fast lens, sharper and cheaper than the 80-400vr.
    • A long shot: Canon 450D with the 400mm. It's got 15 megapixels so it would be easier to crop, but I've also read that the Canon 50D has too many megapixels resulting in soft images at apertures f/8 or smaller. So this combo will work only at f/5.6!

    I'm leaving out third party options due to QC problems. Thanks in advance for your inputs.
  2. jmt


    I'm reasonably happy with the 300mm f/4 + TC1.4
    Autofocus is fast (for the D40 I have) and almost always spot on, when the lighting is sufficient.
    It will sometimes hunt, and a good way against that is to use the focus range limit (3m to infinity). When there is little light, I sometimes pre-focus manually and let the AF do the rest.

    Just don't expect to hand hold it :)
  3. I shoot with the AF-S 300 f/4, Kenko TC 1.5x or TC17eII depending on the light condition. That is the best choice.
    The 80-400 is not AF-S and believe me, when you shoot birds you need a fast AF.
    Your Olympus option. I thought about it too but my D300 has better noise control and lets me use up to ISO 1600. That must be the same with your D90. My friend shoots with an Olympus camera and and the noise is too much.
  4. ShunCheung

    ShunCheung Administrator

    Don't waste your money on another body. Doing so will only leave you less money for the lens and a lot of inconvenience with multiple brands.

    If you are really into bird photography and your budget is limited to $2000, I would find a Nikon 500mm/f4 P lens in good condition. However, you'll also need a good tripod and ballhead, which you'll need anyway. That is a manual-focus lens but it has a built-in CPU so that you will have metering with the D90. Another option would be the 300mm/f4 AF-S with the TC-14E as Jan-michel points out.
  5. I tried some bird photography for the first time just yesterday. I was using a D2x and 80-400 VR. I had the D2x set to its "High Speed Crop" mode, which narrows from 1.5x to 2x and 6.8MP.
    The 80-400 VR is not known for fast focusing, but in my case I was set up waiting for birds to stop on a fence so any focus adjustments were minimal and fast.
    I also own the 70-300 VR, but using a lens with a tripod collar is much nicer if you're going ot sit in one place with a tripod.
  6. The Nikon 500mm/f4 P lens that Shun recommends is a good option but it doesn't work for me. 2 reasons:
    1- My 300 with TC17eII crops all the way to 510 mm. At that angle of view when you shoot small birds some times it becomes difficult to find the birds. That is good about zooms. By the time you find the subject you will need your lens to focus in a flash, otherwise must probably the bird will be gone or the pose that you wanted could be gone too.
    2- I tried shooting my 300 on manual mode but I am too slow. I really need AF. If your are fast enough to be able to shoot shoot manual, it could be good. It is easier with big and slow birds.
  7. ShunCheung

    ShunCheung Administrator

    The 500mm/f4 P was THE Nikon wildlife lens around 1990. I used one for 6 years with good results but eventually upgraded to the AF-S version. I certainly would get an AF-S if the budget were 2 to 3 times larger. But people use manual focus for decades, so that is a compromise I would suggest. That is not a lens for birds in flight.
    Otherwise, I don't see any other way to give you 500mm, f4 and good optical quality, plus the possibility to add a 1.4x TC. You will eventually need all of those (plus AF-S) for serious bird photography.
  8. Shun... that is correct! That is what I meant that it doesn't work for me. I know people used it for decades and wildlife photographers got great pictures with manual lenses. The problem is I am not a good photographer. I need all the help I can get. So any other person with a handicap like mine might not be able to get great results either. It is a shame because optically is a great lens. i found one for around 2,000 USD and that's why I was using my 300 manually to see if I should buy it but it was too difficult for me!
  9. "The problem is I am not a good photographer. I need all the help I can get."
    OK, I laughed out loud on this one. You crack me up, Rene'!
  10. "Olympus E-520 specifically for tele with the Zuiko 70-300. ... 600mm"
    The 600mm 'effect' is achieved through a small sensor - you possbily will not be happy with the results.
  11. While the 300 f/4 with a 1.4X TC is a pretty good combination, it won't beat the P Nikkor 500 f/4 for outright image quality for birding photos. I use the focus verification arrows in my F4 and F5 for focussing on stationary subjects with the 500. The 300 and TC14E on the F5 will work fairly well on moving "targets". I don't know how it would do on the D90.
  12. "The problem is I am not a good photographer. I need all the help I can get."
    yes many people think it, not many say it :), actually the right phrasing is


    it's like this: The right way is to find a good spot to sit in, in a blind/shade or just sitting, with a tripod and a long lens and get intimate closeup shots of birds walking and feeding and landing or taking off, and them getting to you as opposed to you approaching them. You can approach to within 50ft maybe but they will come to within 20ft if you are patient.

    Some birds you can crouch upon:

    There is nothing like morning light:

    and then there is luck (when they feel safe):

    or timing luck (when they are busy):

    So i would have to both agree and disagree with Shun's 500mm f/4 MANUAL FOCUS recommendation:
    1) IF you want to do it right, get that lens, sit still.. often
    2) most people (wink wink) are impatient and have only minutes to spend, so they would even find the use of a tripod inconvenient.. and they would want to take all bird pictures with that lens.. so that wouldn't work

    So i agree the 500mm f/4 P is a great lens to use but you have to do it right and sit still and hve opportunities come to you, birds in flight will be frustrating blurs at first but possibly with practice something good can happen now and then, but many birds are not still so you only get a second or two, and for those shots you will be missing them all with manual focus.... UNTIL you get good with Manual focusing and then you can catch potentially what others can't.

    By the way the pictures above are with a rented 300mm f/4 in the last week. It's a good lens, but i do miss shots which i am unhappy about afterwords, especially birds in flight, a 300mm f/2.8 would have gotten those shots, but at $1000 it's a good start, and can yield great results. Keep that tripod low.
  13. From the OP's post, I am not certain if he is refering to the current 300/4 AF-S or the older 300/4 AF IF-ED - I own both in terms of optical quality, they are hard to tell apart. The older non-AFS will of course not work with the current Nikon TCs - but reasonably well with third party converters. AF speed of the 300 AF-S is naturally faster, though a lot can be gained by using the better focus limiter on the older lens.
    Like Rene', I use the 300/4 AF-S with either a TC-14E or a TC-17EII - works for me BUT the AF slows down in anything but good light - especially with the 1.7x the lens then is about as slow to focus as the 80-400 is under normal light conditions. I also have the 80-400 VR, it complements the 300/4 AFS/TC combos nicely - especially for stationary objects when the VR can be used with good effect. I never used a TC behind the 80-400 (only non-Nikon ones would work) - don't expect quality and at f/8, AF won't work most of the time.
    Just don't expect to hand hold it :)
    LOL, I hand-hold either setup most of the time - a tripod or even monopod gets in my way most of the time.
    I would love to have something like Canon's 400/5.6L lens for my Nikons; I even went to a store and handled the lens on a 40D - maybe I could get used to the ergonomics and idiosyncracies of a Canon body...
  14. Maybe i didn't answer the original post as i wanted to....................
    Get the 300mm f/4 and accept getting some birds, sometimes (because you're just walking around), some birds-in-flight shots too, or get the 500mm f/4 P manual focus and do it right, sit still and see SO MUCH MORE
    or sit still with a 300mm once you find the right place to sit in and do it right with only 1/2 the magnification a 500mm f/4 could do, which could also take a 1.4X converter making it 700mm, ooooh. But then your tripod head better be good, and the only right way is a $500 Wimberley head, plus there is a learning curve, and any vibration at all will be magnified, supertelephotos are tricky like that.
    MORNINGS MORNING MORNINGS...... absolutely MORNINGS... take pictures when the sun first shines on the birds, they are most active in the mornings, most patient with you, and give most opportunities that don't happen later in the day.
  15. Hmmm my birds are big birds, maybe Raden was referring to little tree birds, good luck with that, forget manual focus for birds like this:
    This is a 16% crop with a 300mm (on D300, so 1.5X magnifier), noisy too [i need to Noise Ninja it], and that's a typical close distance i was from the bird... not close enough. 300mm is soooo not enough for tiny birds
    but if they respond to food....... well then you still need Autofocus because they won't be staying long.. unless someone else with you is throwing food and you are ready with both hands and experience...
    There are all kinds of birds and the saying is "500mm minimum for birds", well that's quite conservative, there are "bird shots" and "real bird shots" and for the good stuff you want to use all the tricks you can from 500mm + 1.4X to flash extender and multiple flashes and patience and tripod and autofocus and PATIENCE AND TECHNIQUE :)
  16. I thought about getting a Canon body just for supertelephotos... owning 40D and renting a 500mm f/4 + 1.4X, because i do enjoy my Nikon gear for everything else, and I don't take bird photos often [i rented 500mm f/4 Canon in July for 2 days, 300mm f/2.8 Canon for a week, and i didn't take any 300mm+ shots since July until now, but with the mating and baby bird season in Feb-April in Arizona, i want to buy a 300mm f/4 and spending MANY mornings shooting, as opposed to my July thoughts of renting an expensive lens for 1-2 weeks a year.... actually maybe owning 300mm f/4 and renting a 500mm f/4 on a Canon :) once a year for a week, and having 2 tripods setup, that would be great, sitting still for hours with 2 tripods :), i have seen it done in pictures]
    (but the more i do it, and the better results i get, the more i want to keep doing it :) )
    so I thought of buying a 40D Canon body which is only 10mpix, but if you're not cropping because the picture is already there [i don't want to make this my pictures post but you can use Search on my website and "Photo Lenses" tab to see my pictures at the zoo with Canon lenses] then it's ok
    but what i want to say is that lens+body are not the end, flash is important at times too. Canon body + Canon 400mm f/5.6 [which i believe is not produced anymore, you would have to find it used] sounds good, but it's not much better than your Nikon D90 + 300mm f/4, and Canon bodies are quite different too from Nikon, if you are used to your D90 and like it, you might not enjoy Canon 40D perhaps.
  17. Lot's of excellent information here so far! Concerning the 80-400VR, it is a financial compromise but it scan be worth it as discussed here...
    I have had success hand holding the 80-400 on a D300 from a boat...
  18. The AF on the 80-400 is slower than an AF-S lens. But, the lens has a focus limiting switch that allows you to limit the focus to 13 feet or farther, or closer than 13 feet which limits the travel of the screw drive. Also, if you pre-focus the lens near where you expect the subject to be, the lens responds very quickly to the small adjustment it has to make. That worked very well for the eagle shot above. I couldn't agree more with Robert Brody about photographing birds. It takes patience, work, practice and luck. For me, getting the shot is just a part of the entire experience of being out there in nature looking for the shot. You need to learn as much as you can about your subjects, their habits and when they feed and move. Then you need to be there, quietly unobtrusive, when they are. Learning to handhold a long lens will give you tremendous flexibility and allow you to get shots that would otherwise be impossible. Like from a kayak as this shot of a heron in the early morning...
  19. The 80-400 can also work well for smaller birds, but as Robert so correctly says, it's best to be quiet, patient and get close like this shot from about 16 feet while quietly sitting on the deck of my cabin waiting for birds to feed in a pin cherry tree...
  20. And finally, if you learn how to handhold the lens it's AF is fast enough to catch other birds in flight, like this nice blue one over San Francisco bay...
  21. A lot of good comments here. I think bird photography takes patience. It is not a point & shoot thing. It is like hunting in some ways. Learn the bird’s behavior by observation. Plan your photo positions to maximize opportunities. Plan your shots based on lighting conditions and the camera/lens setup that you have. Even with all this, there is a certain amount of luck involved.
    I don't think there is any perfect birding setup. Recently I have used a D200 for the crop sensor. I couple that with a Nikon 300 f/4 or with a Sigma 150-500 OS. In neither case do I hand hold. A sturdy tripod with a head that locks tight yet allows fast readjustments is important. Mirror up shooting improves your chances at long focal lengths, but the tradeoff is less spontaneity. I recently started using a Tamron MC4 1.4x teleconverter and have had good results. Slow lenses combined with teleconverters means manual focus. This increases the difficulty, but not that much.
    Richard Armstrong - Great shots!
    Here is one I took in the backyard.
  22. One option I'm missing in the above answers is the Sigma 50-500 HSM. Aperturewise it is not very fast but autofocus is probably quite good with HSM. I don't own this lens but I think you might consider it.
  23. Robert Body has some good photos too.
  24. Also, Raden, before you decide for or against the 80-400 VR, I would suggest that you read Thom Hogan's very balanced review here...
    and, have a great time learning how to shoot photos of birds! There is so much interesting stuff out there! You will have a blast!
  25. Thank you, Doug! Your backyard bird shot has a tack sharp eye, which is great and is an important goal when getting good shots of birds. As with anything that we all do, doing it well requires study, patience, practice and the good fortune to actually see the birds when and where we'd like. You can't beat good equipment...I'm pining for the Nikkor 500 mm f4 VR and a 1.4 TC. But, for that we're talking 8 grand plus, so it'll have to wait for awhile:)
  26. I posted the question at 1 am before I went to sleep and voila!
    25 responses by 8 am.. thanks all.
    What I can conclude so far:
    • Skip the other brands. ;)
    • The 80-400vr can give excellent pictures. I was worried the pictures get soft at max zoom.
    • Some suggested the manual 500 f/4 but I don't think I can find it used in Malaysia. Plus no idea on the $$.
    • Don't eliminate the 300 mm + TC option yet
    • I need a good tripod & head for non VR lenses. Haven't researched enough into this subject.
    • Technique & patience not matter what lens used
  27. Raden, I haven't found the 80-400 to be soft at all. All of my posted shots here were at 400mm. You can even use it, handheld for yesterday:)...
  28. I have the Olympus equipment you're mentioning. I love it for the things I do with it but please allow me simply to skip ahead and say it's unsuitable for bird photography.
    I'd also venture to say that any teleconverter, any brand, will make it possible to get some lucky shots but they'll be just that--lucky ones. I guess a good rule of thumb is that a teleconverter, any teleconverter, will double your opportunities but halve your success rate and, potentially, escalate your frustration level through the roof.
    Given that bird photography already has a very high "luck" quotient you'll have to be the one to decide what your tolerance level is.
    If you're blessed with an abundance of opportunities for bird photography in your immediate area--that's one thing. If you're anticipating travel and all that expense it's another altogether.
  29. I have wanted to do some bird photography for many years. I usually stroll through the woods and listen / look for birds. I finally purchased a used Nikkor 500mm f4 P and have a solid tripod and good ballhead. Most of the birds I see are Warblers, finches and wrens. Small and quick. I suggest you find a place that has the birds you want to get images of and study where and when they are there. If you can make a blind and have patience then a shorter lens will work. IMHO Shun nailed it. I am very happy with some of my results and am using FX. I suggest you budget enough to get a good tripod and head. If you are going to carry it far lighter is better, at least for me. I usually carry all this about 2 miles Sat. and or Sundays.
  30. Jacob is right - the C-AF on Olympus cameras is no match for any bird in flight.
  31. Eric... Uhmm! What is so funny about that?
    It is true! C'mon! I see what other people can do and I KNOW what I can do. I've been shooting since 1982 but I was more like a snap-shooter. Since 2006 with a DSLR I became more technical and artistically inspired so I'm trying to learn more. I guess I'm just older and not as crazy so photography suits me! :)
    Robert.... Same with you! :)
    " yes many people think it, not many say it :), actually the right phrasing is

    It is true that I am not always patient but I am talking about the ability to coordinate your eyes, hands in fractions of seconds to be able to locate a bird, focus the lens and shoot. 90% of the time you need more than 1 shot to get something a bit decent. It is not impossible. If I do it long enough in a few years I'll be able to do it better but maybe by then my eyes won't be as good and then I'll have another problem to deal with.
    Basically if you know what you are doing, you don't even need a 300 mm lens. here is an example, PLEASE take a look. It was shot with a 150 mm Sigma lens and this guy has many pictures like it:
    He uses like 5 flash heads, IR control to shoot the camera, well, he doesn't even have to be there.
    The truth is, and that is what i really meant, for a person like MYSELF, and I really mean MYSELF, it is easy to shoot with an AFS 300 + TC and CROP a lot than using a 500 mm lens manually! Maybe I am the only one but maybe there a few others like me!
  32. OK - I have this set up...
    • 300mm f/4 with TC 1.4 (420mm x 1.5 = 630mm FF equivalent)
    It's great. Works well for BIFs & other stuff like larger birds or birds close.
    I have a friend who shoots with
    • 70-300 VR for now, and possibly upgrade to an AFS version later, or never.
    With the D300 & gets excellent shots of BIFs. He's really excellent at it.
    I also like Shun's idea of the 500mm P - but it is a MF lens. But for larger birds it will do well for you.
    I would stay away from the 80-400VR as it's slow to focus .....
    Good luck once you start Birding you'll get hooked & you'll never have enough reach. ;-)
    Lil :)
  33. 70-300 VR for now, and possibly upgrade to an AFS version later, or never.
    The 70-300 VR is AF-S so no worries about upgrading. The 70-300 VR AF-S is small and it's possible to handhold shots. I would use a tripod for all the rest.
    Wow, some fantastic bird shots! I don't have any as nice as those. Here's a heron at 200mm with the 18-200 and heavily cropped.
  34. Avoid the E-520 i was thinking of a similar set up myself (2x crop factor) but i also have a D200. I was shocked at the image quality difference, ISO was poor. It made me respect my nikon more. IMHO Im not saying the E-520 is a bad camera im just saying that for bird photography this camera will not not give you the quality of detail you may want for bird images.
    Im just trying to get into bird photography myself and so far im finding it to be an expensive challenging subject. Patience, good light, sturdy tripod, cable release 500mm minimum lens, a hide and a lot of luck seem to be important.
    Have you looked Sigma lenses for your D90? Have a look at the 50-500mm f/4 which is in your budget and maybe a good start. Or if you could stretch that bit further, the sigma 300mm f/2.8 or 120-300 f2.8, both would pair well with either a 1.4 or 2.0x tc.
    Another thing i have come to realise is that you will struggle to fill the frame with small birds let alone catch them. So try to include the natural surrounding of the birds also which often makes a more interesting picture.
    One thing i have learnt is that make sure you buy the one you really want, dont just settle for something that might be ok. Save up and get the one you want.
    This is one of the more rewarding types of photography as it is a diffclut subject, it is very addictive, ive found myself hiding in holly trees, crawling through heather and coming home without a single shot, frustrating.
    Ive included a shot of a red grouse i took with a 50-500mm sigma on a d200 body. I spent 5 hours creeping up on these birds on a very windy day. They see you alot sooner than you see them.
  35. I like this part:
    "a diffclut subject, it is very addictive, ive found myself hiding in holly trees, crawling through heather and coming home without a single shot, frustrating." ... "spent 5 hours creeping up on these birds"
    A handful of my work colleagues are into fishing and can't understand what's so great about photography. I always get invited to tag along on their fishing trips (on hired boats) but have never taken the bait so far. On sea trips, there's nothing to see and shoot. I can shoot the fish they land, but that's not interesting. Maybe I'll take the D90 with whatever lens I'm getting on their next river fishing trip.
    • 70-300 VR for now, and possibly upgrade to an AFS version later, or never.
    I meant upgrade to 80-400 VR replacement with AFS if it ever comes out.
  36. "On sea trips, there's nothing to see and shoot" ... Sure there is! You colleagues, especially when the have 'fish on'!
  37. With 2000$ , you should be able to find a used Sigma 500 f4.5 AFS. Brilliant for birding . check Jemini Joseph pics with that one .
  38. Hi,
    The 80-400 VR seems to be very good as you can read from Ken Rockwell's review.
    I own a 70-300 VR. It's cheap and funny.
    Here's a sample.[​IMG]
  39. Following Rakesh's recommendation, I've checked out the prices for Sigma just for kicks. Here's where I would buy new (USD 4000)
    Rather hard to find used teles here.
  40. Had the Nikon 80-400mm for one day. I returned it the next day for the Nikon 300mm F4. Great results with the 1.4 extender. Coming over from Canon, I expected the 80-400 to be compatible with the Canon 100-400mm. Definitely not the case. For me, the focus speed on the 80-400mm was just unexceptable. Although, others have been happy with it ... Ray.
  41. I own the 70-300 VR is a very good lens for the money and just requires that you move just a bit closer..or crop your photos..which should not be a problem with the d90 at 12 mp's. I can't imagine having to manually focus on a moving object adjust a tripod to follow that bird and get this all in focus..I agree with Rene..why make it that hard. Highly recommend getting AF and start out with slow movers.
  42. Example of picture with 70-300vr lens ..cropped but still acceptable.Shot from a not as clear as it might have been on tripod.

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