Current best birding lens options

Discussion in 'Canon EOS' started by dave_redmann, Jul 31, 2013.

  1. The 55-250mm IS in current use is not really long enough for many birding shots. With a budget, of, say, $300, and willing to buy used, what is the best choice? Options appear to include the old Sigma 170-500mm, the old Tamron 200-400mm, the old Sigma 135-400mm, what else? Or would the 55-250's IS for handheld shots plus some cropping, mean that it remains the best choice? Or for that matter, is the Tamron at 400mm and cropped effectively sharper than the Sigma at 500mm? By the way, I think decent auto-focus performance is a must.
    Yes, I know there are some old Sigma 400mm f/5.6's out there, but many of them seem to have issues working with more modern bodies.
  2. Used is going to be the way to go at that price.
    I don't know the Sigma 500mm lens in particular, but their zooms and my fisheye from them are very good lenses. They only show weakness vs. the Canon EF L-series, like the incredible 500mm and 600mm lenses that'll cost you an arm and a leg. Having 500mm available is way better than 400mm. The lens would have to be really bad to offset the advantage more pixel on you little subjects. Generally, focal length trumps cropping.
    You don't say which body you're using, so I'll assume a crop sensor that will only AF down to f/5.6. For birding, 400mm is really about the minimum. Some here will pooh-pooh that and say, just get closer, but the reach is always useful. Even at 15-feet I'll use 1,000mm in many situations to fill the frame of my full-frame.
    A 400/f5.6 is a wonderful bird in flight lens, just finding one in your price range is going to be really tough. You should add in a 1.4x TC to add even more focal length, but you may lose AF if you lens is already f/5.6.
  3. If you could stretch your budget a bit, the Tamron SP 70-300 Di VC USD (Model A005) is quite a good lens for the price. You may find this in your price range, used. Actually, the current price at Amazon is $449, and Tamron has a $100 mail-in rebate, so the final price to you is $349. That lens is a fantastic buy (if not a steal!) at that price, and it's probably not worth looking at other, older lenses in the same range.
    I have the Canon 100-400L, and even that is not enough for many bird photos, even with a 7D. The fact is, unless all your birds are large and used to people, 400mm is just a starting point
  4. William Michael

    William Michael Moderator Staff Member

    I'd save up a bit more money for a used EF 400F/5.6L and use the 250mm of the lens you have if and when you are close enough.
  5. pge


    I'd save up a bit more money for a used EF 400F/5.6L​
    But this is 4x the OPs stated budget!
  6. I fully concur with William W's advice. Save up your money until you have enough for the 400 5.6L. I'm not at all familiar with the other lenses you have mentioned, but the 400 is a perfect lens for getting serious about bird photography. It doesn't have IS but autofocus is excellent, assuming your camera is up to it. My guess is that the others you have mentioned don't begin to get you where you want to be.
  7. I have used both Sigmas, the 135-400mm and 170-500mm, mostly for kids sports photos. Both of these lenses need to be re-chipped by Sigma to work with modern DSLRs. When I used these lenses about 5 years ago, Sigma was still offering this service free of charge, and they had a fairly quick turnaround time. I don't know if that's still true, but unless it's coming from an exclusive film user, I suppose any lens coming to the market now would have been re-chipped long ago. So this might be less of an issue today.
    Image quality wise these Sigma zoom lenses are a long shot above most other budget options like cheap mirror lenses, old T-mount lenses, other el-cheapo teles, or using a junk bin teleconverter with your shorter lenses. I've tried all of these options at one stage or another, and while none of the other options were satisfactory, I was fairly happy with the results from the Sigma lenses - until I chanced upon a deal for a 100-400L for $900. It's my least used lens because I don't need a long tele very often, but after seeing its results, I could never go back to anything else!
  8. The cheapest way for you to get the best results is a sigma fixed 400 or 500mm lens that is listed on the bay as film only not working on digital......well what good is that you say
    The err that is thrown up happens when the camera tries to change the F stop ..this is unavoidable with a zoom with out a constant aperture as F stop can change as you zoom and throw an err but with the fixed focal length all you do is set to AV set the F stop wide open the you have no problems
    The sigma i had was the 400 mm APO F5.6 it was slightly sharper than my friend's canon 100-400 F5.6l when both was wide open.. being restricted to only F5.6 is no problems as you are almost always wide open when hand holding to keep a fast shutter speed to prevent shake
    One is listed on UK feebay now for £89 GBP
    If you are looking at sigma 500mm lenses some models are very good some are not so need to google them
  9. William Michael

    William Michael Moderator Staff Member

    But this is 4x the OPs stated budget!​
    Maybe closer x3 times if one hangs out for a good deal on a second hand 400/5.6. And yes that is what I would do. Implied in my answer is I would use the EF-S 55 to 250 IS and get closer and or crop until I had enough money.
    I see it as wasting money, buying any of those other lenses listed in the OP. I would go without other luxuries - even my espresso each morning - to save the extra $600 or $700 necessary.
    • With a budget, of, say, $300, and willing to buy used,
    • By the way, I think decent auto-focus performance is a must

    You can have one of these, but not, I think, both, even used.
    With manual focus, there are a number of older, long lenses in your price range, but anything that is going to have autofocus good enough for birds and 400mm* and up is likely to be at least 2X your price
    *300mm is not much longer than 250mm, when it comes to it - at the long end, you need to go up a fair bit in focal length to make a significant difference.
  10. Thank you all for your input. It's given me some valuable info and perspective (especially Frank M.--thanks!). The $300 figure is in large part a qualitative 'how much would it be worth to have ...' consideration, and is not likely to change much; a $1000 lens for birding is simply a non-starter. Also, I'm looking for someone else, who is currently using a DRXT / 350D. He has a fair bit of trouble focusing it manually (small viewfinder, no split prism or other aid, aging eyes--a far cry from his old AE-1 and 50mm f/1.8), so any lens (or lens-and-teleconverter combo) that would not reliably auto-focus on a DRXT / 350D is likewise a non-starter.
    I actually have the Tamron SP 70-300mm USD (for another mount); but 300 is not enough extra reach over the 55-250, and although I find the Tamron overall a good performer, 300 is its worst focal length.
    From various comments I'm leaning toward the Sigma 170-500mm. I suppose if the Tamron 200-400mm or the Sigma 135-400mm were much better at the long end, then one of these shorter lenses plus a tighter crop might actually yield better image quality. But that does not sound like the case here.
    Re the various old Sigma 400mm f/5.6's: some reports say errors only occur when stopping down (or stopping down to f/8 or smaller); other reports list other problems. But when light permits, especially given the hit-and-miss nature of auto-focus into something like tree branches, in search of a bird, the ability to have the camera focus at f/5.6 but take at f/11 (i.e., twice as much depth of field / margin of error for focusing) is a large advantage to do without.
    So I think I'm still looking at the three lenses originally mentioned, unless somebody can identify another lens reaching at least 400mm, that will auto-focus on a DRXT / 350D, and that is reasonably available for $300 or so. I guess I should study the Sigma 400mm f/5.6 situation more closely, but there are so many reports of varying issues with these lenses that I'm a bit hesitant.
    Thanks all!
  11. As it happens, when I owned the Sigma 135-400mm and 170-500mm, I was actually using a Rebel XT (350D), although I have upgraded to a T1i since. I don't recall any AF problems with those lenses and the XT. It seems like KEH has good prices on the lenses you are considering right now - $205 and $265, respectively. I bet if you don't like them, you can sell then for at least that on eBay!
  12. William Michael

    William Michael Moderator Staff Member

    I haven't used the Sigma lens that is your main contender at the moment, but I have used the Tamron 200 to 400 - and - as much as one can tell by others' comments, if I were to make a choice I would go with the Sigma 170 to 500 based on Frank's comments and he having used the lens - I was not all that impressed with the Tamron, even considering "value for money" and me noting that the budget is inflexible. Also Frank makes a good point about reselling the lens, at probably little, if any loss, if your friend is not satisfied - and - it will also reach another 100mm, to 500mm.

    On the topic of re-chipping any old Sigma Lens (a Prime or the Zoom) - I came by a couple of old Sigma Primes last year (which were still "Film Only") and Sigma wouldn't re-chip them for me, even though one lens I know for sure could have been re-chipped at an earlier time - so my advice there is to know either that the lens is already re-chipped or that you can get it done (and if there is a cost).

    Maybe my "no re-chipping" experience was simply due to my location - I assume you are in the USA: Sigma is bigger there, than here.
  13. On the subject of rechipping i rang Sigma UK about rechipping my 400 and they had no chips left and this was maybe at lest 4 years ago, i got the impression that they had no chips left for any lens.. i cannot remember why i sold it, it definitely was not because of the F5.6 only bit or its performance like i say it had an edge on my mates 100-400L
    in fact i am tempted to pull the trigger on the feebay one at £89
  14. You may wish to rent some of your potential candidates before committing to a purchase plan.
  15. Get closer to the birds. Use some of your budget for a camouflage tent / hide.
  16. Here's another option for you...
    Depending on what camera you are currently using, it may make more financial sense to upgrade the camera body to one with a higher pixel count instead of looking for a longer lens. A modestly priced 550D gives you a whopping 18 megapixels. Compared to the 8MP of the 350D that's a big jump in resolution and will allow you to crop away a lot of the image. That will give you the same end result as using a much longer lens but without the weight and bulk of a big lens. In addition, you will also reap the benefits of a more modern AF system etc.
  17. I think the question as posted is more related to a price than quality. I have this same problem. I use a 7 D. I bought the latter when it first came on the market and it has been a success to me. I have been limited in bird photography with either a Canon 70-300 mm 4.5-5.6 IS USM etc and a teleconverter 1.5 . Or a Canon 70-200 2.8 L IS USM with the same teleconverter. Neither one is enough. Higher pixel number and crop is not the answer in my opinion. Except for Sigma 10-20 Wide Angle lens, I have never owned any other Sigma lens but I will look into the recommendation's given. As of right now I have the money to buy the Canon 100-400 4.5-5.6 L IS lens which Amazon is asking about $1500. Any opinions? I hesitate to go to anything but a zoom lens, as I would use this lens for taking pictures from ship to shore etc.
  18. The EF 100-400mm IS has been around a long time now, so its IS is fairly early generation. I just got one a while back, fearing that any replacement would be much more costly, and I have not regretted the step at all.
    Even 400mm is not enough to reach really far out, however. You need to perfect your stalking techniques (watch out for the crows, they will try to get a restraining order) or operate from a hide. ;)

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