How long should a lens be for birding?

Discussion in 'Canon EOS' started by mark_stephan|2, Apr 5, 2017.

  1. Bought a 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 L last year and didn't use it much because winter set it shortly after buying it. For those of you who do bird photography what do you consider the minimum focal length needed for the job? Since buying the lens I purchased a heavy ball head, tripod and a gimbal that attaches to the ball head. During the winter months when I wasn't to active I purchased the 1.4 and 2.0x Canon tele extenders. Didn't know at the time that I need a f/8 capable body to use them. They do work with my ancient 1Ds but I want the extra reach of 1.6. My dSLR's include the 1Ds, 6D and 70D.
  2. Sandy Vongries

    Sandy Vongries Administrator Staff Member

    Depends on how close you can get. I first got a used 80-400 and that was pretty good off the same setup of tripod, ball head, monopod & gimbal that you have. The big jump was when I found a used 600 / 5.6. If the light is good enough I can even use an extender. A huge improvement, but a very Large lens -- pretty much birds & wildlife only. Fine results.
  3. 400mm seems to be about the minimum. Some people use the 300mm + extenders. Real birders are in the 500mm plus camp.
  4. Good information. If I'm successful at birding with my current gear I'll start looking for a longer lens such as the Sigma 150-600 or even an older 500mm lens.
  5. I'm assuming what was actually meant was "many people who are seriously interested in bird photography." The glass that most of the "real birders" I know carry is in the form of spotting scopes, not cameras. "Real birders" who get interested in photography tend to get the equipment that suits their style of birding; "real photographers" who get interested in birding tend to adopt a style of birding that suits their equipment; and "real bird photographers" tend to have a lot of equipment to cover a wide range of field conditions.
    john_sink likes this.
  6. SCL


    It depends mostly on how close you shoot. If you look at Doug Herr's magnificent works, you'll often note that he stalks his prey in marshes and woods and manages quite well with gear which isn't overwhelming. OTOH, if you're shooting primarily near feeding or nesting locations, 200-400mm has worked fine for me. I tried the longer lenses and a gimbal, but it just didn't work for the birds I was shooting...too cumbersome. I found that a monopod and 400, and lots of patience, usually did the trick pretty well.
  7. Doug had or used to have a 280mm Telyt and a 400mm Telyt and he might have other lenses now. Perhaps he will tell us...

    Birding = to be a birder to me, but maybe I'm wrong. I guess Mark will have to clarify whether he is a birder as well as a bird photographer, but it sounds to me as though he wants be serious about it. I would have thought that, in general, a "serious bird photographer" is likely to be a "birder" to most of us, lexicological nomenclature notwithstanding. But, of course, a birder does not have to even own a camera.
  8. Sandy Vongries

    Sandy Vongries Administrator Staff Member

    Don't know just what a "birder' is -- have been interested for many decades, lots of books, binoculars in two rooms and one car. Cameras always handy. We put out several kinds of foods, and much enjoy our guests. On occasion, I will go to one of several spots I have found to take photos of Eagles, cranes or water birds, but stalking them isn't my thing. Though I cheerfully photograph birds on vacation trips, no excursion on a trip nor any trip itself specifically targets birds. Suspect it comes in varying shades of intensity -- to each his or her own way to enjoy "birding".
  9. 400mm is the minimum, I still use the old original 100-400
    still works but I wish I had a 500mm f/4 or maybe one the newer 150-600 zooms

  10. Ignore all that "real birder" crap and take pictures of birds.

    I agree that 400mm is the starting point for a bird photography lens. (People sometimes try to use spotting scope and it's always a relative disaster). I assume that you're talking about the Series I 100-400mm. I think that's a great place to start, because it's available at fully depreciated prices and you'll be able to get your money back out, if you decide to move up to a Series II, or bigger artillery. An f/8 enabled body. AF is extremely important in bird photography with digital bodies. Manually focus at super-tele lengths is just not possible for bird-in-flight images.

    Ditch the tripod for your 100-400mm. I hand-hold my 500mm. Generally, you want shutter speeds in the 1/800 to 1/3200-sec range, which means ISO 800 in full sun and ISO 1600 when overcast and a base shutter speed of f/8. For white birds, move the SS down to 1/2000-sec. The IS of your lens will allow SS below 1/1000-sec. for perched birds and slow fliers, like great blue heron. Take lots of images. I'm not suggesting spray and pray, but get many shots with multiple head angles, wing angles, eye-lights, etc., etc. Use the maximum fps of you bodies. Don't process them all, but pick the very best and convert those to JPEG and fully process. For instance, this evening, I'll probably take 500 to 1000 images and process 10 to 20 and keep 5.

    Also, remember that sharpness trumps focal length. If you're looking at a new lens in the future and you're tempted by a 150-600mm, compare the sharpness with the 100-400mm Series II. The Canon image, cropped to equal the other at 600mm will be sharper. When you move up in focal length, be certain that the sharpness of the new lens is at least equal to what you already have.

    The following image was handheld with a bare 70-200mm lens on a full-frame body, taken from a boat. When the bird is large and slow and you're close, then focal length is not an issue:

    [​IMG]Great Egret Takes Off by David Stephens, on Flickr
  11. To answer the original question: "almost infinite". - I met birders in film days who used 1000mm and asume they did because it was portable and affordable and not because 2000mm would have been too long.
    Read reviews, peep pixels, don't just stack teleconverters, do test shots to figure out if you benefit at all from their usage.

    I am no birder at all; I once tried to shoot a budgie and on the 3rd 38th frame I noticed that I hadn't loaded properly. I scooped up unspectacular 300, 400 & 1000mm lenses back in film days even had teleconverters behind my long zooms but when I did tests on my 1st 6MP crop SLR on a sturdy tripod: All that stuff did not impress.
    Your 100 - 400mm seems somewhat tempting to me too, but I am not sure if a 2x converter on a modern crop body might not be too much for that lens (resolution wise).
  12. I use a 100-400 Canon lens and an extremely light weight carbon fiber monopod. The latter can be put to use only when needed ... such as waiting for wings to spread or a head to rise and turn. Without the monopod the lens can become heavy and there's a tendency to let it drop ... which, invariably, leads to a missed shot. I agree with others here that 400mm is a minimum.
  13. Norman 202

    Norman 202 i am the light

    is this a euphemism for is my pnis big enough?
  14. Sandy Vongries

    Sandy Vongries Administrator Staff Member

    I'm told it isn't the size, but how you use the instrument, though size can be helpful.when it comes to reach..
  15. I can speak directly about the 100-400mm Series I and II with Canon's best converters, the EF 1.4x and 2.0x TC-III. With a really sharp lens, putting even the sharpest TC between the lens and body will cause the image to deteriorate. I haven't done it with my 100-400/S-II, but I did it with my 500/f4/S-II. By "it", I mean that I shot a test subject with the bare lens, then with the 1.x TC-III and then the 2.0x TC-III. When I cropped the bare lens to the same field of view as the with the extenders, the bare lens was sharper than either, but I could only see it when viewing at around 200%.

    It is absolutely true that adding any extender to a high quality lens, with great image quality, will cause a deterioration vs. taking simply taking the bare lens' image and cropping to the same field of view, BUT, with bird, we must remember that we're likely further cropping the image taken with the extender. I routinely shoot with my 500mm with the 1.4x TC-III attached. On my full-frame bodies, that's 700mm. 99% of those images are cropped still further, sometimes to 100%! Getting more pixels on the subject makes for a good trade-off. Keep in mind that the image quality of the Canon 500/f4 with a 1.4x TC-III attached easily exceeds the IQ of a Tamron 150-600mm with no TC. That's why one cost $9,000 and the other can be had around $1,000. Almost everyone will give you that, but it holds with the 100-400, which still has great IQ, even after you add the 1.4x TC-III.

    Adding TCs, no matter how great they are, will always cause IQ deterioration vs. the bare lens; however, paticularly when shooting in focal length limited situations, the small trade-off may be worth it.

    Shot with 700mm and still over a 50% crop:

    [​IMG]Green-winged Teal by David Stephens, on Flickr
    andy_szeto likes this.
  16. Sharpness trumps focal length. Don't take a step backward.
  17. I agree that 400 is a good starting point for bird photography. But, as Sandy and others have said, in addition to focal length it helps to find places where you can get close to wild birds without disturbing them. In the UK the places which come to mind are the gannet colony at Bempton Cliffs and the many seabiirds on the Farne Islans. There are many more. If you can find a place like these where you are then focal length is still important but good photos can be obtained with shorter lenses. The gannet shot below was taken at Bempton Cliffs with a 70-300.

    andy_szeto, Mark Keefer and dcstep like this.
  18. It depends ... on what bird and where YOU shoot.

    If you can get close, a shorter lens.
    If you cannot get close, a LONGER lens.

    A small bird in a tree needs a LONGER lens, than a large bird in the same tree.
    A finch is a LOT smaller than a hawk, like about the size of the head of the hawk.

    As colinc said different shooting locations will put you at different distances from the birds. So a lens that works for one place may be too short or long at another place.
    If you shoot from a blind, you can be close to the birds, than if you were in the open.

    As an extreme but real example of what I mean, just to make a point.
    I shoot pix of my finches, at only 10 feet, with a 75-300mm lens, set at about 200-250mm, on a dx camera.
    vs. about a half garage door size area (large bird like a sea gull or crane) at about 250 feet with a 500mm lens on a dx camera.

    For flying shots, a shorter lens/focal length. I cannot follow/track with a tight field of view, where it is too easy for me to loose the bird. Others (like dcstep) are a lot better at tracking than me, and can use a longer lens with a tighter field of view. But again, size of bird and distance from you affect the choice of lens. A big sea gull, way out at 400+ yards, and I can track it with a 500mm lens. Bring the same bird in closer, and I need a wider field of view. This is the apparent or angular speed of the bird, to you. The slower the apparent speed, the easier to track.
    Also the actual speed of the bird. In general, small birds fly faster than the large birds, so are harder for me to track in flight, and they are closer, which makes it even harder. So, I shoot the small birds perched.

    All I can say is to go out and shoot.
    Then see what if any shortcomings you have and adjust from there.
    gud luk
  19. When you get up above 400mm, tracking anything can be a challenge. Both the skill required and effectiveness of your equipment both become more critical. That's really advanced stuff and too much to fill a noobie's head with in this early stage. As you progress, and question come up, come back here and pose them and we'll answer to the best of our knowledge.

    The OP's 100-400mm is a great place to start. Let me warn our OP off a newbie trap. Don't assume that you'll focus and around 200mm and then zoom to 400mm and be in focus and on the subject. That simply does not work. I know plenty that have tried it and quickly get up. Practice having your lens in your hands, look at the bird, raise the lens to your eye and be right on the bird without any hunting. Practice on perched birds first and then move up to flying birds later. Have the lens prefocused at about the distance of the subject, then raise the lens to the subject and hit the AF button. (I found that there's no difference between front button and back button AF, it's simply a personal preference. I use shutter-button, but about half my friends use back-button).

    I'll repeat my mantra, sharpness trumps focal length. Don't be temped to sell a sharp 100-400mm lens for a 150-600mm lens that's not as sharp. You'll regret it and soon be selling your 150-600mm.
  20. dc
    I used to shoot sports in high school, and following the action with a 200 was easy, a 300 started getting hard, did not even bother trying with the longer lenses.
    Today, I just do not get enough practice to develop the technique to follow a fast moving subject.
    dcstep likes this.

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