The best birding lens

Discussion in 'Nikon' started by landrum_kelly, Aug 18, 2016.

  1. What is the best birding lens under $2,000? I shoot both FX and DX.
  2. I bought the 200-500 and am satisfied with it, tho I hear Sigma Sport (150-600) suppose to perform well too. Nikon suppose to be lighter. Your choice.
  3. Thanks, Les. I have been looking at that one and am considering it.
    I actually need to sell something else before I can buy, but I am actively looking.
  4. I have the Nikon 200-500 and whether or not it's the best in all departments, it's pretty easy to hand hold, and the VR is crazily good.
    The sample shot below is nothing special, except that it's from a D3200, straight out of the camera with no sharpening is a straight crop of a 609 pixel portion of a 6000 pixel image, taken hand held at 500 mm and 1/25, and though it's not the kind of thing one gets every time, it's not a fluke.
  5. ShunCheung

    ShunCheung Administrator

    I probably capture birds as much as anybody on this forum. I don't think there is any one "best" bird lens. If cost and weight are not concerns, I would take a 600mm/f4 E AF-S VR with a gimbal head on a tripod, with the option of a 1.4x TC, and a 80-400mm AF-S VR on another DX body on my shoulder. In other words, for small birds on a tree, I would use a 600mm/f4 from a tripod, maybe with a 1.4x TC. For birds in flight, especially something larger, my favorite is the 80-400mm AF-S VR. My ideal set up is to have both with me for different opportunities. However, that kind of weight is not something I would go hiking with.
    Unfortunately, the 80-400 will exceed the $2000 budget even though you wait for Nikon's March discount. Maybe one can consider used. For birds on tree, the old 500mm/f4 AI-P on a tripod is an option within $2000, if manual focus is acceptable. I should point out that I sold my 500mm/f4 AI-P way back in 1998 and therefore have never used it on a digital body.
    At $1400, the 200-500mm/f5.6 AF-S VR is somewhat a compromise between those two ends. It is hand-holdable but its AF is slower than the 80-400, ok for birds in flight but not great. It has more reach, which is a plus for smaller birds, but 500mm, f5.6 is a bit limiting.
  6. Thanks, guys. I really am looking for something with AF and something that I can carry and use hand-held.
    Since 2006, I actually have had the 600 f/4 Ai-S, and I have gotten good results with it--but typically only from my yard. I have always used it with a heavy pod and a Wimberly gimbal mount--a great combo if I don't have to move it very often--or very far.
    When this humid heat wave dries out in the Southeast this fall, I want to go into the mountains northwest of here (near Charlotte) with something that I can carry and use on the trail--so hand-held is almost essential. I don't trust my knees enough to carry a really big rig any more. I'm out to get some bird shots--and anything else that comes my way.
    At this point I am leaning toward the 200-500 VR, especially since it is not too heavy as big lenses go--but at the age of seventy-one, it doesn't sound all that light, either, especially for mountain trails.
    I am tending toward either the "new" 200-500 or the newer version of the 80-400 (used from B&H). I have thought about a 300 with VR--but with Nikon that means the new PF lens--which comes in under $2,000, but not by much. In addition, I am not sure that 300mm is going to be long enough for everything I want to do. I recently got the old version of the 80-400, but I am not quite satisfied with the results, even though a lot of that is probably because of poor technique at this point. Still, it is not a light lens for an old man, and fully extended it is better for me on a tripod. So. . . I might be asking for the impossible, given my own physical limitations.
    By the way, that's a pretty incredible shot, Matthew--especially for a 100% crop.
    Thanks to you as always, Shun--and others as well.
  7. Hi,
    My personal favorite is the Nikon 600mm f5.6 EDIF AIs. They can be found in excellent condition for about $1200 ( I paid about $700).
    It's smaller and weighs a fraction of the 600mm f4 versions. It handles very nicely. In the film days f5.6 was considered slow but with
    digital it's a gem. I've read that it is still very popular with National Gepgraphic photographers because of it's size. It's tack sharp on FX
    even wide open. I use mine for astrophotography.
  8. The lightest would be the new 300mm f4 with a T14. People have been switching to it for its lightness. Probably the most useful would be the 200-500mm. I've been using the 80-400mm AFS, which is compact for travel and reasonably light. I'm not really happy with it on a D800e for birds, but in a pinch it does the job. A few days ago I was using it to photo American Dippers. The autofocus was up to the task, but I'd rather have been using a D7200 or d500 for the little guys.
    Kent in SD
  9. 200-500 VR, especially since it is not too heavy as big lenses go
    old version of the 80-400 ... it is not a light lens for an old man​
    The 200-500 weighs about two pounds more.
    "Best" in terms of optical quality: Sigma 150-600 Sport (also the heaviest by far, more than a pound more than the 200-500, which is close in optical quality).
    Sigma 150-600 Contemporary and Tamron 150-600 are less than a pound lighter than the 200-500 but optically not as good.
    The 80-400 (either one) weighs about 1 pound less than the two 150-600 mentioned above and about the same as a70-200/2.8 or the old non-VR 300/4 AF-S.

    As Shun pointed out, the AF-S 80-400 is probably the most versatile of all.
    Lightest, as Kent mentioned, 300/4 PF VR. Weighs less than the 24-70/2.8 and is about the same size. Add a 1.4x TC and the optical performance drops to the level of the 80-400 (which is third in line after the 150-600 Sport and the 200-500).
    And on a side note: if I was doing "birding" then I'd be getting a digiscope and adapt a mirrorless body to it. But it appears we are talking "bird photography" here.
  10. I've been shooting with the Sigma 150 to 600 contemporary which weighs about 4 1/2 pounds. Almost all of the images of birds on the site that I have posted in the last month were taken with that lens. For the most part is extremely sharp except wide open at F6 .3 at 600 mm. If you shooting at F7 .1 or greater, you won't notice much difference in sharpness above 550 mm. It is extremely easy to handhold at 600 mm. The VR is very good. I use mine with a Nikon D750. Because the lens goes from F 4.5 to 6.3, one needs to be sure that they can shoot at mid range iso without noise issues. I don't seem to have any issues with my D 750. A nice aspect of this lens is the ability to change the firmware and customize it to your camera. I picked up mine for under $1000 and it easily comes close to 95% the quality of a $10,000 600 mm prime.
  11. I have actually used the 500/4 AIP on a digital camera, as we have one. It is, as you might expect, beautifully sharp, and all sorts of good things, but it is big and not friendly to hand hold. Even on a tripod, its weight and balance are such that it takes a pretty sturdy mount not to vibrate at slower shutter speeds. Although its native sharpness is likely better than the 200-500, in the real world it's less useful. I got some good shots of the lunar eclipse with it, but it was pretty hard to manage without a gimbal.
    I've also used the old non-IF 400/5.6 AI lens, with and without a 1.4x TC 14 converter. Without the converter this is about the sharpest lens ever, and a nice size to hand hold, but because of its long manual focus throw it's hard to catch birds with it. It also does not focus close at all, stopping at about 5 meters. With the converter it's still pretty decent, but dead slow, and with a modern digital sensor, I think cropping wins out very slightly over the converter unless one expects to crop even further than the 560 you get. I think the later IF version has more convenient focusing, and it might be a consideration if you can find one cheaply.
  12. As others have noted, your $2k budget will limit your choices. You ask for the "best" for $2k, but which is best can only be determined by what you are willing to compromise on.
    I have not shot with the Sigma Sport 150-600, but I know some folks who's skills I admire who like it a lot.
    I have shot with the Tamron 150-600 and found it not to my liking sharpness wise at 600.
    I do own the 80-400 (new version) which is a terrific performer when I do not want to/or cannot carry the 400/2.8 or 600/4 and the necessary support gear.
    And I shot 20 frames with the Nikon 200-500 (hooked my body onto a buddy's lens) mounted on a gimbal. Not blown away.
    If you must have 600mm, then the Sigma Sport is probably the best option, but the penalty is the weight and size and necessity for a tripod or monopod. I would not consider that lens if I needed to handhold.
    If you are looking for best optical performance (sharp, fast AF and excellent VR) that is hand holdable and willing to give up the add'l reach, then I would opt for the 80-400.
    I was not at all satisfied with the Tamron nor the new Nikon 200-500. There is just no comparison between these two and the dedicated 400 and 600 primes. But then again - you may not be as critical as I am. So much of the decision has to include your definition of "good enough". In my case, optical sharpness is the primary goal and size/weight is second. I would never swap optical sharpness for add'l mm's. I'd rather crop in camera than use the Tamron or Nikon 200-500. In fact, I recently bought a D500 so that when I cannot/will not carry the big primes, I can mount my 80-400 and gain the advantage of the DX sensor.
    Too subjective a matter for any one person to offer the ultimate solution to your dilemma.
  13. If $2,000 is your upper limit, the big and heavy Sigma 150-600 Sport is pretty decent. If you want lighter and hand-holdable, the C version is good.
  14. I am surprised by the comments regarding 200-500 and 80-400. I have both, and I find that at the at the extreme long
    end, examined at pixel level, the 200-500 easily outperform the 80-400 in sharpness.
  15. I find that at the at the extreme long end, examined at pixel level, the 200-500 easily outperform the 80-400 in sharpness.​
    Yes it does - which doesn't speak well for the price point of the 80-400, even after its apparently permanent reduction by $500 to now $2300. Still at least $500 too expensive - but can be rather easily found used for around $1800. Or, to turn that argument around, at its current price, the 200-500 is a bargain.
  16. Landrum, I second David Schoen, I believe you can not do better than the Sigma 150 - 600mm Contemporary for hand held birding, particularly birds-in-flight.
  17. I also wanted to give a thumbs up to the 600mm 5.6. Very sharp but as previously mentioned, it's a manual lens. Here is a good recent article comparing long primes and zooms by Roger Cicala of Lens Rentals. The newer Tamron, Sigma and Nikon zooms are reviewed here along with some Canon lenses. I was surprised to read that the Nikon 80-400mm didn't come out too well on the tests.
  18. ShunCheung

    ShunCheung Administrator

    I was surprised to read that the Nikon 80-400mm didn't come out too well on the tests.​
    I too read that a day ago. Usually Lens Rentals has very good review articles, but I am also totally surprised that they don't like the Nikon 80-400mm. I first used a loaner from Nikon USA when that lens was introduced in 2013 and was very impressed. A few months later I bought my own lens, back then at the full $2700 price. It has served me extremely well in the last three years.
    To me, 400mm or 500mm at maximum f5.6 is already on the slow side. AF speed and accuracy will suffer under dimmer light. To me, 600mm f6.3 is simply too slow.
  19. If 500mm is enough, I've been happy with my 200-500
    and can recommend it (especially with DX pixel density)
    - I was nervous after my first attempts, but I think that
    was more atmospheric turbulence than the lens. Light
    and day better than the old 150-500 sigma. The not very
    wide wide end is sometimes a bit limited in case of
    surprise - I have shots of a giraffe's eye rather than of a
    giraffe for mostly this reason.

    I believe people who say the 150-600 sport might have
    the edge (I've not tried; the 200-500 possibly isn't perfect
    wide open, and I was following Thom Hogan's advice to
    stop down slightly where possible) but it's apparently
    appreciably bigger and more expensive. Every test I've
    seen shows a clear gap between the Tamron/Sigma
    contemporary and the other two, optically - except for
    budget reasons, I'd be looking at the Nikkor or the Sport
    and choose based on size. I'm moderately used to a 200
    f/2, and the (lighter but longer) 200-500 is probably
    enough trouble to travel with. Not that the old (in my
    case) 300 f/4 + TC14 is so bad, and it's appreciably
    lighter. I'm sure the 80-400 is the best for hiking with,
    just on portability.

    Nothing I was shooting moved fast, though - I'm sure
    Shun's advice about AF applies. I've not tried the 200-
    500 on my gimbal yet, but the collar seemed ok by Nikon
    standards on an Arca d4, and it's pretty okay for hand
    holding (and second the very good VR). The zoom range
    is quite a big turn, which is a little annoying if you're
    doing the zoom-out-to-find-the-subject shuffle.

    I used to have a 500 f/4 AI-P. I'm not sure it was optically
    better than the zoom (to be fair, mine had been growing
    mould - apparently my house is damp) though it held up
    pretty well. It was much more annoying to use - manual
    focus (and on a modern body a TC-16A isn't good
    enough), front heavy for hand-holding, prone to vibration
    and a sail in the wind. If you're pointing at a nest from a
    hide, maybe it's an option; otherwise it's a better
    telescope than lens.

    I've been looking through a lot more telescopes on my
    recent trip, because guides were seeing them up. Zoom
    on a digital capture trumps them, but I'm beginning to
    wonder what a web cam digiscoping could do by
    stacking to remove atmospheric disturbance (as
    astronomers do) for absolute reach - though not pixel
    count. On a relatively static subject, obviously.

    Or the Sigma 800mm (or 300-800) might be affordable
    these days - I've no idea.
  20. In my experience both the 200-500/5.6 and the 300/4 PF + TC-14EIII are sharper than the 80-400 AF-S at 400mm
    (420mm) f/5.6 (not tested multiple samples though). The one I kept is the 300 PF as it is so compact and offers f/4 and
    very fast and reliable autofocus at 300mm (AF does get progressively worse with TC factor increasing and for me with the
    TC-20EIII the AF is unusable, unless the subject is static and LV can be used). However, I still want a longer lens. One
    thing that made the 200-500 difficult for me was the stiff zoom ring which has a long turn, another was the AF which could
    not keep up at close distances. I think for mid to long distance shooting the 200-500 is a very good lens. I would like
    something similar to it but with internal zooming and faster AF. I think Nikon has made nice progress in the affordable long
    lens segment but there is room for further improvement. Optical points aside, the 80-400 has faster AF and the zoom is
    quicker to use, so I can understand its popularity.
  21. I too read that a day ago. Usually Lens Rentals has very good review articles, but I am also totally surprised that they don't like the Nikon 80-400mm. I first used a loaner from Nikon USA when that lens was introduced in 2013 and was very impressed. A few months later I bought my own lens, back then at the full $2700 price. It has served me extremely well in the last three years.​
    While some lenses are measurably better than others, the reality is they are all pretty close. In the end it comes down to how you use them. I want a lens that is compact for travel and hiking, is versatile, and has great flare resistance. For me, the 80-400mm AFS works well. I generally stop it down to f8 when shooting 400mm. The lightest lens for wildlife/birds would be the Nikon 300mm DO + TC14iii, and for what the OP wants that would be my choice. The Nikon 200-500mm would also be a good choice. I ruled those out for my use as they don't handle flare as well (important for shooting railroad trains). The 80-400mm AFS is a great general purpose lens that can do a variety of "jobs" reasonably well, especially if traveling. I've spent the past two weeks up along the Icefield Parkway between Banff & Jasper, and the 80-400mm AFS was light enough to hike with at altitude. I used it to photo small birds like Cedar Waxwings & American Dipper, and for wildlife such as marmots, mountain goats, elk, bear. I also used it to photo trains, glaciers, and waterfalls at a distance. While there are better lenses for each of those, I'm happy with what I got both handheld and with a tripod. For birds specifically, I'd likely go with either 300mm f4 DO + TC14 or maybe Nikon 200-500mm.
    Kent in SD
  22. ShunCheung

    ShunCheung Administrator

    I posted this image last year when Nikon started shipping the 200-500mm/f5.6 AF-S VR. That is a pretty big lens, and that should give you some idea about its weight. Those third-party 150-600mm lenses, especially the Sigma Sports, are also big and quite heavy.
  23. Very handy, Shun. Thanks.
    Thanks to everyone who is contributing. I'm learning a lot and I do appreciate all the comments.
  24. I used to shoot the 300 f/4 on a DX body. That was great.
    The 200-500 on a DX body is ever better. That's my go-to lens now.

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