Johann's gear - Nikon - The ideal lens for Bird Photography

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The ideal lens for Bird Photography


Let me start by stating there is no ideal lens for Bird Photography in general! There is an ideal lens for each individual opportunity! Budget and luggage restrictions will determine how well prepared you are for a given opportunity! Even if you have a 400mm, 500mm, 600mm, and 800mm lens you won't be able to travel with all of these and under certain circumstances each of these lenses mentioned could be the ideal lens. If you had to pick only one it would probably be between the 500 and 600mm f4 offerings from either Canon or Nikon.

I have owned and used the 500mm, 600mm and 800mm offerings from both Canon and Nikon, each had its pro's and cons. Presently my favourite is the Nikkor 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR lens with matched 1.25x teleconverter giving you the option of 1000mm at f/7.1 - but with such a hefty price tag and the fact that you are limited to f/5.6 and a rather restricting minimum focusing distance it is not the ideal lens if you want an all in one solution. Before the 800mm became available from Nikon their 600mm f4.0 VR lens with Nano coating was my mainstream lens. If you use one of these for the first time it is not the magnification that impresses the most but their sheer size and weight! Canon has recently launched their series II white 'L' supertelephoto lenses with substantial weight savings - up to 30%. The series II 600mm f4 now weighs as much as the previous series I 500mm (approx. 3,92 kg for the 600 II) - making it a very attractive option if you shoot Canon. Taking everything into account the 500mm f4 is probably the best compromise. It can handle both 1.4 and 2x extenders very well and give you 500mm f4.0, 700mm f5.6 and 1000mm f8.0 and with a Canon 1-series body or Nikon D4 autofocus is maintained down to f8.0. Remember that all the other bodies need an aperture of f5.6 or wider for autofocus.

Even at 700mm f5.6 (with 1.4x) the 500mm is still hand holdable for short periods and can still give sharp results thanks to the Image Stabiliser (IS Canon) or Vibration Reduction (VR Nikon) technology.

Another point to consider is that of cropping. When shooting with a full frame sensor like the Nikon D4/D800/D3-series or Canon EOS 1Dx/1Ds-series a 500mm only gives an 8x magnification. This is rarely enough for birds except when working from a hide in which case a 400mm might even be enough. Most people however use a body with a smaller sensor - essentially cropping the image formed by the lens. Canon bodies mostly give a 1.6x cropping factor, with the 1D-series cropping only 1.3x and the 1Ds-series being full frame. The Nikons give a 1.5x crop factor or in the case of the semi-pro and pro bodies offering full frame.

This means a 500mm on a Canon EOS 7D gives an apparent magnification of an 800mm lens and married with the excellent 1.4x extender you have a whopping 1120mm still at f5.6! This is a magnification factor of 22.4x! This makes a huge difference compared to the days of slide photography when you would have been shooting at 700mm yielding a 14x magnification WITHOUT the option to crop afterwards.

Now with a full frame body you don't get the apparent magnification but bear in mind the lens is still giving the same optical magnification of the image when it strikes the sensor. If you have enough pixels on your full frame body you can crop afterwards to get the same effect BUT if you can get close enough so that you needn't crop that much then you get images with awesome detail and unrivaled quality! There is nothing like a 100Mb plus file filled with small bird detail!!

I haven't mentioned the 300mm f2.8 option but this is a very strong contender since it handles the 1.4x and 2x extenders/converters so well! You the have a 420mm f4.0 or a 600mm f5.6 retaining autofocus. You can then still factor in your 1.5x or 1.6x body crop as well to give a very usable range with much less of a weight and budget penalty!

When buying your first lens first understand that if you are serious about this hobby you will buy more... For your first lens decide whether you want to belong to the point&shoot clan with a few publishable images among many that are not so sharp or well composed OR to the all-or-nothing clan where you work out your shot and shoot from a well positioned hide in which case weight is not such an issue but quality is everything and you may want to consider shooting without an extender and filling a full-frame body! Car window photography in our game reserves also benefits more from the longer heavier lenses and can give many excellent results without all the effort of erecting and positioning purpose built hides.

Just rememer the more effort you put in the greater the reward!

I will attempt to add something from time to time...Smile