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Part 2 - Lenses - So Really, How Do Pros Get Their Bird Shots?

Updated on April 11, 2015
Sherry Thornburg profile image

Writer, photographer and birding enthusiast, Sherry Thornburg writes about birding and birding related topics.

It's Kind of a Big Deal

Cuban Emerald Hummingbird
Cuban Emerald Hummingbird | Source

The Difficulties of Photographing Birds

Bird photography involves taking pictures of small objects, most likely moving, at a distance. Yeah, it’s a tough job. This is why, when we do catch really great bird shots, it’s kind of a big deal. The challenge can be enormous.

Typically, a bird photographer is shooting from 20 to 50 feet from their subject. My recent trip to Port Aransas for the Whooping Crane festival had me shooting at least 50 feet away, as I was taking pictures from a boat across mud flats, or from a fence line to the center of a field where the skittish Whooping Cranes were. I was using a 70-300mm lens with a 1.4x teleconverter to extend my reach.

Sometimes, we have the freedom to stalk the birds and get closer; but most of the time we are restricted by the bird’s comfort zone. That is why you see bird photographers with long telephoto lenses and why many professionals have glass that costs as much as a good used car. Below are some of the super lenses that very successful professionals get when they have the need and the bucks.

Examples Around the Web:

AF-S Nikkor 400 f/2.8 FL ED VR
AF-S Nikkor 600mm f/4G ED VR
Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS
Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS

Now for the good news; not all pros buy these lenses and you don’t have to have them to get great bird shots. Remember Scott Contini and his Fairy Wrens taken with a small point and shoot. This was mentioned in the article Part 1 – The Camera. You should use what you can afford and use it to best effect.

When You Can Get Close

Summer Visitor to Anahuac NWR
Summer Visitor to Anahuac NWR | Source
Five in One Shot
Five in One Shot | Source

Minimum Lens Range Needs

Sometimes taking bird shots doesn't require a super long lens. I was out at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge last summer looking for Purple Gallinules. I found a good number of them at the refuge’s Shoveler Pond. I had my 100-300mm lens on the camera, but found plenty of birds within a 15 to 20 foot range. Likewise, getting shots of my backyard hummingbirds doesn’t require the full range of my telephoto. The feeders are about 12 feet from the patio, so getting the shot you see of five birds in one shot required less than a 100mm focal length.

A lens with a maximum range of 300mm is the workhorse telephoto that bird photographers get first. This could also include not quite there lenses such as my Canon 55-250mm. They are light, can be hand held and are easier to track moving birds with. These lenses are the ones I keep on my camera almost all the time for birding. Bird photographers with bigger lenses also keep these in their bag. Bigger lenses are nice, but if you don’t need them all the time, why be burdened with the weight? Art Morris says one of his favorite lenses is the Canon 70-200mm, which he uses to get his ghostly shots of seagulls.

Examples Around the Web:

Nikon AF-S Nikkor 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR
Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM
Tamron AF 18-270mm f/3.5-6.3 VC PZD
Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 DG APO Macro Telephoto

Lens Features

Nikon D3100 with Tamron 70-300mm
Nikon D3100 with Tamron 70-300mm | Source
Open Lens Aperture Blades
Open Lens Aperture Blades | Source
Image Stabilized Lens
Image Stabilized Lens | Source

Lens Features

Before you buy one of these lenses, you need to understand the features so you can compare before any choice is made. These are things to look for.

  • Maximum Apertures – The majority of telephoto lenses have different maximum apertures, or largest amount of light getting to the camera sensors, depending on the focal length. A Nikkor 70–300 AF-S zoom has a maximum f-stop value of f/4.5 at 70mm and a maximum f-stop value of f/5.6 at 300mm. For the Canon, my Tamron 70–300mm allows for f/4 at 70 and f/5.6 at 300mm. Other telephoto zooms have fixed maximum f/stop values across the entire focal length range. These are going to be pricier, but the feature could be worth considering.
  • Image Stabilization – This is a feature worth considering too. Image stabilization (IS) compensates for pan and tilt motion when hand holding a camera. It does not prevent motion blur caused by the movement of the subject or by extreme movements of the camera. Image stabilization is only designed for and capable of reducing blur that results from normal, minute shaking of a lens. This is a great boon for low light hand held situations, which used to be very difficult to get a sharp image from.

My Canon 55-250mm lens has this and I find it very useful; but it needs to be mentioned that when using a tripod or monopod, the feature should be turned off. Mounting the camera on a tripod without shutting down the IS feature creates what’s called a feedback loop, where the IS system detects its own vibrations picked up and amplified by the tripod. This forces the IS system to work increasingly harder and, in some cases, will break your lens. Some newer lenses are now offering built-in compensations for this and shut offs to protect the lens. Check to see if you are getting this compensation or not. Otherwise, turn it off.

  • Auto Focus Motor – Most auto focus systems these days are in the lens, not the camera, but this is not true across all brands. Nikon's higher end bodies do have built-in auto focus motors, but some of their entry-level bodies do not. This is a cost saver mostly. Not having the motor in the camera lessens the cost of the camera. Inversely, having the motor in the lens, as with all Canon lenses, increases the cost of the lens.

Matthew Richards, a lens reviewer with Techrador, explains the advances in motors available in lenses.

  1. Standard electric motors are often quite noisy and slow
  2. Ultrasonic motors are quieter and faster
  3. Ring-type ultrasonic systems are the fastest, and nearly silent

Check for which type of motor you are getting with a new lens and what options you may have.

Lens Hoods

Lens hoods take the abuse you don't want your glass to.
Lens hoods take the abuse you don't want your glass to. | Source
  • Lens Hoods – You know; that hard plastic tube with threads that is supposed to go on the front of the lens when you use it? I say this because many of us, me included, have a bad habit of tossing them into the bottom of our bags and forgetting about them. This is the difference between smart shooters and the not so smart. There are two kinds available with lenses.
  1. Scalloped or petal shaped – If you see one of these, it means you have a lens with internal focusing, so the front element of the lens doesn’t rotate.
  2. Barrel style – the front element does rotate.

Use your hood. It protects the lens from reflections, lens flare and some bumps and spills. Better to crack the hood than your front glass.

  • Normal and Active Vibration Platform feature in Nikon Lenses – This is something special for Nikon users. Some of their lenses have a vibration reduction system. There are two settings.
  1. Normal is for regular use, handholding or using a tripod.
  2. Active is shooting from vibrating platforms, such as in a car or train.
  • Sigma’s New Lens Feature – I haven’t seen a lens with this feature yet, but they are putting a zoom lock switch capable of locking at any focal distance and a Manual Override (MO) switch for improved control of focusing performance. These are said to be especially nice for use in tracking birds. The feature comes on some of their longer lenses.

Teleconverters Explained

Accessories for Extending Your Reach

A lens ranging to 400mm and over is often needed in the field, but this can be accomplished with a 300mm range lens on a teleconverter.

  • Teleconverter – An accessory that can be bought for most camera brands giving the lens a boost from 1.4x (40%) or 2.0x (100%).

Pros – The additional range gained by adding a short accessory to your lens for a much lower price than getting a 400mm lens is well worth it. Teleconverters don’t change the minimum focus length of the lens, which means you can still use your lens’s macro capabilities. Check out the video to the side to see a fuller explanation.

Cons – a teleconverter will cut the light coming through your lens; the 1.4x by one stop, the 2x by 2 stops. That doesn’t sound like much, but if your lens’s largest f/stop is f/5.6 or f/8.0, you will need to consider how much you are losing. Less light means the auto focus may take longer to work too. This is why I chose the 1.4x over the 2x for my lenses.

--Update-- Some of these converters can have an annoying softening effect on our lens. I experienced this first hand. The reason was that the center sensor I set my camera to use for spot metering wasn't as sensitive with the teleconverter added. A reviewer mentions this and suggests using the edge sensors for spot metering, which remain strong when adding the teleconverter.

They also don’t work with all lenses. Canon image stabilizer lenses won’t fit on a teleconverter. To handle this, I was told by a pro nature guide to use a short extension tube as a coupler.

  • Extension Tubes – This is another accessory normally seen in use for close-up photography. They fit between the camera and lens to increase close range work, sometimes better than using close up lenses which are glass filters that screw onto the front of a lens.

Pros – They come with electrical connections to keep your auto focus feature working, but are also sold without electrical connections. Just make sure you buy the right kind.

Cons – Of course, when adding another accessory to your lens system, you will give up more light. How much depends on the depth of the tube you have to use. The smaller 12mm tube should do the job for most stabilized lenses without taking too much away.

Third Party Super Lenses

The Sigma 150-500mm
The Sigma 150-500mm | Source

Choosing to Go for the Larger Lenses

If you do decide to go for a longer lens than 300mm, there are choices that won’t break the bank. Third party lenses made by companies such as Sigma, Tamron and Tokina can be good choices to compare to the brand names. At one time, these were considered low quality poor alternatives, but they have come a long way from those days.

Examples Around the Web:

Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD Lens for Nikon
Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM Lens for Canon
Tokina 80-400/4.5-5.6 AT-X D Telephoto Zoom SLR for Canon

What Pro Reviews and Photographers Say

Reviews of lenses are all over the internet. The best are by reviewers that test the lenses in both laboratory and field situations. Many video reviews are more opinion than fact, so be careful to get good information and not a company or person's biases. The reviews below are both professional and opinion based.

  • Sigma’s lenses when compared to top quality Canon lenses in an article concerning bird photography was found to be closely comparable to the Canon. Actually, it was hard to tell any appreciable difference when taking pictures of birds in the field.
  • A three way comparison of Canon, Tamron and Tokina 400mm lenses said the same thing. This reviewer actually preferred the Tokina for video use.
  • Photo forum contributors when comparing the Sigma 100-500mm to the 80-400mm VR Nikon also found the Sigma to be a good choice.

Cons – Make sure you are getting what you need. Not all third party lenses will work with your camera model. Nikon users seem to have more trouble with third party lenses than other name brands. It is mostly a matter of coupling the right lens to the right camera. As mentioned, Nikons cameras have auto focus systems built in and some don’t.

There are also some interesting cheap lenses out there with major reach. Some extend to 1000mm and more, but are only made as manual focus lenses, so make sure that is what you want. Some brands receive decent reviews, while others are said to have terrible optics, so do your research.

Questions to Answer Before You Buy

  1. Is this lens made for my camera?
  2. Is this lens going to work with the auto focus functions of my camera?
  3. What do reviewers say about the lens? Look for reviews with comparisons of photo quality with lab and or field testing.
  4. What do other photographers say about this lens? Direct experience reviews can be found on forum sites such as DP Review and Photography Forum.

The Final Word

Buying a lens is the same as buying a camera. It requires lots of research before you get on a website or enter a store. Never go shopping without having a clear idea of what you want with your homework completed. Be ready to make the final comfort comparisons of your top two choices to make a decision.

WARNING - Store clerks live off commissions, and are offered bonuses for selling certain items. Sometimes, they will try to steer you to another lens, because of better commissions or pressures to liquidate inventory items. Be your own best advocate and know what you are buying.

Happy Birding

What's Next?

Adding a flash to your birding camera bag may seem like a no-brainer (Don't Do It!), but you would be wrong. There are ways to use a flash with birds. I will discuss some of the reasons you may think this is a bad idea and what pro bird photographers are saying.

© 2015 Sherry Thornburg


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