Saturday, July 27, 2013

Best Canon Lenses for Bird and Wildlife Photography

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Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L
For bird wildlife photography, having a long telephoto lens is a tremendous advantage.  It allows you to you to have your subject large in your frame while keeping your distance. Most wildlife photographers occasionally crop their images significantly, since wildlife usually stays pretty far away. So sharp lenses also give you a huge advantage. There are basically three classes of Canon lenses that are available to you. Consumer Grade telephoto zoom lenses are the most affordable, but unfortunately, consumer grade telephoto zooms are often pretty soft at the telephoto end of the zoom.  I have friends that shoot with these lenses, and I often hear them express frustration that they aren't able to come home with sharp pictures.  Part of the reason for this is simple lens quality  On the other end of the spectrum are what we might call High End Professional Grade telephoto prime lenses.  These lenses are extremely sharp and fast, and they are also large, bulky, and wildly expensive lenses.  Most of them are too large to be handheld; you must mount them on an sturdy tripod.  In this class of lens, I dream about the Canon EF 600mm f/4 IS II USM, which will only set you back about $12,700 as I write this. These are wonderful lenses, but they are out of the price range of many photographers, and my blog is designed for photographers who, like myself, live on a budget.  My target is a system of  camera + lens + accessories totaling $2500 or less.

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Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L
Thankfully, these are not our only choices in lens class.  Canon also makes professional quality lenses that are more compact than their high end counterparts, but are not nearly expensive.  These lenses can be bought for a price in the neighborhood of $1,000-$1,200. Since they're smaller, they can be handheld, which allows you to maneuver quickly to capture birds in flight.  You won't get the kind of detail you can get out of the 600mm f/4L, but it's much sharper than Canon's 70-300mm f/4-5.6.  There are three lenses I recommend, and which one is right for you will depend largely on your shooting preferences and abilities.

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Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L with 2x teleconverter
(okay, it's not a wildlife photo, but it shows you how sharp this lens can be, even with a teleconverter)
Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L. This is the lens I use for most of my wildlife photography. It's extremely sharp, focuses nice and fast, and doesn't give me a bit of trouble. It's small enough to handhold (which is one advantage this lens has over larger, more expensive lenses), so you can get photos of moving subjects nicely. The biggest drawbacks to this lens are (1) it lacks image stabilization and (2) you have to be at least 11.5ft away from anything you want to photograph..

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Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L
Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS. Many wildlife photographers swear by this lens, especially when adding a 1.4x tele-converter, which makes this effectively a 420mm f/5.6 IS (roughly equal to the 400mm lens above). This lens has the advantages of image stabilization and the ability to focus much closer.  You only have to be about 5ft away with this lens.    The drawback here is that by adding a tele-converter, the lens will be less sharp and focus a little more slowly.

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Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L
Canon EF 100-400mm f/5.6L IS. I see many wildlife photographers using this lens.  A zoom lens can be a real advantage, especially if you intend to use it for more than wildlife, and the addition of image stabilization gives it an advantage over the 400mm f/5.6L.  The downside of this lens is that, being a zoom lens, it will not be quite as sharp as the other two lenses.

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Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L
There no one right choice between these three lenses. The choice really depends on what's most important to you. If you need IS, the 300mm and 100-400mm options are better. If you want lens speed and sharpness and don't need IS as much, then the 400mm lens is probably better. If you want to use the lens for close up photography as well, the 300mm will look much more attractive with the ability to focus at only 5 ft away. I should mention one important thing about image stabilization. IS only helps stabilize camera movement, not subject movement. Wildlife tends to move, so even with IS, you often need faster shutter speeds to get sharp images of moving subjects. IS is a definite advantage, but the advantage is not as great when your subject is moving. It is the greatest help when shooting still subjects in low light hand held. In other words, it's important, but it's not the only factor to consider when purchasing a lens.

17 comments:

  1. Beautiful photos. I'll keep dreaming of owning equipment like this, in the mean time I'll just keep on playing with my Canon SX50 and make the best out of it.

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  2. Great post Scott, very informative and nice to be able to compare shots - and gorgeous photos. I have been debating (and saving) for the next step up from my 700 dollar zoom (75-300mm) which has served me well. I likely will go with the 100-300 to give me room to choose my photos and not be left having to change out lenses as often, but boy that 400 is nice too. Luckily I have time to save up make up my mind.

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  3. That's a great compact camera for birds! Maybe the best you can buy. I've never used it, but Lillian Stokes uses it for some of her bird photography. Check out her Stokes Birding Blog if you're interested.

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  4. I have a couple friends who've used the 100-400mm lens and have been very happy with it. I was given the 400mm f/5.6L, which is the biggest reason why I use it. I'm very happy with it, but if you want the flexibility of the 100-400mm, I suspect you'll be very happy with it.

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  5. Scott:
    This was extremely helpful, with the important details needed. I also like your compare / contrast; advantages / disadvantages approach to these lenses. - Richard Havenga "Walk With Father Nature"

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  6. Good article Scott.
    Just a question though. Hows your view on the 3rd party lens(in particular Tamron 70-300 with VC). I have read both positive as well as negative reviews about the lens.
    Any advice whether one should go for that lens.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thanks! I've never used that lens, and I'm not that familiar with Tamron. I've used Sigma lenses some, but I've been disappointed with all of them. They take good quality photographs, but the build quality isn't up to par with Canon. I suspect Tamron's lens will take good quality photos (better than Sigma), but I don't know how the build quality holds up.


    For my needs, I want to shoot at around 400mm. With the Tamron 70-300mm, you'll need a teleconverter to get that. A teleconverter on a zoom lens will lead to softer photos, I believe. If you already own the lens and a teleconverter, you might try doing some sharpness tests on the combination and see what you get. But my suspicion is that it will fall behind Canon's 300mm lens with a teleconverter.

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  8. Hi Scott.
    You sing the praises of canons 400mm f5.6 lens [and so do many other people as well ]
    but you also mention the 300mm f4 is better as a close up lens due to its ability to focus a lot closer than the 400mm, what is your opinion about using extension tubes on the 400 to enable you to focus nearer the subject as a way round the problem.
    I'm looking at buying either the 300, or 400, i want close focusing but i also want the extra reach that the 400 offers, have you any thoughts on which.
    Thanks in advance,
    John

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