Best Lens for Bird Photography: Budget Options for Beginners and Enthusiasts

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If you’re looking for the best lens for bird photography, you’ve come to the right place.

In this article, you’re going to discover the best budget bird photography lenses on the market–so that you can figure out the perfect option for your needs.

So to choose the perfect bird photography lens…

…read on.

Best Lens for Bird Photography: Budget Options for Beginners and Enthusiasts

Bird Photography as a Subset of Wildlife Photography

Birds are a type of wildlife, which means that all bird photographers are wildlife photographers.

But if you’re planning to photograph birds, then it pays to start thinking of yourself as a wildlife photographer. That way, you can listen to the advice given to wildlife photographers of all stripes.

Make sense?

Bird Photography Challenges

Photographing birds comes with some unique challenges, including:

Tracking Fast-Moving Subjects

Birds are some of the fastest creatures on the planet, which means that you’ll spend a lot of time trying to track them as they move around.

Handholding Giant Lenses

If you want to do bird photography, you’re going to need to get close to your subject.

To do this, you’ll need a long lens (which I discuss in-depth below).

And longer lenses are really, really heavy.

Now, some bird photographers use tripods without exception. But this makes you far less flexible; after all, if you’re always carrying a camera attached to a tripod, you’ll frequently miss shots because you won’t be able to get setup in time.

That’s why you need to practice handholding large lenses–so you can figure out how to do this without getting blurry photos, and while still managing to keep the bird in the frame.

Keeping Your Images Sharp

I recommend using a shutter speed of at least 1/1600s (and 1/2000s is safer). That way, you can get sharp images of the fastest-moving birds, no matter the situation.

What Makes a Good Lens for Bird Photography?

When you’re choosing a bird photography lens, you have to take a few characteristics into account:

Focal Length

The longer the focal length of a lens, the better it is for bird photography.

Birds are relatively small animals, which means that you won’t be able to get stunning, frame-filling shots unless you can get close–and since birds are also very skittish, you’ll need to get close by way of your lens.

That’s why I only ever recommend using a 400mm lens, at minimum, for bird photography. Anything shorter won’t get you close enough to get the images that you’re looking for.

Note that I’m referring to a 400mm lens mounted on a full-frame camera; if you’re using a crop-sensor camera, you can get away with using a shorter lens (but the lens still must reach 400mm with the crop factor applied).

Autofocus Speed

As I mentioned above, birds are fast.

Which means that you need a lens that can track them as they forage and fly and fight.

Some lenses offer slow autofocus. This makes for lots of missed shots–and you’ll find yourself getting very frustrated as you struggle, over and over again, to get sharp images of the bird in front of you.

But the best lenses for bird photography offer lightning-fast autofocus performance at every focal length.

Zoom vs Prime

There are two broad types of bird photography lenses:

Zoom lenses, which offer a range of focal lengths (such as 100mm to 400mm).

And prime lenses, which offer a single, fixed focal length (such as 400mm).

Both these types of lenses have advantages and disadvantages for bird photography. Zooms tend to be very convenient, because you can zoom out to photograph birds that are nearer to you, and then zoom in to photograph more distant birds.

But primes tend to be optically superior, plus they’re a lot cheaper.

While it’s possible to get very sharp zoom lenses, they’re going to be more expensive than similarly capable prime alternatives.

Ultimately, the decision is up to you.

How Much Do You Have to Spend on a Bird Photography Lens?

The more you spend, the better the lens you’ll get (generally speaking).

That said, there are bird photography lenses at every price point:

Entry Level for Beginners ($500-$1000)

If you’re after your first bird photography lens, you may be able to get away with spending in the $500-$1000 range.

For this price, you’ll be able to get a zoom lens with decent autofocus capabilities and average sharpness. You may struggle to find a lens that reaches out past 400mm or so, but with a crop-factor camera, this should be usable.

Budget Level for Enthusiasts ($1000-$3000)

If you’re a more serious bird photographer, but you’re not planning on going pro anytime soon, you’re going to want to grab a bird photography lens in this area.

These lenses feature excellent autofocus, good optical quality, and focal lengths reaching out to 500mm and beyond. They’ll serve you well, and you’ll be able to get some truly stunning shots.

Professional Level ($3000+)

If you’re a professional, then you’ll want to invest in a bird photography lens that costs at least $3000 (and probably much more).

However, this article won’t discuss any professional bird photography lenses; we will be covering only the best entry-level and the best budget lenses for bird photography.

Extending Focal Length With Crop Sensor Cameras

As mentioned above, you need a lens with at least 400mm of effective focal length if you want to capture images of birds.

And if you want to buy a lens in the “entry-level” category, you’re going to struggle to find lenses that offer a native focal length of 400mm or more.

That’s why I recommend beginners often start out with a crop-sensor camera; this will increase your effective focal length by a factor of 1.5, 1.6, or even 2.0 (on cameras with Four Thirds sensors).

Plus, crop-sensor cameras tend to be a lot cheaper than their full-frame counterparts, so it’s a win-win!

Best Lens for Bird Photography for Beginners

Here are the best options if you’re only just getting started in bird photography:

Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS II USM

Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS II USM Lens

Mount: Canon EF Mount
Filter Diameter: 67mm
Minimum Aperture: f/32-45
Maximum Aperture: f/4-5.6
Aperture Blades: 9
Auto Focus: Yes
Stabilization: Yes
Weather sealing: Yes
Minimum Focusing Distance: 3.94′ / 1.2m
Field of view: 34° to 8°
Weight: 1.6lb / 710g
Size: 3.2 x 5.7″ / 80 x 146 mm

The Canon 70-300mm f/4-5.6 is about as basic as it gets. You can shoot at 300mm on the long end, which is enough to capture photos of some birds, but only with a crop sensor camera. Autofocus speeds are decent, but will likely be a bit too slow for tracking birds in flight, while optics are decent but don’t offer the level of crispness that more serious bird photographers will prefer.

Check Buyer Reviews & Price for the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS II USM


Sigma 100-400mm f/5-6.3 (for Canon or Nikon)

Sigma 100-400mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary Lens for Canon EF

Mount: Canon EF, Nikon FX
Filter Diameter: 67mm
Minimum Aperture: f/22
Maximum Aperture: f/5-6.3
Aperture Blades: 9
Auto Focus: Yes
Stabilization: Yes
Minimum Focusing Distance: 5.25′ / 1.6m
Field of view: 24° to 6°
Weight: 2.6lb / 1160g
Size: 3.4 x 7.2″ / 86 x 182 mm

The Sigma 100-400mm isn’t the cheapest lens in this section (it costs around $700), but it’s an impressive all-around performer. You get a nice set of focal lengths, especially on Canon or Nikon APS-C cameras, as well as fast focusing for birds on the move. And for that price, sharpness is very strong, especially at 400mm.

Check Buyer Reviews & Price for the Sigma 100-400mm f/5-6.3


Tamron 100-400 f/4.5-6.3 (for Canon or Nikon)

Tamron 100-400mm F/4.5-6.3 VC USD Telephoto Zoom Lens for Canon Digital SLR Cameras (6 Year Limited USA Warranty)

Mount: Canon EF, Nikon FX
Filter Diameter: 67mm
Minimum Aperture: f/22
Maximum Aperture: f/5-6.3
Aperture Blades: 9
Auto Focus: Yes
Stabilization: Yes
Minimum Focusing Distance: 5.25′ / 1.6m
Field of view: 24° to 6°
Weight: 2.6lb / 1160g
Size: 3.4 x 7.2″ / 86 x 182 mm

Coming in slightly above the price of the Sigma 100-400mm (above), the Tamron 100-400mm offers similarly impressive performance for entry-level bird photographers. You get relatively fast focusing and good reach, which means that you’ll be able to nab high-quality bird photos with consistency. I slightly prefer the sharpness on the Sigma, but the Tamron 100-400mm does a satisfying job.

Check Buyer Reviews & Price for the Sigma 100-400mm f/5-6.3


Sony E 70-350mm f/4.5-6.3

Sony Alpha 70-350mm F4.5-6.3 G OSS Super-Telephoto APS-C Lens

Mount: Sony E-Mount
Filter Diameter: 67mm
Minimum Aperture: f/22-32
Maximum Aperture: f/4.5-6.3
Aperture Blades: 7
Auto Focus: Yes
Stabilization: Yes
Minimum Focusing Distance: 3.6′ / 1.1m
Field of view: 22° to 5°
Weight: 1.4lb / 625g
Size: 3.0 x 5.6″ / 77 x 142 mm

If you’re a Sony shooter, your bird photography lens options are pretty limited. Fortunately, Sony does offer this nifty 70-350mm lens, which features excellent sharpness and fast autofocus. Note that this is an ‘E’ lens, which only works on Sony APS-C cameras (but, with a long end at 350mm, you won’t want to use this on a full-frame camera anyway).

Check Buyer Reviews & Price for the Sony E 70-350mm f/4.5-6.3


Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM (for Canon or Nikon)

Sigma 150-600mm 5-6.3 Contemporary DG OS HSM Lens for Canon

Mount: Canon EF, Nikon FX
Filter Diameter: 95mm
Minimum Aperture: f/22
Maximum Aperture: f/5-6.3
Aperture Blades: 9
Auto Focus: Yes
Stabilization: Yes
Minimum Focusing Distance: 9.2′ / 2.8m
Field of view: 16° to 4°
Weight: 4lb / 1830g
Size: 4.1 x 10.2″ / 105 x 260 mm

In a lot of ways, the Sigma 150-600mm is the ultimate lens for entry-level bird photographers. It’s not the sharpest option out there, but it’ll get you 600mm of reach, which translates to a whopping 900mm on Nikon APS-C cameras (960mm on Canon APS-C cameras). And, thanks to the broad zoom range, you’ll also be able to photograph larger, more approachable birds with ease. At less than $1000, this lens is an absolute steal.

Check Buyer Reviews & Price for the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3


Best Budget Lens for Bird Photography Enthusiasts

If you’re a more serious bird photographer, you’ll want to purchase one of these options:

Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens, Lens Only

Mount: Canon EF
Filter Diameter: 77mm
Minimum Aperture: f/32-38
Maximum Aperture: f/4.5-5.6
Aperture Blades: 9
Auto Focus: Yes
Stabilization: Yes
Minimum Focusing Distance: 3.2′ / 98cm
Field of view: 24° to 7°
Weight: 3.6lb / 1640g
Size: 3.7 x 7.6″ / 94 x 193 mm

The original Canon 100-400mm was a powerhouse of a lens–and the Canon 100-400mm II kicks it up another notch, offering excellent autofocus and incredible sharpness across the board. Unfortunately, this lens does cost over $2000, but for the performance, it’s worth it. As with the other 400mm lenses on this list, you’ll want to work with a crop-sensor camera, assuming you’re shooting smaller birds.

Check Buyer Reviews & Price for the Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II


Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 G VR

Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 80-400mm f.4.5-5.6G ED Vibration Reduction Zoom Lens with Auto Focus for Nikon DSLR Cameras

Mount: Nikon FX
Filter Diameter: 77mm
Minimum Aperture: f/32-40
Maximum Aperture: f/4.5-5.6
Aperture Blades: 9
Auto Focus: Yes
Stabilization: Yes
Minimum Focusing Distance: 5.7′ / 1.75m
Field of view: 31° to 7°
Weight: 3.6lb / 1640g
Size: 3.5 x 8″ / 96 x 203 mm

The Nikon 80-400mm is a superzoom that can capture nearly anything, including stunning bird photos. While I’d still recommend you use this with an APS-C camera, 400mm is going to get you enough reach for frame-filling bird images, and the 80-400mm focuses fast enough to ensure you’re well-equipped to handle action. On the 400mm end, this lens isn’t quite as sharp as some of its competitors, but it offers relatively crisp images, and will be enough to satisfy even more serious bird snappers.

Check Buyer Reviews & Price for the Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6


Sony 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 OSS

Sony FE 100-400mm F4.5–5.6 GM OSS

Mount: Sony E
Filter Diameter: 77mm
Minimum Aperture: f/32-40
Maximum Aperture: f/4.5-5.6
Aperture Blades: 9
Auto Focus: Yes
Stabilization: Yes
Minimum Focusing Distance: 3.2′ / 1m
Field of view: 24° to 7°
Weight: 40oz / 1395g
Size: 3.7 x 8″ / 94 x 205 mm

If you’re a Sony photographer and you can afford it, the Sony 100-400mm is a fantastic bird photography option. Sure, it’s extremely pricey, but it offers spectacularly sharp images at every focal length, not to mention fast focusing for tracking birds in flight. You also get image stabilization, which is just icing on the cake.

Check Buyer Reviews & Price for the Sony 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 OSS


Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2 (for Canon or Nikon)

Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD for Canon DSLR Cameras (Tamron 6 Year Limited USA Warranty)

Mount: Canon EF, Nikon FX
Filter Diameter: 95mm
Minimum Aperture: f/32-40
Maximum Aperture: f/5-6.3
Aperture Blades: 9
Auto Focus: Yes
Stabilization: Yes
Minimum Focusing Distance: 7.2′ / 2.2m
Field of view: 17° to 4°
Weight: 4.4lb / 2010g
Size: 4.3 x 10″ / 108 x 260 mm

The Tamron 150-600mm costs noticeably more than the 150-600mm Sigma, though at less than $1500, it’s still positioned on the cheaper side of the market. As you might expect, sharpness is good, even on the long end, resulting in detailed shots of birds, as well as expanded cropping options. Autofocusing is decently fast, making for a good shooting experience, though you’ll need to be prepared to deal with a relatively heavy, large lens.

Check Buyer Reviews & Price for the Sony 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 OSS


Nikon AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E VR

Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED Vibration Reduction Zoom Lens with Auto Focus for Nikon DSLR Cameras

Mount: Nikon FX
Filter Diameter: 95mm
Minimum Aperture: f/32
Maximum Aperture: f/5.6
Aperture Blades: 9
Auto Focus: Yes
Stabilization: Yes
Minimum Focusing Distance: 7.2′ / 2.2m
Field of view: 12° to 5°
Weight: 5.1lb / 2300g
Size: 4.3 x 10.5″ / 108 x 268 mm

The Nikon 200-500mm features a lot to be impressed by–you get 500mm of reach on the long end, which is right in the sweet spot for shooting small birds. You also get fast focusing plus sharp images stretching from 200mm all the way to 500mm, and not for an exorbitant price, either; the 200-500mm clocks in at under $1500. The biggest drawback is the lens’s size, though Nikon does add image stabilization to make handholding easier.

Check Buyer Reviews & Price for the Nikon AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E VR


Conclusion

Now that you’ve finished this article, you should know all about the best lenses for bird photography–and which lens is best for your needs.

So go ahead and grab yourself a bird photography lens.

And start taking gorgeous bird images, immediately!

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